Kingdom Math in the Neighborhood

Kingdom Math in the Neighborhood

John 6:1-15

Paul Bertelson
February 9, 2020

Good morning. It was the fall of 1973 and I was a proud newly minted graduate of Edina East High School. I had decided that it was time. It was time to spread my wings, time to expand my horizons, time to venture out. So, on that fateful day, there I am with my Plymouth Horizon or Duster, with backpack stuffed full. And my heart filled with a ton of trepidation. I kissed my mom and dad goodbye and I hit the road. I flew the coop all the way over to the University of Minnesota. As a commuter student. I guess I was a bit of a mama’s boy. I wasn’t really ready to fly too far from home. Three months later, I found myself in an East Bank hall trying desperately to figure out what the heck I had gotten myself into. See, I decided to take 18 credits that quarter, along with calculus.

What was I thinking? Math was never my strong suit. The first test though –a review of high school math– I aced. My second test with new material, I eked out a B. The remaining tests,,, let’s just say were similar to Wanda’s grades, a little below sea level. So, I strolled tenuously into that East Bank hall knowing that I was in deep trouble.
As the final test was being handed out I was really initially relieved because there were just ten questions, ten pages. The first page was a question that was a breeze, your name, got that one. Then I turned the page and I started to have a really sick feeling. You see my mind couldn’t comprehend anything on that page.

I wondered if I had stumbled into the wrong final. I turned quickly to the first page and reviewed. No, I was in the right place where I belonged. Determined to calm my racing heart down. I thought I’d skip the first question, go on to the next. Nothing, and it seemed like it was written in a foreign language that I possessed no fluency in. So I turned the page, then the next page, then the next page and the next until there were no more pages. In my mind I couldn’t figure out anything. It was blank. But my dreaded despair was interrupted by a noise behind me. It was a whimper. And then it turned into weeping, and then it burst into outright whaling.

The professor scurried over to see what was the student’s distress. And he said, “What’s the matter my dear?” She said, “I can’t answer this question.” Trying desperately to calm the student down. The professor counseled well, just take one question and then work on the next question. And then the gal blurted out, “But I can’t do any of them!” I felt strangely comforted. I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t the only one in that room who didn’t get the math.

Now, it might’ve been a long time since many of us have stepped into a math class; so this morning I ask you to consider being math students again. This time learning a different kind of math. Unlike my math class, this kind of math has eternal consequences. It is my hope that none of us would leave this classroom today with fuzzy facts… as I was with my college math. And I pray that God would open our eyes and our minds and our hearts to his math. Kingdom Math.

Would you pray with me now?
Lord Jesus, I pray that we would hear your word and we would hear your mind and heart and hear what you would have for us. And hear how you would like us to move in the world and to serve it Lord. So we pray that we could hear you now Jesus in your name. Amen.

So did you see it? This morning’s lesson, it’s right there, tucked away in that famous miracle passage and the feeding of the 5,000. It’s easy to miss the math really. At first glance, it may seem insignificant. However, the four gospel writers each record its account, testifying of its importance to us. It does deserve a closer look. What indeed happened on that grassy hillside? Here’s a little backdrop. Jesus needed to get away. He needed time away from the crowds. He needed time to get rest. He needed time to pray. So he packed up his disciples and set sail across the Sea of Galilee for the other side. But the crowds were hungry, hungry for more of Jesus. And they had watched in astonishment all of his deeds. And they watched the direction of the boat, in an effort to follow. Once they were on the other side, the crowd swelled partly because it was time for Passover.

Scripture tells us that Jesus’ heart was moved. The crowd was really hungry and tired and needed to be fed. So here comes Jesus setting up the test, the math exercise. Let’s see how they do, must’ve been his thoughts.

Jesus handed out the test: All right, Phillip… here’s the problem. There are 5,000 men plus women and children here. How are you going to get enough food to feed this crowd?

Well, Philip was the logical choice, the logical student to take the test because he was the hometown boy. Phillip would have known where to get food, so he conscientiously tried to solve the problem. Let’s see, we have 5,000 or more people to feed. A day’s wage would feed maybe 25 people or so. Just a little snack. Well, let’s do the math. That’s over 200 denarius. That’s over six months wage, and they would only get just a morsel.

No way. It just doesn’t add up, Jesus.

Poor Philip, he tried to do the math. He really did. Human math with all its human results. He didn’t understand Kingdom Math.

Now it was Andrew’s turn. Here’s a boy — this boy saw the people were hungry and wanted to offer what he had, but look at what he has. This poor boy has just two fish and five small barley loaves. Let’s see, we’re going to take this and divide into 5,000? That’s a joke. Well, Andrew didn’t get it. He couldn’t figure out the Kingdom Math. Their math was based on their human and financial resources seen, and what seemed possible. But maybe before we pounce on Philip and Andrew, the question begs to be asked, how would we have done on the test? What would your answer have been? Sorry, there were no drive throughs. No fast food restaurants or convenience stores. No ATM to get quick cash.

Let’s face it. What happened to Philip and Andrew happens to us in our daily lives. We are tested in the same way, aren’t we? Human nature was the same in the first century as it is in the 21st. In contrast to Philip and his faith-starved friends, the boy, the young boy, a poor boy, a boy who we don’t even know his name, saw the need. Saw what he had and stepped forward in faith to offer it to Jesus. You see, there’s the answer. Here’s the equation that this insignificant lowly kid got. Are you ready for it? The faith, plus the food of the boy, times Jesus, equals one of the most spectacular miracles seen in the gospels. It was Kingdom Math at work. Philip and Andrew’s failure was this. Quite frankly, they left Jesus out of the equation. How incredible is Kingdom Math?

Age has no barrier. The size or the amount of the gift was no hindrance. In fact, there were leftovers, baskets and baskets. You see, God gives in abundance. All 5,000 and more left full. Do you see it? Do you see how it works?

Let me try a little review and application. So how do we do it? This Kingdom Math? First, we see the need with our own eyes and our own heart. We see. We look around our home, our neighborhood, our city, our country and world, and we see the needs. And we see the agony and the pain and maybe the really hard stuff we just really want to look away from. And just not seeing, maybe it’s letting our heart break and be moved with compassion. Just like Jesus. Sometimes to see, may mean stepping out of what’s comfortable, that which we are used to. To see, may mean moving away from our perspectives and our bias, but to see really is just the beginning.

Next we need to see what we have. I guess it means inventory time. To look at what you have and who you are, to review your resources, to ponder your passions, to acknowledge your assets, to gather up your gifts. How do you like that for alliteration? Not just for the sake of having knowledge, but ultimately for this, to be like that little boy. To step forward, to step forward in faith, in obedience with what you have. With maybe all that you have, and offering it to Jesus. So we step forward with hands open to Jesus.

So here’s how to sum it up. Your gifts given in faith, multiplied by the Jesus degree equals power. Power to change the world, power to change lives, power to change directions and change eternities.

I’m so glad that my friend Karen gets Kingdom Math. Karen was a teenager who showed up one day at our youth ministry back years ago as a junior high kid, a
13-year-old kid. She came not like the other kids, the typical kids,,, she came with crutches, because Karen was born with spina bifida. And by the time she showed up in the youth ministry, she had had 30 surgeries. Life was very hard, very difficult for Karen.

I remember her telling me one day she was at her middle school, she was eating lunch and she was one of the last kids in the lunchroom. And a boy came up to her, kind of like to greet her and instead of greeting her, he wound up his leg and kicked her crutches down the aisle and laughed, running out. Life was really hard for Karen. By the time she was in ninth grade. I remember one night, late at night, she gave me a call and she said, “Paul, I just wanted to tell you goodbye.”

I said, “Where are you going, Karen?” And she said, “I can’t do this anymore. I have no reason to live. And I just wanted to say goodbye. I’m in my bathtub because I don’t want to make a mess.”

I’m thinking, Karen, Karen, I was… I didn’t say this to her, but I was never trained for this. What words do you say? And so somehow God whispered into the young woman’s heart and said these words to her, “Karen, you are loved. You are loved unconditionally. Your life matters. It counts. And you’ll never be alone because I’m with you right now.” Karen heard those words and she believed them. It didn’t change her life that day forever, but it did allow her to live the next day, and the next day. And she graduated from high school and she got off into her own apartment and lived there.

One day I called her and I said, “Karen, I was wondering if you could help me with something, a little project.” And she said, “Sure, I’ll help you Paul.” Then I said, “I’ve got some envelopes that I need to have stuffed. Would you do that for me?” I came over to her apartment, we set up a little card table and we set up the project. I forgot to tell her it was a thousand envelopes, a thousand things to stuff in them and a thousand labels and a thousand stamps to lick. And Karen faithfully did them all. We put them in the mail, and we sent them off to a bunch of youth leaders across the state of Minnesota. And inside there was an offer to take youth leader’s kids on mission trips.

And guess what? People responded to those envelopes that Karen stuffed and licked and we sent out. A whole bunch of youth leaders responded. Several years later, I called up Karen, and said, “Would you be interested in having lunch with me?” And she said, “Yes.” So we had lunch and I said, “Karen, do you remember those envelopes that you stuffed years ago?” And she said, “Yes, my tongue will never forget.”

I said, “Do you know what God did with those envelopes?” She said, “No.”
That was the beginning of a youth mission ministry called Youth Works. And now over 750,000 kids have gone on mission trips because of you. Over $150 million
have been raised for missions across the United States because of your gift. And she looked at me, didn’t say a word, but she had a twinkle in her eye. I could tell she had an indescribable joy in her heart because she had been used by God.

So here’s where I stumble on this Kingdom Math stuff. I look at all my “stuff” and I’m not sure I want to let go of my white knuckled grip of it. I see the world’s needs and I look at what I have and I just shrug my shoulders. The problems of the world seem too big, too complicated, and what I have wouldn’t really make a difference.

So why bother? It’s easy for us to say, isn’t it? I’m too young. I’m too old, I’m too weak. I’m not smart enough. Not spiritual enough. I’m not rich enough. But I’m so glad my junior high kid’s friends in 1986 didn’t believe that. You see, I was having a Bible study with them over in one of the rooms and one of the kids came in late and said, “Did you hear what’s happening? American war planes are bombing Libya.” And these kids were seriously afraid. They were scared. They didn’t know what to make of that. And so they said, “What do we do? What can we do?” One of the kids said,
“I know! Let’s write a letter to the leader of Libya.” And the other kids said, “Great, yeah, let’s do that.” They got a piece of paper and a pen and they said, who’s the leader of Libya?

I said, “Well it’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.” And they wrote: Dear Colonel Gaddafi… All right, what do we say? We… We are… We are praying. Yeah, we’re praying for world peace.” And then they said, “Sincerely.” And they signed their names, all of them. And then you know what they did? They prayed! They prayed… These junior high kids prayed for world peace. And then they said, “Oh yeah, let’s put a little postscript.” PS Jesus loves you. And they said, “All right Paul, we wrote the letter. Now you send it.”

Okay, it’s probably like sending a letter to Santa, but I’ll do it. I put it in an envelope and wrote Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and I couldn’t quite go to Google back then, so I wrote The Desert, Libya. Put a whole bunch of stamps on it and sent it out. Couple months later, as I was walking into the office one of the office folks said, “There’s really a strange letter in your mailbox.”

I grabbed it… it had a whole bunch of stamps from another country. I opened it up and it was a letter from Colonel Muammar Gaddafi! He thanked these kids for praying for world peace. And I took that letter to the group the next time we met and I read the letter to them. I explained, do you guys know that you shared the gospel with a world leader who maybe never heard that before? And you know what they did? It was a rare thing for them, but they were quiet. And there was a twinkle in their eye. And I could tell they had an indescribable joy in their heart because they had been used by God. Those kids discovered that Jesus can take the small and do something really big with it. Jesus can take the ordinary and do something extraordinary with it. See! Churches can learn Kingdom Math, too!

I know of a church that has a big building with space that wasn’t always used. And a youth ministry approached this church with a request. They were trying to reach out to kids in the community, kids with disabilities, and because of the lack of accessibility, these kids were literally locked out of many churches. Well, the church saw the need. They saw what they had, and they stepped forward in faith to offer the space to this group. And now the kids flock into this church on Fridays, rolling through, hobbling through or running if they’re able, to be welcomed into this church building as if they were rock stars. And this church, this church I speak of, it’s you Colonial. It’s you Colonial! You see you have flung the doors open, wide open, to create holy ground, sacred space. A place where God’s spirit falls a fresh on these kids, a place where they’re invited and welcome. A place where they are supported and cared for and loved. A place where they belong, and where they are needed. A place where they can fall in love with Jesus. You, Colonial. Stepped forward and offered this place, this place, up to Jesus.

So there was a little boy about 2000 years ago, who went home from church, a church on a grassy hillside. And I’m quite sure that he went home with a twinkle in his eye and an indescribable joy in his heart. For on that day he was used by the God of the universe. My prayer for you too, Colonial, is that you’ll go home today, with a twinkle in your eye and an indescribable joy in your heart, as you continue to offer what you have to Jesus for the glory of God.

Let me pray. Jesus, we thank you for our lives. We thank you for what you give us. We thank you for our very being. We pray now, Lord, that we would ponder, Jesus, what you might seek from us, what we might offer to you, Lord, and to your kingdom, and that we can serve you well. We pray that we can be a blessing to many, Lord. I pray your blessing on this church. So grateful for your church, Colonial. It’s in your name we pray. Amen.