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I would hope that you all have been in prayer for the Brownfields and Stringers and Richard Torovsky during the week. As most of you know, Chance Stringer—one of Ray and Marcia's grandsons—drowned at the family's new home in Greenville, South Carolina. They had recently relocated from the Richmond area.
And before I begin, I just want to reaffirm our belief in God as "the ground of our being"—as Paul Tillich wrote—that God is not only present in the midst of tragedy, but beyond tragedy in a new place that we call the Resurrection.
Life does not continue to be the same as it was. Life is ever-changing—often in confusing and frightening ways. The steady rhythms of our lives are often punctured by uncertainty. It is the resurrection of Christ that gently, even quietly, turns the page of sorrow, and reminds us that—as Frederick Buechner said—"The worst things are never the last things."
Despite this tragedy in our midst, it is still a delight for me to worship with you today. I always look forward to these fifth Sundays when we try to combine the congregations of Beckford Parish—not just because it means I only have one liturgy instead of three!—but because it gathers us up into one place, and one moment.
I have a somewhat unique perspective in that my role as your priest means that I know all of you, at least a bit, and I often wish that you knew each other as well as I do. I think many of you would be delighted to discover what a wonderful group of people our churches are. Whenever the moment in the Prayers of the People arrives when we give thanks for the blessings of this life, I invariably find myself thanking God for the many dedicated, and lovely people God has brought to this parish.
I only wish that you would all find others that you could drag, kicking and screaming, to church. I'd love to see St. Andrew's and Emmanuel packed to the gills—and I think it's possible we could do that, but it would take something more than just prayer. It would take meeting new people, talking to them, forming relationships, and, yes, leading them to the Risen Christ and to his church.
But I promise you, there are people out there who don't go to church and would like to, they just don't know that they'd be welcomed. They have no idea that we'd love to share this beautiful tradition and historic faith with them.
The hunger is there, though. The hunger for community and meaning, hunger for God. The hunger for a life that is more profound that just working and playing, eating and sleeping.
You know what I mean. There is a dignity and an intangible strength that comes from trying to live a devout life, centered on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are no meaningful substitutes.
Even when it seems that the cards are stacked against you, and life grinds away the vim and vigor, you can still come to church and engage your heart and mind, and discover that God has been holding your hand the entire time. Do you realize what a treasure it is to believe that?
A lot of people—most people—think that Christianity is just guilt, guilt, guilt. Or they think it's just something to hold them down. I have never felt that way. I have always thought that Jesus offers the best boat in the sea of uncertainty—not some uncritical, anti-intellectual path of blind faith—but a reasonable and hopeful life, grounded in the depth of God's love.
You can engage your most critical intellectual faculties and find that the Christian faith stands up to the challenge. The Rev. John Stott, DD, CBE, one of the great Anglican evangelical clergy said that that is why some folks shy away. They think Christianity is not big enough to handle their questions. Or that you have to check your mind at the door to believe in miracles, or the Resurrection, or the virgin birth of Jesus.
I think it is the smaller mind that refuses to believe in more. As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, "There are more things in heaven and on earth…than are dreamt of in your philosophy." You and I do not know how all of this works. There are far too many variables of agency and causation: some human, some natural, some beyond all knowing. You cannot even plan one minute of your day that is completely within your control. Thoughts intrude, the phone rings, the very thing that tenaciously possesses your mind can flit into non-existence with a sip of coffee.
To believe that something amazing can happen—something beyond explanation, beyond all that you have ever known—is not a leap of faith, it happens all the time. What makes it miraculous is not that science can't explain it, but that it seems so unlikely and so wonderful at the same time.
Jesus encountered a large group of people. John puts the estimate at five thousand. The 2011 U.S. Census numbers, Woodstock Virginia has a population of 5,132. Imagine the entire population of the Town of Woodstock coming to hear Jesus. Jesus himself wonders how they're going to feed them. He asks, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat." Philip responds, "Six month's wages would not buy enough for each of them to have even a little."
Andrew says, "There is a boy here who has five of these little barley loaves and two fish." That's a little boy's lunch. Five little barley loaves, about this big. Don't think of some big loaves of French bread, and two wide-mouth bass. We're talking buns and bluegills. Next to nothing. It's like trying to clean up the Johnstown flood with a kitchen sponge. Or end the Los Angeles riots with one police officer. Or put out a house fire with a squirt gun.
And Jesus takes the bread and gives thanks to God, and gave it to them. And the sign occurs. The sign of who Jesus is. "The living Bread"—as the Common Worship liturgy reads—"in whom all our hungers are satisfied."
Now, please consider the absurdity of this situation. The Town of Woodstock feasting plentifully on a little boy's lunch, and then the disciples gathering up the leftovers! Twelve baskets of leftovers. How did it work? That's not the point. The point is that a little bitty bit in the hands of Jesus became enough.
Let me show you a part of the miracle that you might never have thought about: Jesus is able to give thanks for a little bitty bit.
Have you ever given thanks for the little bitty things in your life? A little bitty checking account. A little bitty amount of food in the fridge before heading off to the store. Do you give thanks for that? Quite often, the answer is no.
We want to give thanks for the paycheck, the dinner after the visit to the store, the new article of clothing, the bigger, the better, the brighter. But the little bitty bit …well...
Sometimes I wonder if this story is really a parable about how powerful—even miraculous—it is to give thanks for what seems to be not enough. Because everything changes when you give thanks. Your whole body changes.
Do you remember that old song Count your blessings? "Count your blessings, name them one by one, count your blessings see what God has done." Sit there, and try it sometime. And as you do, notice that you will begin to relax. Places in your neck and shoulders that were tense will start to release. It's a miracle, really, because all you are doing is opening your heart just a little bitty bit to the magnitude of what you have been given.
And make no mistake about it, we have been given so much. I don't care what amount of money you have—if your soul and mind have been embraced our Lord, crucified and risen, then you will never be poor. True poverty is not the absence of money; it is the absence of faith, hope, love. It is living in the ceaseless round of days, harassed and helpless, lost in the sea of uncertainty with no oars and no land in sight. It is going to bed at night with a hunger in your belly for the kind of love that does not demand anything from you in return.
Did you know that there are people who have never in their lives known what it's like to be cared for and loved without that love meaning that they have to do something for it in return? Women have married men, and men have married women on the basis of what you are going to do for me. And when one of them needs a little extra time, a little extra affection, they get thrown over for violating the terms of the agreement.
I have had people come in to get assistance from me—people who have come to the end of their rope. You can hear it in their voices. When you get some experience you can tell the difference between the scam artist and the person who is really in need. When the person is really in need you can hear it in their voice. They don't mind showing you the bill. They don't mind showing you their ID or their rental agreement.
And often, when they are helped, they offer to come back and paint the porch or sweep out the hallway or something, because they are grateful, of course. Because they wish us to respect their dignity, of course. But some of these folks genuinely, genuinely have never known what it is like to be helped without having to do something to pay for it.
And that is poverty. To never have had a taste of the pure milk of human kindness. To never know the love of a church community, or even their own family that isn't trying to take.
The Church throughout the world, and the Episcopal Church in specific, preaches a different kind of love. A boundless, unfettered, unconditional love that is willing to suffer and die in the person of Jesus Christ. And through his resurrection, Jesus shows the world that there is no transaction in real love. Real love offers itself not expecting pay back. And by our reception of that unfettered love, we have become very, very rich.
The irony, the paradox, the parable of the feeding of the five thousand is that Jesus takes practically nothing and gives thanks. Practically nothing to eat, and in his hands, it feeds them all, and there are even leftovers. (Pause.)
Most churches in the United States, most churches in the world are small churches. Did you know that? And most churches have a vestry, or some equivalent group of people, who sit down with a bottle of Pepto-Bismol to make a budget for the coming year. They have a desire to seek God with the people they have come to know over the bread and wine—coffee hours, baptisms, funerals, years and years of coming to this place. Prayers have been prayed for healing, for safe travel, for peace in the time of war.
The incalculable blessings of the place and the people meet the cold reality of the needs of the budget, and offerings of the people—and the two often have trouble lining up. And quite often the belt is tightened one more notch as something else has to be unfunded. Members walk away from the meeting with a dull ache, and not a lot of gratitude.
But it's the most mature group of Christians who can look at the little bitty bit and give thanks, and hand it out, believing that this is God's church, and God will take care of God's church.
Think for a moment about how God does this all the time with you and me. Christians have always been a tiny minority of the general population. And God takes you and me, and adds together the attendance at the other churches, and he comes up with several hundred in this town of just over five thousand.
And does God regard the little bitty number of people who showed up on Sunday and say, "Well, that's nothing. I'm not going to send my Holy Spirit into that group…it's not big enough." No. God says, "Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them." (Matthew 18:20)
God gives thanks for the little bitty church and the one next door and the other town and all over the world, and then he spreads us out during the week. We go all over. Some go and push a broom at George's Chicken on Rt. 42, and some of us walk the halls of power in Washington DC. And everywhere we go we carry in our bosom this beautiful open secret that death is not the ultimate end of life.
One little bitty man named Jesus, who died and rose again, has changed that. A little bitty bit of bread and fish, buns and bluegills, can feed five thousand people.
And what about you. Little bitty you. (Pause.) How often have you looked at yourself in the mirror and wondered if you have contributed enough to that world that sometimes seems to be a bottomless cavern of need and loneliness and misery. And you have watched the news at night and wondered if this faith that you say you have on Sunday is able to stand up to it.
Well, the answer is yes. Because the same man who lifted up the bread and gave thanks and said, "This is my body," is the same man who lifted you out of the waters of Baptism, and sealed you with the Holy Spirit, and sends you out into the world everyday, everyday, everyday.
Because in the hands of Jesus, even just a little bitty bit is more than enough.
If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.
The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.