July 29, 2018
The past six weeks we have been hearing from Mark’s Gospel; before that we were in John’s Gospel. Today we return to John for a few weeks, as we feast upon the “bread of life” discourse. So before we get into that, let me remind you of a few things in John’s Gospel. John is characterized by seven significant “signs” (or miracles) of Jesus. Jesus performs the sign, then there’s some conversation about it, and then he spends a good amount of time explaining why it matters.
Today we will hear about two of those signs, one right after the other (so the usual pattern is a little different from usual), and in the next few weeks we’ll get into the part about why they matter. For now, keep in mind a few of the themes we see in John: that Jesus is God dwelling among us, and so also the one who makes it possible for us to have an abiding relationship with God; and that God is the abundant provider of all things needed for life.
One other thing to listen for that might not be obvious through the translation: another feature of John’s Gospel is that Jesus identifies himself throughout as I AM. It hearkens back to Moses at the burning bush, when God tells Moses that God’s name is, “I AM.” In coming weeks, Jesus will identify himself as, “I am the bread of life.” But he also identifies himself as I AM today, when he approaches the disciples on the boat. The rendering in English is, “It is I,” but the word is the same: he is identifying himself as God.
John does a good job of telling us people’s emotions. As you listen today, notice the emotions, and also consider what might be causing those particular feelings and reactions to what is going on.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
It has been a gradual process this summer getting Isaac interested in going in the water. Grace loves the water, and can’t get enough of it. Isaac wasn’t so sure. The first couple times we went swimming, Grace would jump in, ready to swim, Isaac would hang back and observe, with a slightly concerned, dubious look on his face. “Isaac, you wanna come in the water?” we’d ask. He’d respond an adamant, “No.” Now he’s a bigger fan of the water, but generally, at least when he first encounters something unknown, he will always err on the side of caution.
I admit I’m glad for this trait in him. As much as I admire Grace’s adventurous spirit, knowing that Isaac has that little bit of fear in him eases my own fear a bit. I’m fine with him being cautious! A little bit of healthy fear is good for keeping us safe, no?
Of course, too much fear isn’t a good thing either. Fear can be crippling. It can hold us back and keep us from living into who God calls us to be. It can destroy relationships. It can cause us to act cruelly or hatefully toward one another in an effort to keep ourselves safe, emotionally or intellectually. While a little fear can be a good thing, great fear can also be a very bad thing.
I’ve been thinking about fear, because I see it in both of these signs Jesus performs today. Well, not in the signs themselves, but in people’s reactions to them. In the walking-on-water story, it is obvious. Not that I blame the disciples for being afraid – not only was it stormy, but I’d also be pretty terrified to see my friend walking toward me on top of the water! Their fear is so great that Jesus has to remind them of who he is (I AM – God with you), and then tell them, “Don’t be afraid!”
But I think there is also some fear in the feeding story that precedes the storm. The disciples are afraid they won’t have enough food to feed all those people. They are afraid of their scarcity. Philip immediately looks at their budget and sees this will not work – “Six months wages wouldn’t be enough!” Numbers don’t lie; there is not enough. Andrew tries to think out of the box a little bit, looking at what other resources and assets they have beyond money – maybe someone here has something to share? And, turns out, someone does: a young boy, willing to share his lunch with Jesus and the crowd. But still, it is clearly not enough.
Whenever we get in that mindset of “not enough,” there is, underlying it, that pesky emotion: fear.
Fear of not enough – it is such an ordinary fear, really. It is not usually debilitating, but it is a fear we regularly face, sometimes on a daily basis. For middle class folks, it’s not usually about lack of food like in the story, but it often rears its head in financial matters: Will I have enough money to retire when I want to? Will I have enough to send my kids to college? Do I have enough to risk being generous with my financial giving? We look at the numbers, like Philip, and make what we discern to be savvy decisions, in hopes that we will, in fact, have enough.
Of course the question of enough also comes to us in other forms, often in the form of self-esteem. When I applied to seminary, several people told me to apply to Yale, and my first thought of course was, “I’m not smart or accomplished enough to go to Yale.” Women, especially, though also men, are often plagued by the worry that their bodies are not enough: not skinny enough or curvy enough or strong enough. Some of us are shy to meet new people because we’re afraid we won’t be interesting enough, or clever enough, or good-looking enough to make a good impression. You see, everywhere we look we see the fear of “not enough” – just like the disciples. How often this perception of life deters us from gratitude for what we do have!
And, how often our preoccupation with “enough” deters us from the opportunity to serve others. I read a story from a woman who served as a pastor in Nairobi, Kenya. One day, three young men came into her office. They were ragged and dirty, but had smiles on their faces. They asked if they could sing for her. She said of course, and they sang the most beautiful a cappella rendition of Amazing Grace, in their native language. She said it was like angel music, the kind that gives you goose bumps.
Then they shared with her their story. They were refugees from Rwanda. They had been university students, but when war broke out, they left the country with only the clothes on their backs and the song in their hearts. They didn’t know where their families were. They had often barely had enough to eat. They had learned to be grateful for their lives each day, and though they could never find the words for the prayer they wanted to offer to God, they could always sing Amazing Grace, and they knew God would understand their prayer. They had come that day seeking assistance – they had found a room for $8/month. They had no furniture, but would gladly sleep on the floor. Could the church help by paying the $8, plus a little extra for food - $12 a month?
The pastor brought the opportunity to the church leaders. They were interested in the idea, until someone, looking at the numbers, said, “$12 doesn’t seem like a lot, until you multiply it by 12 months. $150 is a lot!” Someone else wondered if this would set a precedent – what if word got out that they were willing to pay people’s rent, and all the homeless refugees came to them?
Soon, this opportunity to serve in a wonderful way turned into a litany of “not enoughs.” The pastor writes, “As I listened to my church leaders, I learned so much about the myth of limited resources. We often think there’s just enough for some of us. Some have to go without. We’re worried we’ll run out, but guess what? God’s world has enough for all of us. Someone has put it well, saying, ‘There is enough for all our needs, but there is not enough for all our greed.’”
Individuals, churches, even countries can suffer from a fear of not-enough. I see it in our current immigration debate. One of the most frequent arguments I hear for limiting immigration, or taking in fewer refugees, is that there are not enough jobs to go around. We have too many hungry people here already. There are not enough resources as it is. We need to take care of our own, take care of American citizens who are already living here legally, before we accept anyone else into our care. We have only five loaves and two fish, and there is no way we will be able to feed so many people with so little. Sure, Jesus told us to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger, but surely he didn’t mean like this. There is not enough.
It seems what we have here – in all three examples – is a lack of trust. Philip and his buddies, the Kenyan church, and modern America – all three examples exhibit a lack of trust that God will provide just exactly what is needed. Each is rooted strongly in logic and good sense, which are also valuable. But none are rooted in trust of God. That, you see, is the danger of fear – it leads us to a lack of trust, or perhaps, it leads us to trust in ourselves, or to trust in scarcity instead of trust in the promise of abundance. It causes us to miss the fact that God, the Great I AM, will always walk out into the storm, and say, “Don’t be afraid. I am here.”
That is why we prayerfully put our trust in God, the God who not only assures us of his presence in the midst of the storm, but also promises us abundance. Remember what Luther writes in the Small Catechism? “God provides me with food and clothing, home and family, daily work, and all I need from day to day.” God provides all those things! We can worry and fear all we want, but in the end, God provides all we need from day to day, from the air that fills our lungs, to our food, to our beating hearts, to the capacity to love and serve one another.
The past few weeks we have been using as our benediction this line from Ephesians: “[God] is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.” That’s very nice, but I like the way the King James Version puts it: “God is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond everything.” God’s abundance is so abundant, that it’s hard to capture it in words! It is exceeding abundantly beyond everything! God gives us far more than we could ever imagine.
And with that recognition comes freedom – freedom from worrying about whether there will be enough. Freedom from fretting about running out. Freedom to be more generous with our time, our money, our resources, our hospitality, and our love and care for others. Freedom to trust the one who gives us “food and clothing, home and family, daily work, and all we need from day to day.”
“Therefore,” the catechism goes on, “we surely ought to thank and praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.”
Let us pray… Generous God, your providence exceeds abundantly beyond everything. Make us grateful for what you give, not fearful for what we don’t have, so that we would feel freedom to love and serve without fear. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.