Sermon preached by the Reverend Adam Yates
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – July 29, 2012
There is a church that I know, located in a small and economically depressed Midwestern town, with a tiny worshiping community. The few parishioners that were there were unable to support the operation of the church on their own—every month was a close call and they only stayed afloat through the financial support of the Diocese. When their current priest was sent to them, it was with the instructions from the Diocese to see if the parish could become self-sufficient or else prepare it to be shutdown. The community was defined by its scarcity and its energy was put entirely into trying to make it live month-to-month.
This church is an extreme example of an all-too-common problem in the Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations; parishes all across the church are struggling with dwindling numbers and receding income. While there are some communities, like our own, that are growing in numbers, they do not make up for the losses elsewhere and the overall trend can be seen in our denomination’s slow but steady decline in attendance over the past few years.
Recent articles in major newspapers about the Episcopal Church take note of these trends and feed off of the anxiety that they cause in order to write stories about the demise of the denomination and others like us. While these articles are aimed squarely at the Episcopal Church, I believe that they are speaking to a much larger sense of scarcity that pervades our society.
We live in a world seemingly defined by scarcity. In the news we hear the constant message of budget deficits and spending cuts, whether at a national, state, or local level. We live with a constant fear that our jobs will be lost in the next round of budget cuts, corporate mergers, or simply shipped overseas. It is not an outrageous fear; many of us have already experienced it ourselves or have watched those close to us experience it.
It was a feeling with which the disciples were familiar. They were never wealthy to begin with, and when they started following Jesus, they left behind their livelihoods to travel by foot and boat from town to town. Then Jesus would go pull little stunts like the one in today’s Gospel reading, attracting a large crowd of 5,000, and turning to his disciples to ask, “where shall we buy enough bread?”
I can almost feel the sudden panic as the disciples tried to figure out how they were going to feed everyone when they likely were barely scraping by themselves. I can imagine how they felt because it is the same way we all feel in our present world. In gatherings of clergy, which happen from time to time, we hear stories of churches struggling to make ends meet and trying to decide what program, mission, and outreach cuts can be made to balance the budget for this year. In our own communities we feel helpless as our schools become underfunded, our infrastructure shows its increasing disrepair, and our social safety-nets start falling apart.
The disciples answer Jesus’ question about feeding the 5,000 with despair, “six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little!” It is an insurmountable barrier, all the more absurd because none of them were earning a wage. Like the disciples, in our personal lives, in our broader society, and in our worshiping communities, we try so hard to overcome the obstacle of scarcity, but it seems as though there is always a deficit between what we have and what needs doing.
Jesus seemed unperturbed by this obstacle, however. Taking the only thing on hand, five loaves and two fish from a nearby boy, he breaks the bread and distributes it to everyone in the gathered crowd so that they could have as much as was necessary to satisfy their hunger. And this is the miracle. Everyone did eat their fill, and when they gathered together the remains of the bread, the crumbs filled up twelve baskets.
When we are faced with the seeming insurmountable obstacle of scarcity, we almost instantly forget that we are not in this alone. Did the disciples have six months worth of wages? No. Were five loaves and two fish going to be enough to feed the 5,000 hungry people gathered to hear Jesus speak? No. But Jesus wasn’t relying on the disciples earning a wage or on five loaves and two fish to feed those people; Jesus was relying on God to see to completion the work that needed doing.
When we are confronted by the specter of scarcity, it is so easy to become overwhelmed and paralyzed, afraid to make any step forward, whether it is in our wider society, in our own personal lives, or in the life of our individual worshiping communities or the wider church. By our very nature as mortal, imperfect, created beings, there will always be a deficit between what we have on our own and what needs to be done. But we cannot let fear paralyze us from action! This is the good news my sisters and my brothers, we are not in this alone; we rely on God, and in God there is a great and overflowing bounty.
This is the good news that was overlooked by the various authors predicting the decline and death of the church. The church has survived for two millennia, not because it has always been well funded, not because it has always had high attendance, and not because it has always been socially popular. The church has survived because there have always been those within it who strive to do God’s work, despite the apparent obstacles before them.
Will there be hard realities and difficult choices ahead for the church? Most likely yes. However, so long as we do not let those realities and choices distract us from our work, so long as we rely on God as we seek to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, so long as we seek to do justice, love kindness, and walk with humility with our God, we will not fail. Though in us there is scarcity, in God there is abundance.
The little church in that small Midwestern town eventually grew tired of the constant anxiety of whether they would make it month to month. So one month they decided to take everything that was left in their bank account after they had paid all their bills and use it to buy food to put on a dinner, and they invited everyone in the surrounding community. At the end of the next month they did the same thing, and they kept repeating their actions month after month, so that they always started and ended each month with absolutely nothing, and no one has ever left one of their meals hungry.
My sisters and brothers, there is much work to be done, thanks be to God.