Gathering Our Gifts Before God
This has been a busy week around Emmanuel Church! Any of you who may have driven by or stopped in may have seen us meeting outdoors on the church lawn around a big folding table — all masked up and spaced six feet apart. We had meetings with the teachers of Emmanuel Day School around the table as they get ready to re-open the school. We worked on Emmanuel’s accounts around that same table, preparing to transition to our new bookkeeping and office management software. We got all of our COVID social distance and mask posters up. We put out our contract-tracing log in the office, and we practiced our health screenings and temperature checks with our new contactless thermometers. And we got ready for our in-person Morning Prayer that will start next Sunday on the church lawn — weather permitting.
You may have seen some strange sights as you passed by — your Reopening Planning Group, for example — all wearing face masks, happily posting helpful signs to remind us of masks and distancing requirements. We marked traffic patterns with orange cones, and measured out 6-foot distances for seating, using spray paint to mark a place for each of you to sit. We even filmed a video so you can see what to expect when we get together in person next week.
I know Academy Awards season has passed for this year, but I have some nominations for next year’s awards:
— I nominate our senior warden for Best Nurse in a Short Film, and our junior warden for two categories — Best Original Screenplay and Best Director.
— I nominate Valerie Martin as Best Actress and Bobby Gaines as Best Actor, each in the Non-speaking Role category.
— I nominate Lil and Annie each for Best Supporting Actress While Seated, and
— Ellen Vadney is up for Best Cinematography in the iPhone camera division.
— And finally, I nominate Raymond Buttero for Best Soundtrack Recorded on Short Notice After Receiving Pleading Phone Call From Priest for his piano version of Come O Come Emmanuel, calling our community back together for in-person worship.
While we taped and tied and spray-painted and laughed, fire trucks roared down Spring Street, gulls called, little dune buggies with orange flags buzzed by, and I’m pretty sure I heard a ship’s horn in the harbor. You’ll hear in the video that Ellen worked miracles — bringing audible sound out of our home-made and loving efforts.
We Are Emmanuel
As we have said so many times during our online worship, Emmanuel Church is not the National Cathedral. We do not have expensive professional video and sound equipment, or a camera crew or sound engineers. What we do have is dedicated parishioners who understand electrical wiring, WiFi and internet. And we have a parishioner who understands — and owns — a video camera and a good microphone. Others among us are great organizers, understand building and heating systems, plumbing, masonry, apartment rental, office management, accounting, early childhood education, and computer software. When we needed medical experts to plan our reopening during COVIDtime, our medical professionals — nurses and a doctor — all pitched in, working devotedly to develop a safe plan.
And just when we realized that it would be hard for us to hear the service on the lawn with all of the traffic noise, our parishioner Dennis Bristow, who plays and sings at Soup’s On and in outdoor markets and concerts all over Newport, volunteered to help us with his big speakers and microphones that are made to work in spaces like the church lawn. So no — we don’t have a big specialized staff at the church and deep financial reserves. But we do have a loving, worshiping community that brings its gifts together before God. And we find, when we do that, there’s always enough.
Working With What We Have
Our gospel today is ALL ABOUT what we’re doing right now — working together with what we have to build and do what we need. Remember that in our gospel, Jesus is preaching and teaching around the villages on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. He’s exhausted — worn out. He goes off by himself in a boat to a deserted. But the people follow him. They had problems like we are having all over the world and in Newport right now. They couldn’t make ends meet and didn’t have access to healthcare. Does that sound familiar? The people were so hungry for food and for economic justice that they followed Jesus, walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee from their villages to find him. When Jesus went ashore from his boat, he found the crowd waiting. As Matthew’s gospel tells us, he had compassion for them and cured their sick.
The disciples came to him at the end of the day, when the sun began to set. They told Jesus that he needed to send the people into a nearby village so they could get some dinner. Imagine how we might feel now at the end of a day like that — with restaurants closed or only taking a few reservations because of COVID requirements. Or if you spent your last cent on medicine or rent, and had no money left for groceries. Jesus told the disciples not to send the crowd away. He said, You give them something to eat. The disciples are floored! Wait, what? they ask. There are over five thousand people here! (Even if the disciples were exaggerating a little, that’s still a lot of folks). We have nothing here but five loaves of bread and two fish among us, they say. Bring the fish and the bread here to me, Jesus says.
He told the crowds to sit down on the grass. And he took the five loaves and the two fish, looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the bread. He gave the bread and fish to the disciples, and the disciples distributed them to the people. And you know the rest of the story: they all ate as much as they wanted until they were full, then the disciples gathered up the leftovers — 12 baskets full. With 12 disciples, that would have been one basket each.
In Mark’s version of the loaves and fishes story, the disciples first see the challenge as one of insufficient resources, assuming Jesus is telling them to go into town and buy bread for all the people. It would take a half a year’s wages to feed this crowd, they tell Jesus. No, Jesus answers them. You give them something to eat. What do you have among you? Go and see.
Bringing Our Gifts Together Before God
That’s what we are doing in the Emmanuel community as we work to open the school, transition our accounting system, worship online, and prepare to gather in person. It would cost more than we have among us now to hire professional staff and have our own special equipment for all of this — half a year’s wages! as the disciples said. But when we bring our gifts together before God, there is always enough.
Next Sunday, in addition to our online Morning Prayer, we will gather together in person remembering our baptismal covenant:
— to love our neighbors as ourselves by wearing our face masks,
— respect the dignity of every human being by maintaining our physical distance, and
— seek and serve Christ in all persons by supporting the careful safety decisions of our governor and our diocesan and congregational leaders.
As we do, we remember and honor civil rights leader and U.S. Congressman John Lewis as he was laid to rest in his hometown of Troy, Alabama this week. John Lewis reminded us in his final official words that Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.
These are especially inspiring words in these times, as the pandemic’s effects underscore our systemic racism and remind us that both freedom and love are actions and not resting places — not plateaus or even pinnacles. John Lewis’s words remind us that our baptismal covenant is all about doing — not just being. Let us love our neighbors as ourselves — actively — doing our part to create a loving, even more fair, more just community and society. And let us bring our gifts together before God. When we do, there is always enough. Amen