I can remember what it was like to find a new minister in the pulpit of the church in which I grew up. I was in high school. I can remember being a little ambivalent, but mostly I remember feeling expectant and hopeful. I saw the possibility of new things happening. I looked forward to learning from someone who had a slightly different slant on things, a slightly different way of relating to others. And I had expectations, like many others, who sat in the pews near me in that UCC sanctuary that morning. Hopes, which may, admittedly have been a little, teeny-tiny bit high. Hopes like these: this new minister was going to correct all the deficiencies of not just his previous predecessor but all pastors of the church before him, and he was going to meet all the needs that had gone unmet in previous pastorates, and he was going to continue and sustain each successful program with maximum efficiency. He was going to preach better, baptize sweeter, visit more often, and be 99.44% purer.
He was going to be, as the times demanded, a scholar, a monk, an activist, a mystic, a socialite, a janitor, a parent, a prophet, and a teacher all rolled into one. And while this new pastor wasn’t expected to walk on water, it would be nice if he could at least crawl.
But as a young woman I had other feelings as well about this new minister. For I was a little weary: you see, I don’t like drastic change, and I wondered if he would change things too much for my comfort. I had my own concept of my church and I speculated about whether his style would agree with mine. I had a certain authentic relationship with the previous minister, and wasn’t sure whether the new person could care for me in the same way. And so for those reasons and more, that first Sunday he preached was filled with anticipation and expectation and I remember wanting to learn more about my new pastor and his family. I assume you are not unlike me and so please indulge me this morning as I share with you some of what I may need were I seated in the congregation.
As for our family, it is composed, depending on how you count, of between five and seven people.
My husband’s name is Robert Pettit. He is the one who balances his occasionally frantic wife. He is a professor of sociology at Manchester College and delights in reading in his cherry-wood library, and accumulating a growing collection of movies which we never have enough time to watch. He is the quieter one of this partnership and the apple of my eye.
Robert has two daughter from his previous marriage and they live with us half the week.
Tess will be a senior at Homestead High School this year. Her life is a whirlwind of activity spinning rapidly and perpetually between school, her homes, and Fort Wayne Ballet, where she dances in the performing level company. College brochures continue to flood into our house as Tess begins the college search for colleges and while she hasn’t narrowed her search yet to her final four, she has gently broken the news to her beloved parents that it probably won’t be in Indiana.
Brynn will be a freshman at Homestead next year, although she would be quick to correct the lack of gender inclusivity in the word, “freshman.” She also balances the careful juggling of schoolwork and ballet rehearsals and classes. She is also passionate about one other aspect of life, the canine variety in the form of our miniature dachshund, Maisie.
Grayson is the baby of the family. You may have already been greeted by him, as he isn’t a retiring wallflower by nature and has lately taken to introducing himself as “Grayson James Pettit” to everyone he encounters, including clerks at Target and unsuspecting shoppers at Kroger. He will begin nursery school here at The Children’s School in the fall and keeps himself occupied with cars, books, and watching old Pluto cartoons with his Daddy. It will not be hard to befriend him, but if you sense that he is at all reluctant, he is easily persuaded with a few M&M’s, particularly if they are red.
Grayson’s mommy’s name is Christen, and she prefers to be called that. Some of you know me already as Pastor Christen, or Reverend Miller, and I answer to those names as well, but if you are comfortable with it, I should like to be known simply as Christen.
I am, by now having been parent, chaplain and wife, skilled at the art of multi-tasking (which is a little disheartening given the studies of late which show that multi-taskers are not as productive as we thought). I seem to have a healthy mixture of my mother’s pacifist Swedish propensity to want to make peace with others, and my father’s working class Miller stubbornness. I will report that I can enjoy a quiet afternoon in my chair with a book or needlepoint and a cup of tea at arm’s reach, but Robert may disagree and would probably report that I seem to have difficulty resting or relaxing and an known to tackle cleaning or home improvement projects with wild abandon on a whim when faced with a free Saturday afternoon. You may find me a little shy, like our son Grayson, with the exception that I usually do not cling to Robert’s leg and hide—generally.
I think that you will find that I try to listen more than to talk, and that I tend to jump into things with both feet. I am theologically liberal, sermonically short-winded, and organizationally a bit compulsive. Functionally I try to order my days so I find as much joy as I can as the days slip by, for having worked in Hospice care for the past five years, I am aware of how fast those days can go. But, I have enough of the Protestant work ethic alive in me that I sleep better at night knowing I’ve accomplished my tasks and as a chronic insomniac lie awake at night and fret if I haven’t.
Now, for the other two members of our family that I mentioned, lest they be forgotten and I hear about it when we get home: We have the aforementioned miniature dachshund, Maisie, who specializes in soiling rugs and then melting you with her big brown puppy dog eyes so as to be quickly forgiven. And I am the mistress of a rather rotund tomcat, Moses, who sleeps for well over 22 hours a day and spends the other two demanding to be on my lap.
That, in a nutshell is our family. We look forward to getting to know you, and for you to know us. To that end, I have two hints. The first, it would help if for several weeks you would offer us your name when you speak, since we have a lot of new names to learn all at once. And second, I would be happy to get to know you over a cup of coffee, or during an afternoon tea, a meal, or even a bedtime snack. Just ask me, if I haven’t asked you first.
And having gotten that out of the way, let’s turn to the heart of the matter, this morning’s text and the heart of our worship.
I have long been intrigued by Matthew’s encounter of the loaves and fishes. It is a simple story. One we have taught our children for years. There were crowds gathered on a hillside, about five thousand people. They had followed Jesus throughout the day and the hour was getting late. The disciples worried about the hungry crowd, and Jesus as a nurturing leader calls on his disciples to solve this problem. But as we already know, there were only two fish and five loaves of bread. Hardly a feast. And so, Jesus invites the crowd to sit, gathered what little there is to eat, blesses the food and before we know it twelve bushel baskets were needed for the leftovers and five thousand people left with hungry bellies fed.
But, as we pull apart the tendrils of this carefully woven story there are a few things to note. Nowhere in scripture is this referred to as a miracle story. Neither Matthew or the disciples claim that Jesus performed a miracle here. In fact, no where does it say that the food miraculously multiplied. Instead, Matthew’s account reads like a news report. This is who was there. This is what was done. The account simply reads: when all was over, plenty was left. End of story.
Perhaps there is another explanation to this story which Matthew tells. And perhaps that explanation lies in the fact that Jesus was a tremendous community organizer (a term, I am aware that has been bandied about in the past several years). Perhaps this story illustrates instead the power of a community that believes in what it can do as a gathered people following the ways of a God of love. Jesus led the people by taking what was available and sharing it. I can imagine other people contributing crusts and particles of bread and salted fish from the folds of their garments and from their satchels when Jesus asked, so that food was available for whoever needed it. My heart quickens at this possibility, because it is more than just a pronouncement and an act by a single man, even if it be Jesus, but instead the act of a community who believed in the mission the man was calling forth. I like this story because they people acted too—while Jesus started it, the people stretched it. While Jesus dreamed it, the people made it possible.
Which brings up that Stone Soup story I shared with the children during our time together earlier in the service, that story that I promised we’d get back to later. Perhaps that lonely beggar was instead a visionary intent on building community. Perhaps that stone was the symbol of hope that the community needed to believe in its mission again. And perhaps this is what God calls us to do as we lead, in whatever capacity, as we pick up the mantle of leadership and engage others in the work of mission.
I would be less than honest if I did not confess to you that at times in the middle of the night, as I lie there and hold my own soup stone that I worry about the future, and wonder if I can meet your needs, and be the pastor that both this congregation and God call me to be. But there is so much which beckons me to be with you, and so much that we have to offer one another. I come here with my eyes wide open and I want to share with you what I see.
I see a group of people who have every potential of growth, not just numerical growth, but spiritual growth. I see a people who are welcoming, and grace-filled, and excited about where God is calling them. I see a people who very much want to find their niche in this community, and are eager to find that sweet spot. And I see a people who have been wounded, and have healed, a people who have bound together and learned how to hold one another up. And so in my ministry here at Peace, I bring you my own smooth, fire-burned and scorched soup stone. I humbly offer you just the merest hint of what can be created. But I believe that the soup we cook will need to be seasoned together. And although it is possible that one might believe that a pastor’s stone is what provides the savor, it is actually a recipe created by each member of the community who bring the variety of ingredients and together mix up a sustaining feast, just as that meal on that hillside in the middle east so many years ago was the offering of many.
I am anxious to see what our soup will taste like as it simmers through the years. And I have ever hope that the God who blessed the loaves and fishes will delight in blessing our feast as well.