Rev. Louis Timberlake
November 22, 2015
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. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 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.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 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. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
(Note to readers: Please check out the Abundance video before reading the sermon. Find it at christgreensboro.org.)
I love that video. I think that this might be my favorite of the stewardship videos. I mean, the first one was great because it was full of kids. The second one was really cool because we were able to see the impact the God has made in and through Christ Church over the past year. I’m required to like the third one, which featured Mike because, well, he’s my boss. In truth, it was inspiring. A vision for us to shape this city after the kingdom of God is compelling. That’s something I can get behind.
But, I still think this video is my favorite. It is my favorite because it goes beyond Mike and the other pastors and it gives you a window into the passions and visions of different people within the church. Some are staff; others are committed leaders. But what you see in this video is the breadth and depth of God’s vision. God doesn’t just impart vision to a select few, God invites all of us to be a part of discovering and pursuing the collective vision for Christ Church. We all have unique passions and perspectives, we all recognize different needs in our community, and we all are called to partner with God and with each other in addressing those needs. This is my favorite video because it emphasizes that the vision and the impact of the church is the responsibility of each one of us. The church is a living organism and its effectiveness is contingent upon every single part. And the welfare of our local community and the wider community is contingent upon the church living up to its calling. So, each one of us, as a part of this larger body, has an impact on the world and a responsibility for the nature of that impact.
If you’ve paid attention to the news over the past few weeks, you know that our world is in need of a positive impact. Right now, the world needs the church to live up to its calling. With recent events, the darkness in our world has been thrust in our faces.
It’s overwhelming. The tragedy in Paris, the Syrian refugees, the almost daily mass violence in the Middle East and parts of Africa. With the flow of picture and videos, we can read the pain and grief written on people’s faces. We can look into the eyes of the children that are fleeing for their lives. We can see their fear and confusion. And it’s overwhelming.
Far too often, our world is defined by fear and scarcity. You look at the responses to the Syrian refugee crisis over the past week and you see fear. In the wake of the Paris attacks, you see politicians and leaders making statements that we should not welcome refugees, because of the danger they might present. However you assess the justice of that approach, it is hard to blame them. Fear and scarcity are the defining narrative in our world. So, I find it difficult to be too critical of those that react out of that mentality. Not because I agree with them, but because I am just as guilty. It is easy to express outrage on social media, but it takes far more to actually effect change. If anything, I’m frustrated by my own complacency, my own passive complicity in the darkness that affects our world. I am just as prone to fear, to apathy, to selfishness. I am just as guilty of hiding the light that I’ve been given.
In reality, it’s a question of stewardship. Stewardship, at the most basic level, means taking care of something that is not your own. We have each been given the ability to shape the world, to affect the lives of others. In the midst of the darkness of this world, we each have the opportunity to be a light, to let the light of Christ shine through us as a beacon in the darkness. We have a choice. We can choose to cultivate that light, so that it shines as brightly as possible. Or, we can choose to let that light grow dim, until it becomes barely distinguishable from the darkness.
Matthew’s version of the Feeding of the Five Thousand is interesting. You see, in each version of this story, the setup is different. In Matthew’s gospel, the setup is that Jesus has just learned that Herod had executed John the Baptist. So, weighed down by grief, Jesus goes to this deserted place to be alone for a little while. He is not at his best. He is tired, he is grieving. And, just before he learned about John, he had been teaching in his hometown of Nazareth, but wasn’t well received there.
Yet, in the midst of the weariness, the grief, the rejection, and the isolation, Jesus sees the crowds and he has compassion for them. He recognizes the responsibility he has for the lives and needs of these people, even at his worst.
Interestingly, this story of the feeding the five thousand is not the first of its kind in scripture. There’s a story back in 2 Kings about the prophet Elisha. It’s short, so I’ll just read it to you.
A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred people?” So he repeated, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left. ’” He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.
The gospel writers are definitely better storytellers than the person that wrote 2 Kings. But, that’s not the point. In this passage, when it says that this man had brought food from the first fruits to Elisha, it’s talking about a tithe. The tithe, in Hebrew culture, was the means of supporting the priests. Unlike everyone else, the priests couldn’t own land or livestock, so they relied upon the tithes of others to survive. This man is bringing Elisha the food that the prophet relied upon. But, what does Elisha do with it? He says, give it to the people. And, like the story of the five thousand, there shouldn’t be enough to feed all of the people. There are too many people and not enough food. But, Elisha doesn’t operate out of fear and scarcity, he operates out of compassion and abundance. And, amazingly, all eat and there is some left over.
Supporting the priests wasn’t the only purpose of tithes. We see two other primary purposes. First, each household was supposed to bring the first fruits to the central sanctuary and basically throw a big dinner party. It was a way to celebrate those blessings and to acknowledge that, ultimately, they come from God. Second, the first fruits were used to support those in the community that couldn’t support themselves. It says in Deuteronomy 14 that the people should bring their tithes so that, and I quote, “the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.” Resident aliens is an odd term. Basically, it means those that aren't from around here. The strangers. The foreigners. The refugees. At the most basic level, Hebrew culture operated out of abundance. By giving your first fruits, you acknowledge that there is always enough to go around and that taking care of the outsider and the impoverished comes first, not last.
When we operate out of scarcity, scarcity becomes the reality. When we operate out of abundance, abundance becomes the reality.
In the midst of a world that is defined by fear and scarcity, God invites us to live differently. God invites us to live out a reality of compassion and abundance. God invites us to cultivate the light of Christ, so that it shines in the darkness as a light for all people.
Stewardship is about far more than how we use money. That’s a part of it, certainly. But our blessings are so much greater than the balance of our bank accounts. It’s about stewardship of our lives and the lives of others.
How are we using the time we have? Are we simply keeping ourselves entertained and busy while it ticks away or do we treat life as a gift to be used well? How are we using the talents and passions that we have been given? Do we squander them or do we invest in them, do we use our unique abilities to make an impact on the world around us? How are we using our treasure? Do we use it to accumulate meaningless things and distract us from things of true importance or do we use it wisely and generously, taking seriously Jesus’ words that, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also?” How are we stewards of our relationships, the connections that we have with others? Do we take them for granted or cherish them for the blessing that they are?
Life is an amazing thing, when you stop to consider it.
The way we live our lives matters. The way we impact the lives of others matters.
Will we simply acquiesce to the common narrative of the world or will we respond to God’s invitation into a different narrative?
Will our lives be defined by fear and scarcity or by compassion and abundance?
In just a moment, we will have a time of commitment. Many of you brought your commitment cards this morning. If you forgot or lost yours, there are some extras on your chairs. If you’re like Kate and me and you already did your card electronically on the website, then you’re still invited to take a card and bring it forward as a physical act of commitment.
Some of you may be new to Christ Church and we are so glad to have you here this morning. If that is you or if you are not at a place in your life to make a financial commitment, then we would simply ask you to make some sort of commitment to God this morning. Maybe you’re wrestling with something and it is just a commitment to give God a chance, to come to church for a couple of months and see how God might work in your life. Maybe you know you need to get plugged into a small group, where you can build relationships with people and take the next step in your walk with God. Maybe you feel the need to serve others in some way, to get connected with a missions opportunity so that you can make an impact in the lives of others.
And so, we’re going to do something a little different this morning, we are going to invite everyone, as you are able, to come forward during this time of prayer and commitment. Many of you will be committing by dropping a card in the boxes. Some of you may want to kneel in prayer and make a commitment to God. Some of you may want to write a commitment on the chalkboard. Some of you might want to write your vision of abundance.
This is a time for us to consider where in our lives, where in our stewardship of our time, our talents, and our treasure, God is calling us out of a narrative of fear and scarcity into a narrative of compassion and abundance.
What is the abundance you envision? What need has God put upon your heart? What great thing do you hope for God to do in us and through us? And what commitment is God asking you to make, in order for that abundance to become a reality?
- Did you watch the video? Talk about something that resonated with you in the video.
- Where do you see the narrative of fear and scarcity in our world?
- What does it look like for the church to live up to its calling in the midst of the darkness in our world?
- What does it mean to live out of compassion and abundance, rather than fear and scarcity?
- What does it mean to be stewards of our lives and the lives of others?
- What is your vision of God’s abundance?
- What type of commitment is God calling you to make, in order for that to become a reality?