Psalm 145, Deuteronomy 26: 1-11 and John 6: 1-15
So, there was an interesting conversation circulating around my clergy circle this week about the timing of this year’s Chanukah and Thanksgiving. This year, Chanukah and Thanksgiving fall on the same day. On the surface, you might just say “Chanukah’s early” and not give it another thought. But what makes it interesting is that because of the intersection of dates between our Gregorian calendar and the Hebrew lunar calendar you won’t see this happen for another 75,000 years. I was suspicious. I searched all over the Internet, determined that I’d been sold a bill of goods. Surely it was 75 years instead of 75,000! But 75,000 it is.
In the context of our worship service, what is potentially even more interesting is the intersection of purpose between Chanukah and Thanksgiving. Even though Chanukah is one of the lesser Jewish holidays, it is also now one of the most popular, complete with the gift giving and party customs that have been layered upon it – arguably because of its nearness to Christmas. But at its heart, Chanukah celebrates abundance, considering the abundance of oil that God provided during the purification of the Temple after Hellenist control a couple of hundred years before Christ.
A little background: About 175 BC, Antiochus, king of the then-dominant Seleucid Empire, encouraged the desecration of the Temple in Jerusalem. Hellenist priests slaughtered unkosher animals on the altar – that sort of thing. When the Jews eventually regained control of the Temple, Jewish priests immediately took action to re-purify it. As a first step, they lit the temple menorah, which was supposed to burn throughout every night. Apparently, there was only enough ritual oil left to keep the menorah lit for one night. Miraculously, the oil burned 8 days – just long enough to purify another batch. The priests declared a Festival of Dedication (also called the Festival of Lights) to celebrate the miracle of the oil.
The prayers at the lighting of the candles each night of the eight nights of the festival begin, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, sovereign of the universe, who has sanctified us with your commandments and commanded us to light the lights of Chanukah.” – Prayers that praise God for the abundance that God poured over the Jews as they reclaimed their temple in Jerusalem. Just as the oil never stopped burning, the Jews in observance of Chanukah never stop praising God.
Our Thanksgiving holiday has a mixed history. Most American school kids are taught that we’re celebrating the Pilgrim’s first harvest after settling in New England in 1621. The Pilgrims set aside several days of prayer in thanksgiving to God for blessings. For most of us today, Thanksgiving has become more of a secular celebration of an over-abundance of food with family and friends.
As we move to the end of this first phase of our fall Stewardship Campaign, the significance of this confluence of events was not lost on me. This is a time for us all to celebrate God’s abundance with thanksgiving, give praising to God for the blessing God continually pours onto all of our lives. It’s a time for our grateful response.
In the context of this morning’s gospel reading, this is exactly what Jesus was modeling. The story of the feeding of the thousands is reported in all four gospels, indicating that we’d better pay attention. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the feeding followed the beheading of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, as the crowds followed Jesus when he withdrew to pray. In the Gospel of John, the feeding of the thousands is placed in the context of Jesus’s teaching and healing. As the crowds saw the signs that he was doing for the sick, the text reads, they came toward him. – About 5,000 in all. All four gospels use language that sounds similar to our celebration of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper: Jesus took the bread and the fish and gave thanks to God. The word we read from the Greek is eucharistisas – having given thanks – which is where we get Eucharist. After he had given thanks, Jesus had his disciples distribute five barley loaves and two fish to 5,000 people. There was enough to spare.
Jesus performs an act that feels a lot like liturgy around these actions: Jesus took the food. He thanked God. He had his disciples give the food to the people; they were satisfied. The disciples gathered the remnants.
But then something interesting happens. Once we get past the meal occasion, there’s no thank you from the crowd. The crowd isn’t reported to “go and do likewise.” Rather than expressing gratitude and going out into the world in living celebration of the abundance Jesus shared with them that day, the crowd seems to want to hoard Jesus for themselves. Rather than the crowd following Jesus’ example, they try to take Jesus by force and make him their king so that he is required, according to the leadership model of their day, to keep filling the demands and stated priorities never minding the sovereign will of the Lord. They try to take Jesus out of public life – to privatize Jesus like a genie in a bottle who’s forced to fulfill their wishes.
It’s been called a consumer model of Christianity. God gives and God gives and God gives. And we take and we take and we take. We begin to wonder if God will ever give us enough. Can God possibly satiate our desires? Ultimately distrustful in the generosity of God, we struggle to stuff our silos, our bank accounts, our closets. We fail to take our cue from the liturgy of abundance that Jesus models day after day. In doing so, we fail to acknowledge the sovereign will of God to care for one another as God so generously cares for us only to find that our stored grain has rotted, the value of our investment accounts crash, our unworn clothes become laced with moth holes and no one is the better. Walter Brueggeman calls it a “contest between the liturgy of generosity and the myth of scarcity.” This contest produces a transactional model for living that is grounded in fear, leaving us to feel “flat, empty, one dimensional and exhausted.” (Brueggeman says that) “we must confess that … we are torn apart by the conflict between our attraction to the good news of God’s abundance and the power of our belief in scarcity – a belief that (also) makes us greedy, mean and unneighborly.”[i] Eventually, it leaves us sinking into nothingness as such a transaction-based lifestyle is devoid of the relationships that give us life.
It is a matter of faith to yield to the extravagance – the generosity – of God. It is a matter of faith that enables us to reflect the abundance we know from Christ. Brueggeman says that “our faith is not just about spiritual matters; it is about the transformation of the world. The closer we stay to Jesus, the more we will bring a new economy of abundance to the world.” He calls it “elemental” saying, “the creation is infused with the Creator’s generosity, and we can find practices, procedures, and institutions that allow that generosity to work…Our abundance and the poverty of others need to be brought into a new balance,” remembering that when the bread is blessed and broken and shared, there is enough for all.
You might agree that our nation’s failure to provide a living minimum wage is an interruption to the balance God is modeling. Some might say that the national minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is more an illustration of greed. Forbes reports what we know from readily available business statistics: “the purchasing power of the national minimum wage has been on a general downward path since 1968, when it stood at $1.60 – the equivalent of $10.70 in May 2013 dollars.[ii] In the District, the minimum wage of $8.25 is one dollar higher than the national requirement. Only a few weeks ago, there was a veto of legislation that would require major retailers to up the minimum hourly wage to $12.50, which is believed to be the wage that would enable an hourly employee to pay her bills without public assistance.
WalMart’s been outed in as many business journals as liberal left blogs for suppressing local wages through threats to either not build its big box stores in certain cities or to pull out if it’s required to up the amount it pays its workers. While the problem is certainly not WalMart’s to shoulder alone, the sheer volume of sales that WalMart sees each year make it the most visible target for protests. Apparently, WalMart is the country’s largest retail employer “with 1.4 million employees in the US – roughly 10% of the American retail workforce.”[iii] But there is another popularly circulated statistic that is less flattering. “WalMart has become the number one driver behind the growing use of food stamps in the United States with as many as 80% of workers in WalMart stores using food stamps.”[iv] It is argued that this is largely because WalMart’s employees have to purchase food, medical insurance and other benefits at a rate that is not attainable at their present salary.
If we are to be people who call for justice against those institutions that are on a seemingly insatiable quest for “more”, who put additional profits before the welfare of even their own employees, we have to be people who are a living demonstration of what it means to live abundantly, beginning with our personal lives.
They say that “God’s abundance transcends the market economy”[v] and so shall the people of God. During this Stewardship season, we are invited to reconsider our place as consumers of God’s abundance. We are invited instead to see ourselves as the stewards – the disseminators of God’s goodness in this world until the next. We are invited to work for the people who have their voice drowned out and fight for the cause of those who are desperately in need of daily bread. We are invited to follow the model of Christ who took what was available, gave thanks to God, and gave all that he had knowing that there would be some to spare when we trust in the abundance of God.
One obvious way that Western helps to participate in God’s abundant generosity is through our work with Miriam’s Kitchen. While we’re delighted to share our space with the Miriam’s Kitchen staff, operations and guests, in the context of our budgeting process this stewardship season, I’ll tell you what Scott Schenkelberg, CEO of Miriam’s Kitchen told me just last week. Miriam’s contributes less than $85,000 a year to Western out of gratitude for its use of office space, the multipurpose room, our industrial kitchen and meeting rooms. This is nearly a $100,000 discount to fair market value. While we could be prioritizing a different use of our spaces that would probably enable us to close our 2014 budget deficit, Western prioritizes Miriam’s Kitchen as a mission of the church – to the tune of a $100,000 loss of income. Just so you know, Scott is aware that I am sharing that statistic with you so that you can understand more fully how your tithes and offerings are being used.
During this Stewardship season, when you are contemplating your generous response to God’s generosity that never stops, reflect on the gifts that God has given you – the gifts of your family, your health, your happiness, your home, your education, your jobs – all that God has given you. Offer a word of thanks to God who has given this all to you. Continuing to follow the example of Jesus, after you have given thanks, consider how you might distribute those gifts, knowing that you have been given those gifts to share. Maybe you will even consider a tithe – contributing 1/10 of what you have been given, offering from the top of what you have and not from what’s left over. But whatever you offer to the glory of God, offer it joyfully keeping in mind these words also from Luke’s gospel, “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you give, will be the measured you get back. (NRSV Luke 6:38)”
Thanks be to God.
[iv] Ryan, Paddy, “Walmart: America’s real Welfare Queen” as found on DailyKos.com (M.dailykos.com/story/2012/10/10).