July 25, 2021
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 25, 2021, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer
Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen
So how’s it going? Are you feeling well-nourished by the return to activities? Satisfied with the sweet assurance of vaccinated possibilities? Or are you terrified by the never-ceasing concerns we continue to confront?
We have two stories here[i], which seem to hold all the stories of our lives these days.
There’s the Feast, the sitting down with all the people we’ve missed sitting down with, face to face, blanket next to blanket, being fed not just with bread, but with the miraculous gifts of community and abundance. It’s the Feast some of us have described, when we’ve gathered with those we haven’t seen for 16 months and realize we can hug each other. We can invite one another to sit down and share a slice of pie, or a cup of coffee. Last Sunday I invited my extended family for dinner. For real. Several households gathering at once to share an entire meal together. With sweetness as great as 5000 loved ones together, we passed dishes, told stories, laughed over old jokes, and remembered all that we’ve missed. Six months wages couldn’t have bought anything more satisfying.
There’s the Feast, and then there’s the Storm. Within moments of our contented sighs and deep feeling of safety and satisfaction, we remembered that the threats are still real. What about this new nasty variant, spreading so much more quickly? What about the ugly rhetoric making false claims against the vaccine? How can we celebrate a gathering when we’re not counting the families who are still not safe? Will schools be able to open in the fall? What about the little children?
And even if we could finally get through this horrible pandemic, then what? There’s unrest in Cuba, in the middle East, in Hong Kong, in South Africa. The news sounds like it repeats itself, to the point that we can’t even remember if we’ve already read this article, or if it’s just similar to another story of political oppression. There’s decaying infrastructure: Condo buildings collapsing in Miami; bridges giving out in DC. The threats of climate change seem downright terrifying. That thick smoke from Canadian wildfires over the cities this week was alarming. It was 130° in the Death Valley last week[ii]. 130°. A friend visiting the Grand Canyon was told they were feeling 125° heat during her visit. And while we endure persistent drought and record heat here at home, floods have killed over 200 in Germany, Belgium, and China. We’re with the disciples in the boat in the middle of the night. The seas have become rough and the wind is blowing against us. This contrast between Feast and Storm continues to unsettle us.
Pastor Jodi Houge, of Humble Walk, was driving back from a big family gathering a few weeks ago. On the way home, she stopped for coffee at her halfway point. Since there were at least ten cars in the drive-thru, she decided to run in to save time.
She later described the stop to her congregation:
“(…R)ight away it was apparent that like most places, this coffeeshop was understaffed and doing the best they could. The person who took my order didn’t quite know how to run the till. And the person who made my drink was being trained in and her hands were shaking. She made the wrong drink, so she had to dump it out and start over again, all the while being gently coached by another person. Down at my feet was a giant puddle where an entire iced drink had spilled and no one had time to attend to it.”
“This is everyone, everywhere. Maybe your life feels understaffed with 10 people in line waiting for something from you, you feel shaky and new at everything and you haven’t had time to clean up your messes[iii].”
Yes. That. It just feels as if we’re understaffed. Each one of us, and all of us collectively. We don’t have what we need to take another step, or whatever step we think we should take feels too unfamiliar, too precarious. Maybe we’re all in the same boat in the middle of the night, noticing the wind and discovering that we really aren’t sure where the shoreline is anymore. I can’t see what’s next. Are we close to land? Are we almost at the end of this nightmare? Or are these the waves that will be great enough to swamp us? What is our little boat against these waves? What are a few loaves of barley and a couple of fish in front of this crowd? Six months of work can’t undo all the damage and fix the problems we face. And who is that walking out there on the water!?
Jesus. Jesus, embodying a message of life and hope, of justice and love, draws near us in the middle of our doubt and fear. Jesus appears to tell us, “I am here. Don’t be afraid.”
The miracle of God’s presence right within our fears and troubles shouldn’t be a big shock to us anymore. Elisha knew to trust it nearly 900 years before Jesus lived. When facing too many hungry people, his servant worried about their meager supplies. “Just feed them,” the prophet assured. “God will provide[iv].” God’s people have been singing the psalms for centuries. In famine and at war, under oppression or facing violence they repeat the chorus: God’s hands are open wide to care for us[v]. The writer of Ephesians is full of the same assurance, being rooted in God’s love allows us to be filled with the fullness of God, even when we can’t fathom how it will sustain us for the dangers we face[vi].
When Jesus faces the hungry crowd on the mountain that day, he lifts a few loaves of barley, and gives thanks[vii]. It sounds so sacramental. The word for giving thanks is, in fact, εὐχαριστήσας, eucharist.
Psychologists and therapists talk about the healing power of the practice of gratitude, how giving thanks helps us through anxiety and stress. When we stop to give thanks, we’re able to focus more on the present and block feelings of resentment, regret and fear. Gratitude turns back our worries of inadequacy and scarcity, by reminding us of what we have already received, what we have to work with to face our situation[viii]. Giving thanks, if only for a few loaves of barley, allows us to breathe a little more evenly, and to remember that God has provided for us beyond measure. It reminds us that ultimately, we are not in charge. The world is bigger than our pain and our efforts. And as that reading from Ephesians states: We trust in the one who “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine[ix].”
I wonder whether this is one of our greatest losses over these last 16 months: we haven’t had chances to give thanks with others. The rituals where we gather in gratitude have been sorely missing from our calendars. We missed all of the holidays. Children weren’t prompted to call back a “Thank you” after they picked up candy we left by our doorsteps on Halloween, because no one was actually close enough to thank. We didn’t host traditional Thanksgiving banquets. We had to change the ways we exchanged gifts at Christmas. We were not even allowed to gather with more than a few masked family members in the cemetery to give thanks for the lives well-lived. And all of us felt our absence from the weekly thanksgiving meal at this table. Some of us are still practicing from home. We know it’s not the same. It’s not the same for us here, either, knowing that you’re not able to be with us in person.
But know this. Not all of those 5000 people were close enough to hear Jesus’s own voice. Somehow, the ones in the back, the ones out of range of his voice, even those who couldn’t find the right YouTube channel or a working zoom link, still feasted at the Eucharistic Thanksgiving Banquet that day.
Even those who missed the whole picnic, those already out on the boat panicking, there was enough for all of them. The one who spilled an entire Venti Iced Chai over the coffee shop floor but not had time to clean it up—his God was there. The one whose hands shook as she threw away the order she messed up – Jesus fed her. The ten restless drivers in the hot cars in the drive-thru, those whose children were fussing in the car-seats, and those who had just remembered that they hadn’t finished the project their supervisor had specifically asked them to wrap up, their desire was satisfied. The grieving one who is still searching through the rubble in Surfside, hoping for one last remnant of home, God hears their cries. The tired one who isn’t sure their marriage will survive another month, God sees them.
And to you, too. God shows up once more. God walks right on the water and says, I am. I am the power you crave. I am the strength in the wind. I am the bread that fills you with life. I am the breath within your empty heart. Breathe, my child. Breathe[x].
Whether you’re at the Feast or in the Storm, I’m here to fill your every hunger with all the fullness of God and the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. Once again, God’s hands are opened wide and we receive as much as we ever wanted.
People of God, Lift up your hearts. Join the ceremony of giving thanks, and just watch God multiply our blessing into goodness to share. Twelve baskets of extra bread. Gallons and gallons of the finest wine at the wedding. Siblings united at a banquet table 5000 people long. More than enough. No one forgotten. No one too far away. Grace upon grace. Love upon love. Take and Eat. This is for you.
Thanks be to God! Amen
[i] John 6:1-21
[ii] Masters, Jeff, “Eye on the Storm: Death Valley, California, Breaks the All-Time World Heat Record for the Second Year in a Row, “ Yale Climate Connections, https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2021/07/death-valley-california-breaks-the-all-time-world-heat-record-for-the-second-year-in-a-row/, July 12, 2021.
[iii] Pastor Jodi Houge, Humble Walk Lutheran Church, Facebook post, July 13, 2021.
[iv] 2 Kings 4:42-44
[v] Psalm 145:10-18
[vi] Ephesians 3:14-21
[vii] John 6:11
[viii] Emmons, Robert. “Why Gratitude is Good,” Greater Good Magazine, Greater Good Science Center, November 16, 2020. Why Gratitude Is Good | Greater Good (berkeley.edu)
[ix] Ephesians 3:20
[x] Pastor Jodi Houge’s post (op. cit.) ends, “Deep breath. Deep breath. Deep breath. Gentleness and care to you. And to everyone you encounter.”