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Good morning Blythwood Road Baptist Church. It is a pleasure and honour to be here. I have fond memories of your sanctuary, as it was where my Ordination Council was held. I remember anxiously awaiting the vote in your Pastor David’s office, and the enfolding of the gathered group who voted “yes”. So that you know a little bit more about me: I was born in Toronto, the city that remains my home and a place that I love. I have been married to Dion for 23 years and we have an eighteen-year-old daughter named Cate. Cate is currently studying photography at Ryerson University. Dion is now adjusting to early retirement due to the Multiple Sclerosis that he has lived with for close to 25 years. Though we always say that we do not want MS to define his or our life, it is true that it has left an indelible mark. I have worked in Parkdale, a west end neighbourhood, since 2007. In 2012 I became the Executive Director and Pastor of The Dale Ministries. I am passionate about creating intentional space for people who are too often left in the margins, inviting people into full participation of our community and in so doing learning that we all have something to both give and receive, and engaging in the transformational work of the Triune God. I also love music, sharing food, and always a good cup of coffee.
For context, The Dale is a church and community organization without our own walls. I say this literally: we do not have a building of our own. Instead, since 2012, we have used a variety of spaces around our neighbourhood: churches, a Community Health Centre, a Franciscan Ministry, a Salvation Army Thrift Store, a restaurant, and maybe most importantly, the outdoors. We are a varied group: some of us live rough outside or in shelters, many of us in community housing or rooming houses, and only a few in houses of our own. We are dealing with addictions, from alcohol to street drugs to food to social media. We represent a variety of mental health challenges, ranging from depression and anxiety to paranoid schizophrenia. I often say that many people at The Dale can’t help but wear their brokenness very close to the surface. I am no less broken- I just have the capacity to manage its visibility. At The Dale, we acknowledge this our collective humanity and in community journey toward deeper wholeness made possible in Christ. A Dale is a valley that cuts through a mountain and is a place of safety (instead of standing on top of the mountain during a storm, one could find shelter in the dale). The Dale Ministries seeks to provides a sense of shelter and belonging in the neighbourhood in which we are rooted.
At the beginning of last year, a person at The Dale was routinely bringing up her concerns about the new virus that had revealed itself on the other side of the world. She was getting frantic about how we might convince people to wash their hands before entering our drop-in space. What are we going to do? What are we going to DO? As a person prone to worry, we tried to calm her fears, maybe not yet believing that the virus would have the kind of impact she was predicting. At the same time, we wondered: how do we tell people without homes to stay home if they are sick? What could we do if someone refused to wash their hands? I still remember saying during the announcements before what would prove to be our last community meal, “We don’t want to be alarmist about the virus. We have a new handwashing station. Please take care and consider the health and well-being of everyone around you. Like everything we do, let’s try to do this as a community.” And then the world changed.
In today’s Gospel reading, Matthew 14:13-21, we read about how Jesus took five loaves and two fishes and miraculously fed five thousand people. Stories of Jesus feeding huge crowds with only a little are an important part of Scripture.
Matthew’s Gospel includes two near-duplicate stories which are close parallels of two in Mark. Luke and John also include the feeding of the five thousand or a parallel. Throughout Israel’s scriptures we can trace the theme of hungry crowds being fed by God, often in the wilderness, or as Matthew translates, the “deserted place”. As bread and fish feed the hungry crowd in the wilderness of the New testament, manna provides daily sustenance for the Israelites of the Old Testament. Isaiah 55 speaks of the abundance of food, drink and rich food for those without money to buy it. The gospel narratives of Jesus are also reminiscent of the accounts of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, and Elisha feeding one hundred. The actions Jesus took over the bread echo customs of Jewish meals and as Christians, it is easy to hear the elements of our communion meal. In his last meal with the disciples, Jesus also blessed and broke bread.
In the story of the feeding of the five thousand, we can see how God takes care of his people. I would also like to suggest that we can read the feeding in two ways, both of which are important. On the one hand, it is a truly miraculous event, pointing to the power and divinity of Jesus. On the other hand, we can see that once the disciples began to share what they had with those gathered around them, it triggered a similar movement among the crowd, many of whom had actually brought some food with them. When everyone shared, everyone had enough, which is certainly a picture of the kind of society the Jesus asks the Church to stand for.
In every reading of this miracle, Jesus first asks the disciples what they have. They present what is, in our human understanding, clearly not enough. And each time Jesus blesses what they have, breaks it, and then gives it back to them. There is a clear invitation to participate in the feeding of the crowd. As author Sarah Bessey writes, “The miracle isn’t only in the multiplying, the miracle unfolds in the invitation to participate.”The miracle also happens because someone contributes a few loaves of bread and fish and then hands it out to the multitude.
This great miracle took place at the most unlikely moment: at the end of the day, when it was time to return home, when the disciples realized they had so little to eat and therefore so little to offer. Yet Jesus asked his disciples and his hearers to trust him, to “sit down” on the grass as if they were not in any hurry. The abundance of God was experienced as a result of this trust. I look back on some moments when I too experienced God’s generosity in my life. Instead of running around trying to solve the scarcity myself, I finally sat down.
Faced with the closure of all of our partner buildings, with the exception of one, we had to slow down, sit down, and say to God, “we only have a little. Please speak, we are listening. Show us the way”. What followed was a need to creatively pivot all of our programming. We created a survey for our people, one that would help us to know what supports everyone wanted. It also allowed us to gather contact information: addresses, phone numbers, and coordinates should a person be living outdoors. Through this we developed The Dale Connection Train. We scheduled daily phone calls with some, delivered food and supplies to those able to shelter in place and those living outside. We began to offer meals for takeaway twice a week. We prioritized doing outreach throughout the neighbourhood on foot. Our biggest challenge was how to offer an alternative to our worship service, given that hardly any of our members have access to the internet. Whenever possible, we have met outdoors. Because the weather is not always conducive, we wrote and distributed a Devotional Book. Over Advent we did the same, distributing a devotional, candles, adult colouring pages, pencil crayons and a sharpener.
There have been countless times during COVID that we were uncertain if we would have enough for the growing number of people gathering to receive food. In the early days we had a restaurant donating meals, an arrangement that was finite. As the end drew near, another restaurant stepped in, and then another. Second Harvest began to donate frozen meals. What started as a short-term situation is STILL going. Our network of supporters has grown exponentially during the pandemic. At times the abundance has been admittedly overwhelming. A wise friend has repeatedly reminded me how this provision is a reminder that those who are poor remain in the heart of God.
The flip side of all of this is that For The Dale, a place that highly values relationship and community participation, Covid has meant significant loss. I’m sure you feel the loss at Blythwood. The direction we received from God has been both challenging and deeply good. It was clear that as a staff we needed to keep up our work and be willing to risk remaining on the front-line. We needed to honour the decision of the buildings we use to close. And we have needed to lament- we have seen friends not have access to bathrooms, be evicted from their encampments, and suffer extreme isolation. We have not been able to corporately grieve the 12 deaths that have happened since March. We deeply miss not being able to break bread together, communally and sacramentally. Sharing a meal is a primary means of creating and maintaining community for us. In these ways the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand seems far off.
Psalm 139 provides comfort in all of this. It reminds us that it is not just that God knows everything – He knows me, He knows you. It is not just that God is everywhere – He is everywhere with me, He is everywhere with you. God remained with the Israelites and with all those people waiting to be fed. It’s not just that God created everything – He created me, He created you.
We are fearfully and wonderfully made. The Psalmist reminds us that God’s presence is both pervasive and intimate. “When can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” In other words, God is coming to us all the time. Regardless of where we might try to flee, or where we find ourselves stuck, God is there. We are always noticed, always within God’s grasp and loving embrace. This can offer us a significant amount of hope and comfort in the face of adversity and trial. The God who has known us from the very beginning is the God who watches us all along our lives. He has seen our comings and our goings, our successes and failures, our faithfulness and faithlessness. Psalm 139 conveys both the vertical and horizontal nature of God’s presence: God is in the rising of the dawn and on the far side of the sea; God is in the heavens and in the depths. Through everything God remains present with us, we can trust in Him when the world goes awry. This means that we can trust God right now, even in the middle of a pandemic.
Throughout 2020 I have been struck by God’s never-failing presence with The Dale. We have been surprised again and again by God’s provision through our extended community. Blythwood Road Baptist: the money you sent us enabled us to provide many things for our community, everything from food to clothing to sleeping bags. We also received a stack of Tim Hortons cards from one of your members. Everything you have sent has filled our hearts and encouraged the community. I can’t tell you how many times we have been thanked for the dignifying and respectful gifts.
One thing that is revealed to me on a regular basis is that Christ is already present in what seem like the darkest of places. I am simply invited to participate in the moving of the Spirit in every area of the neighbourhood. I am reminded of this when I witness a person sharing their only meal for the day with two other people, because otherwise they would have nothing; when I experience the hospitality of people living in the encampment at Queen and Dufferin; when someone who is in the depths of despair offers a kind word and prayer to the person standing behind them in the line-up for a meal; when two people forgive one another. Follow Jesus, and you will discover that life will not be necessarily made easier. It will become marked with grace, mercy, love and hope.
I wonder if the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is in part what happens among the crowds in the presence of Jesus. It seems that the crowds experienced the transformative power of Christ’s presence when he asked them to make themselves comfortable on the grass, as if they were honored guests at a meal. By blessing the food, the meal was made special. Maybe people quickly understood that there would be enough. I know at The Dale there is something very important about assuring people that they will receive something, and that whatever gift they have to contribute is valuable- that this releases them from anxiety. I suspect the compassion and healing exuding from Jesus would have been contagious. The experiences evoked in this feeding story can be true today too. When we break bread together, we are opened up to the transformative power of Christ.
Covid-19 has changed a lot of things. What it has not changed is the foundation of our faith, the triune God. God is with us: God speaks, God creates, God invites. We are invited to sit down and get comfortable in the wilderness. Guide us, O God, by your Word, and Holy Spirit, that in your light we may see light, in your truth find freedom, and in your will discover peace; through Christ our Lord, Amen