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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