Scripture: Matthew 14:13-21
Loaves and Fishes
Rev. Leanne Walt
We are going to start out the sermon this morning with a little visualization exercise. We use this often in sports. At the end of our Friday practices, on the night before a match, my rugby coach in college would gather the team in the center of the pitch and we would lie down on the grass and she would tell us to close our eyes and she would lead us through a visualization exercise. Picture walking onto the pitch tomorrow, picturing taking the field. What’s the temperature like? Who’s beside you? The ref blows the whistle, we kick off, the game begins. Your legs are strong and fast, the toes of your cleats digging into the soft grass, you’re running/running/running, sprinting toward the player with the ball. You approach her, bend at the waist wrap your arms around her legs and snap them down to the ground. You made the first tackle. You are strong, unstoppable, unbeatable.
Believing is seeing.
* * * *
Now, I’m not going to ask you to lie down, but I ask you now to close your eyes, as you are comfortable doing so. It takes a lot of trust to close your eyes. Picture a Sunday morning, approaching the church – here at 12 Elm Street - by car or foot. As you drive into the parking lot, ugh – all the spaces are filled, there’s no place to park. You circle around again and find a spot on Stedman Ave. You walk around to the front door and you have to wait a minute to get into the building. The line for bulletins is too long. You walk into the sanctuary and it is just full of people. It’s standing-room-only full.
Now, some of you remember times when this didn’t have to be a visualization exercise. You remember years and years and years when this sanctuary was full. So full, in fact, that you had to use the chapel for overflow and put a television and audio feed in there.
But, in the 2 years that I have shared in ministry here at First Church, of the 100 plus services that I have led, I have seen this sanctuary full on only 5 occasions. One of those occasions was for my Installation as your pastor in April of 2011. One of them was for the wedding of Tiffany and Freddie Rodriguez.
The other three times were for funerals. The day we celebrated and honored the life of our sister Ethel Anastos this sanctuary was standing-room-only full, the day we celebrated and honored the life of our brother in faith Dick Hewson this sanctuary was standing-room-only full, and this past Thursday as we celebrated and honored the life of our sister Gail Jacobs this sanctuary was standing-room-only full.
And it caused me to wonder, not for the first time, why is it that we draw far more people in for weddings and funerals than we do on Sunday mornings?
Why is it that God’s house is standing-room-only full when we – the Church - are called upon to bless and consecrate a love before the cross and in the eyes of God? Why is it that God’s house is standing-room-only full when we – the Church – are called upon to offer a word of comfort, to serve as a haven for the grieving, to affirm eternal life and love?
Weddings and funerals, we know, share the common threads of relationship and love. Love: the most valuable commodity we posses in this life/our most basic human need. To love and be loved in return. Love discovered, cultivated, enjoyed, celebrated, and affirmed as true and authentic and eternal in the eyes of God.
This sanctuary was standing room-only full on Thursday. It was full of young children and teenagers and adults who had come to give thanks for the life of a young woman, just 49 years old, who, along with her 2 older sisters had made First Church her home as a child and teenager. Her mother, Ginny Oster, in fact, ran the Church Elm preschool, which was the school that was here at the church prior to Lollipop Tree. Though they had moved away from Braintree and dispersed throughout New England, the Oster family has deep roots here at First Church – in Sunday school, youth camp and dinners - and it was Gail’s wish for her memorial service to be held here – for this Church to offer her family, her husband and two young sons the promise of faith and the comfort of ritual as she passed on from this world to the next.
The crowd had gathered, from near and far, in this one place to honor the relationship and affirm the love that Gail shared with each of them, but especially the love that she shared with her two boys.
So the people came, by plane and car and foot to hear the resounding promise of God for this mother and her sons in the words of the Apostle Paul that, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
* * * *
It may be that this great miracle story of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 is not so much about loaves and fish as it is about love, multiplied and shared.
This great miracle of love actually comes out of grief. We remember that according to Matthew, two significant things have just happened to Jesus:
1. He was rejected in his hometown of Nazareth, and;
2. He just received word that his cousin, John the Baptist, his closest partner in ministry and who he had grown up with from birth, had been killed in prison.
So this story begins with Jesus rejected and grieving. He gets into his boat and sails away, looking for a quiet and deserted place where he could be all alone. Where he could cry and pray and grieve – a place away from the noise and constant needs of the crowds. But, still, the need follows him. He cannot escape it. From his boat, as he approaches what he had hoped would be a lonely place. Surely he saw the mass of thousands of people on shore awaiting his arrival. Surely he could have continued rowing to another location; surely he could have chosen to stay in the boat alone.
But, instead he rows to the shore and his heart is filled with compassion for all those who had followed him.
As it gets to be late in the day and the people are getting hungry, Jesus takes the five loaves of bread that the disciples had brought with them and he blesses them and he breaks them and he gives them to the disciples to distribute to the mob of people. He does this with faith enough that all would be fed. And they are. He does this believing that there would be enough to go around. And there is.
What if that bread that Jesus breaks and blesses and offers is love itself. A love without end. A love that, when broken open, is always enough to go around. A love that embraces us in our rejection. A love that meets us in our grief.
* * * *
When we consider the miracles that Jesus preformed in his life and ministry we are left to wonder if it they’re not so much about the actual miracles themselves – the restoration of sight to the blind, the turning of water into wine, the casting out of demons, the raising from the dead – so much as they are about the compassion and love that Jesus offers those who are hurting and broken. Love is the miracle. The love of God made manifest in Christ, and so in us. Love that can be multiplied and shared over and over again. Love that never ends.
Those who seek out a house of God at the time of marriage or death are seeking the love of Jesus, yearning for that perfect love that will carry them through the imperfect times of marriage and that eternal love that will carry them through the separation that accompanies death.
What would happen if we here at First Church, like the disciples, heeded Jesus’ call to distribute this kind of love to the crowds? If we were to distribute the kind of love that is so miraculous and abundant that there is always enough to go around?
Later this morning, as we gather for our annual financial meeting, we will consider the budget. We will consider what it has been in year’s past and what it is today. We will consider where we have been, but more importantly where we are going. The budget, line item by line item, figure over and against figure, is meaningless in and of itself. It’s given life – it’s given meaning - through each one of us. By way of our hands and our feet; our ministry and mission as a body of Christ in the world.
The budget is a vessel through which this congregation funnels the love of Christ out into the world. When we approach the budget with a loaves and fish kind of faith – a faith that sees the possibilities of God’s love rather than its limitations, a faith that knows and lives by the abundance of God’s love, a kind of faith that spreads and shares God’s love rather than keeping it for ourselves – then line item by line item, figure over and against figure, the budget holds miraculous God-given power to make the love of God manifest and authentic and true in this community of faith here at 12 Elm Street.
If we can believe in a love that will fill up a felt board with colorful fish, a love that has the power to break open our hearts and one that compels us to share our resources with our neighbors, then we can believe in a love that will fill our pews with our sisters and brothers who thirst for community and meaning and connection with a God who offers perfect and eternal love not only on occasions of marriage and death. Not only on Sundays, but a love that is woven into every fiber of our being, every movement, every breath, every word, every action, every relationship.
Scripture: Isaiah 55:1-8 and Mark 6:30-43
YOU Give Them Something to Eat
Rev. Leanne Walt
I remember the day I arrived at the orphanage. It was a typical Sri Lankan afternoon – upwards of 90 degrees and my trishaw, which are those funny-looking three-wheeled little vehicles that taxi people around in Asia, had dropped me at the foot of a hill in the very center of the city. The trishaw couldn’t have made it up the dirt path on the hill that led to the orphanage, so I walked up the hillside carrying most of my belongings on my back.
This was the day that I moved out of the house where I had been living for the past four months and into a Christian orphanage for girls. A place called Evelyn Nurseries, where I would stay for 6 weeks.
Barbara, the woman who ran the Nurseries, along with several other girls who lived there, greeted me as I came up the winding road leading to the house. “Akki! Akki!,” “Sister! Sister!” they shouted and waved.
That night after evening worship, Barbara explained to me that she would wake me up at 4:00 to help with the morning chores. “Great!” I responded in my enthusiasm. I’d help with morning chores – super! Well, 4:00 in the morning came quickly, as it tends to do, and sure enough there was a knock on my door. I gathered my tired, foggy head enough to get out of bed, threw on the nearest items of clothes I could find, and headed out my door to be met with what reminded me of the Oompa-Loompas working in Charlie’s Chocolate Factory, there were girls and young women everywhere buzzing around the hallways and the yard and the kitchen. Though they were working away, they were not making fudge or gum balls; they were sweeping, dusting, making beds, washing and drying clothes, cleaning potatoes, cooking rice. As I struggled to keep my eyes open, I saw these little creatures singing, dancing, and laughing as they worked. Well, those early mornings came one after the other until the very last day I spent at the Nurseries and I’ sure they have continued every day in the years since I left.
In the afternoons, during my stay at the Nurseries, I would sit with Barbara and have tea overlooking Kandy Lake in the middle of the city. Barbara had been married to a wealthy businessman who passed away about 20 years ago. After his death she became very involved in her church and then through certain people who came into her life, she was led to the Nurseries.
She shared with me how from month to month; it was a struggle to provide for the seventy-five girls and young women under her care at the Nurseries. But she said that no matter how bleak it seemed, God always provided. It was in the worst months, when it was simply impossible to buy enough rice to feed everyone at the orphanage with the money that they did have, when she would receive an anonymous donation that would get them through several months to come. When she was telling me about these uncertain times, she would always say something like: “And then, God just goes right ahead again and makes something out of what I thought was nothing.”
* * * *
There’s this great cartoon about Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 that a member of a church I served several years ago gave to me after we had talked about this miracle story in Bible Study. The cartoon depicts two winged, haloed angels wearing chefs’ hats, surrounded by clouds. The one baker-angel exclaims to the other baker-angel, “He needs 5,000 loaves of bread and he needs them now!”
The reason why this cartoon works is the same reason why I love the story of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000: because of the story’s ambiguity. We know that there are five loaves of bread and two fish involved. We know that there are the twelve disciples and a crowd of 5,000 people involved. We know that Jesus is involved. And we know that all who were present ate and that all who were present were satisfied. And we know that there were even some leftovers.
But we don’t know if it is the five loaves of bread that Jesus miraculously multiplies into enough loaves to feed more than 5,000 people; if he calls on jolly Oompa-Loompa-like angels up in heaven to busily bake enough bread for the multitudes. Or,if it is the selfish hearts of the people in the crowd that Jesus transforms so that they are compelled to share the little that they do have with one another. The story simply does not tell us which it is. We are left to reach our own conclusions about what exactly Jesus is transforming – the loaves of bread or the hearts of each person in the crowd. We are left to reach our own conclusions about which would be the greater miracle.
* * * *
It had been a long day of healing and so as it was nearing dusk, the disciples agreed that it was time for Jesus to bid farewell to the thousands of people who had come to bear witness to his miracles. After all, they did not have anything other than five loaves of bread and two measly fish to offer this great mass of people. They simply did not have the necessary resources to adequately feed so many.
So the disciples say to Jesus, “Jesus, it’s getting late, let’s wrap it up for the day. Send these people into the surrounding villages so that they can buy themselves something to eat.”
And who can blame the disciples for, quite reasonably, thinking that the people who had gathered to see Jesus could go home for dinner. Why should it be their responsibility to feed these people? They hardly had enough food to feed themselves. Besides, hadn’t these people thought ahead enough to pack a lunch, to bring food along to eat while they were in this deserted area?
Jesus listens to and hears the reasonable sentiments of the disciples. But he does not do as they ask. He does not send the people away.
“You give them something to eat,” he answers the disciples. When all they see are limitations, Jesus urges them toward possibility. When all they see is scarcity, Jesus moves them toward abundance. When all they see is what they do not have, Jesus reminds them of what they do have.
They have a God who just so happens to specialize in making something out of nothing. We have a God who created out of nothing: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep” (Gen. 1:1-2). We have a God who breathes life into the nothingness of dry bones (Ez. 37). We have a God who put life into the nothingness of Sarah’s womb (Gen 18). We have a God who, in this morning’s lesson from Isaiah, instructs those who “have no money,” to “come, and eat!” God does not say, “You who have enough money, come and eat” No, God invites those who have nothing, to come and be fed.
God does the feeding, but the resources are human.
In those times when the Nurseries have nothing more than five loaves and two fish to last the whole month through, God has continued to feed the Nurseries through human resources. The donations that the people offer to the women at the Nurseries, just like the bread that the disciples offer, are used and magnified by God. More than that, when the girls and women at the Nurseries give of themselves out of nothing, when they come together during those oh so early morning chores in song and laughter, then the work of God is revealed. They know what kind of God they have. A God of abundance and possibility. A God who revels in making great things out of what we would consider to be nothing at all.
This Lent God has given us, First Congregational Church, a remarkable opportunity to serve as instruments for and living witnesses to the miraculous work of Jesus Christ right here in our community through working with Outreach New England. Because the same need for food assistance exists right here in our community as it does across the globe in Sri Lanka or India or Mozambique or Nigeria or Nicaragua. It exists in cities and towns, urban and suburban neighborhoods throughout Massachusetts and New England. It exists not only among the homeless but in many households as well. In our own Norfolk County alone 18,000 children are food insecure (that’s 12% of all children in Norfolk County), which means they lack access to enough food to meet their basic needs. Which means they go to bed hungry, they worry they will run out of food, and they often don’t know where their next meal will come from.
The crowds have gathered and they are waiting for the miracle of Jesus to work through us – right here, right now. We can ask Jesus to send them away or we can answer Jesus’ call: “You give them something to eat.”
If everyone in New England who has enough food gave $13.75 to Outreach Kid’s Care and packaged meals for 22 minutes every year, all those in New England who don’t have enough could eat. Per person per day, that’s 4 cents and 4 seconds of effort.
Our challenge over these six weeks of lent is to raise enough money to purchase and then package 5,000 meals that will be distributed at Interfaith Social Services in Quincy and the Community Food Pantry here in Braintree. The total we need to raise is $1,250. Is this a lot of money? Yes. But, we can do this.
Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 is told so many times and in so many places throughout the gospels because all too often we forget the abundance and generosity of our God. We too often forget that our gifts, our donations, our assistance – however small – have power that we can never fully see; that we can achieve the impossible; that we can feed the multitudes; that we can satisfy hunger.
Scripture: Jeremiah 1:4-10
But I’m Only…
Rev. Leanne Walt
Your reputation precedes you, Troop 22. Your history leads you. Your reputation precedes you here in this congregation and here in this town. The oldest active Boy Scout troop in Braintree, joining only a few others in the area. You are part of something larger than this one day or this one morning, a part of something larger than your years and experience in scouting. So we stand in reverence to a great God who has woven us all together through a legacy and ancestry of faith and scouting that preceded each and every one of us - one that established and built what you now build upon, a legacy that this congregation continues to celebrate and support.
Like all organizations that withstand the passage of time and generations, the scouts and the church have been faced with the changing tides of time, with having to shift and adapt and transform in order to maintain our relevance and integrity in a culture that is socially progressing, and one that has become increasingly individualistic and decreasingly invested in civic life.
There was a time, and in fact, not so long ago when there was regular, free and fluid movement between the church and Troop 22, when we had direct and immediate connection with the troop through many, many adult members of the church as well as youth who actively participated in both the troop and this community of faith. Part of our shared history and legacy is here, in these common strands.
And, when I say this, I trust that for most who have been around this church and town some time, the image of Bob and Marge Downey cannot help but naturally come to mind or perhaps surface in your heart - a couple whose reputation in the troop and church surely precedes them. In fact, just a few weeks ago I had lunch with a new acquaintance here in town and about halfway through our meal and conversation, we made, what I have come to term as, “the Downey Connection” – a phenomenon that has happened frequently and often over my 2-years pastoring this church. Turns out, she was a good friend of Bob and Marge – she quickly lit up at the mention of their names and began telling me story after story about Bob and Marge. She first met Marge while camping with Troop 22 when her two boys were in the troop where they discovered they were the only women on the trip. She told me about the time she was sitting next to Bob one evening at an Old Colony Council meeting and only after the meeting did she find out that he had driven directly from Boston where he was receiving his chemo treatments to attend the meeting. That’s how great and deep his dedication to this program cut.
The troop’s commemorative 90th anniversary patch on the pocket of your uniforms has an image of the church silhouetted between the years 1921 and 2011. A visible, evident and tangible reminder that the church and the troop are not so far apart in character or in spirit. Sharing a belief in community and working toward the common good. Celebrating the adventure and continuing the journey – of life and service and faith.
Our mission here at this church, our very purpose for gathering and for worshiping by song and prayer and offering and Word is – by the grace of God - the transformation of the self for the transformation of the world. Troop 22, your mission, your purpose for gathering and for meeting, for camping and serving and merit badge earning is the transformation of the self for the transformation of the world.
The Boy Scout Law is not so far off from our law of faith – the Boy Scout Law begins with the transformation of the self:
to be trustworthy,
The law of the Christian faith begins with the transformation of the self. As the Apostle Paul proclaims in his letter to the Ephesians, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
Not so far off, are they – are we. The transformation of the self for the transformation of the world.
You are part of a culture much larger than Troop or Pack 22, a culture of being prepared, so says the new logo revealed in 2011 upon the 100th anniversary of the scouts:
Boy Scouts. Prepared. For life.
Prepared in mind and body to do your duty, whatever that may be – wow! well, that’s serious stuff – that goes beyond having a book of matches on you when someone needs a light, or a pocket knife when someone needs to open a package, or to start a fire or pitch a tent when darkness enfolds the forest.
Boy Scouts. Prepared. For life.
Prepared in mind by having disciplined yourself to be obedient to every order, and also by having thought out beforehand any accident or situation that might occur, so that you know the right thing to do at the right moment, and are willing to do it.
Prepared in body, also, by making yourself strong and active and able to do the right thing at the right moment, and do it. The transformation of the self, for the transformation of the world.
Be Prepared. For life.
Again, not so far off are we – troop and church. We, too, are concerned with being prepared. Be Prepared. For life. Be prepared in spirit for God to call and use us as instruments of peace and justice, forgiveness and salvation in this world. Be prepared, in mind, body and spirit, for you don’t know when or how or where the call will come – but it will come – and when it does we are to be strong and active and able to do the right thing at the right moment, and we are to do it.
Because the question is not who is called, but who will respond – who – by the grace of God – will be willing to do the right thing at the right moment.
For our brother Jeremiah, that moment came at one of the most troublesome periods in Israel’s history, in the decades leading up to the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC and followed by the Babylonian exile. These were bad times – these were changing times – politically and socially and even geographically for the Hebrew people. They were in between domination by the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires. Their religion and culture, nation and peoplehood were at stake. Yet, also at this time the people of Judah had a much loved king – King Josiah - the people just adored him – he had launched religious reform that reaffirmed the covenant of Moses and he had centralized the worship of God in Jerusalem. These were good and positive movements, it seemed, for the Hebrew peopled.
In the midst of all of this a young man, Jeremiah, hears, or perhaps perceives in his heart the voice of God – the nudge, the pull of the one speaking from the place of higher purpose and wisdom and power.
“Jeremiah, my beloved: before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
And, so, Jeremiah, hearing this, says to God – or perhaps he speaks it deep in his heart: “But I’m only a boy.” But I’m only. But I’m only….
God nudges him, he nudges and nudges him and urges Jeremiah to speak out against the popular and much loved king of his people, King Josiah - to preach an unpopular message at a difficult time – a message that promotes submission to the Babylonians – the foreign rulers of Judah. Submission for the salvation of his people.
* * *
“But I’m only…” transformation of the self – by the grace of God - for the transformation of the world.
Be prepared. For life. For the Call.
Surely there were others who stood along side Jeremiah at that same moment in history who sensed a call on their hearts to submit to foreign rule in order to preserve the longevity and future of their people – but it was Jeremiah who acted, who gave God’s call voice and expression and presence – it was Jeremiah who was not only strong and active and able to do the right thing at the right moment, but it was Jeremiah who did it.
* * *
How will you know it’s the call of God? Because it will be hard. Because you will resist it. Because it will come at an inopportune time and in an unexpected way calling you to speak an unpopular truth at a difficult moment.
It will mean speaking out and up when you see a kid at school repeatedly bullied and put down. It will mean extending a hand to those who are excluded and marginalized in society and culture. It will mean standing with and walking alongside the oppressed. It will mean being a voice of hope and optimism in a world that speaks the language of cynicism and suspicion.
We find resolve this morning in the words of Dr. Howard Thurman: “There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have.”
Wait. And listen for the sound of the genuine inside yourself. You will know, you will sense – the time and the moment and the truth you are called to speak.
The call is difficult yes, but here again troop and church emerge and merge. Scouts and Christians – People of God - You are prepared. For life. To act. With integrity of person and fruits of the spirit. With confidence and conviction and courage.
Scouts and Christians, may we trust so deeply that God knew each and every one of us before the womb, before birth – that we have been divinely and fantastically and wonderfully and specifically appointed for the good news difficult and dirty work in this world – that when our call comes, and we know it will, we will respond not, “But I’m only. But I’m only.”
Scouts and Christians, we will instead respond, “Here I am. Here I am.”