I don’t remember a lot of details about classes at school, but I do remember two things from my religious education class. I was probably 12, and had a nun teaching the class. One day the Hare Krishnas came in to do a presentation and taught us a chant and gave us some strange home made candy. The other class I remember was when the teacher was talking about the feeding of the five thousand. She said, “I don’t believe that Jesus increased those boys loaves and fish into enough to feed everyone. The real miracle was that he was willing to share, and when others saw this, they were moved and decided they had enough so that they could share too. Then they found there was more than enough for everyone with many baskets left over. That was the true miracle.”
While I didn’t know what to do with this information, it has stuck with me since. I think both because it opened up my thinking about the Bible in a whole new way, but also because it struck me that if this were true…. If this boy could open up others to be generous and share what they had, then we all had that possibility of encouraging the awareness of abundance. And this abundance is not abundance for one, but for many…. Not only those gathered but the poor who were not there also who were fed with the 12 baskets of left overs.
So often when churches talk about abundance, they do so with a very narrow view of who is to be helped with this. I was in Angola for 7 weeks, and one day we attended a church service in a pentecostal church. The methodist churches we had visited were basic…..They took place under trees or in half built churches, plastic chairs for pews and dirt floors. Those without chairs threw a piece of fabric on the ground to sit on, and each person was dressed in their best clothes, often mended many times over. And these services were filled with a sense of community, drums and singing filled the air and a feast was celebrated after the service. Each person brought something to add to the feast… a fish they had caught in the river, a few tomatoes from their garden, a small bag of rice. And everyone had more than enough to eat. The feast was followed by more singing and drumming and dancing and laughter, and was a real joy to be a part of.
But at the pentecostal church the preaching was very different. This church was in the capital city…. A far cry from the village we had been working in. The pastor spoke about abundance. The offerings were collected several times throughout the service, with people going up four or five times to put a coin in the basket, dancing and trying to look happy as they went. The people still poor, but trying to look their best and all dressed in white.. a totally unpractical color for those red dust covered streets… The service was long and the sermon filled with images of Gods wrath. The basic message was if you give to God, you will be blessed with more. If you don’t give enough, you will suffer in poverty for the rest of your life. These people had almost nothing. And they were being told to give what they did have and threatened that if they did not give more than they could really afford, God would punish them with a life of poverty.. when the reality was that very few had a chance to get out of poverty with no education, scare jobs and no way up… Yet the pastors lived in nice homes, were driving around in fancy cars and dressed in clean, new looking suits.
As we listened, I felt sick to my stomach. These pastors were getting rich off the people they were supposed to be caring for. They were using shame and guilt and fear to trick the people out of their money, creating even deeper levels of poverty for these folk who had been brain washed to believe that if only they stretched their giving a little more they too, could become rich just like the pastor preaching to them who must surely have been blessed by God.
After the service the pastors climbed into their cars, surrounded by their cheering congregation, and were driven by their chauffeurs home to their mansions far from the mud huts and slums their congregation returned to. And their congregation members returned to picking through the garbage piles for something to eat or sell, carrying fruit from the market on their heads between the lanes of traffic jams, hoping to sell enough to buy a piece of bread or small bag of rice for dinner that night, their stomachs growling and their shame of not having enough to give to God so that God would bless them growing in their hearts.
This way of doing church is based on the prosperity gospel and is predatory in nature. It most often moves into places where the poverty levels are high and people are desperate for change to take place in their lives. Charismatic people come in, all dressed up in riches, and preach that this is available to everyone if only they both give and believe in the right ways.
Yet this is a far cry from anything Jesus ever taught. Instead, he found a young boy and asked him to share, and his sharing multiplied so all all may be fed. Not just Jesus and his disciples, not just the 5,000 men in the crowd, not even just the probably additional 20,000 in the crowd made up of women and children who were not counted, but even those who were marginalized, unable to be there for whatever reason…. Whether they were working or too weak or had been cast out or were in prison. These, too, were taken care of by the extra 12 baskets of food.
The Psalm we heard today speaks to the evil of the ways of these prosperity gospel pastors when it says, “They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one.
Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and do not call upon God?
For it seems to me that the pastors I heard that day had forgotten to call upon God. Instead they chose to prey upon the people as they ate bread…. Bread which the people did not have.
But I also think it is a trap that we can fall into as well. We look at our life and see how hard we have to work to make ends meet, to be successful to have enough, or even an abundance. And we look at those who don’t have enough and find it easy to blame them for their lack. We may find ourselves saying things like, “If only they worked harder….. if only they stopped drinking so much….. if only they had gotten a better education.” Our blame can go on with a long list of what we think they could or should do to help themselves. But what we often don’t see is the mom working two or three part time jobs because no one employer wants to pay benefits or help with day care costs. We don’t see the dad who had to leave school early to take care of a sick parent and several siblings. And even if there are choices people have made to put them in a position where there truly is not enough, it is not ours to either judge or prey upon them by telling them to do something that will cause us to gain, like those pentecostal pastors.
Rather, our job is to do what Jesus did that day. To say, “what do we have.” And yes… what do WE have. Not what do you have or what do I have, but what do we, collectively have. And to take that, meager as it may be, and turn it in to plenty, remembering even to make it in to plenty to share with those on the margins who don’t or can’t show up for the actual feast because they feel unworthy or unwelcome or just don’t know it’s there for all.
One of the sisters from St. Ben’s sent me a video yesterday about a non profit in Spokane, Washington called Feast. It began with a man, Ross, with a food truck called Compass Breakfast Wagon. He would go to farmers markets and parks and serve breakfast to people. One day a woman came to his food truck and asked if he did other meals, but he was always done by noon. She was a refugee from Jordon, and had begun cooking for friends and neighbor who really liked her food. She began a catering business but was looking to expand and she asked if he might be willing to let her use the food truck to serve dinner a couple of times a week. Ross had been praying to see why he was here, what he was being called to do with his business, and Maisa, the woman from Jordan, seemed like an answer to his prayers. They sat down and worked out the details, and soon the Compass Breakfast Wagon had changed its name to just The Compass. Ross served breakfast, Maisa served dinner, the two sharing the one food truck. Word got out, and other refugees from different countries began to ask if they could use the Compass on other nights, and soon Ross realized they needed a bigger space. They came together and bought an abandoned restaurant space, and now there are about a dozen chefs who use the space for their own catering businesses but also to serve take out to people, and each cooks food from their homeland! As CoVid restrictions are easing, Feast is turning into a full service restaurant where, for example this week, you can get food from Kenya on Wednesday, India on Thursday, Jordan on Friday, Syria on Saturday and Vietnam on Sunday. Each evening a different cuisine from a homeland that had become unsafe to live in. This has brought the neighborhood closer together….. where before the refugee population was viewed with suspicion, now they are becoming more visible and integrated into the neighborhood, all through food and conversation!
So, in the end, I don’t think it really matters if the boy’s five loaves and two fish inspired others to give, or if Jesus literally multiplied them…. The important thing was that this boy was willing to share what he had. Whether he thought it was a lot or a little, he was able to share, without hesitation, for the good of all. Not just for a select few, but so everyone could have enough, even those who were not there. His meager offering stretched way beyond the boundaries of feeding the five thousand men, the twenty something thousand women and children. It stretched beyond the ones who were present, and fed the ones who were not even there. And what a miracles that is!
So, I challenge us to think about what we have, that may not seem like it is a lot, that we can share. Both personally and as a congregation. Is it space? Food? Money? Time? Love? An invitation to join to one who is seeking? Or an invitation to the great Feast to one who is hungry? What do you and what do we have to share?
We are going to take a couple of minutes to pray with this questions, and then on the card you have, I invite you to start writing ideas, and leave them in the offering plate as you leave. This is just the beginning of listening to how God is inviting us to share, so I encourage you to continue to pray and share your idea.
We have something. We may not have a food truck or restaurant space. We may not have bread and fish. But we have something! The world needs it! How can we share? How can we be part of the miracle that Jesus is doing?