07/29/2018 Sermon

Elisa Owen
July 29, 2018
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church


Biblical Abundance

John 6:  1-21

This feeding of the 5000 a very fundamental story for understanding who the God we worship is, and what she is about.  One of the most important messages of this story?  Where the Spirit of God is recognized and invited in, there is freedom from want and freedom from fear.  There is overprovision.  Or as the Psalmist tells us “cups overflowing.”  Growing up into Christ means the expansion, by grace, of our ability to trust this truth.  Sanctification must look like deepening trust that God, in the Spirit, is nigh and active producing abundance.  Why do I say this?  Consider that there are only 11 narratives that have found their way into all 4 gospels.  And only 3 of those occur separate from the passion narratives themselves.  This story is one of the 3.

So, given that the gospels all highlight this story, which reveals something obviously essential to knowing Jesus and living in the Spirit I ask you, Do we believe Jesus actually did this?  Do we live like we believe Jesus still multiplies “loaves and fishes” by the power of the Spirit so they become not just food for the few but food for “a thousand” or even more?  And that Jesus has and will continue to do just that through this church on the corner of Crescent Ave and Westminter Court, outpost of the Kingdom of God in our world since 1890?  Think on these questions a brief moment.  Then I will tell you why I ask.

I ask these questions because our answer to them at any given moment on any given day may be a reflection on how we understand the nature of the church:  both Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church, and the Church catholic, or universal.   And I ask because the way a majority of us understands the church, according to an article in the Presbyterian Outlook last month, may reflect on the spiritual health of our congregation.[1]  The essence of that article is this:  “healthy congregations tend to focus, not on what they lack, but rather on the God that makes all things possible.”  The article goes on, “some years ago I was visiting churches in an area of the country suffering a decline due to changes in agriculture.  Communities were shrinking and along with them, their churches.  I sensed that for many of the congregations this was the end of the story.  But then in one church with similar circumstances I heard something different.  After speaking about their own loss and decline, one of the elders of this congregation said, “We know we can’t do church the way we have done church before.  So, we are asking God, “what do you want us to be doing now?”  These folks had moved beyond functional atheism, the mistake of thinking God is limited to what they can do with their own hands and feet and hearts, and were preparing themselves for a new adventure with a living and present God.  A God of overprovision.  Not scarcity.  Not scarcity of money, or of people to labor in the field with us.

Now, before I get too far into talking about health, let me be clear.  As with individual human beings, no church is healthy in all aspects of its life all the time.  That said, my firm conviction that this church where I have the privilege of serving as transitional pastor healthy in the way I describe, reliance on the Spirit, in much of its life much of the time.  So, I am not introducing this discussion about the church’s spiritual health because I am announcing a dire diagnosis as your transitional pastor about the entirety of your life together.  This discussion is, instead, a lectionary inspired invitation to you to think with me about where and how we might be more mindful of unhealthy traps like functional atheism, feeling like God’s spirit wind is NOT at our back so its all up to us, that all of us get drawn into some of the time.

In his book, Let Your Life Speak:  Listening to the Voice of Vocation, Parker J. Palmer writes about functional atheism.   Functional atheism, Palmer explains is not intentionally adopted but instead creeps into all of our minds and hearts some of the time rather unconsciously,  over time.  And, those who bear the burden of leadership, who deal with institutional administration, budgets, fundraising, management of buildings, programs and volunteers are especially at risk of coming to unconsciously act as though the responsibility for what happens in the church is all on us.  And as the leaders go, so goes the church.  When this happens we go from being God’s intention for the church, outposts of God’s activity in the world, to functioning like “religious do it yourself projects.”[2]

The alternative to this?  Encouraging one another to bet on the Spirit who dwells among us by consciously choosing to live acts of faith more often than not.  What might look like?  A couple of examples. One of my favorite scenes from literature, a story that takes my breath away no matter how many times I revisit it, is the scene with the priest in Hugo’s Les Miserables.   You likely know it well.  Jean Val Jean, the main character in the novel has escaped from prison.  But he left what he sees as an unjust incarceration for being hungry and stealing bread to provide for his famished family angry, desperate, seemingly turned hard and mean forever by his harsh and demeaning experiences.  One night he stays with a priest and a couple of nuns after he is invited in while wandering the countryside.  They treat him with overwhelming grace, giving him clothes, good food, a chance to wash and even setting the dinner table with 2 silver candlesticks fit for a king.  Jean Val Jean goes to bed but stays awake until the priest and nuns are asleep.  He slips from bed and steals the silver candlesticks, intending to use proceeds form their sale to provide for his deep need.  But he is caught as he tries to sell them and returned to the home of the priest so he can press charges.  But the priest tells the police the candlesticks have been a gift freely given.  No charges are pressed.  Once the gendarmes leave the priest says, “I have bought your soul with two pieces of silver.”  But , with this act, was this priest betting on his own power to heal Jean Val Jean of his anger, grief and desperation?  No, he bet on the Spirit of God in Christ, whom he trusted was between them.  And Jean Val Jean proved, by grace, to be worthy of the grace the priest gave away.  And in Jean Val Jean’s subsequently faithful life, enabled by the Holy Spirit, the 5 barley loaves and 3 fishes worth of faith the priest had to his name were profoundly multiplied.

Ever had an exercise buddy?  If so you have experienced the reality that 1+1 person does not =2.  Training for a race many a morning me and my running buddy showed up early, 6 am, admitting to each other that had we been alone both of us would have stayed in bed.  What got us up?  The Spirit functioning between us.  A simple example of the truth that “where 2 or 3 or gathered there I am, among you.”

Build a bed.  Where we betting on the beds?  Or on the Spirit of love that would be present and active between us and the kids who are now sleeping better, and their families, once they received our tokens of care, and our tokens of belief that the Spirit was and is active and multiplying the effort we made.

ELL.  The Chinese family that has returned home, but left that ministry this spring convinced of the reality of a God of love that we know in Christ.  Through our classes, through the ELL community the Spirit was present, and multiplied in the fledgling faith of this family as they begin their new life in China.

Last week a recent immigrant came to see me, as your representative, in the church office.    She came to me through Kashama’s recommendation.  Kashama, for anyone who does not know, pastors the French Language Outreach Ministry, or FLOM, that meets in our sanctuary every Saturday.  I have been speaking with him about how we can be more actively supportive of his congregation.  So, he sent this person to me when she shared with him the fact that she was facing scarcity, no place to live, and was afraid.  She and her husband have 3 children, all under 6, one 15 months.  They left another state for Kentucky in search of work, and have found this very week found it for them both.  But they did not have money saved for a security deposit and a first month’s rent on an apartment.  What savings they had was dwindled over the course of the act of faith they took in moving.  So she needed $400 to enable she and her husband to get the keys to an apartment for them Friday.  So I gave it to her on your behalf.  From my pastor emergency fund.  But I was a bit nervous.  Nervous because I never am that big a spender, usually give of that fund in 50 to 75 dollar increments to make sure it goes as far as it can go.  Helps as many as possible.  But I felt called to do more.  To bet not on the Spirit whose working I sensed brought her to us.  She came to pick up our check on Friday.  I’d like to pray for her and her family today.  We prayed together before she left.  We both finished praying, in fact, with tears in our eyes.  She whispered to me, I felt power.  Power when you prayed.   Power indeed.  The Spirit’s, not mine, or anyone’s.  The power that belongs to God, and God’s ability to bring something out of what seems at first glance to be nothing.  Nothing but two hopeful but doubtful women coming together to ask God to be present.  And active.  Which is everything.

This power to multiply, to make one and one more than two is the power represented in the table, and in the water.  The power that for more than 20 centuries has entered the world through outposts of the Kingdom of God like this very one.  The power that the do it yourself disciples discovered at the end of our passage this morning.  The power that they let into their boat as they were engaged in a do it yourself rowing project across a stormy lake that stood between them and Capernaum.  In spite of their fear of the storm assailing their small boat, or maybe because of it, the disciples were moved to bet on the Word with a capital W they knew in Christ.  The one walking across the water toward them.  And as soon as he was allowed to join them in their boat, as soon as they realized he was truly with and for them, the one that had had made a miracle of abundance out of 5 barley loaves and 3 fish, as soon as they were “willing to take him definitively into their boat, or their church?, we are told they “immediately” reached the shore where they were heading.

May it be so for you and for me, for this church that we all love.

Elisa Owen


[1] Regarding ruling elders:  “Its not all about us.”  from News and Articles from The Presbyterian Outlook, July 13, 2018 by the Presbyterian News Service.

[2] Regarding ruling elders:  “Its not all about us.”  from News and Articles from The Presbyterian Outlook, July 13, 2018 by the Presbyterian News Service.