Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then the Lord said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’
The Christian faith is a strange thing. I mean, think about it— every week we get together, and we profess allegiance to a God who chose to reveal God’s self to the world in the most powerless, helpless form possible— that of an infant. And we’re not even talking about a royal infant. God didn’t come to us in the form of a prince, or the son of a mighty warrior. He came to us as the son of a poor carpenter— a nobody from the nowhere town of Nazareth. So there’s that. But then of course, this God that we follow also chose to hang out with the poorest, most questionable, most vulnerable people he could find— fishermen and tax collectors, lepers and prostitutes. And so, not only did God choose to come to us in the most powerless form possible, he then chose to associate himself with the most powerless people possible. And it doesn’t even end there. In addition to all of that, God then chose to become even more powerless, by letting himself, in human form, be arrested, persecuted, tormented and brutally killed. He gave up all of his earthly power to become just as powerless—maybe even more so—than those he fought to protect while he walked in human form upon this earth. That’s the God we come here every week to worship and pledge our allegiance to as Christians—the God of the powerless, the God of the weak and the vulnerable, the God who said, “blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” It’s a strange thing— this faith we profess.
I say it’s a strange thing because power is something that most of us, if we’re being honest, wish we had a little bit more of in our lives. We wish we had more power at work, especially when it comes to difficult co-workers or micro-managing bosses. We wish we had more power at home, especially when it comes to unruly children, or opinionated spouses, or hyper critical in-laws. We wish we had more political power—particularly right now, in the middle of an election season, it’s easy to feel like our voices don’t really matter, or like no one is really listening to what matters to us. We wish we had more power when it comes to things like fighting climate change or world poverty, human trafficking or global terrorism. We wish we had more power to protect the people we love from things like grief, or disease, or suffering, or even death. In all of these things, we all wish we could be more powerful, not less, and so why on earth would we choose to come to church every week to be disciples of a man who tells us that in order to have true life, we must first die to ourselves, give up our power and our wealth, and become like a servant to others? What on earth do any of us have to gain by following such a path?
Yet here we are. And indeed, for thousands of years, with the exception of maybe a few blips on the radar screen, Christianity has survived and thrived precisely because of it’s claim to be a faith that holds special concern— not for the powerful and the privileged— but for the powerless and the vulnerable. Even before the days of Jesus, our Jewish ancestors too, claimed that theirs was a God who held a preferential option for the poor and the oppressed. It was the God of Israel, after all, who said to a young man named Moses, who stood in front of a burning bush, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.’ And who did God choose to lead the people out of their misery? A powerful warrior? A rich and influential political figure? No. A man with virtually no power himself— a fugitive shepherd, full of self doubt, who elsewhere in scripture describes himself as slow of speech and slow of tongue. At one point in the book of Exodus, Moses is described as one of the most humble men to ever walk the face of the earth. And this is who God chose to break the chains of the Egyptians and lead an entire people into freedom. A humble shepherd.
The point that God seems to be trying to make here is one that we humans seem to be awfully resistant to, which is that God is squarely on the side of the poor, the vulnerable, and the powerless in our world. We humans usually want to align ourselves with the powerful. Indeed, we would preferably like to be among the powerful in this world. But God has shown us in scripture, time and time again, that God’s heart beats for the poor, and if we want our hearts to beat more like God’s heart then we are called to stand at the margins and fight for the powerless in our world. We are called to stand up for the poor, to align ourselves with the vulnerable, and to advocate for the oppressed. We are called to be friend to the immigrant and refugee. We are called to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. This is all part of what it looks like to “Be the Church.”
Now maybe, like Moses, we hear this call, and we say to ourselves and to God, “who am I?” Who am I to take on the powers that be? Who am I to stand up to the political machine? Who am I to make a difference in this world? Well if there’s one thing that’s clear when reading through the pages of scripture, it’s that God doesn’t always call the most powerful, most eloquent, most successful people to do this work. In fact, more often than not, God calls ordinary, everyday people- people just like you and me. People who make mistakes and are full of self doubt. People like Moses— a wandering fugitive shepherd. People like Peter— a fisherman and laborer. God calls us, not because we are so powerful, but because we are endowed by the spirit with the power of love. And sisters and brothers, at the end of the day, that’s what it all comes down to. It’s not worldly power we need to do this work, it’s love. We fight for the powerless, first and foremost, by loving them. And through that love, we gain all the power we will ever need. Through that love, we gain the power of the Holy Spirit, and the power of a liberating and resurrecting God. Through that love, we part seas and move mountains. Through that love, we have the power the transform lives.
Moses stood in front of burning bush and heard God’s call to free his people. He didn’t know how he would do it, but he heeded the call anyway, and what followed was nothing short of miraculous. What might happen, if we heed the call for ourselves? What seas might we part? What mountains might we move? Let us, together, as a church, heed the call and find out.
Amen, and may it ever be so.
Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to the crowd, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’
When I was in seminary, my preaching professors always warned us against making any kind of grand pronouncements from the pulpit. Be careful what you state as universal truth— they would say— because not all statements are going to be true for all people, in all times, and in all places. I think that’s pretty good advice. However, I also think it’s pretty fair to say, with a reasonable amount of certainty— in this time and in this place— that we live in anxious times. We live in a time when we are anxious about money, we are anxious about politics, we are anxious about job security, and we are anxious about our safety and our children’s safety in what is becoming an increasingly violent and dangerous world. We live in anxious times. And that cultural anxiety that’s floating around out there may effect all of us differently, to different degrees, but it’s the rare person among us whose life is not touched by it in one way or another.
In our passage for this morning, we read of a man who is also anxious. He comes to Jesus with a problem. He is fighting over his inheritance with his brother, and wishes Jesus to step in and mediate. But, as is so often the case, Jesus does not do what is expected or demanded of him. Jesus refuses to be the arbitrator, and instead of course, what does he do? He tells a story. He reminds his listeners of that age-old truism--that material wealth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Today’s passage is a story about the folly of that longstanding myth that material wealth will bring us happiness, security, and freedom from anxiety. It is a forceful and powerful reminder that one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions and one’s security does not rest in one’s material worth.
This is all well and good, and I certainly believe all of that to be true. Yet as I prepared for this morning’s sermon, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a certain absurdity to this parable given the anxiety of the times in which we currently live. Is it absurd, I wondered, to talk about amassing unhealthy amounts of material wealth when more than 45 million Americans live in poverty? Is it absurd to talk about the folly of storing up riches when millions of people in our country are unemployed or underemployed, and don’t know where their next meal is coming from, or how they will make their mortgage payment this month? Outside our own country, nearly half the world’s population lives on less than two or three dollars a day. Is it absurd to talk about having too much, when so many people have so little? In the midst of so much cultural anxiety about whether or not we will be able to take care of ourselves and future generations, I find myself asking the question, what does this story have to say to us, in the midst of this very anxious historical moment?
I think perhaps one clue to the answer to this question lies in the very last line of the passage. Jesus explains that the rich man is a fool because he has stored up treasures for himself but was not rich towards God. Now Jesus doesn’t exactly elaborate on what it actually means to be rich towards God, but I think the answer is there to be found, if we’re paying close enough attention.
Notice what the rich man says to himself when considering what to do with all the wealth he has amassed. He says to himself, “I will pull down my barns and build larger ones. And there I will store all my grain and goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘eat, drink and be merry.’” You see, it’s all about the pronouns. Never once in all his deliberations does the rich man think of anyone but himself. If he has a family, we are given no indication that he gives them any consideration. It’s all about him— his barn, his grain, his goods, his soul. The man is not rich towards God, because he thinks only of his own wellbeing. He is oriented only towards himself and his own security— not giving even a second thought to the security or well-being of others.
This is important to note because one of the overwhelming themes found throughout the Gospel of Luke is the injunction to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, and in particular, to give special consideration to the poor and needy among us. Throughout the Gospel of Luke, we are called to a kind of radical re-orientation of our lives— a re-orientation away from our own selfish desires, away from our obsession with the kind of false security that we think money can buy. We are called to strive, not for material wealth and security, but rather, for richness of the heart— richness of those values that we proclaim to be at the very heart of God— values such as compassion, generosity, mercy, and love of neighbor. Richness towards God requires an orientation in the world that recognizes that we cannot be concerned only with ourselves or only with our own security, but that we are meant to live our lives in community with others, recognizing our interconnection and interdependence.
And so in this way, we can begin to better understand what Jesus might have meant by this idea of being rich towards God. We can understand that there are in fact a number of ways that we can be like the rich fool, even if we aren’t rich, even if we are simply trying to get by. Because at the end of the day, this isn’t really a story about how much we have or don’t have. It’s not so about whether we are rich or poor, or somewhere in between. It’s about how we orient ourselves in the world. In the midst of our anxiety, do we shut down and shut out others who are in need or do we open ourselves up to a way of life that affirms our interdependence and interconnection with others?
We may live in anxious times, and we may worry from time to time, and that’s okay. But honestly, it’s how we respond to that anxiety that reveals the true depth of our character. It’s important not to let our worries and anxieties blind us from the needs of others or isolate us from our loved ones and our communities. It’s important not to let our anxiety blind us to the truth which we already know— that truth which is proclaimed so profoundly in the 12th chapter of the Gospel of Luke— which is that God is our refuge, God is our strength. It is in God that we find true security, and it is in the gift of the Holy Spirit, which infuses our communities, that we find true richness and abundance.
In a year when anxiety about our security— both economic and otherwise— has taken center stage in our political elections, as Christians, we must not become distracted by the political noise. We must not forget that true greatness, true security, and true wealth lies not in the contents of our bank accounts, or the size of our military, or even our status in the world, but in the state of our hearts. To be rich towards God means that we are rich in the fruits of the spirit— love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. To be rich towards God means a radical reorientation of our spiritual posture— remembering that we do not build up riches in this world for ourselves alone, but rather, that we are called to build up beloved communities together— communities where we care for the least among us— where the hungry are fed, the stranger is welcomed, the poor and lowly are lifted up, and given a place of honor at the table. That’s what it means to be rich towards God, and as Christians, that is how we are called to live.
Children of God, may we strive always towards this kind of richness— in our hearts, in our community, and in our world. And in doing so, may we begin to reveal the greatest treasure we could ever hope to enjoy— the very kingdom of God itself.
Amen, and may it ever be so.
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
I was always a pretty good student in school— easily getting A’s on my report cards, breezing through my homework, earning accolades from my teachers— in every subject but for one— MATH. I used to agonize over my math homework every night— I seem to recall at least one incident of throwing the textbook across the room in an act of pure desperation and frustration. I was just never very good at math. Still, you don’t have to be a math genius to know that the numbers in today’s Gospel reading just don’t add up. Five loaves of bread and two pieces fish divided by 5000 people simply does not compute. That equation does not work.
And yet, Jesus seems completely confident that his numbers will add up. And so it appears on the surface that maybe Jesus wasn’t so good at math either. I mean, think about it, it’s not just this story. There’s the parable of the talents, where the wages that are used up actually multiply, while the ones that are saved remain stagnant. Or there’s the parable of the workers in the vineyard, where those who work only an hour get paid a full day’s worth of wages. There are all those stories in which the lost are saved, the last are first, the poor are fed, and the rich are sent empty away. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think I’ve finally found something that I really have in common with Jesus. We both really stink at math!
Then again, maybe it’s not all about the numbers. Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe sometimes, we get so hung up on the numbers that we miss the ushering in of the kingdom of God right before our very eyes—the kind of kingdom where a meager gift of five loaves of bread and two pieces of fish become the ingredients needed for a heavenly feast.
Now one can speculate as to how this actually happened. Maybe as the bread and fish were passed around, other people shared what little food they had brought, until it was revealed that when everyone shares what they have, there is enough for all to be fed. Maybe. Or maybe Jesus really did perform a miracle, and maybe only those who were there that day can truly understand what happened. The point is, one way or another, when we’re talking about Jesus and the kingdom of God, it’s no ordinary, elementary school math that we’re talking about. We’re not talking about calculus or geometry, algebra or trigonometry. We’re talking about a new kind of math. A heavenly math. A kingdom math. The kind of math where one simple gift can be multiplied to feed thousands.
A few weeks ago, members of the Park Church youth group and confirmation class got to experience, first hand, how this kind of kingdom math works. For two days, we visited the Heifer International Farm in Rutland, MA to learn more about the work of this organization, and how they use kingdom math to help bring thousands of people out of poverty every year. The kids learned what it would be like to live in poverty in a developing country, and they learned about some of the hardships that families in those kinds of situations would have to face every day. For instance, having only one member of the group who was literate, or not having enough money to buy all the food they needed at the market, or having their usually quiet and unassuming pastor turned into an annoying toddler for the night while they tried to gather supplies for dinner and assemble a fire to cook it on. So they learned a lot about hardship. But paradoxically, they also learned about abundance. They learned, for example, that the gift of one flock of chicks could provide enough eggs for a family to eat and to sell at the market, giving them not only food for their table, but also a sustainable income for things like sending their children to school, or buying much needed medical supplies. Not only that, but over time, the chicks would multiply, allowing the family to share their wealth with other families in their town or village. And soon, other families would benefit from what was once a single, humble gift. Heifer International calls this process “passing on the gift.” Me, I like to call it kingdom math— when one simple gift is multiplied into an abundance beyond imagining.
We could use a little more of this kingdom math in our world today. And I’m not just saying that because of my own deficiency in worldly math. I say that because we live in a world where there is a deep underlying fear that there just isn’t enough to go around. Certainly this fear is nothing new. It’s right there in our Gospel text for today as well. When Jesus tells his disciples to provide food for the hungry crowd, they look at him like he’s gone crazy— “we have nothing here but five loaves of bread and two fish,” they say, “send the crowd away so they can go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Let them fend for themselves, they say, we don’t have enough. But Jesus isn’t worried about having enough because he is operating on kingdom math. He is operating out of a sense of compassion and abundance, while the disciples are operating out of a sense of scarcity and fear. And the truth is, so much of the time, we operate out of that same sense of scarcity. When it appears there isn’t enough to go around, we react much more often with the fear of the disciples rather than with the compassion of Jesus. But it’s compassion that makes the whole kingdom math thing work to begin with. Scripture says that Jesus looked out on the crowd and had compassion on them. It is in cultivating the compassion of Jesus, even in the face of uncertainty or fear— perhaps especially in the face of uncertainty or fear— that we start to change the equation. Compassion is where kingdom math begins.
It is interesting, I think, to note that this is the only miracle that appears in all four of the gospels. Many miracles appear in Matthew, Luke, and Mark, but not in John. Some miracles are only found in John, and not in the other three. This is the only miracle found in all four accounts of Jesus’ life. This is important to observe because it is largely agreed by many biblical scholars that the more frequency a story about Jesus has, the more likely it is to have actually occurred. This means that of all the miracles Jesus performed, this one is the most likely of all to have actually happened, and to have actually happened in the way that it is recorded, considering that the details of the story change very little from one Gospel to the next. The frequency of the story also indicates the level of it’s importance to Jesus’ early disciples. The Gospel writers don’t always seem to agree about what’s most important to include but they agreed about this. So the point is, we have a pretty good indication that this story actually happened, and that it was an extremely important moment for the early church. Now clearly, it is important because it is such an impressive display of Jesus’ power. But I would also make the case that it’s important because it gives us a glimpse of God’s kingdom- a kingdom in which the hungry are always fed, a kingdom in which there is always enough to go around, a kingdom in which compassion rules over fear, a kingdom which we can be a part of— we just need to operate with a little more of that kingdom math.
We live in a world where need can sometimes feel overwhelming. Whether it’s the needs of refugees in the middle east or whether it’s the needs of the homeless and hungry in our own city, it can sometimes feel as if there truly isn’t enough to go around. Our small gifts, our humble acts of compassion, can so often feel inadequate in the face of so much need. But what this story reminds us of is that our small gifts and our humble acts of compassion can indeed be multiplied to have enormous impact. That’s kingdom math. And so we must not fall into despair, we must not fall prey to hopelessness or cynicism, because we are endowed by our creator with the power to bring forth the kingdom of God here on earth. That power was poured out upon all flesh at Pentecost and continues to dwell within us today. The key to unlocking that power is compassion and faith. Compassion for those who are in need. And faith that our humble gifts can and will make a difference. That’s kingdom math and that’s what it takes to usher in the kingdom of God.