July 26, 2015
On a hot summer day, much like this one, my neighborhood friends and I wanted to walk to a convenience store down the street and get an Icee – that frozen, sugary delight that eased the sticky sultriness of a Nashville summer. My friend’s mother declined the request for cash saying, “I don’t have any money right now.” My friend was undeterred. She looked at her mom with great seriousness and said, “Can’t you just write a check?” You see my friends and I did not understand the concept of money. Actually, that’s not entirely true. We completely got the concept of having it. What we didn’t understand was not having it. That isn’t to say that our parents were loaded; they weren’t. But we couldn’t grasp the fact that sometimes when we asked for money to buy something or do something or go somewhere, they didn’t have the available change at that particular moment. We just figured that the money was there when we needed it. I don’t want to make it sound like our parents just doled out dollar bills whenever we demanded them. We all had chores to do, and I received an allowance that was supposed to cover things like Icee’s. But our parents were a source of many things – love, support, discipline … and cash.
As a child I approached the concept of money from a point of abundance. I assumed my parents had an abundance of it; whether they did or didn’t. But those childish ways are long gone. As an adult, my departure point for thinking about money is not abundance, but scarcity. Now I look at money from what I don’t have, not from what I do. When my kids ask for something, they usually preface their request with, “When you get your next paycheck …” I approach my life from a point of scarcity.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that having a budget and living within your means is a necessity. I wish I had learned some of the financial lessons I’ve grasped in these last few years a long, long time ago. But the problem with the scarcity approach is that it is often based on perception, rather than reality. Even when there’s too much month at the end of the money, we aren’t going to starve. We still have enough. But scarcity is driven by fear. Fear narrows a person. What I mean by that is that fear makes one close-fisted, and even worse, close-hearted. Fear of scarcity makes me less generous, not just of my finances but of my spirit.
There is a fear of scarcity in our passage from John’s gospel. A large and growing crowd has been following Jesus. As John puts it, “they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.” Jesus takes the disciples up a high mountain and when he sees the crowd approaching, he asks Philip what they’re going to do about feeding all these people. In an aside, John tells us that this is a test. Jesus knew what he was going to do already.
Philip answers out of scarcity. Even if we had six months wages, we couldn’t feed all these people. There is no way we could ever have enough. Andrew speaks up and tells Jesus about a boy who has a couple of fish and fives loaves of barley bread. But after telling Jesus this, he also points out the scarcity of the situation. What are five loaves of bread and two fish in the face of so many people?
Instead of giving them an answer about what he’s going to do, Jesus just tells them to make the people sit down. Jesus takes the loaves, gives thanks for them, and distributes them to the people. He does the same thing with the fish. After all those present had eaten their fill, he tells the disciples to gather up the leftovers in baskets. The leftover bread filled twelve baskets. 5,000 people were fed from two fish and five loaves of bread.
What the heck just happened?
What happened indeed? The people saw this sign and declared that Jesus was the prophet who was to come into the world. It’s not a surprise that their next move was to try and make Jesus king. Chronic hunger was an issue then just as it is now. Anyone who could feed that many people with so little food could ensure that hunger would be eliminated. But Jesus realized that they were going to use force if necessary to make him king, so he went away by himself. Our lesson ends with the disciples going by boat to Capernaum. Jesus was not with them when they departed. Yet in the dark of night, as the sea was becoming rough and stormy, they look out to see Jesus walking on the water toward them. This terrifies them, but Jesus says to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Although his words are translated as, “It is I,” this is essentially the Greek version of the Hebrew we read in the book of Exodus. From the burning bush, God replies to Moses’ question about God’s identity with the words, “I Am.” Jesus responds to the disciples fear with, “I Am.”
We read these stories in the other gospels, but John conflates them into one continuous event. Why? As I understand it, John is not trying to highlight the miraculous in these stories. Yes, we can consider them miracles. But the word miracle is not used in John’s gospel. Jesus is not performing miracles. He is offering signs. Miracles seem to point to themselves, but signs point to something else. Jesus performs signs and those signs point to his identity. He is the I Am. For the next four weeks, we will be unpacking the rest of this chapter, because John devotes this entire chapter to illuminating exactly what Jesus identity as the I Am means. His multiplying of these fish and this bread is the sign he gives of how this food may satisfy their physical hunger, yet he is the real bread necessary for life.
But even as this signs point to Jesus’ true identity as the I Am, it is also about the abundance Jesus gives in the physical, the here and now. There is an abundance of bread leftover. There is even an abundance of grass. That’s a rather overlooked detail in this text. John makes a point of writing that there was plenty of grass for the people to sit on. In an arid climate such as this one, grass was scarce. Grass in any amount was probably not something taken for granted. But in the presence of Jesus the grass grew in abundance. When it came to feeding the people, the disciples saw only scarcity. When it came to sitting down to eat, I imagine the folks gathered assumed that there would be a scarcity of grass as well. Even when that crowd wanted to force Jesus to be their king, it is easy to believe that they desired this because they saw food as a scarce resource in general. The people around Jesus, even the disciples, saw life through the eyes of scarcity. But Jesus gave life in abundance.
Like the disciples, like those crowds, I see through scarcity’s lens; whether it is about my money, my time or my talents. I always believe there isn’t enough. But this story is about abundance, not scarcity. It is a real feeding of real people; however it is even more than that. It is a sign that points to abundance the people have yet to imagine.
Are we able to imagine abundance? Are we able to conceive that God in Jesus is providing abundantly for us, not just as individuals, but as a congregation? Are we able to imagine God working abundantly in our life together? Or do we perceive only scarcity? Are we afraid there won’t be enough – whatever that enough entails? How does that fear drive us? How does that fear narrow our response to God’s call? I understand being afraid of all that lies ahead. I’m afraid too. But this is our moment to answer God’s call, not with fear but with faithfulness; not in anticipation of scarcity, but in expectation of abundance. This is our moment; this is our time, to see Jesus, to trust Jesus, to recognize that he is indeed the great I Am, and that the I Am is present in our midst. The abundance of God – God’s abundant love and grace – is right here with us. May our faith be abundant in return.
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.