Across the street from our new house is a sprawling oasis—the garden at Loring Elementary School. Our family took a turn caring for the garden this past week, watering, weeding, and harvesting. This garden challenges me, in a good way. I was taught to keep rows neat and give each plant its own space. This garden is a wild intermingling tangle of veggies, flowers, and fruits. The beds burst with abundant color, texture, and flavor, beautiful, and healthy; the chaos works. The garden also challenges me because (as Starla said in my orientation): “It’s not a production garden; it’s a teaching garden.” Starla and her sister Robin have developed the garden over many years. And they welcome the participation of kids who water inattentively, who plant garlic too close together, and who pick berries before they are ripe. Spring and fall, they host each of the classes in the garden for the better part of a day. Planting and harvesting, cooking, and enjoying. With delight Starla described how the summer school kids have been spending time in the garden every single day. They wander around, watering, picking, saving seeds for next year, looking for a worm, or watching a watermelon grow. “They’ve totally taken ownership,” she said with satisfaction. As Starla showed me around the garden, she also introduced me to other parents and kids, neighbors, and a regular volunteer from a church that meets on the school grounds. The garden challenges me because it’s a gathering that requires sharing. Everyone can learn, try, and collaborate, whatever the consequences. Everyone can enjoy the beauty and take some home. Everyone can harvest what we have all labored to grow.
Writer and minister Debie Thomas is inspiring my reading of this week’s Gospel text. She begins her weekly blog post by remembering a carefully planned outdoor meal with neighbors during our COVID winter. She recalls the hunger we’ve all felt to gather again. She says, “What strikes me about the story [of Jesus feeding the crowd] this year is something slightly different than the miracle of the food itself. It’s the miracle of gathering.” She explains that when Jesus sees the large crowd following them, “a crowd filled with hope, need, want, and hunger,” his first thought is:
How might we create conditions where they can remain together? Where they can have their needs met in community? How can we gather them, and help them to receive nourishment in relationship to one another?
There were certainly barriers Jesus and his disciples had to overcome if they wanted to help this crowd gather in a good way. Everybody in this story was poor in a world of extreme economic inequity. The disciple were low-wage workers. For them, it would have cost an unimaginable sum of money to buy food for so many people. There was sense of scarcity in the air, and maybe an undercurrent of fear. The crowd was full of desperate people. Would they get angry? Would they turn violent? Surely, there were some who were a bit better off, like the little boy with the five barley loaves and two fish. Would there be hoarding and arguments, stealing and rioting?
“The way we gather matters” says facilitator and strategic advisor Priya Parker. In her podcast, Brene Brown interviewed Parker about how we can re-gather in a politically polarized, and as they put it, “semi-vaccinated world.” Here are a few things that struck me in their conversation. As we re-gather, it will be important to make the implicit explicit, to name what is happening. We will need to be able to “do uncomfortable.” We want to build a culture in which people can “talk about what they feel and ask for what they need.” This is a time of experimentation, a time for deep creativity. As we design and evaluate new ways of gathering, we should use participatory processes that allow us to listen to the wisdom of people’s experiences, more than to their opinions.We are trying to balance “the rights and needs of the individual with the rights and needs of the group.” And at the same time, “If what we are doing is not working for all for us, it’s not working.”
I’m reflecting on this guidance in light of our congregation’s process of regathering. To make the implicit explicit, both evidence and intuition tells me that within our congregation, when it comes to COVID, we have very real range of experiences, feelings, and risk tolerances. In many other places around town, masks are optional if you’re vaccinated. I know that some folks are impatient with continuing to mask at church. Some have told me they are done wearing masks, and won’t return until we take them off. Others don’t feel safe it’s safe to come back at all yet. It’s a struggle to keep distance with others in the sanctuary. It’s awkward and often impractical to have a conversation while standing six feet apart. At the same time, virus concerns aside, there have always been people in our community who would rather not be touched, while others really need a hug. This is a really great opportunity to rethink our communal understandings around consent. What assumptions and habits do we need to let go of in order to create true safety and freedom in our community gatherings?
Now, let’s do uncomfortable for a moment. As I said, I know our procedures err on the side of caution. Our guidelines for this larger gathering we call worship are much more strict than for our small groups of two, six, or up to a dozen. And I get concerned when we have established procedures and then don’t follow them. Like when folks hug each other in the sanctuary or linger inside instead of leaving at the end of the service. I’m not asking you to follow the worship covenant because I need you to respect my authority. This is not my covenant, it is ours. I’m simply a messenger of the community. I’m asking you to respect each other and the agreements we have made. What are we saying to each other when we break our promises? What are we saying to those who are new to our gatherings?
I know many of us are tired of masking and tired of distancing. More than that, we are hungry to gather with true intimacy again. I am too. I am too. And I’m going to take a moment of personal privilege on behalf of myself and Byron to “talk about what we feel and ask for what we need.” We both have to (and want to) be here on Sundays and we both have young children at home who are not vaccinated. The truth is, many of us have children in our lives, and children we hope will join us for worship again. Amid the rush to return to “normal” please don’t forget about these little ones. To be honest, Byron and I are feeling the vulnerability of our families. We know the chances are likely small that we as vaccinated people will spread the virus to our unvaccinated children. And at the same time, we want to do whatever we can to keep our kids safe. We are asking you to join us in continuing to take COVID precautions seriously.
“The way we gather matters.” The gathering of hungry people that surged around Jesus and his disciples could have gone bad, but it didn’t because it was Jesus who gathered them, in his Jesus way. In other accounts of the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus blessed the bread and then gave it to the disciples to distribute to the waiting crowd. In this version of the story, Jesus personally handed out the bread and fish. I imagine him walking through the crowd, meeting eyes, extending hands, feeding, and reassuring each person. It seems that Jesus’ presence was as nourishing as food. Indeed, Jesus anchored the people in something more than their present moment of scarcity and need. He reminded them of the deeper stories that gave them identity. He immersed them in their own ancient experiences of who God is. The comment that the festival of the Passover was near recalls Israel’s release from slavery. The mountain recalls Moses’ direct communication with God and his teaching of a life-giving law. The miraculous bread in the wilderness recalls God’s gift of manna. Jesus’ sharing of loaves and feeding of multitudes repeats a story told about the prophet Elisha. And the barley loaves themselves, food of common people, connected the crowd to Ruth and the grains she gleaned from Boaz’s field. Leftovers point to the promise of an economy of generosity, a society in which people follow the Jewish law that prescribes a practice of leaving extras in the field for any who are hungry.
How we gather matters. Jesus invites us to join a banquet hosted by God, a feast of abundance, beauty, peace, and healing. Amid the scarcity, fear, and inequity that threatens to tear us apart, we can only gather as God intends when our way of being together is also transparent, uncomfortable, experimental, based in mutual consent, and unrelentingly inclusive. Wherever we gather, let us live by the lessons we learn and practice here, lessons of a miraculous gathering on a mountainside so long ago. Amen.