When a little is more than enough

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Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 14:15-21

 

 

            In the latest issue of “The Lutheran,” there was a news item stating that, in 2009, only 28 percent of the ELCA’s 4.5 million members attended worship.  It went on to say that, in most denominations, 60 to 80 percent of members don’t regularly attend worship or take an active role.

            The purpose of this particular news item was a call by the magazine for ideas from congregations and synods about how they are keeping members active and reaching out to inactive members.

            My personal reaction to this news, however, went in another direction.  I thought, “If we can’t get even 30% of our members to come to worship at least once in any given year, what good are we?  With that little participation, how can we possibly think that we are doing effective ministry?”

            But then another thought occurred to me.  “Maybe the important question is not how many people are coming to worship, as important as worship is to us.  Maybe the important question is what kind of impact, even as few as we are, can we have in the world around us?”

            Ministry in the church is often daunting.  It is not easy to get people involved.  It is not easy to keep people involved.  And the resources we have seem so small compared to the needs around us.  It is easy to get discouraged.  But Jesus shows us another way.

 

            In Matthew 14, he has just received the troubling news that, his predecessor, John the Baptist, has been beheaded by Herod.  This not only casts a pall over Jesus’ own ministry.  It also heightens the urgency with which he must prepare his disciples to carry on his ministry after he is gone. 

So, upon hearing this news, Jesus withdraws.  He goes off in a boat to be by himself.  Despite this, the crowds follow him.  Word spreads and they seek him out.   When he sees them, Jesus does not run away.  Instead, he has compassion for them and heals those who are brought to him.

            As the day is drawing to a close, the disciples say to Jesus, “It’s starting to get dark and we’re in the middle of nowhere.  You need to tell these people to leave so they can find food for themselves.”

            Jesus says, “They don’t need to leave.  You give them something to eat.”

            The disciples protest, “We have nothing, nothing to give them.  All we have are five loaves and two fish.”

            So, Jesus says, “Bring them to me.”  He tells the crowd to sit down.  He takes, he blesses, he breaks, and he gives the five loaves and two fish to the disciples, who in turn hand the food out.  Everyone eats their fill.  The disciples then gather up twelve baskets of leftovers.  About five thousand are fed, and that’s not even counting women and children.

 

            The disciples are daunted by the challenges of ministry.  All they can see is what they don’t have.  All they can see is how meager their own resources are in the face of staggering need.  All they can see is what they can’t do.

            Jesus shows them another way.  He shows them how even a little can make a difference.  He opens their eyes to what they can do if they trust God.

 

            On vacation, I picked up a book at the bookstore in Ely.  It’s called, The Power of Half.  It’s by a father and daughter, Kevin and Hannah Salwen.  Kevin and Joan Salwen are an upwardly mobile couple, living in one of the nicest houses in one of the richest neighborhoods in Atlanta.  But they are also a couple that has always wanted to make difference.  This desire resides as well in their daughter, Hannah, and, to a lesser extent in their son, Joe.  The Power of Half is the story of how they sell their very nice home, move into a more modest house, and use the money to bring about change in the world.  Even more, it is the story of how they themselves are changed, not merely by talking about things, but about doing things together.

            I’ve just started reading the book.  I think it tells an important enough story that this will not be the last time I talk about it.  But let me read for you what Hannah – the teenage daughter – writes at the end of the first chapter.  It’s called, “Hannah’s Take – Believing you can make a difference.”

 

            About 111 women die of breast cancer every day in the United States.  A million teenagers get pregnant every year.  Someone dies every thirty-one minutes because of drunken drivers.  I’m not writing this to bum you out.  But you might be thinking, ‘There are so many problems, there’s no way that I or any one person could solve anything.’

            Then Hannah goes on to mention individuals who have made a difference – Rosa Parks, Ghandi, Mother Teresa, John Woolman, Madam Curie.  Then she continues:

            Sometimes small acts significantly affect a large group of people.  But even when they don’t, they can have a big influence, maybe on just one individual.

            So don’t get discouraged because you can’t solve a whole problem alone.  As the British philosopher Edmund Burke said, “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”  I know exactly what he was talking about.  Before our family project, I kept telling myself that no matter how hard I tried or how much money I gave, I would never be able to fully solve any of the world’s big problems.  When I worked at Café 458, the Atlanta restaurant for homeless men and women I saw dozens of people looking depressed and lonely.  But I still didn’t see them as individuals, but instead as a group, “the homeless.”

            Then one day at Café 458, I heard two homeless men talking about a college basketball game I had watched with my dad the night before.  I snapped to the realization that these people are people.  How stupid and rude I had been to see them as different from me.  I realize now that having that epiphany was a big step for me.  In that split second of comprehension, I switched from seeing them as a group of people to seeing them as individuals.  When I started seeing people in need as individuals, the problem of homelessness and hunger seemed smaller and I felt I could make more of a difference.  I also started believing that I could help because the problem was on a personal level.  (Kevin Salwen and Hannah Salwen, The Power of Half, Mariner Books, 2011.)

 

            A key element of mission is personal participation.  Writing checks is not insignificant.  Financial support helps others with the time and the know-how to do the work.  But Hannah Salwen started believing that she could make a real difference when she became personally involved. 

And this is also what Jesus teaches the disciples.  First, he challenges them – You give them something to eat.  Then, after he blesses and breaks the bread, he gives it to the disciples and they hand it out to the people.  And I imagine that, since there are 12 disciples, they carry around the 12 baskets to collect the leftovers. 

            Individual involvement is a step in the right direction.  When our bodies are involved, it’s hard to keep our hearts at a distance.  Another step, as Hannah found out, is learning that we are helping individuals, not nameless groups of people.

            Even so, we cannot do it alone.  We can each do far more than we realize, but the problems are great and the challenges are many.  So, while we take the risk of personal involvement, another key is remembering that we are not acting alone.

            We can remember that there are others – many, many others – who are working for the benefit of others and for the betterment of our world.  We cannot see them.  We do not know their names.  But they are living good lives, lives of service for others.

Even more, Jesus is with us.  These were the very last words he spoke to the disciples when he sent them out.  “I am with you always, to the very end.”  Jesus is with us and he is the soul of compassion.  He is the source of what we share and how we act.  It is his care that motivates us and moves us.  It is his bread that feeds us and sustains us.  It is his self-giving love that heals us and heals the world.

            And by his love – his compassion, his serving, his death on the cross – does the kingdom of heaven come on earth.