Uncle, Brother, and Friend

Even in the busy holiday season as Ecclesiastes tells us “There is a time to be born and a time to die.”  My uncle Gary was one of those whose time to die just happened.  He did not want a funeral service, but I felt a need to write a brief tribute here to mark his passing. 

Because my mother had five younger brothers I have always been blessed with lots of uncles.  As of this week only two of those five uncles are still living.  I have not been geographically or emotionally close to any of the five for many years, but the death of the youngest, my Uncle Gary, this week has touched me more than expected.  I have only spoken to Gary a few times in the last 50 plus years, but there was a time when he was more cousin/brother/friend than uncle to me.

You see Gary, who was “Butch,” as he grew up was only four years older than I.  When she heard about Gary’s death my sister Sue said, “Ouch, Gary was awfully close to being a part of our generation.”  Technically, she’s right.  My sisters and I are all baby boomers, and Gary was not, being born in 1942.  But personally Gary/Butch felt like he was part of my generation as we were growing up.  He was the only one of my mother’s siblings who was still at home as I grew up.  So when we visited my grandparents Butch and I would explore the barn or the woods on their farm together.  Because he was always there the nickname my sisters and I had for our grandmother was “Grandma Butchie.”  

My mom’s family was big on nicknames.  Her dad, Alma, was ”Hooker,” although he was just “Grandpa” to me.  In addition to “Butch;” my mom, Sarah, was “Sadie” or “Sal.”  Carl was “Bud;” John Franklin, “Hank;” and Forrest, “Frog;” Now, only. The latter two are alive, but this blog is about Butch.

It’s funny what memories survive over 70 years.  I’m sure there were many other things that Gary and I did, but here are the recollections that have stuck with me.  I had a great big problem with homesickness until I was at least 12.  In truth it was still hard when I went away to college when I was almost 20, but at least then I didn’t have to call my parents and ask them to come get me.  My earliest memory of time with Gary was probably when I was 8 or 9.  I was supposed to spend the night at Grandma’s farm.  When my mom delivered me to the farm one afternoon Gary and I ran off immediately to explore the woods that was maybe a quarter of a mile from their farmhouse.  My mom was talking with Grandma when we took off for the woods, and all was well until I saw her driving off from where we were in the woods.  I’m sure she was thinking it might be better to leave without a big good-bye scene, but I was devastated she had left without letting me know and started running toward the road in a futile attempt to catch up with her.  Later that night I was so homesick my grandma had to call my parents to come get me.

Another memory seems like a scene out of time so far removed as to be hard to believe.  My grandparents did not have indoor plumbing until I was in my teens.  Their water came from a pump outside and their bathroom was a two-holer outhouse.  You heard that right, and yes I remember sitting side by side in the outhouse with Gary doing what people do in a privy.  By this time I’m guessing he was about 14 and I 10.  It was in that outhouse that I got my first sex education from Gary.  Living on the farm, he had the advantage of first hand learning about sex from the animals they raised.  I doubt that the education I got from him was 100% accurate, but it was better than any I got anywhere else till I got to a college biology class.  I also remember running naked from the outhouse to the house, something my parents would have been horrified about.  But my grandma who had raised 7 kids, 5 of whom were boys, just smiled as she watched us from the kitchen window.  

Gary and I actually attended the same school for a couple of years.  When I was in Jr. High our Jr. and Sr. High Schools were housed in the same building, which as an aside was the same building my mother graduated from almost 20 years before.  Old Blume High School was showing its age, but our very far-sighted school board had planned very well for the baby boom that my class initiated; and they built a brand new high school that opened when I was in 8th grade and Gary was a senior.  By that time Gary was nearly an adult and I was still his much younger nephew.  At least that’s my speculation based on how he appeared to be too “cool” to acknowledge his scrawny and too smart for his own good little nephew when our paths crossed at school.  

After that Gary and I lost touch with each other.  I’m embarrassed to admit I don’t even know what he did after high school.  I was much too busy with my own life and plans to go on to college and beyond and unfortunately turned my back on that part of my life and family.  My parents moved 60 miles away from my home town while I was in college, and I am sorry to say I felt superior to my relatives because I had two degrees and most of them did not have even one.  I think Gary was also a victim of a family feud that occurred when my grandmother died.  I never knew what it was all about, but it left in its wake a never-healed division resulting in brothers not speaking to brothers.  

And now as my parents’ generation is almost all gone I realize the loss is mine for not staying more connected to those family members.  The education they could have given me about a blue collar life style would have been at least as valuable as any grad school class I took in helping me connect and communicate with a diverse and important part of the larger community we all belong to, even if we fail to realize it.  

So Rest In Peace, Uncle Gary.  Regrets for the connection we lost, but much gratitude for the good times we had as carefree youth.  

3rd Advent Candle, 2022, Joy

We hear and sing “Joy to the World” even as we rush to finish “getting ready” for Christmas.  What does it mean to be joyful when our to-do lists seem impossible to accomplish?  How can we be joyful when there is so much bad news and suffering in our broken world?  

It feels risky to be joyful.  Moments of joy are so short-lived that we are tempted to put our trust in things that don’t last instead of waiting for real joy.  But that fleeting emotion is just happiness and not real joy.  The latest Christmas gifts wear out, break, or go out of style.  But joy that comes from knowing the eternal, unconditional love of God never goes out of style.  It’s for real and forever.  

And here’s the secret.  Dr. Brene Brown writes, “In our research we found that everyone who showed a deep capacity for joy had one thing in common: They practiced gratitude. 

A wild heart can beat with gratitude and lean in to pure joy without denying the struggle in the world.  It’s not always easy or comfortable-but what makes joy possible is a front made of love and a back built of courage.”

[light 3rd candle]

And so with God’s gift of a soft heart and strong back we boldly light the 3rd candle of Advent, the candle of Joy.

Let us pray:  O God of compassion and joy, you have blessed us with the freedom to choose and the power to shift our attention from things that threaten our hope and peace to the deep faith and assurance of the joy you alone can give.  You did not send Jesus to some idyllic beach resort but right into the heart of political oppression in Bethlehem.  Help us to embrace the joy of this season by shifting our focus from the storms raging on the surface of life to the quiet and calm below the surface in the depths of your presence.  By refreshing our spirits in the living waters of your eternal Being we will renew our faith to wait for the moments when you break into our crazy world and give the eternal gift of joy to the world.   We pray for patience to practice gratitude so we are able to see and hear the good news.  Amen

Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH

2022 Advent Peace Candle

3000 years ago the prophet Isaiah shared his vision of lions lying down with lambs, and humans beating their swords into plowshares and not learning war any more.

And we’re still waiting.

2000 years ago John the Baptist was a voice crying in the wilderness, and the angels over Bethlehem delivered the birth announcement of a baby who would bring peace on earth.

And we’re still waiting.

Sometimes it feels so foolish to light a peace candle every Advent. Bombs are still dropping on Ukraine and young Americans are still dying from senseless gun violence.

And we are still waiting.

But we who know Jesus continue to believe. We know Jesus can calm a raging sea by simply saying, “Peace be still.” We know he can calm our fearful hearts when we think we can’t go on. We know Jesus showed us how to conquer fear by the way he died non-violently and rose again victoriously. Because we have known his peace in our hearts we are able to wait as long as it takes. And while we wait we light the candle of peace to renew our allegiance to Jesus, the Prince of Peace

[Light 2nd Candle]

Let us pray: Holy God of all people and all of creation, touch our troubled hearts with your Spirit of holy peace. Remind us again that we are not called to passively wait for peace to miraculously appear. Human nature is too flawed for that to happen. We are not called to be peacekeepers who want only a lack of conflict and preservation of the status quo. Instead you call us to be peacemakers, co-creators of a just and loving world order. Show us the way, heavenly parent, to make peace wherever you have planted us. Whether we are refereeing a squabble between our children or solving a complicated situation at school or work, let the peaceful ways of Jesus be our guide. Help us let go of things we cannot change so we can be your agents of peace in places where we can make a difference. May we act as we pray, in the name of Jesus. Amen

Advent Candle Liturgy, Hope, 2022

As we begin this season of Advent with the candle of hope we affirm our trust in these Beatitudes for the hopeful:

Blessed are those who wait silently with the hopeless.

Blessed are the patient who model peace for all around them.

Blessed are those who are ridiculed for their unrealistic optimism.

Blessed are those who simply light up the space they inhabit.

Blessed are those surrounded by the deep darkness of grief.  They will be comforted.  

Blessed are those who shine through a faith undimmed by human tears.

Blessed are those who face the truth of human evil but will not give up the dream of God’s peaceable kingdom.

Blessed are those who can sit peacefully in the darkness and wait for the dawn.

Blessed are the wise ones who have walked in deep darkness but also know the joy of emerging into the light.  

Blessed are the hopeful, for they are brave enough to be light for a world drowning in darkness.

Please pray with me as we again light the candle of hope.

O Holy One, we pray today that we may not be distracted by the personal and cultural chaos around us.  Help us pay attention to what is true and just.  Even as one way of being in the world is ending, help us to cling to our hope, not for a return to the way things were pre-Covid or pre-Ukraine, but to a new world emerging from the ashes of the old.  Speak to us again the truth that endurance through dark times produces character and hope that allows us to never be weary in doing what is right.  Send your Holy Spirit upon us today that we can be a community of faith that disrupts the broken world with hopefulness.  Make us a community of  hope where we resuscitate each other when our faith is running low.  Remind us that we are called to be a movement of hope, even as institutions, denominations, and individual leaders come and go.  Give us hope to wait upon you when we are weary, to rest but not give up.  Please, Holy God, renew our strength and raise us up on eagles’ wings to be a resurrected and dynamic movement that draws us and others ever closer to the way, truth, and life as followers of Jesus.  Amen

Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH, November 27, 2022

Thanksgiving/Advent Prayer

O merciful God, as we worship on this pivotal day between Thanksgiving and Advent give us faith to wrestle with the hard truth that so much of our American pursuit of happiness is based on one of the seven deadly sins, namely greed.  Nowhere is that tension between Jesus’ values and our culture’s more obvious than this time of year where we devote just one day to celebrating gratitude for what we have in the midst of the biggest season of consumerism that begins earlier every year. .

Jesus said it as plainly and clearly as possible in the Sermon on the Mount. “You can’t serve God and money.” It’s a simple either/or, and yet we are still trying our best to prove Jesus wrong.

Choices about our basic human and cultural values are hard because they are so important, and in this case Jesus is a prohibitive underdog. He is up against a multibillion dollar advertising industry telling us 24/7 that we are what we wear, drive, live in, and how we look. Our consumer goods are made to be obsolete sooner rather than later so we will fill the landfills with last year’s gadgets. 

The choice between your way, Holy God, and humanity’s foolish pursuits is what Joshua addressed the Hebrew people about centuries ago on their long journey to the Promised Land. When they were tempted to worship other gods Joshua said, “If  serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” 

Gracious Lord, I confess, I love my Apple gadgets and the new car I bought a year ago as much as anyone else. And yes, I know my iPhone and Apple Watch were made by abused Chinese workers. And yes, I also know I am called to be the keeper of those very sisters and brothers who made these devices I take for granted every day. It pains me to be reminded of that injustice, but so far not enough to do anything about it.

Ever-loving One, we do know that greed has been the root cause of most of the injustices in human history. Every economic, government, or religious system that perpetuates the power of the haves over the have nots has greed for wealth, power, or control at its core.

O God, with heavy hearts we confess our own complicity in systemic greed because we know the first step to addressing any injustice is to admit we are part of the problem.

And so as we move from this Thanksgiving holiday into the season of Advent, our hope and prayer today is that the gratitude of Thanksgiving will inform everything we do this Advent season. And as we light each Advent candle may we remember to not let the true light of the world be hidden under a bushel. It’s time for love and hope to stand up to the forces of greed, to make this the year we don’t ask for everything we want, but give thanks for everything we have.  And so we humbly pray in Jesus’ name, saying together the words he taught us to pray…

Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH, November 27, 2022

Greed: The Deadliest Sin?

“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matthew 6:24)

I have long wrestled with the realization that our U.S. economic system is based on greed, one of the seven deadly sins. Nowhere is that tension between Jesus’ values and our culture’s more obvious than this time of year where we devote one day to celebrating gratitude in the midst of the biggest season of consumerism that begins earlier every year. The struggle is symbolically portrayed in the scene above re-created by our niece from a picture she saw somewhere.

Jesus’ words above from the Sermon on the Mount can’t say it any more clearly. “You can’t serve God and money.” It’s an either/or, and yet we are still trying our best to prove him wrong. We are far more likely to follow the polar opposite maxim of Gordon Gekko, portrayed by Michael Douglas in the 1987 movie “Wall Street.” Gekko actually said, “The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right.” That line has been shortened in popular memory to it’s very essence, “Greed is Good.”

Choices about our basic human and cultural values are hard because they are so important, and in this case Jesus is a prohibitive underdog. He is up against a multibillion dollar advertising industry telling us 24/7 that we are what we wear, drive, live in, and how we look. Our consumer goods are made to be obsolete sooner rather than later so we will fill the landfills with last year’s gadgets. No one repairs things anymore; we just toss them in pursuit of the latest device, clothes, or vehicle.

Choice between God’s way and humanity’s foolish pursuits is what Joshua addresses the Hebrew people about on their long journey to the promised land: “ if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15).

Please know I am preaching to myself as much as to anyone else. I love my Apple gadgets and the new car I bought a year ago. I know my iPhone and Apple Watch were made by abused Chinese workers. And yes, I also know I am the keeper of those very sisters and brothers who made these toys I take for granted every day. It pains me to be reminded of that injustice, but so far not enough to do anything about it.

I don’t know if greed is the deadliest sin, but I do know it has been the root cause of most of the injustices in human history. Slavery, colonialism, genocide, nationalism, wars of conquest, systemic racism, sexism, and every economic, government or religion system that perpetuates the power of the haves over the have nots have greed for wealth, power, or control at their core. I don’t have a solution to this basic human flaw that goes clear back to Adam and Eve and their sons, but I do know the first step to addressing any injustice is to admit we are part of the problem.

I don’t agree with a lot of what Marianne Williamson says, but I thought she hit a home run with this quote that popped up on my Facebook page today: “Hate has talked so loudly for so long. Greed has talked so loudly for so long. Love has got to stop whispering.”

Jesus said the same thing this way: “Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.” (Luke 12:3).

This year may the gratitude of Thanksgiving inform the way we approach the Advent season. And as we light the Advent candles may we remember to not let the true light of the world to be hidden under a bushel. It’s time for love to stop whispering!

Fall Classics

[Note: So far the month of November has been a blur. I spent all of last week, including two days in the hospital, dealing with a bad UTI. So this post I wrote earlier in the month is a little dated, but like the non-linear game of baseball itself, still relevant to the human endeavor to orient ourselves in time and space.]

In the days of the Big Red Machine back in the 1970’s there was no bigger baseball fan than yours truly. The Cincinnati Reds’ games that weren’t on TV I followed closely as Marty Brenneman and Joe Nuxhall broadcast all 162 regular season games and many post season ones on the radio. In my car, doing dishes, or “working” on a sermon the radio was always on. I can still name most of the players from that team that won back to back World Series in ‘75 and ‘76. I can even remember most of the players from the 1961 Cincinnati Reds who were the first Cincinnati team in my lifetime to make it to the Fall Classic. In those days the games were played in the daytime, and our school always had the game on TV somewhere. We could sign out of study hall to go watch. One of my favorite memories of my freshman fall was Pittsburgh’s Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off homer to beat the Yankees in game 7 of the 1960 series.

As baseball has become more driven by money and free agency has players moving from team to team more often than the UK changes Prime Ministers I have lost interest in the game. The 162 game season now seems much too long with all of the post season games pushing the World Series into November. But, I still am drawn to watching the World Series every year, no matter which teams are in it. Maybe it’s because I have an October birthday and consider myself a Fall Classic too.

Tonight I watched the first game of this year’s Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Houston Astros. When I heard the announcer say that this is the 118th World Series my ears perked up, and I started wondering how many of those Series I had watched or listened to? The very first World Series I remember paying attention to was the 1954 Giants-Indians Series. It wasn’t my Reds, but it was an Ohio team; so I listened faithfully on the radio because I don’t think my family yet owned a television. I was of course disappointed as the Giants, led by a young Willie Mays, swept the Indians in 4 straight games.

But for historical purposes with that being my first World Series it means I have watched or listened to 68 Fall Classics, which also means that there were only 50 Series before I became a baseball fan. Therefore, I have witnessed 57.6% of every World Series ever played, and that makes me feel very old and I hope wiser.

Hallows Eve Prayer

O divine Creator, in our topsy-turvy world it is so important to spend time with you as the one true North Star that is our unwavering guide through all the joys and sorrows of this mortal life.  Your eternal and constant presence is so vitally important to us In a world where Prime Ministers rise and fall faster than the stock market; where prices keep rising, where election ads bombard our airwaves and inboxes, and political violence reigns from San Francisco to Ukraine.  The change of seasons is bittersweet as we relinquish the warmth of summer for the beauty of fall, but we draw comfort from the assurance than the seasons come and go on your dependable schedule no matter what craziness we humans inflict on your creation.  

We count on the steadfastness of your grace even as we are ashamed of how far we humans drift from your plan for us and your creation.  In this season of ghosts and goblins we are often so embarrassed that we want to hide from you in costumes that disguise us from our own sin and selfishness.  It is so easy to get swallowed up by our own privilege and comfort where the false idols of materialism and the prosperity gospel wait to ambush us on every billboard and in every commercial.  We know better, Lord.  We know we can’t serve you and money at the same time. But like St. Paul we often do the very things we know we should not do and vice versa.  

We admire the heroines and heroes of the faith who bravely stand up for your truth at great risk to themselves.  They trust that you have power over death itself, but so often our faith is weak in the face of the sacrifices it will take for us to truly follow you.  And so we come to worship putting on a smile even when we are dying inside.  We pretend we are fine when we feel lost and broken-hearted.  Or we are afraid to share our joys and successes because we know others are grieving and lonely.  

Open our ears this Sabbath day, O Holy One, to hear again the wonderful news of your amazing grace.  Pull away our masks and costumes and liberate us from the fear and doubt that keeps us hiding out light under a bushel.  Remind us again that Jesus didn’t just invite a select few to his table.  With open arms Jesus says, “Come to me ALL who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.”  He broke bread with sinners and tax collectors because he knew they are your beloved children also.  

And so are we, not because we are better than anyone else, but simply because we are a part of your heavenly family.  We all matter just as all the parts of our anatomy matter to our bodies.  We are not made to be self-sufficient or alone, but to be members of the church, the body of Christ.  We give thanks for this community of believers called to put our faith into action and to transform our broken world into your beloved community.  Thank you, O God, for sending Jesus into the world to show us that we need not hide from you no matter what but can humbly come to you anytime and anywhere just as we are.  In that assurance we boldly offer our prayers and our lives to you in the name of Jesus our liberator, saying as one the prayer he taught us to say…

Pastoral Prayer, Sunday, October 30, Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH

All Nighter Prayer

Hey God, do you ever have trouble sleeping? Oh, if you are omnipresent, I guess you can’t ever sleep can you? Or do you let the angels take over sometimes to give you a break? Yes, I know that anthropomorphic stuff isn’t real, but it’s 1:20 am; and I can’t sleep. I don’t know anyone else who’s awake at this hour that I can talk to; so you’re it. My sleeping pills have let me down. Reading and doing Wordle haven’t worked; and my blasted neuropathy has my feet feeling like they are on fire.

The more I think about my feet the more they hurt. The harder I try to shut my mind off, the louder the racket in my brain seems. At this hour all my aches and pains seem worse, and my list of things I need to get done in the next few days looms like some Sisyphusian boulder daring me to push it up that damn hill again.

I’m actually scared, God. The pain in my feet has never been this bad before. I’ve always been able to manage it with cream, drugs, and/or ice; but tonight/this morning nothing is working, and I don’t know what to do. I can’t handle sleepless nights like I used to when my youth groups did all night lock-ins at the church, or when I pulled all nighters to study for an exam or finish a term paper.

When you wrestled with Jacob all night long I guess he must have had a lot of adrenaline flowing to keep him going that long. That night near the Jabbock river Jacob had even more things on his mind. He was about to face the music of meeting his brother Esau years after he had swindled him out of his birthright and their father’s blessing. Jacob has sent huge amounts of cattle and other gifts across the river to assuage Esau’s anger, but restless Jacob is afraid it is not enough to buy his brother’s forgiveness. This one who has stolen his brother’s blessing is not satisfied with all his ill-gotten gain. What he asks of God to end their marathon wrestling match is a blessing. Will that salve his guilty conscience? Does a divine blessing imply grace and forgiveness?

In a way yes because the blessing God grants to Jacob is a whole new beginning – a new identity in the form of a new name. He is “born again” long before that New Testament term is coined. Jacob no longer is stuck with his birth name which means “heal grabber” because he tried to yank Esau back into their mother’s womb so Jacob could be the first born. His new name/identity is “Israel” which means “one who contends with God.”

I could use a new identity too, holy parent. My physical aches and pains try mightily to label me as a victim of old age, but when I am caught up in that identity I have little to offer you. I am like a fly trying to escape from a spider’s web, turned in on my chronic ailments instead of focusing my energy on all that is right for me and how blessed I already am.

I could do a lot worse for a new name than “one who contends with God,” even if that means walking with a limp. Please help me, eternal Being, to appreciate my gray beard and arthritis as reminders that I have been blessed with decades of life to wrestle with you and your call upon my life. Like Jacob let me know again that you are not far off at the top of some stairway to heaven, but right here in the sweaty ring of life with me even in the wee hours of the night.

Thanks and Amen

Just Like Us: A Boy with a Lunch, Sermon on John 6:1-15

Note: if you would like to watch the recorded version of this sermon it can be found at nwumc.com/live. The sermon starts about 2/3 of the way through the recording.

I don’t often do it but sometimes I sit in the theater and watch the credits roll after a movie ends, partly to figure out who all these young actresses and actors are, but I also get a kick out of how many different kinds of people it takes to make a movie. I get a chuckle out of titles like “grip,” “key grip,” “gaffer,” and “best boy.” I’ve never been curious enough to google those terms before, but I did learn this week that the obviously sexist term “best boy” means the senior electrician, second in the hierarchy to the gaffer, who is the chief electrician. That’s your trivia lesson for today.

The other fun thing about the movie credits, and there is a point here, I promise, are the minor characters who are listed with descriptions like “bartender,” “taxi driver,” or “second police officer.” If they made a movie about our Gospel lesson for today from John there would be a listing for a minor character, “boy with lunch.”

Here’s John’s brief mention of this boy in case you missed it. When Jesus asks, “How shall we feed all these people?”  “Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.”  This is all we hear about this boy.  No name.  No explanation about why he has such a strange assortment of food with him.  Who eats five loaves of bread and two fish for lunch?  Maybe he was on his way home from the grocery?  Why does this kid not even appear in any of the other Gospels?  The feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle story that appears in all four Gospels and Mark and Matthew even tell it twice, but none of the others mention this boy and his food.  

We don’t know if he was a boy scout doing his good deed for the day and gave his food up willingly.  Did Andrew smell the fish the boy was trying to hide under his cloak?  Did the boy’s mom or dad have to nudge him to share what he had?   Did the disciples somehow shame him into it?  Did his example inspire others to share their stash of food?  That’s my favorite explanation.  Don’t we all carry an extra breakfast bar or some trail mix with us “just in case?”  Most women I know have a whole assortment of things in their purses. I know my wife, a former Girl Scout, certainly does.  And if this lad’s example inspired others to share what little they had till everyone was fed, isn’t that a miracle itself?

This is not the only time the Gospel writers drop in a reference to a nameless person to pique our interest.  Did you know there’s a streaker in the Gospels?  The Gospel of Mark includes this line right after the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Mark 14:51 says, “A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him,but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.”  And even more curious is the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus in all three synoptic Gospels.  Mark and Matthew even say of her,

“Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” And yet thanks to the patriarchal rulers of the church for centuries she is mostly forgotten.  

I found something very helpful in a book I read recently by Brian McLaren to describe the dilemma about how to interpret Scripture.  McLaren suggests we need to take a literary approach to biblical stories and not a literal one. 

Here’s part of what McLaren says: “The literary approach begins with this assumption: Jesus must have been so extraordinary as to become legendary. The Latin root of the word legendary means read, so the word suggests, ‘This person is so extraordinary that people will read about him or her in the future. ‘The word legendary can also mean fictitious. And many of us feel the tension between extraordinary and fictitious every time we read the gospels. When traditional Christians tell us that we have to take every word, every detail as literal fact, we find that hard to do, as much as we might like to. But that doesn’t mean we must throw out the gospels—and Jesus—entirely.”

I like the way McLaren describes that approach because of the power stories have to affect us holistically – that is, to move us emotionally and ethically, not just rationally or logically. And what’s more, stories are easy to remember and pass along. Remember, none of the Gospels were written until decades after Jesus’ resurrection.  So stories about Jesus passed from person to person were what gave those early Christians the courage to keep the faith in spite of horrible persecution by the Roman Empire. 

And consider this story about the boy with a lunch; there’s nothing logical about giving up my lunch with no promise that I’ll get it back or even more crazy to believe I’ll get more back counting the leftovers.  A literary approach doesn’t make Bible stories less “true.”  Truth with a capital T is more than just cold hard facts.  We feel Truth in our hearts, not just our heads.  A tear in our eye when we hear a special song or witness an act of compassion reminds us that whatever builds the blessed community and makes for peace and justice is True, and anything that destroys community is not the Truth Jesus meant when he said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”  

How many of you are or were Beatles fans?  I have a trivia question for you.  Which Beatles’ song mentions a preacher?  Here’s a hint:  “Father McKenzie, (pause) writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear, No one comes near.”  Ok, that’s a little depressing.  The song is “Eleanor Rigby,” but it’s the refrain of that song that comes to mind when I think of this crowd that comes to Jesus when he and his disciples are trying to find a quiet place for some much needed R&R.  Mark’s account of this story says they were so busy teaching and healing that they didn’t even have time to eat.  So the disciples were hungry too.  And the refrain to Eleanor Rigby speaks to that hunger.  It says “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”

Jesus sees the crowd coming and immediately recognizes their hunger.  It’s not just hunger for pumpernickel and sardines; it’s a deep hunger for the bread of life.  “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”  Neither John nor the Beatles tell us where they come from, but we know to whom they come – the church, and that doesn’t mean this building or The Church for All People, NNEMAP, or the Manna Café; it means the Universal Worldwide Church, the body of Christ that alone can satisfy our deepest hunger.  

But of course we do know where some of the lonely/hungry people come from.  They come from Wright Elementary School, from Abby Church and other neighborhoods right in our zip code, from homeless shelters and from people who are just down on their luck.  They come as refugees from violence in Central America, or from war – Ukrainians and Russians alike.        They are victims of Hurricane Ian and climate refugees from Sub-Saharan Africa.  All the lonely people, where do they all come from? And like the startled disciples we ask, “Where are we to buy food for all these people? We’re having enough trouble just dealing with our own hunger, grief, and loneliness!”

But you know what?  Those lonely people can feed us also.  Our amazing Brown Bag Lunch crew has provided thousands of lunches to families in our neighborhood over the years, but listen to these stories of sharing in return.  Denise Gorden told me of a day she and Doris were invited in to share a snack with an Iraqi family on the brown bag route. “With so little,” she said, “They brought out fruit and other goodies for us to eat. It was very moving.”

And Doris told me that once, “On a very hot day- One second grader on the BBL route saw me getting out of the church van with lunches and ran back inside his apartment and gave me a bottle of water. He said, “Ms. Dorrie- (He calls me Dorrie since it’s easier to pronounce)  looks like you need some help- it’s too hot today, drink some water so you can keep going. On a separate day, during reading buddies- we sat down to read books outside under a large tree in front of their home, and he said, “Ms. Dorrie, here is a bottle of water for you. Since you’re giving food to everyone, why don’t you take some of mine, here are some cookies. Eat with us and then I will read stories to you.” 

Our current sermon series is exploring how the characters in the Bible are “Just Like Us.”  So what can we learn about ourselves from this unnamed boy with a lunch?  How is he just like us?

I remember my first dramatic roles in elementary school.  We did two short plays.  In one I was the star as Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up.  That’s probably why I’ve been so short all my life!  In the second play my only part was from off stage where I was to make bird noise sound effects at the proper time. My prop was a small whistle shaped like a bird.  You filled it with water and blew into it to make chirping sounds.  Nothing to it, right?  Only one problem; before it was time for the birds to chirp I got thirsty and drank the water in the whistle; and those birds never chirped.  Mrs. Kay, our teacher was not pleased.  It turns out that “small” part of making bird noises was just as important as starring as Peter Pan.

To borrow a phrase from Donatos Pizza, every part counts.  Every voice in the choir or bell in the bell choir contributes to the whole musical sound.  The person who sanitizes the Operating Room prior to surgery is just as important as the surgeon or the anesthesiologist.  It’s a team effort.

The nameless boy in John 6 is used by Jesus just as much as Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene.  Most of us are fairly anonymous in the world’s scheme of things.  We are more like the gaffer or the key grip than Lady Gaga or Matthew McConaughey.   To paraphrase Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg, “The world will little note nor long remember what we do here,” but God will; because every one of us counts.  We can all make a difference to someone by simply sharing what we have and who we are.  Notice in this story that Jesus doesn’t ask the boy to give more than he has; that would be very unfair.  Jesus simply asks the boy to share what he has.  After all, we are just giving back to God what God has given us.  It isn’t our stuff anyway.

When we start thinking we own parts of God’s creation we get possessive and worry about losing it or that we don’t have enough.  We live in a scarcity mindset.  But when we live in
God’s abundance and share what God has given us there is enough to feed 5000 people and have enough leftovers to feed the next bunch of hungry people already coming down the road. 

Jesus never asks us to give more than we have, just all that we have, just as he gave his all for us. 

We are all like the boy with his lunch.  We all count – nameless or not, because God knows our name and knows we can all make a huge difference in the world. 

We recently passed the day on the calendar marked Fall Equinox, but we don’t need a calendar to tell us that the hours of daylight we have now are shorter each day and the temperatures are dropping.  Calendars help us count our days, but it is up to us to make our days count.  You don’t have to be a biblical or other kind of heroine or hero.  Notice most of the characters in the Bible are just like us, flawed and fallible human beings who remind us that all of us have what it takes to make a difference in the lives of those around us.

Jesus himself was a poor peasant boy who never traveled more than 200 miles from the tiny village where he was born, and yet his disciples all over the world will feast at his table and remember his call upon our lives on this World Communion Sunday.   As we gather at his table today, pray for God’s guidance to show you how to maximize your witness.  Each of us has a different role to play, but each one is important to the worldwide kin-dom Jesus calls us to help create.  Amen

Preached at Northwest United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio, October 2, 2022