Feed the People: God’s abundance for the sake of our neighbors

Redeemer Lutheran Church in Hooper, Nebraska early on a partly cloudy summer morning.

It was my privilege to be with the good people of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Hooper, Nebraska this morning (July 29, 2018), part of the Faith Ambassadors Parish. I was invited to preach on stewardship, as well as introduce the potential of the Narrative Budget, much like I did earlier in July at St. Paul’s Lutheran in Uehling, Nebraska. What follows is the majority of the manuscript I preached from based on John 6:1-21, the appointed gospel for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost. 

Grace and peace from God in Christ who loves you, is with you, and is for you.

It’s a joy to be with you this morning Redeemer. I bring greetings on behalf of Bishop Brian Maas, your Assistant to the Bishop Pastor Juliet Hampton, and from your 100,000 sisters and brothers in Christ who with you are the Nebraska Synod. It’s a great joy to be with you especially as it meant that I didn’t need to get up early to be on the road to be with you this morning. It’s maybe only 10 minutes from home to here. Speaking of home, I also bring greetings from your Logan Creek friends at Salem Lutheran in Fontanelle, and the congregation’s pastor Allison Siburg, yes, my wife, and our darling 4-month-old daughter, Caroline. Thank you for all for those diapers by the way.

And thank you all for the welcome and invitation to be with you today. I’m excited to be with you and wonder a bit about what God in Christ might be saying and doing today, to think some about stewardship, and about how we tell the on-going story of God’s love in the world that we are all a part of.

Setting the Scene
Today we find ourselves back in the Gospel of John with Jesus and the disciples, on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. As there seems to be just about everywhere Jesus goes, a large crowd was following. What an opportunity for God to show up and show up abundantly. This is just about the most epic story of abundance, the story of the day when one boy’s five loaves and two fish were enough to feed 5,000, and even fill twelve baskets or doggie bags more.

They take a noisy offering during worship at Redeemer each week. It’s amazing how they fill up an extra large classic looking Coca Cola bottle. What some might see as spare change, clearly from this board, has gone and done much more in the world.

Jesus seems to be planning to use this as a major teaching moment. When Jesus “looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’”[1] Ah, Philip. You took the bait. The bait of our human notion of scarcity. An idea that what we have is limited to our own abilities. A sense that is completely devoid and detached from the reality of God working in, around, and even through us.

You might think at this point that the disciples would be expecting Jesus to be up to something. But somehow turning water into wine, healing the un-healable, and teaching in ways not seen or known, has not been enough up to this point to tell the disciples, to expect the unexpected.

At least Andrew was willing to take Jesus’ question seriously, and look around at the crowd and see what they might have to work with. In Andrew’s analysis, he noticed and wondered, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”[2] Andrew asked the question that we would all ask, “what are they among so many?” What a perfect question to have our ideas turned on their head. What an opportunity for God to act and to teach about God’s abundance, to show us yet again how to serve our neighbors and meet their needs by offering hospitality and feeding them.

Some of the kids putting their coins in the noisy offering during worship.

This crowd was getting hungry. Recognizing this, just as you might hear in worship at the start of communion in the words from the upper room, Jesus took bread and gives thanks. And in that, the ordinary became the extraordinary yet again as all were fed, and there were even left overs.[3] I have always wondered what those twelve extra baskets might have looked like? Do you think they were shared with the hungry nearby? Or perhaps they were sent home as ancient doggie bags with those who had come to see and learn from Jesus?

Before we can think about that question too much, Jesus senses the crowd surging again. The people in their force and power want to make him king, so Jesus slipped away, and the disciples set out again on the sea. As if feeding 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish wasn’t crazy enough, Jesus walks on water in today’s story too. After this, if I were the disciples I probably would have believed anything, or I would have been completely terrified. And Jesus probably expected this, so he said what he often says, “Do not be afraid.”[4]

And that’s how our story ends, at least for this week. Jesus just fed 5,000 people with a few loaves and a couple fish, and then walked on water. God is most certainly up to something here.  

Stewardship- living in God’s abundance
In terms of stewardship, this is a story about God’s provision, and our hope and trust in God’s abundance. When faced with what appears to be scarcity, not enough food to feed a hungry group of people, God offers another way. 

This beautiful stained glass window of Jesus stands at the back of the sanctuary over the balcony. Jesus, the Bread of Life, given for all the world- offering abundant life.

This is not to say that there aren’t those who lack. There are millions who are hungry in our world today. There are millions who lack access to clean and safe drinking water, some of whom live in our own country. There are millions who lack safe shelter, and because of limited access to food, water, and safety; have been forced to become refugees without a home, caught in political and social debates in refugee camps and at borders without clear pathways to possibility all around the world. These are people in need of God’s abundance. These are people who would have every right to believe that these resources are scarce. But the reality is, for the most part they are not.

What is perhaps scarce is a willingness among those who have access to these resources, to be able to share it with those in need. There has long been enough food produced in this world to end world hunger, for example. I am not trying to get on my soap box here, but my point is, we have an abundance of resources which we have been entrusted with by God. And this is really where stewardship comes in. Stewardship starts with an understanding from Psalm 24, that all that we have, and all that we are, is God’s.[5] What we have, has been entrusted to our care to use, manage, and steward- both to live life abundantly, and to care for our neighbors, and do God’s work, with what is already God’s; because God has chosen to use us to help do some of God’s work.

Doing God’s work can take many forms. But it shows up through all that we have and are, because God has entrusted us with all of that and so much more. Think about it. We’ve been entrusted with our lives, health, bodies, souls, hearts and minds. Our relationships, stories, ideas, dreams, and questions, all of which makes solving world problems like hunger possible. Our time, talents, gifts, strengths, passions, and vocations are all entrusted to us. And of course, our treasures, money, finances, and assets of all kinds; and even all of God’s creation that surrounds us. All of these resources, all that we are, is from God.

Some of the kids from Vacation Bible School, telling about their week of VBS, and then leading the congregation in song.

You’re a part of this. In your individual lives, in the way you feed the hungry, or share a cool cup of water with the thirsty. In your life together as a congregation helping for example with Vacation Bible School this past week, and as part of the awesome partnership that is the Faith Ambassadors Parish. You’re a part of this as part of the larger church, the Nebraska Synod and the larger ELCA through mission share, which helps you do ministry that spans the globe, literally changing lives- helping feed the hungry, welcoming the stranger, outcast, and refugee, and raising up and supporting new leaders and ministries. Thank you for being a part of this, and living as the stewards that you are in so many different ways.

Stewardship more broadly is part of our identity as a Child of God who has been called, created, and is loved by God. It’s part of what it means to live a life of faith and growth as a disciple. And when we remember who God is, all that God has done and continues to do for us- overcoming death and the lies of scarcity, offering abundant life and resurrection, we can’t help but be so overjoyed and grateful for these gifts we could never earn. We want to say thank you to God, and we want to be a part of this work. We want and need to be a part of this, for the sake of our neighbors. And we want to share this work and story with the world. We want to feed the hungry around us, knowing we have what we need, just because we are God’s people. When this happens, the Kingdom of God breaks in. When this happens, not only are the hungry fed, but God’s love is being shared and borne in, around, and through us. And that’s a story that needs to be told.

One of the stained glass windows in the Fellowship Hall- signs of the sacraments, but also of the Bread of Life.

Over the next few weeks you’ll hear more of this story in John, about how Jesus is “the Bread of Life.”[6] This Bread of Life isn’t one to be hoarded, but one to be shared, given for you. Given for all, with arms out stretched on the cross. And that’s a gift, promise, and story we are called to share. Just like the loaves and fishes were shared today, a lesson to lean on the abundance of God, and “feed the people,” meeting our neighbors’ needs.

Telling Our Story in Narrative Budget
Speaking of sharing, in the invitation I received to be with you today, I was asked to share a little about a resource related to the Transformational Ministry process that Faith Ambassadors recently completed. It’s called a Narrative Budget, and it’s a way to think about all that we do as a congregation related to God’s story, our story as a part of God’s on-going story in the world, and our stewardship of all the abundant resources God has entrusted to us, as we use them in doing God’s work. Or, to put it a bit more bluntly, have any of you ever been to a church annual meeting, and looked around when the budget was being discussed?

If your experience is like 99% of every other congregation in the world, then I am guessing that most people’s eyes just gloss over, and the same one, two, three, maybe four people each year are the ones to ask the questions about the budget.

The five congregations of the Faith Ambassadors Parish.

The Narrative Budget is a tool for the whole faith community to engage around a shared conversation about ministry, stewardship, and doing God’s work as the church together. It doesn’t replace the numbers of a line-item budget, but it enhances it, by offering pictures, short paragraphs, and turning the typical budget on its head. It’s no longer solely about numbers on a page, but on what and how those numbers are helping do God’s work– telling the story of how lives have been changed in your midst, telling the story about what God has been up to all over the Logan Creek area from the county line to Uehling, to Hooper to Scribner, and everywhere in between.

More signs of VBS. An igloo made from milk jugs, something that in terms of a narrative budget might be part of Faith Formation, Fellowship, Mission, etc.

I mention this, because I have some copies of the resource to share with you after worship. If you would like, I would be happy to sit down with you and share more about how to use it. But briefly, the idea of a narrative budget is shared with the congregation. The congregation then goes about the process of creating the typical line-item budget, and that’s all normal.

Next, comes the more creative process. You need to think about what all the areas of ministry are that your congregation does or is a part of. In thinking about this, it’s important to settle on five to ten categories that could summarize them. They might include: faith formation; fellowship and community; mission engagement; pastoral care; supporting; stewardship; and worship and music. So, in this resource worksheet I go through a hypothetical example of Second Lutheran Church working through this process. I figure I am safe with that name, since I don’t know any Second Lutheran Churches in Nebraska.

The next step involves allocating and adjusting some figures from a line item to a narrative budget. Like for example on a line-item budget, typically you might see salaries, compensation, and utilities. Those are all important, but they do nothing to describe the ministry that is made possible by them. Instead, it’s important to estimate how much time a person who might receive a salary, like a pastor or organist spends of their work in each of those ministry categories regularly, and then divide their compensation up by those areas. Doing that helps paint the picture of what is made possible through the congregation’s resources, or what ministry is being done and in what ways.

Some of the history of Redeemer Lutheran and its predecessor(s) congregations, part of a rich story of ministry in action in the Logan Creek area.

Or, think of electricity. Instead of just looking at the final utilities bill, think about how much electricity it takes to use this building for worship now this morning. Or perhaps how much is needed for learning times, and meetings each year. Divide up those estimates by the ministry area category, and you might have a better sense of what it takes to do the ministry that is being done that you are a part of, and what all that ministry might include, by doing the basic calculations.

The most important part comes next though. Like in today’s story we might ask with the disciples trying to make sense of the feeding and walking on water, the very Lutheran question, “What does this mean?”

How does what we do, how we steward the resources God has entrusted to us in this way, do God’s work? And how can we tell that story? A successful narrative budget helps do this, through one to three pages of brief story and pictures. So, if you are curious what that might look like, please take a copy of this resource. I know that your Transformational Ministry team was excited about it, and I hope you might be too.

Putting it All Together
When it functions best, a narrative budget gives an honest and engaging picture of a congregation’s ministry in action. It’s really a story of where we are, what we are doing, and hopefully why we are doing it.

The beautiful sanctuary of Redeemer, all decked out with VBS decorations this week.

Our story of ministry in action like this and our stewardship more broadly is part of God’s on-going story. An on-going story that we dwelled in today. I wonder, what stories could we tell if we pondered the question, what might God be up to? I wonder considering today’s story, where do we see God’s abundance in our communities? How do we see God in this parish and congregation? Where might we see God calling us to share in God’s entrusted abundance to us, with our neighbors?

God is most certainly up to something in feeding the hungry crowd, and God is also up to something here in you, Redeemer Lutheran and the Faith Ambassadors Parish. There is an energy here, and in your partner congregations that is undeniable. My hope and trust is that that energy is one that is on fire with the Holy Spirit, and open to God’s work among you and call to you- to share the Good News and love and serve your neighbor. May it be so, and may God’s promises, love and abundance continue to amaze and challenge you to grow deeper as stewards and disciples. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] John 6:5-7, NRSV.
[2] John 6:8-9, NRSV.
[3] John 6:11-13, NRSV.
[4] John 6:20, NRSV.
[5] Psalm 24:1-3, NRSV.
[6] John 6:35, NRSV.

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