(Sermon recorded in the Parish Hall among thousands of paper bags used on Tuesday’s RCS pantry)
Here, in this all too familiar space, best known to me as the place where I regularly meet the nine o’clock choir members to warm up and rehearse for service, the place where we catch up and connect during coffee hour, the place where we celebrate and remember, learn and challenge, and, yes, the place where we welcome our neighbors for table fellowship and communion in a shared meal, I am awash with both gratitude and sadness at the stark reality of how things have changed and the ordinariness of the emptiness of this space.
I am struck also with just how empty life has become. Gone are the days of momentous events, festive gatherings, and tables surrounded by family and friends toasting even the mundane events of the week, day, or moment. Gone are the embrace of friends in moments of celebration or devastating need, the kiss of peace, the exchange of energy that, for me, is so readily available in the gathering of the community.
After spending some time in prayer and reflection with our Gospel story today, and feeling slightly overwhelmed with the growing sense of gloom in the face of the pandemic, I am left wondering if Jesus might be experiencing some of the same emotions. In the lead up to this gospel remembering, Jesus has been doing a lot of teaching, mostly in parables, and, I might add, a lot of explaining! Indeed, those who are with Him daily seem to miss the point of the story at times, and they press Him to explain. I am sure He is tired, and perhaps a bit discouraged. As Caryll Hauslander writes in her poem “Phillip Speaks,” “We had no time even to eat; always the open hand, always the blind eye, always the deaf ears, always the wound to be healed.”
Even, at times, in His hometown, He is not understood; and, in fact, not only is He met with misunderstanding and disbelief in His teaching, but we read that His listeners were “offended” by Him.
In the midst of all of this frustration, He learns of the death of His cousin, John the Baptizer, at the hands of Herod. Such an horrific and pointless death! Collecting Himself, He leaves and makes an attempt to self-isolate.
The biblical Greek word used to describe the area in which Jesus chose to make His retreat is eremos (or eremia), wilderness or an isolated place – a place devoid of flora and fauna; a place certainly not user-friendly; in fact, a place where there is not much that is of use to human beings.
Immediately, my mind turns to the many times, just before something big is revealed, or taught, Jesus heads off on His own and retreats to the wilderness. Temptation, mountain-top transformation, solitude by the sea – all moments for Jesus to connect and be strengthened in and through the one He called Abba.
Alas, this was not to be the case this time. You see, Jesus made the mistake of setting off for His wilderness retreat by boat. Hearing this, the crowds that were following Him went ahead on foot and were there waiting for his arrival, “always the open hand, always the blind eye, always the deaf ears, always the wound to be healed.”
As we will quickly learn, this is quite a sizable crowd. I don’t know about you, but my reaction upon seeing the crowd would have been quite different than the reaction of Jesus.
Jesus, thinking He is heading to a moment of solitude and quiet, a time to reflect and pray, is met by a crowd of five thousand! Imagine, whether this is historical fact or hyperbole, there were a lot of people. “When he went ashore, He saw a great crowd, and He had compassion for them, and He cured their sick.” The word used for compassion here is best understood as being moved so deeply it is felt in your innermost parts. To have compassion here is to feel it deep in your gut, that ache so strong it stirs you to action. Jesus reacts with a deep emotional response of healing and love.
As evening approaches, the disciples urge Jesus to send the crowds away so they might find something to eat and place to take shelter, a simple and rather obvious request given the situation at hand.
Once again, Jesus turns everything on its ear when He responds: “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
What follows in just a few brief verses is remembered in all four of the Canonical gospels, and it has been the source of great theological and hermeneutical debate for generations.
I can only imagine the reaction of the disciples, based solely on what my reaction would have been. What??? Seriously??? We are in the middle of the wilderness with only a few loaves of bread and some fish!! Really??? Remember, we are feeling a little empty right about now, and you want us to give them something to eat?
Jesus asks them to gather the little they have and bring it to Him. He then prays a prayer that most likely was found on the lips of most Jews several times a day. “Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam.” Blessed are you, the eternal one God of all the universe.
Jesus did not bless the bread and fish – He blessed God. And from that blessing flowed not only what they needed to eat for an evening meal, but enough to eat and be satisfied with and an abundance collected at the end of the meal. As we heard our choir so beautifully and prayerfully proclaim just a few moments ago, “I shall see your face, when I awake, I shall be satisfied.”
Indeed, even in the midst of our emptiness, brokenness, loneliness, separation, and anxiety, God is there waiting to provide for us all that we need. Again from Houselander’s poem: “I gave and my hands were full, again and again; Pity in Him fell on my dry dust, it was summer rain, and the husk of my heart expanded and filled again, and was large with grain. For me, the miracle was this, that a clear stream of the Lord’s love (not mine) flowed out of my soul.”
Now I know you are thinking that there is a “but” coming, and you are correct. Yes, God longs to meet us in the midst of this pandemic and provide for us all that we need. The gospel imperative, however, is that we are called not only to receive it with open hearts, but to do something with it, to pass it on, to share it, to give it away.
Just a few months ago, around Pentecost, one of our parishioners, Elizabeth Moriarty, felt that stir compassion and the need to act, not just as an individual but as a faith community. That stirring led to a conversation, perhaps an argument here or there, and ultimately a campaign to raise almost a quarter of a million dollars both to fund the building of a model home in the Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago and to help fund a Community Development position for the same area. This became what we now know as the Greenlining Campaign. Oh, and we were to do all of this in a little over a month!
My first response was: What????? Seriously? We are in the middle of a pandemic, folks are worried about their jobs and their own financial situations! We are all feeling a bit empty right now.
Thankfully, as you all know, that was not the response of the other folks she spoke with and the leadership of our All Saints Community. With that, we blessed God, gathered what we had – and, believe me, there were a lot of small donations, many from outside of our community – and when it was all gathered and shared, we not only met our goal, we surpassed it. “I shall see your face, when I awake, I shall be satisfied.”
So here I sit, surrounded by the evidence of yet even more sharing and loving and giving, surrounded by countless paper bags that will soon be filled so that more folks who might be finding themselves in what seems to be a deserted place will know the abundant love of God. As the pandemic washed over us and we moved in to shut-down, Lori and Parker, along with our amazing volunteers, were thrown into a panic. How will it be possible for us to continue to feed those who now more than ever will gather with us for a community meal? It would have to be a limited contact, social-distancing “to-go” meal. Great idea! Now how to make it happen? Around the same time these conversations were taking place, someone called and asked if, by chance, the pantry could use – wait for it…. – “to-go containers.” With that, food was gathered and prepared, containers were filled, neighbors came and went, and the love of God continued to flow through this place in an abundance.
As the “new” reality of our world starts to take hold – and if you, like me, are feeling a little empty – I invite you to take a moment, gather up what might feel like the fragments of your life, and bring them to God. Be open to the miracle waiting to take place when we accept the gifts given and give what we have received.
Blessed by God who calls us together….Praise be God who makes us one people.
Blessed be God who has forgiven our sin…… Praise to God who gives us hope and freedom.
Blessed be God whose Word is proclaimed…Praise to God who is revealed as love.
Blessed be God who alone has called us…. Therefore, we offer all that we are and all that we shall become.
Accept. O God, our sacrifice of praise…. Amen. Accept our thanks for all you have done. Our hands were empty, and you filled them.From the New Zealand Prayer Book