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Leftovers and Other Stories of Abundance

Rev. Jennifer Stuart
Sun, Jul 29

John 6:1-13

“It is a blessing,” said one of the Catholic brothers, as his friend, John, breathed his last breath. Brother John was well loved by his Catholic order. A long time Catholic high school teacher, John had served all over the world. Alzheimer’s claimed his life too soon. Now, I will tell you that there are some very good nursing homes in Massachusetts, but the one where John had been placed was a struggling one: it was underfunded and well-over census, with three patients to a room. Understaffed, the aids and nurses struggled to meet the patients’ needs. The nursing aide on our hospice team found Brother John in the common room that day, actively dying. Unconscious and breathing rapidly to the point of distress, John was clearly in pain. The scheduled dose of morphine had not been given. Upon hearing of his condition, the hospice nurse and myself arrived at the facility. The nurse quickly provided pain relief. We contacted the Brothers of St. John’s. They came immediately, 5 of them gathering around the bedside, the hospice team joining them. The men had lived in community together for decades; they cared for John until it simply became too unsafe. One of the Brothers present had known John since his childhood years in Brooklyn. I was deeply relieved to see them all. I wondered if they perceived how their bodies changed the room. A man was seemingly alone, suffering and forgotten. And then, in an extraordinary shift, the sterility and hopelessness in the air changed. Despite this time of loss and death, the presence of the brothers generated hope. Effortlessly, the brothers were giving us all a gift, as we gathered by the bedside. I am convinced that sitting in vigil, in witness, is a movement of God. The five faithful men sat around Brother John’s bed, telling stories, and remembering, in celebration of a life. They calmly sat with him as he passed from this world, the final breath taken, with tears but also with a holding, that was pure love.

Gather up all the fragments of bread, so that nothing is lost, instructed Jesus. And they picked up the fragments; there were 12 baskets full. The disciples gathered the broken pieces together as Jesus asked, and there were leftovers besides. Through my hospice chaplaincy work, I recently volunteered with Camp Stepping Stones, a camp for grieving children and teens who have experienced a major loss. At the start of the day, the children (70 in all) each received a piece of wood to decorate. Each piece was to honor a lost loved one, most often a deceased parent. One 15-year-old lost her mother to suicide 7 months ago. Her heart was broken. She said, I am trying to figure out how to live without my mother. These pieces of wood were actually part of an entire puzzle. At the end of the day, each child’s segment came together to form a large colorful heart. Each child had gently, carefully and creatively decorated their fragment. The giant puzzle was brought to the middle of the circle where we all gathered at the close of the camp day. The kids excitedly ran to see how the pieces came together, witnessing the whole heart, and their individual parts.

Supporting each other on the journey of loss, they managed their grief one step at a time. A 16-year-old, who I will call Sally, recently lost her father to cancer. She said that she did not want the camp day to end. At first, she was leery of the camp, she confided to all of us gathered. But as the day went on, she found that being with other youth who were experiencing what she was going through – the deep pain of grief – was comforting, and less isolating. The teens’ first activity at camp was bungy jumping on a trampoline type structure. Sally yelled out as she jumped wildly into the air, “I have not been this happy for so long!” “Hey, Nathan,” she yelled (he was another teen in the group), “You’ve got to try this!” For it is in the desolate moments of our lives that sometimes hope shows up. Jesus has compassion for all who need to be fed and healed. Yet, he comprehends the doubt that scarcity inspires. In today’s New Testament reading, one disciple comments, “six months wages would not feed everyone here.” Jesus knew otherwise, of course. “Have everyone sit down,” he says. And “all were fed.” Everyone was seen and held. No one was turned away. There was plenty of space on that grassy field for those who needed healing, to lay their burdens down. God is with us in our fragmentation, our deepest pain, inspiring our own human compassion.

Kerry Egan, a hospice chaplain, wrote a book called, “On Living.” She describes herself, and indeed all of us, as the “holders of stories.” The words and narratives shared by family members, friends and the patients form a life. These memories, these fragments, become a fabric woven in deep human threads. All of our hospice patients bring with them their storied pasts. The stories are ordinary, deeply unique, and deeply holy. They are stories that inform and inspire. They are stories of witness. They are stories of excruciating loss. They are stories of broken-ness. They are stories of love. The stories come in segments, often told at the bedside. I hear about war and battle on the shores of Normandy during WWII, and the guilt that still remains. And as the family stands at the bedside of a beloved Veteran, a son hears for the first time the pain his father had been holding through the decades of a life well lived. Somehow in sharing our stories together, there is healing. Our shared stories break open our souls and strengthen the very moral fabric of our communities.

Loss and grief are such “light” topics for a July summer day. Not.

But, this brings us to the paradoxical. We are, after all, in the liturgical season of Ordinary Time – the time in the Church calendar between Pentecost and the start of Advent. Our scripture reading, though, is about no ordinary meal – Bread and fish for 5,000 – it is miraculous. What began in scarcity and doubt ends in abundance. Still, Jesus understands the fear embedded in our very humanity: Is there enough? It is Jesus in fact who initiates the question – getting it out there in the open. Are these fragments and leftovers stepping stones of grace and generativity, or obstacles and meaningless crumbs? Really, we all wonder, is there truly enough for us all, will things get better? Yes, Jesus, says, yes, everyone shall be fed at my Table, especially when despair overtakes us.

There are times in our lives when we understandably lose perspective and disassociate from reality. Traumatic events erode our faith and trust in a world that once held promise. Past history may put up certain obstacles that in the present feel all too real. The politics of destruction threatens our very humanity. But in the face of impossibility, Jesus shows us that in our witness and in our faith, there is always a new story of hope and imagination. In the care and compassion of community, we find our way through, and we hold on somehow. A nurse on my hospice team, Abbie, lost her 15-year-old son, one year ago. Her son, Kyle, was a patient on our pediatric hospice service. She wrote a note of thanks to the medical team, thanking the team for holding her family so that her family could hold Kyle through his illness. Abbie returned to work a few weeks after her son passed away. We continue to hold on as she grieves this tragic loss and at the same time provides care for her patients. A banner with the words “Team Kyle” waves from the family’s front porch. We witness with them as we drive past their home, heading down route 62. As Abby said recently, she is getting through the days. It is the empty chair at the family dinner table in the evening that is the hardest.

Have you all seen the movie, Babette’s Feast? In this film, a young woman named Babette finds refuge from the French Revolutionary War in the home of two elderly women who happen to reside in a village located in rural Sweden. They are devoutly Christian with a puritanical steadfastness. Their father, a minister, died leaving the two sisters to manage their Christian community, a community that happens to be at odds with one another. Babette lost her family in the war, and a friend found her this unlikely passage to safety. Babette begins housekeeping for these two women. As a former restaurant chef in Paris, Babette cooks and cleans for the elderly and frugal women. She is suave and economical. The women feel safe and cared for like never before. Babette is grateful to them. Then, Babette wins the lottery, 10,000 francs. Instead of bailing on the village and the women, she decides to spend the money on a meal for those that have taken her in. The entire community comes to the dinner, including an old friend, a retired general, who once loved one of the sisters. And what a meal it is: there is the best wine, exquisite food. The community sits together enraptured and amazed at Babette’s gift. Hearts and souls feel lighter – there is an air of transformation. For suddenly, after years of a grudge, one man begins to speak to a woman he had shunned; the cold, gray air is replaced by warmth; tedious arguments that created resentment and anger no longer have meaning. The former general stands up at the table, glass in hand, and makes a speech about regret and grace, having found beauty in this salvific meal. “What was broken is suddenly repaired, and what was wounded is miraculously healed.” The old general continues, “The moment comes when our eyes are opened, and we see and realize that grace is infinite.” Grace is infinite. Jesus feeds the multitudes and gathers up the fragments; nothing is lost. This movement births the possibility of new narratives, new social constructs, and new understandings, perhaps even Resurrection.

Towards the end of the day at Camp Stepping Stones, the teens came together to talk about their loved one and their grief. They talked about what it was like going to school, how peer relationships had changed, how hard things were at home given the weight of absence, how they had to appear outwardly fine, despite their inner turmoil. Sometimes they felt unseen. One youth, Eve, the teen who lost her mom to suicide, said to the group, “I used to be an outgoing person. I used to be social, but now I tend to keep to myself. My younger sister expects me to be her mom and my dad needs me to be strong, and to be at home more. I’m trying to do more things, like these groups... but…” and her voice trailed off. One youth, Tom, said to her, “Your speech just made me cry.” We all agreed, yet there was something healing in the coming together and in the naming. In fact, for the first time since her mother passed, Eve wanted to do art again. A talented artist with the hope of going to art school, she had stopped painting. She just couldn’t.

However, during a stone decorating activity, the teenagers, including Eve, sat together in a circle. They decided that they would each pass around their stones so that every member of the group could leave a mark of remembrance on it (for example, a peace sign, or their initials, or a design). That way, they would be able to hang on to how they all came together on this day in witness and healing. They were not alone in their grief journey. This insight was liberating, and they were able to share their very souls. They laughed at each other’s jokes, and they felt joy. Each youth grabbed hold of their rock, taking it home.

Death and life are held in a communion of loving witnesses. Jesus turns no one away - all are invited to the table, even when the pickings look pretty darn scarce. Who would have thought that there would have been enough, let alone leftovers? God’s love generates life and human compassion grows, transforming a broken world.

So, let us share our meals and tell our stories, fortifying each other on the journey. For in our living and in our dying, and in our life beyond death, God is with us. Our shared fragments form a whole. Our broken hearts find hope together, for a day, and for a lifetime. Gather up all the broken pieces, says Jesus, so that nothing may be lost. For this, this is how we begin to heal ourselves and an entire world.

Benediction:

Our broken hearts find hope together, as our stories blend and are witnessed. Healing is possible, and our souls are raised up. God feeds us all, igniting our human compassion, transforming a broken world. May God’s infinite grace restore your hope. For God’s love for you and this place is eternal, forever, and always.

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