It is so that we hear stories like the one in John’s Gospel today and it is easy to believe miracles like this don’t happen any more. I am here to tell you that they do, though. That there are times even now when unexpectedly the meager gifts we have are divided in abundance and there is more left over than when we began.
This is how it was.
I received word last week that the eldest daughter of a beloved friend and colleague had suddenly died.
I went as soon as I could. Pastor Joe was sitting on the front steps of their home surrounded by friends. We shared a hug and some quiet words. In those moments, I offered the space which is so abundant in our building for surely the death of a 15 year old, particularly one as well known and loved as Neveah, would draw a crowd which their place of worship would not be able to accommodate. “No,” he assured me. “We’ve done this before. We want to do this at New Hope.”
The next day I received a text from him saying he had reconsidered. They would hold the funeral in their own church but he was wondering if they could hold the funeral lunch at First Lutheran.
And so we did.
But first a little background.
First Lutheran is a congregation made up of mostly those of Northern European descent. New Hope Missionary Baptist Church is primarily African American. And while we have worked hard in these last years to build bridges between us, these things don’t change:
- While we worship the same God, we do not worship the same.
- We don’t sing the same.
- We don’t pray the same.
- And we have discovered that we certainly don’t do funeral lunches in the same way.
And so it was the day of the funeral I got to church early. For those first hours there was a continuous stream of people dropping off water and soft drinks, fresh salads and desserts, macaroni and cheese and Italian beef, green beans and pasta salad. (The fried chicken came later.) Indeed, it seemed like the whole community was streaming through our doors as a small group of volunteers welcomed and received and found room. And oh, one could already see the gifts being divided in abundance.
I shared a ride to the funeral with a friend. By the time we arrived, the parking lot was full and there were cars parked up and down the road. We were directed to a spot on the grass behind the church. We made our way around to the front where people were standing in line trying to squeeze in. We found a space to stand in the back, shoulder to shoulder, front to back, shifting to and fro as people made their way to the rest rooms.
Indeed, there was an abundance of people. There may not have been the 5,000 we hear about in today’s Gospel, but there were 500 or more.
The music was vibrant and defiant in the face of death. I thought to myself that we staid Lutherans could learn something about hope in those moments. For in spite of their loss, there was an abundance of hope, divided and shared and grown among those gathered..
My friend, Joe, preached. He told stories about their beloved, daughter, yes, and he tied their collective grief into the history of a people who had known suffering before and had prevailed. Again and again he affirmed that we ‘may be down but we are not out.’ For God sustains and victory is promised. Oh, it was hard to hear every word from where I stood, but there was no doubt that there was an abundance of faith being demonstrated and shared.
After the family filed out, we left close behind them, back to church where it was clear what needed to be done. Our two hundred chairs and beautifully decorated tables would not be enough. And so area pastors, church staff and volunteers, and yes, a number of early arriving guests started carrying tables and chairs down stairs to be ready for the guests who would soon arrive. And I don’t know how, but those who were counting estimated that nearly 400 guests were served that afternoon. I would not have believed when I got up that morning that our space could somehow expand to feed the bodies and souls of so many. But it did.
And this as well. Perhaps more this as well. Side by side, people who had nothing in common except for the love of Jesus and the yearning to show love to a precious family worked to make it happen. People who did not know one another’s names or faces before that day made it happen. And more than one commented that they thought they got a glimpse of the Kingdom that day.
I know that I did. I know that I saw the face of Jesus in the multiplying of loaves and fishes: in faith and hope, macaroni and cheese and fried chicken and chocolate cake, space and tables and chairs, and most of all multiplying and expanding the space in all of our hearts. Indeed, perhaps it is so that the 5,000 and more who were fed by a boy’s lunch on a hillside so long ago also sensed their own hearts growing with a sense of joy and possibility and hope. Even as we did this week. And I could not be more grateful.
- How do you hear the story of the feeding of thousands with a few barley loaves and a couple of fish? Does this still happen? If so where have you seen it to be so?
- Many of us (myself included) are afflicted with the ‘it can’t be done syndrome.’ Too many of us are controlled by a mindset of scarcity instead of one of abundance which keeps us from taking the first step towards the possibility of witnessing and experiencing what God can do. If I had thought through the possibility that we might be called upon to serve so many, I would surely have hesitated to offer our space, but in that moment I was led by a sense of shared heartbreak and simply wanting to ‘do something.’ Have you ever experienced anything like this?
- What stories of unexpected abundance might you offer as you reflect upon the familiar story before us now? How might what you have seen and heard be blessing to help open up the space in all of our hearts?