Sunday, July 29, 2018

Phil Kniss: What we can learn from the bread baskets

“God’s Bread Basket: Enough and then some”
2 Kings 4:42-44; John 6:5-14; Ephesians 3:14-21

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If ever there was a time to be reminded of the theology of abundance,
now is that time.

In a time when suffering is rampant around the world,
when the gap between rich and poor keeps getting wider,
when earth’s resources
are disrespected and exploited more than ever,
and climate change threatens life as we know it,
when more and more people around the world
are refugees with little hope of returning home,
when violence and racism and fear of the foreigner
is robbing more and more people of their human dignity,
when the political good will of our society is running on empty,
when churches everywhere, and their institutions,
struggle with declining numbers and financial support.

This is the time to talk about the biblical theology of abundance.

Not to mention . . . we’re in the middle of a capital campaign
trying to raise lots of money from a limited pool.
Whoops—I guess I just mentioned it, didn’t I?
Still, this is a great time to talk about the theology of abundance.
And so I will.
Today, as we celebrate summer,
and the peak of fruitfulness in our gardens,
I bring you a sermon on God’s abundant provisions,
God’s overflowing bread basket.

Now I just ran down a long list of various forms of scarcity—
material, social, political, environmental, financial.
So I will also speak of abundance in its various forms.
I won’t just talk about food and gardens.
I won’t just dwell on material and financial abundance.
I’m not gonna go all . . . Joel Osteen on you.

To put it kindly, Osteen and prosperity gospel preachers like him,
are trying to sell America a pack of theological baloney.
It’s a gross distortion of the good news
to claim that any one of God’s children,
who only has enough desire, or enough faith,
or the right prayer formula,
or are willing to invest some “seed money”
into the right ministry,
can, by so doing, tap into the material wealth and health
and personal prosperity that God has for you, personally.
That’s theological baloney.

It’s a message that sells pretty well, especially in desperate times.
People like to hear it.
But it’s untrue.
It’s an observable fact that God does not bring prosperity
on everyone who earns it by exhibiting enough faith.
When it comes to having deep faith and unshakable trust in God,
we affluent middle class Americans are put to shame,
by the faith of some of the poorest and most deprived
of our human family.

But having said that,
we middle-class American Christians, and all people of the Book,
simply must accept the foundational biblical assumption
that God is a generous God, abundant in every good thing,
and desires all creation to experience that same abundance.
That is also unarguable, from a biblical standpoint.

But we who are concerned about social and economic justice
sometimes act a little nervous about that idea.
We downplay our call to live in God’s abundance.
But we shouldn’t.

The Bible is one long story of God’s abundance,
being shared with humankind.
It starts in Genesis,
where God fills the universe with beauty and abundance:
fills the earth with plants of every kind,
swarms of living creatures of every kind,
and tells them, “Be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth.”
And God pronounces all this abundance “good” . . . “very good.”

In Deuteronomy, God promises to make his people
“abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings,
in the fruit of your body,
in the fruit of your livestock,
and in the fruit of your soil.”

The psalms sing of God’s
abundant mercy
abundant righteousness
abundant steadfast love
abundant goodness . . .
30 references to God’s abundance in the Psalms alone,
including this refrain,
“we feast on the abundance of your house.”

In the Gospels, Jesus says he came that we might have life,
and have it abundantly.
And we have stories like today’s Gospel reading,
the feeding of the 5,000,
and elsewhere the feeding of the 4,000,
and turning huge vats of water into wine,
and need I mention resurrection—
turning death into life?

In the epistles,
Paul is profuse in his praise of God’s abundance.
In Ephesians 1, Paul proclaims Christ as the
“fullness of him who fills all in all.”
Then in Ephesians 3, which we read today,
he takes it a step further, to say we can be
“be filled with all the fullness of God.”

And it ends in Revelation,
with a picture of the glorious glittering city of God,
where there is no shortage of anything
good and right and beautiful.

We simply cannot do a full reading of our scriptures
and conclude anything . . . except,
God is a God of abundance
and generosity beyond measure.

So where is our hang-up?
How can we be so skeptical about abundance?
How can we, God’s people, so often become immobilized with fear
that there isn’t enough to go around?
that the universe is ruled by a principle of scarcity?
But then . . . in our defense, we look around and see real scarcity.
Many of God’s people suffer greatly,
because of actual extreme scarcity.
They lack what they need for a flourishing life.

Walter Brueggemann has some thought-provoking things
to say about this.
He says that as Christians, our lives are torn between
on the one hand, the attractive good news of God’s abundance,
and on the other hand, the power of our belief in scarcity—
a belief that makes us greedy, mean and unneighborly.
Brueggemann says “the fundamental human condition [is] anxiety,
fueled by [an] ideology that keeps pounding on us to take more,
to not think about our neighbor.”

That is going to be our focus next Sunday,
in the second of this two-part series.
So come back next week,
and hear Andrew Suderman bring a timely message,
on “The fear of scarcity and the politics of anxiety.”

But on today’s topic of abundance,
one of the best pieces of evidence in scripture,
that God wants us to take the principle of abundance seriously,
is Sabbath law.

We talked about that earlier this summer, if you recall.
What a gift Sabbath is!
Sabbath is a once-a-week bonus day,
reminding us that God provides what is needed
without our constant effort.
We can stop work.
We can cease our striving.
We can enjoy Sabbath rest.
We can open ourselves to God’s abundant gifts,
and live in God’s abundant time.

Now, let’s be clear about this.
To hold up the biblical narrative of God’s abundance
is not to deny the real and tragic impact of scarce resources.
Poverty is a scourge on the earth,
and God knows it and hates it.
Always has.
And by all means, let’s not cop out
and pretend that the Bible’s promise of abundance
is some quick and magic fix
for the devastating result of global poverty.

As a matter of fact, God is deeply concerned, and deeply pained,
by the reality that some members of the human family
experience the suffering of scarcity.
That’s why God rescued the Hebrew slaves from Egypt.
But it is precisely because God is so concerned about suffering
caused by real scarcity,
that God calls us away from the narrative that promotes it.

The scarcity narrative is self-fulfilling.
The more anxious we are about scarcity,
the more we hoard and accumulate,
the more we oppress and exclude and are violent.
But more about that next week.

The invitation to us this morning,
is simply to trust in the goodness of God,
to trust in God’s Creation song of abundance.

Can you just imagine what might happen to that laundry list of scarcity
I named at the beginning,
if all of God’s children started trusting that God will provide?
How might it change things,
if the human family started assuming a posture of trust?
of vulnerability with each other?
of kindness and generosity to all who suffer?
a posture that embraces difference?
that extends the self to others, instead of withdrawing?
that considers it a privilege to share what we have?

You know,
God’s abundance, thoroughly documented in scripture,
has nothing whatsoever to do with the individual pursuit of wealth.
More often than not,
pursuing wealth is a symptom of greed,
and greed is a core ingredient in the scarcity narrative.

Trusting in God’s abundance does the opposite.
It never pits the rich against the poor.
It never divides.
It’s not meant to create wealthy and affluent individuals.
It’s meant to create a risk-taking community
of faith and trust in God the provider.

That little story from 2 Kings demonstrated that principle.
There was a famine in the land and people were hungry.
A man wanting to care for the prophet Elisha, as an individual,
and keep him from starving,
brought him 20 pieces of bread.
Elisha told him to share it with all the prophets, over 100 men.
The man objected.
His assumption of scarcity told him it would never be enough.
Elisha ordered him to share with everyone.
And Elisha’s trust in God’s abundance was rewarded.
All were fed, and leftovers were gathered.

A precursor to the Gospel story of the feeding of the 5,000.
The disciples assumed
there would not be enough food to feed the big crowd.
Jesus invited them to risk trying.
Invited them to work together to feed them.
To build a risk-taking community of faith and trust.
And we saw what happened.
There was enough, and then some.

This principle, in both these stories
and repeated many more times throughout scripture,
promotes vulnerability and sharing and acts of community,
as opposed to hoarding and protecting and acts of self-interest.

God wants a people shaped by a theology of abundance.
That’s a very different thing than
God wanting Christians to get rich and comfy,
in order to prove to others
that God loves rich and comfy Christians the best.

No! I am here this morning to say
that God wants all God’s children, and all of creation,
to experience the abundance and diversity
that was designed into the stuff of creation, from Day One—
a design for shalom that got derailed by our rebellion,
a shalom which God has ever since been trying to rebuild
in partnership with us.

That’s what we can learn from the bread baskets—
the ones in Jesus’ day,
the ones in Elisha’s day,
the ones in our day.

God would love to partner with anyone who trusts in his abundance,
and is willing to work with God,
to ensure that everyone God loves gets to share in that abundance.

The fact that suffering and scarcity exist,
is not an indictment on our abundant God.
It’s an indictment on us,
and on the systems of this world that we built,
based on our own unbelief
that God is not generous and abundant toward all.

This is an invitation to a common life built on our firm belief
in a generous and abundant God.
Summer’s bounty is just an annual reminder.
There are other reminders, if we pay attention.

Let’s sing a song of abundance,
Sing the Journey #40, As rain from the clouds.

It’s a wonderful poem by Delores Dufner,
that compares God’s word,
and its way of growing, spreading and enriching the world,
with the physical practice of growing and cultivating food.

And each refrain makes God the gardener . . .
We praise you, our God, for the dew of your word;
We thank you, good gardener, for your tender toil.
We bless you, best farmer, for hundred-fold yield,
For harvest of grace in our once-barren soil.

—Phil Kniss, July 29, 2018

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