Matthew 22:1522; Psalm 99; Matthew 22:1522
Parker Palmer, a wise Quaker writer, told some years ago a story that has been much on my mind these days. Palmer was a passenger on a plane that suffered the fate some of us have experienced. The plane pulled away from the gate, taxied to a far corner of the airport, and just stopped. He could hear the engines wind down, and his heart sank.
The pilot came on the intercom and said, “I have some bad news and some really bad news. The bad news is there’s a storm front in the west, Denver is socked in and shut down. We’ve looked at the alternatives and there are none. So we’ll be staying for a few hours. That’s the bad news. The really bad news is that we have no food and it’s lunch time. Everybody groaned. (This was back when they still served meals on airplanes.) Some passengers started to complain, and some became angry. But then Palmer watched as one of the flight attendants did something remarkable.
She stood up and took the intercom and said, “We’re really sorry folks. We didn’t plan it this way and we really can’t do much about it. I know for some of you this is a big deal—you are really hungry or you have a medical condition and need lunch. Some of you might not care one way or another and some of you need to skip lunch. So I’m going to pass around a couple of breadbaskets and ask everybody to put something in the basket. Some of you brought snack, something to tide you over, some of you have a few LifeSavers or chewing gum or Rolaids. And if you don’t have anything edible, you have a picture of your children or spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend or a bookmark or a business card. Everybody put something in and then we’ll reverse the process. We’ll pass the baskets around again and everyone can take out what he/she needs.
What happened, Palmer said, was amazing. “The griping stopped. People started to root around in pockets and handbags, some got up and opened their suitcases stored in the overhead luggage racks and got out boxes of candy, a salami, a bottle of wine. People were laughing and talking. She had transformed a group of people who were focused on need and deprivation into a community of sharing. A world of scarcity had become a world of abundance.”
The world around us these days is feeling a good deal like the world of those airplane passengers when they first get the bad news. The bad news is that the American economy is in trouble and it’s going to take some time for things to get better. Like those passengers there’s not much we can do about it, and it’s going to take patience. We are already watching large corporations struggling to keep afloat, and know that jobs will be affected.
In fact, Old Testament professor Walter Brueggemann says that we Americans actually believe more in a myth of scarcity than a myth of abundance. The gospel story of abundance, he says, asserts that our life comes from a generous God who loved the world into being, and that our lives will end in God, and that this well-being cannot be taken from us. We are made to live in a world of abundance in which we are not worried or anxious or greedy or driven.
“But if you are like me,” Brueggeman says, “while you read the Bible you keep looking over at the screen to see how the market is doing. If you are like me, you read the Bible on a good day, but you watch the Nike ads every day. And the Nike story says that our beginnings are in our achievements, and that we must create ourselves.” He describes the way some young friends of his with a four year old son had been deeply burdened by the pressure to get him into the right kindergarten, because if they didn’t he would not get into the right private school and would thus never get to the college of his choice. They are living, he says, in a world of scarcity and fear.
When Parker Palmer was getting off the airplane after that flight he stopped and asked the flight attendant, “Do you know there’s a story in the Bible about what you did back there?” It’s about Jesus feeding a lot of people with very little food.” “Yes,” she said, “I know that story. That’s why I did what I did.”
You remember the story. A long day was drawing to a close and thousands of people were out on the hillside where Jesus had been teaching them. But now they were hungry and had nothing to eat. The disciples faced an overwhelming task in feeding so many, with no apparent resources at all. They looked out on a landscape of scarcity. And when Jesus told them to look after the crowds their solution was to send them away by themselves to the surrounding villages to get something to eat. When things are tight it usually seems like it’s everyone for themselves.
But Jesus said, “No, you give them something to eat,” and told the disciples to put the people into groups seated on the grass. The answer to scarcity begins in breaking down the walls that keep us apart, giving people the chance to come out of their isolation and to connect with each other.
Then Jesus tells the disciples to gather up what food they have. He takes the five loaves and two fish, blesses and breaks them, and gives them to the disciples to spread among the people. And, by Mark’s account, “all ate and were filled”—all five thousand.
A world of scarcity gave way to a world of abundance. But how? Of course we could call it a supernatural miracle of multiplication of food. But most likely the crowd experienced a miracle of generosity erupting in their life. Hearing Jesus teach all afternoon of a God who loved each of them infinitely and called them by name, they began to emulate what they saw the disciples doing. They brought out the morsels of food they had carried to get them through the day, no longer feeling the need to hide and protect what they had.
They offered what they had. And it was enough. Those loaves and fishes were no longer a scarce resource to be hoarded, but gifts from God to be used and shared. A world of scarcity became a world of abundance. Jesus had moved the people from fear to generosity, from the kingdom of this world to the Kingdom of God.
That same shift is possible for all of us, even as we face a difficult economy for ourselves and our world. I believe that in a time of lesser resources, God is inviting us to discover a different and deeper abundance than the one we see in the stock market and in the ups and downs of the housing market. We could decide not to be overwhelmed by the challenges of paying bills and caring for children and keeping the things that matter in our lives and our society going. We could decide that even in scarce times we can find abundance, by trusting that when we handle carefully what we have, not isolated and alone but together, God will supply what we need in ways we cannot predict.
Our gospel lesson this morning is about this choice between scarcity and abundance. Jesus’ clever critics are trying to trap him when they ask, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?” “Show me a coin,” Jesus demands, and then asks, “Whose head is on this, and whose title?” It was Tiberius, the emperor or Caesar of Rome. And Jesus offers a brilliantly wise response: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.”
Caesar’s is a world of scarcity—of power and wealth, of economics and competition—and in his world there is never enough for everyone. But Jesus was pointing to another world, God’s world, the world to which we owe primary loyalty. Give to God, he says, the things that are God’s. And for a Jew, and a Christian, there was no question what that meant. Everything, everything is God’s—the air we breathe, this small planet spinning at 25,000 miles an hour through space, the friends and family we’re given, the talents we use to create our lives. It’s all gratis. All given.
We Christians see ourselves as stewards of resources that belong to God. Our job is not to own and possess but to manage what we have generously been given for God’s work. The classic Christian way is to give a percentage of our income off the top back to God. Rendering to God what is God’s. And the standard for giving has always been the tithe—giving 10% of our income to God’s work through the church and other organizations.
I read recently that in a recession, as many as one-third of the non-profits will have to close their doors because endowments have shrunk and revenues have gone sharply down. And yet my guess is there will continue to be immense resources available across the country, if we are willing to be people of abundance.
I remember coming across a statistic a few years ago that if everyone in the Episcopal Church were living on welfare, and they were to give to the Church a tithe of 10%, the financial well being of the Church would shoot up sharply. There is more abundance in our lives than we can imagine if we pull together—giving out of abundance.
Here at this Cathedral, and I would guess in the home congregations of our visitors, we too are facing the challenges of a difficult financial time, and in this fall season of Stewardship and asking people to give, we will be asking people to stretch and be more generous if they can.
After all, if this Cathedral, and your own home congregations, do not serve as a place of healing in stressful times, a place where people can come to encounter God, and a place where they can bring their hopes and struggles and wounds, where will people go?
If we do not offer God’s love and wisdom to the harried people of this city and nation, where will they turn?
If we do not offer a moral vision of self-sacrifice and generosity today and to a new generation of young people, who will?
If we in this Cathedral or you in your home church do not bring people from across this and every city together to proclaim that an alienated, frightened society is a denial of a loving God, who will?
If we do not go the halls of government and to the shelters of our city to be Christ’s arms and hands, who will?
But if we can live like those airplane passengers, and those listeners on the hillside, we will know God’s abundance even in a time of scarcity, and can make an immense difference.
And I have to say, with the election approaching, I am praying that we will elect leaders who can bring the abundance out in us as a nation even in time of scarcity. That means leaders who will reach across the divides of economics and partisanship and class and geography and call us to sacrifice, to undertake the disciplines we need to strengthen our economy, care for our climate, to make sure everyone has health care, that every child can get a decent education. I hope our new president will call for a generation of volunteerism and service unseen since the Depression years. There is an abundance of gifts and goodwill waiting to be called out of us for the sake of healing our nation and our world.
Jesus took the smallest of resources and created an abundance. He gave to God the things that were God’s and there was more than enough. And he promises to do that for us, our families, and our nation and world in the months ahead if we will trust him and offer what we have and who we are.
There does exist in our nation and world enough—food, shelter, income, clean air, medical treatment—for everyone, in our communities, in our world to live. The only question is, will we learn to live together the abundant life Jesus calls us to.
What a gift we’re being given now—in this hard time—to learn what real abundance is all about.