Tuesday, September 26, 2017

"2017 Maine Seacost Mission Trip Reflections"

         It was just last Sunday that seven of us left in the middle of worship for a service trip to Maine Seacoast Mission in Cherryfield, Maine.  All of you blessed us (and the two others who would meet us there).  You blessed our hats and work gloves piled on the altar as well.  You sent us on our way to the strains of what has become our mission trip “send off song”, “Here I Am, Lord.”  

         As we walked down the center aisle, some of you smiled, and some of you (and us) had tears in our eyes.  Some of you shook our hands, and others of you gave us high fives.  For all of us leaving, it was a most powerful experience.  And finally, after five years of your sending us forth, I, as your pastor, felt that this time we were not a group of individuals going off to do our service thing while the rest of you finished up worship and went home to live your own lives for a week. 

         This time, I felt that we were really representing this church family – and that somehow at least some of you understood that connection between us.  In a symbolic sense, all of you were part of the team.  In a mystical sort of way, each one of you cleaned and swept and mucked and painted and took down and built up right along side us.   All of us feel blessed by the notes (some of them humorous and some of them downright inspiring) that you sent with us.  We feel blessed by the little ways that you remembered us – sending a photo or an email that reminded us that we were being prayed for. 

         But most of all we feel blessed by having the first hand experience of helping and sharing ourselves with folks who live in one of the most impoverished counties not only in Maine but in our entire nation – blessed by that but also by the camaraderie and caring everyone in our group had for each other – the deep discussions that arose out of our evening reflections, the one-on-one conversations we had throughout the week, waking up to the smell of the coffee Chuck already had going each morning, making the most delicious ice cream sundaes with the array of ingredients that Tracie bought on the spur of the moment.

         One of us wrote in our journal, “Let’s start with why I’m here this year.  Part of the reason is my continued desire to be of service to others face to face.  Part of the reason or inspiration came from listening to James Taylor at Fenway Park recently sing his song “Shed a Little Light.”  For me, it has to do with “shed a little light by going out and serving and meeting people  - find the human connection in addition to doing something to help.  The key for me is to reflect on this at least daily.”

         Some of us had been to Maine Seacoast Mission on previous mission trips.  “We’re home again,” wrote one of us.  “A new day, new way to give of myself, perhaps something very new.” So much for the old timers, but one of us was new, and she came with all the doubts and reservations the rest of us had our first time there. 
         “I feel like I am in high school again.  The comfort with myself that I’ve gained in my 40’s has slipped away.  Where do I fit in?  Where do I belong?  But it is not about me.  It is not to be about me!”

         To which one of us responded in her journal:  “Having a new person with us has us responding to questions and thinking about things in a new way and seeing with fresh eyes.  These are reminders of our own discoveries, of questions we have not asked ourselves.” 

         Questions like:  What is mission?  How do you get people to understand that going on a mission trip does not mean handing out Bibles, proselytizing, to folks who don’t know better, and believing that we have all the right answers?  Perhaps it should be enough just to know and affirm that we are “fellow travelers in God’s world…..(There is a plan) of which I am an infinitesimal part, but try to be helpful.”

         However, because we area church – and not secular – group, we tried to remember whose Gospel message we were being called to follow, and so, we took a few moments every morning to center ourselves.  One or two of us read the Scripture verse that I had given to each person last Sunday (and that Joe read this morning), and I read a Celtic prayer.  We sang a grace before our evening meal together and kept a journal of our thoughts and reactions, excerpts from which I will continue to share in this sermon – trying to directly quote as much as possible.  We also took time each evening for a group reflection.  This year, that evening hour became a powerful time to share thoughts and emotions, to question who we were, why we had come, and just who we were serving.   

         As we talked about our experience here in Cherryfield each evening, we focused on a theme.  That theme was the humanity of Jesus, revealed to us last week in body parts.

         You see, whatever you believe about the Incarnation and the divinity of Jesus, you also necessarily believe that Jesus was a human being.  That knowledge gives me - and all of our team, I think – great hope that we – even we – will muster up a small amount of the same courage of our convictions and strength of our faith as Jesus did, so that at times we can do the things he modeled and taught us – to embrace and love and sometimes even heal those we encounter, especially those who live in poverty. 

         And so the first day, our lens was the hands of Christ, and our task was to clear the clutter from an attic, knee wall, and upstairs rooms for Lisa who lived on Beal Island, a woman we figured was in her late fifties with MS.  Once the boxes and baskets and bags were gone, Maine Seacoast Mission would arrange for insulation to be blown in, so she could be warm this winter.
         “Lisa is resolute to be rid of so much stuff that is so constraining her future.  It is oddly satisfying to help her do so!  I spent much of the day excavating a large pile of waste outside - a decaying projector TV, old tarps so sun-worn they fall apart as they are moved, old and frail Persian rugs – all evidence of a former life she no longer wished to live.” 

         “Lisa had hand and heart needs that we were able to share very willingly.  Probably Jesus never saw this need, but Matthew in Chapter 25 may have added:” When did we see you with unwanted and stored belongs and give you an opportunity to make decisions” about what to keep and what to throw away.

         “Lisa’s courage and determination to go though with the process (of de-cluttering) was amazing.  I don’t think I have ever seen our group as touched by one of the people we have helped as we were by her.”

         But the mission or ministry was more than just moving boxes of “stuff” into a dumpster.  Real ministry was also, we all agreed, what Traci did so well.  The hands of Jesus were surely her hands as she so patiently held up object after object, china teacups wrapped in newspaper, a child’s t-shirt, and listened to the stories behind photographs and Christmas ornaments.  The “detritus” of Lisa’s life passed before her eyes – “children’s games and stuffed animals and wedding albums that too much reminded her of a bad marriage.”  One of us wrote, “This is not the work I came for, but that is proving OK – to watch Traci, to realize how much we are helping this woman (Lisa) – not just to clean out her house but to clean out her life.  So even this seemingly mundane work is so much more that it seems – typical of what we have experienced at Maine Seacoast Mission.

         “What I learned in that the longest/hardest part of cleaning out is not the shifting of contents.  It is the never-ending review of household and personal items that reflect a person’s history – so many memories can be triggered, yet the “job” to be done is about making decisions on keep or send away.” 

         And Traci helped our client do that in such a gentle and compassionate way – that was not lost on any of our team.  As one of us wrote, “I realized I was being much more practical rather than empathic.  I was more about getting it done rather than recognizing the effect of what we were doing on the life of Lisa.” 

         Of course, in the end, we all wondered what our hands had actually done.  Had we really helped?  “I am feeling bad that Lisa is in that empty house now.  I’m glad she was able to let go but I am wondering how she feels now.  And why had no one in her family come to do that for her?  I would never be brave enough to have 8 or 9 people come into my home and take my stuff away.  I wonder if she kept it so long because she thought it would keep the others in her family anchored to her?  I wonder who will eventually throw away the things she kept?”

         Poverty comes in many forms but always involves a lack of something – money, food, health, companionship,  – and bad luck circumstances seem to descend from all directions.  “The two women (the second you will hear about soon) we’ve helped this week own their own homes but lack health…Both women have college educations so are not poor in ‘smarts’ but maybe in decision-making.”

         Take Lisa:  She exchanged a paid for trailer for a $700.00 mortgage so she could live in a real house.  “She married a loser at 26 because she was worried or scared of becoming a spinster.  No she has become what she has feared – and more with the MS that has claimed her.  Instead of being a healthy independent spinster, she’s an “I need a home health worker” spinster.”

         “When I think of the hands of Christ, I think of the work we did for Lisa.  I think of trying to shake hands with her.  I think of the service we did today.”

         Our second day was also a day of cleaning – but a very different kind of cleaning – and the lens through we viewed our day was the face of Jesus.

         “Today’s need –fulfilled was for Susan in Gouldsboro.  It was a ‘carry for Christ’ and ‘lug for the Lord day!  An enormous dumpster waited in the front yard for contents of the basement:  wet, moldy, unused for a long time.  The dumpster “looked like you could drive a pick up truck in and still have room.”  It was that big – and it was full to overflowing by the end of our day. 

         “Unlike Lisa, Sue had not intended to retain anything.”  You see, the basement was piled high (several feet high) with stuff – crutches, stereos, clothing, an old couch, garden tools, games, books – and even some little critters we had not anticipated meeting! 

         It made us think of all the possessions we keep.  How much of our “stuff would be better off discarded and tossed into a dumpster.  How would our lives be different without all the “stuff” we insist upon saving and carting around with us as we move through our lives?  Is there value in simplification?

         Sue told us that she had a four-year period when she could not go down into the basement because of her knee, which she recently had replaced.  However, as one of us wrote, “the degree of neglect and contagion in the basement appalled us all.  How was it possible (some of us wondered) for someone to become so passive that he or she could so completely neglect such a problem?  Theories abounded, but we all concluded – some reluctantly – what we had two years ago – that this was quite beside the point.  It occurred to me that the real issue here was not the individual effort we made, but rather what our small effort had on the community impact that Maine Seacoast Mission has had.

         For some of our team, it was hard not to judge our client, Sue.  “Not very Christ-like,” one of us wrote.  “He wouldn’t judge or resent.  He would have been happy to do something for her that she couldn’t do for herself.”  But all I saw was the poor choices she had made.

         “We judge, but we don’t know the people really.  We have a brief encounter and gain information the client willingly gives yet we don’t know.”

         “Nor do we know each other really – and why we come out where we do with people like our client Sue.  Just like our clients, we too have stories that define who we are and how we react to any situation.”

         We discovered also that even on a mission trip, politics can intervene.  Imagine, one of us wrote:  “This woman was an avowed Tea Party member (with Tea Party slogan and a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag hanging in her kitchen).  And here she had a largely socially progressive group mucking out her basement.”  Another of us wrote, “I knew coming up here I would be working in the homes of people who had supported Donald Trump.  But I saw his lawn signs go into her dumpster, knowing that he would never ever clean out a basement like that. “

         And so, in our own ways, we reflected on how easy it is to see the face of Jesus in some people but not so easy in others.  And yet, “it is so easy to judge one another.  Yet, we do not know, can’t really know what Sue’s life has been like to bring her to this point of having something akin to a landfill in her basement.  That being said, we also do not know the stories of one another – the emotions and experiences and memories through which we view and evaluate circumstances like Sue’s.   Surely that is why we differ in our opinions and struggle to understand one another. 

         But in the end, whether we agree or not on whether he basement should have gotten to the point it did, “we recognize the need (theirs and ours) , and so we serve, all believing that even in the smallest ways we can still make a difference.  And who knows?  Maybe a powerful difference – either in a moment or over a long time.” The face of Jesus surely melds with all our faces – our clients, our own.  Sometimes it is just a wee bit difficult to find and focus in on.

         As one of us summarized her own feelings:  “There was a job to do. Follow up is needed for the health of the inhabitants and the house itself, but our feelings are beside the point.  Matthew 25 might add:  ‘When did we clean out your ugly basement?  When you cleaned one for the least of these, you did it for me.”

         Our next day focused on the feet of Jesus.  For some of us that meant trooping up to the food pantry and putting together weekend backpacks for local families.  These are food baskets for local families to tide them over the weekend until their kids can get school lunches.  This week there were fixin’s for tuna casserole, juice, canned pears, etc.  We made about 70 boxes, assembly line style. 

         In the afternoon, after having said goodbye to four members of our group, we beat feet out to Schoodic Point, an arm of Acadia National Park – a beautiful rocky coastal area. It was a good day to just let go of all that had happened the first two days of our trip.:  “Two days, two jobs.  Lots of similarities and lots of differences.  Cleaning out an attic one day, a basement the next.  And that would describe our emotions at the end of the days.  So up one day, although sad circumstances.  And then down at the end of the basement job. 

         But there was something about the ocean – the remnants of Hurricane Irma causing big waves and spectacular surf and spray that went many feet tall, putting on a good show.  One of us wrote, “The power and beauty of the pounding surf seemed to erase the mess of the mold and (whatnot) from the day before.  Somehow cleansing and therapeutic.”  A perfect time to be away!  “We had a great time playing tourist” as one of our team noted.  “Terrific surf!  Always amazed by the power of the sea.”

         The lens through which we viewed our final day of work was breath – or spirit – as both words come from the same Greek root.  And so we asked ourselves just how the Spirit of God revealed itself to us this week – and discovered that it was in both simple and complex ways.

         This final day of work exposed us to yet another type of work that Maine Seacoast Mission does.  Some of us dismantled a lovely new home set right on the edge of the cliff in a development of new homes for people who were clearly not financially burdened like so many of the people in the area.  Is this the beginning of a rural gentrification process?  People coming in to snap up the picturesque coastal land for a song?  And what will that do to the social fabric of the community that Maine Seacoast Mission has tried so hard to both create and strengthen?  “I hope that the community Seacoast has spawned and the awareness these service trips create will not be for naught.”

         And why were we dismantling a plastic shed and moving it to Maine Seacoast property?  We were clearly working with a donor to the mission, one of those people who support the work of the Mission financially, thereby allowing them to expand and refine their programs.  Not like cleaning out a basement or doing skirting on a trailer, but important just the same.  And also a chance to collaborate and work together – like doing a jigsaw puzzle, figuring out just how to dismantle and rebuild – a great example of good old-fashioned teamwork.

         While some of the team was working with the shed, two others painted the living room floor of an elderly (and very talkative) couple.  Both in their mid-eighties, Janice assured us that she would have painted it herself, but she just can’t “get down there” anymore.  Instead she and her husband prepared some cucumbers we had brought for pickles and nattered as only a couple married for 56 years can get away with.  Yet again, they made us realize that, though the work of the mission (painting, cleaning, mucking) is important, talking with the homeowners and hearing their stories is just as important – and perhaps is where some of the real ministry lies.

         Hands, face, feet, and breath:  That summarized our week in Cherryfield.  Perhaps it was not what we expected because the scope of work was smaller than in mid-summer when we have come in previous years.   One of us even wrote, “This week’s mission is not looking as productive or ‘useful’ as past years.  Hopefully, it is because we are here at the end of the season an not because they don’t have faith in our skills.”

         Perhaps our week was not grounded in construction and building up, but was more tearing down and getting rid of all the stuff that burdens you and ties you down.  But in the end, it was mission – and it was what we came to do.

         “Sad to see the week end.  We have had a good time together, but I think we are all ready to get home to our own beds and showers.”

         “I am thankful that we have a team comprised of people who keep on working and get the job done!”

         “I am already hoping I get to do this again next year.  So thank you for inviting me.  Thank you for persisting….”

         “Despite the media bringing us most negative news, I know that many people give labor to help others, like this year’s group – Nancy, Joe, Judy, Caryl, Chuck, Traci, Jim, Marie, and I.  I am thankful for so many things in this community and location.”

         We challenged one another – and we challenged ourselves.  “I am proud of myself for putting myself ‘out there’ to connect with the clients in each place…more so each day.  This is not my norm.  I pushed myself to do this.”

         I am always hoping that more people will join us next year.  This is such a wonderful opportunity to take the church beyond the four walls of the sanctuary.  It is such a wonderful way to be “of service”, which is what Jesus challenged each one of us to do.  As one of us wrote, “Come on, next year – so we can gather and work and cook and laugh again.”

         “It feels good to be part of this group again.  An easy camaraderie, lots of laughs, as well as a real interest and respect for each other.  As I tend to do this every other year, I realize what I have missed in my off year.”

         “I appreciated the opportunity to join friends from the Raymond Village Church and the warm welcome I received from them in Cherryfield. I appreciated the leadership of the individuals who planned and organized this service mission experience…and - it's very nice to know that two home owners will be warmer in their homes this winter in part due to the volunteer work of our team.”

         “In summary, a very good week – a new life joined and enriched us, different work to challenge us, wonderful messages from RVCC to encourage and enrich us, good food (to prepare and to eat), new and deeper and open conversations to enlighten us, and scripture readings and reflections to guide and ground and surprise us.  Aren’t we lucky?”

         “I’m very pleased that RVCC made the trip and that I was able to join for the three nights sleeping, eating, meditating, chatting….together in Jesus’ name.”

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Psalm 139 "Lives of Blessing"

         We are at the end of the road.  This part of our spiritual journey is over.  We have come to the conclusion of our Celtic Christianity worship series.   We have reached the end of our virtual pilgrimage through Scotland, Wales, and Ireland where we have rubbed elbows with the likes of Saints Patrick and Columba, at least metaphorically, here in church these past five weeks. 
         We have sung or listened to both ancient and modern Celtic melodies and prayed ancient and modern Celtic prayers.  We have wandered through Celtic lands pondering the themes that pervade Celtic spirituality.  Now it is time to move on.
         This is the last Sunday we will walk beneath the trees in the back of sanctuary, prepared to visit a whole new world.  This is the last Sunday we will imagine ourselves – through our visual presentations - tramping through fields of purple heather or standing on rocky ocean shores millions of years old with the ancient Celtic winds blowing in our faces. 
         This is the last Sunday we will, in our mind’s eye, reach out to touch the moss-covered stones of ancient circles, Celtic crosses, and henges –  where we will wonder at the age of the castle and abbey ruins before us.  This is the last Sunday that we will know that we are blessing one another and sending each other forth in the words of traditional Celtic blessings.  This is the last Sunday we might greet one another with a whispered "Sithidh Criosda leat (Shee Kreesta latt)"– “the peace of Christ be with you.”
         In our journeys and in our wanderings, we have reflected on some of the major themes of Celtic Christianity.  Maybe we have even incorporated bits and pieces of them into our own day-to-day living. 
         Perhaps we see God more clearly now in a raindrop or a sunset.  Perhaps our mundane morning cup of coffee has taken on a certain sense of holiness.  Perhaps we are more aware of the passage of time and try harder now to live in the present moment.  Why?  Because now we know that each moment is but an instant never to be repeated. 
         Perhaps even in our times of grief and loss, we are able to sense God’s presence in our darkness and trust that even the most difficult times can still be times of blessing. 
Perhaps we have sought our own “thin place” – and discovered, thanks be to God, that it does not have to be an island off the coast of Scotland or a mountain top in Wales but can be right in our own backyard.
         I hope that through this worship series, we have concluded that the foundation of Celtic Christianity – and perhaps our own spirituality as well – lies in our relationship with God:  who God is and who we are and how we fit together.  Though there are many sources of inspiration in the Bible to help us reflect on that idea, Psalm 139 that we just read explores it most beautifully, in my opinion.
         The Psalmist answers three questions that are basic to understanding our relationship with the Holy One.  The first one is:  How well does God know me?  After all, if the ancient Celts believed that the sacred and the secular were intermingled until they became one, just where do we fit into that pattern?  If God knows the world intimately as its creator, how well does God know me? 
         The Psalmist  - and surely the Celtic Christian - answers that question with a declaration that begins this poem or song (which is what a psalm is, you know):
“Lord, you have searched me and known me.” The psalmist then continues with a poetic listing of how that searching and knowing might be expressed. 
         Of course, it is up to you to decide whether you are going to take those verses literally or not.  For me personally, a literal understanding is not important. Whether God is actually constantly spying on me or knows my words before I even speak them is of little concern.  What is important for me is the comfort that comes with knowing that God has an intimate relationship with me – little old me!
         The searching is not scary or overbearing or downright annoying either.  It is not like going through security at the airport these days.   It is not like United Methodist pastor Jeremy Troxler describes in his blog:  “I go to board a plane. A big, frowning man in a uniform barks at me, “Drop your bag, sir.”
         He unzips my suitcase, rummaging/ransacking through my most personal things. I’m not hiding anything, but still I’m almost afraid he’ll find something. He grunts at me to “take your shoes off.”
         I hop up and down in my socks, trying to remove my shoes while still standing and retaining some sense of dignity. I walk cautiously through a narrow gate and a beep goes off. The uniformed man slowly shakes his head. My belt is stripped off, shirttail pulled up out of my pants. I turn my pockets inside out. The beep goes off again.
         A woman with a badge pulls me aside, tells me, “Lean over and stretch out your arms, sir.” She frisks me to the point where I think she gets to second base. She finds nothing and seems a little disappointed -- then grunts at me to move on.
         I am disheveled, I am rattled, I feel a little violated -- I have been searched.”
         “Lord, you have searched me and known me.”  Airport security may be a downer, but knowing that God has searched me (and searched for me) is a positive – and most comforting – thought – not in the least bit leaving me feeling violated.
         The second question the Psalmist seeks to answer is this:  “How near is God to me?  Where could I go to escape from God?”  The answer for the Psalmist – and the Celtic Christian - is simple:  You cannot escape God – or, put another way, God never allows you to escape.  God never abandons you. God is in the midst of not only the most extraordinary of times, but also in the detritus of our lives as well.
         Once again, to make that point, the Psalmist takes us on a beautiful poetic journey.  We sail from the heights of heaven to the depths of hell.  We soar like an eagle on the wings of morning from east to west.  We expose ourselves to the brilliance of light and the edge of darkness.  In all those places – even in the darkest darkness – the Psalmist tells us that God is there – and unafraid of the heights and the depths and the dark. 
         I love the way that one translator paraphrased these verses: “If I top the clouds and mount up into the stratosphere -- You. If I roll out a sleeping bag down in the lowest basement of hell -- You. If I catch a pre-dawn flight over the farthest ocean -- You.  Even there your right hand holds me by the scruff of the neck. Even the darkness, even my darkness is not dark to you, O God”: I pull down the shade, I turn out the lights, I hide under the bed or beneath the shade of my self-deception -- and I might as well be in a spotlight. You, again.”
       Presbyterian pastor Peter Barnes summed it up this way:  “In our world today, it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle, and there are times when we don’t feel like we matter much to anyone. But the truth of this psalm is that God is always watching over us, and wants the best for you and me.
         God won’t let you get lost in a hospital ICU. You can’t get lost in hospice care. You can’t get lost in the shadows of life when darkness stalks you and you’re not sure which way to go. You won’t be lost to God when you go to the far country and squander your inheritance there like the prodigal son did. You won’t be lost in grief when all you can do is cry, and the hole in your heart simply won’t heal. And you won’t be lost to God when you go through a divorce, and you feel rejected and like a failure.
         There is nowhere we can run and nowhere we can hide and nowhere we can fall that is outside of God’s amazing love which is always present and always available! (It is as author) Kathleen Norris…writes, “I came to understand that God hadn’t lost me, even if I seemed to have misplaced [God].”  As the Psalmist knew and the Celtic Christian still knows:  God is ever-present.
         Finally, the last question the psalmist asks is this:  “How involved is God with me?  That is, if I postulate that God knows me, and that God is always with me, well, on what basis can I say that?  Where is my proof?”
         And the Psalmist – along with the Celtic Christian– remembers God’s intimate involvement in the moment of creation (however you choose to interpret that).  They remember that all of creation is good.  They remember that, in one way or another, God has been with us since the very beginning.  They remember that God is still creating, God is still transforming, God is still speaking in this crazy jaded world we live in. God is still up to the elbows making and remaking, shaping and reshaping us, we who are God’s people.
          As Troxler writes, “(God) is not going to leave his work in me to chance. (God) is not going to leave (her) work in me up to extinction. Instead, when I think of God, how vast are God’s thoughts toward me. I cannot count the sum of them all.”  An ancient Celt might declare, “Each morning, a new day dawns, filled with God’s blessing and grace!”
        And so the Celtic Christian lives in harmony with God. The Celtic Christian lives knowing that we can remember the presence of God in our lives in past times and hope for it in the future, but we can also experience it in the present – here and now – in the ordinary moments, in the thin places we find for ourselves.  The Celtic Christian lives knowing that we can discover God in the natural world - in the deep peace of the running wave, in the flash of lightning and rumble of thunder, in the stillness of the morning’s light.  The Celtic Christian lives trusting that God reaches out for us in the dark moments we all experience at one time or another. 
         And so, for all those reasons, the Celtic Christian can live each day in blessedness, knowing that the love of God finds its way into every nook and cranny of our lives. As the final verse of the new Scottish song we are about to hear says:
How blessed I am, so bound with love
Surrounded, yet so free
In doubt or blessing, life or death
My Lord remains with me

Sithidh Criosda leat (Shee Kreesta latt) – The peace of Christ be with you.  Amen and Amen.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Matthew 14:13-21 "The Mathematics of Dancing"

Matthew 14:13-21
            Once upon a time there were three mice that died and went to heaven.  The trio had been there only a couple of days before St. Peter stopped by and asked them how they were doing, whether they enjoyed being in heaven, and, because they had been very good mice on earth, if he could make their eternal stay more pleasurable in any way.
            The mice all agreed that they liked being in heaven very much.  However, they did have one minor complaint. You see, they explained, because they had such short legs, it was awfully hard for them to get around because heaven was so big. 
            St. Peter thought for a moment, snapped his fingers, and said he had just the thing to help them.  Shortly thereafter, an angel came to the mice and gave each of them a set of roller skates.  The mice put them on right away.  You can imagine their delight when now they could zip around heaven and really enjoy themselves.  And so they did, traveling far and wide without a care.
            A little while later, a cat died and also went to heaven. As was his custom, after a couple of days, St. Peter stopped by and asked the cat how he liked his new eternal home. 
            The cat grinned a rather Cheshire cat sort of grin and clapped its front paws together in a show of great excitement. "Oh, boy, do I ever like being in heaven! I am having a great time, and I am really enjoying myself. And most of all, I love those meals on wheels."
            I suppose for many of us, it does not matter much where our food comes from.  I suspect that was the case with those 5000 people (not including, for some unknown reason, all the women and children) the folks who had followed Jesus from the town square in Capernaum along the shoreline and into the hills where they now unfurled their picnic blankets and unfolded their lawn chairs and spread themselves out on the hillside before him.  
            Jesus, for his part, had been hoping to avoid such a scene.  He desperately needed some alone time.  You see, he had just heard the horrific news about his mentor, John the Baptist.  John had been arrested as a terrorist and imprisoned for inciting the masses, urging repentance and promising forgiveness if they would but turn to God first rather than to the corrupt and ruthless secular powers-that-be.  
            Such an inflammatory message did not sit well with Herod the King.  And so when the opportunity to get rid of John afforded itself (on Herod’s birthday, no less), the King jumped at the chance.  
In the grisly guise of granting a wish to his lovely young stepdaughter following the enchanting birthday dance she had done for him, Herod offed John the Baptist and served up his head that very night on a silver platter.  
            No wonder Jesus needed some alone time!  Imagine his grief and despair, not to mention the terrifying and haunting question of whether anything like that could ever happen to him.  But the crowds did not know what Jesus was thinking or feeling.  They just knew he was a healer, and so they amassed themselves on the hillside.  They spread themselves out at his feet, all 5000 of them we are told, plus the women and children, of course.  
            Now, Jesus might have turned his back on all those folks.  It was well within his rights.  No one said he had to run a 24-hour medical clinic.  He owed them nothing.  
            He could have had his disciples cover for him, capture the congregation’s attention with a little song and dance while he took the back road into Capernaum.  He could have put his own desires first and figured that his need for alone time was far more important than anything that might be bothering the halt and the lame, 
the sick and the sick at heart who sat on the hillside, ready to receive his healing touch, hanging on his every word.  
            But Jesus did not.  Instead, the Gospel writer tells us in this tale that is found in all four of our Gospels and so in some way must be of the utmost importance, Jesus did not leave.  You see, he felt compassion welling up from his very soul and could not leave even if he wanted to.  
            Instead of turning away, Jesus turned toward the crowd and spent the afternoon healing – bring hope to the hopeless and peace to those who until now could find no peace.  And the lame threw away their crutches, and the dumb spoke words of gratitude while the formerly deaf listened intently.  The blind looked around in wonder as the sun was beginning to set.  And the whole world seemed to dance.
            And the disciples, ever the practical ones but who never did know a real miracle when they saw one, broke into those precious moments of compassion.  They understood only the scarcity of sunlight at the end of the day and the fact that, once again, they were not absolutely certain where their next meal would come from.  And so they approached this pivotal moment the way they approached their whole lives – with a sort of cool skepticism.
         “We’re way out in the country,” they declared matter-of-factly.  “And it’s getting late. Send all these people on their way,” they whined.  “They need to go back to their villages and get some supper. Tell them to go home.  Besides, we are getting a wee bit hungry,” they complained.
         However, Jesus was not done with the miracle of compassion – or perhaps the miracle of compassion was not done with him yet.
             And so he replied, “There is no need to dismiss them. They do not need to go home yet.  Why cut this miracle short?  You give them supper.”
         “You want us to do what?  All we have are five loaves of bread and two fish,” Peter, James, John, and the others replied in disbelief.  “Come on, get real.  Do the math.”
         And lo and behold, Jesus did the math – though it was not the math the disciples expected.  He took the five loaves and two fish – and saw in his hands not that which he did not have, but rather that which he did have.  And he looked out at the crowd – all 5000 of them plus the women and children.  He knew that some of them would follow him nearly to the end. 
He knew as well that others had already begun to criticize him.  But no matter!  He looked out at all of them with compassion.
         He lifted his face to heaven in prayer, blessed, broke, and gave the bread and the fish to the disciples. The disciples then gave the food to the congregation. They all ate their fill, and then the disciples gathered twelve baskets of leftovers – one for each of them to take to the local food pantry.
         We call this tale of the feeding of the 5000 a miracle story.  However, it becomes too easy to ignore if we are deluded into thinking that the miracle here was that five loaves of bread and two fish did the trick for a massive picnic dinner.  It is too easy to put the story aside as something that happened once long ago and far away and consequently is irrelevant to us – too far-fetched nowadays to really take seriously. 
         It is like the story of a nine-year-old who came bursting out of Sunday school like a wild stallion. His eyes were darting in every direction as he tried to locate either mom or dad. Finally, after a quick search, he grabbed his father by the leg and yelled, "Man, that story of Moses and all those people crossing the Red Sea was great!" His father looked down, smiled, and asked the boy to tell him about it.
         "Well, the Israelites got out of Egypt, but Pharaoh and his army chased after them. So the Jews ran as fast as they could until they got to the Red Sea. The Egyptian Army was gettin' closer and closer. So Moses got on his walkie-talkie and told the Israeli Air Force to bomb the Egyptians. While that was happening, the Israeli Navy built a pontoon bridge so the people could cross over. They made it!
         By now his dad was shocked. "Is THAT the way they taught you the story?"
         Well, no, not exactly," the boy admitted, "but if I told you the way they told it to us, you'd never believe it, Dad." 
         All that being said, if you choose to interpret this story of the feeding of the 5000 literally, it is certainly a very impressive feat.  I will give you that much!
         However, I think this story had profound importance to the early church for another reason.  What if the story of the feeding of so many people with so little was simply an overlay, a veil through which to witness an even greater miracle that might somehow come down through the ages to touch us, here this morning, in this little church that struggles to meet its budget, that too often thinks about what we do not have rather than what we do have? 
What if this story is not about an event that may or may not have happened at a single time and in a single place over two millennia ago?  What if this story was meant to speak to us?  Would it raise a question of higher mathematics?  Or would it raise a question of just how deep our moral fiber runs and to what extent we embrace the grace of God?
         I think the miracle of this story is not that the loaves and fishes were divided and multiplied to feed 5000 people - plus the women and children.  It is not a question of divine mathematics.  Rather, I think the miracle lies elsewhere, and it is three-fold. 
         The first part begins even before Jesus blesses, breaks, and shares the bread and fish.  It centers on Jesus’ compassion that overwhelmed his most ardent desire at that moment to be cut off from the world.  Somewhere deep within his heart, in spite of his grief and despair at the grotesque execution of John the Baptist, Jesus comes out of his funk and spends the afternoon doing what he does best, and that is healing. 

         When he thought he most wanted to tuck himself away, instead he responded to that divine nudge and opened himself up.  When he most wanted to minister to himself, he ministered to those in need.  And when he did, the whole world danced. 
         What if compassion was a ruling force in our lives?  What if, when faced with a choice to turn inward into ourselves or turn outward to the world, we chose the latter?  Would the world dance?
         Second, Jesus understood that God’s dream for the world centered on embracing a theology of abundance rather than scarcity.  As UCC pastor Stan Duncan wrote, “The disciples’ first response was to worry about how little they had to offer.  There are so many people down there, and our resources are so tiny.  Jesus responded simply:  share what you have, and let’s see what happens.” 
         The disciples lived out of a theology of scarcity:  We don’t have enough to go around.  Duncan continues:  “We can’t feed all those people with our meager provisions.  Somewhat similar to comments we hear so frequently today, that America can no longer afford to care for its poor people.  Even though we are the richest country in the world, we simply can’t afford to give hungry people SNAP or WIC or School Lunch Programs….
Jesus, on the other hand, had a theology of abundance:  share what you have…It’s true you can’t feed everyone.  It’s true there will always be suffering.  You can’t make it go away.  But that is no reason to do nothing.”
         What if we lived out a dream of abundance rather than scarcity?  What if we trusted that we had enough to pay our personal bills as well as tithe (or even half tithe) to support the far-reaching ministries of our church?  Would the world dance?
         Third, Jesus did not do a “manna from heaven” trick and have bread rain down on the folks on the hillside.  He asked his disciples to do the work.  He had them take the bread he had blessed and he had them keep passing it around until all were fed.  He had them discover first hand the power of embracing abundance.  He laid upon them the obligation of feeding those who were hungry. 
         As Episcopal priest Roy Almquist notes, “The story is a clear call for the Church of Jesus Christ to be a compassionate Church, which hears the cries of people and responds to their needs. You give them something to eat! It matters not whether they are like us, members of our families, or people of our ethnic background. If they are in need we must respond!
The story also reminds us that all people deserve our concern, as God’s instruments, simply by virtue of being in need, hungry, lost, and alone.” The love of God is grace-filled and inclusive.
         What if we took really seriously the responsibility of being Jesus’ 21st century disciples?  What if doing the work of God’s dream was the focus of our lives?  What if it was the hinge point of our financial decisions?  What if what we gave to sustain the work of this congregation was as important as paying our mortgage or rent and our utilities – and not an afterthought for when our regular and discretionary expenses were covered?  Would the world dance? 
         In the end, the loaves and fishes are incidental to this Gospel story. Multiplication and division are irrelevant.  This is not a story about divine mathematics, but rather human possibilities. This is a story of what happens when compassion, a theology of abundance, and a willingness to make a difference and to change lives converge and intermingle. This is a story about making the world dance.