Saint James Fordham • Lent 4b 2005 • Tobias S Haller BSGThe season of Lent, as I noted a few weeks back, is a traditional time for restricting some of our ordinary activities, not because they are bad for us, but so as to increase our awareness and sharpen our senses and sensibilities a bit: as Benjamin Franklin once observed, hunger makes the best appetizer! But on this fourth Sunday of Lent, it is also traditional to “lighten up” just a little bit — just as in Advent, we change to rose vestments instead of purple just for one day.
Andrew said, There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they among so many people?
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Our Scripture readings start us off on a still-somber note, however. We hear of Jerusalem’s infidelity, its sinful priests and people. You know, things were bad in the Temple long before Jesus came storming in with that whip of cords we talked about last week. In spite of the warnings of the prophets, in spite of the dedication of their ancestors, who suffered so much to settle in the land, and build the Temple to God’s glory, the people and priests in Jeremiah’s day have been unfaithful, defiling God’s house, and despising God’s word. As Jeremiah tells us, the women at home were baking little crescent cakes in honor of the moon goddess, and in the temple itself idols had been set up by priests more interested in profit than in prophecy, to honor gods that were not God. So the people and priests alike have been punished and sent into exile in Babylon.
Yet by the end of this passage, the violet bruises of exile have turned rosy under God’s healing touch, and the good news comes that Cyrus is going to rebuild the temple and let the captives return home.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians continues the rosy view. He describes the immeasurable riches of God’s grace; and then the Gospel tells us how Jesus fed the multitude with just five loaves and two fish. In short, today’s Scriptures lift us up for a moment above the sadness of Lent, and give us a glimpse of the glory that is there up ahead, on the other side of Calvary.
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But today’s scriptures also give us clear guidance on a subject dear to every pastor’s heart: church growth — but not just in numbers but in faith and in grace. We all want Saint James to grow, to continue to grow; but we want it to grow in the right way and in accordance with God’s will; and there’s more to that than mere numbers. So let’s look at our Scriptures for today and seewhat they tell us about growth.
Right from the start, the reading from Chronicles lets us know that God has to come first. The people of Israel have been growing alright — but in the wrong way. In the interest of quick growth they have compromised and connived with the nations round about them, and begun to worship idols even in the temple itself. Not content with polluting God’s house, they also pollute the land, and to squeeze every last shekel of profit from it they stop observing the Sabbath — letting neither land nor worker rest. You’ll realize, I’m sure, from our reading of the Ten Commandments last week, that they have broken three out of the first four commandments already!
So God allows invaders to burn down the defiled house, and sends the people into exile in Babylon, to let the whole country lie fallow for seventy years worth of Saturdays. This is to teach the people that God comes first, and God is not to be displaced by idols, however popular, whatever the consensus, and that the Sabbath rest is not a suggestion, but a commandment.
God knows that people and fields work better and grow more when they stop working and take a rest once in a while. Few workers are as unproductive as those who are overworked, and few farms are as unproductive as the ones over-plowed and over-harvested, without a chance to recover their fertility through a fallow time.
This is just as true in the church. We can get so busy sometimes in our work for God that we forget God himself in the hectic flurry of the work! The sabbath-time that God gives to us is for us, as Jesus affirmed: “the Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.” The Sabbath allows us time to reflect, to lie fallow for a bit, to regain our perspective, to alter our course if need be, and collect our thoughts and energies, renewed and refreshed and with a new focus on God and God’s will for us. This is part of our reason for Lent: to pause and reflect before we proceed. So our first lesson for church growth is: keep God at the center and take your time.
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The passage from Ephesians picks up on this theme: that growth comes through the grace of God that saves us through faith. We never will grow if we keep doubting God’s promise that we shall grow. And we never will grow if we trust only in ourselves, our own abilities and works. It is God who inspires both the will and the deed, who gives us the impulse to move and the ability to move.
The Church grows because it is the living Body of Christ, not because it’s got the right stewardship program, or a nice music program, or a glossy ad campaign or a healthy endowment fund. All these things may help a church to grow, but if a church is not planted firmly upon the foundation of Jesus Christ it will quickly crumble, and become a desolate habitation instead of a lively presence of God, a spiritual dwelling for the Most High. It is God’s doing, not ours, that makes us grow in grace through faith; it is God’s gift to us, an unearned gift, as Paul told the Ephesians, lest anyone should boast. In fact, tying in the first principle, one of the reasons God asks us to keep the sabbath, to stop working part of the time, is to remind us that we are not doing it on our own: even when we are at rest God is still at work. We can indeed, as the saying puts it, “Let go and let God!”
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And yet, as our Gospel reading shows us, we are not entirely passive participants in God’s enterprise of growth. God takes what we have and transforms it to his ends when we give it up for him to work with.
Notice how Jesus starts off, feigning ignorance, wondering how in the world all of these people are going to be fed, testing the disciples to see what they will come up with. And as in so many other cases the disciples flunk, Philip and Andrew both throwing up their hands because there isn’t enough to go round. But Jesus pays no heed to their concerns, their logical concepts of resource management; he simply takes what is there, gives thanks, and feeds a multitude.
Notice that he starts with thanksgiving. You can guess that Phillip and Andrew are thinking, “Yeah, thanks a lot! Enough for a few sandwiches to feed five thousand!” But Jesus gives thanks for what is rather than worrying about what isn’t. Jesus starts with what he has, which is something — he doesn’t make bread out of stone or thin air. He doesn’t give into the temptation that Satan laid before him in the wilderness. Instead, he makes more bread out of some bread, his thanksgiving transforming what seemed to be too little into enough for everyone to have as much as they wanted.
In the same way God grows the church through us — even when we seem barely able to do the minimum in a world in so much need — God takes us, his own workmanship — when we place ourselves in his hands, and in thanksgiving breaks us — not to destroy us but to use us to enlarge the Body of Christ. God grows the church through the church.
When we place ourselves in God’s hands, and give God thanks for the blessings he gives, and take advantage of what we have — the time and space and means to do God’s work, even if it doesn’t seem like enough — we will find ourselves growing both inwardly and outwardly, in faith and grace and numbers too. Five loaves can feed five thousand, when thankfully placed in God’s hands.
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And this is where the final learning from today’s Scriptures comes in. After the meal on the hillside, after all ate until they were stuffed, Jesus told the disciples to gather up all the fragments left over, so that nothing might be lost.
And that still holds: let nothing, let no one be lost. Some churches keep going as people come and go, flowing in one door because they sniff something they like, and then out the other as their noses get out of joint over this or that. And no one seems to care in these churches with revolving doors because there are always newcomers. But that is not the way God wants the church to grow.
We all know people who left the church over the years for one reason or another. I’m not talking about folks who have moved to North Carolina, mind you, even less those who have moved from our company to the heavenly banquet — but those who have fallen away or lapsed.
We all know people, maybe even members of our own families, who had a Christian childhood but lost touch with the church as adults. We probably all know people who have never felt they had a good reason to come to church in the first place!
But Jesus doesn’t let that stop him. Jesus just says, gather up the fragments, that nothing may be lost! Our God is not a God of acceptable losses, my friends. God wants it all, every last one of his sons and daughters, gathered into his kingdom, united in his love, filled with his grace.
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This is the church-growth plan for which this rosy-tinted Sunday provides a vision and a goal. We are to start with God as the foundation, honoring God alone, putting nothing in God’s place, and taking time to take God to heart in a blessed Sabbath-rest. We are to continue in the grace and in the knowledge of God — who working in us through faith leads us to the good works done in his name. Then, in that faith and trust, we are to offer what we have in thanks, even when it seems like we don’t have enough. How much, after all, is enough? How much is enough when more is gathered up in leftovers than there was in fixings? For after all of our efforts undertaken under God’s gracious will, when we are blessed with abundance, even then we are to waste nothing, to let nothing, to let no one be lost.
This is the way the church grows, my brothers and sisters. This is the way the church grows and becomes what it is meant to be, Christ’s body on earth to do his will, working in us that which is well-pleasing in his sight, to whom be ascribed all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and for evermore.+