First Church of the Wilderness
Hespeler, 12 November, 2017 © Scott McAndless
Mark 6:32-44, 2 Corinthians 9:6-12, Psalm 34:1-10
he First Church in the Wilderness was facing yet another crisis. The twelve member leadership council assembled to talk about it and try to come up with a solution. The problem, as usual, was the budget. There just didn’t seem to be enough resources for everything that was needed. People were coming, they were hearing the word of life and it was affecting their lives giving them hope and a sense of purpose. It was just so darn hard to find the resources to keep the whole thing going.
And it is not just them. This
seems to be a universal problem. There may be a church out there somewhere that never struggles to make ends meet, but I haven’t found it yet. It doesn’t matter whether a church is small, medium or mega. It doesn’t matter whether it is in a rich neighbourhood or a poor one, every single church I’ve ever looked at just seems to find that its revenues fall at least a little bit short of its expenses on a regular basis. I’ve seen it so often that I no longer believe that it is an accident. It is something that the designer of the church planned. There is a reason why it keeps happening.
Nevertheless, it does tend to make the leaders (and many of the people) worry and fret. And that is what the leaders of the First Church in the Wilderness were doing. “What will we do? This isn’t sustainable. The church will just have to cut back somewhere. It can’t continue to try to help meet the needs of so many people.” The solution seemed obvious so they went to the boss with their plan.
“Boss,” they said, “This church is going through a dry time, there are very few resources and there is not enough to go around and take care of everyone. I mean, to properly help the people around here who need it, we would need like an additional 200… thousand dollars in our budget and we just don’t have that kind of money. Here’s what we think you ought to do: all of the people who are takers – all of the people who are not contributing to the needs of this organization because they need too much help themselves – just tell them that they need to go. Let them go and find some way to take care of their own spiritual, physical and psychological needs because, once they are gone, we are pretty sure that we can stretch the resources that the church has to cover our needs.”
I want you to listen carefully to that plan that the leadership came up with because I can tell you that it is the plan that we always come up with in the church. I’ve seen it happen again and again in innumerable churches that I have dealt with. First of all, notice what the disciples are focused on. They are focused on what they don’t have. They don’t have the $200,000 that would be necessary to take care of everyone. And that is what we always do too. Whenever things get tight – and they always manage to get pretty tight – we are inclined to be ever more worried about what resources we don’t have. What’s more, we see that as a smart and sensible way to be – that it is just common sense. You don’t spend what you don’t have.
And I understand that approach completely. I am very sympathetic to it because it seems to make good sense to me too. But I do want to point out that there are some big assumptions we make when we think like that. We are thinking of the resources that are available to the church as a fixed sum. There are only so many resources to go around and so our task is simply to make sure that everything is stretched to cover the basic needs. That is an assumption that may be correct in certain circumstances – in a household on a fixed income, for example. But it is not necessarily true in the church.
This assumption of a hard limit on the resources available leads to the disciples making a second assumption: that the only way to deal with the scarcity is to send away the people who are using the resources. “Send them away,” becomes the default strategy for dealing with that feeling of scarcity.
So the leaders of the church come to the boss to make what seems to be a perfectly reasonable suggestion to deal with the shortage: “Send them all away and then we’ll be able to manage.” But the boss has another idea, not only of what to do but also of what the problem is. “Wait a second,” he says. “"Wait a second, he said, You’ve made it clear to me what you don’t have, but I have to ask you just one question: What do you have? What need-meeting resources are available to you?”
Do you see how a question like that changes everything? They, like us, only wanted to talk about scarcity. And when you talk about scarcity, you always end up talking about what you can’t do and why you can’t do it. You are always bumping up against limits. It may be a sensible point of view but it is always a restrictive one.
But the boss turns that around and wants to talk about what they have. And it turns out that they actually do have something. “Well, boss,” they say, “we do have a little rainy day fund set aside down at the National Loaves and Fishes Bank. We have about down at the National hat they havefive hundred in a loaves account and I think there is another couple hundred in a fishes account. But that’s nowhere near enough to even start to deal with the needs of all these people out there and we need to keep that just to make sure that the operation keeps running around here.
I just have to mention: isn’t it interesting that we haven’t heard anything about the five in loaves and two in fishes up until this point. All this time the disciples have been fretting about there being too many people in too much need, and somehow the loaves and fishes never came up. Even when they went to Jesus with their plan to get rid of all the needy people, it just never came up that they had a little set off to the side in loaves and fishes. They only tell him what they don’t have and he has to explicitly ask them about what he has probably already guessed that they have.
And isn’t it obvious why they wouldn’t have mentioned it up until then? They were keeping the loaves and the fishes for themselves! That is why they were so keen on their plan where everyone else got sent away. They knew that once everyone else was gone they could break out the loaves and the fishes and maybe they wouldn’t have had a whole lot for themselves, but at least they would have had enough to scrape by. The loaves and the fishes were their personal safety net. They didn’t think of them as what they had to meet the needs. They thought of them as what they needed for themselves.
What happens next is commonly described as a miracle. And I suppose it is. Once they have let go of it and let go of the idea that that was what would take care of them, the very small amount of resources that the leaders had set aside to take care of their own needs multiplies and grows to meet the needs of the many. I suppose that that qualifies as a miracle; at the very least it seems to defy the laws of physics. But the way the story is told, nobody appears to be showing off or trying to impress people with the miraculous provision. It just happens. The people sit down, the disciples bring them the food and everyone eats until they are satisfied. let go of it and let go of the idea that that would take care of them.st they would have had enough to scrape by. nd mbecause they were thinking teady e up teedy people, they just . Even when they went The miracle isn’t directed at the crowds. If anything it is directed at the disciples.
How do I know that? Because of what happens after everyone has had enough to eat. Everyone is sitting around, patting their stomachs, loosening their belts (because some of them had certainly had more to eat on this day than they had had in a very long time). The boss is just finished picking his teeth when he looks up and says, “Hey guys, some of the people out there seem to have had so much placed in front of them that they couldn’t even eat it all. Why doesn’t each one of you grab a basket and go around and pick up all the scraps and leftovers and bring them back here?
So all twelve church leaders get up, each takes a basket and goes out gathering. You should see the look on their faces when each one of them comes back with a basket brimming full of food. Yes, there are exactly twelve baskets stuffed full of loaves and fishes left over – no more and no less.
Don’t you try and tell me that that is just a coincidence. These twelve leaders are the very people who, back when this all started, conveniently forgot to mention that they were holding on to their own little store of loaves and fishes. What they had been storing up for themselves was hardly a massive feast. It would have looked like a meager meal indeed when stretched amongst them all, but maybe it would have been enough. Now, after collecting their baskets, they are looking sheepishly at each other knowing that they can eat all that they want and still have some left over.
That’s why I think what happens out there in the wilderness is really directed at them. Jesus isn’t trying to impress the crowds with some stunning miracle that will blow them all away. God providing for his people, that, as far as Jesus is concerned is what God does every day. That is why he teaches them to pray and say “give us, this day, our daily bread.” That God will feed the people of Galilee with the bread and fish of Galilee if they trust him for it is something Jesus takes for granted.
No, if Jesus pulled off a miracle for the sake of anybody, it was for the twelve disciples who clearly stand for the church – which means he did it for us, to teach us as a church. He did it to teach us that a church that is focussed on its own needs – that is obsessed with making sure that it has its own little safety net of five loaves and two fishes set up over here someplace so that it can feel safe and secure about its survival and will not risk what it has to do anything much more beyond survival – that church is the one that is in the biggest trouble. As he said elsewhere, “Those who try to make their life secure will lose it.”
But at the same time Jesus was teaching that the church that sees what little it has and takes what little it has and risks it for the sake of genuine ministry directed towards real needs, that is the church that Jesus is excited about. “But those who lose their life will keep it.” (Luke 17:33) Not only does Jesus seem to be suggesting that he will heap special blessing on such churches, this story seems to be suggesting that if a church gives itself away, spends all of those things that make itself feel secure in a quest to genuinely care for those most in need, somehow from the leftovers of that ministry, Jesus will provide twelve overflowing baskets of abundance of blessing for the church.
We are now at that time of the year when churches start to worry about meeting the budget and when we start thinking about the budget for the coming year and how that can possibly be balanced. The temptation at such times is always to focus on what we don’t have. The temptation is always to focus on the loaves and fishes that we have set aside hoping that they will make us secure. The temptation is to settle for mere survival. I pray that we don’t give into that temptation this year because Jesus seems to be giving us a choice. We can concentrate on making our few loaves and fishes stretch to meet our survival needs and maybe we’ll get by, or we can put the emphasis on mission and ministry and from the overflow and leftovers of that we can discover how many baskets of abundance Jesus offers to us.