Holy Welfare

“Holy Welfare”

a message by Dr. Bruce Havens

based on the theme: “Foolish Faith”

Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.

July 15, 2018


Mark 6:34-44

34As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

35When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late;

36send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.”

 37But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?”

 38And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.”

39Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass.

40So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties.

41Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all.

42And all ate and were filled;

43and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish.

44Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.


 Honestly, they didn’t deserve it.  They didn’t earn it.  It was what we might call “holy welfare!”  Of course, I am talking about those lazy freeloaders who came for the sermon and stayed for lunch.  What did they expect when they followed Jesus out into a wilderness place?  Manna from heaven?  A nearby Burger King drive-through? Apparently!  But here’s the foolish part of faith – it is the belief that while we worked for and earned whatever we have, everyone else is a welfare case wanting a free handout, or otherwise not deserving whatever it is they got.  The truth is grace means we ALL are living off “holy welfare!”

Grace is what God gives.  It is the nature of God.  Everything that we have and everything that we are is a gift from God, that is what theologians call grace.  The Christian narrative is that we are all sinners saved by grace.  The Christian faith is based on the belief in a God who loves everyone: “for God so loved the WHOLE WORLD, he sent his only son, …NOT TO CONDEMN THE WORLD, but that the world might be saved through him.”  This morning’s Scripture lesson is a parable of grace.  It is a preview of the way the new creation that God intends will be.  All will eat and be fed and there will be plenty left over because God’s love is abundant, God’s resources are abundant, God’s grace is sufficient and more than sufficient.

But our cultural narrative is that there is a scarcity of everything.  There isn’t enough food for everyone.  There isn’t enough clean water for everyone.  There isn’t enough healthcare for everyone, and so we must make commodities of these things and only those who can afford them can have them.  Our cultural narrative is we all worked for what we have and earned it.  We never consider that our natural abilities, our IQ’s, the fact that we were even born in this country rather than another one, that we were born with innate advantages that others never had, that we have all this by virtue of grace – God’s gift – not anything we earned or deserved – is one many people never think about.

Instead we waste a lot of time judging those who have not “made it,” according to our scale of judgment.  Or we spend time resenting those who seem lazy or seem to be looking for hand-outs or “entitlements,” or all kinds of ways the politicians twist language to divide us and convince us there is not enough.  It was very interesting several years ago when we took the youth on the mission trip to Miami and got to talk to a number of immigrants who were here, some working as migrant farm workers, others looking for any work they could get.  The kids were astounded to learn that every one of those men and women they talked to wanted to earn their living, they didn’t want a hand out.  They wanted an opportunity and they were willing to pick tomatoes at an inhumane hourly wage just to try to make a living here rather than in Guatamala or Mexico or Nicaragua.  It blew up a lot of assumptions they had learned from their parents.

The Scripture this morning is a story about Jesus calling the disciples away to a quiet place to rest and eat, because they have been working so hard they haven’t even had time to eat.  Yet, Jesus ends up surrounded by crowds who are hungry – at first for his teaching, but then just for food!  And Jesus doesn’t seem to have a clue.  The disciples come to him to try to get him to end the sermon so the people can go home and eat.  There is no potluck planned after this service!  But Jesus just says, “you give them something to eat.”  The disciples say, “Us?  What?  Where are we going to get the money for that?  Where are we going to get the food?”  Evidently the Publix was closed and the 24 hour 7-11 was too far away.  “What do you have?” Jesus asks.  A few loaves and a couple of fish, they say.  And it is enough.  It is enough because Jesus blesses it, breaks it and passes it:  obviously words that echo the liturgy of our sacrament of communion.  It too is a sign of the miracle of God’s grace:  there is an abundance for all and so we don’t have to refuse anyone.

What do you make of miracles? Maybe you don’t believe in miracles.  That’s ok.  Here’s a thought… if the disciples who hadn’t even had time to think about meals had a few loaves of bread and a couple fish among them, isn’t it possible a few others in that crowd of 5000 also had some Nabs and a RC Cola with them?  Maybe a few or more than a few had some loaves and a few fish and next thing you know everyone has enough bread and enough filet of pompano to satisfy.  What’s the miracle?  To trust in a God who always, always, always, shows us there is an abundance in this creation, not a scarcity of resources and blessings, or that everyone shared a little so everyone had a lot?  Seems like both are miracles to me.  Seems like it takes a little humility to receive grace.

Emily Heath, [“Humble,” SSD, ucc.org, October 1, 2017 ], live among some pretty privileged teenagers.  They come from abundance and are destined for abundance.  She and her wife have jobs at a high tone boarding school in New England.  She says she is “immersed in the life of high school students.”  She talks with them over breakfast in the dining hall.  See them working over their computers in the library, move from class to athletic fields to dorms and back again.  It is a demanding school.  Most of the graduates will go to Ivy League colleges and such.  As she puts it, they understand concepts that she couldn’t fathom in high school, all while being “rather annoyingly well-rounded.”  And they are also “humble,” she says.

She says young people today get a bad rap:  they are called the “participation trophy” generation.  People believe they have been ruined by a lifetime of being told they are unique and special.  She says, “I don’t think that’s true. Instead, I’ve been amazed by the way these students talk about others, and not themselves, quick to tell me about just how special someone else is at something.”

She goes on to say, “Something amazing happens when we begin to recognize that we are surrounded by people who have been given great gifts. Something even more amazing happens when we realize that every single person has been given great gifts by God. Humility is not denying your gifts. Humility is having the ability to see the gifts that are in others, and celebrating them just as much as your own.”  I would say real humility begins when we realize we are all recipients of holy welfare.  When we realize that everything is a gift from God then we will realize we didn’t deserve any of what we have and maybe, just maybe humility will begin to help us experience real gratitude.

The challenge I face with this is where she ties this in with what Paul the Apostle said to the Philippians about humility.  He says, “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” [Philippians 2:1-3].  The problem for me is all these people who are convinced that other human lives aren’t worth theirs, and so I begin to hate them and feel like I am a better human being than them.  What do I mean?

Well, recently I overheard a few people discussing Puerto Rico and the disaster that Hurricane Maria caused there.  One guy said he worked down there for awhile and said, “Oh, they won’t do anything to help themselves, they’re all lazy.”  Another said, “yeah, their government is just so corrupt any aid we give them will just end up in that Mayor’s pockets, and she’s a Democrat, so we know she is corrupt.”  That’s what we call “blaming the victim.”  We do that so we will feel better about what we don’t do for someone else.  It is an attitude that is the polar opposite of humility.

Mary Luti, a UCC theologian and teacher says, [ “Four thousand six hundred forty-five”, SSD, ucc.org, June 20, 2018 ], “Four thousand six hundred forty-five.”  What she means is 4645 people “didn’t die in Maria’s wind. They weren’t swept away by waves. Lightening didn’t shock them dead. They weren’t ripped from life by falling trees and flying debris.  Their souls left the island unnoticed, they died behind the scenes, as cameras and promises were leaving, too. In the aftermath. An afterthought. No thought at all.”

She points out that, “There are natural disasters: tectonics, eruptions, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, disease, fire. And then there are unnatural disasters: racism, neglect, corruption, victim-blaming, egomaniacal self-congratulation. We were told that sixty-four were killed by nature’s violence. Not a whisper about those killed by human indifference.  Those who died after the winds and cameras left—from medical inattention, no power, no food—they didn’t count them. They didn’t count. Them.  Four thousand six hundred forty-five.”

Recently a rather drunk racist man of my generation accosted a woman wearing a shirt with the flag of Puerto Rico on it.  He said she shouldn’t wear that shirt because she was in America now.  He demanded to know if she had her papers, could she prove she was here legally.  Mary Luti says, “A recent study finds that roughly half of us in this country don’t know that Puerto Ricans are American citizens. It also finds that among those who don’t know, support for greater aid for the island registers at 41%. But that number rises to 81% when people learn” that they too are our brothers and sisters in citizenship.  Mary Luti says, “That’s a strong argument for better education. But it begs the question of why 4645 people’s lives don’t count regardless of what nationality they are or how corrupt their government is [and my mother said people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, by the way, so maybe we should stop talking about other countries’ corrupt governments].  Those people count.

  1. That’s how many Mark counted at Jesus’ little potluck after the sermon. That was only the men, because well, the women and children didn’t count back then.  The truth is there was enough for all those who didn’t count and 12 baskets left over besides.  But I am one of those 5000. I am a recipient of Holy Welfare, of grace.  And I really, really don’t deserve it, but I am one of the 5000.  By the way, so are you.  AMEN.