A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va.
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
At one point in my sabbatical I went to see my daughter Ellie in Charleston. Ellie has spent the last few years working for some very glamorous magazines in New York, but Nick, her Australian husband, was missing the beaches and balmy weather of home and so, a few months ago, they moved into an adorable little house in West Ashley that was half the rent and twice the space of their Manhattan apartment. I pulled into the drive at 2:00 on a Thursday afternoon, rang the doorbell, gave her a big squeeze and said, “Let’s go bowling!”
She said, “Do we have to?”
“Yes!” I said. “Humor me.”
She sighed and went down the hall to get some socks. Five minutes later we pulled up in front of the bowling alley just down the street from where she lives. I rented shoes and paid for three games: two for me and one for Ellie. She sighed again and went to lace up her (very stylish) shoes. I picked out a ball for myself and one for her while she entered our names into the scorekeeping computer. She put my name first, and so, when she was ready, I stepped up onto the approach, tucked the ball under my chin, pushed it forward gently and let the momentum carry me into a perfect four-step delivery. I set the ball down gently and watched it roll over the mark I had picked out, and then, as it began to get some traction on the lane, I watched it hook slightly to the left and into the 1-3 pocket. The pins scattered like someone had tossed a hand grenade into the middle of them. Strike! I turned around, beaming, and looked at Ellie, who was texting her mother.
“Your turn,” I said.
When she stepped up to the foul line her body language was screaming: “I don’t want to be here!” And then, just to put the exclamation point on that sentence, she rolled her first ball right into the gutter. It went on like that for the rest of the game, with me savoring every frame and Ellie enduring it. She took a picture of me and sent it to her mother. “Look where we are,” she texted. “A bowling alley?!” Christy texted back. “Yes,” Ellie texted. “I feel like I’m with the Make-a-Wish Foundation.”
I kept hoping she would warm up to the game and near the end she did, sort of. She asked if she could bowl a few frames of my game. So, I bowled the seventh, she bowled the eighth, I bowled the ninth, and she bowled the tenth. And that’s when it happened. She set the ball down perfectly, it rolled straight toward the pocket, and she got a strike.
“Good for you!” I said. “Now you get to bowl two more balls!”
She said, “Do I have to?”
Later, as we were driving to a place Ellie wanted to go, I said, “Your grampa loved bowling.”
“He did?” she asked.
“Yep. He used to bowl in a league!”
“He did. Every Tuesday night after supper he would go back to the bedroom, put on his bowling shirt, get his bag with his ball and shoes in it, and head out the door.”
“He had a bowling shirt?!”
“Oh yes. Very stylish! Powder blue, with the name of his team on the back and his name right here on the front, stitched in cursive letters.”
“Wow,” Ellie said, trying to picture it. “Then I guess if anybody asks me about bowling I can say I did it in memory of Grampa.”
“Or in honor of me,” I said. “I love bowling, too.”
“Why?” Ellie asked, wondering how anybody could possibly love something like that.
“Well, when I was a boy I wanted to be just like my dad. I loved him, and he loved bowling, and so I loved bowling, too. In fact, he’s probably the reason I signed up for Beginning Bowling as a P. E. credit in college. He may have been the reason I signed up for Advanced Bowling the next semester. He’s almost certainly the reason I used to dream of getting my own ball, bag, shirt, and shoes. I never did, but when I was a kid I wanted to, so I could be just like him.”
Ellie nodded. She seemed to get that.
I went on. “Back then, in the sixties, a lot of people loved bowling. I remember going to the alley one night to watch Dad bowl and the place was packed! Everybody in there was wearing their team shirts, talking, laughing, smoking cigarettes, and keeping score with a wax pencil on a piece of acetate so you could see it up there on the overhead projector. The noise was deafening, with balls rolling and pins scattering, but it looked like fun. I wanted to be part of it. Everybody wanted to back then.”
It reminded me of something I posted on my blog a couple of years ago, about how the invention of the automatic pinsetter led to a rapid growth in the number of bowling alleys and lanes in the later 1950s and early 1960s. “The heyday of bowling was in the mid-1960s,” I wrote, “when there were approximately 12,000 bowling centers in the United States. Business was driven predominantly by leagues where bowlers signed up to come once or more every week for at least 30 weeks and participate in tournaments.” But in the past several decades league bowling has declined. In 1997 the United States Bowling Congress reported 4.1 million members in its leagues. Ten years later the number had dropped to 2.6 million. As of 2007 the total number of bowling alleys in America was 5,498, less than half the number in the mid-sixties.[i]
That day Ellie and I went bowling we were the only two people in an alley with 24 lanes. Granted, it was 2:00 in the afternoon, but still: that would have never happened in the heyday. But about fifteen minutes after we got there someone started bowling a few lanes away. He had his own ball, his own shoes, and you could tell by the way he polished the ball with a chamois, by the smooth way he set it down on the lane, by the way the pins scattered on impact, that he loved bowling. He didn’t care whether or not it was popular: he just loved the game, and it showed.
In that post I compared bowling to churchgoing, and noted how the heyday of the church, too, seemed to be in the later fifties to mid-sixties, when going to church was “the Sunday morning thing to do.” Will Willimon writes, “[Back then] the church was the only show in town. On Sundays, the town closed down. You couldn’t even buy a gallon of gas. And there was a traffic jam on Sunday mornings at 9:45, when all went to their respective Sunday schools.”[ii] Some of you may remember when things were like that, but they’re not like that anymore, are they? I’m willing to bet that if you are here this morning it’s not because everybody else in your neighborhood was going to church. No, if you went where they were going you’d probably end up at the beach, at the river, in the mountains. They went there, but you came here, and I’d like to believe it’s because—like that bowler Ellie and I saw in Charleston—you don’t care if going to church is the popular thing, you do it because you love it. I’d like to believe even more than that: I’d like to believe that you’re here because you love Jesus.
My dad’s not around anymore but if you ask me who I want to be like when I grow up I will say Jesus. It’s one of the things that became especially clear to me on sabbatical. I read some books in those weeks that were unsettling, books that questioned some of my oldest and deepest beliefs. It was like someone took a stick and stirred up the still waters of my faith until they were muddy and brown. But when the mud settled, when the water cleared up, I could see Jesus, right there at the center of my faith where he has always been, but now somehow more solid and real than ever. “Him,” I thought. “I want to be just like him.”
So, what a gift to have the Gospels! To be able to turn to the 14th chapter of Matthew and read about Jesus! To watch what he does, to hear what he says, so I can model my own life after his. In today’s reading he hears that John the Baptist has been beheaded and he withdraws to a deserted place by himself. “But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns,” Matthew says:
When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children (14:13-21, NRSV).
What does Jesus do in this passage? Listen to the verbs:
He sees a great crowd
He has compassion
He cures their sick
What does Jesus say in this passage? Listen:
The disciples say: “Send the crowds away.”
Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.”
They say, “We have nothing but five loaves and two fish.”
He says, “Bring them here.”
And then he took, he blessed, he broke, he gave.
The disciples fed the crowd of 5,000 men, not counting women and children,
And gathered up twelve baskets of scraps.
If I want to be just like Jesus I might need to withdraw from time to time. He did it. He did it right after his cousin John was beheaded. He might have done it because he was afraid he would be next. He might have done it because he needed some time to grieve. Whatever the reason, Jesus withdrew, and if he needed to do it then certainly I do, you do, we all need to from time to time. It’s what retreats are for, quiet time, Sundays, and sabbaticals—to give us some time away to be alone with God and gain some fresh perspective on things.
In Jesus’ case it didn’t last very long; the crowds came looking for him. But instead of getting up and moving on to some other deserted place he saw them for what they were—poor, needy people. And when he saw them he felt compassion for them. And when he did he was moved to do something for them: to heal them. If I’m going to be just like Jesus I have to do more than look at people: I have to see them. I have to see their suffering and sorrow and I have to feel compassion for them. And then I have to let that compassion move me to do something for them, to help and heal.
Through the years Baptists have done a lot of that—helping and healing. They’ve done it because it’s what Jesus would do. They’ve built schools and hospitals all over the world. Some of you have served in those institutions. Some of you still do. I think about Debbie Boykin, who leads medical mission teams from this church year after year. I’ve heard the stories of how she and her team have looked on human suffering, and felt compassion, and been moved to do everything in their power to make things better—just like Jesus.
His disciples learned at least that much from him. Near the end of that long day they came to him and said, “These people are hungry! Send them away so they can get something to eat!” But Jesus said, “You feed them.” And in some of the Gospels they point out to him that there are too many people and not enough resources. But what does Jesus say? (and this is one of the things I love most about him). He says, “Give me what you’ve got.” And the disciples put those five loaves and two fish into his hands.
I think about Shawnee Hanson in this church, who 27 years ago saw a hungry child digging around in a trash can, looking for food, and decided to do what she could to make sure no child in Richmond went hungry. She and a few friends got together and started cooking and last year they served tens of thousands of hearty, delicious meals to the hungry. Shawnee gave what she had in those early days, and through the years it has multiplied.
The disciples gave Jesus what they had: five loaves and two fish. Matthew says that he blessed them. I don’t know what he said, actually, but it may have been something like this: “Lord, there are a lot of people here, and there’s not a lot of food, just these five loaves and two fish. But you are the provider of every resource. I simply ask you to provide what we need to feed these people.” And then he broke them and gave them to his disciples, and they started giving them to the people—certain they would run out any minute. But they didn’t. They just kept on giving out bread and fish until the people couldn’t eat anymore. Do you know how rare it was in those days for anyone to eat their fill? We do it in this country all the time. But in those days, in that part of the world, people rarely ate their fill. Part of this miracle is that they ate until they couldn’t eat anymore, until there were 12 baskets full of leftovers.
What can I learn from this passage if I want to be just like Jesus someday? That, yes, I might need to withdraw from time to time, but when I look on the crowds I need to see them—really see them—and if I do I will feel compassion for their suffering and sorrow, and if it’s real compassion (and not just sympathy) I will be moved to do something for them, whatever I can do. I’m not Jesus but I think I could say, like him, “Lord, there are a lot of people in this town who are sick, a lot of people who are hungry. I’m not able to cure them all, but you are. I’m not able to feed them all, but you are. So show me how to do what I can do, and leave the rest to you. Show me how to take, and bless, and break, and give the little I have until, in your hands, it becomes much.” I can do that, can’t I? You can do that, can’t you? We can do that, can’t we?
Just like Jesus.
[i] JimsBlog, November 8, 2012 (http://jimsomerville.wordpress.com/2012/11/08/koh2rva-day-61/)
[ii]Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: a Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something Is Wrong (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989), p. 16.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.