July 29

The Least of These

By Marsh Chapel

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Ephesians 3:14-21

John 6:1-21

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Our Gospel this morning, sung in hymns, including children’s hymns, read in Holy Scripture, including the Fourth Gospel, approached in thought and speech, including in a twenty minute sermon, and, in full, lived out in the exuberance of a summer Sunday, accents the glory and revelation in the least among us, the littlest among us. The Gospel of John exalts the glory of God revealed in the divine presence, throughout and through all of life. Our passage from John 6 is one of seven great miraculous accounts recalled in the preaching of the earlier church, and collected in the first half of the Gospel of John, as a way to ring the bell, and sing the song, and tell the tale of the divine presence.  It is miraculous that 5,000 have gathered. It is miraculous that all are fed in one setting.  It is miraculous, more miraculous still, that not only are they fed, but they are satisfied.  That is a glorious morning, when all are satisfied.  It is miraculous that in this revelation, there arises, for the author of John in reflection, a sense of what this must mean, that one from beyond has entered within, that one from above has descended below, that ‘a prophet’—such a strange appellation—has come into the world.  To be sure, John has received this story from tradition (as in Mark 6), but he has changed it to celebrate a glorious revelation, which takes him well beyond any simply sacramental concern.  And of all John’s changes, perhaps, the greatest is the agency he gives to one of the least of those present.  In John, unlike in Mark and the other gospels, there is a new figure in the story, a boy, a lad, a little fellow, who is the only one who remembered to bring a lunch along.  There was, John avers, a lad with 5 barley loaves and two fish.  John smuggles into the morning’s Gospel a new character in the ongoing story of Gospel, of divine presence.  In radiant exuberance, the revelatory joy of Jesus’ presence, then and now, on the hills of Palestine and in the hills of New England, John alerts us to this one little lad, the boy with the lunch to share.  This is good news packaged in the lunch pail of the least of these among us.

On the streets of Boston in the summer, we too are alert to the least of these among us.  Summer takes our city and makes it young, younger still, young again.  This is a time when people from all over the globe come and pay us a call, come and visit us here.  Just look at the license plates of the cars driving past you some time on the highways north, south and west.  Just listen to the languages spoken as you saunter down a summer day in this magical city, as you ‘flaneur dans le rue’.  It is an unutterable happiness to be graced with those who want to visit, who come from afar, who save and plan and travel to get here to see something, to learn something, to touch the hem of something.

For this is dear old Boston, the home of the bean and the cod, where the Lowells will speak only to the Cabots, and the Cabots speak only to God.  Boston, in so many ways the city of origin, the point of departure.  Boston, birthplace of the republic:  Haymarket Square, Old North Church, Bunker Hill, Old Ironsides. 

Boston, home to heroes: Paul Revere, Abigail Adams, John Hancock.  Boston, where in 1832  the city heard a children’s choir sing, “My Country tis of thee”, written a year earlier, and sung first at Park Street Church, just a few blocks from here.  This afternoon, on the Freedom Trail you can talk with “Ben Franklin” attired in the garb of 1780.  On the subway you can stop at the Scollay Square station and remember the man who never returned.  Take the train to Fenway park and peer at the green monster.  Try not to make the mistake of wearing a Yankees hat.  Walk through downtown and the flower gardens in the glorious Public Garden.  Spend a minute along the old streets, and feel the freshness of a country being born, being formed, being built.  Visit the children’s science museum.  Boston your home town takes the world and makes it young again!

One of the best spots in this young city, this birthing room for freedom, is the Aquarium.  Right on the port shoreline your city has built a magnificent structure, a several tiered tank.  Coral has been transported from the Caribbean, and then also reproduced. Fish of dozens of colors, shapes, sizes swim in the blue green cylinder.  Divers in fins, wetsuits and air tanks maintain the giant manmade ocean tank.  Stingrays swimming in a separate pool–you could touch them!  And around and around the outside of the cylinder walk mesmerized children and adults, looking on the splendor of the Neptune’s kingdom.  There are six kinds of sharks in the Aquarium. The sand shark and others.  At the top level you can watch them jump and swim. Boston returns one to the great ocean deep from which life at last emerged across the millennia.  Boston takes the world and makes it young again!           

A generation ago, with three children in tow, in the summer heat and on a limited budget, it is a happy glory to recall,  our then young family visited the Aquarium.  The place was mobbed, packed with kids and parents, classes and groups. The colors and shapes and sizes of the humans walking clockwise around the tank mimicked nicely the variety of fish swimming counterclockwise inside.  We saw a little girl pressing her nose against the glass up toward the tank top, just as the sand shark swam by.  Two women photographed the coral.  A boy screamed as he patted the stingray.  There were maybe 3000 people inside the Aquarium.  All of a sudden, the loudspeaker crackled.  “Please be quiet, all of you.”  Soon the tall structure, full of children and parents, was nearly silent.  The announcer continued, “I must regrettably report that a little boy is lost. He is three years old.  He is wearing jeans and a white sweatshirt that says Boston College on the front.  He has red hair.  Please take a minute wherever you are and look toward the tank and then along the walkway.”  In a moment, you could feel the atmosphere in the building shift from lark to worry. Every parent’s worst nightmare had hit. The tension around the tank was palpable.  The thought that one child, even one, out for a day of learning and play would disappear, or worse, held the gathered company on a tight leash.

In a single moment, the joy of the many had been overshadowed, darkly overshadowed by the need of just one. All knew instinctively that there are no extra children, none to spare, not one to give up, to throw to the sharks. In that kind of dramatic moment, it so very clear:  every child is precious, every one dear. 

We have wondered a little this summer, remembering our long ago visit, about the way the announcement so disturbed those of us who could see our own children.  Of course you can think of many reasons.  But one central reason the announcement “child lost…white sweat shirt..” pierced the group that day is that we are dimly aware that there is a kind of revelation in the least of these, like the lunch for the road of life brought along by the lad with the 5 barley loaves and 2 fish. Children have not had a chance in full at life yet.  They have not had their time yet in the batter’s box. They give a sharp measure of how what we say stands up to what we do, of what our walk is like in earshot of all our talk.  Children suffer the effects of poverty most strongly.  Children endure the effects of family demise most squarely.  Children miss the care of physicians and dentists most keenly.  Children feel the impact of bad diet most sharply.  Children are too little, too weak, too powerless, too small in every way to watch out for themselves. Children measure the depth of morality around us by measuring the amount of time, energy, commitment, and money within us, ready to be devoted to children.

As a country, just a few weeks ago, we had a shared, convulsive, similar moment, did we not?  We know the need for laws, for borders, for the institutions that make up a civil society, including proper, legal, fair immigration practices.  Across different perspectives, we can largely agree that law is central to safety and peace, that law is meant to make us more human and humane rather than less. And we also, by vast majority, know and affirm the centrality of immigration in the birth and life and health of our land.  But law, like scripture, requires interpretation, and application, and therein lies challenge.  So when as country, we faced the shame and humiliation, within this decade of humiliation, of seeing children taken from their parents, seeing parents deprived of their children, seeing what can befall the least among us, and especially those 2,000 directly affected, in our own time, at the borders of life, there was a common revulsion, a common reaction, a common response. Nota bene. There is in that one moment a sign, a sign of a common hope.  Like the presence of the little lad who shared his lunch, across the lake from Capernaum, and so both took and gave the measure of that Gospel moment, so the least of these measure us. 


As a church, let us readily confess as well, we have yet to achieve the kind of caring for children which we profess.  The pious words of a recent Methodist Church statement (“Durham Declaration”) are ones we all share:  “We believe that caring and providing for one another includes welcoming children into the family of the Church.  As members of the Body of Christ, we know that children are gifts from God.  In this we follow the example of our Lord, who, during his earthly ministry and in the face of opposition, welcomed children to his side.  And we conform to the example of the early church, which, though living in the midst of a pagan empire that casually practiced abortion and abandoned children (usually to slavery, prostitution or death), helped to provide refuge for unwanted ones and their needy parents.”  There was even a footnote to the Didache.  Well, good.  Good words. But anyone who has been around the church for very long knows that we do not endlessly, fully practice what we preach, in this as in so many areas.  We sometimes devote more language to love of children in church than we do actual time spent with children.  Vacation Bible School (we have run one every year since 1979, including a small one here June 24) is one bellwether for our commitment.  Sunday School is a close second.  We are still more than rightly judged by the sort of people we produce, the sort of children we raise, in the communities of faith.

One day this summer, after a round of golf, two friends stopped at the home of a third to have supper.  The host is a retired physician, a family doctor from the bygone days of “fee for service”.  Redolent with exercise and at ease in the company of friends, the doctor reflected on his life and work.  A summer evening, a twilight supper, a moment before the light begins to fade and the cool air returns–this became an hour for thoughts before the autumn twilight of life, a moment before a great change of season.

He spoke about service and care. He ruminated regarding “the young doctors coming up”.  He unabashedly celebrated great-grandchildren, grandchildren, and children (both adopted and biological).  A large family portrait hung on the living room wall.  Mostly, though, this veteran of decades of stewardship campaigns talked about his church.  He reckoned:  “I try to tithe because in the church children get what they cannot get anywhere else.  They catch a sense of wonder–wonder at the world, wonder at love, wonder before holiness. They see real kindness–kind people, kind ideas, kind words, kind works.  Most of all, they learn about generosity–generosity in church that makes a world of difference.  In the church seeds are planted:  seeds of wonder, kindness, and generosity.  I am happy to hope that my tithing has made a difference.”

It made me happy to hear him say so.  It makes me happy, on this summer Sunday, to think of all the good women and men, near and far, who are offering themselves, offering yourselves, to, and with, and through the least of these.  A student teaching church school.  A woman running a child care center.  A man hiking with scouts.  A musician volunteering with a children’s choir.  A graduate student preparing to work with, to counsel children.  A couple who lead confirmation classes.  The blessed ones who will volunteer to lead youth groups.  Summer camp counselors, overworked and underpaid.  And more broadly, the citizenry of this land, which still dimly perceives that the lad with the fish and loaves, the least of these among us, measures us. 

Someone helped you grow up. Someone helped you discover discipline, hard work and a passion for education.  Discipline to reflect the ordering power of God.  Work to reflect the creative energy of God.  Education to reflect the life-giving newness of God’s spirit.  Children, the least of these, are made “in the image and likeness of God.”

People know that there are no extra children, none to spare, not even one to throw to the sharks.  When the need is clearly presented, the problem is almost solved.  So it was on a July day in dear old Boston, a generation ago, that after twenty minutes of looking and waiting, the tourists at the Boston Aquarium again heard the crackling loudspeaker, and again heard the announcer’s voice, and at last heard the report,  the child is found, the lost is found.  Several thousand people stared at one another and many fish and cheered instinctively, just as we will stand and cheer when every child across this great land and around the world over has what she needs to make a life.  

One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” …When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

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