All week I have been trying to piece together three sermons into one. I finally gave up. Don’t worry – the total is still about one sermon long.
Sermon One: “Abundance and Scarcity”
I don’t remember much from the Economics class I took in college. What has stayed with me is the definition that the professor offered: Economics is about the allocation of scarce resources. Not just money and securities, but all the things that people want – as we learned earlier this year about toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
The stories we just heard are about a scarce resource – food. The Israelites on their journey, the widow who encountered Elijah, the boy with the loaves and fishes – all of them were hungry. And in each of these stories, what seemed like unsolvable scarcity turned out to be extravagantly abundant.
These are all “miracle stories;” manna, cake, lunch for thousands, all are attributed to divine action. Twenty-first century folks are not the first ones to be uneasy with miracle stories. Twentieth-century Biblical scholars (and probably others before them) went out of their way to find “natural” explanations for these events. Maybe manna was sap from Tamarisk, or a kind of lichen, or insect droppings. Maybe the widow only thought she was nearly out of meal and oil. Maybe after the little boy shared his bread and fish, everyone else in the crowd pulled out their lunches and they all shared. The stories are a little tamer, a little less unsettling, if they were actually perfectly normal events.
I think we are supposed to be unsettled by these stories; I think we are supposed to be reminded that God sometimes appears in ways we cannot understand. The power of these stories is not in their literal details; their power is in the testimony that God’s intention for the world is for abundance – abundance that is to be shared.
We, who in comparison to the rest of the world and most of history, we who have so much, we have to be careful how we speak about abundance. There is no reason to think that our wealth is God’s wish or reward. The Bible is, after all, critical to the point of harshness about riches and those who hold them. Prophets called out and lamented the greediness of the rich, Jesus said they were unlikely to get into heaven (the eye-of-the-needle quote).
Nonetheless, this morning’s stories speak truly of the divine hope that none will be in need.
Sermon Two: “Another World Is Possible”
The bracelet said, “Another World Is Possible.”
I was at General Synod, the national gathering of the UCC, and I was circling the exhibit area, collecting some of the giveaways that my friend Kent and I always call “Synod Toys.” The bracelet came from the booth of the Justice and Witness ministries.
It struck me then, and it strikes me now, as a concise and challenging statement of theology. Another world is possible.
That, my friends, is good news. The world we would like to live in, the world of God’s imagination, the world of justice and equality and compassion and stewardship – that world is possible. Perhaps more importantly, it is not impossible for us to move towards it.
Our biblical ancestors gave us some hints about what to do. The Israelites had to learn to take only what they needed each day. The widow had to trust that Elijah spoke the truth about her meal and oil. The disciples on the hillside had to find a way to feed everyone.
We, too, are practicing how it will be to live in that possible world. Families look out for each other – they help with bills, and child care, and money for down payments and college tuition. Faith communities – not only ours – look out for each other. We make phone calls and gather on ZOOM and donate time and money in all kinds of places. We offer our kitchen to make meals for the homeless, and put food out on the street for whoever needs it. We pray for healing; we lament with those who mourn and celebrate with those who are joyful. We mark the passages of life with sensitivity, dignity and piety.
We also practice ways that may lead to a different allocation of resources. We eat foods that are produced sustainably, we patronize businesses in our neighborhood, we invest in companies who practice good stewardship of the earth and concern for their workers. We fight for clean water.
Practicing will not, by itself, bring the new world into being. But practicing together will help to build it, and to make it strong, and to make it durable.
Sermon Three: “Another World Is Possible (part 2)”
Though it may seem paradoxical, one of the ways to prepare for Another World is to be grounded and centered in this world. Our personal spiritual practices help us to do that.
One of these is gratitude. We have taken this on as a congregation in the past – reflecting each day on the events, people, and things for which we are thankful. That has sometimes seemed difficult in these last months, which so much death and loss and injustice have been around us. And it does no good to pretend to be grateful just because something is “good for us.” Gratitude is a discipline because it pulls our attention away from the babble of our lives and towards the things that really matter to us.
A second practice is lament. Lament is the voicing of what troubles us, wounds us, grieves us. Just like gratitude, lament pulls our attention to what our hearts care about. It makes us face painful truths.
A third practice, one that has become very important to me, is harder to describe. I am trying to cultivate a different connection with the things around me in the natural world and in the human made world. Usually we regard all of these as objects – apart from ourselves, without life. Alternatively, we can regard some of these things as subjects – connected to ourselves, part of a shared life. Caring for such things is less like ownership and more like guardianship. In legal and financial circles, the responsibility to act in the best interests of another is called a fiduciary duty. I am having a growing sense of a fiduciary duty towards our home and the land it sits on, and to some possessions that have special meaning for me. I offer them my respect and affection, and I feel a loving duty for their sake as well as for my own.
These three – gratitude, lament, and responsibility – are also part of the Biblical tales where we began. The Israelites were grateful (at least for a while) for the manna that fed them in the wilderness. The widow’s lament in response to Elijah led to a shared meal. The disciples on the hillside – who originally wanted to send everyone home to eat – found a loving and dutiful way to feed the crowd. Perhaps these practices will help lead us to Another World where abundant resources, and not scarce ones, are available to everyone.