Come and See, Come and Taste, Come and Witness the Abundance of Our God- a Stewardship Sermon for August 2, 2020 (Lectionary 18A)

The Nebraska Synod staff has been preparing sermons nearly ever weekend this summer, as a resource for the synod and to provide help with “pulpit supply” so that ministry leaders might be able to take a little time off and recuperate and rest even amid this pandemic time. Toward this end, it was my turn again this past weekend. Naturally, I enjoyed preaching about God’s abundance as the gospel story was about the Feeding of the Multitude. This week’s sermon is based off of the revised common lectionary readings appointed for Lectionary 18A- Matthew 14:13-21; Isaiah 55:1-5; Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21; and Romans 9:1-5. To listen or watch the sermon, press play below, and for the text of the manuscript, scroll down below the video:

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

Just like that, yesterday we turned the calendar to August. We’re nine weeks after Pentecost. The year is flying by, even if it doesn’t feel like it, perhaps given all that seems topsy-turvy around us and this COVID-19 pandemic which has upended so much of what we considered normal parts of life. Even still, we worship- whether in person with good physical distancing, or through driving in, or joining together outside, or like this, online. God is doing God’s thing, and God will keep on doing God’s thing of being with us, of caring, supporting and uplifting God’s people, and bearing love for all of God’s children and creation.

We hear these themes and then some in our stories this week. We are reminded of who God is, of all that God does and provides. We are reminded of God’s good abundance, and that God’s work is being done. And we too, are invited by God to come. To come and see. To come and taste. To come and listen. To come and know- that our Lord is good.

The prophet Isaiah in our first lesson gives voice to God, proclaiming, “everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”[1]

“Come.” We hear this word again and again in our first lesson, and throughout the gospels. What a word and invitation in our faith, it is. Come to the water. Come to the table. Listen to God. Eat what is good. All of this God does as God makes an “everlasting covenant” for us and with us.[2] There is a promise here with this invitation and call to come. God provides, and God does so abundantly. There shall be no barriers to our relationship with God, because God wants to be with us. Because of this love and yearning for relationship, there shall be no barriers to God’s provision. You don’t have money? God here in Isaiah effectively says, “No problem. Come and buy and receive.” That sounds kind of radical, and probably makes some of us uncomfortable. But this is who God is. God wants to fill all. God wants to be with all of God’s children. And God calls us each as God’s own to be bearers of this truth- to provide hope, healing, food, and resources for all- so that life may go well for all of God’s beloved. This is what abundance is, and its this abundance that is truly at the heart of what Jesus means when he describes the kingdom of heaven or the Kingdom of God.

I suppose it’s no surprise then, that when the people come, Jesus will not let them be turned away. Throughout the gospels, he responds as the children come near, and he says, “let them come.”[3] Elsewhere he invites, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”[4] When one seeks healing for a friend or family member, or even themselves, what does Jesus do? He notices them, sees them, comes to them and heals them. This is who he is. It’s what he does.

So, in hearing our gospel story this week, one we all likely know better than most, maybe we should take a step back and recognize what else is going on behind the scenes to set the stage.

Jesus has been on the road teaching crowds and telling stories and parables, and then teaching about and interpreting them for the disciples too. We have heard quite a few of them the past few weeks in worship. After telling so many of these parables, Jesus arrives in his hometown of Nazareth. And well, it doesn’t go well for him. “A prophet in his hometown” sort of thing, if you will.[5] With unbelief rampant, he didn’t do much in the way of mighty deeds. To add insult to injury, after this disappointment Jesus receives word about Herod having killed John the Baptist.[6] And this is the news that Jesus has heard right before this week’s story begins.

In hearing the news of John’s death, news that no friend or family member ever wants to or dreams of receiving, Jesus was understandably affected. He wanted some time to himself. He no doubt knew what this meant too for his own work and ministry. The cross was coming into view faster than ever now. He needed or wanted some space to pray, to think, to process, to breathe. But the crowds of people would find him. And that’s where today’s story picks up.

Jesus, despite trying to have some alone time, sees the crowd and he has “compassion for them and cured their sick.”[7] He basically does yet again, what he has done so often. He says, “come.” He echoes the prophet Isaiah and he invites God’s people to gather. No doubt he did this with a hurting and grieving heart, but perhaps he did this also in honor of John. Either way, Jesus was being Jesus here.

Jesus spends the day with the crowd of thousands. He heals. He probably teaches, preaches, and tells more parables. And then evening comes. And the disciples know the crowd is inevitably hungry, yet they don’t think they have anything to feed them since they are in a deserted place outside of the nearest villages. I imagine that might sound desolate to some urban dwellers, but to many of us in Nebraska, it sounds about right. Imagine a setting of Jesus talking along the river or lake or out by the cornfields if you will. There may not be a grocery store or gas station close by. But here we are.

The disciples think they are being logical. But Jesus has other ideas. This one who is all about eating with people and showing hospitality, and in whose name we gather for fellowship, food, and potlucks except maybe not right now because it’s not safe to do so in this pandemic time. No. The crowd will not be dismissed or sent away. After all, Jesus is the one who embodies this message of “come,” that thousands at this point have heard and followed.

Let’s give the disciples some credit. The disciples are right to notice their neighbor’s needs. They might even be right to notice Jesus’ need as one who is grieving, that he might need some permission to have space and rest. But Jesus doesn’t take the option of an out here. And he doesn’t give the disciples permission to dismiss the crowd either. This refusal likely then leads to some consternation, frustration, and concern from them.

The disciples claim, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”[8] How many times have we said similar things in our lives? “We have nothing, but…” Nothing but a few cookies. Nothing but a few people. Nothing but a few hymnals, bibles, and an old church building. This is the language of our human created lie and sin of scarcity. This is the language of a lack. Language of a lack of resources, a lack of assets, a lack of provision, a lack of hope, a lack of imagination, perhaps even… A Lack. Of. Faith. But Jesus says, “bring them here to me.”[9] So the disciples bring the loaves and fish. And God acts.

Jesus sees the loaves and fish as assets and things that have been entrusted to the people’s care. They are resources. They are not limits, but things that can be stewarded and shared. They are ordinary things of this life through which God will do the extraordinary.

How might our worldview turn, if instead of seeing a lack of something, we might see things and assets all around us as opportunities or gifts- that we have, to meet our neighbor’s needs? How might we see things in a new way- if in looking at our church buildings instead of properties to be maintained we discern that these are catalysts and centers of mission and service? Places where we might provide the resource of internet access and WIFI to local families struggling with their own resources- that might make it easier to engage in homework or teaching and learning online during this pandemic time? Places where instead of thinking about the challenge of cleaning bathrooms, we might think about how if we added a couple showers we might be able to provide shelter and refuge during the next storm, blizzard, or flood? We have such wonderful resources that God is just yearning for us, to open our whole selves to- to see and imagine with God how we might be being called to meet our neighbor’s needs.

The disciples in our story again were right to see the crowd’s needs. But they didn’t ask the equally important second follow-up question. They didn’t wonder, “how might we, as God’s people, meet those needs?” They instead just thought, well that’s out of our control. Let’s dismiss the crowd for now.

How many times are we so quick to come to similar conclusions? To look for the easiest answer to a problem or challenge, and move on?

Our story isn’t quite done though. As Jesus takes the five loaves and two fish, Jesus breaks the bread, and shares a blessing.[10] God is thanked and praised. And God acts, so that all might be fed. More than 5000 were fed that day, so it’s a bit of a misnomer to call this the “Feeding of the 5,000.” Because in Matthew’s version that just accounts for the men. The women and children are “besides,” or “in addition to.”[11] So maybe through this meal, some 10-15,000 people were fed. And what’s more, this all started with five loaves and two fish, and yet there are even left overs that fill to the brim twelve baskets more.

This is a stewardship story and then some. And it stands out even more because it comes after Jesus has been telling parables for weeks of journeying on the road. Today, instead of a parable, Jesus teaches about the kingdom of heaven by action. He shows that God’s abundance is real. He invites the disciples to turn outward and to imagine and wonder what is possible with God. And Jesus invites us today to pivot from our limited understanding of scarcity, to instead see God’s abundance all around us, for us, through us, and in us. When we remember this, when we allow ourselves to see God’s presence and remember God’s promises of being for and with God’s people, we might just also remember Jesus’ truth today for all of us- that we are enough. We are enough, because God is enough. In fact, as there are twelve baskets left over, God is more than enough. And God is with us.

This is who God is. The God who says “Come” as we heard from Isaiah. And the God who the psalmist says is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” who is “good to all” and has “compassion” over all that God has made.[12] We remember, as we think about stewardship that this means us. For elsewhere, in Psalm 24, we read that “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.”[13] Because of this, we are all God’s own. And all that we have and all that we are, are God’s too.

Because God provides food for the hungry and life for all; because God, as the psalmist says about God today, upholds, raises up, is just, is near, hears us, and saves- we can’t help but give our thanks and praise.[14] Because joy and gratitude fill us. So deeply so, that our joy and gratitude for all that God does leads us forth in lives as stewards and disciples. It leads us forth because we know the events of the cross to come, and the reality that death does not have the last word. But rather that through God’s saving work, we are saved. Through the waters of baptism, we are claimed as God’s own, and adopted as God’s children.[15]

These truths and promises lead us into our lives of service and discipleship for all of God’s children whom God calls us into relationship with, through all that God entrusts into our care to use, manage, and steward. To feed the hungry and use all the resources that God entrusts to us- to do God’s work of meeting our neighbor’s needs.

I can’t help but share my joy and gratitude for each of you. For all that you do and make possible by changing, and literally saving lives, through your congregation’s participation in mission share- the undesignated giving that your congregation shares with the larger church. So much good is done in our church here in Nebraska, and through your mission share, all across the world, because of you. People are fed. The Word is proclaimed. The Good News is made real. Thank you.

This week I am especially thinking about your abundant generosity. On top of mission share, since the floods and blizzards last year, more than $400,000 has been raised to help your siblings in need. These gifts have been distributed out to congregations and communities across this state and region to rebuild, strengthen, and serve. Through so many of you and your partners all across this country who have also helped, so much good has been done. Truly, through you, I have seen God’s abundance and generosity made real.

For all the ways that you serve your neighbors and are signs of God’s generous abundance, as your partner in ministry for stewardship, please hear my thanks and gratitude. Thank you on behalf of all your siblings in Christ near and far, and on behalf of your partners in ministry across the Nebraska Synod. Thank you for responding to God’s love and work for you. And thank you for listening with new ears to this familiar story today about Jesus feeding the multitude. Perhaps, even in this pandemic time of uncertainty and anxiety, God is up to something and calling each of us- each of us as disciples and stewards, and as congregations, to see our neighbors’ needs now- as new or different or as similar as they have always been, and to not only see those needs, but then look deep within ourselves and discern how God might be calling us to meet them. Here and now.

God invites us to come and see. God invites all to come and see. God is inviting you to look deeply today. To know yet again, that God is with you, for you, and loves you. And because of that, you are enough. You are enough for the challenges of this day- as God is with you. You are enough and have enough- to meet your neighbor’s needs, because God is with you and entrusts you with all that you have and all that you are. And we are enough, because God’s love and promises are true.

That’s pretty extraordinary, isn’t it? Maybe you’re not being called to feed thousands today, but I am sure God is calling you to meet your neighbors needs in some way. And if Jesus can feed thousands, then I’m sure you can do that, because after all- it’s God’s work that is being done. Thanks for being part of it, and for responding to God’s love for you through your stewardship, giving, and service. And thanks be to God for this unimaginable abundance, promise, presence, and love that makes all the rest of life possible. Amen.

Citations and References:
[1] Isaiah 55:1, NRSV.
[2] As described in Isaiah 55:3, NRSV.
[3] Like in Matthew 19:14, for example.
[4] Matthew 11:28, NRSV.
[5] Matthew 13:54-58.
[6] Matthew 14:1-12.
[7] Matthew 14:14, NRSV.
[8] Matthew 14:17, NRSV.
[9] Matthew 14:18, NRSV.
[10] Matthew 14:19.
[11] Matthew 14:21, NRSV.
[12] Psalm 145:8-9, NRSV.
[13] Psalm 24:1, NRSV.
[14] As described in more detail in Psalm 145:14-21.
[15] As Paul has been describing throughout Romans, and again today in our second lesson from Romans 9:1-5.

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