May 11, 2011

Luke 9:10-17 & Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2

“How Much Is Enough?”

Evensong Service at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor, Franklin Circle Christian Church

To hear this sermon on Podcast, Click Here:  110511SermonPodcast

How much is enough?

Well, it depends upon how you ask the question.  And the “how” question is often related directly to the “who” question.  It depends upon who is asking the question as to know “How much is enough?”

Tonight’s gospel lesson is a familiar one, perhaps an all-too-familiar one: Jesus feeding the multitude.  At first glance, it’s a story about Jesus’ success as an itinerant preacher.  Hooray!!!  Lots of folks are gathering to hear him. Yet, someone has to deal with the logistics of having so many people away from their regular routines and usual supply lines.  Ask anyone who has planned an outdoor event that has become far more popular than she or he intended, and you’ll understand the true power of the question “how much is enough?”  How many porta-potties are enough? is a tough question!

The story of Jesus feeding the multitude is not only in Luke.  Actually, other than the resurrection itself, it’s the only miracle recorded in all four gospels, and in two of those, Mark and Matthew, there is even a second, slightly different version.  In Mark 8 Jesus feeds 4,000 after the disciples ask “How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?” (Matthew adds, “to feed so great a crowd?”) and Jesus responds with his own question, “How many loaves do you have.”  Earlier in the same gospel 5,000 are fed.  There, after Jesus instructs the disciples, “You give them something to eat,” they ask incredulously, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?”  Jesus again responds, “How many loaves have you?” In Matthew 14, as in our text from Luke tonight, there are no questions asked, just assumptions made: “We have no more…” and “Send the crowd away that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves,” with Jesus just as matter of factly responding, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

Finally, the disciples went against their own best logistical, practical selves and did as Jesus told them, and all were fed with leftovers to spare.

The question dogs us, “How much is enough?”

Walter Brueggemann, biblical studies professor, popular speaker and author extraordinaire has done some of the most powerful theological work on these texts (1).  He points out that there are two theological extremes at work in how and who asks the question, one coming from a theology of scarcity – where there is never enough to go around and competition is the name of the game; another coming from a theology of abundance, where the very essence of creation has been designed for abundance.  In his magnificent way, Brueggemann sweeps through biblical history, from Creation to the Exodus, to Jesus on the mountainside and shows how the very meaning of God’s realm is for there to be abundance.  Even from the lips of the Savior himself comes, “I have come to bring life, and life abundant!” (John 10:10)

Oh that Jesus could speak to the folks in the Ohio Statehouse and Governor’s mansion right now!  Oh that Professor Brueggemann could give a short course to the United States Congress on the abundance of God from the Hebrew Prophets to the New Testament Epistles!  And, if I were to be completely honest, it would take both Jesus AND Professor Brueggemann sitting next to my partner and me at our computer doing taxes or balancing our bank account at the end of the month to get us to think more about “abundance” and less about “scarcity!”

For right now the inability to see the possibilities for abundance is rampant in our political sphere as well as our homes.  Whether it is for partisan posturing, which I fear to be the case more than anything, or honest concern over the fate of the nation, we are looking at the multitudes and only asking the question “how can we…” and only making the statement, “we have no more…” and only offering the reply, “send them away…”

If we only allow the voices of scarcity to rule the day, then we will be failing not only our neighbors, but the call of the gospel to an abundant life.

Frances Perkins

It seems that if you were to have met her face-to-face, you would not have used the word “abundant” to describe Frances Perkins, the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945 in the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  She was a quiet and unassuming woman.  But if you were to judge the policies and institutions whose creation she oversaw you could think of no better word than “abundant.”  She championed many aspects of the New Deal, including the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration, and the labor portion of the National Industrial Recovery Act.  With the Social Security Act Perkins helped to establish unemployment benefits, pensions for the many uncovered elderly Americans, and assistance for the very poorest of Americans.  She pushed to reduce workplace accidents and craft laws against child labor.  Through the Fair Labor Standards Act she established the first minimum wage and overtime laws for American workers, and defined the standard 40-hour work week.  All of this, following the greatest financial crisis in American history, the Great Depression. (2)

The discussion in our state and national, and many local, governments has been carefully crafted from the vantage point of scarcity.  Yes, we are experiencing budget shortfalls of a magnitude not known in recent memory.  Yes, there is a national deficit of astronomical proportions.  Yes, there is always waste in government programs, nay, any program of the size and scope of governmental budgets.  Yes.  Yes.  Yes!

However, other than the most obvious rhetorical fallacy that somehow such shortfalls, deficits, and waste are due to a particular political party or administration and not the direct cause of policies put into place years ago by a breadth of political persuasions, the bigger issue, indeed the moral issue at hand, is that a theology of scarcity begins and ends with a perfectly understandable but extremely misguided fundamental pronoun:  “I.”  Along with its devious partners “me,” “us,” and “we,” the “I” always leads to scarcity.  Jesus did not deal very well with folks who could not get past their “I’s.”  As we heard in today’s gospel text, when the “I’s” seemed to have it, Jesus threw it back on his disciples with a pointed “you.”  By reflecting back to us our fears, our stinginess, our defensiveness, he reminded us all that there is no such person as an “I” in the great Commonwealth of God, in the Beloved Community.  Only we.

I was truly taken aback earlier in the winter when I was doing a sermon series on the Lord’s Prayer at Franklin Circle Christian Church.  I had never really realized how much of a communal prayer that was!  Perhaps I had not realized its corporate bent because we have taken it and made it into such a personal devotional piece.  But there it is:  “OUR Father.”  Not my father, but our beloved Holy Parent.  And more to tonight’s point, “Give US this day OUR daily bread.”  There’s no denying it!  Jesus understood our spiritual lives were and always will be bound up in the spiritual lives of others.  Throughout his ministry, he understood the physical, mental, social, and spiritual well-being of others was necessarily dependent upon the individual’s, and mine upon theirs.

Referring to Jesus’ mother’s song, the Magnificat, where she sings that God “will fill the hungry with good things,” Walter Brueggemann writes, “Jesus is well-schooled in the transformative generosity of God. He is also well-schooled in the conviction that if you share your bread with the neighbor, the world will be made new. He knows that generosity isn’t something you just think about, it’s something you do.”

The early church would understand this in extraordinarily practical terms: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common… There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:32-35)

How much is enough?  Well, if we begin with and focus on the individual, then there never will be enough.  If it is “me” against the world then the laws and policies of the land should be designed so that everyone’s piece of the pie is separated, fortified, and sanctified.  However, if we, like Frances Perkins, begin with the assumption that all of us are in this together, then we know that the “we” is the most important thing to worry about.  If we begin with the “we” and not the “I,” then we’ll allow Jesus to ask us, “How many loaves do you have?” and we won’t be threatened at all.  We’ll offer our bread, our taxes, the few resources we have, for the good of the whole.

How much is enough?  Well, I’m not quite sure, but I know that together we have got enough!

“Very slowly there evolved… certain basic facts, none of them new, but all of them seen in a new light. It was no new thing for America to refuse to let its people starve, nor was it a new idea that man should live by his own labor, but it had not been generally realized that on the ability of the common man to support himself  hung the prosperity of everyone in the country.” ~Frances Perkins

(1)From The Other Side Online, © 2001 The Other Side, November-December 2001, Vol. 37, No. 5

(2) From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frances_Perkins

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