Sunday, November 8, 2015

Multiplying the Things that Count (John 6:1-13)

Have you noticed how so many of us give up before we even try? An opportunity comes along and we shoot it down before it’s even off the ground. Some of us think we are too old to learn new tricks.  Or, too young and lacking experience or wisdom.  Or, not educated enough or not rich enough or not beautiful enough or not articulate enough. We defeat ourselves before we’ve even tried, and sometimes we trip up others before they are out of the gate.

I suppose much of it has to do with being realistic. It’s like there’s a calculator in our head, adding, subtracting, dividing, and coming up short so that even before we started, we give up. God brings along opportunities of a lifetime, something extraordinary, something special, and guess what? We compute, calculate, estimate, come up short, and pass the opportunity even before we try.  Or, when it comes to someone else’s dream, we poo-poo it with all the reasons it can’t, or won’t, work.

Truth is, we have closets packed with thousands of excuses why our boats are too small to sail in the big, deep side of the ocean called life. So often we opt for the safer floating along in the shallow end, dreams that are small enough to be drowned in a bathtub.  We are called to a great, life-giving adventure with Jesus, but we settle for the predictable, taking no risks, never going outside our comfort zone, safe bet shallow-end of life.

Isn’t that an interesting juxtaposition for those of us who call ourselves, “people of faith?”

This reminds me of the Gospel of John, chapter six.  Let’s hear the story.

Jesus went across the Galilee Sea (that is, the Tiberias Sea). A large crowd followed him, because they had seen the miraculous signs he had done among the sick. Jesus went up a mountain and sat there with his disciples. It was nearly time for Passover, the Jewish festival.

Jesus looked up and saw the large crowd coming toward him. He asked Philip, “Where will we buy food to feed these people?” Jesus said this to test him, for he already knew what he was going to do.

Philip replied, “More than a half year’s salary worth of food wouldn’t be enough for each person to have even a little bit.”

Following hard after Jesus and here they come scrambling up the mountain - men, women, children, young, old, middle-aged, healthy, the sick, the lonely, the confused, the ones struggling with addictions of various kinds – they all just wanted to get to Jesus.

When Jesus saw them, all 5,000 of them, he turned to his disciples and said, "Looks like we’re having guests and it's lunch time. How about a picnic? Nothing beats a picnic on the mountainside overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Let's have lunch together! Let's eat together, break bread together." For Jesus this was an opportunity. An opportunity to glimpse the heavenly banquet perhaps. For Jesus, this was a wonderful opportunity to turn an ordinary day into something absolutely different.

But for the disciples, it was a problem - a big problem. Phillip was the first one to speak up. Phillip did some quick calculations in his head to see how much it all will cost.  “Let’s see, half a sandwich, multiplied by 5000 people, carry the two, and . . .  wow.”

How much is “Wow?”  In the movie, White Christmas, Bing Crosby says it’s somewhere between “Ouch” and “Boing.”

To get a picnic for the 5,000 would take six months of paychecks. Truth of the matter, a picnic on the mountainside was WAY out of the budget.

John 6 records the minutes of the church’s first finance committee meeting.  “Interesting idea you’ve got, Jesus, but we just don’t have that kind of money around here!”

The disciples of Jesus are invited to be part of one of his greatest and most famous miracles, and their knee-jerk response is to list all the reasons it can’t happen.  Sound familiar?  We’ve had 2000 years to work on this, and there are still times when Jesus presents us with an opportunity, and we immediately turn it into a problem.  Let’s read on. Verse 8:

One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said, “A youth here has five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that for a crowd like this?”

Andrew starts to look for a solution outside the budget.  Andrew was likely a Methodist – his first instincts were to have a fundraiser or a potluck.  I can see him working through the crowd.  “Hey everyone, Jesus needs your help.  We’re going to have a picnic, but we don’t have any food.  Does anyone have anything to contribute?”

Andrew should probably not be put in charge of the stewardship campaign, because among all those 5000, he comes back with . . . a child . . . a peasant child whose mother had the foresight to pack along a meager lunch of five barley loaves and two pickled herring.  Well, it’s something, but it’s just not enough.

It’s just bread and fish.  No cheese or grapes.  No dates or figs.  No pomegranates, no olives, no wine.  No tables, no chairs, no plates, no napkins, no knives and forks. “We just don’t have everything we need.”

Again, here’s an opportunity, but it’s viewed as another problem.  Not enough.  Too little to go around.  Limited resources.  “We just don’t have, We just don’t have, We just don’t have.”

It is perhaps human nature to focus on what we don’t have, even when what we do have is a gift.  Hand a HOT NOW Krispy Kreme donut to some folks, and they’ll complain that it has a hole in the middle.  Or, “It doesn’t have sprinkles!  No chocolate frosting!  No custard filling!”

Bob Sawyer says these are the kind of people who wouldn’t be happy in a pie factory. He says you could serve them ice cream, and they’d complain to you that it’s the wrong flavor.

Do you want to be the kind of person who is grateful for the donut, or upset because it has a hole in it?  Shall we be grateful for every gift we have received, or resentful that we didn’t get more?

While it is perhaps human nature to focus on what we don’t have, as people of faith, we must do better.  In fact, if there is a phrase or a mindset that needs to be expunged from the people of faith, it’s the notion that “we just don’t have.” Maybe money or people or talent or resources.  We just don’t have this, we just don’t have that.  But the more we focus on what we don’t have, the less we are able to appreciate and build on what we do have.  Further, what does it say about our faith, what does it say about the one in whom we have faith, when the first words out of our mouths are, “We just don’t have.  It just won’t work.  “We just can’t do it.”

Friends, this matters deeply, because whatever we choose to focus on gets multiplied within us.  When we focus on what we don’t have, we fall into discontent and dissatisfaction.  We learn to look for problems rather than possibilities, we get hung up on obstacles rather than opportunities.  And then, we begin to focus on what others don’t have in a fault-finding sort of way, and we are sucked into a black hole of criticism and judgment toward others.

But, when we learn to take notice of the things we do have, well, that also gets multiplied within us.  We become grateful and content.  We begin to notice and appreciate what others have – celebrating the gifts God has uniquely given them, extending grace toward them, opening ourselves up to receive from them, be blessed by them, and bless them in return – the kind of relationships that Jesus would describe as the kingdom of God unfolding among us.

That’s spiritual maturity – God working on us so that we become more the kind of people who are grateful for the donut, and less the sort who are upset because it has a hole in it.

Becoming a mature disciple of Jesus is a lifetime process of transformation.  Anybody here finished, spiritually?  Anybody here still a work in progress?  Discipleship is a lifetime of growth so that we come to the place where we see things as Jesus sees them.  We move from our scarcity mindset to his abundance mindset.  We stop fretting over what we lack, and to develop appreciation for what we DO have, and to have the faith that whatever it is, when placed in the hands of Jesus, he can and will do something extraordinary with it.  Verses 10-13:

10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass there. They sat down, about five thousand of them. 11 Then Jesus took the bread. When he had given thanks, he distributed it to those who were sitting there. He did the same with the fish, each getting as much as they wanted. 12 When they had plenty to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather up the leftover pieces, so that nothing will be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves that had been left over by those who had eaten.

Didn’t look like much – five loaves and two fish.  What is that among so many people?  In our hands, not much.  But in the hands of Jesus, it’s enough.  More than enough, in fact.  Plenty to go around and then 12 baskets of leftovers.

The disciples saw problems.  Jesus was trying to get them to see possibilities.  They saw obstacles while he was pointing to opportunities.  They were fretting and saying, “It’s not enough!” but Jesus says, “Have faith, there’s actually an abundance.”

I call that “Jesus math.”  “Jesus math” can’t be done on a standard calculator.  It won’t balance in QuickBooks, and there’s not a formula in an Excel spreadsheet that will get you there.

Jesus math will drive your CPA nuts, because it won’t add up to them.  My grandfather was an accountant his entire adult life, and I guarantee you, his books always balanced.  He volunteered as the treasurer in their church, and even as the treasurer for what was, at the time, the entire Maryland-Virginia Annual Conference. 

I learned a lot from Papa about financial responsibility – the value of a dollar, and that they don’t grow on trees.  When it came to spending money, Papa could be a little tight.  You might even say cheap.  The man knew how to squeeze a dime until it squeaked, and then squeeze a little more, just for good measure.

There’s one place, however, where he was incredibly generous, and that was toward God and others, particularly those in need.  You see, he was not only a man of math, he was also a man of faith.  He’d tell you that he didn’t exactly know how, but he knew that whatever he gave to God through his church was multiplied and went further than he ever thought possible.  And when everybody was bringing what they had and giving it to Jesus, when you put it all together, it far exceeded the total of what they had all brought, and much good was done through their collective efforts.

The accountant in him would always say, “I’m not sure how it works, I just know that it does.  And the more we give, the more our own needs are taken care of and then some.  If you don’t practice it, I can’t explain it so you’ll understand how it works.  I don’t know how  it works, I just know that it does.”

That’s how Jesus math works.  It starts with a focus on and gratitude for what we have.  And when, with cheerful and grateful hearts, we place it in Jesus’ hands, he multiplies it in order to transform lives, starting with the life of every grateful giver.  It reminds me that God’s been in the transformation business, using the ordinary to accomplish the extraordinary, for some time.

Friends, everything we are and have is a gift from God – not only to us, but to the world through us.  We are blessed in order to be a blessing.  Knowing that God will multiply what we have, let’s be people of gratitude and grace.

Let’s be ready to be part of the next miracle.

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