Sermon by: Robert Austell
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What is God up to? We have seen that God came among us in Jesus Christ, making a home with humanity in order to reveal God’s glory or face. We have seen this mission born out in Jesus’ words and actions as he extended grace and spoke truth into the lives of people like Zaccheus and the Samaritan woman at the well.
I’ve also shared some stories about what is going on in and around this church, and it seems apparent to me that God is up to something. It is a sign to me that, for years, you have taken the lighthouse metaphor seriously, continuing to gather devotedly to love God, welcome new folks among us, and care for one another in need. It is also increasingly evident that you are taking the searchlight metaphor seriously, engaging more and more with those around us as we try to “love our neighbors.”
At the same time, it is evident that to love God well, and love one another well – inside and outside the church – that’s a God-sized challenge. We are only a small church, one might argue. Best, perhaps, that we hunker down in a challenging economy and an increasingly secular culture and have good sermons, sweet fellowship, and maintain what we’ve got.
Today’s text hits on a number of these challenges and issues, and I’d like to work through it with you as we consider what God is doing and what our part in that is to be.
A God-Sized Challenge
In today’s text, there was a God-sized challenge. On the surface of it, the challenge was trying to feed 5,000 men (and perhaps more women and children) who had come out to see and hear Jesus. As we read and follow the story, we find out that there was an even greater spiritual challenge, somehow conveying to those gathered that Jesus was sent from God, the very bread of life. We just read the story of the feeding of the 5,000, but after the disciples cross the lake, the crowd finds Jesus on the other side and he goes on to reveal who he is and what God is up to. The miraculous feeding serves as backdrop to that teaching. We’ll come back to that God-sized challenge in a moment.
First, let me make a connection to what I believe God is doing with us. I believe we have our own God-sized challenge, inside and outside our walls.
Outside our walls, we are being challenged to be good neighbors, to love those all around us with grace and truth. In recent weeks we have fleshed out what some of those needs are and what some of those neighbors look like. But being salt and light to a neighborhood, much less a city, is truly a God-sized challenge. There is far more need, human and spiritual, than we can begin to wrap our minds around. And one easy way to deal with the size and scope of it is to do nothing at all. But I don’t think God will let it go.
We’ve spent a lot of time and energy in the last eight weeks talking about this mission outside the walls, but our mission inside the walls hasn’t gone away or diminished in the least. We are still challenged to be family to one another within the walls. And even limited to the members and visitors we currently have, that’s a God-sized challenge.
More than ever, we are challenged to be a lighthouse – offering safe harbor, sanctuary, light, and love to all who gather here. And more than ever, in a world hurting and looking for some hopeful news, we are challenged to be a searchlight – going first to those nearby with grace and truth as Jesus did in all these passages we’ve looked at in recent weeks.
But wow, the needs are so great. I think we can have some sense of how the disciples felt when Jesus turned to them and said, “Where are we to buy bread so that these may eat?” (v. 5)
We read that Jesus already knew what he was going to do, but asked this question to test the disciples. And we get to hear two different responses. Let’s look at those.
The first disciple to respond was Philip. Philip would have made a great accountant. We probably would put him on the finance committee. He counted up the people and calculated the cost, which was substantial. He answered Jesus, “Two hundred denarii of bread would not be enough, and then they would only get a little.” A denarius was a standard day’s wage for a laborer. I can just imagine the rest of the math. “Well, there’s 12 disciples – John’s too young to earn much and nobody would want to hire an ex tax collector like Matthew – that leaves 10 of us working for 20 days and we’d only be able to come up with a bite for each person. Definitely there’s no way to do anything at a moment’s notice.” Jesus doesn’t say so explicitly, but I don’t think Philip passed the test.
Andrew came up with a different idea. He found a boy willing to share his lunch and Andrew presented it to Jesus as an option. Maybe he remembered Jesus turning water into wine – 180 gallons of it at the wedding of their friends in Cana. Or maybe he didn’t know what Jesus would do, but decided to mention the little bit of food he had found. It proved to be the right thing for Jesus to use.
I think now about our own context and the God-sized challenges before us, both inside and outside the walls. I think about myself – even as small as our church is, how can I really care for 250 people well? There’s only so many hours in the day. I think about each of you. We all carry many of our own personal burdens; how can we care for all the needs represented even here in this room? And then to think about the challenge to be neighbors to those outside the walls. Wow – that’s where the number crunchers would sympathize with Philip. It’s not like we have an endless supply of money. Anything but; remember we had to cut back hours on key ministry staff this year. Several members are out of work and money is tight for everyone. How are we supposed to expand our ministry to meet all these needs? Full-time staff, more income, a big stewardship campaign – it would only scratch the surface of what is needed.
Then there’s Andrew’s approach. With or without a miracle, I recognize that collectively we can multiply skills and resources. I can’t meet all the needs of 250 people, but with your help, we can care for one another with love and grace. Likewise, I can’t single-handedly be salt and light to our neighbors; I am not your hired missionary. Rather, each of us is to be a minister and missionary. My role really is that of Andrew in the story. My role is to call out and equip you for the ministry of the church. My role is to say, inasmuch as I can see it, “Here’s what God is doing; how can you be a part?” My role is to invite your participation in what God is doing.
What About You?
So here’s my favorite part about this story, and it’s an insight I only had recently. For many years I focused on Jesus and the miracle, or on the disciples; but rarely did I focus on the boy. And Jesus and the miracle are the main point of this, for he goes on to teach that his mission is more important than miraculous signs, even one as big as feeding the crowd. He is the very bread of Heaven, sent from God to be spiritual food and nourishment… real food and nourishment, even more than the physical food we so desperately need to live.
But today I want to focus with you on the boy. I identified my role with the disciples as those challenged with inviting participation in what God is doing. And we really don’t want to confuse ourselves with Jesus – that’s not our part in the story. But that is where we often put ourselves in our modern context. There is great need all around us, inside and outside the church – and we think we have to be the solution to that need. We have to save lives and save souls. But that is a God-sized challenge and a God-sized miracle, and that is God’s mission and work in the world.
Our role as followers of Christ is to be the boy who offered his lunch. When we see and hear what God is doing, our role is to say, “Here’s what I have, and God, you can have it.” That’s it! And if I were going to talk about stewardship, that is what I would say. Our job is not to hit a magic goal of giving or to fund a certain number of programs or staff. God’s invitation is to be a part of what He is doing and our stewardship – our Christian response – is to say, “Here’s what I have, and God, you can have it.” As little as it was, the boy gave it all! And he got it back in full as he became part of Jesus’ great work there.
I’m not saying mortgage your house and write me a check for all you are worth. I am inviting you to consider deeply what God is doing around you and through this church and offer what you have in faith.
Roles in God’s Drama
I’m also not talking just about money; let me explain. God is the prime actor and mover. He will accomplish His God-sized mission. The question – the test – is whether we will be a part of it, or just go our merry way out of tune and out of step with what God is up to in the world and in our lives.
One reason I so love this story is that you and I are not responsible for feeding the crowd. We don’t have to save the world. Trust me, that is a great relief to me as a pastor and a finite human being! What we are responsible for and invited to do is share what we have.
I am here to call out and equip, based on the possibility of what God can do rather than the limitation of what we can do. For goodness sake, you are a 250 member church (and a good 60 of those are kids)! Every statistic says we are part of the shrinking American mainline church with less and less influence in our culture. But look what God is doing with our “lunch!”
And when you ponder what the God-sized challenges before us, whether inside the church or outside the church or even in your own personal life, don’t let the enemy dismiss you.
You will hear the voices in your head; you may even hear them out loud from some: “You are too young… or too old. You’re too sick. You are too financially strapped. You have emotional hang-ups. Your marriage is on the edge. You have doubts. You have fears. You aren’t good enough. You aren’t smart enough.”
But listen to the truth – to God’s own truth: God is on the move, here and all around us. God’s job is to accomplish the God-sized challenge. My job and the church’s job is to invite and equip you to be a part of what God is doing.
You are simply invited to be faithful with what you have… to say ‘yes’ to God and offer what you have – your small lunch. And in that small act of obedience, God will accomplish what He sets out to do, to the glory and honor of His name on the earth. Amen.