So, what does one say for their “last” sermon in a congregation where they have served for 21 years? I started thinking about this sermon a couple of months ago. I initially had the idea of using the Gospel reading assigned for the day of my initial call here, and then crafting a sermon based on that text 21 years later. Pastor Winston Bone, who was the Assistant to the Bishop in the Metropolitan NY Synod for many years and was responsible for seminarians as well as assigning names of potential pastors to congregations in the call process, told me that the good people here at Saint John had been through a difficult time and to “just go there and love them for a year.” The Gospel assigned for that day was all about God’s love, and I knew I had been given a great gift for that first sermon. Reflecting on it after 21 years might have been memorable.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had always accepted the assigned texts from the lectionary, even when they were stories I might have wished to avoid. So, I decided to take a look at the Gospel reading for today, and I again I knew it was a gift. Placing my trust in God’s wisdom had served me well again.
The famous story of Jesus feeding the five thousand is found in all four Gospel narratives, and it is remarkably similar in each one. Each gospel writer gives the number of 5,000 people, the only difference being that John, our gospel for today, just says 5,000 were fed while the others say 5,000 men were fed plus women and children. In each story the disciples are perplexed about how to feed all these people. Both Mark and John say it would cost two hundred denarii, or six months wages, to buy enough bread for them all to get just a little bit. In all accounts the disciples suggest that the people be sent away so they can find food for the evening meal, yet Jesus is adamant that the disciples find a way to feed everyone. In each story, when the disciples canvas the crowd to find food, they come up with five loaves of bread and two fish. John adds in the detail that it is a young boy who has the food to offer. In all four accounts, Jesus blesses the food, they distribute it, and after everyone has eaten their fill, there are twelve baskets left over.
Jewish readers of the story would recognize allusions to Moses and the prophet Elijah. John viewed prophets positively and characterized Jesus as a prophet to help communicate Jesus’ identity. Like the prophets, Jesus was sent by God, performs signs, and has knowledge that goes beyond human understanding. For John, the work of the prophets was very important because they communicated a divine perspective regarding human events.
But, of course, Jesus is much more than a prophet. This is the classic story of God’s abundance and how we should have faith that God, here in the person of Jesus, will provide abundantly for us. And that is why this story is just perfect for the circumstances we find ourselves in today. Congregations usually have one of two attitudes on which they base their ministry – scarcity or abundance. One of the defining characteristics of Saint John has always been an attitude of abundance. We have never based our decisions on negative expectations, but rather on our trust in the abundance of God.
This positive attitude of abundance predates my ministry here, but I have been proud to encourage it during the past 21 years. When I came here attendance and money were both low. Yet the congregation projected an attitude of abundance that Pastor Bone and I both sensed. One of my seminary professors said I should not go to such a small, struggling congregation because I was a second career pastor. “Leave that to someone young” she said. But I sensed a spirit of renewal and positive energy and I was blessed beyond my expectations.
We have always given generously to others and have been blessed in return. We have never chosen to give in order to receive blessings – we understand that God’s grace is pure gift – but we have always chosen generosity rather than hoarding assets for ourselves. One of my best memories of Saint John will always be the council meeting when I was able to announce that we had been informed that we were going to receive a sizeable inheritance. Although we could not allocate how we were going to spend the money until it became a reality, everyone at the meeting wanted to discuss how we should tithe the money – that is, share 10% of it. They weren’t focused on what we could do with the money for ourselves, but excited about how we would share it with others. Then, the story gets even better, because at the annual meeting when we presented our plan for the money, someone remembered a ministry we had forgotten. Instead of re-allocating the money, we just gave another 1% of the total to that cause, for a total of 11% given to others.
Through the years we have had ups and downs, times of abundance and times when scarcity threatened. Yet we have never lost our focus on sharing what we have with others. When a congregation like ours has that kind of attitude, it is not limited to just sharing with others, but rather it spills over into all aspects of ministry. I remember one year when it seemed as though we might not be able to afford a full-time pastor, and Deacon Gary stood up and spoke with great passion, from his heart, about trusting in God’s abundance and allowing God’s Holy Spirit to guide us. He exhorted us not to lose faith and not to adopt an attitude of scarcity. His words were inspiring and prophetic.
Right now, we, along with most congregations, are experiencing a time when things might appear to be scarce. Even though our attendance is less than what it was a few years ago, the hard truth is that many of my colleagues see even less people divided into two services on most Sundays. That’s disheartening. For whatever reason, even though there seems to be more people around than ever before – there are certainly more cars taking up parking spaces on the streets – less and less people are interested in being committed members of a faith community. This is not just a Christian phenomenon, many of our local temples have merged due to declining membership.
I don’t know what the answer is to these perplexing problems. It has affected me directly, I would have retired a year or two later if I knew the congregation could continue to afford a pastor with my years of experience. Yet we must trust that the Holy Spirit is at work – the right person to serve here with new eyes, lots of energy and new ideas is out there, perhaps a senior in seminary who will be ready to answer your call after their graduation. It is possible that some thinking outside the box is needed – our congregation has always been good at being open to new ideas, not just for the sake of something new, but in order to enable us to continue a ministry of abundance in the midst of a time when faith communities seem to be experiencing scarcity.
As a sign of abundance for the future, today we are blessed to welcome Angel as a member of our congregation. He has been attending faithfully for a couple of years now and could have easily just continued in the same way, sharing in worship and helping out in various ways as he has been doing. Yet, inspired by his history as a faithful member of the church in Mexico, he wants to make a commitment to be a member of this congregation. He feels blessed to be part of us and we are blessed to have him. And remember, his name means “messenger of God.”
We were also blessed this morning by the presentation from some of the participants at the ELCA National Gathering. We were the only congregation in our conference to send a group – 8 youth and 2 chaperones. I am confident that in three years I will be hearing all about the exciting time the participants had in Minneapolis.
I have complete confidence in the ongoing ministry of Saint John, but only if you continue in the spirit of abundance, trusting in God’s promises and always being willing to share with others. Do not allow the fear of scarcity to overshadow your natural inclination towards abundance. Do not have a glass is “half empty” attitude. Human nature makes it too easy to give in to fear, rather than allowing our hearts to trust in God’s promises. Abundance does not always mean more money or even more people, nor does it mean ignoring reality. Abundance means being able to continue carrying on a meaningful ministry for this time in this place, however that may come to be. Of course, that means everyone has to pitch in – make the effort to come to worship regularly -can you imagine the possibilities if the church was this full every Sunday! – give faithfully and as generously as you can to support our ministry, care for one another, work for justice, peace and compassion in the world and share with those in need. That is the work we are called to do by God. Amen.