Proper 13A Sermon (2014)

Proper 13 (July 31-August 6)
Texts: Matthew 14:13-21;
Rom. 8:26-39; Isa. 55:1-5

ABUNDANCE IS A SPIRITUAL MATTER

 Scarcity is a spiritual matter. Abundance is more about perception than fact.

We have an abundance of celebrations this morning. We celebrate with the Smith family for the baptism of Lindan Earl. We have pledged to help raise him in the promise that he is washed clean of sin and has been gifted with God’s own Spirit to accompany him his whole life through. We celebrate with the Davis family at Avery’s First Communion. We share in the pledge made to Avery at her baptism that she increasingly come to understand the multiplication of grace that comes through a small amount of bread and wine shared each time in this Holy Sacrament.

Brothers and sisters, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the key to living into the abundance of grace through these sacraments is prayer — especially a certain kind of prayer, silent prayer. (Is this what we read this morning about Jesus going off to be by himself at the outset of the Gospel?) This specialized practice of silent prayer isn’t typically written about in books. It has been passed on from baptized to baptized through the ages — but interrupted, I’m afraid, in recent centuries. We’ve lost the practice for some time now. (1)

But silent prayer — like many other things in the church, because the Holy Spirit blows where she wills — this silent prayer has been making a comeback by entering through the back door, so to speak. It has been coming in through Christians becoming interested in other religions, such as Buddhism and native religions. Recently, it is even making a comeback through secular organizations discovering the power of meditation and mindfulness. Large corporations are setting aside Meditation Rooms in their office buildings. The world champion Seattle Seahawks have a Mindfulness coach. ABC News anchor Dan Harris has a best-selling book on meditation and is making the rounds of speaking stumps all over the country. (2)

A week ago I spent our Bible study time at Confirmation Camp teaching the students the benefits of contemplative prayer. It helps one to focus better throughout the day. It helps to slow down reaction time so that one can more often choose a wise response instead of a costly blind reaction. But, for Christians, it is primarily about the gift of receiving the experience of Oneness in God’s Spirit. It’s about suspending our dualistic thinking — good and evil, us and them, scarce and abundant — unlearning it, if you will, and opening one’s self to God’s perspective of Oneness: Creation is good. There is no them; there is only us. Grace, the gift of life, is abundant.

What is the sin of the man and woman living in Paradise? We know that story, right? The serpent tricks them into disobeying God and eating from the forbidden tree, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Was it their disobedience? Yes, that’s part of it. But notice the name of that tree. There was an abundance of trees in the garden from which to eat, especially the Tree of Life. The only forbidden one was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The story of Creation in Genesis 1 tells us over and over that Creation is good — not good and evil, only good. Eating from that forbidden tree was to enter into the sinfulness of dualistic thinking. Where there had been only Good, now there was good and evil. And like the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds two weeks ago, we so often multiply the evil precisely by trying to weed it out before the harvest. Where there had only been us, there now was us and them. Where there had been an abundance, the serpent tricked them into seeing things in terms of scarcity: ‘God’s holding out on you, by making that tree forbidden.’ And once you get into scarcity thinking, it can be difficult to get out. It’s so easy to dwell on opportunities lost and things that have gone wrong.

Abundance is a spiritual matter. Scarcity is more about perception than fact. In today’s Gospel Reading, the disciples see only scarcity. Jesus teaches them to see abundance. I’ve shared with you several times one of my most vivid memories in the Holy Land. Our tour bus stopped at Nazareth, the place where Jesus grew up. It lies in a fertile plane, where the wonderful sea breezes from the Mediterranean still reach it. Then the bus came upon a hill, that I soon discovered was a ridge to a steep valley. Being a map geek as a kid, I knew that the lowest place on earth was the Dead Sea, in southern Israel. What I hadn’t realized was that other familiar biblical places are connected to it. The Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized, connects two seas: the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee, the primary place of Jesus’ ministry. As our bus descended down, down, down, into the valley where the Sea of Galilee lies, elevated only a few feet higher, and upsteam, from the lowest place on the earth, the temperature went up at least ten degrees. There was no longer a nice sea breeze from the Mediterranean. Our tour guide continually warned us never to be too far away from a supply of food and water in this climate.

One of the places our tour bus stopped was at a large open field of grass north of the Sea of Galilee. In the middle of field is a small church known as the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes. But I couldn’t help but wonder that day if the real miracle hadn’t been a multiplication of the spirituality of abundance. The loaves and fishes multiplied because people’s hearts had been stirred from their usual scarcity thinking into that of abundance. Whatever the facts were that day — perhaps there was a scarcity of food, but perhaps, in a climate where people should never be without food and water, there was an actual abundance. In either case, Jesus gave thanks to God for an abundance, and people’s hearts were opened to experience it. Scarcity is a spiritual matter. Abundance is more about perception than fact.

In the news in recent weeks has been the incredible story of unaccompanied children coming across our borders to the south from Central America. I have fliers on the table in the Gathering space about how our church is responding.(3) I was pleased to hear conservative pundit George Will say on Fox News, “We ought to say to these children, ‘Welcome to America, you’re going to go to school, get a job, and become Americans.'” He went on to say, that we have over 3000 counties in the U.S.; that amounts to 20 children per county. (4) His message was that we are the wealthiest nation in the history of this world. We can afford to be compassionate neighbors to these children.

In these days of polarization, when you quote Fox News you feel like you have to quote the other side. I also saw John Stewart this week, who talked about his summer in Jordan. Something that stood out for him was how they welcomed and helped refugees streaming into their country. They themselves were war-torn, plagued by many political problems, and suffering from poverty. Yet they were helping their neighbors in need. (5)

Closer to home, we also heard recently from former Prince of Peace members John Musick and and Pastor Denise Scheer. In recent years, they’ve been taking frequent trips to southern Sudan to help the war-torn folks there, especially helping to provide medical clinics for women and children. For their most recent trip to Africa, they ended going to Uganda, because many of the Sudanese they’ve been helping have ended up as refugees in Uganda, which has endured its own civil war in recent memory. John and Denise were struck by how gracious the Ugandan government and people were helping their neighbors in need from nearby African countries.

Abundance is a spiritual matter. Scarcity is more about perception than fact. We pray that our Lord’s miracle of opening human hearts from scarcity to abundance may continue to happen among us.

Let me close by returning to the matter of prayer and our Second Reading today (Rom. 8:26-39 (6)). We don’t know how to pray as we ought, so God’s very Spirit teaches us to pray in silence, without words. And so we find that “all things work together for good” — simply “good.” Evil isn’t named as such here. Romans 8 is a chapter very much aware of the suffering in this world. It grapples with the fact that our dualistic games of accusation and condemnation continue to add to the suffering. But who is to condemn? Not God in Jesus Christ. No, in the love of Christ Jesus our Lord, the dualisms begin to melt away — neither death nor life, height nor depth, thing present nor things to come, good nor evil, scarcity nor abundance can separate us from God’s love. Because in the Spirit of that love we experience the Oneness of everything.

Abundance is a matter of the Spirit — the Spirit little Lindan was promised today, that we are all promised — the Spirit we are fed with today, along with Avery Davis for the first time — God’s abundant Spirit of forgiveness and life that makes us all one. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, August 3, 2014

1. See the work of Richard Rohr regarding both contemplative practice as a remedy for dualistic thinking and the loss of contemplative practice over the last 500 years. His recent little book Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation is a good example.

2. Dan Harris, 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story. See also an excellent spoken summary of the book from a BizCon Conference: http://fora.tv/2014/05/13/the_10_solution.

3. http://www.elca.org/Our-Work/Relief-and-Development/Lutheran-Disaster-Response/Our-Impact/Unaccompanied-and-Migrant-Children and http://elca.org/News-and-Events/7679.

4. George Will on Fox News: http://youtu.be/9WXJ2PLjDzI

5. John Stewart, The Daily Show: http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/b7aa4i/sonia-nazario. They discuss the way this issue of unaccompanied children, who have legitimate claim to seeking political asylum, has been politicized by both parties.

6. This is the Second Reading for Proper 12A, but we had a special presentation of the Word by our youth the week before which replaced this lesson, so we moved it back a week to not miss it.

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