Sunday, September 14, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Being Plentiful"

John 6:1-15

After this Jesus went across the Galilee Sea (that is, the Tiberias Sea). 2 A large crowd followed him, because they had seen the miraculous signs he had done among the sick. 3 Jesus went up a mountain and sat there with his disciples. 4 It was nearly time for Passover, the Jewish festival.

5 Jesus looked up and saw the large crowd coming toward him. He asked Philip, “Where will we buy food to feed these people?” 6 Jesus said this to test him, for he already knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip replied, “More than a half year’s salary worth of food wouldn’t be enough for each person to have even a little bit.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said, 9 “A youth here has five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that for a crowd like this?” 10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass there. They sat down, about five thousand of them. 11 Then Jesus took the bread. When he had given thanks, he distributed it to those who were sitting there. He did the same with the fish, each getting as much as they wanted.

12 When they had plenty to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather up the leftover pieces, so that nothing will be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves that had been left over by those who had eaten. 14 When the people saw that he had done a miraculous sign, they said, “This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world.” 15 Jesus understood that they were about to come and force him to be their king, so he took refuge again, alone on a mountain. (Common English Bible)

“Three Years in Three Weeks: Christ’s Ministry, Our Calling,” Week Two

The ritual for me was always the same: flag down a cab in an interminable amount of time, climb awkwardly into the backseat of a Crown Victoria or Ford Escape that has clearly seen better days, tell the driver where I want to go, and then hang on for dear life as my life flashed before my eyes as the driver began that awful, awful experience that is riding in a car in Manhattan.

It was rarely a pleasant experience.  Oh, occasionally, it was.  There was an Ecuadorian driver who was wearing the jersey of Ecuador’s national soccer team after they had qualified to the World Cup, who lit up simply because I recognized the jersey and asked him about it.  And there was another driver who actually, you know, obeyed things like speed limits and stop signs.

But most of the time, it was a necessary evil, only better than taking a subway because of the absence of crowds and a quicker travel time.  But there was one driver’s cab I never had the joy of being able to travel in, and I use the word “joy” very much on purpose.

Here, I’ll let the folks at Today tell the story about this driver and his cab:

Mansoor Khalid made headlines two years ago when he stocked his taxi cab with a sweet surprise: handfuls of free candy to brighten the days of unsuspecting New Yorkers.

Bringing joy to others was a way for Khalid to heal following the death of his two year old son, who passed away in April of 2012 after a battle with heart disease…In addition to pleasing riders with a sweet tooth, the Candy Cab has been a source of joy and catharsis for the 38 year old Pakistani immigrant, who started driving a New York City taxi in 199.  After the death of his son Saad, Khalid searched for ways to bring happiness to other people’s lives as well as his own.  That’s when he remembered how the doctors and nurses at the hospital had responded to his gifts of coffee and snacks.

“I got so used to buying things for people, because when I would do something, they’d smile,” he said,  “I feel great when someone smiles.  You feel amazing.” (He) said his goal was to give stressed New Yorkers something to smile about, even after they’d reached their destination.  “You don’t have to choose one (candy),” he said.  “You can grab many.  My style is, when you get out, nobody goes home empty handed.  Fill up your pockets!  Take what you want.  Enjoy your life!”

But sweets aren’t the only reason his rides have been so special.  Last year, he decorated the cab with smiley faces and installed a karaoke sound system, enabling passengers to plug in their phones, grab a mic and sing along to their favorite songs while colorful lights flashed around them…

Since launching his Candy Cab, Khalid says he’s spent between $400 and $00 per month on candy, and pumped an additional $4,000 into the karaoke and lightning upgrades.

Can you imagine that?  Spending the equivalent of at least $4,800 per year just on candy, none of it for yourself?  And that amount for karaoke system?  All to bring some joy to peoples’ rushed and harried lives?  I highly doubt any of us would do something like that, but I also highly doubt that any of us would turn down benefitting from it.  I, and probably all of us, would be more than happy to take a ride in Khalid’s Candy Cab.

But that chance might otherwise be gone.  The reason Khalid’s name is in the news is because the Candy Cab is currently defunct: the cab itself has puttered out after over 210,000 miles, and now Khalid is trying to raise the funds to obtain a new cab.  Which, like everything else except oxygen, does not come cheap in New York City.

But this is still someone who has been as plentiful as possible with what joy in life can be had after the loss of an infant child, to the point that he would spend this money on other people rather than a new cab for himself until he absolutely had to.  He gave out of his abundance until he couldn’t give anymore.  And that is, in a sentence, what Jesus does with the five loaves and two fish in the feeding of the five thousand.  The candy might have tasted better, but in this story, Jesus still gives, and gives, and gives, simply because He can.  And so should we.

This is a new sermon series for the kickoff of a new “church year,” which conveniently runs identically with the school year (we’ll forget for a moment that traditionally, the new church year began with the Christmas season, aka Advent, but that’s another kettle of fish).  It also coincides with the start of year four of all y’all putting up with me, and I have to say, looking back on our first three years together, there is a lot for us to be proud of and to hang our proverbial hats on: we’ve seen the marriages of half a dozen couples involved in the church, we’ve had 9 (soon 10!) baptisms, and the amount of mission work that we’ve done in the community, measuring in the tens of thousands of dollars in value, which, when you consider our still small size, speaks volumes to this congregation’s commitment to fulfilling Christ’s fundamental command to care for the marginalized among us.

But there is still so much for us to do, and I haven’t done an explicitly vision casting sermon series for our community since the “Time to be Church” series way, way back in the beginning of 2013, and a lot has changed for us since then.  So, this series is meant to represent, in three installments, what I am envisioning for our next three years together, and the series’ structure comes from how John’s Gospel describes the beginning of each of the three years of Jesus’ own ministry, and we began last week in Year One with a famous story that the other three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, place towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, but one that John curiously puts at the very beginning: the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem.  This week, we get to Year Two, which is marked by another well known story that is in all four Gospels: the feeding of the five thousand.

And as with the cleansing of the temple, John takes the story of the feeding of the five thousand and places it in a very different context than Matthew, Mark or Luke.  The latter three place the temple cleansing at the very end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, whereas John places it at the very beginning, and similarly, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all place the feeding of the five thousand either immediately after or very soon after the beheading of John the Baptist. 

John (to avoid confusion, we’re talking about the evangelist John who wrote the Gospel, who is not the same John as John the Baptist…John being a common name even back then, who knew?) doesn’t even include the beheading of the Baptist in his Gospel, and as such, has to have a different frame of reference for the timing of this unanimously testified-to miracle by default.  And that context is: nearly at the start of the next Passover, marking Year Two of Jesus’ three-year ministry.

John does, however, share a different characteristic with one of the Gospels, it is in fact extremely relevant to the fact that it is almost the Passover: Jesus is situated on a mountain, just as He is for Matthew’s accounting of the Sermon on the Mount (guess where that took place?).  And most commentators believe that Matthew’s detail of Jesus being on a mountain while interpreting the law was no coincidence, as it was meant to mirror Moses at Mount Sinai receiving the law for the very first time.

Moses, of course, is the key figure in the story of the Passover: he is the one who has led the Israelites to this point where the Tenth Plague is about to happen which will at long last liberate the Israelites from enslavement under the Egyptians.  And then the Passover happens.

Jesus, by once again being on a mountain, invokes the memory of Moses, and by breaking bread and sharing it with everyone there with Him, He invokes the Passover meal of unleavened bread that all of the Israelites shared with their families as their last meal together in Egypt before the exodus out.

And just as following Moses liberated the Israelites from slavery, so too does following Jesus liberate us from evil.

John doubles down on this interpretation of the meaning of the feeding of the five thousand by being the only one of the four gospel writers to use the Greek term “eucharisteo,” from which we get the English term “Eucharist,” and which literally means, “to give thanks.”  Jesus gives thanks for not only what meager little we have brought to His feed, but He also gives thanks for what is about to happen as well: what He knows is about to happen, the miracle of the hunger of five thousand souls being sated.  He gives thanks for the liberation from hunger as well as the liberation from evil.

And that is all part of a mentality of being plentiful as a church: we are called to give thanks not only for what has been done for us, donated to us, given to us in the past, we are to also give thanks for what we are to receive in the future as well.  It is a rule of thumb that serves us well as individuals too, and as families, but as a church that focus on gratitude for the future is absolutely paramount, because without it, what we often substitute in its place is…well, fear.

Think about it.  How many times have you heard someone say about the (universal, big C) Church, “Well, I don’t know about the future of the church, everyone in this new generation seems to have given up on the church,” or, “We really aren’t interested in trying anything new to bring new disciples in or to engage the Gospel in new ways?”  How much of that sentiment do you think is about giving thanks for the future?  How much of that sentiment do you think needs to be replaced by giving thanks for what the future might hold for the body of Christ?

Think again about Khalid, the Candy Cab driver.  I cannot begin to imagine wanting to be thankful for anything in the future if the present has just taken away my child.  I cannot even begin to think about what I might still have left to give away to the world when this world has already taken so much from me.  But you know what?  That isn’t how Jesus went about His own ministry, even though He knew darn well that it would, in the end, demand the ultimate sacrifice from Him as well in the form of His own earthly life.

But Jesus sought to be plentiful regardless.  So too, then, should we.  May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson

Longview, Washington 
September 14, 2014

(original photo credit:  If you feel so moved to aid Mansoor Khalid's quest to resurrect the Candy Cab, the Today link contains a link to his Gofundme campaign.)

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