David Shinn: Good morning Westminster.
It is with great joy that Todd and I are standing before you. Checking with Todd earlier, we are grateful to have this privilege to reflect today’s scripture in the context of community and small group ministry. Let us join our hearts in prayer.
May the word of our mouths, and the meditations of our hearts, be pleasing unto you O Lord, our rock and our Redeemer. In Christ’s blessed name we pray, amen.
Recently, the BeFriender ministry headquarter produces out a new material, titled, “Processing the Pandemic in Our Lives and Ministry.” BeFriender is our ministry of listening and being present to any of our members facing challenging life circumstances. They are trained members to be listener for both our members, and for the Holy Spirit to guide their conversation. The training material invites the readers to take a moment to recognize all the effects of the pandemic and prevalence of grief in all our lives. It guides the participants reflect on all the experiences such as, fear, confusion, uncertainty, loss, and more. Then after having the opportunity to ponder and process, then they can begin the first step of moving forward. It is deeply personal and profoundly communal.
Covid 19 has taken so much from all of us and around the whole world. It has revealed the specific fragility of our health care system, the inequality of our employment structure, and the persistent evil of systemic and institutional racism that impact people of color disproportionally in our nation.
Since opening our church to in-person worship, we have had three in-person memorial services that included more than just immediate family members. While many families have found ways to memorialize their loved ones, the whole community still haven’t had the communal grieving process. We are working on ways for us to gather together so we can remember and grieve over all the people we lost this past sixteen months.
The collective grief is all around us. This ministry process is aimed to gather the whole community to face and live with the collective grief. We need our community more than ever.
We are hungry for connecting with people. Todd, what do you think about this need for community here at Westminster?
Todd Monson: Church community is fellowship – small group fellowship has been a nurturing part of my faith journey. I’ve been a member of a small group most of my adult life and in every church, I’ve been a member of and every place – in four different states now…
I believe community, connection, and fellowship are basic need human needs. We’re wired that way. And we have the example of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the Trinity – living in community fellowship. I know David is going to talk more about this and give us the biblical perspective, but the idea that God has community in the Trinity, helps me understand this confusing concept and our yearning for belonging.
I’ve been a member of the Monday Morning Men’s group for nearly seven years now. The 3M group, as we call it, is ten guys. We talk about life, everyday things, our families, our jobs, our aches and pains, our joys, and sorrows. We share prayer requests and that has brought us close.
We have gotten to know each other through discussions about books we read together and stories we tell about our loved ones. We are all quite different, we are different ages with different backgrounds, but we share a deep bond. Small group has helped me personally with some life transitions, job and career changes, semi-retirement, family ups and downs. We met by Zoom during the Covid isolation time.
The constant in our group, are just a few things, ground rules if you will. We keep each other’s confidences. We show up and we pray for each other, and we have fun.
Christian fellowship – friends, exploring faith questions and sharing life’s experiences together is an amazing blessing.
DS: Thank you, Todd. Listening to your description of Trinity as God in community, reminds me of Tim’s sermon the Sunday before Pentecost Sunday where he shared with us that:
In 1 John we read that God is love. Perhaps it’s best for us to think of our Triune God simply as one small community of sacred relationship that embodies, experiences, and practices love – the love of a parent, of a sibling, of a friend.
The Trinity is God’s way of modeling how we might live together, diverse and yet one, loving each other in spite of our differences. We need a world like that, and the Trinity offers it.
In today’s scripture, we witness the community sharing out of love for fellow travelers on the road of faith. The story of the miraculous feeding occupies a central place in the oral tradition about Jesus. It is the only miracle story that occurs in all four Gospels, and Matthew and Mark, for emphasis, even tell the story twice. The miraculous feeding played a pivotal role in the early church’s understanding and formation of the eucharist. Their interpretation shaped the liturgical formula that we repeat every first Sunday here at Westminster. Jesus took the bread, blessed, broke, gave, and we received with deep gratitude.
In the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this story is told with Jesus filling with compassion and thus begins the miracle of feeing of five thousand. In John, Jesus, for reasons unknown to us, singles out Philip and tests him, “where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”
Whenever I read this story from John, my internal voice starts to wonder – What a catering and supply chain nightmare! Can you imagine the local bread maker down in Capernaum receiving this order? Five thousand loaves of bread for Jesus for delivery, pronto!
The story continues with Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, singling out a little boy who has five barley loaves and two fish.
Once again, my internal dialog asks: Did this boy have any agency in this matter? Did he offer up his food or Andrew, who was ravenous for following Jesus all day and eyeing this boy’s lunch, just took it without permission? More importantly, why weren’t the women and children counted, and yet this boy was? Perhaps we had a patriarchal census counter?
The miracle then begins with Jesus’ command for everyone to sit down on the grassy area. Jesus took the loaves, given thanks, distributed them, and they received. Conscious of not wasting food, Jesus told his disciples to gather up the fragments, and twelve baskets full were left. This was to demonstrate the prodigiousness of the miracle, not only did the people eat their fill, but there were leftovers as well.
In this miracle of feeding five thousand, John wants to demonstrate Jesus’ power to meeting the physical needs of hunger, and spiritual needs of communion with God and each other. The physical need is met with the multiplication of the five barley loaves and two fish into an astronomical amount. Jesus is the supplier of daily bread that sustain the life of people. On the spiritual level, Jesus also demonstrates that He is THE bread and the source of life for all people. No longer shall the people imagine the ancient story of God providing manna in the wilderness for the wondering former enslaved people. Now they can look to Jesus to be the living bread as Jesus tells us in John, “I am the bread of life.”
However, John reminds us that how difficult it is for us to accept God without imposing our own categories or socially constructed ideas. In verse 15, people quickly want to crown Jesus as king and thus results in Jesus’ retreat into the mountain by himself.
The other interpretation of this miracle is a homiletical inference with cultural practices of its days. Some scholars have pointed out that it is uncommon for people of that era and region to travel through the wilderness without some basic provisions on them. The five barley loaves and two fish were essentially the unnamed boy’s lunch. His trusted adults very possibly prepared it for him as he ventured out for the day. This may very likely be the case for majority of the travelers.
For all the parents, grandparents, and trusted adults who have little ones near them, you never leave home without an extra change of clothing and…fill in the blank here…snacks. So the miracle of the feeding can be interpreted as the miracle of multiplying generosity and hearts.
Seeing Jesus blessed the bread and offered them to the people. Perhaps people also took out their little satchel of provision and shared with those around them. In such large crowd, the grace of generosity multiplied and washed over and among them.
Again, in my own imagination, I can see people forming a little circle to share. Perhaps a group of eight or ten people self-selected with each other, or perhaps a family of four combined themselves with a family of five and offered to share what they had. In other words, in the large crowd of thousands of people, small groups were formed.
Todd, in our Westminster community, aren’t you part of a small group? Would you say a few words about your small group experience?
TM: Small group connection – small groups provide a strong connection to a big church. Again, in the many places Ruth and I have lived, small group fellowship has been important to our Christian walk. When we moved out of state, a couples’ group became our anchor, it was the center of our social life. We were young parents meeting with other young parents and an older couple who provided all of us wise guidance and critical reassurances at times.
The men got together separately, for “prayer golf” and bible study. We met in a McDonalds playland at 5:30am. We got a few looks from the drive through crowd as we sat close discussing the catechism or the next tee time. It was a connection that ran deep that helped me navigate some challenging times in my career and family life in those years, so far from home.
The men’s group as Westminster has made me feel connected to the church. And it’s my humble opinion that small group ministry is important to a big churches’ health. Members need connection with other Christians to share joys and concerns with, to wrestle with faith questions without fear of judgement and to support and laugh with.
3M meets an hour a week during the school year. Not a lot of time. But we are connected. We email, call, and text each other. We have a connection. I know they’re there and that they care. It’s a great blessing and an extension of WPC’s reach in a very personal way. We call each other saints, with a small “S”. We’re all different, and we show up for and we care about each other. That’s pretty special and I treasure that. We laugh together and we share.
A meeting will typically start with small talk – sports, weather, vacation stories, family updates, etc. Then we transition to prayer requests and eventually the week’s study. We rotate leadership and each week someone facilitates discussion about the topic. And when we’re together, importantly, the leader is responsible for bringing snacks for the group. We’ve done book studies, bible studies and news articles on various topics to generate good discussion. We learn from the reading and from the sharing of perspectives – especially the different perspectives. This past year, since George Floyd’s murder, we’ve spent a lot of time discussing and trying to better understand social justice.
DS: Todd, listening to you, I want to join a small group in our church! I can see how the small group ministry of the church can be so impactful for you and other men of the group.
As you have heard from Todd, the small group ministry here at Westminster is inclusive. We have many small groups for everyone. There is a small group for our LGBTQ+ members where they can have safe and supportive space. We have a moms group that meets after 9pm when the children are sleeping and they can have a moment of downtime and connection. We have a dads group that gather around BBQ and smoked meats. Yes, we live into the stereotype really well, and we invite vegetarians, vegans, and your choice of culinary preferences. We have groups that gather to study the scriptures or read a book or go out to share project or travel together. For some of you, you know I have been working on a running group for the church. With our newest staff addition, Nicole Cueno, our Senior Director of Operations and Administration, we might have a group. Although we may have to make her hop on her one leg or run backward, so the rest of us can keep up with her.
Todd, I believe you have an invitation for us!
TM: I strongly encourage and invite all of you to think about joining a small group – the group can be any kind. I have been blessed by small group fellowship and it happens to be a men’s group, but groups can be formed for and by anyone. Getting a group started is not that difficult and there’s lots of support for this at Westminster – with a special kick off planned for the fall. If you’re interested, please reach out to Rachel or David. My fellow group members and I wanted to be sure to let everyone know, we would be happy to help other groups get started. We will support in any way we can. I’m in the directory and more than willing to talk or email and or connect others to share our experience and ideas about it and we’d be happy to meet with and even attend new groups’ initial meeting to share a bit more.
DS: What an august group of faithful people!
Thank you also for highlighting our Director of Engagement, Rachel Shield, as she leads and motivates us to engage the various ministries of the church. Todd, you also mentioned the directory. Folks, you know about how we are working on a new online directory. Please send in your email so we can connect you to make this happen for everyone. We can use this tool to elevate our large, diverse, and gifted church with intimacy, connection, and community.
One last plug, on August 28th, we are having an open house to invite everyone back in the building. There will be tables for various ministries, and of course, a table for small group ministry. Come and join us then. August 28th. Did I say August 28th?
As we wrap up our time together, our scripture reveals to us the power of Jesus’ miraculous multiplication of the ordinary to the extraordinary, and the hearts for community and generosity to feed more than five thousand people. We see Jesus as our Living Bread for our community. We receive the gift of this Bread of Life in us as we go forth in faith. Jesus is with us. We stand with one and another. Let us be receive the big B Bread of Life, and share our little b bread for the community with each other.
TM: Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this discussion. Looking forward hopefully to the next steps new Westminster small groups begin to form this fall.