From the time we were children, sitting on our parent’s laps as they read to us, we have been taught that the world can be categorized into opposites. Even though those books don’t try to place a value on one side or the other, as we grow, we learn that very often one is better than the other. Our categorization and our valuation then become our worldview, so that we can envision no other possibilities. If it is little, if it is few, if it is weak, it is not enough, it cannot be done.
Jesus’ disciples weren’t raised with cardboard children’s books, but they too were steeped in a world in which things were categorized and valued. Their actions and beliefs were based on that ability to judge the world and their possibilities.
So, it’s not surprising that the disciples act on their worldview. We read this morning that a great crowd has followed Jesus up a mountain, because they have seen great signs performed by Jesus. Jesus tests the disciples by asking where food to feed the crowd might be purchased. Philip replies that more money than they have would still not be enough to buy a little food for each, which would not be enough. Then Andrew comes forward with a boy’s offering of five barley loaves and two fish. Barley loaves are the inferior bread of the poor. And five plus two is still practically nothing for those who number greater than 5000.
We who live with the same ability to categorize and value, to assess and make judgments, must agree, that is simply not enough.
I have to wonder what expression was on Jesus’ face as Andrew asked, “But what are they (the five barley loaves and two fish) among so many people?” Did Jesus’ face betray frustration that even after all the signs and miracles he has performed, the disciples still aren’t able to grasp his power? Or was there joy on his face, as he prepared to do what seemed impossible, to care for all these people, and reveal more of his identification with God?
Jesus had the five thousand sit, and he took the loaves, and the fish, gave thanks, and distributed them to the people. Those people ate all they wanted, and when the excess was collected, it filled twelve baskets. That which was categorized and valued as too little and not enough, Jesus transformed into overabundance.
In John’s gospel more than any other gospel’s telling of this event, the focus is on Jesus. Jesus took the loaves. Jesus, when he had given thanks, distributed them. The bread is amazing, but more so is the one who provides it.
Jesus is the one who takes the offering that the disciples had already categorized as meager, had already valued as insufficient, and Jesus breaks apart those assumptions as he gives himself. The needs of each person are met, they are satisfied, and there is more left over. Jesus creates abundance where we see there is not enough.
In the church, I think we can get caught up in our way of evaluating. It’s easy to see too few, too little, not enough. We forget that Jesus is here. We forget that Jesus breaks apart our devaluation. Jesus turns too little into more than enough. Jesus makes possible what we see as impossible.
I believe God works despite our doubt, as Jesus provided abundant bread in answer to Andrew’s questioning how the boy’s offering could make any difference to the crowd’s need. But I also believe that we have opportunities to act in faith, which God uses, as the boy acted in faith as he shared his meal, giving it to Jesus to use as he would.
I grew up in a small church. It became smaller and smaller as people became afraid for the future, as conflict grew out of fear, and people left the community instead of looking to Jesus for hope and the strength to work towards healing. By the time I was a senior in high school, our multi-class Sunday School had dwindled into one mixed-age group that I attempted to teach. Everything was too little, too few, not enough. Eventually, the church closed.
As a Lutheran teenager who was interested in exploring a faith life, I often felt alone. Sure, I had friends who were Christian, and went with some of them to youth groups and mission trips. But, I’d come back to my home church, and find myself sitting alone in a pew. It wasn’t until I went to St. Olaf College that I experience Christian community, worship with other Lutherans my age, and met people who were serious about the impact their faith had on their lives and their work.
The ELCA Youth Gathering, from which I just returned, was an amazing experience in Christian community, as God gathered together Lutheran youth from around the country and the world, and worked through each of us. When Autumn, Mackenzie, and I entered the Superdome for opening worship, we were struck by the noise and energy of an entire stadium filled with people singing praise songs. We could feel, reverberating in our bodies, the power of the combined voices of tens of thousands of people, united in Jesus. Repeatedly, we were called to join together to act for justice and peace as we support each other in becoming Jesus’ disciples. We were reminded that God seeks to change the world through us. Our responsibility is to learn about the world, the needs of our neighbors, and follow God’s call to serve. Seeing so many people join together because of their faith and their desire to live that faith, reminded us that even though we come from small towns, where we can feel too few, we are not alone in our work for God, and together, all God’s people can make a difference.
What is your experience of evaluating and dismissing? Where do you long for God to surprise you with abundance? What has felt too little, too small, too few in your life?
Is it something in your home life? Time? Money? Forgiveness?
Is it something in your congregation? Money? People? Dedication?
Is it something in the world? Food? Health care? Peace?
Whatever you despair of ever being enough, God can transform. With this miracle of abundant bread, Jesus declares that he is the bread of life. Jesus is the I AM, the God who brought all things into being, out of nothingness. Jesus was raised to life once he had already died. Jesus makes possible what we believe is impossible. Jesus shatters all categories that cause us to hesitate. Move forward with hope, give with generosity, act with an eye towards the horizon of the day of healing and restoration God will bring. Jesus is here to make your small acts great. You and your gifts are enough for God to use to bring life and healing to the world.
Filed under: Sermons, Uncategorized | Tags: Baptism, disciples, discipleship, elca youth gathering, Jesus, mission
In our Gospel story this morning, Jesus sends his disciples out into different towns, so they can work by loving and healing people and telling them to return to God. Instead of telling the disciples to bring lots of stuff, Jesus tells them to go with just the clothes they are wearing and a walking stick.
That’s not the way I travel. That doesn’t sound very prepared. Where’s the map, the to-do list of must-see-sights, the emergency contacts, and the snacks? Where’s the credit card and the cash and the money belt for safe-keeping?
What is Jesus doing, sending the disciples off like that? I’ve been reading and re-reading all the “Adult Leader” information for the Youth Gathering and I’ve got plenty of packing information for Autumn and Mackenzie. I have lists of instructions and things to remember. The only thing my instructions have in common with Jesus’ is the reminder to always stay in groups!
In comparison to my multiple emails, my lists, my permission forms, my webinars and workshops, Jesus’ instruction seem very short and simple. How can those disciples possibly be prepared to do the work Jesus has sent them out to do?
In one sense, they are not prepared at all, and in another, they are very well prepared.
They are not prepared, because, as I’ve pointed out, they have brought practically nothing for their journey. What they are missing is everything necessary to take care of themselves. (That means no backpack with granola bars, water bottles, and first aid supplies.) They are missing anything that might help them look more credible. (No ordained pastor ID card.) Nothing about them speaks of a successful lifestyle. (No cash and no parade of followers.) The one tool they have, the staff, is a mark of one who is journeying a long way. The one companion they have is the only one who can help to remember Jesus’ teachings and encourage the other if things get tough.
In order to survive, these pairs of disciples will have to depend on the hospitality of others. People back then may have been more used to hosting travelers than we are today. But, I still don’t think it would have been easy to enter a town, preach, and hold your breath as nightfall approached and you waited for an invitation into a household. The disciples would have to accept whatever accommodations were offered to them. They would have to eat whatever was put before them. They might be have to risk being kicked out to the street if something they taught offended their hosts.
Jesus sends the disciples out into the villages, unprepared to recommend themselves or care for themselves by anything they have carried. They are traveling light.
The paired disciples are very well prepared, however, for the mission at hand. Jesus sends them to continue his work. They have been following Jesus. They have witnessed, firsthand, the power of God shown in Jesus, and the present kingdom of God. They have grown in their understanding of God and of the Holy Scriptures. As Jesus sends the disciples out, he is inviting them to follow in his footsteps. He does not ask them to do more than they have seen him do, or more than he is willing to do. Jesus calls them to rely on him and the preparation that has occurred through their formation as disciples: following, witnessing, and learning from Jesus every day.
They’ve been prepared for this mission by watching Jesus. They’ve seen not only his power and the crowd’s faithful reception, but have also seen Jesus face rejection.
We hear this curious story directly before the disciples are sent out. Jesus is back in his hometown, and as the crowd begins to listen to him, they also begin to remember who Jesus is. It seems that they aren’t happy that Jesus doesn’t seem to remember who he is. Jesus has become “too big for his britches”- moving from his status as a simple carpenter of questionable origins to a famous religious teacher and healer.
The hometown folk are first amazed by Jesus’ teaching, then scornful. Jesus finds he can do no works of power and only a little healing. Jesus meets hostility instead of eager reception and trust.
Maybe it’s this rejection that reminds Jesus to prepare the disciples for their own. Before he sends them out, Jesus says, “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them” (11). Jesus acknowledges that working in his name is not always going to be met with success.
That’s not quite the message we often want to proclaim. When Autumn and Mackenzie and I join 11,000 other disciples to go out into New Orleans and serve on our Practice Justice Day, I don’t imagine that our orientation leader will stand up before us and say, “Well, you’re going to spend your day cleaning, painting, listening, loving, and working with some wonderful people and community organizations. But, some people might not appreciate your help. In fact, they might laugh at you, tell you to go away, or spit at you. That’ll be too bad, but it’s what happened to Jesus.” That might be true, but it doesn’t quite get the enthusiasm flowing!
It might be that, after a long day, we might need to reflect on Jesus’ failures. For our group at the Youth Gathering, after spending hours raking or painting or gardening, with blisters and sunburn throbbing, we might wonder if any of the work we did made any difference. A windstorm will blow more leaves, there are more homes we didn’t work on, and those pesky weeds will just grow right back. We might not hear reassuring words that someone watching saw the love and power of God through our faithful work.
Then we might find comfort in Jesus’ rejection at his home synagogue. And we might be drawn into the story of Jesus’ great rejection: when a friend betrayed him to authorities who wanted to kill him, when the crowd called for his crucifixion, when those who led him to his death mocked him. We might remember those nights, as Jesus’ body lay in the tomb, and all his promises of life and God’s power seemed to mean nothing. And then, we, with our deflated spirits, would come to the tomb on that early morning. There we see that all apparent failure has been overcome by God’s power. Jesus has risen to new life, the first of all creation to be restored and resurrected to wholeness, healing, and life.
You each are on your own missionary journey. In these waters of baptism, you were united with Jesus for life. You were joined with Jesus in his mission. Jesus is sending you out, to proclaim the good news of God’s love and gift of life for all, to invite people into a relationship of praise to God, and to work for justice and peace in all the world.
You are being prepared here, as we join in worship, as we experience God’s grace in the sacraments, and as we are formed into a community who supports one another in this holy calling. Jesus has given you what you need.
I know that it comes quickly to many of you that the reason you put money in the offering plate is so that someone else, like me, can do the God talk stuff. Somehow, some of you think that you aren’t called or well prepared enough to be sent on Jesus’ behalf, to welcome others into faith. The explanation I hear most often resonates with Jesus’ experience in his home synagogue.
People say to me, “I can’t talk to my neighbor, I can’t invite him to church or say I wish he would come more often, because he knows me.” My neighbor knows what I did as I was growing up, my neighbor knows where I was on Friday night, my neighbor surely knows how unqualified I am to talk about God.
Jesus found out that this situation can be a real problem. Too many people in his hometown had their own ideas about Jesus, and couldn’t accept that he could be other than they had always thought of him. They couldn’t allow Jesus to speak to them about God. Jesus did what little healing he was able to accomplish, and went on his way.
Now, before you throw that back at me, and say, see, even Jesus couldn’t help his neighbors know God, I never could… let’s look to Jesus again.
In accepting weakness, Jesus showed us the power of God. When we join in Jesus’ mission, we never know what results we will see. You might come away from your courageous sharing of the gospel, or your compassionate service, feeling that it had no impact on the one whom you met. You might feel your words floundered or the other was hostile. There’s a reason the ELCA uses the tagline: God’s Work, Our Hands. We join in God’s work. That means whatever we do with our hands, or our speech, as we join God’s mission, we are joining into something greater than us, something ultimately in God’s control. On this side of the resurrection, we don’t always get the joy of seeing how God will use that one moment we spent sharing about God with someone to grow over a lifetime into faith. We are simply called to join in God’s mission, and to trust God’s promise that God will work good through us.
Jesus has prepared you for faithful witness. Jesus gives you more than a detailed packing list or instruction book. Jesus gives you himself. Jesus travels with you. Jesus works through you. Your particular life, with all the secrets your neighbor may or may not know, is precisely what Jesus is prepared to use to share the gospel. You are called. You are well-prepared. God has great joy in welcoming you into the mission field.