The Algebra of God
There are 118,000 people living in Henderson County. One hundred years ago, in this same county, there were 18,000 people. In a century, the population has increased 100,000.
If we postulate that one person dies for every person who is born, we might conclude that for one hundred years, on average, 1,000 people a year have moved into this county. I am one of them for 2021! As we are more than halfway through the year, it is fair to say that more than 500 people have moved into this county since I did in January.
You like those numbers? Somebody a long time ago also liked numbers. How many Apostles traveled with Jesus? 12. How many people were hungry? 5,000 How many fish were offered for the meal: two. How many loaves of bread? Five. How many baskets of leftovers were collected? 12. You like those numbers?
The population numbers of Henderson County are interesting. We will know more when the 2020 census is released. A census worker came to my door on Friday! But the turnstile numbers of that day beside the Sea of Galilee are more than remarkable. They are astounding. They are miraculous.
That is a word we use when we don’t understand the numbers. When the equation won’t balance. We have an algebraic equation here. That is an equation with an unknown factor. Twelve apostles, five loaves, two fishes, 5,000 guests, and 12 baskets full of food. I can’t work that equation. We can only call it the algebra of God. We don’t need to solve the equation today, but we do need to apply it to our situation here, right here in Henderson County.
This gospel story of the two plus five equals 12 is the preeminent performance of Jesus the miracle worker.
It is the only miracle described by all four gospel writers. Its depiction, especially the fish and loaves, is embedded in Christian art and iconography. The story itself is full of wonder. Jesus is at the height of his ministry, popular everywhere and with everyone. It is before the organized opposition sets in and before people understood the cost of discipleship. It is before Jesus says to his closest friends, “Will you also abandoned me?”
The crowds are large, the stories captivating, the miracles astounding, the point-counter-point with the scribes, the pharisees, and the Sadducees keeps the people enthralled. Jesus is speaking the language of the people against the legalism of the temple. Jesus is reading the Bible, the Torah and the Prophets for the masses instead of manipulating it like the religious authorities.
How little has changed! How religious authorities still use sacred texts to suppress investigations, marginalize women, criticize immigrants, demonize dissenters, endorse politicians, reject public health professionals, and justify their privilege and power. Just like long ago.
Then and now, Jesus repudiates this as a distortion of religion, as a twisting of truth, as a denial of human dignity itself. When Jesus said, “Come unto me, all who are weary and heavy laden” he was talking as much to us as to them, to all people who long for the pure spirit of the living God, the spirit of love, and kindness, of truth and courage, of welcome and hospitality, of salvation from our own selfish ways and of the redemption of the whole creation.
“Deliver us from evil,” he taught us to pray, and we long for the day when evil people, evil powers, evil spells, evil systems no longer crush communities and quash the human spirit.
That is what we want. And that is what they wanted, when they hurried like children after the ice cream truck to catch up with Jesus in some new place, eager to hear some new word, see some new thing, feel some new surge of faith, hope, and love.
Jesus saw them as sheep without a shepherd, but they saw themselves as people yearning for a revival of true religion, of true spirituality, of true encounter with the living God, of the power of God triumphing over the power of demons. By the thousands they filled the banks of the Sea of Tiberias, guessing where and when Jesus might beach his craft and walk ashore. “They are hungry,” his peeps told him. Jesus said, “Feed Them.”
It is instructive and winsome how food sits at the center of the ministry of Jesus. Food is not just a metaphor for a more important spiritual mission; food—growing, preparing, eating, sharing—is the substance of his mission.
First, He taught us to pray for food. No word in that prayer about reading the Bible, or going to church, or keeping the commands, or building a sanctuary, or drawing a circle to keep people in or out. No, but a word about food: give us, and not just us but everybody, today and everyday, something to eat. It is the fulcrum upon which the prayer turns from adoration and surrender to peace and justice.
Second, Jesus ate with sinners. In fact, that was the practice that generated the gossip and irritated the authorities. “Zacchaeus,” he called looking up into the tree, “come on down. I’m hungry. Let’s go eat and talk.” That one story is the whole gospel wrapped up in ten ribbons of verse. Yes, I know, food is not explicitly mentioned, but when have you ever had guests in your home, and you did not offer them something to drink or eat? That day: A warm welcome, something to eat, a long conversation, a confession and a promise, a turning to walk in a different direction, and a summary: “Today, salvation has come to this house.”
Third, when Jesus wanted to paint a picture of the coming rule of God, he started out like this: “The kingdom of God is like a man who gives a banquet….” When he taught them a bit more about the purposes of God in the world, he said it like this: “God is going to gather all of us before the throne and he is going to divide us, some to the right and some to the left. And this is how he will decide: I was hungry, and you fed me.”
We are not surprised when Jesus said to his disciples, “You feed them. It is our calling. Don’t send them to somebody else as if eating is just an aside, a necessary interruption of the important things. You feed them.”
Some of the Christians then and now did not believe Jesus. They began to spiritualize this matter of food. In their assemblies, they began to ignore people who had not eaten. James the brother of Jesus had to write a letter about this. Let me read it to you: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, shalom aleichem! Go eat.” but does nothing to care for their needs, what good is it? That faith, by itself and without action, is dead.:
Another way they split the gospel—they divided the meal. At one time, the fellowship supper was the dominant gathering and activity of Christian people, people on The Way with Jesus. They would gather after the pattern of Jesus eat a hearty meal, give testimony, read the letters that were circulating, and then break the bread and raise the cup in memory of Jesus. It was the Lord’s Supper. They called it the agape feast.
But by the end of the first century, well-meaning men took a metaphorical sword to that grandest of all the ways of Jesus and split it in two. Eating the meal they relegated to the home and the fellowship hall; the eucharist they allowed to stay in the sanctuary. The one became secular, the other sacred. To the fellowship meal, all were invited: no barriers of age or confession or relation or tribe; but for the Eucharist, they set up barriers—who can attend, and when, and under what conditions.
Jesus never distinguished between the one and the other. To eat the food of the earth is to celebrate life and the giver of life. That is why when we eat, we lift our hands in praise and bow our hearts in prayer. That is why we are grateful and hospitable at the same time.
“Freely you have received. Freely give!” The gospel in 6 words. We have received life and food and friendship and vocation and forgiveness and the coming kingdom of God. Freely we give life and food and friendship and vocation and forgiveness and welcome into the kingdom of God.
No wonder Jesus said, “Feed them.” Later he would add: baptize them and teach them and forgive them and protect them. But on this day, looking out over 5,000 hungry people, he said, “Feed them.” His disciples said, “What? You must be kidding!” Jesus looked at them and said, “Show me what you got.” And they did. Two fish and five loaves of bread. Not even enough for the twelve. Hardly enough for Jesus himself. I could eat two pieces of fish and five rolls. And I can prove that at lunch today if somebody is so inclined!
In other words, they said, “We are down to the bare minimum. We are running on empty. We have too little, too late. No way we can do this. We are out of tricks.” And they stood and stared at Jesus and at each other.
It is hard to believe this text has come up for this church on this Sunday! Big job, few resources! You would almost think it was, well, providential!
You’ve been running the numbers, haven’t you? How many people? how much money? How long can we hold out? An overwhelming need, an unusual challenge, an impressive opportunity: regardless of how you phrase it, you are doing exactly what those first disciples did long ago: look at the crowd and look at the fish. Look out and around, and look down and around. And despair. You hear Jesus say, feed them, and you hold in your hand not nearly enough. Two fish and five loaves.
Algebra is a form of mathematics that uses the unknown. In class, we write it as x or y or sometimes both. The teachers show us how to figure out the value of x, by isolating the x on one side of the equation. And use the math we know to calculate the value of x.
In our story, we know the value of the crowd and the value of the food. Then there is Jesus. The unknown factor. God is the unknown factor. We can read and manipulate the other numbers: adding, multiplying, dividing—we can do all that. But that unknown factor, that hidden component in the manner of things, mystery that lies at the heart of the universe, that constantly surprises and stuns and shocks. That comes to us in surprising ways at surprising times. That’s the miracle of it all. The unknown factor
Who knows what happened that evening beside the sea of Galilee? Some people contend the sacrifice of the person who offered the two fish and the five loaves inspired others to share what they had. Perhaps. That happens sometimes.
A version of that happened in 2010, in August, to be exact. When Bill Gates and Warren Buffett created what they called The Giving Pledge, vowing to give away most of their money to address common problems around the world. In 2013 the Pledge went global, and today at least 200 billionaires have signed the pledge. The money is flowing to those in need. Sometimes the needy appear to be ex-wives. But I have been impressed by the energetic way the ex of Jeff Bezos, MacKenzie Scott is giving away money. She started with more than two fish and five loaves. But the rich can be generous and there are many examples, from Zacchaeus to MacKenzie.
For twenty years, my ministry was funded by the 1938 generosity of Eli Lilly. He and his boys created the Lilly endowment, and every year that endowment gives away a half billion dollars and more, to address needs of education, religion, and community life. I have been a beneficiary of that generosity.
Who knows what can happen on the pews and through the people of Providence Baptist Church of Hendersonville, North Carolina? What do you think and feel when you look up at the field teeming with people and then look down at the two fish at your disposal? You look at the crowd, you look at the fish, and you look at Jesus. You look at the crowd, you look at the fish, and you look at Jesus. And you think: this is going to take a miracle!
Jesus is the unknown factor in the algebra of God. The large crowd we can count; that’s no mystery. The two fish and five loaves we can count; that’s no mystery. But Jesus—he’s hard to figure! He’s hard to count! He’s hard to predict. Jesus does amazing things. That’s what it means to be Jesus. That’s what it means to be risen from the dead. That’s what it means to be Lord. That’s what it means to confess, Jesus is Lord.
Would you rather not need Jesus? Would you rather have a truck load of fish, tubs full of cold slaw, and a tank of beer? Would you rather look at the crowd, then look at your supplies—box upon box, gallon upon gallon, plate upon plate, and not even need to look at Jesus?
Would you rather look at the mission given to you—a thousand people a year, year after year after year—and say to one another, We have all the supplies we need. We have all the volunteers we need. We have all the money we need. We have all the food we need. We really don’t even need Jesus. We can handle this on our own. Is that what you want? Would that make you feel better? Would that help you to rest easier, sing louder, testify longer? If only we had a situation where we didn’t need Jesus, didn’t need the mystery or the miracle, didn’t have to fool with the unknown factor. What do we call a religion without Jesus?
Let me give you one more number. Here in North Carolina, right here in Henderson County, just a few inches off the buckle of the Bible Belt, where half of all affiliated Christians call themselves Baptist, right here where I pass by no fewer than ten churches on my way to preach this morning, right here where we live, the majority of the people, 53% according to public statistics, are unaffiliated with any church. That’s 62,540 people.
I talked to one of them this week. A realtor by trade, and the father of an ordained minister. “I don’t need it,” he said to me as our conversation turned toward church. “I don’t know why my daughter went the way she did, to church and all that. She lives down in Charleston, is pastor of a church. I’m just trying to be a good person, to do what is right, to show a little kindness.” As he spoke, I heard in the background, Glenn Campbell singing the soundtrack of his life, “You got to try a little kindness, yes, show a little kindness, just shine your light for everyone to see.” Or maybe was it Bill Withers singing “Lean on me when you’re not strong, I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on.
I honor that. Be ye kind, one to another, is the first verse I learned, and I said so to him. In this age of rudeness and meanness, a little kindness goes a long way. It covers a multitude of sins. It produces a harvest of righteousness.
I honor that.
But a religion without Jesus is an empty affair, whither it is in the church or out of the church, whether is the despair of the believers or the disdain of the doubters, whether it is the resignation of the baptized or the rejection of the indifferent.
I’m here today to confess Jesus is Lord. Jesus is Risen from the grave. Jesus walks with us and he talks with us, and he tells us, we are his own. I want Jesus in the easy times, when the food is plenty and the troubles scarce. And I want Jesus in the hard times, when five thousand people are crowding around looking for Jesus, looking for purpose, looking for reconciliation and a way to resist the evil all around and in their own souls, looking for something to feed their bodies and their souls. I want Jesus. I want to hear Jesus say, “You, feed them.” That’s the kind of religion I want. That is the kind of religion I have. That is the kind of Jesus, here today, in this very room, looking at the big numbers of people and the small numbers of fish, and saying to us, “Feed Them.”