Sunday, July 29, 2012

Thanks for Nothing

[Sermon from Sunday, July 29]

Two weeks ago, several of our youth, and about 75 others from the dioceses of West Missouri and Kansas, gathered in Kansas City for five days of urban mission work – the annual Missionpalooza.  The week included a cookout at Harmon Park in Prairie Village, which a number of you helped provide – thank you very much for that.  The kids also had time on Saturday to go to a movie or to an arcade for bowling, mini-golf, or laser tag.  But they spent most of their week hard at work in places like the Don Bosco Center, the Kansas City Community Kitchen, Operation Breakthrough, and Habitat for Humanity. 

So I want to tell you a story about one young person’s experience that week.  This high-school junior was sent to work at the Kansas City Community Kitchen, where he chopped vegetables, served hungry clients, swept the floor, and cleaned out the walk-in fridge.  But he also got to know the situation of the clients beyond an intellectual understanding that poverty and hunger exist.  By the time you serve lunch three days in a row, you begin to recognize faces. 

Well, on Thursday, the young man gathered up dirty towels and aprons to take upstairs to reStart, which is in the same building as the Kitchen, one floor up.  Among its other services, reStart offers washers and dryers for homeless people to use, and the agency also does laundry for the Kitchen.  But talking with the people at reStart, the young man learned they were out of laundry soap.  The reStart staff told him it would be at least a couple of days, maybe next week, before they got another shipment.

Well, coming to the Kitchen each day, the young man had noticed there was an Aldi across the street.  And he knew he had $25 in his pocket, money he’d brought for extra games of laser tag at the end of the week.  So the young man looked at this situation and thought, “I’ve got $25; I can do something about this.  I could play just one game of laser tag and still give people here the chance to wash their clothes.”  So he and a couple of adults went across the street to Aldi, and he bought five bottles of laundry soap.  

Of course, that left the young man with just a few dollars for laser tag on Saturday.  But after serving poor people all week, he’d decided he was grateful to have even a little money in his pocket.  In fact, strangely enough, in that moment, a small amount of money became more than a large amount of money – less really was more.  Homeless people got to wash their clothes when they wouldn’t have otherwise, and the youth was able to enjoy that far more than he would have enjoyed the extra games of laser tag.  Now, my guess is that if this young man had been told up front, “You only have $5 to spend on fun at Missionpalooza,” he wouldn’t have been very pleased.  But he had decided to be grateful – grateful for what he’d been given, grateful for the chance to make a difference for the people around him, grateful for the one game he did get to play.  And because he chose to be grateful, everything changed.

This story may not seem to have much to do with the familiar Gospel reading we just heard, the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes. You’ve probably heard it before.  In fact, you may have heard it so many times that you already had it in your head as Deacon Jim began to read.  That’s where I was earlier this week, when I began reading it:  Jesus draws a big crowd; the crowd gets hungry; he decides it’s time for a miracle; he turns a few loaves and fish into a feast; end of story.  But then, I stumbled across a small phrase in the middle of this long reading:  It says, “Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks...” (John 6:11).  Wait a minute.  What’s Jesus giving thanks for?  

Let’s rewind the story a little bit.  This crowd of 5,000 was following him, hoping for miraculous healings, and Jesus sees an obvious problem:  They’re in an isolated place, the day is getting long, and the crowd is getting hungry.  Jesus asks the disciples what they should do about it; and our spiritual ancestor, St. Andrew, swings into action.  Like many of us, Andrew is a problem-solver, so he goes to see what food he can find.  He comes back to Jesus reporting, “There’s a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.  But what are they among so many people?” (John 6:9).  And it’s here that the story gets strange.  Jesus takes this completely inadequate supply of food, five loaves and two fish, and he does what never would have occurred to most of us:  He prays.  Now, in our anxiety, if we had thought to pray, here’s what we would have said:  “Dear God, give me more!”  But what Jesus says is, “Thank you.”  

Really?  Thank you for what?  Thank you for nowhere near enough food to solve the problem?  Thank you for putting me in an impossible position?  Thank you for giving me just enough to help a few people while having to say “no” to thousands of others?  Yeah, thanks for nothing.  

But strangely enough, something happens when Jesus makes the deliberate choice to be grateful.  Suddenly, there’s more than enough for everyone.  Giving thanks is the key that unlocks the miracle. 

Now, you can see this miracle at least a couple of ways.  The traditional, pious interpretation is what you’d imagine:  Jesus multiplies a small amount of food into a feast for thousands, a sign of the abundance of the reign and rule of God.  A less traditional, more historically focused, interpretation goes something like this:  Jesus’ teaching and healing, and his willingness to share what little he has, opens up the hearts of the crowd.  The individuals sitting on the grass reach into their own pockets and open up their own bags, and they bring out what they’d been hoarding for themselves.  They bring out their own bread and dried fish, or whatever else they’re carrying, and they share it with their neighbors.  From this perspective, the miracle is that the people choose to join the reign and rule of God by loving their neighbors as themselves.  No matter which way you interpret the story, the ending is the same: thousands of full bellies, and 12 baskets of leftovers, all from five loaves and two fish.

The important thing here isn’t the miracle’s mechanism of action.  The important thing is the miracle itself, and here it is:  Giving thanks changes everything.  The more we say “thank you,” the greater we understand our own blessings to be.  And the more our gratitude spurs us to give ourselves away, the richer we become.  Jesus takes a gift we would see as totally inadequate; he says, “Thank you”; and in that moment, scarcity is transformed into abundance.  Even the leftovers are overflowing. 

It’s no accident that in this reading the Greek word for “giving thanks” is the same word we use to describe our weekly transformation of scarcity into abundance.  That word is “eucharist.”  Eucharist means giving thanks.  Every week, you bring a few loaves of bread and a pitcher of wine up to this altar.  It’s not much of a meal for a couple of hundred people.  Surely it won’t be enough.  The folks in these pews are hungry, in all kinds of ways – emotionally, spiritually, some even physically.  How dare we respond to that level of need with such a meager meal.  But instead of bemoaning how little we think we have to offer, we offer it anyway – outward and visible signs of God’s provision and blessing.  And when we pray our “thank you,” when we offer Eucharist at this table, that’s when the miracle happens.  The bread and wine become Jesus fully present with us – allaying our fears, sustaining our souls, and empowering us to serve other hungry people.

This isn’t just a once-a-week thing.  God calls us to live in Eucharist every day because thankfulness is our key to the abundant life God longs for us to have.  In the stunning paradox of the Gospel, the way we find abundance is by giving ourselves away.  It’s why giving is such an essential part of following Jesus and why we’re called to give of our whole selves – time and talent and treasure.  In the giving of those gifts, miraculously, we receive far more in return.  When God tells us in Scripture to give back 10 percent of what we receive, it’s not for God’s benefit.  That money or talent or time was God’s in the first place, and God doesn’t need to receive more of it.  Instead, we need to give it.  For our own well-being, we need the miracle of thanksgiving, the miracle of Eucharist, to transform our less into more. 

And that can be scary.  Giving thanks can be scary.  If I give away my loaves and fishes, I may not have enough.  But the miracle is that we receive even more than we give away.  This is not some “Gospel of Prosperity,” where I stand here and promise that if you give a bunch of money to the church, then God will buy you a new car.  That’s bunk.  But it is true that God will take care of us, in mysterious ways that God gets to choose.  After the feeding of the 5,000, the disciples try to make their way back home, across the Sea of Galilee; and a storm starts blowing.  They row through several miles of rough water, and things aren’t looking good.  But Jesus continues his miracle by providing safe passage even when the waters are rough.  He comes to them when and how they least expect it, and he brings them safely back to shore.  Of course he does.  After all, not only does he love them, but there’s always more for a disciple to do – more thank-yous to say and more crowds to feed.  Or, depending on your situation, more laundry soap to buy and more homeless people’s clothes to wash.

So, to all the Andrews here this morning:  The next time you feel like what you have is never sufficient; the next time you look at your five loaves and two fish and think, “What are these among so many”; the next time you know you don’t have enough – choose to say “thank you” for it, and give some of it away.  Then see how much more those loaves and fishes become.

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