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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 7/26/2015

How many times do I have to tell you? Out of frustration you have probably uttered those words, with an ending of your choice, to someone. Out of frustration, someone has perhaps uttered those words to you. “How many times do I have to tell you this is not a gymnasium,” my father would say when I was bouncing a ball in the house or playing catch in the living room. The answer to “How many times” was “quite a few” as it turned out; I’m not sure I ever really learned.

Today’s gospel story of the loaves and fishes has a “How many times do I have to tell you” feel about it. It occurs six times in four gospels. Each of the gospels has Jesus feeding 5000 people with a few loaves of bread and a few fish as we have in today’s reading from John; in addition to that Matthew and Mark include a version where it’s pretty much the same story but the number of people is 4000 instead of 5 and with all of them, there’s always baskets full left over. The story is pretty well known; I could reference it in an appeal for more food for Ann’s ordination a few weeks ago and you all knew what I was talking about. Not surprisingly, we wound up with plenty of food with lots left over.

Another thing about this is that it’s not unique to Jesus; similar things happen in Old Testament stories. Best known is the manna in the wilderness story where the Lord miraculously provides food for the complaining people of Israel. When they weren’t happy with manna and wanted meat, the Lord also provided quail. There’s also today’s story from Kings where Elisha, in the last of a series of miraculous acts, provided food for one hundred men when there didn’t seem to be nearly enough. Not quite as impressive as Jesus’ 4000 or 5000 but still not bad. You see though that even before Jesus’ feeding miracles, the story had already been told, adding to the “How many times do I have to tell you,” feeling.

How many times do I have to tell you what though? The fact that this kind of story is told so many times is a pretty good indication that the truth it’s intended to convey must be pretty important. What tends to happen though is the truth is elusive as on one side you get the skeptic who says these things couldn’t really have happened so they either dismiss such stories entirely or explain them away, the most common explanation of the Jesus stories being that there really was enough food but the people were selfishly hoarding what they had but then Jesus got them to share. That preaches, I’ve preached it. There is a lesson to be learned from that interpretation but I don’t think it gets to the real “what” of “How many times do I have to tell you?”

On the other side of the skeptics are the people who are just dazzled by the “wow” factor of what Jesus did. “That was awesome! Do it again!” It’s no wonder that Jesus attracted crowds but it’s also no wonder that so often after doing something miraculous he said, “Don’t tell anyone” because Jesus wasn’t just an entertainer. The wow factor also distracts from or misses the “what” of “How many times do I have to tell you.” Another factor that contributes to missing the “what” is getting preoccupied with questions that have nothing to do with what the story means, questions like speculating on the logistics of how you would go about feeding that many people which essentially just serves as another distraction.

Avoiding the assorted distractions, the “what” of “How many times do I have to tell you,” is “How many times do I have to tell you that in the midst of what the world calls reality, there is a different reality beyond what is immediately apparent, a reality that has to do with abundance and possibility rather than scarcity and limits, a new reality that breaks into the old reality and gives new life.

The God described in the Bible is quite consistently about this different reality whether it’s Yahweh, the Lord in the Old Testament or Jesus in the New Testament; the feeding miracles are just one example and it does begin to feel like “How many times do I have to tell you this before you get it?” Quite a few as it turns out as we do get distracted by questions and issues that keep us trapped in the old reality, confined by what we can see, limited by what others say is possible.

It’s almost like we don’t want to hear it! We’ve got this remarkable message of God’s presence in the world, of God’s abundance and grace breaking into the world. That’s what Jesus lived and taught, revealing a world full of possibility.

Grace and abundance is the message, trusting in God is the message, but then other voices get in the way, the voices of not enough, voices that say things are bad and getting worse, voices that suffocate hope, voices that say “You’re on your own.” Those voices are out there, but to keep them from having the last word, the stories of abundance keep coming back; “How many times do I have to tell you?”

In the New Testament, the way these differing realities are identified is by using kingdom language; there’s the Kingdom of God and there’s the Kingdom of this world. Our tendency is to think of them as separate, the Kingdom of God is up there, the heavenly hope for the future, while we live in the here and now of the kingdom of this world. As NT Wright explained in a video series we watched in Bible study last spring, the two aren’t separate as we often imagine it, but intertwined; the Kingdom of God is present in the midst of this world. The question then becomes, which of the kingdoms do you choose to live in? In truth, we live in both so maybe a better way to put it is which of the kingdoms are you going to let rule your life? Which voices are you going to let define who you are? You do have a choice and it does affect how you live in the world and look at the world.

Let me approach it from a different angle. One of my pet peeves these days is the 6 o’clock news on TV6. I was thinking though, what if they started doing the news backwards; what if they did the last five minutes first and the first five minutes last. You know what the first five minutes are, the crime sheet, the latest drug bust or assault or the latest sentencing for such offenses accompanied by orange jump suited mug shots of the accused, mug shots that are never very flattering. But do any of us really need to invite these people into our living room every night at 6?

Then there’s the last 5 minutes which are always something more upbeat and positive that’s going on, some nights you get the UPsider, identifying individuals who have made a positive difference in the community; there are a couple of people from here who have made that segment. But what if they led with that? Wouldn’t that set a different tone? It doesn’t deny the reality of the usual first five minutes, but it would give first place to a different reality and a different truth.

We live in this reality struggle, facing choices and the Bible itself reflects it. You know that the Bible is not all sweetness and light, it’s not all grace and abundance. There are some pretty rough parts, scandalous parts that the evening news would love. There are parts that reflect sin and accusation and judgment and people not living as God would have them live; the Bible doesn’t deny that reality. If you keep reading though, the words and stories of grace and abundance always sneak back in with that sense of “How many times do I have to tell you?”

The answer is “Quite a few” as it turns out as we tend to be unduly influenced by the old world voices of logic and reason that say it’s not possible, the voices that calculate and do the math and say there’s not enough…but that’s exactly when Jesus breaks in with his alternative reality in which the lame can walk, the blind can see and hungry crowds are fed; there is enough and there is new life; even the dead are raised. The church then needs to be a voice that doesn’t get distracted but proclaims Jesus as the new reality. It needs to be a consistent voice that breaks in and says, “How many times do I have to tell you that things are in God’s hands and you are loved; you are forgiven; you are accepted.” That’s the message; that’s the message that represents the “what.”

How many times do I have to tell you?

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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