a sermon by the Rev. Jill Cowie


We all know the story of abundance in the bible when Jesus feeds five thousand with five loaves and two fish. Like many biblical stories, it presents a riddle about abundance. My experiences with the Lakota at their Standing Rock camp in North Dakota brought this riddle to life. What do resistance movements teach us about the practice of living abundantly?

Reading: Book of Luke Chapter 9 vs12-17

The setting: The twelve disciples have just returned from their missionary expedition and report to Jesus all that they had done and taught. They take an optimistic view of their achievements, and Jesus reminds them not to value too much their accomplishments but to rejoice they are part of the kingdom. Recognizing their need for rest, Jesus bids them to rest awhile in some desert place, for so great was the pressure of the multitudes. They went off to seek privacy in a boat. The crowd saw them departing and were resolved not to be forsaken. Going around the lake on foot and by hard running the crowd arrived first at the landing place. As Jesus and the disciples disembarked, Jesus was moved not with irritation but with compassion, for they seemed to him to be like sheep without a shepherd and he began to teach them, and those in need of healing he healed. “And the day began to wear away; the twelve came and said unto him,” send the multitudes away that they may go into the villages and country round about and lodge and get victuals for we are here in a desert place.” But Jesus said unto them, “give ye them to eat”. And they said “we have no more than five loaves and two fishes; Shall we go and buy two hundred pennyworth of bread? For they are about 5 thousand. And Jesus said unto his disciples, “make them sit down in companies, about fifty each.” And they did so. And Jesus took the five loaves and the two fishes and looking up to heaven, he blessed them and broke them; and gave them to the disciples to set before the multitude. And they did eat, and were all filled; and there was taken up that which remained, twelve baskets of broken pieces.

The Sermon

As I listen to this reading, I wonder what happened while Jesus and his disciples were in the boat, what changed his heart to see the crowd no longer as the pressing multitude but as people in need of teaching, and in need of healing. Did he watch them run, earnestly around the lake? Or was it more about the expression on their faces as he and his disciples disembarked, an expression that danced between the fear of being rejected, and the hope that everything they had heard about his ministry would prove true for them?

The book of Luke was written as a challenge to the deep economic oppression of the first century perpetuated by Caesar, a narcissistic egomaniac who liked to tell people that “he alone could fix things;” A man that built towers with gold on them, a person who liked division. Sound familiar? So I listen to this story for clues of resistance, for ways we can, like Jesus did, lift up with a sense of abundance the very people our present day Caesar despises. In his parable, Jesus tells the people to sit down, in the grass, in small groups. He takes the few loafs of bread the disciples have, he blesses them, breaks them, and gives them to the disciples to distribute. And all were fed, with leftovers. Was it Jesus’s compassion or the disciple’s generosity that moved each group to share their pocket morsels with each other? Or is the author of Luke saying something else. Is he suggesting that if we satisfy the spiritual and moral needs of a people, the community shifts from the reality of scarcity to one of abundance and liberation?

The time I spent at Standing Rock, the water protector camp of the Sioux tribe known as the Oshetekowin gave me some clues as to what this shift from scarcity to abundance involves. Like the camp in the story, Standing Rock was remote. Two hours from Bismarck on the banks of the Cannonball River. As we arrived, the greeters at the gate always asked, “How is you heart?” and we always said, “Our hearts are full as is our car full of supplies.

The Oshetekowin leaders started everyday even in sub zero temperatures, calling out in prayer to the camp, at its peak over 5,000 strong. Standing at the sacred fire that never went out, they called “all you water protectors, all you warriors, dust of your pipe, bring your bible, let us figure out how to be two legged today, how to use our voices and focus our intent in recognition of this time, of this moment.” Most of the time I worked in one of the four kitchens. Karen, my colleague from Bismarck served so much rice she got a blister. She remembers the day, early in the life of the camp, when Johnnie Aseron, one of the camp leaders asked at the community meeting, “where are the people of faith in Bismarck?” and she spoke up for the first time, and said “we have been in the kitchen, and we are a willing to do what ever needs to be done.” Their friendship helped make possible the Dec 4th day of prayer when the whole camp created a circle one mile in circumference, with all seven tribes of the Oshetekowin nation united together for the first time in decades. Just as the circle finished forming, word came that Obama had denied the permit for the pipeline to be completed. A runner ran the circumference of the circle with the news. One member of the Bismarck congregation said, “I never felt so alive until then.” And he wondered how an old guy like him could be so surprised by the power of prayer.

Moving from scarcity to abundance asks each of us to live a faith that invites a spiritual spaciousness both within our hearts and in our public expression. For the Bismarck UU congregation this meant discovering the abundance of partnering with the tribe, being there at every water protector trial, proving transportation for those who needed help getting home, and opening the church for shelter for those left at the camp when it closed. And it meant abundantly stepping aside when their presence was not helpful. For the tribe it meant taking a risk of relationship after so many clouded by the colonial mindset. Johnny told me the whole camp convened a meeting to decide whether or not to participate in the interfaith gathering. But they knew until they widened the circle, all would be guided by misconceptions. They first attended a smaller gathering at our UU church, saw the gentle way we connect with one another, and for the first time left a church feeling happy and honored. Taking that risk, trusting that space, and giving it their continual blessing, broke open the old, and made way for the new.

Every justice movement is grounded in a faith paradigm of abundance. Martin Luther King Jr. was convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose and that this loving absolute is present in each person. His faith was grounded in the vision of love that defuses conflict toward total reconciliation of this loving purpose. Jessie Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, and now Rev. Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign peoples shifts King’s metaphor of unity to a metaphor of infinity, in which each person is seen and acknowledged by his or her particularities, and the infinite possibilities of their life, and the innumerable ways humanity is expressed. This spaciousness rebalances power and invites mutuality. Johnny’s faith in abundance lies in connection and two simple agreements, everyone has a right to be heard and a right to listen no matter how long it takes. He likes the poem by Marge Piercy, “Connections are made slowly, and sometimes they grow underground, you cannot tell always by looking at what is happening. More than half a tree is spread out in the soil under your feet.”

I remember the moment at the camp, when I realized this was true. I had spent the week taking down tents. The police were about to close the camp at the governor’s request. It looked like the end. I was worried for the people left with no where else to go, worried they would be not so gently arrested, and I was sad that the magic of this place, would soon be only a memory. That’s when I was asked to help set up the new camp up the road. I was there when they lit the new sacred fire. I listened to the tribal elders as they recounted their nation’s history named their moments of resistance. I joined a crew of tribal members, farmers, teachers, students, and veterans that were setting up the new community of army tents. All of us equal even though our skills varied. Food just kept showing up, and we created community. Something shifted in me that day, and I felt all things were possible. Living in abundance, for me means crossing human made boundaries in ways not thought possible or predictable.

Marge Piercy writes, “Reach out, and keep reaching out, and keep bringing in, this is how we are going to live for a long time: for every gardener knows that after the digging, after the planting after the long season of tending and growth, the harvest comes.” The harvest of Standing Rock has begun. On June 14 Judge James Boasberg of the U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reconsider sections of its environmental analysis on the nearly 1200-mile-long pipeline, in particular the easements it granted for drilling under the Missouri River at Standing Rock. In addition, Tigerswan, the security company hired by Energy Partners Inc., faces a lawsuit for its unlicensed and violent counter-terrorism tactics they used against the water protectors. A diaspora of similar camps can be found along pipelines nationally.

I invite you now to take this experience of abundance at Standing Rock and apply it closer to home. What would living a faith paradigm of abundance look like for you, for us, here and now, in this community? How can our pubic theology focus on the spiritual and moral needs to liberate those in our community who are hungry? Imagine yourself a disciple, tired from feeling the pressure of the multitudes, on the boat, in the middle of the lake. On the shore you see the 700,000 thousand in Massachusetts who live below the poverty line, and you see that 200,000 of them are children, all running, not willing to be forsaken. Something in you shifts. You get off the boat and you see in the eyes of mothers a vacant expression that tells the toll of episodic hunger when they go to bed hungry night after night so that their children eat and the rent gets paid. You hear African American mothers speak of a hunger of the body, and of the mind as a manifestation of violence in their communities with as much trauma effect that physical violence would have. You sit in companies among them, and learn that though you give food to the pantry that only supplies one out of every 20 bags they purchase. Federal support buys the rest, the very programs eliminated in the proposed federal budget. One woman with 2 kids makes twenty eight thousand dollars a year, just 40 percent of the 66 thousand needed to live in Boston. She doesn’t qualify for federal or state assistance and she goes to bed hungry at least one week per month. Other women echo her reality, and they form a supper club each making one big meal per week, and dining together. The beginning of abundance. Others agree to organize with friends they know in Maine and other farming states to make sure each federal delegation supports food stamps. The camp swells, we are joined by the thousands across the country that are organizing the Poor People’s campaign, in 37 states, including this one. A campaign done with poor people to change the moral narrative of this country. Reverend Barber, co-leader of the campaign spoke in Boston last week.i He is asking us to make this happen. We can begin by demanding now that our delegation passes the People’s Budget, a bill sponsored by a broad coalition of worker alliances, unions, tenant organizations and advocates. Are you in?

Are you open to the beauty of living a faith of abundance, a beauty of relatedness and interdependence founded in the qualities of being seen and treated as worthy of dignity and respect? These qualities don’ts ensure success, but they do offer the possibility of a life of belonging. They invite risk and a relational spaciousness that transforms and liberates. May we all be so blessed and may the harvest come.

i Repairers of the Breach, Rev. Barber, Trinity Church Copley Square Boston, Oct 23rd- 1:20 minutes in to the 3rd video down http://www.breachrepairers.org/