Fourth Sunday in Lent 2009

A Sermon from All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor, New York
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on March 22, 2009 (IV Lent, Year B)

Abundance in the midst of scarcity. It can lead to some jarring images. Driving through Atlantic City and witnessing slums juxtaposed with opulent casino hotels. Watching an advertisement to aid starving children in Africa while sitting in front of your big screen TV after a hearty meal. 

This well-known story of the feeding of the 5,000 is a parable of abundance in the midst of scarcity. Not just your garden variety abundance: a few extra helpings of mashed potatoes or a few extra dollars in your monthly paycheck. This is some serious abundance; an impossibly miraculous feeding involving a huge crowd and an overabundance of food. And it’s all made possible in an environment of absolute scarcity. Five loaves and two fish to feed 5,000 people. It doesn’t take a mathematician to see that the odds were against Jesus here. It would take a miracle to feed all these people who had gathered to hear Jesus preach. And after a full day of sitting in the sun, they were probably starting to get mighty hungry.

I spent some time this week at the Episcopal Communicators conference outside of Houston. And Texas is the ground zero of abundance. You know the expression “Everything’s bigger in Texas.” Well, it’s true. There was a “chapel” at the diocesan retreat center where we met that could have held about three All Saints’ inside. We were told it was a Texas-sized chapel. And then we were treated to what was billed as a “chuck wagon” dinner one night alongside a nearby lake. Yes, there was an actual chuck wagon and a few genuine cowboys cooking up the grub. And I ate the largest steak that I have ever seen in my entire life. It would have made a vegetarian blush. And I think I’m still digesting it.

But there’s something incongruous about reflecting upon such great abundance when we’re dealing with such scarcity in our community our nation and our world. As the markets continue to shrink and our retirement funds plummet, we all seem to be operating out of a position of scarcity. And the driving force of scarcity is fear. It’s hard not to enter into a siege mentality and start hording our resources. 

Yet God invites us to do just the opposite. Think about that lone boy in the crowd of 5,000 who is identified as having five loaves and two fish. His stomach probably started rumbling about dinnertime. The natural inclination would have been to stuff his face when no one was looking. To horde what he had rather than to share it. Hey, he was the only one with the foresight to bring some food along, why should he give it up? And anyway, as Andrew says, “What are fives loaves and two fish among so many?” 

Andrew’s prevailing negativism is pretty pervasive in an environment of scarcity. “What’s a small amount of money sent to Habitat for Humanity when the global problems are so overwhelming?” “What’s the point of tutoring one underprivileged child in Ossining when there are so many in our midst?” “What’s the point of coming to church every week when nothing ever seems to get better in my life or the world around us?” You could go on and on, talking yourself out of everything and becoming paralyzed with inaction.

Because scarcity always comes back to fear: the fear to recognize that you can make a difference in this world; the fear to dream vividly and audaciously; the fear to let go of some of our own need to control everything and be everything to all people.

Yet even in the midst of scarcity, even in the midst of this fear, God invites us into abundance. The story of the feeding of the 5,000 mirrors the abounding abundance of the Kingdom of Heaven. A stunning abundance that surpasses all human understanding. And the abundance of God’s love is poured out upon us even in times of trial and adversity and hardship and scarcity. But it takes a leap of faith on our part; an ability to trust that even in the most dire moments of scarcity, the abundance of God will come shining through the fear and lead us to the abundant grace of relationship with Jesus Christ.

We can learn a lot from the young boy in this story. We don’t know anything about him – he’s one of those Biblical figures that often gets overlooked and forgotten; a bit player in a larger drama. But then, it’s often the smallest, least observed acts that can make all the difference in the world. His small gift of food leads to this stunning display of abundance. Small things in an environment of scarcity become magnified; they gain in importance; they stand out. And you, like this boy, can make your own small gestures to help a hurting world. You can make a difference through a small act of kindness or sharing.

The story of the feeding of the five thousand isn’t about sleight of hand or trickery or even magic. It points toward the abundance that we are all offered through relationship with God. Not some false “prosperity gospel” that gets preached on TV: “God desires you to be rich and have everything you want.” No, that’s not the point of the gospel. (Though speaking of which, if I’d stayed in Houston for another day I could have been sitting in Joel Osteen’s mega-church at this very moment). But rather, the trust that God’s abundant love and relationship for you will carry you through any trial or tribulation or hardship. And that it is most especially in times of scarcity – like sitting on the grass with those 5,000 hungry people – that we must reach out and share our resources with one another. 

Abundance in the midst of scarcity. I’m not sure how the folks down the road from the conference center would have felt about the abundance of our chuck wagon dinner. The ones who tacked up the sign I saw on the way in that read: “Foreclosure – Double Wide — $14,800.” But it is for this reason that we must share what we have especially in times of scarcity. 

John tells us that 12 basketfuls were left over. Abundance not only transcends the scarcity, it obliterates it. Thanks be to the God whose abundant love trumps our fear and brings us ever closer to the abundance awaiting us in the Kingdom of Heaven.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2009

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