October 7, 2018
Last Sunday was our work trip worship service, the day we set aside to share the pictures and the videos of the trip we took in June to Missouri. We spent time with folks we never would have met otherwise: an elderly, retired nurse who had cared for everyone else in town for years who was due for a little help, herself, and a veteran and his young family who needed a hand. A mobile home was moved. A driveway was repaired. Decks were built. Roofs were constructed. Gardens were planted. A family that had never had running water took a shower in their own home. All of which was great but none of which was really the point.
We worked our tails off. We taught each other skills. We lifted heavy loads together. We faced challenges and overcame them, one shovel of dirt at a time (or, in my case, one “Saws-All” cut on those posts while hanging from a ladder at a time!) No one quit. I think a lot of folks worked harder than they had ever worked before, harder, especially, than they had ever worked on someone else’s behalf. Which all was great but also, in the end, was not the point.
We had fun. We always have fun. We ate good food and swam in the lake and the pool and played with rabbits and dogs and cats and roosters. I’m pretty sure that some things happened that Tracy and I will not hear about until much later. (You know who you are, even if we don’t…yet.) We laughed hard, at least as hard as we worked. All of which was amazing but again, it was not the point.
Don’t get me wrong. The jobs that we finished changed people’s lives. The way we worked together changed how we think about each other. The fun we had renewed us. However, there is something deeper and more meaningful and more transforming than any one of those dimensions could account for. On work trip, there is always that “something more” that leaves me speechless and slack jawed (and, if it is work trip Sunday, leaves me with a tear or two in my eye.)
After all the planning and budgeting and all the lumber lists and tools assembled, after all the work is underway—in the midst of it all, there are these moments when I feel like I catch a glimpse of the world as it should be and of people the way that we should be. Everything is overwhelming. It could all go wrong if it ends up raining tomorrow. And yet, for that one shining moment…we get a glimpse of God’s kingdom. We feel whole.
This year, one of those moments for me (and there were many!) was right on the heels of what I thought was just going to be a big drag. One of the kids had locked the van keys into the van. It was time to go to lunch. I sent everyone away in the other vehicles and sat down in the shade to wait for the sheriff to show up in the middle of nowhere and help. I was hot. I was tired. I was hungry. And when the sheriff actually showed up, I was genuinely amazed.
He got out of his car—the total stereotype of a southern cop: mirrored sunglasses; “hitch in his get along” walk; looking me up one side and down the other. “Uh-oh…” I thought to myself, “What’s about to happen here?” He took off his sunglasses, looked me in the eye and said, “You all have been coming down here forever haven’t you? I can’t tell you how many folks I know who you have helped.” Then, he smiled and said, “Most of ‘em were worth helping, too!” Eventually, he gave me a very thorough lesson in how to break into a van. He never asked me for an i.d. He knew who we were.
People who otherwise never would have been connected were connected. People who otherwise might have treated each other with suspicion discovered a new friend. Things felt whole. Chicago wasn’t the big scary city. It was the place where the people who care come from. Rural Missouri wasn’t the middle of nowhere. It is the place where things always get interesting. Everyone felt invited to discover that our differences weren’t a threat and that those differences did not cancel out what we shared in common. Unspeakably powerful things are discovered on work trip that are far larger and deeper and more powerful than work trip.
Someone told me once that the unique skill that a dog has is that you can point where you want them to go and they understand what you are doing. They don’t sit and stare at your finger. They look and then move in the direction that you are pointing. (I have to admit that both of my other dogs that I owned definitely would have stared at the finger and that every cat that I have ever owned would have, in fact, tried to bite the finger!) If there is something I want you to not miss, I point to it. If there is something that I want us to do together, I point us in that direction. Sometimes, though, I so want you to see what I see and it is hard to know if you do… At best, we get to point and hope and keep on pointing.
In the simplest way that I can put it, unlike a lot of people in our world, I don’t think Jesus thought he was the point. (In case you care, three out of the four Gospels agree with me.) I think he thought he had something to show us. I think he did everything he could in every moment that he had to point below the surface of things. I think he did everything he could to point out the face of God in every person whom he met. He humbled the proud and healed the humiliated. He brought those were all full of themselves back down to earth and told those who bore the weight of the world’s judgement to stand up straight and walk proud. If he were standing here today, I know that he would grab us each by the shoulders and point to someone or something—just about anything!—and say, “Look!” “Now, look again!” “Now, this time, close your eyes and then open them again and ask yourself, ‘What do I really see?” I think Jesus came to show us that just below the surface of this life everything is full of God’s loving presence.
What if we have a chance to not just see that presence and feel that presence but we also have a chance to bring that presence to life for others, too? And here is the real “kicker” of a question: what if there isn’t necessarily anything all that “churchy” about most of the things that we might do that would bring that presence to life for someone else?
There is no “come to Jesus” moment that happens on work trip. When we decide to help someone, the question is not, “What do you believe?” Rather, the question is, “How can we help?” One of the marks of living differently may well be committing our energy to service to others. As followers of Christ, I think we come closer to his way of being in the world when we simply let that service speak for itself. Christ opens our eyes to the needs of others. We respond to those needs. Christ leads us to a life of care and compassion, not to a life of being all “preachy.”
In this sense, work trip is an intensified experience of what we are invited to discover in just about every other place in this life. If I was just looking to be helpful, if I was just hoping to make a difference, if I was being led more by a sense of compassion than by the question, “What’s in it for me?” what would I do? And if getting credit for what I’ve done really just didn’t figure into the equation at all, how fun would that be? And if there were other people who would do those things with me, wouldn’t that be amazing!
It is such a core human longing—to feel whole, to feel a part of something larger than ourselves, to feel like we made a difference, to feel like we didn’t waste our lives. There are so many knock off, cheap ways to feel whole: drink too much; eat too much; give into all the temptations of this life because they are what you are owed. At the same time, there are a whole world of real human needs to respond to and real human beings to care for. The question is whether the God who was able to liberate our ancestors from slavery in Egypt is powerful enough to liberate us from all the things which enslave us to our own wants and needs?
So, you could go to church every Sunday and sing every hymn like an angel but if you never really see what Christ is pointing us toward—a life of love and compassion, a life of service to the need of those around us—what’s the point? You could go on work trip but if you aren’t there to throw yourself into helping another human being, well, then, why not just hire someone else to do the work? A couple of weeks ago, we heard Jesus say, “I’ll lead. You follow.” Here’s a hint: if you don’t find yourself on a fairly regular basis up to your eyeballs in the needs of others and with a few other folks around you who care about those same things, you may be following someone other than Christ.
So, in our text for this morning, Jesus sees a large crowd approaching and recognizes their need: “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” That’s a lot of hungry people coming our way! Philip, one of Jesus’ disciples, says that he could put his next six months wages in the pot and never have enough money to buy enough food for such a crowd. (Such a human moment—recognizing need and talking ourselves out of responding!) Jesus asks, “What have we got.” The answer is, “Next to nothing…a few loaves and a couple of fish.” As we have come to expect, Jesus teaches everyone to share and there are leftovers. (At which point, most of us think, “Ya…that works great if you’re Jesus!”)
All of which leads the crowd, eventually, to track Jesus down again a few days later. They ask Jesus how he got to the other side of the lake. Jesus, instead of answering asks them a question: Did you hunt me down because you saw something the other day—a sign of how things could be different—or are you just here for more bread? Were you “wowed” by the meal or are you ready to change?
I think that’s why communion is one of the practices Jesus left us: are we here to meet our own needs—in this case, to pretend a piece of bread is going to fill our belly—or is the sharing of this meal the point—connecting us to one another and connecting us to God?
We are here to serve, not to be served. We are here to stand shoulder to shoulder and respond to the needs of others. We are here to be led into a lifetime’s worth of meaning and purpose that we would never have found on our own.