Sunday, August 31, 2008

"Get Behind Me"

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost – Year A (Proper 17)
Jeremiah 15:15-21; Psalm 26:1-8; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:21-27
Sunday, August 31, 2008 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

Have you ever had the experience of being acknowledged for an accomplishment, or of being praised for some admirable quality you possess, only to have something happen that calls into question the veracity of the acknowledgement or praise you received?

I remember a time years ago, during my previous career. I had been working really hard, wanting so much to be promoted to associate – the second highest level in the company hierarchy, just below the level of partner. It was quite an honor to be made an associate, because it was essentially a sign of recognition on the part of the firm’s partners that you were among the top in your field and could, one day, be made a partner. My hard work paid off and I was promoted to associate. And then everything seemed to fall apart. After years of nearly flawless work with no significant mistakes, I seemed to become a walking disaster area. While I don’t remember the specifics (I’ve conveniently blocked out the memories), I do recall feeling like everything I did was wrong. I made stupid mistakes in my technical analyses. I made erroneous analysis assumptions. I had some difficult interactions with clients and other staff. As a result, I began to question my abilities. I began to question whether I really should have been promoted. I just knew that my boss was going to call me into his office and say “We made a mistake. You’re not associate material. We’re demoting you to project manager.” Of course, that didn’t happen. Things did get better over time. And truth be told, the things that seemed to go wrong were probably not really that big of a deal and were probably not any different from the way my work had gone before my promotion. But I still remember feeling for a number of months that I was a failure, a fraud, not worthy of the honor bestowed upon me.

I imagine that’s kind of how Peter felt in today’s Gospel lesson. To fully appreciate this, we first need to recall last week’s lesson, in which Peter, responding to Jesus’ question as to who the disciples think Jesus is, states that he is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” In that moment, Peter seems to get it. He proves to Jesus that he has been listening to what Jesus had been saying, observed what Jesus had been doing, and put it all together. Peter, like no other person before him, understands just who Jesus is. In response to Peter’s revelation, Jesus responds “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!” Of course, he then notes that Peter undoubtedly had a little help from God in sorting it out, but that’s okay. Jesus then goes on to say “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” In this act of blessing, naming, and commissioning, Jesus has heaped great praise on Peter. And in commissioning Peter to be the rock, the foundation, on which the Church would be built, Jesus is giving Peter a promotion. He is now chief disciple, the designated successor to Jesus in proclaiming the Gospel to the world.

But then we have today’s lesson, which happens mere minutes after Jesus’ commissioning of Peter. In today’s lesson, Jesus tells the disciples about how he will suffer and be killed at the hands of the authorities, and how despite this, he will be raised on the third day. Immediately, Peter begins rebuking Jesus for saying such things. “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” And how does Jesus respond? He says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” At this point, Peter must feel like a failure. Jesus had just blessed and promoted him because he understood who and what Jesus is, and now he’s basically blown it. Jesus might as well have said, “I thought you understood, but obviously you don’t. I guess I was wrong about you.” Well, that’s not what Jesus meant, but that’s probably what Peter heard.

So what happened? How did Peter, in a mere instant, go from being the rock, the foundation on which the Church would be built, to being a potential stumbling block to Jesus’ mission – a mission that would be necessary for the Church to be founded? In a way, you can understand why Peter freaked out and started rebuking Jesus. In one moment, Peter is saying that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, a revelation which Jesus affirms. And in the next, Jesus is telling the disciples that he will suffer and be killed. How can this be? How can the Messiah suffer and be killed? That’s not what messiahs are supposed to do. Messiahs are supposed be the savior of the people, to come in glory to overthrow the corrupt authorities who currently reign over God’s people, to free God’s people from tyranny, to provide them with a new way of life in a peaceable kingdom. This would have been Peter’s understanding of Messiah. But we know that Jesus’ understanding of Messiah, God’s understanding of Messiah, was very different. This Messiah would liberate people, but not necessarily from oppressive governments. This Messiah would liberate the people from the bondage of sin and death. This Messiah would give his own life that we might have new and eternal life. But in that moment, Peter didn’t understand that. He had a mistaken idea of Jesus’ messiahship. Or his personal feelings for Jesus, his love for his master, got in the way. Either way, all he heard was that Jesus would suffer and die.

Now Jesus did say that he would be raised on the third day. He may have even explained what that would mean. But Peter didn’t seem to get that part of the message. Like so many of us, Peter’s hearing shut down when he got to a part of the message he didn’t understand or couldn’t deal with. Peter only heard what he perceived to be bad news – distressing news that became all consuming to the exclusion of anything else. He became wrapped up in his emotional response. He was so overcome by his emotions that he was not able to hear the good news that followed. He had set his heart and his mind on the human things he was perceiving, not on the divine things that were to come – the divine things that he could not yet understand.

Jesus’ response to Peter may seem a little harsh to us, but conveys exactly what Peter needs to do to get back on track, and what we need to do when we get off track. Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” Now in this context, Jesus is not accusing Peter of being the devil, but is using Satan as a general term, common to that time, for one who challenges faith or tests loyalties. But the most important part is what he tells Peter to do. “Get behind me.” In saying this, Jesus is invoking a call to renewed and deeper discipleship. The words “get behind me” are part of a discipleship formula which does not so much indicate physical position, but rather the posture of the disciple. In other words, “you need to get behind me so that you can follow me. You need to do what I ask of you, what I have prepared you to do. You need to follow where I will lead you.”

Jesus then proceeds to tell Peter and the disciples what they need to do to follow him, to be his disciples. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Jesus is going to the cross. Those who are truly his disciples are expected to follow. This undoubtedly comes as a bit of a surprise to the disciples. After all, they are only now learning the full ramifications of what it means to follow Jesus. They had thought they were following a visionary, one who would save them. They had not signed on for crucifixion, for loss of life.

And it is at this point that we, too, are often brought up short. We hear that as followers of Jesus, as good Christians, we are to deny ourselves. We are to take up our cross and follow Jesus. We are to lose our life. This is where we panic. This is where, like Peter, we stop hearing. We get so hung up on what this could possibly mean, what it might mean for us, what we might have to actually give up to follow our Lord, that we don’t hear the rest of Jesus’ message. We often don’t hear that if we lose our life for Jesus’ sake, we will find life. We do not hear that by losing our life, by giving it up to Jesus, we will actually gain a new life. We don’t hear that we will gain eternal life in a new kingdom, freed from the wages of sin and death that run rampant in this imperfect and broken world.

But, as we have seen, we are not alone. We are not the only ones who get hung up on the seemingly bad parts and don’t hear the good parts. If it can happen to Peter, the foundation on whom Jesus built the Church, the one who lived with Jesus for three years, sitting at his feet, hearing first hand his teachings, witnessing in person his miracles – if after all that, Peter still has a hard time getting it, it’s no wonder we have a hard time getting it. This story of Peter, the message of what we need to do to be Jesus’ followers, is not intended to be a reminder of our failings for which we must beat ourselves up, but rather should be a gentle reminder that even if we falter and fail, we are in good company. The disciples faltered and failed before their story was over. Peter failed so badly that when the going really got tough, he denied Jesus, not once, not twice, but three times.

But eventually, Peter overcame his failings. I imagine that following his denial of Jesus, following Jesus’ crucifixion, following his resurrection, Peter looked back and remembered the lesson Jesus had taught him – “get behind me, follow me, I will show you the way.” This is the same instructions that apply to us. When we do falter or fail, what we have to do is get behind Jesus, for he will lead us back to the right path. That doesn’t mean the path will be easy. In fact, in asking us to take up our crosses, to deny ourselves, and to give up our lives, Jesus is promising us that it will indeed be difficult at times. As one commentator notes, “Here is both the challenge and the good news in this text: If we follow Jesus, we will be seriously called to bear certain crosses and lose hold of our lifestyle, if not our life. Yet, in all our weakness and human mindedness, it is Jesus' own death on the cross that enables us to do what we cannot” otherwise do (Schmit).

Jesus does not ask us to do what he has not prepared us to do, what he has not given us the tools to do, what we are not capable of doing. In addressing this struggle between what Jesus asks of us and our own humanness, another biblical scholar observes that “It takes a lifetime to grow into full understanding of God’s mission, purpose, and methodology, and the road to that understanding (as . . . Peter can attest) is full of missteps and misunderstandings (Langknecht, 182). Taking up the cross, denying oneself, losing one’s life, is scary business. It’s enough to make anyone back away from such demands. But we must remember not to get hung up on the human things, but rather set our sights on the divine things. That yes there may be difficulties. There may be death. But there is also resurrection. And you cannot have resurrection without death. The old must die so that the new may be born.

But we do not face such difficulties alone. That’s why we have the Church – established by Jesus on the foundation of Peter, who, like us, sometimes faltered and failed. That’s why we have communities such as this one. This is a place where we can support each other as we take up our individual crosses, as we struggle to deny ourselves for a greater purpose, as we continually discover what it means to lose our lives, only to find them in Christ.

I believe this is what Paul is talking about in Romans when he calls upon us to present ourselves as a “living sacrifice.” In ancient times, the faithful took animals to the Temple to be sacrificed on the altar as a gift to God. Today, we do not bring animals to sacrifice. Instead, we bring ourselves. We come week after week to this place, to this altar, laying our lives upon it as a sacrifice, as the ultimate gift of self, to God. Instead of physical death, we experience a spiritual death in which we die to self, and a rebirth, in which we are made new, made whole, given new life. The sacrificial gift of our very lives, as imperfect as they may be, we give to God for continued transformation and renewal as members of the Body of Christ, focused not on the failures of human things, but rather on the glory of divine things, the new kingdom promised by Jesus, in which we are all truly the beloved children of God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Langknecht, Hank J., et al. New Proclamation: Year A, 2008, Easter to Christ the King. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.

Schmit, Clayton.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Foundation of the Church

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost – Year A (Proper 16, RCL)
Exodus 1:8-2:10;Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
Sunday, August 24, 2008 – St. Mark’s, Fort Dodge, IA and Good Shepherd, Webster City, IA

Today’s Gospel lesson is, in many ways, one of the most important stories in the evolution of the Christian Church. It occurs at a pivotal moment in Matthew’s account of the formation of the Church. In Matthew’s Gospel, today’s lesson is the central or middle part of a larger, three part story. Up to this point, the Gospel tells about the growing opposition of the old, established religious and political communities to Jesus’ growing movement. Looking at the story to this point, we see this opposition taking the form of Jesus being rejected in his hometown of Nazareth. We see John the Baptist beheaded. We witness Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman who challenges his seemingly narrow religious views. And we see the tensions between Jesus and the Jewish authorities, with the Pharisees and Sadducees testing Jesus, and Jesus engaging in public and private criticisms of these authorities.

In the third and final part of the story, which we will hear in subsequent weeks, we have a foretaste of what the new kingdom will be like. We experience the Transfiguration, with Jesus being glorified as the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. We learn important lessons about temptation and forgiveness. We learn about the power of faith. And we learn just how this new kingdom will be accomplished, with the death and resurrection of Jesus. And, in the process, we glimpse the glory of God revealed to his new kingdom through Jesus Christ.

In between, we have the pivotal middle piece, of which today’s story is a part. We have the part of the story that provides the transition from the old community of faith based on Jewish legalism, to the new community of faith based on the grace and mercy of God that extends even to Gentiles. In this critical, middle piece, we have two incredibly important events that make the transition possible. The first of these is revelation. It is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and Jesus’ affirmation that this is indeed the case. The second is the blessing, naming, and commissioning of Peter.

The first of these is certainly important to our faith. Up until this point in Matthew’s Gospel, there have been hints that Jesus may be the Messiah. There are suggestions, rather strong ones, that Jesus is the Son of God. But Peter’s confession is the first time that someone put it all together and makes a definitive statement about Jesus’ identity. And this is the first time that Jesus confirms that, yes, he is indeed the Messiah, the Son of God. Our entire faith tradition flows from this central fact. All other events in the story of Jesus are built round this central tenant – the extraordinary manner of his birth, his teachings, the miraculous healings he performed, right up to his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.

But that’s not what I want to focus on. I want to focus on the second part of this pivotal account. I want to focus on how Jesus responds to Peter in the wake of this revelation – on the role he gives to Peter – that Peter is to be the rock, the foundation, on which Jesus will build his church. This is critical to the development of the Church. This is a moment in the formation of the Church that is perhaps second only to Pentecost. While Pentecost may be the birthday of the Church, Jesus’ proclamation following Peter’s confession sets the stage for the impending birth of the Church. It is the moment of conception, if you will. With that simple commissioning, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,” Jesus literally lays the foundation for what would become Christianity.

This moment is also important because it tells us what Jesus envisions for his Church. In his commissioning of Peter, Jesus is emphatically stating that the Church is not founded on buildings. It is not founded on doctrine or dogma. It is not founded on political position. Rather, it is founded on a person – on Peter.

On Peter? Couldn’t Jesus have made a better choice? I mean, have you ever stopped to consider just what Peter was like? We know he is a fisherman, which for that time and place would have actually been a pretty lucrative business. But even so, as a fisherman he is still in the lower social strata. And furthermore, we are told he is uneducated (Acts 4:13). Is that the type of person who should be the foundation of the Church?

Scripture indicates that Peter has a certain amount of humility. After all, he recognizes and willingly confesses to Jesus that he is a sinful man (Lk 5:8). But at the same time, he can be kind of gutsy, even arrogant. After all, he has the nerve to rebuke Jesus when he foretells that he will undergo great suffering and be killed (Mt 16:22). Is that the type of person who should be the foundation of the Church?

Scripture indicates that Peter is a bit idealistic. After all, he wants to stay on the Mount of the Transfiguration and worship at the feet of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah (Mt 17:4). Yet, he can also be impulsive. After all, he jumps into the sea, thinking he can walk on water, just like Jesus (Mt 14:28). Is that the type of person who should be the foundation of the Church?

Scripture indicates that Peter is conscientious. He is diligent about living according to the Law and is concerned with the specific requirements of the Law (cf Mt 18:21). But sometimes, he can be a little rigid in its application. Such as when he initially refuses to eat something he considers unclean, even though God said it’s okay (cf Acts 10:10 ff). Is that the type of person who should be the foundation of the Church?

Peter repeatedly shows himself to be obedient (cf Jn 21:11). But when he hears things he does not particularly like, he can get a little whiney (cf Mt 19:27). Is that the type of person who should be the foundation of the Church?

Peter is certainly a loyal follower of Jesus. After all, he does promise Jesus that he will not desert him (Mt 26:33). But when push comes to shove, he is more concerned with his own wellbeing and denies Jesus three times (Mt 26:69 ff). Is that the type of person who should be the foundation of the Church?

Peter definitely has some very good qualities. But he also has some less than desirable qualities. As I look at this little psychological profile we have built of Peter, straight out of the pages of the New Testament, I see something startling. I see a lot of qualities that I have. I see a lot of qualities that are present in nearly everyone I know. What I see in this profile of Peter is a pretty good cross-section of human strengths and human frailties – of those qualities that make us strong, but also those qualities that make us difficult to live with. In short, I see all the qualities that make us human.

Peter is not selected to be the foundation of the Church because he is some sort of superman, some sort of spiritual giant. He is selected precisely because of who he appears to be in Scripture, warts and all. He is selected precisely because he is very human – because he shares the very traits and characteristics of the people who will comprise the Church. In this respect, Peter represents all Christians. He is the archetypal Christian. He is us. As one of my parishioners said regarding Peter, “I find it encouraging for us that Peter was the way he was.” In other words, the Church has been able to survive because we can relate to Peter. With all due respect to our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers who see the papacy as the heir and successor of Peter, this is too narrow a perspective. By virtue of our baptisms, we are all heirs to the foundation laid by Peter. In that respect, the story of Peter is the story of all of us who bear the name “Christian.”

Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who think that Christians should be perfect. I remember a woman who attended the church I went to in high school. Her name was Scottie. Scottie was very faithful. She attended church every Sunday. She worked on committees and helped out with various projects. Despite all this, she wouldn’t become a member of the church. One Sunday after church, Scottie went out to the parking lot. She ran into my father, who had gone to the parking lot for a smoke. Seeing my father smoke completely changed her perception about what it meant to be a Christian. Here was a man who was an elder, a member of the board of trustees, a pillar of the congregation. And he was smoking. It turns out the reason that Scottie did not become a member of the church was that she was a smoker herself and she honestly felt that because of that, she could not join the church. She felt that because of her vice, she was not good enough to be a member of the church. Her encounter with my father helped her to see God’s grace and unending love, that all are welcome in the church, that all are invited into full membership in the Body of Christ, no matter who they are, what they are, or what they do. The following Sunday, Scottie officially joined the church and became a member of First Christian Church in Riverside, California.

God does not require that we be perfect in order to be Christians. God only asks us to be faithful. That was obvious in the choice of Peter to be the foundation of the Church. God, through Jesus, chose to establish the Church on a flawed human being – the Church that would be comprised of flawed human beings. Why? Because ours is an incarnational religion. Jesus, the Son of God, fully divine, was incarnated, became human so that he might know us flesh to flesh, and so that we might know him flesh to flesh. For the Church, which would be the Body of Christ, to be of any value, it too would have to be incarnational, human, flesh to flesh. Otherwise, we simply wouldn’t be able to relate. We saw that from the Old Testament experience. We simply could not relate to a God whom we could not experience face to face, flesh to flesh. Hence, Christ’s incarnation. Hence, the Body of Christ, the Church, built upon a very real, sometimes flawed, person. An institution for very real, sometimes flawed, people.

Jesus showed a great deal of faith by entrusting his Church, the institution that would be his Body on Earth, to a bunch of flawed beings. He showed a great deal of faith by entrusting to us the task of taking his message of love and mercy to a broken world. We talk about our faith in Jesus. But we generally forget that faith runs both ways. Today’s Gospel lesson shows us that the truly Good News is that Jesus has faith in us. Let’s not let him down.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Sunday, August 03, 2008

Feeding of the Five Thousand - A Model for Creating Abundance

Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost – Year A (Proper 13)
Nehemiah 9:16-20; Ps. 78:14-20,23-25; Romans 8:35-39; Matthew 14:13-21
Sunday, August 3, 2008 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

Everywhere we turn these days, we are faced with news of scarcity or impending scarcity. Scarcity of petroleum, scarcity of food due to floods in the Midwest, scarcity of water due to drought, just to name a few. Thanks to the law of supply and demand, the impact of such scarcities on us consumers translates into another scarcity, or at the very least, fear of scarcity – the lack of personal financial resources to purchase the goods we need to maintain our current standard of living.

Yet, even in the midst of very real experiences of scarcity, some are still able to see the abundance of God’s grace. Today’s Gospel lesson of the feeding of the five thousand is such a story of seeing abundance in the midst of apparent scarcity. Even more, it is a corrective to the generally prevailing focus on scarcity. It is about conversion from a theology of scarcity to a theology of abundance.

At it’s heart, the story of the feeding of the five thousand is about hunger and food, about scarcity and abundance. The focus is most certainly on physical hunger. But there is more at stake than just satiating physical hunger. The people that flocked to Jesus were not attracted out of physical hunger. No, they were attracted by a spiritual hunger – a desire to get in touch with their spiritual selves and to understand their relationship with the God who created them.

Even Jesus himself was probably struggling with a sense of scarcity. We are told in this passage that he withdrew to a deserted place. We know that prior to this story, Jesus had been preaching throughout the land, he had been to his own hometown where he was promptly rejected, and he had learned of the death of his cousin John the Baptist. Because of all this, he was undoubtedly exhausted, depleted of his own physical, spiritual, and emotional energy, in need of some much needed rest and relaxation.

But as Jesus tries to slip away to be by himself, he is followed by the crowds, by those who live in the grips of scarcity – physically and spiritually. They have a need that they perceive only Jesus can satisfy. In his current condition, Jesus could have driven the crowds away because he needed rest. Despite his own personal condition and needs, Jesus recognized the needs and concerns of those pressing in on him. Instead of focusing on his own needs, he had compassion for the crowd. He chose to meet those men, women, and children at their point of need. In so doing, when called to act, Jesus was able to give of himself out of abundance, not scarcity.

The disciples, however, were another matter. Yes, the disciples were concerned about the needs of the crowd, but approached this concern from a perspective of scarcity. The disciples would have had the crowd take care of their own needs. The disciples buy into the illusion of scarcity – that there could not possibly be enough food for all these people. They even threaten to make it a reality by promoting competition and division.

Jesus, on the other hand, took a different approach. While the disciples only saw scarcity, Jesus only saw abundance. And he acts out of a theology of abundance to feed the masses. In doing so, did he perform some sort of miracle? Yes and no. I don’t necessarily think Jesus magically multiplied the five loaves and two fish into the hundreds or even thousands of loaves and fishes that would be needed to feed five thousand men plus women and children. It’s not that I’m saying it couldn’t have happened. You never know what God is going to do. But I think the miracle was that he showed them that if they operated out of a theology of abundance as opposed to a theology of scarcity, they would find that they had enough combined resources to feed everyone present, and still have plenty left over. As Parker Palmer comments, “Jesus wanted to help [the] people penetrate the illusion of scarcity and act out of the reality of abundance” (Palmer, 124). In the Gospel story, Jesus “makes a dramatic attempt to break people of the scarcity habit by revealing the reality of abundance” (126). The miracle is that when we put aside our fears of scarcity, the fears that make scarcity a reality, and begin to operate from a place of abundance, when we act and live as if abundance is a reality, God’s grace is present, providing the abundance that we need in that moment.

I would venture to guess that we all have our own stories of how we have benefited by God’s abundance. Some of these stories may even reveal God’s grace and abundance as being born out of or overcoming our own feelings or fears of scarcity. I recall an experience in my life that particularly illustrated this scarcity-abundance dichotomy for me – an experience that has always stayed with me as a sign of God’s abundant grace. This happened about eight years ago. It was a Friday morning. Pat, the interim rector of my parish, called me at work to let me know that Chuck, a beloved parishioner, was in the hospital in San Bernardino. Things did not look good. Pat was away and would not be able to get out to see him that day. She asked if I would go visit him. I really didn’t want to. That morning, I had woken up feeling lousy. Just a couple of hours into my work day, I decided that I was too sick to stay at work, and was about to leave the office when Pat had called. But I knew that Chuck was in need of someone to visit him and to pray with him. So, despite feeling like death warmed-over, I left work, and instead of heading home, I drove in the opposite direction, to San Bernardino.

I spent about fifteen minutes with Chuck and Jean, his wife. Chuck was drifting in and out of consciousness, but he knew I was there. Before I left, I held hands with Chuck and Jean and offered a prayer for Chuck’s healing. As I was driving home from the hospital, I had the startling realization that all through my visit, I had not experienced any of the cold symptoms I had earlier in the day. No coughing. No runny nose. No sore throat. No achy-ness. By acting out of compassion to meet the need of another, by trusting that God would give me the energy and strength to get through the visit, I indeed received God’s grace of momentary strength and wellness. Unfortunately, the effects were not permanent. By the time I got home, I had no choice but to confine myself to the couch for the rest of the day.

Sadly, Chuck died several hours later. I realized that if I had acted out of my own feeling of scarcity and not gone to the hospital, Chuck would have died without anyone from his faith community visiting him, without prayers to accompany him on his final journey. By acting out of a faith in God’s abundance, I found that I had the resources I needed to meet Chuck’s need in his final hours.

While not readily apparent in Matthew’s version of the feeding of the five thousand, other accounts of this event in the remaining Gospels give us one important clue as to what is needed to reject the illusion of scarcity and to embrace the reality of abundance. That clue is to be found in community. In Matthew, Jesus orders the crowds to sit down on the grass. In Mark and Luke, he has them sit in groups. Human nature being what it is, I would venture to guess that even in Matthew’s account, the crowds did not sit down in nice, neat rows facing Jesus. It’s highly likely that they sat down in small groups with those they knew, or those nearby whom they had just met.

Why did he do this? Attempt to create community? Because Jesus knew that scarcity is born out of competition and division. When we stand alone, we feel we have to be in competition with our neighbors over the resources we need, which leads to scarcity. In fact, as Parker Palmer notes, “There is a powerful correlation between the assumption of scarcity and the decline of community, a correlation that runs both ways. If we allow the scarcity assumption to dominate our thinking, we will act in individualistic, competitive ways that destroy community. If we destroy community, where creating and sharing with others generates abundance, the scarcity assumption will become [even] more valid” (Palmer, 127).

Abundance, on the other hand, is born out of cooperation and community. With true community, people are willing and able to cooperate, which leads to the reality of abundance. I may not have all the resources that I need. Hence, I perceive scarcity. You may not have all the resources you need. Hence, you perceive scarcity. But when we come together in community and begin to take stock of our gifts, our talents, and our resources, we may just find that I have some resources you need and you have resources I need. Within community, we see that while individually we may not have sufficient resources, collectively, we have an abundance of resources – even an over-abundance.

Just maybe, that’s what happened with the feeding of the five thousand. Joshua had some bread, but that wasn’t enough for a meal. Miriam had a little bit of cheese, but it wasn’t enough for a whole meal. Isaac had a few figs, but that certainly wouldn’t be enough for a meal. But put it all together and you have a picnic! Palmer notes that “community is the context in which abundance can replace scarcity. Even more important, the very experience of community is itself an experience of abundance” (Palmer, 130).

Within the context of community, Jesus lays out a specific model for moving from a theology of scarcity to a theology of abundance. The first step, as just noted, is the building of community. Second, once community is established, we begin to take stock of our resources – what each of us brings to the table, and how we might be able to use our collective resources for the good of the community. Palmer sees this as “a crucial turning point in our transition from assuming scarcity to seeing the potentials of abundance. It consists in the simple but rare act of looking at what we already have, at the gifts and resources that are immediately available to us” (Palmer, 128). The critical step in “any action that assumes abundance and wants to amplify it is to perceive, and receive, those resources already present to us in the abundance of life itself” (Palmer, 129). Once we have an inventory of our resources, it is important to give thanks for what we have, no matter how little it may seem. All our resources ultimately come from God, and we should be ever mindful of the abundance of His grace and for being blessed with such abundance. And finally, with a clear understanding of our resources, and mindfulness of where they truly come from, we need to be open to offering our gifts and resources to those who may need them – to those in our own community and beyond.

I believe we are seeing examples of this model for abundance here at St. Alban’s. In these times of economic uncertainty, we are all feeling the pinch financially. The parish is not immune. But despite uncertainties about how we are going to be able to meet all of our expenses, we have chosen to not focus on the potential for scarcity, to be gripped by that fear. Rather, we have chosen to move forward in the certainty of abundance. Just look around and you will see the fruits of that abundance being manifest before your very eyes. We are undergoing a major renovation of the main church. While a costly venture, requiring a significant amount of our parish resources, we have faith that a revitalized worship space will reap benefits in terms of the quality of our worship, one of the outward manifestations of our ministry and a proclamation of our belief in the abundance of God’s grace.

We are in the process of planning a pre-school. Again, another costly venture, but one that will meet a significant need in our community – the need for quality pre-school education for the children who are our future – who are perhaps our greatest resource. Over the past year, there has been a tremendous increase in participation and financial resources devoted to outreach ministry. The Social Action Ministry has identified numerous worthy causes in our community and the parish has stepped up to help these causes by giving a tithe of our Sunday plate offering, as well as other projects, such as the book drive for the New Directions Women’s Shelter. In Pilgrims’ Way, we have a vibrant and growing small group ministry devoted to building community and sharing our individual and collective resources in the nurture and development of not only our individual spiritual journeys, but also our collective journey as the parish of St. Alban’s. And in the midst of all this, because of all this and much more, we are seeing new people coming into the parish – newcomers who are bringing their own gifts, talents, and resources, not to mention the energy, enthusiasm, and desire to use them to benefit our parish community.

None of this could be accomplished if we pulled back in the face of the fear of scarcity. Admittedly, operating out of a place of scarcity is often safer than operating out of a place of abundance. There is less risk involved. But along with less risk comes less reward. If we are called to share in the abundance of God’s grace, which we most certainly are, we are, therefore, also called to shatter the illusion of scarcity and share in the creation of abundance by living as if abundance is a reality. “We must discern the gifts God gives us, accept them, employ them, pass them along. Without our active cooperation, God’s abundance remains in the realm of potential, always there, always available, but forever untapped” (Palmer, 135).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Palmer, Parker. The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.

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