Sermon For February 8, 2015 ~ The Season Of Epiphany

Isaiah 55:1-6 & Mark 6:30-44

A Season Of Surprises: The God Of Wow!

Sermon #6 “Surprised By The Abundance”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ http://www.FranklinCircleChristianChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher ~ E-Mail: PastorAllen@FranklinCircleChurch.org

Twitter: @FranklinCircle ~ Pastor’s Blog: https://nearwestclevepastor.wordpress.com

[NOTE: The sermon text below was NOT preached!  As sometimes happens, the Holy Spirit invited me to a different sermon this day.  The video of the sermon actually preached can be found at: http://youtu.be/F8ZR-i6trgY?list=UUwvkAvkp6Ru5pgPu1kUpgqQ   Here are three pictures that come from that sermon and exemplify the three points at the end of this text.  ~Pastor Allen]

 

Introducing the United Christian Ministries group from Kent State University.

Introducing the United Christian Ministries group from Kent State University.

Gathering the Chalice Hymnals donated by Wickliffe Christian Church upon closing.

Gathering the Chalice Hymnals donated by Wickliffe Christian Church upon closing.

Offering the lap blankets to be donated to Franklin Plaza Nursing Home.

Offering the lap blankets to be donated to Franklin Plaza Nursing Home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How much is enough is an eternal question.  Epitomized by the now thoroughly mocked equation, “Is the glass half empty, or half full?” how we see life in terms of scarcity or abundance defines who we are and how we approach everything from raising children, to our job performance, to our faith.  Do we see our circumstances in terms of a struggle to survive, where we must eke out an existence, usually in competition (best case) or in battle (worst case) with others to get the resources we must have in order to live?  Or do we see our world as a cornucopia of opportunities, possibilities, and gifts, and our invitation is to work together to ensure that everyone has enough so that we, and others, may thrive.

Some would say that we are hard wired for how we look at life, that it is in the mystery of our DNA that we evaluate that glass.  Others would say that it is the environment in which we are nurtured and raised that determines if we we will be frugal and live life sparingly, or if we will be extravagant and life life abundantly.  Most likely it is a mixture of nature and nurture, and absolutely we are all a wonderfully complex blend of both ways of seeing our world.  But what I want to invite us to today is to see that God, while always painfully aware of the thin and hard places of life, calls us to be surprised by the abundance with which the divine has saturated our world and our lives so that ultimately all of us may live lives that are fuller, richer, healthier, happier, and, most to the sacred point: more faithful.

So we look at two stories from scripture that are representative of this divine summons.  The first, from the book of Isaiah, from the end of the second section of the text, which is the resounding conclusion of Isaiah’s call to be prepared for a new life after the exile brought on by the now waining Babylonian Empire has finally ended and the Hebrew people are able to be reunited with their land, their families, and their sacred center of worship.  You will recall that the first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah, the first book of Isaiah really, was God’s scathing indictment on those who claimed Yahweh as the divine one but who had allowed the complacency of a comfort-filled life to get the best of them, and contains the warnings that the quickly arising Assyrian nation would bring God’s very own wrath to shake them from their smugness and pride.

But beginning at chapter forty, now many years after the Assyrians, then later the Babylonians who had decimated their capital, ravaged their land, and carted their leaders off to prop up their own economy, Isaiah takes a more pastoral approach to comfort the now humbled nation to assure them that though God’s anger had burned brightly at their unfaithfulness years before, so the divine love glows brightly to bring them back together.

But this new life cannot be the same as the old one they had been so savagely torn from years ago.  If they were going back to the life they had previously enjoyed God will have nothing of it.  Isaiah 56, one of my favorite chapters of all of scripture, which begins the third book of Isaiah, reminds the people that faithfulness is more about fidelity than identity, that what God seeks is a heart of devotion not a rigid adherence to rules and boundaries and who’s in and who’s out.  Here at the end of the book that began, “Comfort, comfort ye my people,” Isaiah sings a song of abundance that one could and should dance to:

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.  Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?  Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.  Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live…

For you shall go out in joy, and be led back i peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands… and it shall be to God for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

These must surely have been words of great comfort and exhilarating joy for the people who had been devastated for generations.  What was Yahweh calling the people to?  Hebrew Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests, As an alternative to Babylonian junk food, Israel is summoned to listen… to the offer of the rich food of the gospel of Yahweh.”  Brueggemann maintains that the people of God had taken their complacent lifestyles from before the exile and simply replaced their own misguided ways with the “junk food” of their oppressor, rather than really understanding that their appetites needed to change.  Instead of just reliving the misery, oppression, and injustice that they had inflicted on “the widow, the orphan, the alien” they had done before, and rather than recreating the same misery, oppression, and injustice that the Assyrians and the Babylonians had inflicted on them, they could (SHOULD!) do things in a different way!  “This offer of fidelity (by God) is sharply contrasted with the Babylonian offer of exploitative, coercive, oppressive life that denies dignity, freedom, and security, and never yields abundance or joy… Israel has a wondrous choice to make: either the new future now offered by Yahweh or more submissiveness to Babylon that yields nothing of well being.  The choice seems clear enough.” (1)

The second scripture read today, that of the feeding of the five thousand from Mark, is an equally surprising call to live into God’s abundance and resist the claims of scarcity which seems so ingrained in us.  This story is found in all four gospels (which is completely unique!), and a similar story, the feeding of the four thousand, is found in two gospels.  Thus it must have been an exceptionally important story for the early church for it to have found its way into the stories of Jesus so many times!  And in it, we see both the clear choice to fall back into our ways of competitive, self-focused, austerity or to try to live into the copiousness of life lived faithfully to the God who will provide.

The story begins in the midst of the thin, hard places of life.  A tired Jesus is taking his weary disciples “to a lonely place” to try to get some rest and to retreat from the pressing throngs of people very much in need.  Somehow word gets out and the “lonely place” that was to be a refuge becomes populated with thousands of needy hungering followers.  The instinct is to pull back, withdraw inwardly, hold close what is yours.  But Jesus, eternally the shepherd, sees their need and begins to preach to them.  Suddenly, he understands that not only do the people need the “bread of life” which is the word of God, but they need bread!  They need to eat.  And, without missing a beat, and because he understood what abundance really was, Jesus turns to his disciples and says “you give them something to eat.”

Somehow all it takes is an invitation to be aware of the plentifulness of life.  Sometimes all it takes is the confidence of one who is trusted, one who knows the people better than we do ourselves, whose loving heart is so evident to say “go,” “do,” “be,” for us to see the world around us with different eyes, to be aware of the resources we have with hearts that have been changed.

And, like with Isaiah, this moment of sharing, of abundance, of enough-ness, becomes sacred.  Mark uses words that the author had to have known echoed those words Jesus would say at the very end of his life, “…he looked up…, and blessed and broke… and gave”  would become at the last supper “he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them…”

Author Lamar Wilson, Jr. writes, “Seen in this light, the story becomes a suggested sacrament… It sets us in the presence of Jesus himself… as we draw apart to a ‘lonely place’ and yet find ourselves part of a great throng there.  That crowd not only includes contemporaries who, like us, seek bread, but also hosts of folk both past and present who constitute the people of God and who anticipate God’s future.  By mediating this meaning, the story becomes part of the sacrament, its words become living bread that satisfies our deepest hunger and gives us strength to make it home.” (2) Isaiah couldn’t have said it better!

So in the midst of the dawning of the 21st century, and on the day that our congregation will receive the Visioning Report from our Official Church Board, we hear this inspiring call to be prepared for God’s Surprising Abundance!  I do not think it is any small mystery nor coincidence that these are pressed together.  There is an awful lot of challenge in the Visioning Report, and it will feel at times like we are being stretched too thin, that we do not have enough resources – within ourselves individually and within the congregation as a whole – to make the adjustments, changes, and dramatic shifts of perspective that will be needed to sustain the ministry of Jesus Christ working through this dynamic, historic, urban community of faith well into the future.  But we do, and God reminds us of this in no uncertain terms!

Isaiah 55:1-6 and Mark 6:30-44 are but two instances of God’s abundance surprising the people of God in scripture.  The history of our faith is replete with examples also.  The key, as always, is to

1. Acknowledge the gifts we already have!  (Too often we overlook the resources at hand.)

2. Look death in the face!  (In being spiritually ready for death, we open ourselves to life.)

3. Receive gifts as gifts!  (Often things that appear as insignificant or a burden are really resources for abundant life.)

And finally, can we also acknowledge these three learnings are found most poignantly and powerfully in the words, actions, and love Jesus shared at the last supper, and which we share weekly in Holy Communion.  Thus each week when we gather at the table to take and receive Christ’s gift of his very body and blood, we are participating in the most incredible act of divine abundance conceivable!

Let us thank God that the anxieties of our world and our personal lives do not rule the day!  Instead, when we relax, listen, and seek to align our words, actions, and thoughts with those of God as exemplified in scripture and in Jesus Christ, we can be surprised by the wondrous abundance of God!

Amen.  May it be so!

(1) Walter Brueggemann,  Isaiah 40-66 – Westminster Bible Companion, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louiseville, KY, 1998) pp. 158-159.

(2) Lamar Williamson, Jr., Mark: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary For Teaching & Preaching (John Knox Press, Atlanta, 1989) pp. 127-128.

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