Sunday, November 19, 2006

Too Much Bread in the Desert

God’s trustees: A theology of abundance
Mark 8:1-9a; Genesis 1:20-31

We call this a miracle—
feeding four thousand with seven loaves and a few fish,
and then gathering up seven baskets of leftovers.
Earlier in Mark there was a “greater” miracle—
five thousand fed with only five loaves and two fish,
and 12 baskets of leftovers.
Wow! Simply amazing! we say. Unheard of!
Oh, to have been there to witness that miracle first-hand.

I understand why we focus on the miracle in this story.
It is amazing.
But on the other hand,
it’s just another day of God doing what God does.
God takes a situation
where people are concerned about not having enough,
immobilized by their fear of scarcity.
And God turns it into a demonstration of radical abundance—
joyful, life-giving excess.
That’s not at all unheard of,
or even out of the ordinary.
If anything, this story should give us a sense of deja vu.

It’s what God routinely does.
God deals in abundance.
The human tendency is to deal in scarcity,
to be afraid of running out,
to be possessive, grasping, self-protective.

This story of feeding four thousand is found in Mark 8.
But in Mark 6 they faced almost the same dilemma.
A crowd followed them for days in the wilderness,
without food and far from home.
So...the second time this happens,
Jesus points out the obvious to his disciples, in v. 2.
The people need to be fed.
Didn’t say how.

You’d think the disciples would have had a rather vivid memory
of the miracle a few weeks earlier.
But no, they didn’t say, “Oh, yeah! Remember the five thousand.
Jesus can work with this.
Let’s go find a few loaves of bread.”
Instead, they resorted to their scarcity instinct.
There’s no way to feed all these people.
Verse 4: “How can we find enough bread here in the desert?”
So Jesus had to walk them through it again step by step.
“How many loaves do you have?”
“Uh, seven.”
“Okay, let’s have the crowd sit down for dinner.”
Then Jesus gave thanks for the bread,
broke the loaves,
handed the pieces to his disciples, and said, pass it out.
A few small fish were found, and he did the same.
The four thousand ate, and were filled,
and it turned out that once again
Jesus made too much bread in the desert.
There were seven baskets of leftovers,
gathered up in a barren wilderness,
a place of scarcity.

Now, as amazing as this miracle story is,
I don’t think the main point of it
is to put Jesus’ miraculous powers on display.
Yes, the demonstration of power is part of the story,
but I think the more important part is this stark contrast
between God’s narrative of abundance,
and the human narrative of scarcity.

Since this is Thanksgiving week,
when Americans gather around tables loaded with food,
and celebrate the abundance of the harvest,
I think it’s a good time to reflect on these competing narratives
of abundance and scarcity.
I think it’s also timely since at Park View we are all now discerning
what God is calling us to give financially in worship next year.
Will the narrative of abundance or the narrative of scarcity
inform us as we prepare our Faith Promises?

The Bible is one long story of God’s abundance.
It starts in Genesis,
where God fills the universe with beauty and abundance:
fills the earth with plants of every kind,
swarms of living creatures of every kind,
and tells them, “Be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth.”
And God pronounces all this abundance “good”...“very good.”
In Deuteronomy, God promises to make his people
“abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings,
in the fruit of your body,
in the fruit of your livestock,
and in the fruit of your soil.”
The psalms sing of God’s
abundant mercy
abundant righteousness
abundant steadfast love
abundant goodness...
30 references to God’s abundance in the Psalms,
including the refrain,
“we feast on the abundance of your house.”
In the Gospels, Jesus says he came that we might have life,
and have it abundantly.
Paul is profuse in his praise of the abundance of God’s grace.
And he proclaims Christ as the
“fullness of him who fills all in all.”
And it ends in Revelation,
with a picture of the glorious glittering city of God,
where there is no shortage of anything
good and right and beautiful.
We simply cannot do a full reading of our scriptures
and conclude anything but
that God is a God of abundance
and generosity beyond measure.

So why do we, God’s people, so often become immobilized with fear
that there isn’t enough to go around?
that the universe is actually ruled by a principle of scarcity?
And why do many of God’s people suffer, in fact,
because of extreme scarcity of what they need for life?

Walter Bruggemann has some thought-provoking things
to say about this.
He says that as Christians, our lives are torn apart by the conflict
between our attraction to the good news of God’s abundance
and the power of our belief in scarcity—
a belief that makes us greedy, mean and unneighborly.
He says “the fundamental human condition [is] anxiety,
fueled by [an] ideology that keeps pounding on us to take more,
to not think about our neighbor,
to be fearful, shortsighted, grudging.
Over and over, we’re told to [guard our scarce] resources
[so we can] keep up our affluent lifestyles,
especially with the approach of our “golden years.”
When it comes to work, we’re encouraged to have a 24/7 mind set.
Our appointment books bulge. To-do lists get longer.
In hopes that we don’t lose our competitive edge,
that we don’t miss any opportunities.
There is never enough time.
Even young children are put under pressure.
A carefree childhood is exchanged for
a tight schedule of structured activities,
that will give them an edge over their competitors.
All of this is driven by a powerful unquestioned belief in scarcity.

The Bible offers an antidote to all this anxiety-driven activity.
Sabbath is based on trust in God’s abundance.
After six days of creating all this abundant beauty,
God took a rest simply to revel in it, to enjoy it.
The way we do Sabbath is based on a belief in scarcity.
We spend our Sabbath catching up on chores
we were too busy to do during the week,
or rushing to the mall because “the sale ends Sunday,”
or being glued to TV sports—which is one constant commercial.
It’s not about the commercial breaks anymore.
You can’t even watch a touchdown or a throw to home plate,
without seeing a prominent ad in the background.
The narrative of scarcity, that leads to greed,
is what fuels our urge to buy, to accumulate things.
The way we spend our Sabbaths is a denial of God’s abundance,
not a celebration of it.
Walter Bruggemann says that truly honoring the Sabbath
is a public witness against the narrative of scarcity.
It tells the world that “there is enough.”

We are stewards of a Gospel of abundance.
Let me just read a few sentences from an article by Bruggemann.
He says it so much better than I could:

“The gospel story of abundance asserts that we originated
in the magnificent, inexplicable love
of a God who loved the world into generous being...
And the story of abundance says that our lives will end in God,
and that this well-being cannot be taken from us.
In the words of St. Paul, neither life nor death
nor angels nor principalities nor things—
nothing can separate us from God.
What we know about our beginnings and our endings, then,
creates a different kind of present tense for us.
We can live according to an ethic whereby
we are not driven, controlled, anxious, frantic or greedy,
precisely because we are sufficiently at home and at peace
to care about others as we have been cared for.”

So the question we all face is this:
Will we choose to live our lives by God’s narrative of abundance,
or by the world’s narrative of scarcity?
Will we choose the Gospel way
of living in joyful abandon,
reveling in God’s abundant goodness,
living with openness and generosity and hospitality?
Or will we choose the way of frantic and fearful accumulation,
anxiously grasping for things,
finding security in wealth and possessions?

Now, I have to point out the irony here,
in case you haven’t already thought about it...
The “gospel of abundance”—as we’re talking about it—
is a completely different thing than
a “prosperity gospel” or a “health and wealth theology.”
There are some Christians who believe wholeheartedly
that God’s main desire is that his chosen people are prosperous.
That if we are being faithful to God we will be blessed
with plenty of wealth, property, and material possessions,
and will never be sick, hungry, or poor.
You might think, just hearing the phrase “gospel of abundance”
that it’s something invented by wealthy Christians
to justify a lifestyle of affluence and conspicuous consumption.
No, the idea that God is abundant and generous
is deeply rooted in scripture.
And frankly, the biblical kind of abundance
probably doesn’t sound like good news to some rich people.
I imagine some of the richest people in the world today
are the staunchest believers in the myth of scarcity.

No, whether you build your life around
the narrative of abundance, or of scarcity,
is not determined by whether you’re rich or poor.
And here I would differ slightly with Bruggemann on one of his points.
In the article he made the statement that
the rich rely on an ideology of scarcity,
and the poor rely on an ideology of abundance.
I do think it’s true that the more we have,
the more we are tempted to cling to what we have,
and try to get even more.
But I also think that all of us—rich, poor, and middle-class—
are hugely tempted to believe in the myth of scarcity,
which feeds our greed, and stifles our generosity.
We are all prone to living as if there’s not enough to go around.
We are all tempted to look out for number one,
to be selfish with what we have,
to build a hedge of material security around us.

Believing in the world’s narrative of scarcity produces
rich people who are anxious, fearful, and possessive, and
poor people who are discouraged, hopeless, and resentful.
On the other hand,
Believing in God’s good news of abundance produces
rich people who are joyful, radically generous,
and whose security is not tied to their possessions, and
poor people who are full of hope, and genuine gratitude,
and are willing to share what little they have.

So the difference between believers in the narrative of abundance
and the narrative of scarcity,
is not that one group is rich, and the other poor.
The difference is that some have discovered true joy and freedom,
and others are stuck in fear and anxiety.
Some have discovered the narrow road that leads to life,
and others are traveling the broad road that leads to death.

This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, dear brothers and sisters:
Jesus came that we might have life,
and that we might have it abundantly.
It is indeed God’s desire for us to live abundantly.
But that is not the same thing as saying
God wants us all to be wealthy.

Some of us have a knee-jerk negative reaction
to the idea that God wants to bless us abundantly.
And that reaction is quite understandable.
Because many of us, I’m afraid, have a bad theology of blessing.
So let’s not throw it out, let’s fix the bad theology.
We have the distorted idea
that God’s blessing of us is an end, rather than a means.
We think that God’s primary mission is to bless his people.
No, I think scripture is quite clear about God’s mission in the world.
God’s mission is to establish his rule and reign,
to restore and reconcile all creation,
to heal what is broken and fractured by sin,
and to see all creation made whole,
and brought back to its original state of shalom.
That is God’s one Big Project.
Everything else God does points to that.
Which means, when God blesses us,
we are being blessed for something beyond ourselves.
God doesn’t bless us just because God wants us to be blessed.
God blesses us so that we might become God’s agents of blessing.
So that we might participate in the Big Project.
God’s blessing of us is a means to a greater end.

That’s where the “health and wealth” people missed the boat.
Prosperity theology says that God’s main agenda is our prosperity.
No, God’s agenda is establishing God’s reign on earth and heaven.
If we are blessed with material resources,
it is our God-given duty to utilize all of those resources—
not ten percent, mind you, but all of those resources—
toward advancing the reign of God in creation.
The biblical example of what God’s blessing really means,
is in the person of Abraham.
Remember what God said to him?
“I will bless you,
so that through you and your descendants,
all nations of the earth will be blessed.”
If we hoard God’s blessings for ourselves,
if they are not immediately shared and joyfully passed along
for the full life and blessing of others,
then we have squandered God’s blessing.
We have wasted it.

What I am inviting us to this morning
is to learn to fully embrace God’s narrative of abundance.
And by so doing,
we will find ourselves living our lives more freely,
more openly,
more generously,
more joyfully,
and with less anxiety, fear, and greed.
When we embrace God’s narrative of abundance,
we will discover that whether we are in the desert,
or in a place of plenty,
there will be enough of the bread we need for life.
There might even be too much to eat in one sitting.

As we sit around tables this Thursday with family and friends,
as we prayerfully complete our Faith Promises,
as we go about our daily work,
and as we worship,
let us give thanks to the God of abundance.

—Phil Kniss, November 19, 2006

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