Hello, First Church!

This morning, I’m grateful. I’m grateful for the gift of time—time to breathe, time to be a pilgrim, Sabbath time. I’m grateful for the ways the Spirit has stirred and nudged you during this sabbatical time. I’m grateful for our staff and lay leaders, for Mary Kay, who gave a little extra energy and care to our community in my absence. And I’m grateful to be back…. It’s a privilege to walk with you in ministry—to work and pray with you, to laugh and cry with you, to eat with you. (Especially that last one—I like to eat and the eating’s good here!)

Speaking of eating, I noticed a couple of things as I meditated on today’s story about the loaves and fishes. First, I was struck by what the disciples said about the place where the crowds had gathered. As evening came and dinnertime approached, they insisted on sending the people away because “this is a deserted place.” The desolation of the place was, first of all, a matter of geography. They were away from the villages, in a barren landscape where food and water was scarce. And there’s another, emotional, layer to their desolation: the terrifying events of their world. Herod has just killed John the Baptist: a prophet of the people, an advocate for the suffering and vulnerable, a moral voice calling the rulers to account for their abuse of power.

“This is a deserted place,” the disciples observed. Maybe this detail struck me because so many of the places that anchored my sabbatical time also had a desolate quality about them. The silence of the Benedictine community nestled at the end of a gravel road in the Chama Canyon Wilderness. The thin soil, and cold, damp bluster of Ireland and Scotland. The many simple, quiet hours I spent alone in our home and neighborhood.

The disciples assumed that in a deserted place, it would be impossible to feed the crowd, impossible to nourish a community. However, Jesus knew better. He knew that the desolate places are, in their own way, alive, and life-giving. He knew that deserts of fear, loneliness, and hunger open us to powerful experiences of God’s spirit. He knew there is a rich abundance to be discovered in simplicity, in keeping silence. And he knew that vibrant community often springs up when other amusements and supports are absent… when we truly need each other.

The Isle of Iona is one such desolate place that teems with life. This small, remote, rocky island off the western coast of Scotland has always served as a busy hub for travelers and pilgrims. In the 6th century, St. Columba drifted over from Ireland and founded a monastery on Iona. The abbey was abandoned during the reformation and fell into ruin. In the 1930s, George McLeod, a minister in the Church of Scotland, brought together students, ministers and unemployed laborers from urban Glasgow to rebuild the Abbey. This collaboration became the Iona Community—steeped in Celtic spirituality, open to people of all denominations and faiths, dedicated to justice, peace and healing. When we were at Iona, we took part in a storytelling workshop with Jan Sutch Pickard, a lay minister and writer who has also served as a peace monitor in Palestine and Israel. As I return from Sabbatical, I’m appreciating Jan’s poem, which was offered today as our gathering words: “A Pocket Full of Crumbs.”

Crumbs. That’s the other thing I noticed in today’s story. Jesus took the loaves and the fish and he looked up to heaven. Or, maybe he looked down to the soil, gazed out upon the waters, met the tired, curious, beautiful eyes of the multitudes. Wherever he looked, he would have laid eyes upon the God who is in all things, and drawn power from the blessing that permeates every place and time. In any case, acknowledging God’s presence, noticing God’s blessing, prompted him to break the bread, to tear it into pieces, to rip it, crumb from crumb. And then, the bread was out of his hands. He gave it to the disciples who passed it to the crowd. They fed each other, hand to hand, heart to heart, with God’s love. They shared God’s peace and power, God’s healing and renewal. It was a satisfying, life-sustaining feast made up of crumbs. It was a moment of true encounter, true community, in a deserted place they had thought was completely barren.

As I return from sabbatical, my pockets, too, are stuffed full with crumbs. Fragments of nourishing experiences, conversations, books, ideas, questions, insights, intentions, puzzles…

Of course these crumbs are all squished together and a bit soggy. I don’t quite know what to do with all of them, at least not yet. I suspect that I will continue to reach into my pockets and find them there for a long time to come.

There’s a crumb about desert spirituality. The desert of New Mexico, the desert of the monastery. The writings of the desert mothers and fathers, monks and nuns living as hermits in Palestine and Egypt. The Celtic saints in Ireland, Scotland and Wales who emulated this desert tradition, but with an important difference. Typically, they balanced a life of contemplation and solitude with an active life of engagement in community.

There’s a crumb about the book God Is Red by Native American author Vine Deloria, Jr. This book left me with big questions. How can settlers, who never became “native” to this land, learn to listen to the trees? Is a renewed Christianity really possible, a faith rooted in place, focused on experiencing rather than explaining the universe?

There’s a crumb about the unexpectedly wonderful experience of visiting Georgia O’Keefe’s homes, learning about her art and her life. I was fascinated with her unique style of abstract landscape painting, her way of seeing into the soul of the earth with an inner eye.

There’s the crumb about trying to understand whiteness—how it was constructed, how it might be deconstructed. When and why did my ancestors leave behind their cultures to take up this imaginary and false identity, this identity whose effects are so very real and destructive? Who were they before they became white? I realized, reading about the black power movement—Malcolm X, the nation of Islam, the Black Panthers—how very similar this movement was to Black Lives Matter today. I also noticed how the reaction of the majority of whites to the truths of these movements has largely been the same: rejection and incomprehension.

There is a crumb about worshipping at Hope Lutheran, my spouse Jen’s congregation. I leave my weeks immersed there with a deeper sense belonging to that community, a love for the people there (who are much like the wonderful people here).

There is a crumb about prayer—contemplative prayer, centering prayer. There’s a crumb about more sustainable rhythms in my weekly work and our family life. There’s a crumb about patience in parenting, and, parenting in worship (without the help of the amazing Bernadette). It’s wonderful, and hard! Enough said!

The community gathered around Jesus feasted. On crumbs. Then they gathered up basket upon basket of those crumbs and filled up their pockets for later. Isn’t that what our experience of God is often like? Nourishing, but fragmentary and incomplete. A feast that leaves us hungry for more. A taste of a power—not the kind of power that solves all our problems, ends our pains and struggles or sets the world right with sweeping force. But a power that offers life in the desert and community in desolation.

I would love to know: what crumbs are filling your pocket right now? What bits and pieces are nourishing you? How do these fragments leave you hungry or curious or alive with awe? One lesson of sabbatical for me is this: crumbs are what we have and crumbs are what we can share with each other and with the world. Crumbs are precious, and crumbs are enough, and more than enough. We don’t have to know what these crumbs all mean, we just get to keep wondering. We don’t need to know how tomorrow’s feasts will be possible. We just need to know, and notice, that today—we are blessed. And that’s good news. Amen.