Gathering with What We Have

+ A sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 17B) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on July 25, 2021 +

Text: Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21


Beloved people of God, grace to you and peace from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Wow, how wonderful does it feel for us to gather together again!
As we are all so aware, this is our first time worshiping together in person since March 2020.
Seventeen months of being separated from each other, cobbling together online and at-home worship experiences.
And I know that things aren’t quite the same as we’re used to—we’re outside, we’re still a little distant from each other, we’re still adapting our sacred rituals to the realities of a lingering pandemic—but we’re here!
We’re together again.
We can see each other in the flesh.
I can actually see you as I’m preaching to you!
Today marks a significant milestone in living through this pandemic.
It reminds us that, while we know everything isn’t back to normal, there are brighter, fuller days ahead.
It makes me think of the gloomier days of this past year and a half and, thanks to vaccines and masks and our own endurance, how far we’ve come since then.

I especially remember last December as perhaps the toughest stretch of our time apart.
Not only was the weather predictably gloomy, but the usually joyous holiday season was rapidly approaching.
And while there was fantastic news on the vaccination front—the FDA had approved their use and shots were just starting to get distributed to at risk populations—it was clear that they would not arrive in time to save our typical Christmas celebrations.
And I remember the sinking feeling within my gut that it would be a Christmas like no other, that our usual merry making, our carol-filled worship service, our gathering with family and friends wouldn’t be possible.
That in all likelihood it would be just Ryan and me at home gathering around a simple dinner.

Not long before Christmas, Ryan and I met up with a dear friend of ours.
We met him outside on a rainy cold evening to drink beer in parkas by a fire, because that’s how we did things last winter apparently.
Over drinks, our friend told us that he and his wife were getting divorced, that they had separated and he had just moved into a new place.
When we realized this also meant he would be alone for Christmas, we immediately told him he was needed to come to our apartment for dinner.
We figured out the logistics, how we could gather safely, and, when Christmas came, what had been resigned to be a simple, quiet meal transformed into a lifegiving feast, a meal that fed both body and soul.

Now, I don’t say this to show how generous or hospitable we were—that’s not the point of the story.
It’s that, looking back on that night when we simply gathered together, something happened.
Something that was more than it could have been if we had eaten separately.
And when I look back at the long winter of 2020, that night shines like a beacon amid the gloom, that this pandemic lockdown would not last forever.
That brighter, fuller days are ahead and we can make it.
The wine we drank and the food we shared, the laughter and conversation—it seemed like an almost miracle.
It served as a reminder that when we gather together, remarkable things can happen.
Because on that bleak night, we felt a love and a joy that we could not have experienced on our own.

So perhaps it’s fitting that the appointed gospel text for today, the day we as a congregation celebrate our re-gathering, tells us how Jesus gathered with the people on the shores of the Galilean Sea.
How he had them sit in green grass so they could be together, to hear the Word of God, and yes, to share a meal.
And what happens next is not exactly a mystery to us. We’ve heard this one before.
Jesus miraculously feeds the multitudes.
It’s the only story that appears in all four gospels so we hear it in the lectionary every year.
And well, when I say it’s not a mystery, perhaps how exactly Jesus feeds so many people will remain a mystery that will forever confound us.
But this year I was struck by one particular aspect of John’s version of the story.

Icon of Christ Feeding the Multitude, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. 

When the people had gathered to listen to Jesus, to seek healing and hear his teachings, the disciples started to get, well, anxious.
How could they possibly provide for the needs of such a massive crowd?
“Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little,” exclaimed Philip.
How could they, with their limited resources, with the limited efforts, with their uncertainties, doubts, and anxieties possibly meet the need that surrounded them?
As they’re trying to figure out what they’re going to do, Andrew points out that kid over there with five loaves of bread and two fish.
It’s a simple meal—small, but enough for at least a couple people.
But maybe it’s a place to start?
And, I don’t know, it almost sounds like one of those ideas you might have in a brainstorming session that sounded better in your head, right?
Because when Andrew actually said it out loud, I think he heard how absurd it sounded.
How could five loaves and two fish feed five thousand people?

But when the disciples brought what little they had to Jesus, that simple meal was transformed before their eyes into a feast of abundance.
From those limited gifts, those meager offerings, they discovered they had enough to feed the multitudes and more.
And they would even gather the leftovers—twelve baskets full—so that none may be lost.
It’s as if Jesus was showing them what is possible when they gather together with God.
That when we gather our resources together, we can discover abundance we didn’t know we possessed.
That in Christ, the great I AM of old, we have no need to fear, that we can look past the ways of this world and glimpse the new community that Jesus is gathering.
A community that rejects individualism and builds up the common good.
A community that tears down hierarchies so we all may better uphold each other.
A community that refuses to accept scarcity as the norm but instead thrives in the abundance we experience when we come together with each other and with God.

John tells us that the people ate and were satisfied and I wonder if there’s a hint that of something more than being simply full after a meal.
I wonder if they felt filled with possibility.
I wonder if they felt filled with purpose.
I wonder if they felt filled with the divine presence and brimming with love.
I wonder if it was like what we experience when we eat that bread that only Jesus can provide, when we feel all the fullness of God dwelling with in us, filling us with awe, showing us what God intends for us, and empowering us to be a part of it.
That bread of heaven that so many of us have longed for over the past year and a half.
That bread that we will soon taste again as we come to this table.
That bread that is Christ’s gift for us, Christ’s body for us, Christ’s future for us as Christ transforms us to be Christ’s body—Christ’s new community, gathered together and sent in mission as both gift and promise for the world.

Swanson, John August. Loaves and Fishes, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Today, my friends, we too have been gathered by our Lord Jesus to sit in the green grass, to be together, and to listen to Christ’s teachings.
And after we gather at this table, after we feast on Christ’s own body—that bread of heaven, after we are sent to be Christ’s transformative presence in the world, we actually won’t have to go that far.
We’ll gather right back here as we start the final steps in discerning how God is inviting us to use our resources for the life of our community.
And as we gather, we may come with a mix of emotions about this whole process.
Perhaps we’ll feel some trepidation about the future.
Perhaps we’ll feel some impatience about why this whole process is taking so long.
And perhaps we’ll feel some bit of anxiety about what we have to offer.
I mean, our resources seem so limited sometimes, right?
Our time we have to offer.
Our energy we have left to expend.
Our little plot of land here.
How can these limited gifts, these comparatively meager offerings possibly meet the needs that surround us?
How can we even hope to fulfill those four guiding principles that have lead us this far along the way—to care for our little patch of creation, to provide housing with a purpose, to maintain a worshiping community, and to ensure the enduring living legacy of this congregation?
It may seem a little absurd to think that we can make much of a difference with what little we have, right?

But when we bring these gifts to Jesus, these gifts that were first given to us, I wonder what might happen.
How might we see them multiply before our eyes from a meager offering to a bounty of abundance?
How might our eyes be opened to see how they will meet the needs of those around us?
I can’t wait to see what Jesus has in store for them and for us.
How we will see these resources be transformed into homes that will give a struggling family a new lease on life.
How we will see them be planted to grow into a haven for gardens and trees and animals.
How we will see them provide a place to worship and praise our God.
How we will see them become a beacon to this community, to this city, to this country proclaiming how God’s new community, God’s perfect commonwealth, God’s marvelous abundance is breaking into our world in this place—and all people are invited to be a part of it!

In the letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle prays for the Church which stretches across the eons from ancient times through this day, that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith—rooted and grounded in love.
That we might have the power to comprehend the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge and be filled with all the fullness of God, who, “by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”

My friends, I join with the Apostle in that prayer this morning, that we may experience the fullness of Christ dwelling within us—rooted and grounded in love.

May we heed the one who gathered the people on that green grass and who has gathered us here this day.
May we be fed by the one who used a simple meal to feed the multitudes and who will transform our gifts into a bounty of abundance as he feeds us with his very self.
May we wonder at the one who is at work within us so he may accomplish far more than we can possibly ask or imagine.
And may we always trust in the one who was, who is, and who forever will be is with us and will guide us to experience the fullness of God’s community so we can share it with the world.

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