*This post is lightly adapted from a message given by Andy for ESR (Earlham School of Religion) Day at Richmond First Friends Meeting in Richmond, Indiana.
Good morning, Friends. It’s great to be here to worship with you and share with you all. I will say to you what I said to Winchester Friends a couple months ago that I’m not sure about this whole 9:30 worship time. Because, in my experience, the Holy Spirit doesn’t say or do much of anything until about 10:00 or so. The Inner Light isn’t quite awake until then. But I’m beginning to wonder if maybe I’m wrong; I may have to change my theology.
I’ve made my way around the Quaker world and have friends across the Q Continuum. I don’t really fit well into any one box. So I usually just identify as a Christ-centered Quaker.
In that spirit, I want to start off sharing two things involving Christ: one is a quote involving Christ, the other is a story involving Christ.
First, the quote. It’s attributed to William Penn:
The adventure of the Christian life begins when we dare to do what we could never tackle without Christ.
We may also put it this way:
The adventure of the Quaker life begins when we dare to do what we could never tackle without Christ.
The story involving Christ is the one that we heard read a few minutes ago. You may know it as “The Feeding of the 5,000”– I prefer to call it the story of Jesus feeding the multitude. Whatever you call it, it’s a pretty incredible story with many dimensions. Since Derek said I only have 45 minutes, I won’t be able to unpack all the details.
The angle I want to explore with you this morning has to do with the contrast between Jesus and the disciples. Jesus and the disciples are both tired, both hungry; presumably, they both care about others who are hurting and hungry. So, why did Jesus and the disciples respond in such different ways?
The disciples responded by saying: “Send the crowd away. Let them go somewhere else to figure it out and fight it out.”
Whereas Jesus responded by sharing his gifts and moved toward the people in their need. He told the disciples: “No, they do not need to go somewhere else. You give them something to eat.”
In saying this, Jesus is reinforcing the reality of two things. He’s reinforcing the reality of responsibility: we are indeed the keepers of our neighbors and siblings. And he’s reinforcing the reality of resources: what we need is here; it’s more than enough and it’s available.
The disciples assumed that they had neither the responsibility nor the resources to do anything for those people in that place.
In other words, the disciples looked out at the people and the place and saw scarcity. They had nothing, the crowd had nothing, and they were in the middle of nowhere.
Jesus looked out at the people and the place and saw a hidden abundance.
When you look out at the Richmond community and the surrounding region, what do you see? Scarcity or abundance? A place of promise and possibility or deficit and decline?
When you look around you at this community of faith, of Friends, what do you see? Scarcity or abundance? A place of promise and possibility or deficit and decline?
The answer is probably a mix of both. Life is a mix of both. But, like the disciples, left to our devices–or perhaps, left to our conceptions–we will miss the beauty and bounty of this time and this place and these people. And we will forgo the opportunities and responsibilities that are ours to carry together. The disciples needed taught. We often need taught. And thankfully, Jesus is a great teacher.
Let’s pause there for a second and consider the experience of Thomas Merton. If you’re around me long enough, you’re likely to hear me reference either Wendell Berry or Thomas Merton. Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk who joined a monastery in Kentucky in 1941. And when he joined, it was largely as an escape. It was a way of resisting the busyness, rootlessness, and violence of the world for the stability and sanctity of a monastic community. But over time, his concept of God and love and holiness began to grow. One experience in particular was formative in that shift. In 1958, he was running some errands in Louisville, when he had a revelation. He describes it this way:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness…This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud…I have the immense joy of being human, a member of a race in which God [chose to become] incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
If only we could see it. If only we could realize it. But there is no way of telling people. Maybe Merton is right, but Jesus was dedicated to trying to teach people to see in this new way: to see the kingdom coming, to see the hidden abundance, to see the potential of people and places.
So, how does Jesus go about teaching this new way of seeing and interacting? Well, the disciples learn through at least 4 practices:
First, taking inventory. Jesus sits through the disciples’ powerpoint presentation about the budget and how they don’t have enough to help the people and then asks them a simple question: how many loaves do you have? He shifts the focus from what is absent, missing, or lacking to what is present, possible, and positive. There is a shift happening these days in community development work away from a problem-focused approach to an asset-focused approach. There is a lot of wisdom in this and I think this is consistent with how Jesus often functioned.
Second, creating community. Jesus divides up the crowd into a cluster of several smaller groups. In doing so, he basically transforms the massive, faceless crowd into a network of small, intimate, face-to-face communities. This is why we need local meetings and churches and potlucks and those nasty committees. This is why we need “third spaces” like coffee shops, restaurants, baseball fields, and public parks.
Third, offering gratitude. Jesus gathers up what had been collected and lifts it up in gratitude. Gratitude has a way of revealing abundance. It has a way of reframing little as much and fewness as fullness. It also reminds us that our whatever we do have and however much we do have comes from the Giver of all Good Gifts.
Fourth and finally, preserving memory. After the miracle was over, Jesus tells the disciples to clean up the leftovers from the party. One way to think of this is as a way to remember the miracle, to process the event, to cherish its memory. The Hebrew people carried with them a jar of manna throughout their travels. It reminded them of God’s surprising and faithful provision. It’s hard to have hope for the future and recover abundance unless we keep close these memories of God’s past presence and activity. Remembered rightly, memories from the past can help lure us into the future.
So, in summary: Jesus taught his disciples–and teaches us, his disciples–to recover abundance by joining him in taking inventory, creating community, offering gratitude, and preserving memory.
These kinds of practices are especially important in rural communities. We have all kind of ways in our vocabulary to reinforce a sense of inferiority and scarcity about rural places and people. They are backwoods, backwards, rednecks, hillbillies living in flyover country, red states, Trump country, the middle of nowhere, just a bunch of cornfields. How do we recover a sense of abundance in this place and among these people? That has been a central part of my own work and ministry.
While Richmond may not exactly be a rural community (depends on who you ask), you are caught up in a relationship with rural culture around you and with the rural landscapes that surround you. What do you do with that relationship? What would right relationship look like?
I don’t know you all very well but I’m encouraged by what I hear and see. You are active in loving your neighbors with the food pantry, demonstrating earth care with your solar power project, and joining other Friends in their efforts to realize peace and justice at home and abroad. And, you support ESR.
None of these ventures or initiatives or ministries would be possible with a scarcity mentality. If we do not have enough, if abundant life isn’t possible, if the kingdom is only to come later, if we have neither responsibilities nor resources, we are wise to do nothing. To see no evil, hear no evil, name no evil. We are also wise to see no leadings, hear no leadings, name no leadings. But when we recover a sense of abundance and possibility we can participate in miracles. We can name leadings and experiment and risk and put up financial, social, and spiritual capital to invest in new miracles. Somehow, our little meetings make a difference in our community and country. Somehow, our little lives touch other lives who touch other lives who touch other lives. Somehow, little Quaker seminary becomes–humble brag warning– “seminaries that change the world.”
I’ve benefited as a result. You have benefited as a result. And perhaps the Present Christ is here to remind us that the resources and responsibilities for these relationships and institutions continue.
The adventure of the Christian/Quaker life begins when we dare to do what we could never tackle without Christ.
- How have you experienced the temptations of a scarcity mentality or the opportunities of an abundance mentality?
- How do you sense Christ reaffirming responsibility and resources for you and this community?
- What kind of holy work is happening in this region that is often overlooked by people from other places?