Monday, August 1, 2011

"We have Nothing Here but..."

The Disciples answered Jesus, “We have nothing here but...”

Five loaves of bread, two fish, and 5,000 people: the prospects did not look very promising, did they? Jesus had only two things going for him: gratitude and helpers. He took what little had been rounded up and gave thanks. Then he marshaled his volunteers and put them to work. The result was more than anyone could have asked or imagined.

The learnings that come out of this episode can not be exhausted in a hundred sermons. Here’s what I see today: a little generosity, a lot of thanks, and people who are willing to lend their talent can make a huge difference. For me, this is one of the most exciting aspects of parish ministry and all of life. It is incredibly rewarding to see a group of people take marginal resources and, rather than complain about what they don’t have, do something amazing with what they do have. That kind of spirit is infectious and it fuels the mission of God’s people.

St. Paul’s Food Pantry is an example of how it happens. The Pantry thrives because you are generous, because a few people put their heart and soul into it, and because we are grateful to be doing God’s work. We have made some changes to the Pantry in recent months. First, it was moved from a small room off the Parish Hall to two larger rooms in the Christian Education wing. Next, we entered into a relationship with the Norfolk Food Bank. This allows us to buy more food and at reduced rate and gives us access to free food collected from various canned-food drives around Hampton Roads. And finally, the clients now come into our Pantry and select the food they want off the shelves. They ‘shop’ for what they need.

These changes have had a tremendous impact. The typical number of clients each week has gone from around forty to around ninety. It really is something to see the nonstop parade of people in the parking lot on Monday morning. I suspect, and I hope, that the ministry will continue to grow and to reach more people in the area who can make effective use of a little bit of help.

The growth in the Food Pantry ministry has created some challenges, as you might expect. Yes, we may need additional funding, but the biggest challenge is that the work load is eclipsing what three or four or five volunteers can do on a weekly basis. The Vestry and I are talking with our Food Pantry volunteers and chewing on different ideas that will make it possible for more members of St. Paul’s to roll up their sleeves and help. By the fall you will be hearing more about this.

I continue to be encouraged by the steady progress we are making on the Hope for Haiti project. So far we have raised enough money to pay for 209 bricks for a new Anglican cathedral in Port-a-Prince, and we are well on our way toward our goal of 300, or $3,000. It has been an effort marked by creativity and initiative. We have worked for and served one another in small ways resulting in gifts of gratitude, not charity. I have mentioned our approach at several different diocesan gatherings and those present have taken notice. When all is said and done, St. Paul’s alone will have raised about 10% of all that is collected in our diocese. But the real story of our project has been our method and that’s what people are noticing.

All four gospels tell the story of the feeding of the 5,000. It is only John’s Gospel, the last of the four to be written, that mentions the bread and fish were given by a young boy. The first three gospels fail to mention this detail, perhaps (mistakenly) thinking it not to be important. But it is, because one person’s generosity set in motion a ministry that met the needs of all.

Over the years, there have been some interesting attempts to explain away the miraculous nature of this story. One commentator posited that Jesus had a huge hidden supply of food, which he kept delving into as the Disciples returned with empty baskets that needed filled – call this the ‘smoke and mirrors’ theory.

Another more plausible explanation is that many in the crowd had no food, but a few did. Through the boy’s act of sharing and Jesus’ response of giving thanks and distrusting, it encourages those who had to share generously with those who were lacking. There is a part of me that wishes this was the story we had been given. It would be so easy to preach the meaning of something like that! It rings true to experience, but only to a certain degree. It misses that ‘God-element’ that always seems to accompany real Christian mission and ministry – that knowing sense that something more than meets the eye has taken place.

If Jesus could feed 5,000 people with the offering brought forward by one person, imagine what he could have done with the food offered by, say, five people… or ten… or a hundred.

For some time now I have been chewing on an idea born of a concern. My concern is this: three years ago, when a tornado ripped through our community, Episcopal dioceses and congregations from all over the country sent money here to help with relief efforts, $125,000 in all! Since that time, other communities have been devastated, earthquakes have leveled cities, and famine has gripped far away places, yet we have not responded as a parish. It is so easy to be overcome with fatigue at the magnitude of suffering in our world that simply doing nothing becomes the only option. Why give up my bread and fish when it will do so little good?

Well, today’s gospel reading gives us the answer to that question, we just need to figure out a mechanism to help us respond. So here is my idea. I would like us to institute something we might call “Change the World” Sunday. It might be as frequent as the first Sunday of the month; perhaps it might take place quarterly or at the beginning of each new liturgical season. “Change the World.” I have a lot (and I mean a lot) of change laying around my house. There is a bowl of it in the kitchen and a plate of it in my bedroom. There is a box of change in my closet and there is even a penny that has been laying on the floor of my upstairs hallway for several months now (and please don’t extrapolate from that my housecleaning regiment).

On “Change the World” Sunday, you can bring in as much or as little change as you like. We collect it in a big jar, designate a beneficiary (like the people in Alabama whose community was torn apart last spring), we cash it in at a coin machine, and we send a check to help people in need. To a certain degree, the message from today’s gospel is that it doesn’t matter how much you collect, but that you participate. If you contribute and give thanks, God will take care of making it make a difference.

These are lean times that we live in. I have been a priest for nearly twenty-five years now and during that time I don’t recall a single Vestry meeting where we sat around wondering what to do with all the extra money laying around the church. Still, we have always been able to do what we needed with what we have been given.

More and more, I sense God inviting me and God’s people to move from a lifestyle marked by self-interest to one characterized by generosity and sacrificial love. This is at the heart of the Gospel because it is at the heart of God, whose extravagant, generous love for all creation is made known to us in Jesus Christ. We experience God as close and we know God more fully whenever our lives are marked by generous concern for another.