When I think of wilderness, I think about dense forests and roadless, mountainous terrain. At least, that’s what we called wilderness when I was growing up in Oregon. In the biblical story wilderness is a desolate place where resources are scarce.
During our recent journey through Exodus we watched the people of Israel leave the “fleshpots of Egypt” for the Promised Land. To get there, however, they had to travel through the desert. All along the way they complained about their lack of resources, mainly food and water, but God always seemed to provide what they needed. What we learned is that even in the wilderness, there is an abundance – if only we stop to take a look.
According to Walter Brueggemann, there are two types of thinking – scarcity and abundance. To put it a different way, we can look at life in two ways – that the glass is half full or half empty. Risk takers see the glass as half full, while more cautious people see it as half empty. Which kind of person are you?
The disciples were returning from a big mission trip, and they were so excited about their work that they didn’t take time to eat. So, Jesus decided to take them to a more secluded place to rest and talk. But, the crowd saw them and ran ahead. When Jesus saw them, he took compassion on them because, as Mark put it, they were “sheep without a shepherd.” They needed help, and Jesus decided to provide it.
As dinner time drew near, the disciples got nervous. No one had eaten anything all day, and their stomachs were beginning to grumble. They decided to tell Jesus to bring this teaching session to a close, so he could send them off to the villages before everything closed down to get something to eat. You know how small towns like to “roll up the sidewalks early.” You can understand their position. When people get hungry, they get restless, and when they get restless they can cause problems.
Jesus had a different solution. They may have seen the glass as maybe three-quarters empty, but Jesus looked at the world through the lens of abundance.
So Jesus directed them to go and see what was available. They looked at their lunch stash and found five loaves of bread and two measly dried fish. Just enough for the thirteen of them to have a light meal, and no more. To them, the resources were scarce. This report didn’t deter Jesus. He just told them to feed the crowd of 5000 with their lunch.
I can only imagine the looks on their faces. If I asked the fellowship department to feed the city of Troy with what they could find in the pantry at five o’clock in the evening, I would hear an earful! But for some reason, despite their disbelief, they gave Jesus their resources. And he took them, blessed them, broke the loaves, and then gave them to the people. When the meal ends, and the scraps are picked up, everyone has eaten their fill and they gather in twelve baskets of leftovers.
How did this happen? Mark doesn’t say. Lots of people have speculated, but to do so is beside the point. As Walter Brueggemann puts it:
He committed an overt act of abundance that broke the scarcity of the place – such an abundance that there were twelve baskets of bread left over, more than enough! [Journey to the Common Good, p. 33].
When we gather at the Table, we take a small piece of bread and a little cup of juice. It’s not enough to satisfy our physical hunger or thirst, but it is enough to satisfy our spiritual hunger and thirst. When we share in the bread and wine, we share in the blessings of Jesus’ presence. We too are like sheep without a shepherd, and Jesus comes to us in the meal and invites us to share in the abundance that is God’s realm.
When the disciples asked Jesus to send the people away, he asked them to do an inventory of their resources. He asked them to look at the budget to see what was available. And they came back and told Jesus – it doesn’t look good. As one treasurer told the board of the congregation I was serving – “if we were a business we would be bankrupt.” But of course we weren’t bankrupt, because we still had plenty of resources. We just had to identify them.
This is week two of our fall Stewardship Season. If you didn’t receive your packet last week, Tim will be looking for you after church. Although I misplaced my packet, and was planing on asking Tim for another one, it mysteriously appeared on my desk chair last night — so I’m good. In the packet you will find a letter and some other materials that talk about this year’s stewardship theme along with an estimate of giving card. That card will help you discern what you should share through the church from God’s abundance of resources.
When the council puts together its budget, it will try to discern the resources and allocate them wisely. Sometimes all we see are a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, but I expect that there are sufficient resources present in this congregation that will allow us to gather up twelve baskets of left over bread.
Although we were once a very large church, with, as I understand it, a number of wealthy individuals, we’re no longer a large church and we don’t have a lot of wealthy members. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an abundance of resources at hand. We just have to do an inventory.
We’ll be working on one of those inventories in two weeks when Kathleen Potter hosts a soup lunch and presents a new project for the church. After the recent floods a number of our people began talking about ways in which we could help out each other in an emergency. The Council then established a new task force that will report to the Elders and be chaired by Kathleen. What she’s going to do is invite you to share the resources you can bring to the cause, so that we’ll be ready when an emergency occurs.
As some of you know, my mother’s house recently caught fire. Mom and Don are okay, but they’re going to be out of their house for three months. While the insurance will cover most of the costs of getting them back in their house, friends, neighbors, and church members immediately came to their aid with food and clothes, and even offers of places to stay. They found themselves in the wilderness, but they discovered an abundance of resources available to them.
There are other kinds of resources available as well. I want to call attention to another resource – and that is legacy giving. Since it’s All Saints Sunday, a day on which we remember all the saints who confessed their faith before the world, but who have now rested from their labors, we can give thanks to God that we are the beneficiaries of their confession and their actions in life as well as in death.
One of the benefits that some of the saints of God have left to this congregation is a portion of their estate. We are the beneficiaries of estates large and small. The return on their gifts provides resources that enable this church to be a blessing to the members of the congregation and to the community beyond our doors. These gifts enhance and expand our own giving. They allow us to have staff and programming that we probably couldn’t have otherwise. They also enhance our outreach giving. While we are small in numbers, our outreach giving stands at about forty-thousand dollars a year. Cheryl and I are setting up with the Christian Church Foundation a permanent fund
that will distribute our legacy gifts after we die, and one of the recipients on that list is this congregation. I know that others are doing the same.
I can’t forget the Edgar Dewitt Jones Scholarship fund that assists seminarians with their education. I’m amazed how often I meet a colleague who tells me how grateful they are to have received this award. What a wonderful testament to the foresight of members now deceased. We’re still good givers to outreach, but these legacy gifts expand that outreach exponentially.
Jesus said to the disciples – you give them something to eat. They went looking for resources, and they found an abundance. In this season of stewardship, may we do the same. May we look at our resources and return a portion of them through the church as an offering of thanksgiving for the abundance of blessings that God has poured out on us, through Jesus our Lord, and by the Spirit who indwells us as we take the journey of faith through the wilderness and on to the Promised Land.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
All Saints Sunday
November 2, 2014