11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. ~ John 6:11-13
The Feeding of the 5,000 is one of only a handful of stories about Jesus that is found in all four Gospels. It surely made an impression on Jesus’s earliest followers! It must have become one of the first stories they told to new converts, to explain who Jesus was and why they were willing to give up everything, even their lives, to follow him.
In the Gospel accounts, Jesus has been followed by crowds out into an isolated area, far from any village. He spends the day teaching them, and as dinnertime draws near, the disciples realize that the crowd is hungry and there is nowhere nearby for them to buy food. They urge Jesus to send the people away so that they can find something to eat. Jesus refuses, telling the disciples to feed the crowd themselves. This causes consternation among the disciples, since the gathering numbers in the thousands! They respond to Jesus in disbelief, pointing out that providing sufficient food for everyone would cost a fortune they don’t have, and the only food available is five barley loaves and two fish, offered by a local boy. I’m sure you remember what happens next: Jesus blesses the bread and the fish, breaks it into pieces, and tells the disciples to distribute it. And somehow, there is enough for everyone to eat their fill, with more left over than they started with, enough to fill 12 baskets.
Given the dramatic nature of many of Jesus’ miracles – curing lepers, giving sight to the blind, even raising the dead! – it might be a little surprising that a simple story about a seemingly endless supply of bread becomes so central to the life of the early church. I think its universal appeal is because it reflects the experience of so many churches. In every age, gatherings of Christians have found themselves confronted by situations that demand a response, but the resources for doing so seem pitifully small. And in every age, the People of God have dared to offer those barebones resources to God, prayed for God’s blessing on their endeavors, and somehow, miraculously, accomplished more than they ever imagined they could.
My first six months at Trinity have been spent learning about Trinity’s history and her people. Many of you have told me stories about moments when you doubted the church could continue, when the obstacles were huge and the resources pitifully small, but somehow, by the grace of God, you persevered and thrived. In recent years, even in the absence of a rector, you have raised the funds to restore and maintain your beautiful building, you have kept core ministries alive and well, you have served the most vulnerable in your community, and you have formed the next generation of Christians through a thriving Sunday School. I am awed and amazed by the commitment and faithfulness that has allowed you not merely to hold on but to grow during a lengthy clergy transition and global pandemic.
No one could blame you if you were hoping that the end of the pandemic and my arrival as rector meant you could step back, let go, and focus on building up reserves for a while. But just as the disciples’ task was not finished when the bread was distributed, the strength and health of the parish is a gift to be used, not merely cherished, lest it vanish from our grasp like crumbs in the grass.
In the coming year, it is my intention to focus on nurturing and strengthening Trinity’s efforts in the community, primarily through the expansion of the existing Mercy Street ministry to those affected by addiction or overdose and through a new commitment to ministering with college-age adults. The Mercy Street team is exploring the launch of a new program directed toward the parents of children struggling with addiction, which you will read about in the Active Outreach committee’s report. In addition, I have been having preliminary conversations with Trinity members interested in ministry at Bridgewater State University, and with the Rev. Benjamin Cho, the new Protestant chaplain at BSU’s Christian Fellowship. I plan to begin holding meetings in February and March with Trinity members interested in college-age ministry to brainstorm activities, with a goal of being ready to welcome next year’s freshmen when they arrive on campus in September.
In worship, we are already enjoying the energy and talent John Jannis has brought to our music ministry, and I am looking forward to enriching our worship experience yet further, especially for newcomers and visitors who may not have encountered the beauty of our liturgy before. As Andrew Root notes in his book, Churches and the Crisis of Decline, the primary calling of the church is and has always been to create a space where people can encounter the Living God. Episcopalians create that space through the beauty of our worship, which is supported by the many resources made available to us through Church Publishing and the national church. To assist us in fully utilizing those resources, we are establishing a worship committee to discuss and evaluate our liturgy and music as we prepare for the important seasons of the Church Year, including Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and Advent. We will seek to embrace our rich local tradition and experiment with newer liturgical resources. And pending the outcome of today’s conversation about the format of our bulletins, I will also ask the vestry to commit the financial resources needed to implement the worship committee’s plans in ways that make our worship accessible to all.
As the year goes on, I will also offer more opportunities to deepen our spiritual lives and our understanding of the Christian faith. In addition to the Tuesday evening Zoom Bible study led by Deacon Kris, I am planning a retreat day for the discernment of spiritual gifts, a vestry retreat, a Lenten series focused on learning to engage in civil discourse both within and outside of the church, and continuing to explore books about faith in our monthly Sunday Lunch Book Club.
Such an ambitious agenda may feel risky or overwhelming, and it certainly will ask more of us than merely maintaining the current status quo. It may even feel like being asked to feed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish! But it is no more than you have already accomplished, and accomplished well and faithfully. If any parish is equipped to grow its ministry in these challenging times, it’s Trinity. I hope you will do as you have so many times before – to take stock of your resources, offer them to God for blessing, and share them generously for outreach, worship, and formation.
May Christ, the Son of God, be manifest in you, that your lives may be a light to the world; and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you, and remain with you always.
Your sister in Christ,