Generosity of Spirit | Sermon from 7/29/18

A couple had a dream: found their own restaurant. After laboring for quite a while, they found themselves ready. In their North Carolina town, they had a chance to live their dream! They’d stocked the freezer and shelves, they had all the right equipment, they were done with their renovations. Having invested their savings and sweat equity into this new venture, they awaited the final step before opening: approval from the local health inspector.

Then, Hurricane Hugo hit. While their town was 200 miles inland, the storm was so powerful it affected their town. Many buildings were destroyed and much of the town was without power. Much of it, except for their restaurant. Miraculously, it had survived and had power. But all around them, devastation was wrought. Many people were scrounging for food, trying to not open their refrigerators. Grocery stores were without power and unable to open. First responders in the town had little food on site and were themselves without power.

This couple faced a choice. Should they open up and serve the people? They could not charge for their food because they did not, yet, have a license to do so. Any service they’d provide would be for free, draining much of the resources they had put into their restaurant. People were hungry, but they faced the threat of financial ruin if they were to open up and offer to serve people food. They were the only place in the whole town capable of doing so, but should they?

People were hungry. There was a need. Should they meet it? If so, how?

That’s the question that faces Jesus and the disciples. A crowd is following Jesus around. They’ve come to a spot where they’re hungry, tired, and ready to eat. All that appears to be available is five loaves and two fishes. What will they do? It’s a question that goes beyond simply addressing hunger. The disciples are surely aware how hungry, tired, crowds can quickly turn against their leaders. With the sea to their backs, they’re trapped if the crowd were to turn on them. So there’s some urgency to the matter.

Jesus responds with one of his most famous miracles, the only miracle of Jesus recorded in all four gospels, the feeding of the five thousand. Hear now John 6:1-14:

“After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he 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.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

Such a powerful story! Jesus, seen here, is full of power. He not only feeds the people, meeting the need, he goes above and beyond to provide in abundance. There are twelve baskets full of leftovers! This is an incredible sign, and the people knew it as they exclaim that surely this is the prophet, this is the messiah, this is the one they’ve been waiting for.

Jesus is proving who he is through this miracle. He’s demonstrating that he’s more than just another great teacher, more than just another prophet, more than any label the people could put on him. He’s more, and he provides more than asked or imagined. Jesus is of abundance.

What a powerful story! But was it a one time affair?

Our couple with the restaurant that survived Hurricane Hugo surely would want some security that they’d experience their own miracle like this before they start feeding people. They face financial ruin if they just give away all the food they’d stocked. They face the ire of the health department if they’re going to serve food, even if they don’t charge for it. They are up against a wall. Common sense says to keep it closed and wait for help to come, even if people are starving. What good is it if they serve food, if they give of what they have, if they are broke and closed afterwards? Good sense says they need to take care of themselves first.

Take care of yourself first so you can care for others. That’s the mantra of helping professions everywhere: nurses, teachers, counselors, pastors. Make sure you have enough because your first priority is yourself and your family. That’s the mantra of life for us. After all, what good is it to give away all your wealth if your family is homeless?

We must protect ourselves. That’s why we buy insurance, it’s why we save money for a rainy day, it’s why we limit our charitable giving, it’s why we say no to things. Countless times in my life, I have faced moments where I felt I didn’t have the energy to engage in the task in front of me. Life demanded that I go and do, but I was already worn down by other responsibilities. And so I have often said no, wanting to preserve my energy so that I can be the best for the people in my life. We have to make these choices because resources are scarce.

We face scarcity of resources all the time. There’s never an abundance of money. There’s never an abundance of energy. There’s never an abundance of good will. There’s never an abundance of happiness. There’s never an abundance of anything, it seems. Which means we must secure what resources we have, ensure that they’re used wisely, and take care of ourselves.

That’s why common sense says that this couple should keep the restaurant closed. They must take care of themselves, for their future livelihood depends on it. They only have so much food, they only have so much money, most of which is invested in the restaurant, they only have so much to give. And so, they must guard what they have to give, ensuring that it’s used wisely and properly.

But this story, this miracle, seems to suggest the opposite. Give, without regard. That’s the witness of this boy. He gave of his lunch without concern for his family, whom it was supposed to feed. He chose to give at the expense of first taking care of his family. That’s inspiring, but we know that if we constantly give without regard, we will have nothing left.

So we’re faced with a conundrum. A scripture that calls us to give without regard. Lived experience that tells us to regard our giving carefully, ensuring that we take care of our primary responsibilities first. What are we to do?

We might expect the answer to be that Jesus calls us to give without regard. But I don’t think that’s the case.

Scripture, you may know, speaks to managing resources more than anything else. Specifically, it speaks of money more than anything else, but we can add to that witness all of the verses, especially in the Old Testament, that speak to wise management of crops, of power, of relationships, of any resource we could imagine. Even Jesus gives parables that speak to wise management of resources. Scripture, taken as a whole, doesn’t call us to give without regard; it calls on us to regard our giving carefully, wisely managing the resources entrusted to us.

So perhaps this story is just a one time miracle, meant only to demonstrate that Jesus is more than just a person, more than just a teacher, more than just a healer, more than any title the people, or we today, could put upon him? Perhaps John retells this story, the only miracle recorded in all four gospels, because of the powerful way it speaks to who Jesus is?

The couple looked at their restaurant and the hungry people all around. It didn’t take them long to make a decision, for they felt the call of God upon their lives clearly. That call said to open up, serve people for free, and feed as many as possible.

As they opened up, word spread around the town quickly that there was a place to get food, and a hot meal at that. They cooked and cooked and cooked and started to run out of food. Word spread that they were running out, and so people went to their refrigerators and brought food to the restaurant. Those who knew the couple spoke about the history of the restaurant: that it hadn’t quite opened, that the couple had put their life savings into the place. Donations began to be left by those who had visited the restaurant.

They cooked and served until the power came back on. They fed first responders until they were no longer needed. People continued to bring food from their homes and leave donations. At the end of their time as the sole food provider for the town, the couple discovered they had more food in their pantry and freezer than they’d had before the storm. And they had more money than they’d had prior to Hurricane Hugo’s arrival. Quickly thereafter, they received their license and opened up shop in a better position than before the storm.

They chose generosity. They fed the five thousand, and then some. They ended up their feeding of the masses with more than they had before. They lived the miracle in this story.

And often we hear that we’re to be that generous, too. That is the witness of countless sermons on this scripture, it’s the call of commentaries, it’s the traditional interpretation. But I agree with the witness of scripture and the witness of our lives that we have limited resources and so we must manage them wisely.

So what are we to make of this scripture? Of this powerful story of the couple with their restaurant in North Carolina?

There’s an important caveat missing from the traditional retelling of this story. We must be generous without regard to the cost, but only when Jesus calls us to do so.

We learn that lesson from the boy.

The boy almost gets missed in this story. Jesus is famous for taking the five loaves and two fish and feeding five thousand out of it. But those loaves and fish came from somewhere. In my memory, I hadn’t ever thought of where the initial food came from. A disciple noticed that this boy had some food. He pointed it out to Jesus. At some point between this moment and Jesus feeding everyone out of the boy’s food, he must have asked the boy for the food. There was a conversation, unrecorded, and however brief, between the boy and Jesus.

And in that moment, the boy had a choice. Do I follow the command of Jesus to give up my food or do I keep it to provide for me and my family? The boy chose obedience.

And that’s the caveat to this story: the very necessary caveat that allows us to be generous and wise stewards of our resources at the same time. We must be obedient when Jesus calls us to extraordinary generosity and only when Jesus calls upon us.

We’re not called to generosity in every circumstance. We’re not, because we’re incapable of meeting every need. Only Jesus can do that. We don’t have the energy to go and sit with everyone in this town who’s lonely, and there are many. We don’t have the time to go and volunteer at every volunteer opportunity in this town, and there are plenty. We don’t have the money to give to every charity that asks of us, and there are tons. We’re only one person, only one family.

And we are called, both by experience and scripture, to care for our families, to take care of ourselves. I would be a fool if I didn’t regularly and habitually engage in self-care to ensure that I do no harm as a pastor. I must watch my energy resources, watch my extroverted resources since I’m an introvert, must watch my mood, to ensure that I’m taking care of myself so that I can properly take care of you.

But sometimes, Jesus calls me to go above and beyond. Sometimes, Jesus calls all of us to go above and beyond. And it’s in those moments that we’re like the boy: faced with the choice of giving of our limited resources generously, of giving of our fives loaves and two fish, in order to be obedient to Jesus’s call on our lives.

That’s a tough choice, for we worry about those resources being replaced. We’re aware only of limits, but the moral of this story is that where we see limits, God sees an abundance of opportunity. We are of scarcity but God is of abundance.

Where we are obedient, we provide more than we could ask or imagine. Where we give of our five loaves and two fish, God multiplies our giving into providing for the masses. When each of us chooses to follow the urge to be generous when it comes, we together, as a church, can accomplish far more than we could ask or imagine. If each of the 150 of us who worship here, on average, were obedient when the call upon our lives came to be generous, we’d see God change this entire community, for that’s what God does with our giving: multiplies our efforts far beyond our expectations.

Consider the generosity we show for the backpack ministry. Hundreds of children are fed throughout the school year off of an average collection of around $700 once a month. Our several hundred dollars goes far beyond our expectations and imaginations. That’s the power of each of us responding to that urge to be generous: God takes it and multiplies it.

We know that urge. It’s the feeling to give of our money when it doesn’t make sense to do so or even when it feels threatening to our financial stability. It’s that urge to give of our time when we feel we don’t have any to give. It’s that urge to give of our energy when we’re depleted. It’s that urge to give of anything we have when we feel like we shouldn’t.

That urge doesn’t feel like guilt. That’s not the way the Holy Spirit calls upon us to be generous. The urge feels like a shove, a push, inside of us to go and give, without the pangs of guilt, and usually when it doesn’t make sense to give. And when that urge comes, even if we’re called upon to give up all that we have of a particular resource, even if all we have are fives loaves and two fish, we’re to be like the boy: generous.

We can be that way because we have this guarantee from God: there will be provision, and an abundance thereof.

God is a God of abundance, not scarcity. Over and over again throughout scripture, God gives abundantly. In Exodus, as the people are fleeing Pharaoh, God gives far more freedom and care than the people ask or imagine. In the wilderness, God gives them far more food than they could ask or imagine. In the land they come to occupy, God gives them far more resources than they could ask or imagine. In their sins as a nation, God gives them far more mercy than they could ask or imagine. In Jesus Christ, God gave us far more grace than we could ask or imagine. And through the Holy Spirit, we have far more power than we could ask or imagine.

God is a God of abundance, not scarcity. When there’s a call on our lives to give generously, especially when that giving doesn’t make sense, our duty is to give, with the confidence of faith that God will provide for us and provide abundantly.

That’s the witness of this boy. That’s the witness of these restauranteurs. That’s the witness of any of us who have experienced God math. That’s the witness of my life. Over and over again, I have experienced that urge and, when I have been obedient, there’s been an abundance of blessing as a result. In every experience in my life where I gave out of obedience, I received an abundance as a result.

We don’t give so that we can get abundance. That’s prosperity gospel and it’s bunk. But we can be assured that abundance will follow us if we’re obedient when God calls upon us, like the boy, to be generous.

Not only abundance, but multiplication. God’s call on your life to be generous is one among many, for God calls on each of us with regularity to be generous. It takes all of us, together, responding when that call comes to see the power of generosity at work. The restauranteurs would have never seen the miracle they did if only one, or if even only a few, people had brought food or left donations. God works through us individually and as a community. All of us must respond when that call comes.

So the next time that call comes on your life, the next time you feel that urge that’s free of guilt, the next time you’re convinced that you’re supposed to give of some resource in your life even though it doesn’t make sense, give. Give of your five loaves and two fish of energy. Give of your five loaves and two fish of money. Give of your five loaves and two fish of time. Give of your five loaves and two fish of care. Give of your five loaves and two fish of your land. Give of your five loaves and two fish of your business. Give of your five loaves and two fish of your mercy. Give of your five loaves and two fish of your grace.

Give of your five loaves and two fish. Do so without fear. God is of abundance, not scarcity. Where God has placed a call on your life to be generous, God will provide. If God has called you to that generosity, an abundance will follow. So be obedient; be like the unsung hero of this story; be like the boy.

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

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