Then Sings My Soul: For the Beauty of the Earth

by | Aug 6, 2023


Meg Peery McLaughlin
Then Sings My Soul: For the Beauty of the Earth
August 6, 2023
John 6: 1-14

Prayer of Illumination

O God,
lover of humanity,
joy of creation,
pour out your Spirit on us
that we may hear your ancient words in a new key.
Inspire us to sing your praise
through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

John 6: 1-14

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.[a] 2 A large crowd kept following him because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place, so they[b] sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 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. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 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 Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.


It’s August.
Which is bummer if you are only thinking about how many days until school starts
(it’s 21 by the way)
but here in worship,
August means we are kicking off the sermon series featuring UPC’s favorite hymns.

For the Beauty of the Earth beat out
Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing fair and square.
Which means that there was no other option than having me preach today.
For you see, Come Thou Fount is Jarrett’s all-time favorite hymn.

He was crushed that it lost, so I feared that if he stood up in the pulpit today,
he’d say something disparaging about For the Beauty of the Earth,
and that . . . wouldn’t go well.

I feared this even though this gorgeous hymn was featured in our own wedding.
The choir sang John Rutter’s stunning setting of it as an anthem.
That was almost 20 years ago now, and I love it still:
the litany of gratitude
for the beauty of creation,
the joy of connection with our bodies and with one another,
the gift that is God’s love.

It is a great hymn.
But Jarrett would only be focused on what is NOT happening today:
that upbeat singable Nettleton Tune
that great line: Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love,
here’s my heart, take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.
All that is not happening, and he’s grumpy about it.

I suppose I am telling you all of this, which by the way I have permission to do,
because it’s innocuous illustration of something worth naming out loud in a pulpit.

Scarcity mindset, which sees only what is lacking, gets in the way of gratitude.

Which has got to be why all four gospels include the story we read today.
The feeding of the 5,000 is the lectionary text for this Sunday.

Matthew’s version of the story was chosen for today. (It’s Matthew’s year.)
But I wanted to use John’s because of something that the disciples ask in his telling of the Gospel.

It is something that only shows up in John’s telling,
and yet, it seems to me,
constantly shows up as a question in our own minds.

You heard the story.
A huge crowd gathers to see Jesus,
hear him teach,
receive his healing,
or perhaps just suss out this sus guy who is getting so much attention.

It’s getting toward dinner.
And they hadn’t ordered ahead at Med Deli.
(catering still available, in case you all hadn’t heard)

The people are hungry and the disciples find a boy with 5 loaves and 2 fish.
That’s what they have.

In John’s Gospel, the disciples ask: What are they among so many people?
5 barley loaves and a couple carp – what are they among the 5,000?

The disciples see what’s missing.
They see the scarcity, their own inadequacy.
They see the overwhelming need.

They don’t see the gifts:
the grain—grown, harvested, kneaded into bread,
gills fresh out of galilee’s sea, grilled up to perfection,
a boy willing to share his lunch
Jesus there, fully present, fully himself.

And so, their question: The Common English Bible translates it:
But what good is that for a crowd like this?
What good is that?

Have any of you ever wondered–

What good are my smarts and skills, compared with the success all around me?
What of my salary, my stuff, when there are always the Joneses?
What of my compassion among so much pain?
What of my ideas amidst such complexity?
What good are my efforts, my vote, my contributions up against
the inevitability of corruption, the force of history?

I never noticed it before, but Jesus doesn’t give the disciples an answer,
nor shame them for their question.

He instructs them to sit everyone down.
And then Jesus takes what he has before him,
gives thanks, and shares it.
And it is enough. More than enough.
The people are satisfied and there are leftovers.

Let me just say that again.
He uses what he has.
He gives thanks for it.
And it is enough.

My colleague Elizabeth Goodrich once spoke of when she was a newlywed, setting up house for the first time. She’d been introduced to a book, Use What You Have Decorating, which taught her to start with what she already had and build from there, rather than breaking her bank account and spirit chasing an unattainable ideal.
A living room could start with a rug or a lamp, or in my case, Vinyl records.
For Elizabeth, a blank slate was just too overwhelming, so this Use what you have idea became her bedrock practice. So now, when she’s thinking about arranging a room, making a Halloween costume for her kids, or having some friends over for dinner, she does a quick inventory of what she already has on hand, give thanks for it, and goes from there.

There are connections in this to the Appreciative Inquiry model that a lot of churches use in their strategic planning. The AI model encourages organizations to review their history and take stock of where they are. The idea is you move forward rooted in the best of what has been and the best of what is. It’s the opposite of the way some planning models start by trying to make a template that worked somewhere else fit there, or by starting by only trying to address deficits.

There’s a great quote that captures this:
Start where you are.
Use what you have.
Do what you can.
There’s an argument about who said it–
Some say it was Teddy Roosevelt, others Arthur Ashe.
I say they both stole it from Jesus.

5,000 people—a young boy’s lunch box.
Our Lord says, “This is enough”
And a feast is served, with 12 baskets of leftovers

Chapel Hill with all its complex needs —
and a group of sinners and seekers of good news.
Our Lord says, “I can work with that.”
And a church comes to life,
and who knows what the impact will be?

Using what we have keeps us from
lamenting what we don’t
Using what we have leads us to
a life of gratitude.

And gratitude is our only response to the grace of God,
the grace we know in Jesus Christ our Lord.

In the Spring of 1863, Folliott Pierpoint sat on a hilltop outside his native town of Bath, overlooking the Avon River. In that setting, he reflected on God’s gifts in creation and in the church. Above all, he thought of the gift of Christ’s life.

He wrote For the Beauty of the Earth as a hymn to be sung during the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. The original chorus read “Christ, our God, to thee we raise this, our sacrifice of praise.”

It was meant to be seen as a mirror—as the host would be lifted during the communion liturgy as a symbol of God’s gift to us,
a “sacrifice of praise” would be lifted by the people in return.

Pierpoint was trying to remind us that the only thing we can give Christ in return for his love is our gratitude, perhaps best expressed in song.

For the Beauty was originally published in Lyra Eucharistica, a collection of communion hymns compiled by an Anglican priest.

Of course the word Eucharist means Thanksgiving.
We Presbyterians call the Eucharistic Prayer, the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving.

Like Pierpoints’ hymn, the prayer is litany of gratitude
for God’s gifts to us in creation, in the church,
and in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

So, no, Jarrett, we aren’t singing Come Thou Fount before we come to this table
to experience the sacrament that does take our heart and seal to God’s own heart.
Instead, we’ll sing what we have.

And it will be enough.
More than enough.