Learning to Multiply: Sermon for May 10, 2015

I’ve been thinking this week about learning how to multiply. Do you remember when you first learned? I was in about third grade when we had to memorize our times tables. Some were easy. 1×1 is 1. 1×2 is 2. Some got harder like 9×7 is 63. And some I could never remember like 11×12 is 132.

Math was one subject that just never came easily to me. And, when I was already struggling, the teacher introduced this thing we would have do in math class. She handed out these cards with all these multiplication problems on them, and she would say “go” and then you had something like two minutes to do the entire sheet correctly.

It was the most anxiety-producing academic experience I ever had, one that not even my ordination exams in seminary rivaled. And this week I had dinner with a friend, and I talked about what my sermon for today, and about learning how to multiply. And she said, “Did you ever have to do those things…with all the problems that you had to complete in two minutes?”

It became clear that learning to multiply was a traumatic experience for many of us.

And yet, multiplication is about more than just math. It even has a place in the spiritual life. And though we don’t have to do those timed worksheets, we still have to learn how to do it.

Loaves and Fish Roundel Zunti and Doepker, Saskatchewan

Loaves and Fish Roundel
Zunti and Doepker, Saskatchewan

Today’s story tells us a little of why. The story of the loaves and fish is one we hear at least once a year in church. It’s also the only miracle of Jesus that is told in all four Gospels, which I think is a pretty good indicator of its importance. In each of the four tellings the details vary just a little, but the main story remains the same: Jesus is preaching. The people all come out to hear him. And they are hungry. And there are so many that the disciples look out and wonder how they are going to feed them all. And they tell Jesus, “we could spend six months’ wages and we couldn’t afford to even start to feed everyone.”

One of them, Andrew, points out that one boy has five loaves of bread and two fish, but he says “What use is that?”

But Jesus says something different. He takes the boy’s food, and he has the crowd of five thousand sit down. Then he blesses the loaves and fish and sends them out into the crowd. And when all is said and done, not only does everyone eat, but there are baskets filled up with all the extras.

Now, what really happened that day on that hill? There are ways to explain it away. Some say it never really happened. And others say that the real miracle was that once one person decided to share the others around them felt like they could do the same and it turned out there really was enough for everyone.

And, maybe there’s something to that. It does take a small miracle to get over our fear about never having enough and to instead share abundantly with others. But, what I think happened that day, more than anything, had to do with Jesus. And multiplication.

Here’s why. Do you remember your times tables, and the rule about zero? Zero times any number always equals what? Zero. 0 x 1 = 0. 0 x 37 = 0. 0 x 984 = 0. This was a revelation to me. It was like finding out there was a free space in math. You cannot multiply 0 and ever get something else.

But with even a little bit, multiplication can work wonders. Even more than addition, if you want to build something you have to learn to multiply.

Think about the story for a moment. It has always struck me as important that Jesus did not start with zero. Personally, I think he still could have figured out a way for everyone to get fed. But I think there’s something important about the fact that the only thing he initially had to work with were five loaves of bread, and two fish, brought to him by a small child. I don’t think it’s an accident that Scripture tells us about that first, small gift. Because it may not have been much, but it was something.

So, like I said, there are some who believe that what happened next was addition. People opened up their own bags, and added to the common meal. And like I said, maybe that’s true. But, I think what really happened was multiplication. Jesus took what was given, and transformed it into something far greater and better than it could be on its own.

I think that’s what happens when God gets involved in something. I think we bring what we are willing to give, and what we are willing to see transformed. And I believe that God doesn’t just add to it. God takes what we give and multiplies it into something we couldn’t imagine.

To me that is what blessing looks like. It’s not God just giving us more. It’s God creating something new out of what we give, and multiplying the blessing until what we end up with is so much bigger and better than we could imagine.

A small child dared to share what little he had. Jesus did not just say “okay, here’s a few more fish”. Jesus multiplied it so it fed the masses, and there was an abundance left.

The same is true of anything we give to God, and it’s true of our spiritual lives. When we give God just a small part of ourselves, whether in prayer or meditation or service, we find that God gives us back something even better. God gives us a sense of God’s presence, and love and grace. God renews us for the work we do, and gives us joy.

That’s what happens when we stop holding on to things so tightly, whether our time or our gifts or even our fears, and we let go, and let God work with them. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the one who brought the fish and bread to Jesus that day was a child. Because I think children understand in an intrinsic way that we are not transformed by what we hold on to. They understand, because they have not yet learned otherwise, that when we live our lives with our hearts open, incredible things can happen.

It’s that spirit of children, that willingness to let God in, that Jesus himself commended to his disciples. Jesus said unless we become like little children, we will never get it. Unless we learn to put aside our fear and let God work with what we have to give, no matter if people are scoffing on the sidelines and saying it’s not enough, we will never understand how God can multiply our blessings.

I’m always struck by the fact that even while the disciples talked about how few people that boy’s fish and bread could feed, the boy still gave them to Jesus anyway. And I’m struck by the fact that none of the disciples opened up their own bags. And so Jesus used the small gifts of a child to show everyone what he could do.

Too often, we adults depend on the slow and sure gains of addition. We don’t want the risk of handing things over. And even when it comes to growing spiritually we don’t want to invest in something bigger than ourselves when we could just hold on to what little we have, the way some people stash money under a mattress, adding a few dollars every so often. It’s safer that way. You can’t lose anything. Or so we think.

But you also don’t gain that much either. Because you’re just adding, and not multiplying.

There’s a math problem, disguised as a story, that I like a lot. In it, a person is given a choice between two things. He can either have $10,000 a day for 31 days. Or, a penny on the first day that is doubled for each of the next 30 days. In other words, you get a penny on the first day, two on the second, four on the third, and so on.

The choice sounds easy at first. You take the sure thing, the $10,000 a day. Because if you take the other option, even after 21 days, you only have a little over $10,000. You could have had more than that on day two. But if you hang in there, by the time you get to day 28, you have $1.3 million. And by the time you get to the end of the month, when the people who are adding $10,000 a day have $310,000, you have over $10 million.

Unless you are starting with nothing, unless you are holding everything back, multiplication always beats addition. And God’s blessing is like multiplication. It doesn’t settle for just giving us more. It creates real growth.

Yesterday morning, several dozen of us gathered in our vestry to talk about our natural church development focus on spirituality. And many talked very openly about the fact that this feels like new ground. It’s easy to talk about how our week was, someone shared. It’s a lot harder to talk about our spiritual lives. Others shared about how they didn’t feel they knew how to grow spiritually. Others said they needed resources and examples of spiritual practices. Some, who were really honest, talked about being afraid of what it means to embark on a spiritual journey.

I hear all of that. And, you never have to do anything you don’t want to do in this church.

But, I want to offer this image. What if we are all there on that mountaintop with Jesus, hungry, and hoping to be fed. And what if have something small that we can give, something we are so afraid to give up. And what if we are being asked to make the choice not to hold onto it, but to give it to God, and let God bless it.

That’s what deepening your spiritual life is like. You might not feel like you have all that much to give, but you have more than you know. You have it because you, and your spirit, were created by God. And all you have to do is step up, trust your spirit in God’s hand, and get ready to see the ways God can bless you on this journey. Get ready for the ways God will take just a little, and multiply it into a blessing you won’t believe.

I’ll close with this. I have a pastor friend named Jack. This week I was reflecting on something I once heard him say. He asked a group what the fruit of an apple tree is. Most answered “an apple, of course”.

But Jack disagrees. He says the true fruit of an apple tree is not an apple, but another tree.

In our spiritual lives, too often we settle for the apples, because they often feel hard enough to get. But what if God is hoping that we won’t just settle for a quick spiritual snack anymore? What if maybe for too long we’ve been settling for what has been lying around on the ground, instead of believing in the possibility of something better? What if God is waiting to help us plant those spiritual seeds, water them, and watch them grow into a tree of their own? What if God doesn’t want us to settle for a spiritual life that fills us for a few minutes? And what if God wants us to truly plant for a lifetime, and beyond?

The seeds are in our hands. We can hold on to them. Or we can plant them in God’s good soil, watch them multiply, and let them grow. Amen?

Blessed for a Reason: Sermon for November 16, 2014

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

I’m a bit of a history buff and so when I first moved to Exeter this summer I bought some books on the history of the town. One book I bought was put out by the historical society and it featured these two or three page snippets of Exeter history. And one story in particular caught my eye.

It was about the end of official tax support for churches, and in particular the loss of town funds to support this church. You see, New Hampshire, like most former colonies, had an “established church”. And in New England that was normally the Congregational Church. And if you lived in Exeter, a portion of your town taxes would go to support this church.

That worked here for the better part of 200 years. But by 1819, there was more than one church in town. This church had split into two parishes, there were now Baptists, and there was a fledgling Universalist church. And in Exeter, as in other places, people who worshipped elsewhere didn’t think it was fair that they should have to pay to support this church.

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That may seem like a no-brainer to us now, but it was quite a scandal at the time. People believed that doing away with public financial support for the church would lead to the destruction of the church, and even the end of morality itself. In the end, though, people decided that only the people who went to a church should support that church. And this church, like Congregational churches across New England, stopped being the official town church.

So what does that have to do with today’s Scripture from Genesis? The one in which God calls Abram, who later gets the name Abraham, out of the home he has always known and to a new place he’s never seen before? God tells Abram “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…and all peoples on the earth will be blessed through you.”

That line, “blessed to be a blessing” might sound familiar to you right now, and if it does it’s probably because of this. That line is the Bible verse that United Church of Christ parishes have been using this fall for our stewardship campaigns. So you have seen it on the stewardship letter you received back in October, and it’s right there on your pledge cards.

And I think it was a good choice for those of us who are thinking about giving. I think it’s one to remember, and not just at stewardship time. Because, honestly, I think that’s being blessed to be a blessing is what the Christian life is all about.

But, when someone describes the way in which they are “blessed”, does it ever give you pause? Sometimes I hear people talk about how God has blessed them with a big house or a nice car or some material thing and it just makes me a little uncomfortable. It’s not that I think those things are inherently bad, but I just don’t think of God like that. To me that trivializes God, and makes God sound like some sort of divine Oprah handing out cars and iPads to ecstatic crowds.

And God is bigger than that. And not only is God bigger than that, but I think God expects bigger things from us too. And sometimes the way we talk about our blessings just doesn’t reflect that. And here’s why: being blessed is not about winning. None of us is blessed just to be blessed. That’s not the end goal here. Instead, being blessed is about God saying “here’s a tool…now use it to help others.”

In short, we are not blessed for our own comfort or satisfaction or glory. We are blessed so that we can serve others and glorify God. And because of that, all the things we don’t use in order to serve others and glorify God? Those aren’t blessings. Those are just trophies. And in the end, honestly they aren’t worth that much.

So, what does it mean to live a life of blessing? First, I think it means to live a life of giving, and not just taking. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t good to receive. We have all received grace upon grace from God and from others, whether we acknowledge it or not. But being a blessing means that you can’t stop there.

Because when we receive a blessing of any kind, whether it’s love or health or understanding or resources or anything else, we are receiving grace. It is not earned. It is given freely by a God who loves us. And we have a choice. First, we can take it and use it only for our own good. In other words, we can collect the trophy. Or, we can decide to say thank you to God by turning it into a blessing for others.

I’ve always found that the second is the one that not only brings blessings to others, but blessings back to me. Because, honestly, trophies aren’t good for much other than gathering dust. The joy and light that comes from blessing others is much, much better.

So, what does that look like? Recently I read a story that really spoke to me. It was about a man named Howard Lutnick. Lutnick is the chairman of Cantor Fitzgerald, and so obviously a man of means. And so when he recently made a donation to Haverford College, in the amount of $25 million dollars, it was impressive. But, at first glance, you might not know that it is also a story about being blessed to be a blessing.

When Howard Lutnick was a high school student his mother died. And then, a week after arriving on campus as a Haverford freshman, his father died suddenly too. His sister attended another college and when she went to the administration to tell them she was now suddenly parentless they told her to become a waitress to pay her tuition. But Haverford acted differently.

When his father died, the president of the university called him and just said this: “Howard, your four years here are free”. As he tells it, he had been on campus a week. The school didn’t know who he was or who he would become. They just decided to bless him. And so years later, he turned that blessing into a blessing for others.

Now, you and I, we might not have the salary of the chairman of a large company, and perhaps we cannot afford to make $25 million endowments. (And if you can, I’d love to talk to you after church, by the way.) But that doesn’t mean that we are not capable of blessings others in equally significant ways.

First, we have to first look at the people and places that God has used to bless us. Who has been a blessing in your life? A parent? A teacher? A church? A friend? A school? A choir that sings every Sunday? Next, what would you say to those people and places if you could? And finally, what do you think they would want you to do with the blessings you have received through them?

I think about those people in my life who have been a blessing. I think of my college chaplain. I think of my parents. I think of professors who stayed after class to help me. I think of mentors who showed me which way to go. I think of churches I have known along the way. And I truly believe that God worked through all of them to bless me. And the only way I can fail them, and the only way I can fail God, is by choosing not to pass those blessings on to others. I can choose to live my life in a way that makes me a conduit of God’s grace. Or I can choose to turn off the switch, and barricade myself alone with all my trophies.

In the end, that choice is what stewardship is all about. Because stewardship is not just about money. Stewardship is about our whole lives. It’s about how we choose to live. It’s about gratitude and the way we respond to the grace we’ve been given. It’s about choosing to let our light shine, instead of hiding our light under a bushel.

That’s a choice we are constantly making with our lives. We choose whether or not to be good stewards of our time, our talents, our treasure. But it’s more than that. We choose whether or not we will use God’s blessings so that we can in turn be a blessing. We have that choice. But we just have to dare to take it.

When Abram was standing there that day with God talking to him, do you think he hesitated? God was giving him a pretty big promise there: I will bless you so that you will be a blessing. But, God was also asking a lot of Abram. He wanted Abram to take a risk and step out in faith. Perhaps we could understand it if Abram had never set out on his journey. But then again, if he hadn’t, where would we be? And how would the story of our faith have been changed if Abram hadn’t chosen to be a blessing?

I was thinking about how God calls us into uncertainty sometimes, and about how that’s when God asks for us to show up in big ways. I was thinking about that while reading that story of this church and how people stopped paying taxes to support us. And I was thinking about how people thought back then that this church would come crashing to the ground, and that would be the end of faith as we knew it.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, in1819 the tax payments stopped, but the Spirit didn’t. Instead, despite all the fear, not only did church attendance go up, but giving did too. And so, almost 200 years laters, you and I, improbably, are sitting here in the same building and still stepping out in faith. The author of the book I read wrote a telling line. She writes, “it turns out New Hampshire folks were never opposed to religion…we just didn’t take kindly to being told what to do with our money. Some things never change.”

And so, I will heed that caution, and I will never tell you what to do with your money, or with any of the other blessings you have received in your life. But I will say this. You have an opportunity do use your life and every blessing in it to do something extraordinary. You have a chance to be a blessing.

Because being blessed does not mean you have won. Being blessed means you are up at bat, and you get to choose whether or not to take a swing. You are the college kid who was blessed for no rational reason when the world dealt him a tough blow. You are a churchgoer in 1819’s Exeter who doesn’t know how the church will remain standing. You are Abram talking to God. And you are here, standing on the threshold of the next part of the journey. And your blessings are yours to do with as you wish. May you use them well, and may the world be blessed. Amen.