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?

Enough: Sermon for August 3, 2014

Matthew 14:13-21
14:13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.

14:14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.

14:15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”

14:16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

14:17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

14:18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.”

14:19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.

14:20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.

14:21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

When I was a college and seminary student in Atlanta there were two churches, both from the same mainline denomination, located on opposite ends of town. One church was very small. It only had about 35 active members, and it was located in a neighborhood that for years had been down and out. And for the life of them, no one could tell how that church managed to stay open year after year.

Loaves and Fish Roundel Zunti and Doepker, Saskatchewan

Loaves and Fish Roundel
Zunti and Doepker, Saskatchewan

The other was a very large church. In fact, it was the largest church in the denomination, not just in that city, but nationwide. And on Sundays, in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Atlanta, thousands of people streamed through its doors to worship.

You might think from this set up that I’m about to preach on David and Goliath here. The small engine-that-could little guy versus the huge monster no one could stop. But this isn’t a story about good guys and bad guys. And it isn’t about one defeating the other. This is a different story. This is a story about what it means to have “enough”.

I’ll come back to those two churches, but first I want to talk about the story Lynne read for us. Jesus and the disciples are being followed by a large crowd that wants him to heal them. And as it gets later in the day, the disciples look out at the crowds and they start getting nervous. They see all these people and know they are about to get hungry.

They say to Jesus, “send them away…have them go and feed themselves”. And I’ll bet that deep down the disciples were worried they weren’t going to be able to hold on to the little they had for themselves. Especially when Jesus tells them “give them something to eat”. And all they have with them is five loaves and two fish. Which when you think about it, was probably just enough for the disciples and Jesus to have at least a little something. And Jesus is trying to give it away.

So about now, if you put this in corporate terms, people could be saying that Jesus didn’t have a very good business plan. He clearly did not have adequate supplies, and hadn’t budgeted well. Here he was at the height of demand, and he didn’t even have the supplies he needed to meet the basic needs of the people who worked for him, let alone the consumers.

In short, Jesus simply did not have “enough”.

But the thing is, in Christ we find that our own definitions of “enough” rarely hold up. He tells them to bring the bread and fish anyway. He tells the thousands of people to sit down, and he blesses the food, and gives it to the disciples. And they give it to the people. And, somehow, everyone on that hillside eats. In fact they eat until they can’t eat anymore, and they end up collecting baskets of bread that hasn’t even been touched.

Enough.

It turns out that Jesus didn’t just have enough. He had more than enough.

But how often does that happen? Here’s a question to answer for yourself: Do you have enough? Could you use “just a little more”? Have you ever said to yourself “if only I made a little more” or “if only I had this” or “if only I didn’t need to deal with that” then you would finally have “enough”?

If so, you’re not alone. Few people I have ever met, including people with extraordinary wealth, have ever thought they had “enough”. In fact, sometimes those of us who have never questioned having access to what others might feel is extraordinary, things like clean water and enough to eat and a home free of violence, are the ones who seem to least appreciate how close we really are to having “enough”.

And when times are the tightest, we want to hang on to what we have even more. We become a little less generous with what little extra we have around. We squirrel away what we don’t really need in storage units. We hunker down, and make sure that at the very least, we will be okay. And slowly we stop focusing on our neighbors, and start to look only at ourselves.

I think that Jesus knows what that was like. And so did his followers. As they watched Jesus literally take their dinner out of their hands and give it away, I’ll bet they were pretty anxious. Times hadn’t been good for them either. In fact, they had found themselves heading out to this deserted town all by themselves because Jesus needed a break. In the passage immediately before this one in Matthew we find out that his friend, and family member, John the Baptist has been killed, and the writing on the wall for Jesus, and for all of them, is becoming clear. And so, they wanted this time alone. To mourn. To pray.

But Scripture says that when Jesus saw the crowds following him, crying out for healing, he had compassion for them. And he doesn’t say “I don’t have enough to give right now” and he doesn’t send them away. He instead finds what he does have to give. And he serves them with it.

Those two churches I told you about at the beginning of my sermon both did amazing things in their ministries. They touched many lives. But that little church, the one with 35 members, did something nearly unbelievable every night. They invited homeless men in from the streets, and let them sleep in cots in their sanctuary. They fed them hot meals. They helped them secure housing and healthcare. They walked with them on their journey.

The pastor of the larger church occasionally used to invite the pastor of the smaller church to speak in worship. And the big church pastor was a good Christian man who inspired great things, but he always struggled with the fact that his church never seemed to think they had “enough” to do more. Despite thousands of members and millions of dollars, there was always this sense of scarcity, and not abundance.

And so when the small church pastor would come, and tell the congregation about his ministry, the big church pastor would then slip in this fact, hoping his congregation might hear it. “You know,” he said, “this little church manages to do all this ministry every year on a church budget that is less than our own church’s electric bill.”

It was a sobering statement. And it brought into sharp contrast the difference between living a life ruled by the fear of scarcity, and one driven by belief in God’s abundance.

Just about every doubt we have as individuals comes from the fear of not having, or being, “enough”. Not rich enough. Not smart enough. Not good enough. Not creative enough. Not old enough. Not young enough. You get the picture.

But just about every extraordinary thing that is accomplished comes from trusting that we can make what we have “enough”. And it’s not recklessness or foolishness that gets us to that place. It’s faith. That little church had stepped out in faith and started their ministry even though everyone had called them foolish or crazy. And yet, somehow that little they had was blessed. And the world was blessed for it. And, somehow, there always seemed to be “enough”.

There’s an alternative version of the story of the loaves and fishes that I’ve heard told by well-meaning commentators who want to give a more plausible explanation for what happened that day. They say that maybe Jesus didn’t somehow made those loaves and fish multiply. Maybe instead what happened is that people saw the first act of generosity, Jesus giving away those loaves and fishes, and their fear that there wouldn’t be enough ended. And they reached in their own bags, and pulled out their own loaves and fishes, and started to share. Maybe, the fish and bread were there all along on that hill.

I don’t think that’s actually what happened. I like to let Jesus’ miracles be miracles. But it’s an intriguing thought, isn’t it? The idea that maybe when we finally understand that abundance we have been given we can’t keep it to ourselves. The idea that we had “enough” this whole time and now we can share it.

You and I may not be sitting with that crowd on that hill, waiting for some bread and fish, but my guess is that we are all wrestling with what it means to have “enough”, and what we would do if we ever had it.

The good news is that like that crowd we find that when Christ is around we sometimes always seem to have enough…in fact, if we look closely, we might just find that we have abundance. Just like the overflowing baskets that were filled even after everyone was full, we find that Christ somehow has blessed what we refused to hold back. And we find don’t have to hold on out of fear anymore.

So here’s my question for you today? What would you do, if you finally believed that you had “enough”? Whatever that “enough” means to you, whatever it is “enough” of, what would you do if you felt like you had it? And how might that “enough” bless the world?

As we prepare to come to a table where a simple meal, begun in a time of great uncertainty, has for centuries proven to be “enough”, may we be strengthened by the bread and the cup to ask ourselves that question, and then to step out in faith to answer it. Amen.

Loaves, Fishes, and Hope – Sermon for July 29th 2012

John 6:1-21
6:1 After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.

6:2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.

6:3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples.

6:4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.

6:5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”

6:6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.

6:7 Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

6:8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him,

6:9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”

6:10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.

6:11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.

6:12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”

6:13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.

6:14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

______

I sometimes worry about not having enough of something. A few years ago, when I was still living on the Cape, I was hosting a bonfire on the beach. And, there were a lot of people coming, and for the most part they were bringing their own stuff to eat, but I wanted to have s’mores for everyone.

So I went to the grocery store, and I stood in the aisle doing this complex calculus where I tried to figure out the perfect ratio of graham crackers to Hershey bars to marshmallows to people. And I put it all in my cart and, when I wasn’t sure it was enough, I threw a few more in to boot.

That night more people than I thought came to the bonfire. I was worried I didn’t have enough. But the supplies I had so anxiously stockpiled held out, and by the end of the night I ended up going home with more graham crackers than I could ever want.

I was eating graham crackers for a long time. And I don’t even particularly like graham crackers.

I think we are prone to doing that a lot. Maybe you’ve never had my particular smores problem, but maybe something similar has happened. You’ve worried that you can’t stretch what you have out enough to cover your own needs, let alone the needs of others. It might be something as small as graham crackers and marshmallows, but more often it’s something bigger.

It’s something like looking at the retirement account, or even just your monthly paycheck, and wondering if it will be enough. In times like that I think it’s natural to want to protect what little you have left. Especially in an economy like ours. You want to safeguard everything that you have. Probably the last thing in the world that you think you can do, even if you really want to, is share it with others.

The people who came to Jesus that day knew what that was like. They’d come to hear him preach, or to seek his healing, and they had been there a long time. They were tired, and hungry.

The disciples were getting worried. They looked out at them, about 500 in all, and they went to Jesus. Jesus asked them, so, where are we going to buy enough bread for all these people.

They probably thought he was out of his mind. Philip says to him, “Jesus, it would take six months wages to feed all these people. We can’t feed them all.” And Andrew says, ‘there’s this boy here, but all he has are five loaves of bread and a couple of fish…that will barely even touch this problem”.

But Jesus decides, “I can work with that.” He has the people sit down, and he gets the bread and he gets the fish, and he gives thanks for them. And then he starts to pass them out to all of them. And it’s not only enough to feed them all. There’s plenty left over. In fact, there’s twelve baskets full of bread. More than they had even started with.

The feeding of the 5,000 is one of those miracles that we hear about a lot. It defies comprehension, and it calls on us to believe something inexplicable happened. So, of course, many through the centuries have tried to explain it away.

There are many who say that on that hill that day, there weren’t just five loaves and two fish. Instead, there was just one boy with five loaves and two fish who was generous enough to share them with the crowd. Once the boy shared, and Jesus started to break the bread and distribute it, a few others got brave too. They opened their bags, pulled out the food they’d been keeping for themselves, and shared it with the rest. Then more people, realizing it would be okay, did the same. Then more. Until finally, there was enough for everyone.

Now, I would argue first that that’s not so much explaining a miracle, as it is a miracle. In times of scarcity, inspiring people to share what little they have is nothing short of miraculous. And Jesus, and that boy, did that. And hearts were opened, and people were fed.

It sort of reminds me of the new mission we are undertaking here at the church. We are about to start offering this once a month free meal in September. And when the idea came up, I know some of us were wary. We wondered if we had enough money. We wondered if we had enough energy. Enough volunteers. Enough interest.

But then, people started signing up to help. And then more people signed up. And now it looks like this could really be a success. And because people have stepped up, and shared what they have, our neighbors will be fed. Just like the neighbors on the hill were that day.

Now, we could end the story there, and it would be, in many ways, good enough and miraculous enough. But there’s more to it.

I do believe that people opened their bags that day. I do believe they dared enough to share what little they had. But I also believe that an even greater miracle happened. I believe Christ really did turn a little into a lot, and that those five loaves and two fish would have stretched out to feed the masses had no one else come through.

I think there is a tendency for those of us in the church, particularly in traditions like ours where we value intellect and we value reading the Bible with common sense, to try to explain away the miracles sometimes. We try to look for plausible explanations for what happened, and we point to the miracles as lessons on right behavior rather than evidence of who Christ is.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but in the end if that’s all churches believe, they might as well be just another ethical society, teaching a secular humanism that, while not bad, is not any different than you can find in a number of other places.

It’s important that we not lose the mystery of faith. It’s important that we not dismiss the inexplicable. It’s important that we not forget that Christ was not just a good man. Christ was God incarnate, sent here to transform us all.

What happened that day on that hill was not just an example of the idea that, to use a line from my elementary school teachers, “sharing is caring”. It was something more. It was Jesus doing something s unexpected, and so inexplicable, that it inspired hope. It was Jesus inspiring us to do more. To give more. To open our hearts and serve one another.

He doesn’t need us to respond. But in the face of such grace, needed or not, we can’t help but to respond anyway. And the good news is that when we do, Christ blesses what we give, and he makes it enough.

I know what it’s like to live life as a pessimist. And, more recently, I know what it is to live as an optimist. I know what it is to think that it will never be enough, that it won’t make a difference, that it’s not worth even trying. That’s a pretty horrible way to live. And it’s pretty uninspiring. And the things that you hold on to, the things you keep to yourself out of fear, often become about as useless and unappealing as all those extra boxes of graham crackers that I talked about earlier.

But to live in optimism, to live in hope, can come easier when we believe that it’s not all on our shoulders. It can come easier when we believe that Christ will take the little that we have, maybe as little as a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, and transform them into a feast. And it can come easier when we know that the ones who see that change, will be changed themselves.

And so, we ask ourselves this question: What are the limits of our hope? What are we holding back because we do not believe God will bless it and make it enough? What are we reluctant to even try?

I’ll close with this. Like many of you I’ve been watching the Olympics, and one of my favorite sports to watch is men’s gymnastics because I am so blown away by their sheer strength and grace. But one story this year has captivated me. John Orozco is a gymnast from a particularly rough part of the Bronx. His family didn’t have a lot of money and, unlike most Olympic caliber kids whose parents can afford to sign them up for expensive gyms, he was enrolled in a free class in his neighborhood.

It turns out he was pretty good, Olympic good, and after a while so his parents drove him an hour each way to a gym in Chappaqua where they paid for his training by cleaning it for free. Back home in the Bronx, he was mocked mercilessly for being a boy competing in what many saw as a girl’s sport.

Yet there he was last night in London, his mother in the stands so nervous that she couldn’t uncover her eyes, nailing his routine.

Can you imagine all the voices of “no” he heard over his life? Can you imagine all the times he was told, “what you have will never be enough”? And, most important, can you imagine growing up with that, and doing it anyway? Can you imagine faith like that?

I’m not saying you have to be an Olympic gymnast. Which is good, because I’m pretty sure that ship has sailed for all of us. But I’m just saying we all have something inside of us that hope can transform. We all have enough to give, one way or another, that Christ can work with it and do incredible things. But we have to have enough faith to give, and to not hold it back. That’s true faith. It’s the kind of faith that brings two fish, and five loaves of bread to Christ and says “use this”. It’s the kind of faith that can end up transforming everything. And it’s the kind of faith that doesn’t let your fears hold you back. And that’s miraculous, no matter how you understand it.  Amen.