The Party Begins

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Sermon Preached By: Dr. Wesley Avram
Scripture: Leviticus 25:1–7 ; Mark 6: 30–46

Robert Farrer Capon is a theologian and a cook. Alongside books on the New Testament and theology, he’s also written a couple of cookbooks, with musings on how God and entertaining intersect. One of those cookbooks is called The Party Spirit. In that book, Capon makes a recommendation that helps us understand the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 – though he makes no mention of the story at all.

What he says is this: If you are throwing a party with a great guest list and a long order of things to get ready, work as hard and as joyfully as you can to prepare. Spend all day, or more, if you need to. Try new things, be bold, take a chance or two to make the party work. And get help if you need it. But while you’re doing all of that, always do one additional thing. Fifteen minutes before your guests are due, stop what you’re doing. Doesn’t matter in the least whether you’ve made it to the bottom of your to–do list or not. You are finished. You are ready. Other things can always be taken care of in the presence of your friends. They won’t mind in the least, if, indeed, you have done this one thing.

So 15 minutes before, stop. Look around. Breathe. Give thanks. Take your apron off. Straighten your tie (or if it’s Arizona, where we don’t wear ties, tighten up your sandals). Pour yourself a glass of wine, or a glass of iced tea if you prefer. Take a taste of the appetizers you’ve set out. And let the party begin. That way, when you open the door for your first guests, you’re welcoming them into a party that’s already underway.

The guests don’t bring the party.
  The party begins in the host.
    The party begins in the host.

When I’ve met someone who knows this, it’s a pleasure. For I know I’m in good hands.

The party begins in the host.

• • •

Now let me restage our story from the Gospel of Mark for you, to see if it resonates. We begin a bit earlier than what you heard read.

Jesus had been in Nazareth, where he was not well accepted. After leaving there, he divided 12 of his closest followers (the ones we call his disciples) into pairs and sent them out to do his work in the villages. They were to go with nothing in hand and trust that they’d be provided for by folks who welcomed them. If they weren’t welcomed, they were to move on until they were.

After a while, the pairs came back to tell their stories. And so wanting to give them a rest, Jesus suggested that they go to a deserted place across the lake. But when news of their plans spread, folks went by the thousands to meet them at the boat. When Jesus saw the crowd he felt for them, and he set his plans aside so he and the disciples could be with them and teach them.

The disciples, however, don’t appear so flexible. They seem more nervous than compassionate.

And dusk came.

"Jesus, look at all of those people out here in the middle of nowhere. We didn’t do any preplanning here and there’s no logistics team in place. What will happen when they all get hungry? You’ve got to draw this to a close, Jesus. It’s in everyone’s best interest. Let them go to the towns to buy food and take care of themselves!"

And Jesus gently, but firmly, takes the disciples to task:

"You give them something to eat!"


"That’s right. You have enough. All will be well. There is a higher logic at work here. How much bread do you have?"

"Only five loaves. And a couple of fish."

And Jesus took that little bit of bread, and the fish, and raised them to heaven. He broke the bread, and told them to distribute what was there.

Folks have puzzled for centuries about what happened next in the story. Were people so convinced by Jesus’ message that they pulled out food they had been hiding or hoarding for themselves and their families and began to share so openly that all were fed? Were folks so moved to generosity, that they passed over the food when it was offered them so that others could eat? Did food spontaneously and supernaturally multiply, so that whenever food was taken the baskets would replenish themselves?

I don’t know. But I do know that by telling us that they took 12 baskets of leftovers, Mark wants us to believe that there was more at the end of all of this than there was at the beginning, and that everyone had more than enough. And Jesus kept teaching and blessing.

• • •

John Senyoni is a professor and Anglican church worker in Uganda. For several years, he led efforts to organize an annual summer youth gathering in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. Speakers, classes, music, small groups, prayer circles, planning for mission. Each year the gathering grew in number, beyond all expectations: 5,000, then 10,000 youth, and more, year after year.

When hearing John tell this story a few years ago, I asked him about arrangements.

"Did you charge folks?" No.

"Did you have a registration process?" No

"Did you have dormitories?" A few, but not nearly enough.

"Where did folks sleep?" Well, the people of Kampala just open their homes, and their churches. No one goes homeless.

"Do you organize meals?" No, but people provide. Everyone eats. "God is doing this," John said. "We are provided for."

The party begins in the host.

• • •

The story of the feeding of the 5,000 is not just another miracle story. It is a story about faith, and lack of faith. It is a story of communion, of breaking of bread, of sharing in Christ without fear or feeling of scarcity. It is a story of abundance – not of waste or luxury, but of God–given, compassion–driven, true abundance.

When we see through the eyes of Jesus, there is more than enough.

When we first pray, then bless, then act, there is more than enough.

When we let ourselves get caught up in a story larger than ourselves, or our needs, or our abilities, or our worries, there is more than enough.

When we see what we have before we dwell on what we lack, when we float in hope before we sink in fear, when we welcome the gift before we count the cost, and when we give the gift before we count the cost – we will receive far more in return than we can ever give.

• • •

So what am I actually saying? Should we all go out and plan a gathering for youth with no arrangements for housing, or be flippant with the practical details of life? I don’t think so, at least not in this culture. After all, without careful planning and a good dose of realism now and then we would surely have less than what we have. Thank God for the planners among us.

Yet what I am saying is that as important as realism is, for we who seek to follow Christ there is always something more. When we turn to follow him, we take a turn down a path we cannot perfectly predict, nor ever really control. We allow a certain mystery at the heart of all we do that is deeper than chance or fate. We let that mystery into what we dream, and into what we choose to want from life. We put ourselves into that larger story. And we accept that story – God’s story – to be a truer picture of what is than what we often see. We enter a party already begun in the One who calls us to it.

Because of this, we can sometimes stretch beyond what seems reasonable. We can step out, in faith, trusting that God will do more than we can ourselves. We can believe that the Holy Spirit will complete our faltering efforts and reshape our priorities. We can trust that we already have what we need, as long as we give it freely and without holding back. We can know that in Christ’s blessing, our bread and fish will be a feast – that generosity, self–sacrifice, and the mystery of divine multiplication will see us through to something not a single one of us could have imagined before we came to the party.

So we stop what we’re doing and gather round this table now and then. We pour a glass of wine, break bread, bless them both, and share. And we let the party begin in us as we find ourselves in the One who’s welcoming us.

• • •

I can’t say what this means for each one of you – in your own lives or in your families. I don’t know you well enough yet to guess. Yet because of what I’ve seen of the One hosting our party, I do believe that there is meaning in all of this for each one of us, for our families, for our work, for our church.

Are there areas in your life where you’re missing the larger picture, where you’re clinging too tightly to a way of seeing things and won’t let go, where you’re looking too closely at what’s missing and not enough at what’s there, or too much atneeds and not enough at gifts, or where you are trying to go it alone rather than sharing your load with others? In those places, God can make a way out of no way, as the old spirituals say. A spiritual reality can take hold and make more from what you have than what you think is possible, and multiply a meager share into more than enough. It doesn’t happen without effort, but our effort is finally not the reason for the blessing. It is God, and God’s blessing.

• • •

And so I will be bold enough to make a comment about what all of this might mean for Pinnacle Presbyterian Church, even on only my second Sunday in this generous pulpit.

You have done remarkable things as a congregation, following the Spirit. You’ve stretched in faith. You’ve given beyond reason. You’ve built on faith. You’ve hoped beyond logic. You’ve set out on a journey and walked with confidence and resolve – even over rocky terrain and through the occasional dust storm. You’ve joined the party God is hosting for you. And yet as I join you, I also sense some brewing anxiety.

This is understandable at a time of changing leadership, with Larry gone and now Mac. Add to that a very uncertain economic reality out there, and things can feel a little unfamiliar. Not a lot, but a little.

You’ve stretched, and you might wonder if you’ve stretched too far.

You’ve depended on blessing, yet might wonder if you’ve depended too much.

We worry a little about the budget, and about the mortgage, and about what vision will take us forward.

For this very reason, I’m glad the Lectionary gave us this passage today, about Jesus breaking a little bread and 5,000 eating. For the message is there for us:

We will have enough. By your generosity, by your sacrifice, by God’s grace (always, always, by God’s grace), we will have enough. We’ll have enough vision, energy and resources. We’ll invite folks to come along, because we love the party so much we want them with us. And we’ll feed, shelter, heal, give peace, and do miraculous things, because that’s what God is already doing and God has invited us to join in.

For each one of you in your own lives, and for us together: No fear. Only hope. For in Christ, the party is always already begun.