October 13, 2019

John 6:1-15

Once there was a large crowd, not much food, and a boy who gave all he had. By most standards, it wasn’t much! A bag lunch, packed in haste that morning, as he was going out the door to see a young rabbi preach. And yet, here we are, two thousand years later remembering that familiar story of the boy who gave up his five loaves and two fish, and the miraculous way Jesus used that gift to feed the multitudes.

In some ways the boy’s sacrifice was small – it was just a simple lunch. Yet it was also big – he gave all he had. Giving away his only food might have meant the boy would go hungry that day. The gift was small, but the sacrifice was big!

The story of the feeding of the 5000 shows what can be done when we give what we have to God’s purposes. Just imagine how overwhelmed the disciples must have felt when Jesus told them to feed this whole crowd! We, at Immanuel, have had some experience feeding crowds. It’s a lot of work and it takes preparation. But the disciples were asked to do it on a moment’s notice with no budget. It seemed like an impossible task.

Just as Jesus invited his disciples to minister to the crowds, Jesus invites us into ministry with him. Jesus invites us to serve the hungry and care for the poor – to feed people in body and soul. Just like those disciples, when we look around and see the extent of the need, we can feel overwhelmed. Our five loaves and two fish seem woefully inadequate in the face of a hungry world. And they are. When we hear Jesus calling us to help the neighbor in need, or to make disciples of all nations we might be tempted to say “We’re only a small church struggling to pay the bills! We’ve barely got enough for ourselves. How can we help others?”

Jesus helped his disciples move from a sense of scarcity to abundance as they saw that they could trust God to provide. He took the little bit of food that they had and said to his disciples “Bring it to me.” He then looked to heaven and prayed “Thank you, God, for these five loaves and two fish!” He then gave the disciples what they had given to him and told them to go and share what they had with everyone else. Somehow, between looking to God, thanking God, and offering the little bit that they had, God found a way to make it enough. God took their tiny little bit and multiplied it to satisfy the great hunger before them.

The disciples would have floundered if they had attempted to meet these physical or spiritual hungers on their own. They were simply not equipped for the task. But when their offerings were brought to Jesus they were transformed and took on new proportions. Suddenly what they had to offer was more than enough. They even had leftovers!

God isn’t concerned whether we are adequate, or capable, or competent for the work he calls us to do. We aren’t! But when we take what we have and offer it to God, God has a way of transforming that offering and using our gifts to do his work in this world. What a privilege!

What are some things you have sacrificed for the Lord? Have you volunteered to help with some of the many festivals we have in this community? Did you park cars for Hay Days – helping raise money for the church? Did you flip pancakes for the Threshing Show, raising money to support our local first responders? God is at work every time the Almelund Fire and Rescue Service goes out to help someone in need. Your support of the Threshing Show contributes to that ministry of love and care for the neighbor.

Have you been active in a service group, hosting funeral meals for grieving loved ones? If so, God uses you to comfort those who mourn. Maybe your contribution was just washing the dishes, but it is a holy duty.

Have you supported our youth mission trip, or served as a youth mentor, or Sunday School teacher or nursery volunteer? Have you brought kids with you to church or VBS who otherwise wouldn’t have come? If so, you are helping nurture the faith of our children and young people. That is precious holy work.

Have you taken a meal to a sick friend, or driven someone to the doctor? Have you contributed to the annual hat and mitten drive? Or brought in items for the food shelf?

As Jesus once said, “As you’ve done it for the least of these you’ve done it for me.”

Matthew 25:40

As you start thinking about it, there are probably many ways you have sacrificed for the Lord. You may not even think of what you’ve offered as sacrifices, but God notices when you give of yourself and God multiplies your efforts to accomplish more for the kingdom than you might ever think possible.

The boy who gave his lunch got to see Jesus multiply his gift immediately, but we don’t always get to see the outcome so quickly, if ever. When you don’t see the results of the things you give, it can be discouraging. You wonder if your little bit has done any good.  Sometimes we don’t see the fruit of our labors until later, if we get to see those fruits at all. But God takes the long view. This congregation has been doing God’s work for over 132 years! Sacrifices that people made to build this sanctuary in the 1920s, are still blessing this ministry today. Sacrifices we make today to support God’s work will be felt long into the future.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote:

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”

1 Corinthians 3:6

We may be fortunate enough to see some of the results of what we offer to God along the way, but we can trust that God will use our offering for his purposes, with impacts that spread farther and wider than we will ever know. People in other places and future generations may benefit from the sacrifices we make for God’s kingdom here and now.

For example, most of us will not get to see the water system we built in Itonya, Tanzania or drink that water, or even know anybody who does. But there are children alive today that may have died from water borne illness if that water system were not in place. What might those children do? Might they grow up to be teachers, engineers, pastors, leaders in their community? We’ll never know, but God knows.

Some of you have met my friend, Barson, from Madagascar. He and his family have visited Immanuel several times and he preached here one Sunday a few years ago. Barson grew up in a little African village much like Itonya. His family had no electricity or running water and not enough food to eat. He had an older brother who died as a child due to inadequate nutrition and health care. When Barson was born, he stepped into the role of taking his dead brother’s place.

His full name – Barson Lahivilo Mahafaly – tells his story. In his native language the word “Bar” means “Son.” “Barson” literally means “Son of Son.” The word “Lahivilo” means “One who Lives.” The word “Mahafaly” means “Joy.” So his name means the “Son of Son who Lives with Joy.” Barson’s birth offered hope to his family, hope that maybe this child would live to adulthood. Hope that maybe good things would come through this son, that he would bring joy.

Barson’s life was difficult. He grew up in utter poverty. He suffered from inadequate nutrition. He told me a story of a feast day in his country, like Thanksgiving is in the US. While the people of Madagascar were enjoying wonderful meals, he and his family had no breakfast, no lunch, and there was nothing in the house to eat for supper. That day he was especially discouraged. He sat under a tree looking sad. A Christian missionary saw him sitting there and came up to him asking him what was wrong. When he told her that his family had no food, she told him to wait here and she’d be back. She returned with a live chicken and a bag of rice. Barson’s family had a chicken and rice dinner that night due to the generosity of that woman.

That act of kindness made a huge difference for Barson and for his family. The woman who gave that chicken and rice has no way to know how significant that gift was in offering hope and health for Barson and his family. This young man, who saw this act of kindness from a Christian woman, is now a Lutheran pastor and a seminary professor.

In his early 20s Barson was ordained in the Madagascar Lutheran Church and worked in youth ministry. He was so good at it that they put him in charge of youth ministry for the whole country of Madagascar. Think of all the young people whose lives were touched by his ministry!

Following this success, the Madagascar Lutheran Church offered to sponsor him to get his Ph.D. so that he could become a seminary professor and teach others who were preparing to become pastors. They sent him to Luther Seminary in St. Paul where he earned his Ph.D. While he was at Luther Seminary, he translated the Old Testament into the Malagasy language, the native tongue of his people. The New Testament had been previously translated into Malagasy, but not the Old Testament. Thanks to Barson, the people of Madagascar can now read the Old Testament in their native language.

This young man whose parents could not read or write is now writing a book on pastoral care. He is currently in Norway where he is speaking at a ministry conference and doing research for this book. Barson is doing good work for the Lord. Barson is inspiring and equipping many other young people in difficult circumstances to know that they too can make a difference.

Had that woman not acted with compassion that day to bring chicken and rice to a family who had nothing, would any of this have happened? It is hard to know for sure, but Barson regards that act of kindness as pivotal in his faith and commitment to the Church. Do you think that woman has any idea what a difference she made, not only for Barson and his family that day, but for all the people whose lives and faith have been affected by Barson’s ministry? There is no way she could.  

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” The offerings we make can have ripple effects far beyond what we might ever imagine.

As we are in this season of stewardship, notice the ways God is calling you to give of what you have for his purposes. Don’t let fear of scarcity hold you back. Know that we have a God of abundance, a God who can take our five loaves and two fish and feed the multitudes. Know that whatever you give in faith, God uses in ways you may never fully see, but that it how God’s work gets done. Through acts of kindness and generosity that spring from our faith, our story joins with God’s story. We become part of the unfolding story of bringing God’s love to the world.

Let’s pray: 

Lord, you took the little boy’s five loaves and two fish and fed a crowd of thousands. Help us to have the courage to offer what we have to you. We know that it is not enough, but when you use us for your purposes great things are possible. Use our offerings of ourselves, our time, and our possessions in your service. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.