There is a congregation in the heart of downtown Chicago about the size of our church here at Valley Community—about 320 members. The name of the church is LaSalle Street Church. I was lucky enough to come across LaSalle Street Church when my choir director at McCormick Theological Seminary told me he worked there, and invited me to check it out one Sunday. As luck would have it, not only was it a great place to worship, but they were looking for an interim youth minister as well. I ended up serving as a youth minister for a few months, and then continued to serve there as a seminary intern the following year.
I didn’t quite know what to expect at LaSalle the first time I walked inside, but it seemed with each and every day, I was pleasantly surprised by what new things would sprout up from this quirky congregation. I worked alongside a director of a soup kitchen that met the needs of the homeless every week. Just a few years before, he was also homeless. Now he was returning the favor of reaching out to those in need, just as he had experienced firsthand. I remember talking with parents of youth, some of whom were lawyers. They bonded over a young man who was unjustly convicted of murder. Together, these parents offered their own time, free of charge, to bring justice to this young man and his family. These same individuals were part of a larger tradition at LaSalle that created the first ever faith based legal aid group in what was one of the most notorious of inner city neighborhoods just down the street called Cabrini Green.
Each and every day…not just Sunday… there would be new faces that walked into the church building for one thing or another. This church just never seemed to know how to slow down!
So I was not surprised when I heard news from LaSalle Street Church just a few years ago. You may have also on the nightly news. Here’s what happened, in their words:
In July 2014, LaSalle Street Church received an extraordinary blessing of 1.6 million dollars. In September we kicked off a 9-month wisdom seeking, prayer process called Loaves & Fishes by distributing a tithe of $160,000 to the church community and asking them to invest the resources as the Spirit directed. Love Let Go seemed like the perfect starting point for everything that follows afterward. A boy sharing his lunch, disciples who distributed and Jesus who blessed and multiplied it – each took what they had and let it go. We want to do the same.
$500 to each of the 320 members. Ten percent, a biblical tithe, of the 1.6 million dollar windfall this congregation received from the sale of a residential property they purchased a few decades before. And the first thing that this congregation and its leadership wanted to do was share it with others; loaves and fishes.
What does living with abundance look like in the world today?
In a world where there are the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’.
What does living with abundance look like when we drive down the streets of our own neighborhoods and we see million dollar homes within a few blocks of apartments that are housing entire extended families?
How do we live with abundance when many in this great nation of ours cry out to build walls and slash the numbers of immigrants allowed into this country?
How do we live with abundance when commercial after commercial says to ‘buy, buy, buy’ while Jesus tells us to ‘give, give, give’?
How are we to live with abundance, when so many in this world tell us to live otherwise?
Our scripture story is about God’s abundance. Jesus…this Jesus guy…man, who IS this Jesus guy? He keeps on turning things upside down…because as we said before, the kingdom of God does that; it turns the real world upside down.
Many of us have heard the story of the loaves and fishes before, and we know how wonderful and happy of a story it is. It’s so easy for us to read this story maybe for the 100th time and say, ‘yeah, I remember this story!’ …and then put it out of our minds as one of those other miracle stories that don’t really make sense in the real world anyways.
But I want us to go back just a few verses here. The beginning of chapter begins with murder. John, the cousin of Jesus, the one who baptized Jesus, was executed by Herod! This is not how such a happy and loving story should begin!
So we can understand when we pick up in verse 13 of chapter 14, and Jesus is not happy at all.
13Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.
Have you ever experienced the death of a loved one? I can speak from my own experience, the abundance of God is not the first thing I think of when I recount my thoughts and emotions at the time. If anything, experiencing the death of a loved one is slow, painful, agony. The world does not seem to be giving at all, but it seems to be taking away. It is taking away someone that we cared about; someone we shared a life with; someone we loved. So yes, we begin chapter 14 not with Jesus experiencing unicorns and lollipops; no, he is experiencing the gut wrenching pain of the death of John, and he understandably wants some time to be alone.
…But the crowds wouldn’t have it…
But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.
Maybe the crowds were like many people we have encountered when we just want to be alone—maybe they just didn’t understand. Maybe they wanted to try and comfort a grieving Jesus. Or maybe they just had no idea what was going on in Jesus’ life at the time. But there was something about that man that they couldn’t resist. Word of mouth spread quickly, and people from all over just wanted a glimpse, a taste, of this man whom was reported to heal the sick and lame, challenge the authorities, and perform miracles. They just wanted to see Jesus.
We would understand if Jesus kept to himself. After all, he just learned of the death of John. But the scriptures tell us a different story:
14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.
Jesus, somehow in the midst of grieving and pain, found the strength and resolve to meet the crowds and even cure the sick amongst them. Who is this man, Jesus?
The crowds would stick around, even into the night. Jesus’ disciples (I think of them as his ‘handlers’, his entourage, sometimes) were aware that the crowds were not budging, and the disciples began to get a little anxious.
15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”
The observations and requests of the disciples were very rational. I wouldn’t criticize any of the disciples for saying what they did. They obviously knew that Jesus was grieving and he must have been emotionally and physically spent. Here Jesus was trying to find a place to rest and recharge, and the crowds have overwhelmed him for the entirety of the day.
But Jesus didn’t see things the same way as the disciples.
16Jesus said to the disciples, “The crowds need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”
18And he said, “Bring them here to me.”
19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.
20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.
21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Who is this man, Jesus? What is he all about? How does he seem to have limitless amounts of compassion, and energy, and grace?
How in the world did he take 5 loaves and 2 fish and feed over 5,000 people?!
This is a point where the life of faith does not make a ton of sense. This is a point where science and rational, logical thinking, do not always go hand in hand with the stories of our faith tradition. This is what some call the mystery of faith.
Now some of us may have problems with accepting such a blanket term as ‘mystery’. Some of us, just like the disciples, will have trouble making peace with such conflicting ideas. But Jesus…this guy Jesus…it never seemed to stop him. In fact, Jesus seemed to thrive when things began to not make sense. And people followed him because of this. On this day, the mystery of faith was realized in the miraculous feeding of the 5,000.
The Good News this morning: God’s abundance is limitless.
If we learn anything from the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000, it’s that God does not work within our earthly, rational, thoughts and brains. God works beyond our earthly expectations to be bring the kingdom of heaven here, today. There is more than enough!
Another amazing thinker and writer of the past century, Walter Brueggemann, wrote an amazing article on this very story that even ties back to last week’s sermon on myth versus reality, as he entitles his article: ‘The Liturgy of Abundance, the Myth of Scarcity’. He writes,
Five thousand are fed and twelve baskets of food are left over—one for every tribe. If bread is broken and shared, there is enough for all of Israel. Jesus transforms the economy by blessing it and breaking it beyond self-interest. From broken Friday bread comes Sunday abundance… In the following account of a miraculous feeding…, people do not grasp, hoard, resent, or act selfishly; they watch as the juices of heaven multiply the bread of earth.
Brothers and sisters, we worship a God who celebrates abundance. We worship a God with unlimited love, unlimited forgiveness, unlimited grace. And we learn about this God today from a simple story about five loaves of bread and two fish—a mystery of faith for those rational thinkers like you and me that will continue to challenge us…and compel us follow this Jesus guy.
When the world says that there is not enough, Jesus says that there is plenty still.
When the world says that we should hide and stow away our money, Jesus says to bless others with our wealth.
When the world says that there is only so much compassion we can muster, Jesus says to bring the sick and lame to him.
When the world says that there are only so many times that we can be taken advantage of, Jesus says forgive again, and again.
When the world says that there is not enough to feed the hungry, Jesus says to prepare a table.
Today we live into this mystery of faith as we prepare the feast of Christ at the Lord’s table. We understand this table to be a living example of God’s abundance; where people of all places and ages can come together time and time again and be nourished by the bread of life, and the cup of salvation. God’s table is a place where we remember the past miracles of faith, and we call upon the Spirit to make known the presence of God’s abundance here today. This is Christ’s table, where Christ calls us to celebrate the feast of God, in all of its abundance.