Matthew 14: 13-21: When Jesus heard about John, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. When the crowds learned this, they followed him on foot from the cities. 14 When Jesus arrived and saw a large crowd, he had compassion for them and healed those who were sick. 15 That evening his disciples came and said to him, “This is an isolated place and it’s getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 But Jesus said to them, “There’s no need to send them away. You give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here except five loaves of bread and two fish.” 18 He said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 He ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. He took the five loaves of bread and the two fish, looked up to heaven, blessed them and broke the loaves apart and gave them to his disciples. Then the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 Everyone ate until they were full, and they filled twelve baskets with the leftovers. 21 About five thousand men plus women and children had eaten.
If you had a chance to read my newsletter article this past week, then you will not be surprised to hear this information again regarding the financial situation that our congregation is facing at this point in time. During the last week of May, the finance committee gathered for a meeting to face some hard facts about the realities that we are facing, including the reality that we are currently not bringing in enough money to sustain ourselves long term. Several key events have led us to this point: the loss of the Head Start program several years ago which brought in around $12,000 and helped us immensely with utility costs, and then there have been several beloved members who have passed away who also happened to be very generous with their gifts to the church. Another part of this is that we all have financial strains put on us with families, medical expenses, retirement, and the overall situation of economy itself. The numbers are in front of us. In February this year, for example, our expenses were $13,336, but we brought in $6,888. We had similar numbers in April. Unfortunately, this is becoming our new normal as we look at the monthly budget and expense reports, unless we decide to take action to make some serious changes to the way we look at giving and how we are using our resources. The February numbers are the most drastic, but the overall trend has shown that we are usually coming up around $3,000-$3,500 short.
Right now, as I look at this situation, I imagine us sitting as part of the crowd with Jesus on the day that he fed over 5,000 people with just five loaves of bread and two fish. We are looking at the numbers of the crowd with hungry and tired faces, and then back again at the mere offering of the loaves and fish, and we are wondering how to move forward and how we are ever going to feed this multitude. Our lack of faith has Jesus challenging us with these words, “There is no need to send them away. You give them something to eat.”
Oftentimes when we hear this story, we forget that Jesus is in the midst of grieving the loss of John the Baptist. He has withdrawn to a quiet place to be alone and to pray, and yet the crowds find him and won’t leave him alone. Yet because of his compassion for the people, he puts his grief aside for a short time in order to feed the hungry and heal the sick. Perhaps he does this as a way to honor his dear friend and to keep the hope and ministry of the kingdom alive, even in the midst of heartache, tragedy, and loss. Perhaps many in the inner circle felt drained and hopeless, feeling that they had nothing to offer the crowds. But Jesus sets out to prove that we always have something to offer, even if it seems like so little. After all, there was a great crowd gathered there to see Jesus and to hear a word of hope and compassion. The worst thing they could have done was send people away. The same thing is true for us as a congregation: we don’t want to be put in the position of sending people away because we have nothing to offer.
Because just the opposite is true: we DO have so much to offer. We offer a welcoming community of grace-filled Christians who understand the compassion and acceptance of Jesus. We offer opportunities for learning and spiritual growth, chances to serve, to form relationships, and an opportunities for Spirit filled worship. We offer a place of welcome to all, regardless of gender, socio-economic status, education, opinion, political leanings, or sexual orientation. We give a voice to the challenging issues that our church and culture are facing today. The petition that Jane is sending to General Conference is one of many ways that this congregation can be a prophetic voice for change, inclusion, and the chance to live out the wide welcome of God.
We offer and celebrate that we are a generous congregation. When there is a need, you all go above and beyond to meet it. Do you remember recently when we needed a new roof? The donations came pouring in, and we were able to put a new roof on the church, the parish house, and the garage debt free! This time, our need is a push in overall giving to the day to day functions and ministries of the church. Our need now is to have faith and place our trust in a Savior who is able to take five loaves and two fish and feed a multitude. But we have to be the ones who are willing to ask the question: How can this be so? And how can we help distribute these gifts to nurture and feed the hungry and heal the sick? How can we keep this place a vital place of ministry where people can experience the wide welcome of God?
First, I would invite you to pray. Pray for guidance and discernment about your giving and where God is leading this church. Second, now is the time to consider or reconsider what you are willing and able to give to the ministries of this congregation. Third, invite people to church! Give your time, support the various ministries of the congregation. Because as the finance committee sees it, we have about 6-12 months to turn this around or we will start to see some serious changes that will not be ideal. Decisions will have to be made about what we can realistically spend for maintaining our buildings, paying our staff, and keeping the day to day life of the church going. More importantly, we need to have the resources in place for ministries and programs that reach new people for Jesus Christ and that will bring people into a Christ centered community of grace and welcome. We give not just because we have to pay the bills, but so that we can transform lives and make disciples. We do this by being able to provide programs, outreach, and opportunities for people to get to know the amazing God we serve and who loves each one of us.
So we begin by having faith that we can take the little resources we might have and watch them grow and multiply with prayerful discernment, guidance, and a lot of soul searching on what we are willing to give, and who we want to be as a congregation. Over the past few years, the Indiana United Methodist Church has been collecting various stories from churches that they call “Glory Sightings.” You can go on the inumc.org website and read through dozens of these stories of hope, growth, and churches who are making a difference. One small church in Brazil, Indiana called Lena United Methodist shared this story: “Our church recently had a stewardship meal and consecration of pledge cards. Through the pledges, they have covered 110 percent of next year’s operating church budget. According to its Pastor Terry Jeffers, ‘Members of this congregation are very faithful in keeping current on their tithes and offerings. Praise God for their faithfulness.’”
What if we all pledged to give a full tithe (10%) to the ministries of this congregation out of our thankfulness for what God is doing among us? Or if we can’t do 10%, we at least pledge to give faithfully every week or month? Generosity begets generosity, and we all have something to offer. And I’m talking about more than just one good week of offering- we need to think long term and see an upward trend in giving. This is a marathon, not a sprint. When we live and give out of our abundance, we are able to offer more back to outwardly focused ministry. Our budget right now reflects that only 2-3% goes toward this cause. It should be more like 51%! But that’s just not the reality right now.
Another glory sighting out of Broad Ripple was called, “A Loaves and Fishes” story. Pastor Brent Wright wrote, ““Abundance on top of abundance on top of abundance.!” Just when I thought I had seen God’s miracle happen, God kept going! It’s loaves and fishes, one relationship at a time, in Broad Ripple.” While working to connect with their surrounding neighborhood, Broad Ripple United Methodist began to see needs in the community, such as helping to send a college student on her summer mission trip by raising the money she needed for it in just one day, or working with Broad Ripple High School to provide food baskets for needy families, or helping a single mom pay off her debt to the gas company. When we say yes to serving God and giving to a need, God multiplies the generosity. It’s contagious, and we just want to be a part of it. Giving starts like a small ripple in the pond…we start small, and then it catches on, and we want to continue until the ripple becomes the entire body of water.
When Jesus feeds over 5,000 people with just 5 loaves and 2 fish, the disciples started out by not believing it was possible. In fact, later on in Matthew’s gospel, they are faced with a similar situation, this time with 4,000 people. The disciples, even after seeing the first feeding miracle, ask the question, “Where are we going to get enough food in this wilderness to satisfy such a big crowd?” This time, with 7 loaves and a few fish, Jesus and his disciples were able to satisfy the hunger of over 4,000 people. But where was the disciples’ faith this time? Even after seeing Jesus feed the multitudes once, they still doubted. We are fortunate today that we have the knowledge of these stories of Jesus and more like them where we see the hungry being fed out of just a few pieces of food, the sick are healed, and the compassion of God extended to all.
But where is our faith? We may be a small church in a small town, but we have enough compassion and generosity in this room to save this congregation and have more than enough left over to feed the hungry, heal the broken and hurting, and invite people into this sacred community. We have enough compassion and generosity in this room to step out of it and make a difference in our community, but we have to have faith that God will multiply the gifts and compassion that we have to offer. After all, it is Jesus who multiplies the loaves and fishes, but then he commands his disciples to distribute the food to the crowd. God is the source of our generosity, the reason that we give something of ourselves, but we are to be the hands and feet who make our gifts a reality, to feed the hungry, to love one another, to share our faith.
When I look right now at our financial situation, a part of me feels like we are in exile, in a deserted land, and possibly without a GPS wondering where to go next. But then I am reminded of these words from Jeremiah 29:11 that many of us know so well: “I know the plans I have in mind for you,” declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. When you call me and come and pray to me, I will listen to you. When you search for me, yes, search for me with all your heart, you will find me.” Oftentimes this text is taken out of context and used for our individual lives, but it is not meant to be used this way. God is speaking through the prophet Jeremiah to give a word of hope to the people of Israel who are in exile and captivity. They are feeling lost and hopeless, aching for their homeland. But God speaks these words and gives promises of a future filled with hope and plans for calling them home.
Can we start today by hearing these words as if God is speaking them to us as a congregation? By having faith that God has plans for us to build a hopeful future? By really believing that we serve a savior who feeds 5,000 people with just 5 loaves and 2 fish? By searching our hearts for what we might do as individuals and as a congregation to keep this place alive and growing? I have faith in us that we can multiply these fishes and loaves, and more importantly, I have faith in a Lord and Savior that shows us the ultimate meaning of generosity by giving up his very life so that we may have life and have it in abundance. As we join together at the table of communion this morning, I’d invite you to come forward and pray about what you will give, what you will do, or how you will take this gift of communion bread and distribute it to the crowds out there. As Jesus breaks bread for us, so we are to multiply and give to a broken world. And it starts with you and me. Amen.