July 27, 2015 by jmar198013
Our Psalms reading for today began with the famous line, Fools say in their hearts, There is no God. This is actually one of the most misunderstood and misapplied passages in our Bibles. Christians often quote this verse at atheists, agnostics and skeptics. Problem is, in the Ancient Near Eastern world, there was no such thing as an atheist, strictly speaking. The psalmist wasn’t talking about belief, unbelief, or disbelief in the existence of God. Rather, the psalmist was describing people who live as if there is no God. People who don’t believe they are accountable to anyone. Who think the rules don’t apply to them. Who imagine they can literally get away with murder. Psalm 14 tells these people that they are so wrong it hurts. Don’t they know they can’t get away with this, the psalmist asks. Treating people like a fast-food meal over which they’re too busy to pray? Do you think you can mess with the dreams of the poor? You can’t, replies the psalmist, for God makes their dreams come true (Ps. 14.4, 6 MSG). So the psalmist wasn’t talking to atheists in the modern sense. This psalm is a warning to anyone who thinks they can do dirt on their neighbors and God’s not going to notice or care. Anyway, whenever we read our Bible and assume it’s talking about somebody else, we’re not doing it right. So church, what we can do with Psalm 14—what I can do with Psalm 14—is to let it speak about us. To let it tell me something. What we’ve seen so far is that the existence of God isn’t what’s at stake for the psalmist. What’s at stake is God’s presence. Is God just up there or out there, or is he right here, right now? Is God remote, or is God responsive? These questions raise the issue of God’s character. Is God the Unmoved Mover? Or is God profoundly moved and moving? Is God’s creative activity confined to the first chapter of Genesis? Or does it continue to this day, throughout the universe and within our lives? If you read the psalms, they bear witness to a responsive God. A God moved by human need, and moving throughout creation. A God who continues to create. For instance, Ps. 145.15-16 proclaims that: All eyes look to you, hoping, and you give them their food right on time, opening your hand and satisfying the desire of every living thing. The psalmist is saying that God’s responsive presence is as real as the food we eat. Psalm 104 is a chorus of praise for everything God has created. Near its close, the psalmist testifies: when you take away their breath, they die and return to dust. When you let loose your breath, they are created, and you make the surface of the ground brand-new again (vv29-30). God’s creative presence is as real as the air we breathe, as alive as the crops growing in the fields. Okay, so that’s my longest intro ever. I said all that to say this: We are constantly tempted to say in our hearts, There is no God; and we often yield to this temptation and don’t even realize it. Because to say in your heart, There is no God, is not necessarily to deny God exists. Rather, it’s an internal script we live by and act out. A script that tells us we’re on our own. That our lives and our food and our skills and our talents are rights to which we are entitled or possessions we have earned—not gifts of a present, creative, and responsive God. It’s a script that trains us to fixate on what’s broken, what’s lacking, what’s missing. It shouts at us seek first our own security and comfort. So we may very well believe there is a God. But maybe we feel and live and act as if the God of the Bible—the God of creation, Exodus, and resurrection—is absent. Our Gospel reading today, from John 6, teaches us to resist that godforsaken script. When Jesus feeds 5,000 people off a can of sardines and a pack of crackers, he invites us to stop acting out the script of scarcity and anxiety; and to start living out God’s abundance and generosity. Now, I’m not peddling any prosperity gospel. I’m preaching the gospel of enough in and to a world that says there’s not enough to go around. What Jesus did in John 6 says there’s always enough. John says: 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. No one had too much, no one had too little. They all had enough. I think that’s a template for how we can live in our communities, in our world. We take what we need; we receive it with thankfulness; and we share. That’s how Jesus teaches us to live by the Gospel of Enough. It’s what happens when we say in our hearts: The God revealed by Jesus is with us.
As our Gospel reading for today began, we learned that a large crowd followed Jesus, because they had seen the miraculous signs he had done among the sick. The people are flocking to Jesus again. You know, sometimes I think we—and by we, I mean us preachers—I think we’re too hard on the crowds we meet in the Gospels. We like to pick on them. Point out how they were after Jesus to see magic tricks, or to get a handout, or because it was what all the cool kids were doing. It’s really a cheap preacher gimmick for laying guilt trips on a congregation. You know: Are we going to be disciples of Jesus, or just fans, like the crowds? As if the disciples were heroic or something. Anyway, there is some validity to our suspicion of the crowds. They’re really their own character in the Gospels, as sure as Peter or Pilate or the rich young ruler. And the crowds in the Gospels certainly do take on a sort of Jekyll and Hyde personality as the stories develop. But we really need to be more empathetic with the crowds. Sure, they’re a hot mess—why do you think they were running after Jesus? Whenever you see a flock of people streaming to the same place, you should assume that there’s some need they’re trying to fill. Whether it’s a bar or a shopping mall or a megachurch or Wrestlemania, there’s some jones they’re itching to scratch. So what are these crowds longing for? John said these crowds had seen the miraculous signs Jesus had done among the sick. Were some of them sick, then? Probably. Or maybe they brought sick relatives or neighbors. So some of them came for healing. But I suspect most of them were there for a shot of hope. I mean, here’s this guy and everywhere he goes, he’s got quadriplegics doing cartwheels. He’s reattaching lepers’ noses. Flipping the light switch behind blinded eyes. Jesus was redefining the boundaries of what was possible. Every miracle he did, every sick person healed, every demon-possessed person restored to their right mind was an act of resistance. Page by page, Jesus was ripping apart that old script that said, There is no God. He was trashing that old script of scarcity and anxiety and hopelessness, and replacing it with the good news of God’s abundance, loyalty, and hope. The work Jesus was doing revealed an active God, who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us (Eph. 3.20). So Jesus was giving people hope. That’s why crowds flocked to him. Now, hope is a revolutionary power. Hope lifts our vision beyond the limits and boundaries of our time and whispers that, Another world is possible. That’s what Jesus was doing for the people. When he fed this crowd 5,000 strong out of a kid’s lunch pail, he was showing the people that God could make a little enough. That’s hope. Many of the people in the crowd probably had never had enough—food, money, housing, health, opportunities. And for the first time in their lives, they were experiencing what enough can look like. Feel like. Taste like. That’s good news. That’s the Gospel of Enough.
Now, like I said before, hope is a revolutionary power. It can make those who experience it a bit giddy. People full of hope can get carried away sometimes. That’s what happened to the crowd that day. John reports that, after the people realized that they’d all been fed out of the same lunch bucket, they got buzzed on hope, and it sort of snowballed into something messy. Jesus understood that they were about to come and force him to be their king, John tells us, so he took refuge again, alone on a mountain. Now again, there’s this irksome tendency among some Christians to think the takeaway from this is: Those silly Jews didn’t know any better than to try and make Jesus a king! Thing is, Jesus never said he wasn’t a king; he just said he wasn’t that kind of king. Another ironic thing about that is, some of the same folks who think this Jewish crowd was dumb for trying to make Jesus their king turn right around and run for public office with an agenda of taking back America for Jesus. Wait, isn’t that trying to make Jesus king by force, too? Anyway, that’s sort of another sermon. Sort of. So before anyone gets judgy with the crowd for trying to make Jesus head of the people’s liberation front, let’s stop and be real humans for a minute. Here’s a man who holds the key to defeating sickness and hunger. Wouldn’t we be stupid not to put this man in charge of the world? But that’s not how Jesus operates. Indeed, what we’re seeing here is a dramatic replay of a temptation Jesus had already faced. In Luke 4.2, the devil had come to a hungry Jesus and said, Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread. Somehow, I don’t think the temptation was really about Jesus filling his empty belly with a boulder-sized loaf of bread. As the temptations unfold, you see that what the devil is really offering is world domination. A shortcut to his destiny. One that doesn’t being executed on a cross. A man who can turn stones into bread would solve world hunger. So would a man who can feed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish. I suspect that only those who have truly been hungry and hopeless can fully grasp why the people were so fired up to make Jesus king. And those who love hungry and hopeless people like Jesus did will also understand why it was a temptation for him—what made it so hard to say, No. Anyway, I think we can learn something of immense value for our time from Jesus’ response to the crowd’s attempt to make him king. Jesus doesn’t rule the world by force. He’s not that kind of king. And I seriously doubt he wants Christians to rule by force, either. He didn’t put us here to rule the world. He left us here to serve the world. To live out the hope that another world is possible. That’s enough for us. We should embrace that as good news.
I love the setup for this story. And it is a set-up. Jesus sees this herd of 5,000 people stampeding toward him and the Apostles. And he looks over at Philip and asks, Where will we buy food to feed these people? It makes me chuckle because it sounds sort of like what an exasperated Moses said to God in Num. 11.13: Where am I to get meat for all these people? It’s a question a person at the end of their rope asks God; not a question God’s Son asks a random dude who’s hanging out with him. Philip replies, quite reasonably: More than a half year’s salary worth of food wouldn’t be enough for each person to have even a little bit. I suspect this was Philip’s polite way of saying, Why are you asking me about feeding these people, miracle man? If Philip had been drinking a soda or something when Jesus asked him that, I bet some of it would have come spewing out his nose. But John clues us in: Jesus was setting Philip and the others up for a teaching moment. He already knew what he was going to do, John says. Now, it’s interesting to note that what Jesus didn’t do. He didn’t preach at Philip. He didn’t say, Now, Philip—remember 2 Kings 4.42-44? How the man brought Elisha some barley loaves, and Elisha told him to feed a hundred people with it? The man said, How can I feed one hundred men with this? And then they fed all hundred men with it, and there were leftovers. I think he knew Philip was having a moment where he was acting off the old script that says God is absent. All Philip could see was a hopeless situation. Besides, feeding a hundred men on twenty barley loaves is one thing; feeding 5,000 with nothing—that’s something unheard of. To his credit, Andrew pointed out that they didn’t exactly have nothing. A youth here has five barley loaves and two fish, he says. But what good is that for a crowd like this? What is Andrew saying? We don’t have enough! You know who I think the hero is here? That kid who brought his meager lunch bucket—his sardines and crackers—to Jesus. I think that kid is the word of Mark 10.15 become flesh: Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it (NIV). When Jesus said that, I’m pretty sure what he meant was that he wanted his disciples to be like that kid. See, he was still young enough he hadn’t read the script that says we’re on our own. He was still full of trust and wonder. He wasn’t doing the math. He wasn’t preoccupied with the bottom line. I suspect he figured that even if this feeding the masses program didn’t work out, Jesus wasn’t going to let him go hungry. Or at least they’d all be hungry together. Whatever the case, Jesus knows that these crowds and even his Apostles are still stuck in the script that tells their hearts, There is no God. Life is nasty, brutish, and short. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Quoting the Bible at them wasn’t going to change that. They needed to experience life on other terms. So he received the child’s bread as a gift. He gave thanks for it. And he started to distribute it among the crowd. And it didn’t run out. And they had plenty to eat. And John reports that Jesus told his disciples to gather up the leftover pieces, so that nothing will be wasted. And they gathered up twelve baskets of leftover bread! That’s significant. How many tribes of Israel were there? Right—twelve. There was a basket for each of the scattered tribes of Israel. Enough for everyone. The biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann spells out the meaning of this miracle: “If bread is broken and shared, there is enough for all.” And so the Gospel of Enough comes to life when the contents of one young man’s lunchbox is placed in the care of Jesus. It isn’t much. But it’s enough.
Well, church—that’s a great story, isn’t it? Alright: What are we going to do with it? Because here’s the thing: This is one of only a handful of stories that shows up in all four Gospels. If God thinks a story is important enough to be told four times, then I’d suggest we pay attention. Probably this story is teaching the church how to act and what we can expect, and God wants to make sure we get the point. I know that in the history of our faith heritage the party line has been, We don’t have miracles anymore! We have the Bible! And I’ll concede, there’s a lot of shysty stuff that goes on in some quarters in the name of miracles. And that’s probably what scared some of our people off from even talking about a miracle happening after John scratched off the last line of Revelation and laid down his stylus. But I also know that we encounter situations just like when Jesus was caught between that hungry crowd and his hopeless disciples. We have problems in our world, in our neighborhoods, in our churches, in our families that we can’t fix by preaching at them. They’re going to take a miracle. They demand divine intervention. I’m not saying any of us is supposed to do miracles; but I am saying that we at least need to cooperate with the miracles God wants to do. I just can’t help but think that saying we don’t need miracles because we have the Bible is another way of saying in our hearts, There is no God. Only we’re dressing up in its Sunday best. There is a God, but he already gave us his best material in the Bible. Now we’re on our own. I mean, how does that glorify God, who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us? I would argue that the story of the feeding of the 5,000 is one example of what can happen when God’s power is at work within us. It’s the sort of thing that’s typical, again to quote Walter Brueggemann, “when the world gets reorganized and placed under the sovereignty of God.” And a major part of that reorganization, the confirmation of God’s rule in the world, is the work he does in the world through the church. Otherwise, we have to concede that God proved he could feed 5,000 people on a fish sandwich, then left large portions of the world starving for two thousand years. That’s not a God; that’s a jerk. But the truth is, God always meant for the church to carry on the sort of work Jesus was doing, and he wouldn’t send us to do work without resources. Beyond that, Jesus said in John 14.12: I assure you that whoever believes in me will do the works that I do. They will do even greater works than these. That’s a word for the church. Greater works than feeding the 5,000? That’s what Jesus said. And I doubt that what he had in mind is that we’re going to put hunger or homelessness or orphans or addictions or neglected veterans or human trafficking “under the sovereignty of God” by quoting the Bible to them. Those are daunting tasks, and I’m afraid we get intimidated by them because there’s a voice in our hearts—that old script that tells us we’re on our own—that tells us we have to do it on our own power. But the story we heard from John today reminds us this is not true. So church: Will we, like Jesus, receive our enough as a gift for which we are thankful? And will we display our gratitude by sharing from our enough, trusting that God is able to provide enough for us and those who lack? Will we trust, like the boy who gave Jesus his lunch to share with 5,000 people, that God is able to make our little enough? Because as long as God’s people are closed to the possibility that God is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us, the world may not as foolish as we suppose for saying in their hearts, There is no God.