[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]
True story. A rural congregation was dying. Its membership was dwindling and growing older. They asked a church consultant from their denomination to spend some time with them and help them to figure out what to do. Some of the members thought it might be time to close up shop and almost nobody believed that they could afford a pastor. The consultant worshiped with the people there on a Sunday morning and then, through the week, interviewed them and also spent time in their community. Then, he met with the church members one night at a potluck, to give them his recommendations.
“You have a decision to make,” the consultant told the people. “You must decide whether or not you trust that God still has a mission for you.” Blank faces abounded. “Sometimes,” the consultant persisted, “it boils down to finding the one thing you have that God can use. What’s the one thing you have here right now that might help you share God’s love and so, grow spiritually or numerically as a church?”
There was silence for a while. Then, one man spoke up. “Well, we’re really good at potlucks.” Everybody laughed. They laughed, in part, because they recognized the man’s comment to be true. They were good at potlucks. But there was another reason: It seemed like such a small thing, so inconsequential. They were facing a mountain of red ink, the expenses associated with keeping their building facilities going, weariness and discouragement, and maybe even closing down altogether. What good were potlucks?
“Wait a minute!” the consultant said. “Do you all agree that your church is good at potlucks?” People nodded in affirmation all around. “Folks,” he said, “God can use the one thing He’s given to you. You have the spiritual gift of potlucks. Why don’t you become known as the potluck church?”
The congregation decided to have potlucks once a month. They determined a good time of the week when others in the community could join them for these events. The members were intentional about inviting their friends and neighbors. They geared each potluck to some occasion—Saint Patrick’s Day, the start of baseball season, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Independence Day, and so on. Within a few months, whenever these potlucks happened, their fellowship hall was filled with people, some of whom had never before darkened the door of a church building. There were no altar calls or hymns, no Creeds, or tracts, or Bible studies during the potlucks, just a Christian congregation welcoming people for a time of fellowship with its neighbors.
A year after his first meetings with them, the consultant returned to the little rural church. A couple of new families had joined and there had been several baptisms, all from households that, out of curiosity, had come to one of the potlucks and had stuck around because they found in the church that was good at potlucks a new faith in Christ and a new congregational family.
When I first heard that church consultant tell the story of the congregation at a conference I attended, I thought of another true story, that of Jesus feeding the 5000. All four of the gospel writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—tell about this incident. The account we’re looking at today is from John.
According to John, Jesus is just sitting down with His disciples when He looks up and sees this throng of people, attracted to Him by His miracles of healing, which they’d seen or heard about.
In first century Judea, where Jesus lived, teachers sat down whenever they were ready to teach. That’s what Jesus was about to do when He noticed the crowd. Whatever Jesus might have otherwise told the disciples in words, He now teaches them in action.
With the crowd coming toward them, Jesus turns to Philip. This, by the way, isn’t the Philip we met in one of our lessons from the New Testament book of Acts a few months ago; you know, the lay person who helped the Ethiopian eunuch to understand what the prophet Isaiah had written about Jesus hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus.
Instead, this is Philip the Apostle. He was one of the first people to follow Jesus. He was the guy who ran to his friend Nathanael and said of Jesus, “We’ve found the one that Moses and the prophets said would come, the Messiah: Jesus of Nazareth.” He was the one of whom Nathanael asked his question, “Can anything good come out of teeny, tiny, insignificant Nazareth?” And Philip had been so convinced that Jesus was the Savior of the world, he had told Nathanael simply, “Come and see.”
But now, sitting on a mountain that many Bible scholars believe was close to Philip’s hometown of Bethsaida on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, seeing 5000 people surging toward him, Philip’s faith isn’t quite so sure. To test that faith, Jesus asks Philip, “Where are we going to get the bread we need to feed this brood?” Philip says, “You couldn’t buy enough for all of them with half a year’s worth of laborer’s wages!” Philip can’t imagine how the Lord he’s already seen do so much could possibly feed all these people.
And he’s not the only disciple whose faith comes up short in our lesson. Andrew, another of Jesus’ first followers, evidently makes a quick survey and tells Jesus, “There’s a little kid here with five small loaves of barley and two fish. Can’t do much with that!”
Philip and Andrew were like the members of that rural church. They couldn’t imagine what God might be able to do if they simply yielded themselves to the God they already knew in Jesus. “All we’re really good at is potlucks,” the people of the rural church had said. “All we’ve got is a few scraps of bread and some fish,” Andrew said.
Maybe part of what prevented Andrew and Philip from believing that Jesus could or would do anything about feeding the 5000, apart from the sheer numbers, is that feeding them was so unnecessary. They were just a few miles from a sea teeming with fish, not far from towns where they could buy bread and fish for themselves. John, our Gospel writer, gives no indication that the people were hungry or were even asking for food.
But the Lord Who teaches us to acknowledge that God is the giver, in the words of Jesus’ brother, James, “of every good and perfect gift,” the Lord Who teaches us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” as a way of confessing that God provides for the daily needs of every person on the planet, daily needs that would be fulfilled if it weren’t for the sin and selfishness of the human race, this Lord wants to teach us something else.
Jesus has the 5000 people sit down and, you know what happens next. He manages to feed all of the people with twelve baskets left over.
Jesus wants to do more than just provide us with our daily bread. He wants to bless us extravagantly, overabundantly. In our second lesson, taken from the New Testament book of Ephesians, we read a doxology, a word of glory to God, that includes these words: “Now to Him Who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to Him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus to all generations…”
A little boy gives Jesus what He has and Jesus not only blesses Him with an extravagant sign of His grace and love, Jesus uses the offering to bless 5000 people.
A struggling rural church offers Jesus the one thing they feel that they can do and Jesus uses it to spread the good news that all who will turn from sin and believe in Him will have life with Him and His Church for eternity.
Someone gives $1.30 to the work of Gideons International, covering the cost of a New Testament that changes the life of some child in Africa or Asia by introducing them to Christ.*
What offerings to God might we make to act as conduits of God’s extravagant love and grace?
A good friend of mine took a trip by plane recently. He was struggling with the question of how God could possibly use him in his life. What good could he do that others might not do better? He found himself seated next to a young woman with whom he struck up a conversation. There were a lot of bad things going on in this earnest young woman’s life and my friend spent most of their flight just listening. While she spoke, he asked God how he might help this young woman. As their flight neared its end, frustrated that there had seemed to be no answer to his prayer, my friend asked the young woman if she would like to pray. Clearly touched, she said, “Yes, I would.” They prayed. Then came the hubbub of announcements before the plane made its final descent and then the crush of people, all anxious to get off the plane. My friend didn’t see the young woman or have any more opportunity to speak with her…until she found him in the terminal. She walked up to him and held out her hand to shake his. “Thank you so much. I feel better now,” she told him. “You were my angel.” My friend knew that God has blessed him as well as that young woman.
God wants to bless you. God wants to use you to be a blessing to others, extravagantly, more than we can think to pray for or imagine. Each day, before your feet hit the floor, give your life to the God you know through the risen Jesus. You may be surprised by the big things God can do with what may seem little insignificant to you. Amen
*We welcomed Mr. Homer Baxley, who made a presentation on the Gideons during our worship today.