Friday, July 24, 2015

Sermon: "So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish", John 6:1-21 (July 26, 2015)


This summer, I’ve been rereading some of the books that I loved as a kid. Several of these are obscure stories that I had eagerly purchased at my school’s Scholastic Book Fair, bookworm that I was, which had been unearthed during my dad’s summer purging of his house. Others are “classics” that almost everyone has read at some point or another: Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings. I was a voracious reader as a kid, so this has been no small project.

While this might sound like a simple stroll down memory lane to many of you, it’s a much more serious endeavor to me. It’s time I admit something to you all. You see, for as long as I can remember, I’ve suffered from what I call “Plot Amnesia”—within a week or so of reading a book or watching a movie, I’m more or less completely unable to recall the storyline beyond a few basic points. The further I get from my original experience of the plot, the murkier my recollection becomes. This can definitely be a frustrating condition, but it has its benefits: I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve worried about whether or not I’ve already read a particular book—it doesn’t matter!—and I’m rarely, if ever, that friend who nixes a movie just because she’s already seen it. So, this project of rereading all of these books is less about remembering how much I liked them, and more about figuring out WHY I liked them in the first place.

As many books as I have (re)read over the past few months, one that I haven’t gotten to yet is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. This 1979 novel DID have a movie adaptation come out in 2005, but as that’s now ten years ago, and my amnesia extends to film as well as literature, it doesn’t help me much. As I wait for the Kindle version to become available through my local library, I’ve been wracking my brain to see if I can tease out any recollections at all about this novel. Not much has surfaced: I remember that it’s sci-fi, that the movie starred British actor Martin Freeman, and that it is very silly.

The one specific thing that I WAS able to remember is entirely unrelated to the plot (of course) except to set the scene in the first chapter. In the very beginning of the book, the earth is destroyed to make way for an intergalactic highway. The clever dolphins have been aware of this impending doom for many years and have been attempting to alert humanity, but humans have consistently misunderstood their efforts. Ultimately, the dolphins determine that there’s nothing further they can do to help and decide to leave earth for their own well-being. Adams explains, “…The last ever dolphin’s message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double backward somersault through a hoop whilst whistling ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ but in fact the message was this: ‘So long, and thanks for all the fish.’”

Which, of course, brings us to our situation today.

Well, no; obviously I’m exaggerating. The world isn’t ending, but I am leaving. And I guess what I want to say is, thanks for all the fish.

No wait, let me back up a little bit.

Over the past two years, we’ve shared a ministry together. We’ve striven to do God’s work, to worship God together and to know God better. There have been times when it’s been exhilarating and fulfilling; things like Advent Outreach Night and our intergenerational production of Joseph come to mind. These types of moments fuel ministry, make us crave more of this work that God has set before us. But there have also been times when it’s been exhausting and draining. Times that ministry has felt like a limited resource. Times that it’s felt like there simply hasn’t been enough spiritual food to go around.

Maybe that’s why it’s so scary or disheartening when someone leaves our community, especially when that person is a pastor. If we feel like ministry is a commodity, it’s no wonder that our anxiety mounts each time someone walks out the door and doesn’t come back. It’s like they’re taking their toys and going home, and then we’re left behind to make do and continue ministering with whatever is left over. If we experience times of ministry famine even with all of our players on our team, how on earth are we supposed to make it work when we’re a player short? There just won’t be enough to go around.

But this concern stems from us looking at ministry from a strictly human perspective, arrogantly assuming that WE are the source of all that we do in Christ’s name. Take a look at our gospel lesson for today. There is a need within the community—in this case, a very real, physical need—but there aren’t enough resources to go around. The disciples can’t even fathom having enough for everyone—the need is so great. But Jesus isn’t fazed. He simply takes what there is, and makes it enough. What we see as a limited resource, God sees as unending and inexhaustible. The people ate, not until they had gotten what they deserved, not proportionally to what they contributed, not according to what was “fair,” but until they were satisfied. The people ate until their needs had been met.

And why do you suppose that is? In this case, it’s because God is the source of all that we need to nourish our bodies. Ultimately, although the small boy is the keeper of the food and the disciples are tasked to be the stewards of it, God is its origin. And God’s hands are never empty.

If we see the fish in the story as a symbol for ministry, we find that we too fall prey to many of the same assumptions as the disciples did. We assume that the ministry we do is subject to our limitations and concepts of ownership. It can definitely feel that way when our time and energy, which are essential ingredients for ministry, are low, or when someone with unique gifts leaves us. But love and God’s Word, the true sources of ministry, are unlimited.

See, properly speaking, the things that we do in God’s name don’t belong to us, but to God. That thing which we call “our” ministry? That’s right: actually God’s. In reality, we are stewards of that which God gives to us for safekeeping. Did you notice how in the reading, Jesus wasn’t the one who passed out the fish sticks to the crowd? He was the source, the one from whom the food came, but the disciples were the ones who actually gave it to the people. And in case you’re wondering if this is an idiosyncrasy of John’s version, the same is true in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In every single account that we have of this important story, Jesus entrusts the administration of these resources to his followers. And yet, even though the crowd experiences the food through the disciples’ limited hands, it still comes from God, and there is still enough.

This is great news! We don’t need to worry about running out of that which has God as its source. And I’m not just talking about the people we serve with our ministry, either. EVERYONE gets to be fed. The disciples may have experienced hunger while they were doing their job—they may have even grumbled and felt short-changed, exhausted and depleted—but eventually they, too, were able to eat their fill, with food left to spare. God’s provisions are not a zero-sum game. What this means is that, in feeding fish to others, the disciples were also fed. As I hope you already know, this is true of ministry, as well. My hope is that I’ve fed you all well in the time that I’ve been here, but you need to know that I’ve been fed, too. That which has God as its source is not only unlimited, but flows abundantly in all directions. We know we’re doing ministry right when all are willing and able to share the gifts of God with one another.

And so, as our paths diverge and we prepare for the next phase of our respective ministries, I want to leave you with both a word of comfort and a word of challenge. First: the comfort. Ministry is like a potluck—what one steward brings to God’s table, she doesn’t take with her when she leaves, but shares freely. The things I’ve done while I’ve been with you—Youth Group, Young Adult Fellowship, Evensong Unplugged, Confirmation—those are not necessarily going to just disappear when I leave. Certainly, someone needs to step up to be the new steward of those ministries, but the metaphorical fish fry that I brought to the party is for all to share. If there is need, God will make there be enough, and then some.

And the challenge. Although our reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians today is, in fact, a prayer on behalf of the people, to me, it reads just as easily as a call to action. He says, “I ask that you’ll have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together with all believers. I ask that you’ll know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge so that you will be filled entirely with the fullness of God.” When we can finally internalize the sheer magnitude of Christ’s love and God’s fullness, then we will finally be able to share “our” ministries freely with one another without concern for shortage or want. That’s not to say that there will never be hunger—hunger always returns—but that the fullness of God will always be sufficient to meet it if we do our part.

So do it. Don’t look backwards to what God has done in the past, but forwards to what God is doing now. Don’t get hung up on the limits of humanity, but dwell in the infinitude of God. Don’t keep your fish to yourself. Share them with the world, just as you’ve shared them with me. And, in the words of Paul, in all things, give “Glory to God, who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us.”

So, while the world isn’t ending (and I promise you, it’s not) and I hope my message isn’t misconstrued as an elaborate stunt, I guess all I want to say is, “So long, and thanks, with all my heart, for all the fish.”


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