Proper 12 (July 24-30)
Texts: John 6:1-21;
Eph 3:14-21; 2 Kings 4:42-44
THE GOD OF ABUNDANCE
Among the more memorable experiences of continuing education for me has been one I stumbled upon my first summer here in Racine, nine years ago now. I can’t even remember the name of the organization, but it was a regional group of Christian educators whose goal it was to promote capitalism. One of the key ways they did this was to sponsor seminars for pastors to learn basic economics. For a very minimal fee, they brought us up to Lakeland College in Sheboygan, and for three days put us up in rather comfortable dorms, fed us extremely well, and taught us basic capitalist economics.
But what was most memorable about this experience was that I ended up becoming a thorn in the side for the kind folks who put this on. Be assured, I certainly didn’t go with that intention. I honestly wanted to learn more about economics. And I did learn a lot. But the first lecturer was going over the most basic definitions and assumptions…well, it was pretty close to how this economics textbook proceeds. The first paragraph gives a definition of economics; the second paragraph gives a definition of human wants. And the third paragraph begins this way:
Resources are the things or services used to produce goods, which then can be used to satisfy wants. Economic resources are scarce…. (1)
It’s that part about economic resources being scarce that caught my ears. I raised my hand and asked, ‘How do you know that resources are scarce? What about Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, for example? Isn’t the centerpiece there his words about not being anxious for the basics of life? God feeds the birds of the air and clothes the lilies of the field. I think that Jesus was trying to get us to trust in a God of abundance, instead of assuming a God of scarcity.’ The instructor was quite flustered. He absolutely could not fathom a beginning point of abundance rather than scarcity. He would simply say, ‘Isn’t scarcity obvious? I don’t know what else to say. Capitalism doesn’t work as a system unless we accept this basic assumption.’ Well, I wouldn’t accept this assumption, so I was raising my hand for each successive instructor asking them how what they were presenting would change if we assumed abundance rather than scarcity. I think they were glad to see me go by the end of the three days.
Why am I teaching you basic economics today? Because I’m absolutely certain it has to do with the God in whom we come to believe in Jesus Christ. I’ve raised a crucial question: Is the God of Jesus Christ a God of scarcity or a God of abundance? I think that the miracle in today’s gospel has precisely to do with this question. It is about Jesus getting everyone on that hillside to believe, at least for a few moments, in a God abundance.
Normally, we believe in a God of scarcity, don’t we? Capitalist economics is a prime example. But I don’t want to just pick on capitalism. Believing in a God of scarcity is another way to define our sin. Look once again at the Bible’s first story, the one about the man and woman in the garden. We might even define Paradise as living in a state of abundance, as that first man and woman were doing. But the serpent made a problem out of that one tree in the middle of the garden. He convinced them that there was a scarcity, after all, a scarcity of knowledge. God was hoarding knowledge, he told them, and eating from that one ‘scarce’ tree, in the middle of a garden full of trees, would let them in on God’s stockpile of knowledge. They would know what God knows. As soon as that man and woman starting believing in a God of scarcity, Paradise was lost. It’s been the same for all of us ever since. We fall to the many temptations to believe in a God of scarcity. We even end up founding our economic systems on that assumption.
That brings us back to today’s story of the miraculous feeding. I truly believe that this miracle is all about giving us a glimpse of the true God, a God of abundance, not scarcity. Getting us to believe in that, even for a few moments, is a miracle, I think.
In fact, we might take a moment to ask: What is the miracle here? We usually think in terms of a physical miracle. In other words, we usually think in terms of Jesus having physically multiplied the five loaves and two fishes. It’s not that I doubt Jesus’ ability to do such a thing. The second story in today’s gospel, with Jesus walking on the sea, shows his command over nature. But I wonder if the greater miracle in the miraculous feeding isn’t a spiritual miracle, that is, a miracle of opening up our hearts to believe in a God of abundance, even if only for a few moments. Here’s what I mean; imagine that scene with me for a moment:
Having been to the Holy Land three summers ago, I’m impressed again with how harsh a climate that was in which to live. And so I wonder how so many people could have been caught so unprepared at meal time. Could those five thousand people have left home that day without provisions to travel? We were traveling in a cushy luxury bus, and they still impressed upon us not to leave without our water bottles and a snack. I can’t imagine so many people traveling by foot in that harsh environment without taking any food.
No, imagine that the problem wasn’t a scarcity of food that day. Rather, imagine that the problem was the age-old one of people whose behavior was controlled by their belief in a God of scarcity. How does one behave when one believes in scarce resources? Do you share? Not hardly! You hoard. You’re afraid to let anyone know what you have because you believe it isn’t enough for everyone.
Jesus knows this about us. St. John even lets us in on Jesus’ slyness here, telling us that Jesus asks the disciples his question about food, knowing full well what he’s going to have to do. He knows our human economics, the way we think in terms of scarcity. Sure enough, Phillip is a great economist, is flawless in his mathematical calculations: “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”
With all this high-powered economic thinking go around, it takes an innocent child to step forward and naively offer five barley loaves and two fish. Andrew, not to be shown up for his economic prowess, is quick to add, “But what are they among so many people?” Jesus, undaunted by all these great economic minds around him, shows the entire crowd how it is that it takes a child’s faith to enter into God’s kingdom. It takes the economically naive to be open to God’s economics. Jesus takes that meager offering from the child, gives thanks for it, and begins to hand it out. And, lo and behold, all those economic calculations are dashed. Five barley loaves and two fish are enough, after all, to feed five thousand people.
How could that be? Is it because Jesus is the Son of God and can do such magical things as multiplying loaves and fish? Or is it because Jesus is the Son of God and so has the faith of a child, the faith that naively (?) believes in a God of abundance, believes that there is enough? And so imagine if you will that the real miracle was the incredible moment when all those hardened grown-ups became like the child and opened their hearts to that same God of abundance. It’s a dangerous belief, mind you, because you might even forget yourself and let others see what you have — in which case you might even find yourself sharing it with those around you.
Is that what happened on the hillside that day? Did enough people believe that God has blessed us with enough that they actually discovered abundance to be true by sharing with one another? Well, even if that’s what happened, the moment didn’t last very long. Economic sanity quickly returned. Like I said, belief in a God of abundance is a dangerous belief, too dangerous to hold onto for very long. Apparently, this crowd didn’t, because they preferred to believe that Jesus somehow magically provided it, and so they moved to make him king. Jesus slipped away.
Well, I’ve been pretty tough on economics this morning. Does that mean, for instance, that a person of faith in Jesus needs to throw out capitalism? Not necessarily. We have much more to talk about with this John 6 passage, which we will continue to look at in the weeks ahead [see, for example, next week’s sermon, “Bread that Satisfies,” which continues and complements this week’s themes]. We can certainly say some positive things about capitalism, too. But I want to begin this week by firmly recognizing that, as disciples of Jesus, I don’t think we can buy into absolutely everything capitalism tells us. And here’s the essential point: God’s economics are fundamentally different than human economic systems, even the best of them. And in Jesus Christ we believe that God’s Kingdom, God’s Household, God’s Economics, have come into this world. We have the opportunity to begin living according to God’s economics of abundance. Most especially, we need to question assumptions about scarcity. If Jesus came to show us a God of Abundance, then our participation in capitalism shouldn’t be ‘religious.’ Is the bottom line of economics, for instance, always and only about profit? Or might we begin to balance that bottom line with other values, such as generosity? For believing in abundance also means believing in generosity. There’s plenty, so why not share? It means joining God in the stewardship of an abundant creation. Every moment we can live believing in abundance repeats the miracle that Jesus worked that day on the hillside. And not only on that hillside. For he was the Christ who broke the bread of his body on the cross and gave it away for us. He trusted in the God of abundant life and so his resurrection is the first fruits of our abundant life, our return to Paradise. Come share in the bread of life. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Our Savior’s Lutheran,
Racine, WI, July 27, 2003
1. Economics USA, by Edwin Mansfield and Nariman Behravesh, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1986, p. 10.