When a Little is Enough

african loaves and fishes

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, July 29, at First Church Simsbury, Connecticut.

John 6:1-15

Some of you know that fifteen to twenty years ago I led a ministry to homeless people who lived in a beach park in Hawaii. This ministry had a couple key components. We hosted a weekly worship service in the park, after which we would serve a bagged meal of a sandwich, chips, fruit and a sweet of some kind. And, a couple times a week, I would walk through the park visiting with the people who slept and passed their days there. These two aspects of the ministry, the worship service followed by a simple meal, and the visitation with people felt very different to me.

In the worship and meal service, I and my fellow church members clearly felt like the helpers. In addition to the spiritual food we offered through worship, we literally fed hungry people. We were generously sharing the plentiful resources of our church by providing people a bologna sandwich, Doritos, an apple, and a rice crispy treat. I don’t make light of this act of charity in the least. The homeless people were extremely grateful, and it felt good knowing that this small investment of time and money could meet a real need and alleviate suffering, at least for a moment.

But walking around the park visiting with people offered a very different experience. When I saw someone I knew, I would greet them by name, and sit down on the bench, or on the grass, next to them. In addition to meaningful one-on-one conversations, from time to time something else would happen in these encounters; one of the homeless people would offer to share their food with me, especially if they were in mid-bite when I walked up. Mike Lee once passed me a bag of dried squid that he was eating from. I have observed that well-fed people like myself often react to such offers by saying, “Oh, no thank you, I’m not hungry,” or, “You keep that, you need it more than I do.” But over time, I learned the power of breaking bread with someone who offers to share, not out of plenty, but from want. I graciously accepted Mike’s offer of the cuttlefish.

On another occasion, I came across to two wonderful men I knew, Cliff and Corbin, who were right in the middle of preparing a meal over a fire. Cliff and Corbin would joke that they were grumpy old men, but they were anything but. Though they had both suffered terrible hurt that led in one way or another to their homelessness, they always greeted me with a smile and an invitation to sit down and visit. Corbin was a skilled guitar player, and if I caught him at the right moment he would serenade me with beautiful Hawaiian music.

I asked what they were cooking and they said, stew, by which they meant a combination of every item they had recently received from a nearby food pantry: a couple kinds of soup, kidney and garbanzo beans, tuna fish, and Kraft macaroni and cheese, all stirred together in the same pot, and served with lots of hot sauce. Here too, I thanked them, and accepted their offer of a little stew.

Two very different experiences. Both valuable in their way. Using the wealth of the church to feed hungry people, and accepting an offer to share a small bite of food from those who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from.

I thought of Mike Lee, and Cliff and Corbin, when I read this familiar story of “Jesus” feeding the 5000.

First, let’s make sure we know what the story really says. Sometimes we have heard popular stories like this so many times, we think we know them, but we may miss key details or make false assumptions.

Having watched Jesus heal many, a large crowd has followed him across the Sea of Galilee and now gathers around Jesus and the disciples on a mountain side. The writer tells us that the Passover is near, which might be significant to the story. So let’s tuck that tidbit away.

Observing the hungry crowd, Jesus asks the disciple Philip where they could buy bread to feed all these people. Philip responds, saying that even if there was a place to buy bread (and there isn’t), he would have to work more than six months to earn the money necessary to buy enough bread. These are familiar challenges to ministry, right? How do we do it? How much will it cost?

Then Andrew says this, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” This is so interesting to me. The boy would have surely been carrying this small amount of food in a bag in order to feed himself during his day’s journey. How does Andrew know, not only that the boy has food, but exactly what the boy is carrying and how much? Maybe the boy offered his meager lunch to Andrew to help relieve the hunger of the crowd.

Jesus directs the disciples to have everyone sit down in the grass, gives thanks, then distributes the boy’s bread and fish to the crowd. Everyone ate as much as they wanted, and were satisfied. And there was enough left over to fill twelve baskets.

So, who feeds the 5,000? Jesus, or the boy?

I described two stories about sharing food in the homeless ministry I led. The one, about feeding hungry people with a modest investment of time and money from the church. The other, about homeless people offering to share the little bit of food they had with me.

I would suggest that Philp had the first model of ministry in mind. Where will we buy the bread? How much will it cost? While Andrew had an experience of the second model of ministry when a little boy shared everything he had with Jesus, the disciples, and 5,000 hungry people.

There is nothing wrong with the first model of ministry, providing for immediate needs, in fact it is biblical. In the 25th Chapter of Matthew, Jesus says, “I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.”  But the second model of ministry, represented by the boy’s gift of five barley loaves and two small fish, is transforming, it’s miraculous!

This is where we find the Passover theme of liberation expressed. The crowd came to Jesus hoping to be fed, and the disciples were all too ready to, like Moses, assume the role of rescuers. Instead, a little boy said, we have all we need right here. Jesus held up the boy’s offering for everyone to see and gave thanks. And it was enough. They were set free from their hunger.

Did the bread and fish miraculously multiply? Maybe. Or, inspired by the boy’s example, did everyone in the crowd look in their satchel to discover they had a little bit of food to share? Maybe. Or, because everyone saw that the boy gave all he had, the one bite each person received was eternally satisfying. Yes, yes, and yes.

Mike Lee’s offer of dried squid was enough. Cliff and Corbin’s invitation to share their stew was enough. Five loaves and two fish were enough.

I saw both models of ministry in action on my recent trip to Uganda.

We visited a clinic that we helped found there over ten years ago. I say, helped found, because the real founder was a Ugandan woman, Faith Mulira. Faith provided the “how,” and First Church helped respond to the “how much.”

While there, we used a small amount of church funds, about $100, to provide porridge to a nearby school. This gift was warmly appreciated by the children who happily posed for pictures with us in front of the enormous bags of cornmeal and sugar. How and how much, that’s the Philip model of ministry.

But before we left Uganda, my fellow traveler Heather Duncan and I had a transforming experience in response to the bread and fish model of ministry. I should preface this story by saying that while in Uganda, out of an abundance of concern for our sensitive American stomachs, we ate breakfast and dinner at the hotel, and generally skipped lunch when we were out visiting the clinic and the surrounding area. As a result, we had not tasted any Ugandan, or even African food…until the Thursday before we left.

On that Thursday, the clinic director, an extraordinarily gifted and capable woman named Roselyn, purchased her lunch from a woman who lived down the street from the clinic. Kept warm and served in small, stacked aluminum pans, the meal consisted of a few chunks of meat in a fragrant sauce, and side dishes of sweet potato, matoke (a starchy mashed banana), nakati (a local green), and pumpkin. Roselyn offered to share the lunch with me and Heather. Heather gratefully accepted the offer, while I responded, “Oh no thank you, I couldn’t, that’s your lunch.” But as I saw Heather accept a small plate, I realized I was missing out and changed my “no thank you” to “yes please.” We each got a small morsel of delicious meat, and just a little bite of each of the side dishes, not much more than a taste of each. But I can tell you that it was the most satisfying meal Heather or I had during our whole trip. I can also tell you, that though an experienced professional, Roselyn supports herself and her two children on a monthly income that probably couldn’t pay for Sunday brunch at Abigail’s. Like the boy in this morning’s story, Roselyn shared not from abundance, but from scarcity. The result was transforming, miraculous! And we were satisfied.

At First Church we are experts at the first model of ministry, the how and how much when apportioning resources out of our abundance. But we still have a lot to learn from the example of the boy with the five loaves and two fish, from Mike Lee and his dried squid, from Cliff and Corbin with their stew, and from Roselyn’s generous sharing of her lunch.

On September 21st we will begin serving a monthly community supper. This is a great idea, initiated by Sara Batchelder and a group of enthusiastic volunteers from the church. We invite, not only the hungry and those on fixed budgets, but anyone who wants a break from making dinner to come to Palmer Hall on the third Friday of the month for a delicious meal prepared and served with love by our volunteers.

On its surface, the community meal seems like a great example of the Philip model of ministry, but I know there will be opportunities for transformation in the sharing that will surely take place around the table. Come serve, come eat, and come expecting miracles!

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Shane the Barber: Our Scars and God’s Mercy

haircut

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on August 6, 2017.

Matthew 14:13-21, Genesis 32:22-31

In 2008 I had open heart surgery to repair a leaky valve. With no guarantees of whether I would live or die, entering that surgery was, hands down, the scariest time of my life. I lived, of course, but was left with a thick, red rope of a scar right down the middle of my breast bone. Though the scar has now faded considerably, for several years it served as a stark reminder of my vulnerability and fear.

I thought of my scar when I read this morning’s story about Jacob. I don’t have time to share Jacob’s entire back story, but in short, he was a scoundrel. First he manipulates his twin brother Esau into signing over the inheritance from their father, then Jacob tricks his father Isaac into blessing him instead of his brother. Understandably, Esau is enraged after twice being cheated by Jacob, causing Jacob to flee for his life. After living on the run for twenty years, Jacob finally decides to return home to face his brother. But still fearing for his life, he sends his wives, maids and children ahead without him and settles down for the night. There, the story says, he wrestled with a man until daybreak. Many scholars believe that this “man” represents God, but I would instead suggest that the man is a metaphor for Jacob’s failure and fear. As he anticipates seeing his brother 20 years after swindling him, Jacob is finally required to confront the suffering he has inflicted face to face. Though Jacob refuses to give in to his past failures, this “wrestler” strikes Jacob’s hip causing him to have a permanent limp.

 

The next morning, Jacob looks up to see Esau approaching. Esau runs to meet Jacob, embraces him, kisses him, and together they weep. But even after Jacob is forgiven by and reconciles with Esau, his limp will forever serve as a painful reminder of his former treachery. As my scar gives evidence of my once broken heart, so Jacob bears the mark of his brokenness.

Last Sunday, having just returned from our mission trip to Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi, one of our church youth Mason Thomsen shared his testimony about an encounter with a homeless barber named Shane. Like this morning’s story about Jacob, this is a story about the scars we carry, and the fear and failure they represent. Both Shane’s and Jacob’s story also point us beyond our brokenness to acceptance and reconciliation.

It was our second day in Biloxi and my small group was scheduled to work at the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen, preparing and serving a meal to Biloxi’s homeless. We pulled up in our minivan to park in a dirt lot across the street from Loaves and Fishes, and there, under a tree, just outside my driver’s side door, were two men. One was sitting on an upside down, five gallon paint bucket. The other, Shane, was standing behind him giving him a haircut, electric trimmers plugged into an electrical box on a lamppost. Shane was going about his business as if outside haircuts on paint buckets was the most normal thing in the world.

Those of you who heard me preach a sermon about my barber Elvis know that I take my haircuts seriously; and I know a good barber when I see one. The first thing I thought when I pulled up was that this guy knows what he’s doing. The second thing I thought was, I need a haircut. I had every intention of getting a haircut before I left Simsbury, but didn’t find the time, and was feeling a little shaggy. So, on impulse I asked, “Hey, can I get a haircut?”

Shane looked up from his work and it was then that I saw that he bears some terrible scars, big, thick and red like the one that once ran down the center of my chest. One side of his face was badly scarred, and one arm had extensive, deep, disfiguring scars. “Sure, he said, you’re next.”

His scars were jarring, but I was not deterred. I indicated to Shane that we would be across the street at Loaves and Fishes. Once there, we quickly got caught up chopping vegetables for salad and were soon serving lunch to a long line of hungry people. I hadn’t forgotten Shane and my promised haircut, but did begin to further analyze my impulsive request. In particular, I wondered how he cleaned his clippers and whether going from one homeless customer, to another, to me was a sure fire way to get head lice.

Just as I was pondering this very question, Shane came through the soup line and asked if I still wanted the haircut. “Um, sure, as soon as I’m done here,” I said, head lice be damned.

By the time we finished it was pouring rain outside, but there was Shane offering to cut my hair right in the entry way to Loaves and Fishes. I did ask him if he had a way to clean his clippers and he assured me that he did, and so began my haircut from Shane the Barber!

Mason and the other youth in my group soon gathered around to watch this odd spectacle, and Shane and I began to talk, the way you do with your barber. Shane said he wanted to be a barber all his life. When he was six years old he would go to a barber shop across the street from his Mom’s beauty parlor and help clean up, and he began learning the trade by watching the barbers there. As if it wasn’t already obvious, Shane soon confirmed that he had had what could politely be called a hard life. He had done hard-time in prison where he further honed his barbering skills by cutting other prisoners’ hair.

He soon volunteered the story behind his scars. He had been driving in his van with his girlfriend and they were having a terrible fight. He said he pulled his van over to the side of the road to “take five.” I took that to be something he had learned in an anger management class, meaning to step away from a volatile situation. Unfortunately, when he stepped away from his van, his girlfriend got behind the wheel and ran him over with it. He described getting pulled up into and through the wheel well before being dragged down the street under the van.

All the while, Shane continued to cut my hair, telling these dreadful stories the way my barber Elvis might talk about a Red Sox losing streak. But I could tell from the feel of the clippers on my head that I was in good hands.

“You’re lucky to be alive,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“I don’t feel lucky,” he said. His implication was clear. He would have rather died that night than forever carry these scars as a constant reminder of his fear and failure.

Then the conversation turned.

“You guys are from a church.” Shane volunteered. “I used to lead my church choir. What songs do you know? How ‘bout this one.” And he began to sing.

He’s an on time God, yes he is.
He’s an on time God, yes he is.
He may not come when you want him,
But he’ll be there right on time
He’s an on time God, yes he is.

And that’s when I began to cry. Something about Shane, bearing the scars of all he had been through, singing about an on time God, really touched me.

So, this was the scene. Me, surrounded by five of our youth, getting my haircut in the entryway of a soup kitchen, hearing stories of unimaginable brutality told in the first person, Shane singing of a God that doesn’t come when you want him, but will be there right on time, and me weeping.

Saying that he hadn’t sung since his accident, Shane continued to sing songs we might know, encouraging us to join in. We knew a couple, like Lord Prepare Me to be a Sanctuary, and finally, my haircut done, Shane led Mason, Veronica, Justin, Julia and Thomas in singing a couple spirited verses of Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, When I Lay My Burden Down.

Think about those words in Shane’s mouth, Lord Prepare Me to be a Sanctuary, Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, When I Lay My Burden Down. With each new song I would shed more tears.

I paid Shane the price of a haircut, exchanged a bro hug, then the youth and I piled into the van and off we went.

Shane’s is the Jacob story retold. Shane has wrestled with his fear and failure and bears the marks of his brokenness. Though he has not yet experienced the face to face acceptance and reconciliation that Jacob did, he experiences these from God through his music. Jacob wept with Esau in response to the forgiveness he experienced, and I wept as a witness to that same experience of God’s mercy.

Our experiences of fear and failure don’t all leave visible marks. Some of us carry our scars on the inside and disguise our limp. But, I dare say, we’ve all got them, whether from encounters with loss, betrayal, condemnation, trauma or abuse, by the time we have lived to a certain age we will be required to wrestle with our shadow in the dark, and will leave these encounters with indelible evidence of our brokenness. And this isn’t a bad thing. Our scars and limps serve as a necessary reminder of our need for God’s grace and mercy.

And that mercy awaits each of us. Because we serve a God who doesn’t always come when we want him, but is always right on time. Glory, Glory, Hallelujah, When I Lay My Burdens Down. Amen.

 

Wrestle With This! God, Taxes and Politics of the Apocalypse

This sermon seemed to strike a chord on Sunday and remains relevant despite the apparent deal on the debt ceiling. For those that know my tongue-in-cheek, wry, irreverent presence in the pulpit, forget that. Forget Pastor George and imagine, if you can, Prophet George. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and George. Hmmm, not sure it will catch on. Nonetheless, wrestle with this and comment.

I don’t know about you, but I find much of what is happening in the world today to be depressing, anxiety producing and infuriating. It is bad enough that we are involved in intractable wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, wars that continue to inflict death and destruction, not only on our own troops and families but also in the lives of millions of innocent people in these countries. It is bad enough that we are mired in an intractable recession that is inflicting gross hardship on millions of people. It is bad enough that we are confronted with a debt crisis that threatens entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, leading to financial insecurity and high anxiety all the way around. Wars, recession, debt crisis and to top it all off we have these idiots in Washington D.C. who are holding the country hostage to make political points. It all makes me completely insane and I am just fed up!

Remember those commercials for Calgon bath beads. We see a harried woman overwhelmed by the chaos at home who pleads, Calgon take me away. We then see her blissfully reclining in a luxurious bath. Our temptation in the face of the chaos and anxiety that surrounds us is to call out, not to Calgon, but to God, “Lord, Lord, take us away!” Take us away to some imagined, blissful paradise.

Perhaps this is what Jacob is feeling. Jacob has plenty of chaos to deal with himself. You will remember that Jacob tricked his brother Esau into giving away his birthright. In a rage, Esau vows to kill Jacob. To preserve his life, Jacob’s mother Rebekah sends Jacob to live with her brother Laban where he marries Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel. Many years pass and as we come to this morning’s scripture lesson Jacob is hoping to reconcile with his brother Esau. Jacob has sent a peace offering of livestock but is still terrified that Esau will destroy him and his family. Jacob sends his family ahead of him and settles down for the night. The scripture doesn’t record his thoughts or his prayers but we can imagine him pleading, “Lord, Lord take me away.”

Instead of whisking Jacob and his family away to a place free of all conflict, fear and hardship, God comes to Jacob in the form of a stranger and wrestles with him. God leaves a mark, striking Jacob on the hip that he will forever walk with a limp, but Jacob refuses to let go of God. God renames Jacob, saying “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel (which means “the one who strives with God,” or “God strives”) for you have striven with God and humans.” And God blesses Jacob.

Jacob is confronted with chaos, fear and suffering. But instead of taking him away from it all, instead of taking Jacob up the ladder into heaven, God comes down Jacob’s ladder and wrestles with him. As we face the chaos, fear and suffering of wars, recession, debt crisis and political Armageddon, a wrestling match with God is hardly the answer we seek to our plea, “Lord, Lord take us away!”

Which brings us to this video that narrates and illustrates a contemporary parable written by an Irish writer and storyteller, Peter Rollins. What do you think?

The idea of God abandoning people in heaven as a judgment on their failure to commit themselves to and engage in the hardship and suffering in this world is creative if not strictly biblical. But Rollins’ parable certainly gets at biblical concepts that are at the very heart of our faith. God’s promise is not all about some future escape to a blissful paradise. God promises to be present with us in the chaos, fear and hardship of our lives in this world, today. And God asks us to be present with, not escape from, those who suffer the most from our present tribulations.

God descended to wrestle with Jacob, wrestle with Jacob’s history of selfishness and deception, and wrestle with the fear Jacob felt as he anticipated the possibility of redemption and reconciliation with his brother Esau. If we stop reading at verse 32 as we did this morning we miss the real outcome of God’s wrestling match with God. The very next verse reads, “Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming.” Jacob advances toward Esau bowing to the ground seven times as he goes, (and) Esau runs to meet him, and embraces him, and falls on his neck and kisses him, and they weep.

God descends among us, wrestles with our fear and dread, our hardship and suffering, and leads us to redemption and reconciliation. Of course we know this because in Jesus Christ God didn’t just come down a ladder to Jacob, God descended to wrestle with human sin and suffering and redeem all of us. But God does more than wrestle with us and redeem us, in Jesus Christ God calls us to wrestle with and redeem all those who suffer the consequences of war, illness, poverty, and injustice.

Nothing communicates this call more effectively than the story of feeding a crowd of 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish. Note, though, that it isn’t Jesus who feeds the crowd. The disciples come to Jesus at the end of the day and say, “it’s late Jesus, send all these people away so they can buy food for themselves.” But, knowing the plight of this battered and broken rabble, Jesus responds to the disciples saying, “No, don’t sent them away, you feed them.” He blesses the bread, breaks it and gives it to the disciples to distribute to the crowd. Some scholars explain this miracle by suggesting that once the crowd saw that the disciples were sharing everything that they had, everyone in the crowd responded by sharing what they had.

How might these two stories, Jacob wrestling with God and the disciples feeding the 5,000 with 5 loaves and two fish, respond to the hell, and I mean hell, that is breaking loose in Washington? Here are a few thoughts:

God is here in our midst wrestling with us to bring redemption and reconciliation out of sin and conflict. Bearing the name Israel, we are called to strive with God and humans. We can’t hide, as people of faith we are marked by our encounters with God. Wearing the mark of these encounters for all to see, we are called to confront fear and humble ourselves before our brothers and sisters in Christ. If Jacob and Esau can reconcile, so can Democrats and Republicans. But it requires all sides humbling themselves, maybe even bowing to the ground to each other seven times. Just imagine! And Jesus commands us, you feed my hungry, my hurting, my naked, my sick; give everything you have.

This is one of the ideas behind taxation, taxes are a way of sharing our loaves and fish with seniors who have worked their whole lives trusting that they would not be abandoned when they cannot work any longer, taxes provide for those impacted by the recession, the unemployed, the homeless and the hungry, taxes provide healthcare for the sick.

Now, some say that it is not the government’s role or responsibility to care for the most vulnerable. O.K., truth be told, this libertarian perspective is not inconsistent with the Bible. There is no clear biblical mandate for government to provide for human need. So one can believe that the government is not in the best position to meet these needs, that the government is inefficient, that the government doesn’t spend tax money wisely, and still be a faithful Christian. But if we are to be faithful to the Bible, we absolutely cannot write the most vulnerable out of our lives of faith and this means challenging ourselves to give everything that we have for the least of these.

Jesus commands us to meet these needs somehow. I paid over $16,000 in taxes last year. Unlike the loaves and fish it isn’t all that I have, but it is a lot. You bet I’d like to have that money back. But if I am going to make a case that I don’t want the government to have this money, that I don’t want the government to respond to the needs of the hungry and hurting, then I darn well better be prepared to give that money and more to the hungry and hurting crowd around me.

How many of the people who are raging about the government taking their money are upset because they would rather give all that money away to the most vulnerable people in their community. How many would give the $16,000 or $6,000, or $160,000 that they paid in taxes to the homeless shelter down the street, to Iraqi children who lost limbs in the war, to a neighbor who hasn’t worked in four years. I can tell you how many. Zero.

Some of the voices I hear in the budget debate cry out that the government is taking their hard earned money, money that belongs to them. Rubbish. All that we have is given to us by God, only so that we can share it. Wrestle with that!

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