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The Andrew Viewpoint

August 3, 2015

“The Andrew Viewpoint” John 6:1-21; Ephesians 3:14-21 © 8.2.15 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

It was late afternoon, and people were hungry.

Jesus turned first to Philip, whose hometown was nearby. He’d know about the markets. “Philip, where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip must have wondered whether Jesus had jumped the gun a little. A better question would have been “Where are we going to get the money to buy these folks some food?” Philip answered in those terms: “A person would have to work the better part of a year just to get enough for each one to have a little.”

Andrew heard the conversation, and offered a suggestion. It was far-fetched, but better than nothing. “There’s a little boy here with five loaves and two fish.” Still, he had his doubts: “They won’t go very far with all these people.”

Jesus liked the idea, though, and got everyone seated. He took the little bit that had been offered and thanked God for it.

We know the result. Everybody had enough, and there were twelve baskets left over.

Of course, knowing that Jesus could feed them, which meant he could supply other needs as well, everyone wanted to make him king. Somehow they’d force him to rule and fight for them, if necessary. But Jesus knew that popularity can be as dangerous as hostility. So, the story ends with our Lord fleeing into the mountains alone.

As familiar as this tale is, it still holds possibilities for a fresh word from God every time we read and hear it. Let me suggest to you this morning that we use it to get some clues about how we use the resources God provides to us.

As we start to think along those lines, notice that the story presents us with two viewpoints about problem-solving. For one, there’s Philip. He’s is a bottom-line kind of guy. He looks at a problem and the available money or people or space or willingness to act and decides on that basis if the challenge can be met. If what’s in hand and what’s needed don’t match, Philip’s conclusion is “we can’t do it.” Philip strikes me as not particularly imaginative or creative. He’s a lot like me; he gives up too easily. If I can’t address a problem with the skill set I have and without stepping out of my comfort zone, I likely won’t even try. I know the lingo: “thinking outside the box,” “moving off the map,” “embracing a new paradigm.” But in the real world, the options for action come from a list of tried and true remedies and strategies from files with headings like “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” “we’ve always done it that way,” and “what does the manual say?” The resources Philip and I depend on are the ones everybody knows about and uses.

Still, the Philips of the world are great to have around. They make us take a long, hard look at our money and our facilities and our personnel and urge us to be realistic. They’ll let us dream, but not so big we set ourselves up for failure from the outset. They preserve us from fiscal irresponsibility in the church. Philips are the sorts of people who won’t let us adopt a deficit budget, claiming we’ll make up the difference with “faith.” Most of all, they keep us from laziness, because they make us believe that everything depends on our efforts. If we don’t do it, who will? The Philips of the world and church have an approach that’s just right sometimes.

In the old children’s movie The Never-ending Story, the land of Fantasia was said to have no boundary, because it lived in the limitless human imagination. Philip reminds us, though, that there are limits; sometimes Fantasia does have a boundary. In the end, he was wrong about this particular situation, but that doesn’t mean we throw the baby out with the bathwater. He has a point.

For example, though we may have different concerns and come to conflicting conclusions, we could all agree it’s reasonable to ask about how much growth and development our planet can sustain. By the time children born this year are 35, the population of Earth is expected by the UN to reach 9.6 billion, up from the current 7.2 billion ( ). We wonder how we can meet the needs of the present populations for energy and food and water and space without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. As the philosopher Jacques Ellul once said, it’s not possible to have unlimited development in a finite universe (“Il ne peut pas y avoir un développement infini dans un univers fini”;

A little closer to home, we have to learn to accept limits age or illness or the after-effects of an accident impose on what we can do. And there are simply some things we can never afford or else have to wait for. That’s been a hard lesson for me to learn, since I have premium champagne tastes on a cheap beer budget. If we live beyond our means consistently, we face great financial stress, which is the case with so many in our society. In the church, we want to grow, but may be limited by the community or by other demographic factors, such as people moving away rather than moving in. Those that remain are locked into their denominational preference or else they don’t care about religion at all. The size of a building and the kinds and locations of rooms a church has limit the possibilities for its programming. So, Philip is right sometimes.

But then there’s the Andrew viewpoint. There’s still doubt in him. He wonders aloud whether small resources can really make a difference when the need is so great. In that, he’s like Philip. But then he shows how he’s different from his colleague. Like classic Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, he believes there always are possibilities. He’s resourceful; he looks for solutions, no matter how wild they seem at first glance or hearing. Maybe he did some scouting of the crowd or at least he was in the right place at the right time to see that little boy. I imagine in some other context Andrew would be like my late father-in-law Neal in his prime. He could improvise, jury-rig, adapt, and coax cooperation from whatever was at hand. And he taught his kids to do the same. Or Andrew is Scarlett O’Hara making a new dress from the draperies. Or indeed anyone who has had to make-do and be creative with what little they had, stretching a dollar, repurposing, being inventive.

Andrew displays a developing, not-quite sure faith in Jesus’ ability to do a lot with a little, to accomplish the unexpected with the unusual. So he brings what’s available to Jesus.

I call Andrew a “cautious dreamer” or maybe, like the movie line, a “hopeful romantic.” He wants to extend the boundaries of the imaginary land of Fantasia, if just by a few inches at a time. He believes like Philip that there are limits. He’s not at the point of saying “Wow! We can do anything! We don’t need money. We don’t need people. We don’t need anything. God is with us!” But Andrew parts company with Philip because Andrew will not accept the limits that are apparent, the kinds of boundaries Philip had drawn. Instead, his imagination allows Andrew to see possibilities in barley bread and sardines like Michelangelo contemplating a hunk of marble. Under the sculptor’s deft blows, an uninspiring stone becomes a masterpiece like a David or a Pietà. In Jesus’ hands, five loaves and two fish feed a multitude, and point to possibilities not even dreamed of, sustenance beyond imagining. Andrew is ready to be open to what God can do. He knows his part is to be alert and faithful in finding and claiming resources for the kingdom.

The Andrews of the world and church are valuable to have around, too. They seem realistic enough for the bottom-liners, yet they can inspire others to dream great dreams. Maybe even bigger dreams than the Andrews are willing or able to. They’re not phony-sounding pseudo-saints who tell us all we have to do is depend on God, and there will be pennies from heaven or the sky will rain quails and manna or a big donor will suddenly drop a wad of cash on the capital project. But neither do they discount the possibility that God works in ways we don’t expect with resources that are way less than adequate. And yes, with less than perfectly equipped or holy people.

Andrew is the sort of person every small membership church needs. I was the pastor of a congregation with 35 in worship for 14 years, and I’ve been here now going on six years, so I know the challenges. Plus, I’ve spoken and worked with other small churches in the presbytery. The finances, membership, and attendance of this congregation have ebbed and flowed over the years, and there have been issues with our buildings over and over. Sometimes it’s been hard to know what to do. But there’s an old Gaelic prayer: “As it was, as it is, and as it shall be evermore, God of grace, God in Trinity! With the ebb and flow, ever it is so, God of grace, O Trinity, with the ebb and flow.”

In all those changing fortunes, I am inspired and challenged by Andrew. What if like him, I could be alert and imaginative about possibilities? Perhaps you already are in his camp; you think along the same lines. But if you’re not and you don’t, will you join me in asking of ourselves how we can be proactive and intentional about seeking out-of-the-ordinary solutions first, instead of as the last resort when forced by the situation? What if we could all be more like Andrew, alert to possibilities with resources that could be multiplied in the right hands? What if we tapped into a well of strength and imagination and wonder within ourselves and began to live up to our potential, to stretch ourselves a little? What if we offered to God whatever time, money, skills, and commitment we can muster? I leave the answers to those questions to you, and I must struggle with them, too.

But as we reflect and decide what we can and will offer, let’s not forget that Jesus went far beyond the expectations of Philip and even those of Andrew. Could it be that even when we have done our most outlandish dreaming and when we have been our most resourceful and inventive, God has even more in store for us?

Paul reminded the Ephesians that God by the power exerted in us will do “superabundantly” above all that we ask or imagine. There wasn’t even a Greek word to describe what God would do. Paul had to make one up, so beyond experience was the work of God. A Declaration of Faith begins this way: “ We believe in one true and living God. We acknowledge one God alone, whose demands on us are absolute, whose help for us is sufficient….God comes to us on his own terms and is able to do far more than we ask or think.” We simply never know what God is going to do.

It’s not easy or simple to believe any of this. That’s why we come to the Lord’s Table: to gain strength, to be reminded that God takes care of us, that in ordinary resources there is abundant power, superabundant grace. Our deepest longings are satisfied at this table, and we are promised even more. We are empowered afresh for God’s work in us and among us, so we may go about the tasks to which he calls us. Even feeding a multitude or keeping a small membership church faithful and hopeful. At this table, our eyes and hearts are lifted up to see and to believe One who can do more than we ask or think, even in our wildest dreams.

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