Friday, August 3, 2012

Sermon from July 29, 2012

Wouldn’t We All Like a Little Fame?

John 6:1-21

A Sermon Preached at Centenary United Methodist Church

Richmond, VA

July 29, 2012


Jesus demonstrates God’s goodness and power to us by meeting our ordinary human needs, not to accrue worldly power or fame, but to glorify God.


Sometimes, God’s blessings and God’s presence comes to us in the most unusual ways.  Many of us would like for God to make the divine presence undeniably real.  We would like for God’s power and goodness to mightily and decisively put the forces of evil on the run.  We’d like for God to claim the fame that rightly belongs to the creator of the universe.  So, we fail to recognize that God’s blessings are often being offered to us through situations and people we fail to perceive as channels of God’s blessings and presence.  And to our impoverishment, we fail to realize the resources of grace, mercy, and courage that are right in front of us, if we will only learn to see them.

The Need for Bread

Jesus and the disciples had the good fortune of ministering to a large crowd of 5000.  Well, at least 5000, since they probably only counted the men.  They’d had a great time together.  Jesus’ teaching had been superb.  It was a beautiful scene there on the mountainside.  But there was a problem.  There was no food to be found.  There were no fast food places to send the crowd to, no caterers to call, no pizza delivery guys in the neighborhood.  Jesus, trying always to teach his disciples, so that one day they will be able to carry on his mission to the world, says to Philip, “Look at all these folks.  It’s time to eat.  Where are we going to buy food for everyone?”

 “We don’t have any food.  It would take six months’ wages to feed all these people,” Philip replies.  Andrew chimes in, “There’s a little boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.  But that won’t make any difference for this many people.”

We often spiritualize passages of scripture like this one.  We quickly turn this into a spiritual lesson about the way God provides for our spiritual needs.  We jump to the notion that we need more than physical bread, that Jesus is the bread of  life.  John gets there later in this chapter, along with making the connections between Jesus’ provision of physical bread with the bread of life we receive in the eucharist.  And the connections to the Old Testament are here as well, even deepening the spiritual meaning.  The bread left over reminds one of the manna God gave to the children of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness.  The mountain scene reminds you of Moses ascending to Mt. Sinai to receive the law from God.  All of that is here, but none of those deep spiritual messages deny the reality—Jesus is concerned about people’s need for food.  Jesus realizes there are a lot of people and they’re hungry.  And he probably knows that hungry masses don’t always remain peaceful ones.  He wants to give people something to eat.

But there’s another need here, isn’t there?  And that is the need for the disciples to learn to recognize who Jesus really is.  They are aware of the need Jesus calls to their attention.  But they are only aware of their meager resources, their lack of a plan, and their inability to meet the need.  They don’t realize who is there with them.  They don’t see the source of blessing right there with them.  They’ve seen Jesus perform miracles, signs John calls them, turning water into wine, healing the sick, casting out demons, but their first thought in this situation is not that Jesus will help them and the crowd, but that they have a problem on their hands for which there is no solution. 

Our Needs and the World’s

Don’t we sometimes become preoccupied with our problems, so much so that we fail to recognize that there may be sources of blessings and power right in front of us?  It is easy to feel overwhelmed with a burden in our own lives that we cannot see how it could ever be lifted.   After hearing about the massacre at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado and being reminded that it is not the first of such horrific events nor will it probably be the last, we are left thinking about a range of problems that seem to be without solution:  1) What do we do to identify and treat people with severe mental illness before they become a danger to others or themselves?  2) How could we have a sensible discussion about gun violence in our society?  3) And for us as people of faith, how do we make sense of that faith in the light of such senseless actions that bring nothing but pain and sorrow to everyone involved?

Here in our own city, we face challenges that seem to overwhelm us.  We are keenly aware of the way the human struggle for mental health and poverty converge to make many people hungry for real food.  38% of the people in our city limits live in poverty, many of them children.  And poverty is no longer found in isolated pockets in the city limits, it is dramatically increasing in the suburbs around us. And thankfully this church has responded by trying to offer food and hospitality to those who need it most.  But if we’re honest, doesn’t it seem a little overwhelming at times when we wonder what else we could do?

And how many times have you been overwhelmed by problems in your own life for which no solution seems forthcoming? 

You have been diagnosed with an illness for which there are no easy cures.  You struggle with an emotional or mental condition that depletes both your confidence and energy.  You feel alone and isolated in a busy world.  You see relationships that were once precious to you now foundering because of old grudges and resentments.  We’re not unacquainted with problems for which there seem to be few simple solutions.  And moreover, if we’re honest, it’s very easy to see the problems so clearly that we are unable to the solutions when they present themselves.  It’s easy to fail to see the blessings that might be right before us.  Like the disciples who saw a need but failed to understand that Jesus was right there with them and could help them to find food for the hungry, we often look at the problems of our worlds and our lives, become focused on those, and are just unable to see that Jesus is present and just might be able to help us if we’d ask.

Well-known writer Frederick Buechner wrote an autobiography called The and Now.  He  writes of his off-the-beaten-path (at least for a seminary-trained, ordained Presbyterian minister) encounter with Agnes Sanford, a Christian healer. "The most vivid image she presented," writes Buechner, "was of Jesus standing in church services all over Christendom with his hands tied behind his back, unable to do any mighty works because the ministers who led the services either didn't expect him to do them or didn't dare ask him to do them . . ."

That's quite an image: Jesus standing in the church, his hands tied behind his back. Then Buechner added this:   “I recognized immediately my own kinship with those ministers.”[1]

How many times have we failed to see that God is present in our problems that a blessing is being offered to us if we can only see it?

A Resource They Didn’t Recognize

As they considered the need of the crowd for food and how they could possibly meet that real need, the disciples were focused on what they lacked.  They had a crowd in the thousands and no money.  They had a few fish and loaves of bread and that was all.  They didn’t have any other ideas.  But what were they not seeing?  They failed to recognize that right there in front of them was the presence of God in Jesus.  They failed to connect the previous signs he had performed with the need they faced at that moment. 

Jesus was present with them—he could find a way to solve their problem.  And somehow he did.  He took the bread and fish from the little boy and as a gracious, thoughtful host at a meal with cherished guests, gave thanks over what they had and told the disciples to start distributing the food.  Somehow, there was enough.  Because Jesus was there, the little the disciples had was enough for everyone.

There was a blessing in front of them waiting to be received.  Now, don’t be too hard on the disciples.  It’s harder than we realize to see God’s presence among us, isn’t it?  And Jesus doesn’t always help a lot.  He’s not really interested in wowing big crowds with his miracles.  He never does a miracle to gain fame for himself.  After this great miracle, the people in the crowd were indeed excited.  They thought that since Jesus had filled their empty stomachs, he would be just the person to do even bigger things—like overthrowing the hated Roman regime.  When they tried to make Jesus king, he would have nothing to do with it, and slipped away to hide and to pray. 

So, we have to remember that learning to see those hidden blessings, learning to discern God’s presence requires some training.  It often requires learning to pay much closer attention. 

It was hard for people to believe that in this human being, born in a manger, raised in such humble circumstances, that God really was present among them. 

In a church I served, every sermon the youth group went on a mission trip.  They would work all day painting houses, clearing brush, building decks and ramps and then return to worship with other young people.  Each night in worship they were challenged to describe their “God-sightings” for the day, by which the leaders wanted them to report on where, in that day, they had seen God at work.  When they would share these “God-sightings” with the congregation in worship when they returned, they would never say things like, “I saw God raise a man from the dead.”  No, they would say things like, “I saw God today when the old woman we were working with sat on the front porch and told us about her life.”  Or, “I saw God today when we didn’t have all the tools we needed and a construction worker at a nearby job site happened to stop and see what we were doing and loaned us just what we needed.”  Small things. 

I’ll admit it sometimes seemed a little contrived to me—these lessons in seeing God.  But, then, I learned, that like the disciples, we all need help learning to see where God is present and at work among us.  The disciples had God with them when they were trying to figure out how to feed a mob—and they didn’t even know it.

Seeing a God Who’s  Not Interested in Fame

Where do we see God?  What signs of God’s presence are we missing?  In one way, it is hard to see the God we know in Jesus.  Yes, our God is a self-revealing God, a God who speaks to us through the Word—the Bible, the Word made flesh, the word as it is proclaimed in worship.  But our God never tries to coerce or frighten or wow us into belief.

After all, the ultimate sign given the disciples and the world in John’s Gospel is not an appearance on a jumbo tron in a huge stadium, but an old rugged cross—a sign the world regarded as indicative of shame and humiliation.

But God is trying—if we’ll look, listen, wait, and pray.

When we learn to discern God’s blessings and God’s presence, faith increases.  And when faith increases, we realize following God is an open sum game.  When you and I put our faith together, and then we add that with the faith of others, good things will happen.  When we stop thinking of the cup as half empty and start seeing it half full, we’ll begin to see how can God can use what we have, however small in our eyes, for good.

How do you look at yourself?  Do you spend a lot of your time focusing on your failures, your shortcomings, your inadequacies, and weaknesses?  It’s easy to do.  We often become obsessed about our imperfections.  It is not uncommon to meet people who do not like themselves, who do not accept themselves, who do not believe in themselves.  It is easy for us sometimes to look at people and see only what we perceive to be their wants, their needs—a lack of money or food or shelter or education.  And we rush into try to meet their need.  But we often fail to see that every child of God has some gift to share with others.  What if you started to look at yourself and ask, “What am I good at?  What am I passionate about?  What do I care about?  What has God given me?  How has God blessed me?”  It might make all the difference in the world.

Sometimes in every need there is a gift waiting to be received and experienced.  I read recently about a church that was doing an exercise together to identify its gifts.  Each person was asked to identify some gift or asset in their church.  The leader came to Renee and she started talking about her daughter, Sarah, who got around in a wheelchair.  The leader said, “Remember, we’re focusing on assets here.”  She didn’t object, but got quiet.  The leader felt he’d rubbed Renee the wrong way.  He asked the group, “Can anybody help here?”

One woman said, “Renee your daughter is an asset to us.  I still remember the day we worked together on that ramp to the front door.  That was the day our congregation really started thinking about the different skills and perspectives we each have.  And without Sarah, I know my children’ wouldn’t be in Sunday school.  She’s the one always talking to them about church.”[2]

Renee saw her daughter’s limitations in a different way as others described how she was such a gift to all of them.

Gifts come in many forms.  A few fish and a few loaves of bread fed a multitude.  Paul boasted of his weaknesses and infirmities, his afflictions and beatings.  He said in his weakness he was made strong.

How do you see yourself?  Have you humbly but confidently been able to receive the gifts God has given you, even if those gifts are sometimes disguised is limitations?

How do we see ourselves as a church?  It is easy to see all our challenges.  We are in a very diverse community.  Church growth experts all know that it’s easier to grow a church in a setting where people are alike.  We are in a community with great need—huge numbers of people--many of whom are children growing up in single parent households—living in poverty.  We’ve been in decline many years, not the church we used to be. 

What do we see?  A cup half empty?  Or do we see the possibilities that are present not because we’re so smart or committed or virtuous, but because Jesus is here among us?  And where Jesus is, there’s always enough!

Not long ago Anthony Robinson visited a once prominent church, a church that had for decades been known far and wide as the home of great preachers and a center of great social causes. Like many, however, this church had declined in recent decades.

When I arrived to give a lecture there, I was met by an officer of the church. As I was early, he asked if I would like a tour of the grand facility. As we walked he told me that twenty years ago he had feared for the future of his church. In fact, he said, "I was pretty sure than by now we would have closed our doors. You see, we were just fifty elderly people left in this great sanctuary." Then he brightened. "But something has happened. Something has changed. We're experiencing a kind of renewal, a revival."

"Really," I said, "that's wonderful." "Yes, these days we have four or five hundred people in church. We have new ministries in the community. We are seeing new people, young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight."

"How do you explain this?" I asked.

He thought for a moment, his hand on his chin. Then he said, "Well, it wasn't all our new minister, but he has made a difference."

"What's he done?"

"Well, he got us studying the Bible . . . yes, our minister gives a wonderful Bible Study. In fact, he can give you the entire message of the Bible in just six words."

Inwardly, I groaned. "Another fast operator?" I thought.

"And what might those six words be?" I asked skeptically. My host, an older African-American man grinned broadly. "The six words that summarize the entire message of the Bible? 'I am God and you're not.'" We both laughed.[3]

"I am God and you're not."

God has decided you are his beloved child.  Have you received that gift—and all the others that go along with it?  God is present with us as a congregation.  The disciples were learning that though Jesus didn’t always seek his own fame, that someone unique was among them.  And when he was present, amazing things would happen.  There was always enough.  And who knows just what God will do with us if we put our complete faith and trust in his power, goodness, and mercy?  Amen. 

        [1] Frederick Buechner,  Then and Now (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), 61-62

        [2] Luther Snow, The Power of Asset Mapping (Herndon, VA:  The Alban Institute), 108.

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