A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
August 4, 2018
In the summer of 2014 Katie and I and some other Oklahoma Presbyterians traveled to the Spirit Lake Reservation in east-central North Dakota for a mission trip. Our task for the week-long trip was to do some general mission trip stuff like building and cleaning, but we had also been asked to lead vacation Bible school for the reservation’s children. When we arrived on the outskirts of the reservation, I was stunned by the natural beauty of the place—big trees, the expanse of Devils lake, and rolling hills as far as the eye could see. At the entrance to the reservation Spirit Lake Casino and Resort glitters with bright lights, a sign advertising big jackpots and cheap food. But as we drove deeper into the reservation, the scenery became quite different. The big trees were replaced with vast, open fields of dirt. There were no bodies of water on the reservation, at least none you would want to swim in. The rolling hills were gone, too, replaced by row upon row of tattered and torn mobile homes.
Our home for the week was several FEMA trailers that had been set up on the property of Bdecan Presbyterian Church as termorary housing for folks who had been displaced by floods several years before. Bdecan Presbyterian Church is a building small enough that it could fit inside of our church’s gym. The welcome we received the first night was warm and inviting. People came from neighborhoods all over the reservation, bringing with them food and kind words. Once we had eaten, the pastor of the church sat down to tell us more about what we would be doing for the week. He told us about the work projects, but he also told us about the people. He told us that 84% of children on the reservation live in homes where domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide are every-day occurrences. He told us that the reservation, at times, has had an unemployment rate of nearly 21%. He told us that along with not enough money, most families don’t have enough food, enough adequate shelter, or enough hope.
The next morning we broke into two teams, one for the work projects and one for vacation Bible school. Katie and I both landed on the vacation Bible school team, and we hit the ground running setting things up at the reservation’s community center. We laid out art and science supplies; we made signs and banners; we came up with silly games and we prayed. The theme was “Workshop of Wonders” and it was about learning how each person is wonderfully made in God’s image. We had put a lot of work into the program, even before we left Oklahoma, so we were excited. When it was time to open the doors later that afternoon, the kids were waiting in line to come in. We welcomed each child, about a hundred of them, with a name tag and a snack and we assigned them to different groups.
The first hour was a bit chaotic, but that’s nothing unusual for vacation Bible school. But as the afternoon progressed, things actually got worse. Kids started wandering off, leaving the community center without telling anyone. Halfway through the afternoon a whole other large group of children arrived and we didn’t know what to do with them. Things started going missing—snacks, art supplies, our car keys—and we had a terribly difficult time keeping the kid’s attention. At one point I had to break up a fight between to elementary school boys. When the afternoon came to an end, most of the kids just left—there were no parents to pick them up and we had no idea where they were going. Our little group of Oklahoma Presbyterians was sad, defeated, and frustrated at the end of the first day to say the least, and we had three more days to go!
At dinner that night we shared our sad story with the other half of the mission team. Quitting was not an option, so we had to brainstorm ways to make things better the next day. Someone suggested that we spend more time doing arts and crafts; someone else suggested that we come up games and dances that would tire the kids out. All of that seemed OK, but nothing really jumped out as a good solution. Finally, a woman in our group who had spent her whole life in public education spoke up—she suggested that instead of just a snack, we could serve the kids a brown-bag lunch when they arrived, and maybe even send one home with them for the evening.
That really clicked with our group. But as good Presbyterians are prone to do, someone immediately asked how we were going to pay for it. And that was a good question. Katie and I were in charge of the food for the group for the week and we had been planning for months. We had access to a full kitchen at the church, and there was a grocery store nearby, but we had brought most of the food with us from Oklahoma. We had a set budget, we had a set number of mouths to feed, and we had a set number of meals to put in those mouths—there was very little wiggle room. If we followed through on the brown bag lunch idea, we were looking at maybe 600 more meals than we had planned for—two for each kid for the next three days. I don’t think anything is impossible, but I had my doubts. We prayed about it and decided to give it a try the next day.
Our team was up early the next morning and we drove almost an hour and a half to the nearest full-sized grocery store off the reservation. We bought what we needed, and when we got back to the church we set up an assembly line. In no time we had assembled and packed two hundred brown bag lunches with a sandwich, a piece of fruit, and a granola bar. About a hundred kids came that second day and each was given a lunch to enjoy before doing anything else. To say that it made a difference is to put it lightly—it was like we were in a different place, at a different time, with different children than the day before. They were attentive; they worked together; they still bickered and argued with each other and with us, but no one threw any punches. We actually got to tell the stories of God’s great love and these beautiful children listened. The afternoon went by in a flash and we handed each child another brown bag as they left. It had been a wild success!
We repeated this for the final two days of vacation Bible school. And do you know the most miraculous thing of all was not how the children’s behavior changed? The biggest miracle of all was that our mission team never ran out of money and we never ran out of food. In fact, even though we provided 600 more meals than we had planned for, we had so much cash leftover at the end of the trip that we bought a new stove and a new refrigerator for the kitchen at Bdecan Presbyterian Church. The miracle of our time on the Spirit Lake Reservation was not in how we took the Good News of God into a different place; the miracle was not in the many children who heard about God, some for the first time; the miracle was not even in the little projects we did that made things a little better. The miracle of our mission was that there was enough.
That is the miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. The story of Jesus feeding the gigantic crowd is so important that all four gospels tell us about it—it is the only story all four have in common. John says that there were five thousand in the crowd, while the other gospels say that there were five thousand men, not counting the women and children. The crowd was hungry because it was festival season and many had been traveling for days. Poor Philip, totally bewildered, says to Jesus, “We would have to work for months just for everyone to have a little something to eat.” And making a joke, Andrew says to Jesus, “There is a boy here with some bread and fish, but that won’t go very far.” You’d think by now the disciples would have figured out that things with Jesus are never as they seem. So Jesus invites the crowd to sit, and taking the boy’s bread he gives thanks and distributes it to everyone. He does the same thing with the fish, as much as they wanted. When everyone was satisfied, the disciples went around and gathered up twelve baskets of leftovers. Everyone was amazed. They were amazed because with Jesus there is always enough.
Its not just enough food with Jesus, either. With Jesus there is always enough room, at the table and in the church; the woman at the well, the Syrophoenician woman, and the rich young prince learned that. With Jesus there is always enough forgiveness; Peter, James and John, and Pilate learned that. With Jesus there always enough love; Mary Magdalene, Bartimaeus, the young man born blind, and the woman who was tossed in front of the crowd to be stoned to death learned that. With Jesus there is always truth, enough and more to make it clear that God is deeply and intimately concerned with who and what we are. With Jesus there is always enough equity, and we learn that every time Jesus spoke up to the religious establishment or the government on behalf of the oppressed and downtrodden. With Jesus there is always enough grace, grace to cover a multitude of sins. And with Jesus we learn that we are enough just as we are, just as God created us to be.
If we need any more proof, it is right in front of today. In a few moments, my friends, we will see the enough-ness of Jesus come to life when we sit at his table. We will taste and see that there is enough bread and enough of the cup for everyone here. We will watch as everyone comes forward and no one is turned away. We’ll see once again that at Christ’s table there is enough room for us all. We’ll celebrate this sacred meal that binds us to Jesus Christ and to his followers in every time and place, and we’ll go away satisfied with the height, depth, and breadth of God’s great love for us. And as we go, we take with us the enough-ness of Christ and we allow it to infiltrate every area of our lives: our relationships, our businesses, the way we participate in the economy, how we understand the church, and how we answer Christ’s call to follow him.
Imagine, just for a moment, what the world would be like, what our lives would be like, if we approached everything with a mentality that there is enough instead of with a mentality of scarcity. That is the sort world Jesus came to make. That is world he sends us out to make in his name. That is the sort of the world that knows the transforming power of Christ, what we call the kingdom of God. Imagine that world, but don’t daydream too long. May we all go out and live it, because there really is enough. Amen.