Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sermon: 14 Pentecost (17 August 2008)

Sermon: 14 Pentecost (17 August 2008)
(Gen 32:22-31/ Ps 17:1-7, 15/ Rom 9:1-5/ Mat 14:13-31)
Signs of Abundance

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Feeding of the Five Thousand or the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes is a hallmark event in Jesus’ ministry; all four Gospels include it: some, like Matthew, with bare-bones accounts and some embellished with unique and minute details. A miracle, we call it, though scripture is more likely to call such an event a sign or a wonder.

Does it make a difference whether we call it miracle or sign? I think so, yes. I think there is a real and important distinction to be made between the two and not just a quibbling over words.

Consider the image the word miracle conjures to the modern or postmodern mind. The world, and as far as we know the universe, operates according to fixed rules – laws of nature we call them: gravitation, conservation of energy, natural selection, and others – the stuff of physics, chemistry, and biology. There is no place or reason for God in this scheme. Typical is the attitude of the French scientist Pierre Simon de Laplace. When asked by Napoleon, Where is God in your theory of the universe? Laplace famously replied, “God is a hypothesis for which I have no need.” Or, if God is allowed even the smallest of places, it is as a watchmaker who has built the watch (created the universe including the natural laws), wound it (set it in motion with a fixed amount of matter and energy), and now simply sits back to observe its operation. If, as Laplace thought, there is no God, then there can be no miracles. Ordinary events are fully explained by the laws of nature; extraordinary ones will be explained by laws of nature we have yet to discover. If, just perhaps, there is a watchmaker God, then a miracle is an intrusion of God into nature, a trespassing in a place He is no longer needed and perhaps not even wanted. A miracle is a breaking of the rules, a violation of the laws of nature. It’s as if the watchmaker steps in to reset the watch or wind it or oil it or otherwise tweak it. Why would God do such a thing? Either the watch was poorly made from the beginning and requires adjustment – And what would that say about the attributes of God? – or else God intrudes to show favoritism – to heal this one but not that one, to divert needed rain from this area to that one, and so forth. What would that say about the fairness of God? Either way, miracles are problems for the absent God and the watchmaker God.

Even the faithful are not immune from grappling with these issues. How often do we Christians “hedge” over answered prayer? Well, that might have happened anyway, we say or think. How often do we Christians agonize over unanswered prayer – miracles apparently withheld? We pray and people are healed and we wonder if God really did it. We pray and people die and we wonder why God didn’t do it. Why? What makes the difference? Why does God grant a miracle in one situation and not in another? Miracles pose difficult – and I suspect, unanswerable – questions.

But what of signs? What images do signs conjure in the imagination? A friend and I spent a day hiking in the Smoky Mountains on a trail not familiar to either of us. We did know that this section of the Appalachian Trail forked with one prong leading to a strenuous hike to Mount LeConte and the other heading off toward a shorter and easier hike to Charlie’s Bunyon – our intended destination. When we reached the fork we were in such deep discussion that we simply didn’t notice it and, as luck would have it, headed toward LeConte. We walked a couple of miles before we realized our mistake. We were embarrassed and grumbled the whole time we were backtracking, “The trials should be marked better than this. There should be a sign.” Of course, when we reached the fork we saw that there were signs; the trails were clearly marked. The fault was ours. We failed to notice the signs.

The signs were there, not as an intrusion by the National Park Service, not as a breaking of the rules of hiking, but as aids to point the proper direction toward a desired destination. Though the signs were given in a special way to my friend and me that afternoon, they were equally available for all who passed that way and who paid attention.

In a similar way, the signs of Jesus are not an intrusion into nature without God or nature abandoned by God. Instead, a sign is a revelation of God’s continuing presence within His creation and an expression of His will for creation. A sign points in the direction of the new heavens and the new earth that were birthed in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ and that are maturing in the proclamation of the gospel and the obedience of God’s elect to that gospel – the new heavens and new earth that are our destination. A sign is not a breaking of the laws of nature but an implementation of the grace of God. It is not favoritism for one, but mercy for all. A sign may be given directly to one person or one group of people, but it is given equally for all people. Though we did not feast on fish and bread that day, the sign of the Feeding of the Five Thousand is no less for us who feast on it spiritually this day. It may, in fact, benefit us more through the distance and reflection of two millennia. We have cause to notice it more and understand it better.

By their very nature miracles draw attention to themselves. Signs, to the contrary, point away from themselves toward a greater reality. When Jesus performed a sign, it was never to say, “Hey, watch this. Isn’t this a neat trick?” Instead, each sign said, “Look at what God is doing in and for the world, in and through me.” A sign always points toward the greater reality of God’s work through Jesus Christ for the redemption of His people and for the complete restoration of His creation.

Miracles may be scarce; like a skeptic, I’m not even certain they exist as we’ve discussed them – God breaking the laws of nature. But signs aren’t scarce; the world is replete to overflowing with signs and wonders for those willing to read them. Take human love as an example. As wonderful as human love relationships are – husband-wife, parent-child, friend-to-friend – they are never completely satisfying in themselves. The best of these relationships creates in us a wistfulness, a longing for a deeper, transcendent intimacy. It is not that human love is deficient. It’s that human love is a sign, never intended to be complete in itself, but always intended to point beyond itself toward what God is doing in and for this world, in and through Jesus Christ. Human love is a sign pointing toward divine love. Complete fulfillment is a burden human love was never designed to carry. The same is true for beauty and joy. Each awakens in us a deep hunger that may be satisfied by God alone. Each is a sign pointing beyond itself toward God. Signs are everywhere, if we will but open our eyes to see them.

What of the sign of the loaves and fishes – what does it point toward? It points in two directions, actually – backward toward the Garden and forward toward the new heavens and new earth.

As a consequence of human sin, creation and man’s relationship with it fell under the curse.

17And to the man he [God] said,‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the treeabout which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it”,cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19By the sweat of your face you shall eat breaduntil you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken;you are dust, and to dust you shall return’ (Gen 3:17-19, NRSV).

A new economy was created by sin – an economy of insufficiency. Where before the ground had produced easily and abundantly, now it produces only grudgingly and sparingly. We have inherited this economy of insufficiently and wrongly consider it normal. Famine doesn’t surprise us, nor does drought. Starvation is merely an unfortunate fact of life. We operate daily on the basis of insufficiency. We believe there is too little – essentially of everything – to go around. We selfishly grab what we need, little thinking that we might be depriving others of what they need. I got mine: that’s the fundamental principle we operate under.

So when Jesus tells the disciples to feed a vast crowd, they are incredulous. What do you mean, feed all them? There’s really not even enough for us. There’s not enough to go around. Their reality is the economy of insufficiency. The first part of the sign of the loaves and fishes – Jesus’ command to feed the multitudes – points backward toward the Garden and its curse, backward toward the economy of insufficiency.

But the next part of the sign points clearly forward to the new heavens and the new earth, toward God’s restoration of creation, toward the economy of abundance.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3Nothing accursed will be found there any more (Rev 22:1-3a, NRSV).

In God’s economy of abundance, there is more than enough to go around – a tree of life bearing fruit for eating and leaves for healing for all nations, with no trace of the curse to be found. And so Jesus multiplies loaves and fishes not as a miracle – not as a breaking of the laws of nature – but as a sign, a foretaste of the restored laws of creation, a restored economy of abundance. The sign of the loaves and fishes points backward toward the curse and forward toward the blessing and passes straight through Jesus on the way.

Each time we bless the bread and cup of the Eucharist, each time we break the bread of life and pass the cup of salvation, we proclaim not only Jesus’ death until he comes, but also the new economy he inaugurated – the economy of abundance. At the table there is life to go around for everyone – overflowing, abundant. I have come that you might have life, and life to the full, Jesus said. And here, around the table week after week, we glimpse and begin to believe that it just might be true. Through the grace of God I got mine and You got yours and there’s still enough left over for everyone else – twelve basketsful and more.

There is a challenge here, too. Having received abundantly ourselves, how do we take this sign of the loaves and fishes, which we enact around the table, and proclaim that economy of abundance to a world steeped in the economy of insufficiency? Where is Jesus saying to us, You give them something to eat, and we are still replying, But there’s not enough to go around? Is it real food – rice and beans and bread and water? Is it shelter and clothing? Is it education and health care? Is it dignity and hope? Is it the good news – the gospel of Christ who offers abundant life? Where are we still saying, There’s not enough to go around? You feed them was not just a command for the disciples that day, but a command for us this day and everyday.

An economy of insufficiency appears reasonable, doesn’t it? Our resources to meet the needs of the world seem so meager, and indeed they are. But the economy of abundance doesn’t depend on our resources; it depends on the power of Jesus Christ to bless and multiply those resources. The sign of the loaves and fishes points to this truth also: If in faith and obedience you bring to Jesus just what you have – however little and insufficient it may seem – he will bless and multiply it abundantly to accomplish his will. Who among us is sufficient for the task before us? Who ever was? Abraham – a childless, nomad with a nameless, invisible God and a barren wife? Moses – an 80-year old fugitive murderer with a speech impediment? Rahab – a town prostitute in a city reserved for total destruction? David – a murdering adulterer and dysfunctional father? John the Baptist – a bug-eating, camel-skin wearing, hell-fire and damnation preacher/prophet from the wilderness? Peter – a headstrong, cowardly, hillbilly peasant fisherman? No, none of these had sufficient resources to accomplish the tasks God gave them. No matter: God’s economy of abundance was not limited by their scant resources; nor is it limited by ours. Faith and obedience are the only resources we really need, and God will even supply those if we but ask.

It is time to ask. It is time for Trinity Church to follow the sign of the loaves and fishes, to present to our Lord Jesus the little we have – to present it in faith and obedience – and to look on with wonder as he blesses it, multiplies it, and shares its abundance with the hungry world.

I close with a prayer of abundance, a prayer Paul offered for his brothers and sisters at Ephesus (Eph 3:14b-21, NRSV), a prayer I offer for Trinity Church. Let us pray.

I bow my knees before the Father, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

20Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever.


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