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Our scriptures for this morning present us with three rather common existential questions and approaches to life:
First: How can I placate God (or the gods, or the universe, or death, or some other threatening thing) and so protect myself from punishment or suffering? How can I bargain my way out of this scary situation? What shall I bring? Just tell me, and I’ll do it.
Second: What must I do to know the fullness of life? Give me a holy checklist so I can earn my way to a happy life and, in the end, go to the good place.
And third: How am I supposed to deal with all the suffering and need in the world, not to mention right here? Surely, I’m not expected to do anything about that—am I? It’s too much! It’s impossible! Make it go away!
Now it may be that you have never had any of these questions or feelings, but there’s a good chance that person sitting down the pew from you has. So, just to be polite, maybe we should give them some thought. Okay? Asking for a friend.
And, before I go any further, full disclosure: Yes, this is a stewardship sermon. Yes, it is that time of year again when the church asks you to give generously of what you have to God’s work in the world through First Church Amherst.
But also this: We talk about giving because generosity of spirit is such a big part of what is required for a life full of joy. It’s a big part of what’s required for a life full of meaning. We talk about giving because it connects us to one another and all that is good. We talk about giving because it’s good for what ails us and the world—because it heals and nurtures and sustains. We talk about giving quite a lot, year-round, because it takes effort to stay grounded in God’s goodness and security and not let our thinking and our living be shaped by the non-stop bombardment of fear-based “never enough” messages from our culture. We talk about giving to this church not so that it will survive as an institution but because we believe in who it is and what it does, because we see in this church so much evidence of God’s love and care, because we love it and what it brings to our lives and the lives of others.
We can’t talk about the good life without talking about giving, and we can’t talk about giving without talking about the good life.
So here we are.
Thanks be to God!
So. About those questions . . .
Truth is we all ask them in one way or another, at one time or another. That doesn’t mean we’re bad people. It doesn’t mean our theology is primitive. It doesn’t mean we’re clueless.
The questions themselves point to a very human desire for understanding and meaning. They highlight a somewhat endearing sense of dependence, overwhelm, and fear. They reveal how much of our time and energy is spent on just trying to make it through this crazy world more or less intact. They express the very humanity that God aches for and with, the very humanness God loves. Jesus looked at the rich man and loved him. He looked at the hungry crowd and had compassion on them.
Which is to say: Simply acknowledging and asking the questions is an important step in owning our own desire for meaning, for protection, for peace. Asking the questions is an important step toward freedom and fulfillment. Asking and owning the questions can go a long way toward helping us let go of our desire for easy answers and a quick fix.
The children of Israel are hoping that some serious sacrifices will get them off the hook, that a few major gifts will placate a God they understand to be angry with them. Instead, it is a heartbroken, hurt-feelings God who speaks through the prophet Micah.
“Don’t you remember how I freed you from slavery and journeyed with you through the wilderness? Don’t you understand how much I love you? Don’t you see that what I really want from you is relationship and love, connection, and care for one another. I don’t want your sacrifices. I don’t want you living lives of fear and obligation. All I ask is that you do justice, love kindness, and depend on me.”
The rich young man wants to punch his ticket to the good place. He’s spent a lifetime following the commandments and being good, but something is missing. He thinks there must be something else he is supposed to do. He thinks it’s all up to him, that healing and wholeness and fullness of life are things that he can earn or even buy, like so much stuff. He’s happy to do whatever it takes; he just wants to know what it is.
The answer, however, has less to do with a holy checklist than a life lived in love with God and God’s people. “You lack one thing,” Jesus tells him—“a sense of how you fit into the big picture. An awareness of how deeply you are connected to God and all God’s people everywhere. Let go of everything that separates you from God—whatever it is—and then come follow me. I’ll show you that living for others will bring you more life than you ever imagined.”
The disciples are getting uncomfortable. They are all too aware of the huge crowd of people that’s been following Jesus around for days. There is so much suffering, so much need. Surely, Jesus doesn’t expect them to do something about it, they think. How could they possibly even begin to make a difference? They don’t have anywhere near enough, they think.
And then Jesus asks a question: “Well, how much do you have? Seven loaves for four thousand people? Not a problem.”
Jesus blesses the loaves and breaks them, and gives them to the disciples to distribute among the people. Turns out there are also a few fish, and Jesus blesses those and the disciples hand them out. It turns out, apparently, that there was lots more than anyone realized, because after everyone had eaten their fill, the disciples collected seven baskets’ worth of leftovers.
What had looked like an impossible situation turned out to be an opportunity to experience abundance. It turns out that when everyone shares, there is way more than enough.
In a few minutes, we are going to walk down the street together to enjoy a delicious luncheon. We’re going to enjoy one another’s company and consider some more questions. Some of us may wonder how we’re going to continue to sustain the mission of this church. Some of us may look at the numbers and declare it impossible. And some of us may want nothing more than to get ourselves off the proverbial hook and get back to our own lives and looking out for ourselves.
The good news is that God wants so much more for us than that. The good news is that God isn’t looking for sacrifices or rule-keeping. The good news is that God loves us and wants us to know the abundance of relationship, the meaning of connection, the healing power of love.
What shall we bring?