The Abundance That Comes From God

On April 20, 2016 by Jennifer Creswell

Rev. Jennifer M. Creswell

Okay. Stay with me for a moment. Imagine groups you belong to. Not formal groups, but demographic groups. Your gender, your race, your age, your political party, your stage of life. Okay? Have a few? Now, imagine a person who is outspoken against your group. Someone in the other party. That’s not so hard this time of year. Someone who says inflammatory things about your gender or your orientation. Someone who puts down your generation or your race or your life choices. Take a minute. Okay, have that person in mind? Good. Think of some of the things this person has said. Think of the things they have done. Think of all the hoards of people who think it’s hilarious or entertaining to watch this person offend you. Just sit with that for a bit. How are you feeling right about now? Now, imagine someone you trust—a lot—like God—someone you trust tells you to go find that person; that person who gets off on hurting and offending you. Go find that person, your trusted voice says, and get close enough to that person to touch them. Now, put your hands on that person. And pray. Pray for that person with all the love and compassion within you and with a lot coming directly from God. You still with me? Okay. Before you imagine how this episode affects the person, I want you to think about how it affects you. How are you feeling? What is it like? Next, I want you to imagine leaving that place and going back out in the world where you are still a member of a persecuted group, and where your friends and your family know who that notorious person is and what they do. How will you be different? How will your group be different? How will that person be different?

This is the story of Saul who became Paul. You know all those books in the New Testament that have titles like “The Letter of Paul to the Romans/Corinthians/Ephesians,” etc.? Yeah, that Paul. I am going to leave it here because one of the most relevant passages (and one of my favorites) in the whole Bible is our Gospel for today. But I want you to take away a couple of things: 1. The story of Saul’s conversion is really good reading, right there in the Book of Acts. 2. Look how God can change us. All of us. Things that you knew your entire life to be true can become not true. And people you feared with good reason can become your champion and friend.

The post-resurrection stories in John are just beautiful. Several little vignettes with Jesus appearing almost casually to his friends, staying with them a while to eat or pray, and then disappearing again. It is so much more relaxed than his intense years of ministry. He keeps showing up to give them last reminders about how to do this thing on their own. Like parents visiting their kid at college. Or a dying spouse spending the last days with a beloved. Everyone knows it’s going to be hard, but it’s also gonna be okay. Because the teaching, the preparation, have been going on for years. It’s already there.

When I tell my spiritual director, Paula, about something going on in my life or at St. Luke’s she’ll often ask me: “what story from scripture does that remind you of?” It’s a great question to ground my ministry and my life in our sacred scripture—to look at how God acted for those people in similar situations and get some clues about where and how I can look for God, or how I can respond based on how people and God work in those stories. And for years, at St. Luke’s—and, indeed, in the whole Episcopal Church and in all of Western Christianity—this story from John is the one that speaks to me about life in the Church. It’s one of my favorite stories, and it is the foundation for much of my ministry. If you understand how I read this story, you’ll understand my vision for St. Luke’s.

Let me tell the story again. Jesus’ friends, his disciples, are fishers. They are professionals. They’ve been doing this their whole adult lives. Their fathers probably did it before them. Remember when Jesus first approached Peter and Andrew on the beach and told them to leave their nets, follow him, and fish for people? They were fishermen. Fishing was what they knew how to do. And in today’s story, taking place after Jesus’ death and resurrection, his disciples have gone back to fishing. It’s like they didn’t know what else to do. Jesus was gone, so they were thinking about going back to their old lives. Maybe their minds weren’t made up, but what else were they going to do today? So they did what they knew. They put out their boats in the Sea of Galilee and they fished. All night. And this time, nothing happened. No catch. And when the sun came up in the morning, when the disciples looked to shore, there was Jesus. And he called to them, “try putting your nets on the other side of the boat.” And they did. And the catch was suddenly so huge they could hardly haul it in. Then they took that huge catch of fish and brought it to shore and grilled fish on the beach with Jesus. They had breakfast together.

Here’s what I see in this story: Jesus challenged his disciples to try a different approach. They did. And the results were abundant.

And then, over a meal, sharing food, Jesus told his disciples three times: “feed my sheep.” Jesus said, “if you love me, then feed my sheep.” We can only guess at what Jesus actually meant by “feed my sheep,” but I love that the conversation is being had over a meal—a meal of fish that Jesus helped catch. Feed my sheep. Feed my people. Nourish my people. Share your food. Take what I give you and give it to others. Feed. Restore. Refresh. Congregate. Love me. Love my people. Feed them.

Much like the fishers who knew what they were doing, we in the Church know how to “do church.” Some of us are professionals. We’ve been doing church for a long time and our foreparents did it before us. And Jesus didn’t dispute any of that. But he suggested to his friends that they try a different approach when their own wasn’t working. And so when we read the news that the church is in decline and we watch parishes close and we see that the Church is not having the same impact it did in the past, we might also look to Jesus on the shore for a word of direction. Will he also advise us to try a different approach?

If we followers of Jesus are going to “feed the sheep,” we need to know where the sheep are, to see what the sheep are hungry for, to be in relationship with the sheep. I am using this metaphor because it’s the one Jesus uses, but I do recognize the problems it can raise for us in our context today. I think enough people have been burned by a church and its leaders that assume themselves to be shepherds to the clueless masses of sheep it wants to gain. I’ve heard pastors refer to other clergy as “sheep stealers” when members move from one church to another.

People are not sheep. And Jesus is shepherd in the metaphor, not clergy. But if Jesus is telling his followers that if they love him, they should nurture his people, we can understand that.

We can all understand that, and we can all live that.

One thing I’ve heard from several people, when they get to know St. Luke’s, is: “I had no idea there was a progressive church like this in East County.” Or, “It took me so long to find a church that is LGBTQ-friendly in this part of town.” And I notice that the more we define and live into our identity as a welcoming, affirming, artsy church, the easier it is for people to know they’ve found what they were looking for. And because of the stories I’ve already heard, my hunch is that there are a lot more people in East County who would love to find a church community that embraces their values. I think there are many hungry people near us who could be fed by the community, the acceptance, and the love of God offered at this church. Feed my sheep.

The Springwater Studio guild has been learning from some professionals about how to promote the studio and our church to the people who can benefit from being here. One thing we’ve learned is that people feel seen, understood, and heard if you are aware of the problems they face. This is good for us to know, and it has helped, for example, define our identity at St. Luke’s. There are people living far from downtown Portland who lack a church community that shares their values. This is a problem. St. Luke’s is able to address that problem, and by doing so we let people know that their pain is visible to us. Feed my sheep.

Your vestry wants to see St. Luke’s grow. They believe St. Luke’s could be feeding more sheep—nourishing more people in their Christian faith; people who are looking for a church like this one. They believe St. Luke’s offers gifts that people are longing for. One of the ways we can get ready for growth is to anticipate the problems and needs of people who will come to our church. I hope you read about One Small Thing in the newsletter this week. I’m asking you to think of your own needs and the needs of the people you love. Then, commit to doing one small thing that will help others who come to St. Luke’s with similar needs. Growing our church and feeding more people will take a community effort; it can’t just be Laurel and me and a few others. Think about a time when you were out and about and you realized you needed something: you ran out of diapers. You forgot to pack a snack. You got caught without ladies’ hygiene products. The automatic door wasn’t working. The handicapped parking space was taken. Crud. Now think about a time and a place where your particular need was unexpectedly met: the changing room provided free diapers. A stranger shared a snack. There were free tampons in the restroom. Someone saw you and came to hold the door. There was a cone in the parking space saving it for you. You feel seen. You feel welcome. Your needs are understood. If we want more people to feel seen and welcome at St. Luke’s, we can start to anticipate their needs. That’s why I’m asking you to do one small thing. Figure out one small thing that matters to you—or to the people you want to see at St. Luke’s. Then commit to doing that one small thing. If you are a parent and want to see more kids at St. Luke’s, you might commit to keeping the children’s pew tidy and fresh each week. If you are a person with limited mobility, you might commit to making sure doors are open when people are coming in. If you have a young daughter, you might commit to keeping the feminine hygiene products stocked in the restrooms. If you don’t love to drive, you might commit to organizing carpools for others. What one small thing can you do to help people be comfortable enough to make a spiritual home at St. Luke’s? For the next few weeks, you’ll find a sign-up sheet in the narthex. You can write your name and the one small thing you’d like to do to help our church grow. I can’t wait to see what you come up with. And if you commit to it, please actually do it. It doesn’t do much good if you do it two or three times and then have to be reminded. Only choose something that matters enough to you that you’ll take responsibility for it. Laurel and I can talk about this stuff all we want, but that won’t make St. Luke’s a welcoming church. Visitors can tell pretty quickly how committed a church is to welcoming them. If we want it to be authentic, it will take all of us.

Here are some suggestions of one small thing you might do:

•Make sure the entrance to the wheelchair ramp isn’t blocked by parked cars
•Print copies of the newsletter each week for people who don’t get email
•Organize carpools for folks who aren’t able to drive
•Be a Sunday school sub teacher
•Keep fresh plantings in the pots by the front door
•Make sure gluten-free options are available at coffee hour
•Make sure the children’s area is stocked with snacks
•Keep the children’s pew tidy and fresh
•Be available to pray with people in the narthex during communion
•Keep the nursery stocked with diapers
•Make sure there are feminine hygiene products in all bathrooms
•What else?

I’m excited about One Small Thing and how it will get us all seeing from the perspective of visitors. And in everything, let’s remember that abundance comes from God, not from our own efforts. It was Jesus who suggested the disciples try the other side of the boat. And abundance is given to be shared. Here’s a catch of fish: now feed my people. Amen.

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