9th Sunday after Pentecost
August 02, 2020 | Sonja Gerstenberger
Passage: Matthew 14:13-21
So, Jesus said, “You give them something to eat.” Sometimes, God calls us to do things that seem improbable. It was 2004, and my husband Scott and I were newly married. We began attending the church where we had gotten married, my childhood church for a number of years, and our pastor at the time invited us to go on a Mission of Accompaniment trip to Mexico City with a number of other young couples in our congregation.
When he first introduced the idea, we were marginally involved in our congregation: we attended weekly worship; I volunteered for things here and there, but the idea of taking a week of vacation time and potentially footing the bill for the cost of a trip if we weren't able to be successful in our fundraising seemed a little improbable to us at the time. But Pastor Rayfeld was a very convincing pastor and continued to nudge and encourage until he was able to fill his trip with young couples as it was his last time going to this particular location in Mexico City before his retirement, and he wanted to go out with a bang.
There in Mexico City, I learned about the Mexico-US relationship from the perspective of the other side of the border. There, I rode down bumpy, hillside country winding up through streets lined with shelters, fashioned out of tin and plywood, where the people I met made their homes. There, I met families, mothers and fathers and children, all with hopes and dreams I recognized in my own. There, I learned the average wage in the local factories, many owned by companies in the United States, was a dollar a day. There, I stayed with the family for the night. I slept in their only bed. I used the bucket that was their toilet, and I graciously received the pastry they insisted on buying for me, noting the price of nearly $2. There, I wanted to stay and participate in the work that I was just being introduced to, yet our shepherds encouraged us to go home and to continue to think globally but act locally.
As the story continued, in reply to Jesus’ command, the disciples replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” Our resources often seem too scarce for the task. When I returned home, I went back to my corporate job, and the infighting of my corporate job all seemed even more petty than it had when I left. I looked into seminary. Every option required living on campus and moving into the proximity of a school that was far away from where I lived and where my husband’s job was. So I set it aside, not an option.
Life moved on. I left that corporate job for a social work job providing direct services for people with disabilities, hoping I could engage more in the work of God in the world through Lutheran Services in Iowa. Then we had one, two, and then three children, and I was home with them. I volunteered more at my church, first with the Wednesday night preschool through 1st Grade Achalu class, but my nerves couldn't take it. The next year, I shared my concerns with the youth director: I just couldn't do that role anymore, and he heard me. He heard that it wasn't the right fit for me. He indicated that he had a role as a guide in the confirmation program if I thought that might be something I could do, and I agreed. Although I was a little bit hesitant. I had taught high school English class, and it hadn't been a great fit either. Could I hack middle schoolers?
In this unlikely age group, I found my home. I got to connect one on one with these young, quirky, and questioning people. I enjoyed encouraging them along on their journey. And I found I really enjoyed sharing the Gospel, finding ways to connect with the experiences they shared with the love of God, the God who calls them home in grace over and over again.
Then we moved. I changed churches, and our new church was just happening to be recruiting guides for a confirmation program, and I jumped at the chance to be involved in a program where I could do this all over again. My pastor took note of my interest and continued to invite me into leadership opportunities in confirmation. Each night as we were closing up our small group time, we would dip our finger into the bowl and trace the sign of the cross on each of the confirmands’ foreheads saying a blessing. One particular night, the blessing came from the words of Blessing and Baptism, “Christened child of God. You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” It’s hard to explain the feeling I had in that moment, but it was just a desire to get to utter those words more over and over again.
Later in the year, as I was sitting in worship and the pastor was saying the Words of Institution, I had that same sense of urgency: You should be doing that. I shared these experiences with my pastor; he gave me a book to read. He encouraged me to keep pondering what that might mean for me. Then, in the spring, that pastor announced he was taking a new call. We had had our lead pastor leave about six months prior, so the church was left with an interim pastor and a lot to do. So, I was asked to step into a role as a confirmation director and lead the program.
With the disciples’ offerings, Jesus met needs. And all 8 men were filled. It took another five years before I would enter seminary, and a lot of care in conversation with my husband and children as we considered what this call means for our family. I tried doing just a little more where I was, but ultimately, I couldn't deny the pull to ministry. And another four years later, I find myself nearly at the end of the journey. I will soon be officially assigned to the Southeastern Iowa Synod in the Des Moines area, and when I am called to a church, I will be ordained. I will be called to the office that speaks those words of Blessing and Baptism and the Words of Institution in Holy Communion.
You see Jesus not only meets needs, but creates abundance: “And they took up what was leftover of the broken pieces, 12 baskets full.” At any point on my journey, fear of scarcity could have kept me from answering this call; there was plenty to be fearful of with three young children, the work of seminary, working while part time while going to seminary, and traveling, being away from family for chunks of two weeks at a time. There were times where it almost did. Yet throughout the experience, in the end I have found nothing but abundance: abundance of love and support from family and friends, abundance of encouragement and affirmation from all of you as you've supported me and given me a place to grow in internship, abundance of mentorship in Pastors Bryan and Ryan and the many caring colleagues who challenged me as I continue to grow as a leader, as the leader God has called me to be.
So, I ask you: where would you give your time and attention if you didn't have to worry if there would be enough? Who would you share that share the story of God's love with if you didn't have to worry if they were ready to hear it? What risk might you be waiting for a better time to take? Certainly we have to consider risks in this life. But we also trust that the God who defeated sin and death in Christ Jesus and has promised abundant life, just as He made abundance out of loaves and fishes, is that God will take our meager offerings and transform our lives in ways we have never imagined possible. Thanks be to God.