Built for Abundance

You may listen to Mother Erika's sermon here.

In the early 2000’s, researchers at Cornell University conducted an experiment about people’s eating habits. Participants were simply asked to eat a bowl of soup, and to stop eating when they felt full. Easy enough. The trick was that some of the bowls of soup were just bowls of soup, but some of the bowls were not. They were attached to a pump that continuously refilled the soup from the bottom without the eater being any the wiser. Picture the never-ending soup bowl lunch special at Olive Garden – just a lot sneakier. There was always soup in the bowl – the participants could eat and eat and eat, and the soup would never run out.  

And as you might have already guessed, the people sitting before the magical refilling soup bowls did just that – they ate, and ate, and ate. Across the board, the participants eating from the refilling bowls ate more than the other soup eaters, and they didn’t indicate that they felt stuffed or even that they noticed that they had eaten more than the bowl looked as if it would allow. They just ate and ate and ate. Who knows – they might have been content to continue eating into infinity if there had also been a magical refilling bread basket and a magical refilling glass of Chianti.

The question was…why? Why didn’t they notice how much they were eating? Why were they deceived by a ploy that, one would imagine, should have become evident about 15 or 20 spoonfuls in?     Well, apparently, contrary to what our mothers always told us, it’s actually hard for our eyes to be too big for our stomachs. If our eyes can be deceived into thinking we’re eating a “normal” sized meal, our stomachs will happily play along. We hear about this all the time in reports about the gradual growth in dinner plates and paper cups and portion sizes that has given us plates as big as manhole covers, 64 oz. gigantor gulps, and double supersized shovels-full-o’ French fries. And why are our stomachs so happy to oblige our big eyes? Well, according to some scientists, it’s because we are built for scarcity. Throughout history, generations of men and women have had to live on very, very little, and so when they were presented with a feast, their bodies basically told them, “Eat as much as you can, because you aren’t going to be seeing this much food again for a while.” And apparently, we are still programmed to do this. Even when most of us are able to eat three full meals a day, and when we live in a country with the highest obesity rate in history, we still imagine that we are built for scarcity. Our bodies live in fear that we won’t get enough food, and so we ignore our full stomachs and eat and eat and eat.

The world hears this and confidently nods its head. Yes, of course, that’s right; we are built for scarcity; we are bottomless pits of need. We have so many needs that a thoughtful man named Mazlow put them in a nice hierarchy for us so that we might know exactly what our needs are at any given time. If the world is our shepherd, it will tell us that we lack everything. There isn’t enough food to go around – not enough food for the poor in this city, for the families of famine in east Africa, or for the one hundred people around the world who have died from starvation since I began this sermon. There is drought, there is disorder and red tape and politics, and there just isn’t enough food to go around.

And it isn’t just food that we lack, the world whispers. We also lack money and love, meaning and connections. We lack safety and freedom and time. The need goes on and on. And when we start listening to that whispering, we can’t help but go a little crazy. We start slurping up anything and everything we can find while our brains tells us, “Grab this – it might help somehow someday.” We gorge ourselves on any soup we can find: food, power, information, guns, sex. We eat more calories than we can ever use in a day, we gobble up status updates and tweets like they’re real sustenance; we consume people and friendships, we guzzle gas and disposable plastics and Botox and firearms. We eat and eat and eat, all the while hearing the whispers: you are built for scarcity.

But this is a lie. For you and I are not built for scarcity, we are built for abundance. We are created, crafted and knit together, by a loving God who has made us to expect abundance. We are made first in God’s image, not just in the image of our hunt and gather ancestors. We are God’s children, and God gives us every good gift. God gives us the breath in our lungs, the voltage in our cells, the inspiration of our minds and the compassion of our hearts. This is not to say that there is not real need in the world or in our lives – but this need is an aberration, not the rule. The rule is that we are filled, all of us, with all of the fullness of God. And if we really listen to our hearts, we know that to be true. At our core, below the worry and fear, deep in our center where the truth speaks to us in the voice of the Holy Spirit, we know that God will give us our food in due season and satisfy the needs of every living creature.

Deep in our very beings, we know this, and yet we forget this again and again and again. We, like the disciples, look out at the hordes of people covered in need and we panic. Oh no, we think, there are people out there wasting away with need, people with no food, no job, no livelihood, no love, no family, no purpose, no security, no time. And we stand staring at them – or sometimes at ourselves in the mirror – and we feel paralyzed. But then, Jesus arrives. And “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 says this, John tells us, to test Philip, to see if Philip could remember in the face of the crowds what he – and they – were built for. He says this maybe with a little wink, knowing what he would do, hopeful that the disciples would know that too. But when they don’t, when instead they start talking about six months’ wages and the cheapest bread seller and where was the closest coinstar machine and did anyone have a living social discount, Jesus realizes that his guys will – again – need his help. And so when that famous second-born son, Andrew, shows Jesus the only food he’s been able to find – five barley loaves as dense and heavy as hockey pucks and two shriveled up dried fish – Jesus smiles. He tells the disciples to please show the people to their seats on the grass, gives God thanks for the food they are about to receive, and feeds the people. From a miraculous refilling bread basket. And the people eat and eat and eat, the very food of heaven, the bread of life, the abundance of grace. And then the disciples remember what they’re truly built for.

So it’s okay if we find ourselves swimming in a sense of lack, panicking because the waves of need seem to be ready to swamp our boat. It’s okay; we’re in good company. Like the disciples, we just need to be reminded that there is a way out of the storm; there is a way to silence the howling winds of the world. There is, in fact, only one way, and it’s the way the disciples learned and practiced over and over again. We look to Christ. We look out at the world and look to keep Christ at the center, Christ as the lodestone, so that no matter where our eyes may fall, no matter what the world might show us, no matter what fears and needs and lack we see, we first see Christ standing before us saying I AM. Fear not, I AM. I AM the bread of life. I AM the water of salvation. I AM the good shepherd, and therefore you shall lack nothing.

And the true miracle of this is that when we start living this way, the world changes. When we begin to live in the awareness of God’s abundance, when we claim ourselves as creatures built for that abundance, we begin to change the world in Christ’s name. In our food cupboard, we open our doors to the poor so that they can get their own bread and fishes and cereal and milk. On Saturday mornings, we offer our own miraculous bowls of refilling soup, with baskets of leftover bread that gets made into bread pudding. In our Vacation Music School, we give out the gift of music in this place to all of the children of the neighborhood. We offer a voice to the voiceless, comfort to those who mourn, connection and fellowship to the lonely. And in our worship, we invite people to come to this place to sit at table and be fed, again and again, day after day, week after week, to eat and eat and eat. And Christ standing before us, in this worship and in our ministry and mission, helps us to remember, helps us to listen to that voice deep in our guts, to his voice telling us what we are truly built for. And so sit down here and eat. And then put down your spoon and feed someone else. And together we will all eat and be most satisfied.

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

29 July 2012

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on August 1, 2012 .