(2 Kings 4:42-44; Psalm 145:10-18; Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21)
There is a scripture passage, a quote from Jesus, that has troubled me for years. It is said in response to Judas’ objection when Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume. Do you remember the passage?
Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
"But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 'Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.' He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. 'Leave her alone,' Jesus replied. 'It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me'" (John 12:3-7).
The sentence, “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me,” has troubled me.
What did Jesus mean when he said this? One interpretation is that he was stating the obvious: “There will always be poor people in the world, despite our best efforts to eradicate poverty.” And, if you take this thought further, you could say, “There will always be trouble and misery in the world, despite our best efforts.”
This interpretation is easy to understand. It certainly seems as if there will always be trouble and misery in the world, despite our best efforts. Evil, sin, corruption, and decay, seem to be constants, despite our best efforts at goodness, virtue, purity, and revitalization. The sheer magnitude and constancy of fighting the good fight can feel overwhelming. We feel helpless and hopeless, and turn to God to ask, “How, Lord? How are we to be the light of love, healing, and wholeness in a sea of darkness, decay, and destruction? How?”
I can imagine this is how the disciples felt when Jesus asked them to feed the five thousand. We can hear this feeling of overwhelm in their responses to Jesus:
"When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, 'Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?' He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, 'Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.' One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, 'There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people'" (John 6:5-9)?
Do you hear the feeling of overwhelm? “Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” “But what are [five barley loaves and two fish] among so many people?” The disciples’ response to Jesus is, “Seriously, Lord? How are we to feed this many people? How?”
The answer to the question, “How?” is found in the scripture passage from the letter to the Ephesians: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen (3:20-21).”
God is able to accomplish abundantly (not just accomplish, but accomplish abundantly) far more than we can ask or imagine. Whatever it is that we can think of to ask or imagine, God can accomplish abundantly far more. How, though, does God do this?
God does this “by the power at work with in us.” But, what is “the power at work within us?” It is the power of the Holy Spirit. How do I know it is the power of the Holy Spirit? Ephesians 3:16 tells me: “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit . . .”.
And what does the power of the Holy Spirit give us? The power of the Holy Spirit gives us Christ dwelling in our hearts through faith. How do I know this? Ephesians 3:17 tells me: “. . . and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.”
And what does Christ dwelling in our hearts through faith give us? It gives us the fullness of God. How do I know this? Ephesians 3:19 tells me: “I pray that you . . . know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
God is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine through the power of the Holy Spirit at work within us, which gives us Christ dwelling in our hearts, which roots and grounds us in love, so that we are filled with all the fullness of God.
So, essentially, through this process begun by the Holy Spirit, we become vessels filled with the fullness of God living in the world, through which God can accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.
This is the answer to the question, “How?”
BUT, there’s one other little step that needs to be pointed out. AND, it is the most essential step.
We have to be willing to work with God. If we aren’t willing, then God can’t do anything through us because there is no Holy Spirit power at work within us. If we don’t say, “Yes!” to God, then there ain’t no movement forward. “No” stops the whole process.
What if the boy in the crowd of 5,000 following Jesus had not offered his food to share. What if he hid his food so no one knew there was any food to be shared? Or, what if he said he had the food but wouldn’t share it? What would Jesus have worked with in such circumstances? The boy’s willingness to admit he had the food and to share the food enabled the Holy Spirit to work within the boy, which enabled Jesus to work with the power of the Holy Spirit within the boy, which enabled Jesus to accomplish abundantly far more than the disciples could ask or imagine, which enabled all to be fed and to even have 12 baskets of food left over.
Our willingness to say, “Yes” to God – even if our yes is an unsure and timid yes – allows God to work miracles through us. We don’t have to do anything but say, “Yes,” and open our hands, hearts, and minds to God and God will do the rest through us. We don’t need to know the whole plan or how whatever it is we’re trying to do is going to be accomplished; we just have to say, “Yes,” show up, be willing, and do the next thing God guides us to do – over and over again.
This is the way we are to be the light of love, healing, and wholeness in a sea of darkness, decay, and destruction. Despite any feeling of overwhelm, we say yes, show up, be willing, and do the next thing God guides us to do, over and over again, one step at a time, one day at a time. This is what we call FAITH.
At the end of this month of a focus on stewardship we will be asked to pledge some of our financial resources to our church for 2018. Each of us will be asked to exercise our faith in this body of Christ that we call the Canton Community Baptist Church through a financial pledge. In the face of what seem to be tremendous odds against the church in our current time and place, we – like the boy with the five loaves of bread and two fish – will be asked to offer the little we have so that God can take it and multiply it through us. If we hide what we have or refuse to offer it, God can do nothing. But, if we say, “Yes,” to God – even if our yes is timid and unsure – God can do abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us. We bring the little we have, offer it to God, and trust. This is what we call FAITH.
So, to get back to the opening of this sermon, I don’t think Jesus was stating the obvious when he said to Judas, “The poor will always be with us.” Instead, I think Jesus was reminding Judas that he would have plenty of opportunity to minister to the poor. This one instance of using expensive perfume to anoint Jesus would not deter from ministering to the poor. Instead, it would highlight the responsibility of the disciples of Jesus to minister to the poor because, eventually, Jesus would be lifted up as the Christ, which would point his disciples back to his teaching, which would remind them that the kingdom of God belongs to the “least of these,” which would remind them to minister to the poor, who will always be with us – “So, no worries, Judas: The poor will always be with us, but I will not. Let Mary prepare me for my burial in this symbolic way. And, then, you will have plenty of opportunities to minister to the poor.”
Despite what we see and hear in our world to the contrary, the kingdom of God is among us. We can contribute to building up the kingdom of God through our faithful, “Yes,” to God, or we can contribute to its tearing down with our fearful, “No,” to God. I know you – you members of the Canton Community Baptist Church – and I know that you will faithfully say, “Yes.” I thank God for your faithfulness, and celebrate with you the ways in which we will continue to minister to both the poor in hunger and the poor in spirit through the body of Christ we call the Canton Community Baptist Church. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, November 19, 2017, the Twenty-fourth Sunday After Pentecost.