This is the sermon I preached on October 28, 2012. It comes from the story of the feeding of the 5,000. Also, note that the general scope and interpretation of this sermon comes from Parker Palmer’s book The Active Life.*
The Problem with Scarcity
This morning I want us to look at this classic story about Jesus and his disciples feeding more than 5,000 people from the perspective of the themes scarcity and abundance.
Many of us have experienced times of scarcity in our lives, when money is tight or seems to evaporate as soon as you touch it. Where love and friendship seems unpredictable or worse untrustworthy. Where God is found silent and your prayers go unanswered. Scarcity is a feeling that you don’t have enough of what you need or want, and is often the root of anxiety, and fear in our lives. It’s that feeling of being hollowed out and empty.
That deep feeling of scarcity is not limited to the poor. The rich can experience scarcity even more than those who are poor. This is more about a perspective we bring to the world. I want to suggest this morning when it comes to our resources whether material or relational, and really how we view the world, stems from either an assumption of scarcity, or a world of abundance.
This is what Parker Palmer says about this:
The quality of our active lives depends heavily on whether we assume a world of scarcity or a world of abundance. Do we inhabit a universe where the basic things that people need – from food and shelter to a sense of competence and of being loved – are ample in nature? Or is this a universe where such goods are in short supply, available only to those who have the power to beat everyone else to the store? The nature of our action will be heavily conditioned by the way we answer those bedrock questions.
When we as individuals face questions of money, of resources, of relationship, family, politics, and community how do we respond? Is it often in a defensive manner? Is it out of fear? Is it driven by the anxious feeling that there is not enough? Or is it one that is driven to cooperation, sharing, thankfulness, and Abundance? [My guess is that we wrestle with these differently in different contexts].
In a universe of scarcity, only people who know the arts of competing, even of making war, will be able to survive. But in a universe of abundance, acts of generosity and community become not only possible but fruitful [and necessary] as well (Palmer 124-125).
The story of Jesus and his disciples feeding the 5,000 illustrates this challenge between scarcity and abundance and challenges us to have a new way of looking at the world. One that, as Palmer says, “penetrates the illusion of scarcity and act out of the reality of abundance.”
_The Wilderness, the 12 and then the 5,000
In our reading this morning the disciples are struck with a sense of scarcity. For one, they have been busy, earlier in Mark 6 Jesus sent the twelve out two by two into the neighboring villages with the express instruction to not take anything with them, no bread, no bag, no money, no leatherman, or smartphone – fortunately they were allowed a belt, presumably to hold something up. They went out sharing the message of the kingdom of God coming in a way that encouraged and relied on the generosity of others.
After all this hard work, and experiencing the generosity of others they return to a deserted place. We are told that they are in a deserted place three-times. This is Mark being less-than-subtle about drawing our attention to the powerful biblical metaphor of the desert, the wilderness.
- What is the desert box for in Godly Play?
- What happens in the wilderness in the story of Exodus?
The stage is set saying that they are in a place that is assumed to be very scarce. And yet what happens in the wilderness in the OT? God proves faithful in the wilderness and provides? The wilderness is a powerful biblical metaphor for a place of trial, a challenging place, a place where we are tempted to believe in the illusion of scarcity, but are encouraged to listen, and discern an abundant reality underneath.
In a scarce looking place, like the desert will the disciples be able to respond in generosity and compassion, or will they revert back to worry about not having enough?
In this deserted place, Jesus encourages them to take a little R&R. But alas, some people want to crash the silent retreat so they can hang out and learn from Jesus.
It says that Jesus was much better than I am. When I am having my little me-time, a little silent retreat, I don’t want interruption, let alone do I have compassion on the intruder. But it says Jesus had compassion, Jesus was coming from a different place, a place where people and their needs were not an inconvenience to him.
He saw them “leaderless,” abandoned by the shepherds of their society. They were a people wandering in the wilderness.
As it grew late, people got hungry – maybe Jesus got a little long-winded – and the disciples, whether it is out of a genuine concern for the people, or out of annoyance (or both) that the people are there, suggest they go off and fend for themselves for dinner.
And this is where Jesus begins to challenge the assumptions of scarcity operating in the text. He says “you give them something to eat,” which is like saying “you 12 give these 5000+ folks food.”
Hey Jesus, I’m not real smart when it comes to math but…I don’t think we have enough stuff…
Isn’t this the call that constantly comes to the church from Jesus? That call is to constantly look beyond what we see with our eyes, to penetrate the illusion of scarcity and reveal a deeper, hidden abundance.
It’s interesting to me how defensive the disciples get to Jesus’ suggestion:
They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.”
A denarius equalled about a days wage – or about $20 in bread. You can almost hear the reproof from his disciples here.
Isn’t this true for us as well. When we are asked to befriend someone, give our time or money, or change something, if we feel like we’re already stretched to the limit it is easy to respond out of a place of defensiveness. It is much easier to say no and to send people away, then to start from a place of compassion and generosity.
Jesus’ suggestion to take care of the needs of the people brings up all that anxiety, fear, and defensiveness that comes along with the assumption of scarcity. And just looking at the mere numbers of the thing, it looks like more than an assumption.
So, Jesus sends his disciples to go and count what they have among them. See what you actually have. It may not much, but even a little can be a lot. They come back and see how little they have. Jesus sees a lot. Now Jesus has attention, and hopefully ours. Because he does something that is essential for our lives.
Then he does something we struggle with in Western society. He holds up what little they have, and blesses God for its abundance. He starts from a place of gratitude, in the face of not having enough… Jesus ”looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke what he had.”
Jesus reorients the entire situation around compassion and gratitude. Two of the three key components of abundance. Looking for what there is to be thankful for and then voicing it to God and community.
Isn’t this one of the single-most subversive things we can do in a consumer-driven society as ours? One that is constantly telling us we need more and more. To take what we have and recognize its abundance? To recognize its gift from God.
But I can’t help but think he looks at his disciples, and saw how hard they were trying, and he looked out at this “community” of people, maybe people he knew and loved, and instead of seeing them as a nuisance or inconvenience, he was overwhelming glad for that moment. For that people, for all the trouble they faced together. For the very little they had, he felt overwhelmingly glad and lift up such a seemingly small and insignificant gift and gave God thanks for it all. [Reorienting ourselves around gratitude to God is an abundant act].
What do you think the third component to abundance is? Sharing.
The Miracle of sharing
Now the text doesn’t tell us any supernatural miracle happens – and in our modern times there’s often suspicion around supernatural events in the bible. And I am fine with reading it either way, but I think if we assign supernatural physics to the story we miss something really essential.
It is possible that the disciples begin handing out the bread and fish out of a pot somewhat like Harry potter’s trunk – the one where you just keep pulling stuff out of it. But I think the more likely scenario, and the one that actually offers more practical challenge to us is this.
The miracle here isn’t that there is a magic trunk full of bread, instead, I believe that the miracle was in the act of sharing abundantly in the face of scarcity. Jesus’ disciples are encouraged to share in the face of the illusion of not having enough, because Jesus knows that true abundance is rooted within the cooperation of an entire community of people.
I think this is why Jesus breaks the people up into smaller groups of 50 and 100. A crowd of 5,000 is large, anonymous and impersonal. It is the makings of deep feelings of scarcity. Churches should never be places of where people go unknown and unrecognized, there should be an intimacy, authenticity, face-to-faceness that underscores everything the church does. And when we begin breaking things down into manageable groups or companies, people get to know each other face to face, learn names, hear stories, share our questions and fears and that is how an authentic sharing community begins to unfold.
[It’s interesting to note that in vs. 34 the word used for “crowd” here is “figuratively riot, or rabble rousers.” We might say an unruly class of people. But now, Jesus the organizer puts people into smaller groups, maybe by neighborhoods, clans, or maybe it is more random. But then it says that he had them “sit down in groups.” And “groups” here is more gentle, more familiar, it is the word used for a room of guests, or company [we’re having company over]. By reassembling into smaller groups, the masses are tamed.
It is within the context of community, of familiarity, that the illusion of scarcity is broken, and the reality of abundance unfolds. Sharing in community breaks down the walls of isolation and anonymity. Sharing is the tool of the kingdom that challenges all other economic models.
[How?] I imagine that as the disciples share what meager resources they have, those in the small groups pull out what they have and lift it up as Jesus did, give thanks for that moment, and pass what they have around.
The punch-line of the story is the “miracle” of how powerful sharing what we have with one another really is. The true miracle is a miracle of having enough. It does not say they all gorged themselves out until they were sick, the text says they were satisfied. They had enough. And we need to be a people who are disciplined in a way that we know when we have enough, and that we are satisfied with that. This discipline enables us to freely share what else we have. Sharing is our final act of abundance.
The only miracle here is the triumph of the economics of sharing with the community of consumption over against the economics of autonomous consumption in the anonymous marketplace (Ched Myers, 206).
As Parker Palmer puts it Jesus does not act alone,
“He acted in concert with others and evoked the abundance of community.”
While our world, and the politics and economics of our time thrive of perpetuating an illusion of scarcity, we as the body of Christ are called to constantly reenact this reorientation around gratitude and this miracle of sharing.
So long as we work from a place of not having enough, an assumption of scarcity, we will not find our situations change at all. The miracle of sharing is only possible from the reality of God’s abundance. Jesus invites us to realize that we are not dependent upon assumptions of scarcity.
When I look around this room, when I hear the history of Camas Friends Church, I see a community that has found itself in the wilderness plenty of times, and sometimes we have been given over to the illusion of scarcity, but there have been many times when we have pulled together as a community, and reenacted Jesus’ teaching to be compassionate, grateful and participants in an economy of sharing with one another.
As we reflect on stewardship and what our future will look like, We are again confronted with these options. To which will we turn in the coming years?
Open Worship Introduction
Is a time that we sit together in what Quakers sometimes call “expectant silence.” It is a listening silence, where we try to focus our energy on listening and reflecting on what God is bringing to us this morning, this week or in this part of our lives. If what we hear is meant to be shared with the group, and isn’t just for you, then please stand and share with the group.
- When have I acted out of an assumption of scarcity?
- When have I rightly understood or experienced abundance?
- What are the obstacles to compassion, gratitude and sharing in my life?
*Note: I use affiliate links for books to an independent bookstore (Powells) in Portland.