Saturday, July 18, 2015

What Feeds Us: Miracles in the 74126, Meditation on The Loaves and Fishes, The Parables of the Whole Wheat Rotini, The Stevia and the Strawberries, The Halloween Nachoes and the 80 Year Old Woman, Sermon July 19, 2015 Unitarian Universalist Church of Bartlesville

What Feeds Us
Rev. Ron Robinson, Unitarian Universalist Church of Bartlesville, Sunday, July 19
If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it...
If we will make our seasons welcome here,
asking not too much of earth or heaven,
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides...
Fields and gardens rich in the windows.
The river will run
clear, as we will never know it...
And over it, birdsong like a canopy.
On the levels of the hills will be green meadows,
Stock bells in noon shade.
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, an old forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields...
In the voices they will hear a music risen out of the ground.
They will take nothing from the ground they will not return
Whatever he grief at parting.
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its possibility.
- Wendell Berry
Today we will be off for the annual church camp east of Tulsa called the Southwest UU Summer Institute. I first heard about it at a person’s house for a newcomers party when I started attending my first UU church in 1977 in Oklahoma City. Except for one or two years, I have been going to SWUUSI ever since. This year’s theme is Food and Justice and Faith, something dear to our hearts in our church, or missional community, in far north Tulsa. My wife Bonnie will be doing a workshop on planting a garden and harvesting community; I will be doing a workshop on church as a garden, as a meal, as a store, and as a shelter. This sermon grows out of preparing for the workshop.
First, a few facts, then a few parables, or miracle stories, on what really feeds us.
In 2009, the University of Oklahoma did a nutrition study with us that found in our area of far north Tulsa 60 percent can't afford healthy food even if there was access to it; 55 percent worry about the amount of food they have; 29 percent skip meals. In 2013 we did another study with OU of those who came to our free cornerstore pantry. It showed that 52.6 percent of those who come to us have high food insecurity; and 42.1 percent have very high food insecurity, experiencing hunger symptoms when surveyed; 68.4 percent of households have at least one member with a nutrition-related chronic disease; 53 percent suffer depression and admit it; 47 percent with anxiety; 53 percent have high blood pressure; 32 percent high cholesterol; 47 percent obese. 63 percent have under $10,000 annual household income, meaning they are part of the couple hundred thousand Oklahomans who are too poor for Obamacare because our state didn’t expand Medicaid.
Getting people food then is just a small part of what is needed, but for many it is what is needed right at that moment they come; it takes a little bit of the hunger and anxiety edge off that makes it just a little bit easier to make better daily life choices and responses, to move, if just for a little while, from deep to light survival mode. In our zipcode that dies 14 years sooner than those on the other side of town, the matter of food is a matter of physical and mental health, and from those, a matter of civic health, the ability to participate in society, which itself feeds back to better overall physical and mental health.
Food is part of the social determinants of health that along with genetics accounts for 80 percent of that life expectancy, and yet as a society we only spend 20 percent of health dollars on those social determinants, like food projects and neighborhood environments, which contribute to 80 percent of health outcomes. Our zipcode has the worst health care access of any zipcode in Tulsa, but as important as that is to life expectancy, and we need better access, we need even more the shift to resourcing the social determinants.  Community matters, above all. It is why we repeat, and repeat, that we do not aim to give out food, as much as we strive to give out community opportunities. It is funny though that so many people want to fund food; they believe helping us give food, which is vitally needed, will affect those statistics; but what doesn’t get funded, and what would really affect those statistics, is to fund community opportunities, increasing portals of relationships.
Now for the parables and miracles.
First, The parable of the Whole Wheat Rotini. In ordering food from the Food Bank for our free grocery store, we had a chance to order boxes of whole wheat rotini pasta without having to pay a shared fee for them; we thought, pretty healthy, pretty easy to cook, win win. Now, our store is like a store by design—people shop in it for what they want; we don’t just hand out bags of groceries (we do that a few times a year as we did this past Thursday when we give out four or five tons in one hour, but that is an outside event and not in the store). And week after week the rotini sat virtually untouched. We kept upping how many bags they could to count as one item; kept getting untouched.
So we started carefully asking how come—the first response was often that it being whole wheat, looking brown, was just too different from the noodles they were used to and their family wouldn’t eat it and so they didn’t want to waste one of their precious number of allowed items for something that wouldn’t be eaten by their family. Well, that’s why we do the store the way it is; people’s choices empower them which creates capacity within them which brings hope which brings change. That was a good familiar lesson to be reminded of—how to work in relationship as an ally, and not as “a provider”. Allies “don’t know best”. End of parable, I thought. But the good parables, like good relationships, keep opening up more truth.
As we were asking and prompting about the Rotini, a few brave souls opened up to us that it would do no good to take the pasta home because they didn’t have water turned on in their home. Once we started asking about that, more and more said the same. Choosing between electricity and food and medicine and water, water usually was the first to go. The Rotini sitting on the shelves then led us into a more intense water ministry; we were able to get a lot of tornado leftover bottled water from Oklahoma City, giving out double cases to those without water at home, and we got other donations of water in bigger jugs, and told people to keep the jugs and come back and use our hydrant out back of the community center, or the hydrant at our gardenpark and orchard. This summer the water donations have dried up, the tornado water all gone, and it is one of the most requested items. And now, thanks to a failure of being able to give away whole wheat Rotini, we are tracking the prevalence of a lack of water in homes, which is allowing us to get a better understanding of what home consists of in our neighborhoods, where campers, RVs, shipping crates, tents, cars that don’t run, abandoned houses, abandoned trailers, someone’s garage, campsites and more are homes; and we have learned more about what it takes for someone to be fed, which is more than food. As always, we, who live in the neighborhoods too, are taught by our neighbors, and in return we can be a more effective partner shining a light on realities and walking toward the suffering. The parable also teaches me that we should have a right to at least a base amount of water in the home for free; over a certain amount, charge; but allow a set amount for free.

Next, the parable of the Stevia and the Strawberry.
So five summers ago we were busy at this time trying and trying to raise the funds to buy a block of abandoned houses and trashed out properties up on a hill in our area in order to turn it into a gardenpark and orchard. We did it. Four years ago this summer we planted the orchard. For three years after that we had the spiritual lesson of having, in our healthy food desert, to pick off the fruit as it was coming on in order for the energy of the trees to go into the roots and help establish the tree for its future yield. It is actually a law from Leviticus that we like. And at the garden we have planted successful herb beds full of basils, rosemary, lavender, fennel, dill, several mints, and stevia. It is the bed that we use to show how you can eat right from the beds, while you are working on other beds or just to feed yourself while enjoying the park and the view of downtown Tulsa or Turley Hill or the Bird Creek bottomland.
Stevia is a sweet tasting plant. When the neighborhood kids come into the garden, tentatively, we always try to get them to eat straight from the garden beds. We follow a recipe of Taste, Learn to Cook, then grow. We learned early on that some community gardens in some places may grow out of community first; it seems to be the original typical way, for an urban apartment complex or neighborhood for example where people already know they want to grow their own food for taste and health and pockebook, and have the skills, and all they need is land and organization. But in many places, like ours, there is no community first, the social capital is gone, and there isn’t much experience with tasting or much knowledge about cooking, let alone growing. The garden has to come first, we have learned, and community is one of the things it grows; sometimes there is drought and little harvest of community; sometimes the yield is amazing.
We get a few schools that bring their young people out to see and help in the gardenpark; usually these are from across town and not from our own area, and part of that is because for more than a few years more than a few of our school buildings were closed because of education cuts. Their visits to us are fund, a little chaotic of course, sometimes the work that gets done is not too proportional to the time organizing and helping them, but they are always worth it because we tell them that a little bit goes a long way in a poverty area, but even moreso that they are now the storytellers and ambassadors for us, and what they learn they can teach others about us and places like ours. But there is always some heartbreak when these students travel from across town to be with us; first, it is because for most of them it is the first time they have been north or into north neighborhoods and not just travelling through on a highway; the stories they tell of what people say to them before they come north, about watching out, being scared, is sad. It is even more heartbreaking, though, when the students run straight to the garden bed full of the mints and stevia and start in eating them; they recognize them, they have them in their beds at home.
Heartbreaking because the very same day we might have youth from our neighborhood come by and not only can we not get them to try eating out of the bed with the stevia, we sometimes can’t get them to pick and eat the strawberries. They may not be safe or taste good because they haven’t come from the store, from 1500 miles away. They often do not know what cucumbers are, where pickles come from. The executive director of the Food Bank says that more and more students are growing up without ever having experienced a sit-down family meal around a table with food cooked at home; at school, at home, meals come in a box. This parable teaches me that a 21st century home economics course for all students should be required. And it has motivated us more to create a future greenhouse at the park for teaching as well as growing year round, and to use the park as a social place, as an outside cafĂ©; feeding people from the garden so they will see not only how the food tastes better than anything you can buy at a store, but as gardening social activist Ron Finley says, Growing your own food is like printing your own money. And it has spurred us on to create five gallon buckets full of tomato and pepper plants from the garden to get to people from our free grocery store who want practice growing food at home. We know that the vision isn’t to get people to come and use our community garden, even to come and find community with us, but the vision for deeper health is to go to them and get them growing at home, across different yards, developing the free food movement where they have their vegetables out front by the curb along with other neighbors growing other vegetables out by their curbs, where people know they can walk from house to house sampling. Food as portal to relationships in an era when the old front porch or stoop has often been lost.

We are speaking of what the bumper sticker says: The most radical thing we can do is introduce people to one another. Especially people who don’t look, act, think alike. One way we do that in our place where there are no venues for entertainment, no movie houses, is to put on community festivals, and usually we do that at holiday times. This leads me to the miracle of the Halloween Nachos and the 80 Year Old Woman.
Once we made our missional church transformation and moved on faith into a rented commercial space twice as big as our original rented space, we held our second annual Halloween festival for the community and whereas before when we invited people to our Halloween party inside the space we called church we had about 20 people who all looked and thought pretty much like us, now in our new space, not knowing who all would show up, we had more than 200. And they showed up not just to have fun in costumes and get prizes and treats, but to eat. We had prepared food in special scary presentation styles, but we also had just chips and nacho sauce. After the special food was gone in a few minutes, the chips and nachos were too. Bonnie went to the store and got more and came back and they were gone. She went to the store and got even more and came back and they were gone. Our party only was to last two hours too. She went to the store again and got even more and came back and it was gone too. That was three trips she had made to the store getting more each time and it was all gone and the party was half over and people were still coming in for the first time. Back she went. Three more times each time getting more than before and it was still all gone by the end of the two hour event. And of the 200 or so people who came, at least half were of different ethnicities than the majority of us anyway who were putting on the party for the community.
One of those who came, though, was an 80 year old white woman, who had lived in the community all her life. She sat and watched the party, and the people feeding on the Halloween nachos, and she was amazed. Those she saw were her neighbors, living on the street she had literally lived on for 80 years, all her life; these neighbors had lived around her for probably five to ten to twenty years, and she was seeing them for real for the first time. She kept saying afterwards: they were hungry; they were hungry. I didn’t know we had so many hungry people in our town. She is herself an amazing person; she is now 88 years old and is still working in child care at her home. But she is a different person ever since that night. And she talks about when she does retire how she is going to come volunteer at our free grocery store to help the neighbors she really met for the first time that Halloween night in our community center. In fact, this past Thursday at the Grocery Giveaway Event, in the 100 plus degree heat, she was there, handing out sacks of tomatoes.
She had not seen the reality of the world around her, and how her world had changed right around her, as the neighborhood went from the employed working poor to the unemployed self-working poorer, sicker, and less resourced people. So, who was fed that night, really?
I close with the ancient miracle story, parable of sorts, one that is being read and studied in churches all over the world on this day. The loaves and fishes, or as it is called in The Message version, Supper For Five Thousand. Interestingly, in the Gospel of Mark, the oldest gospel, the story of this feeding comes right after a story of the feeding of what today we might call the One Percent. Herod’s kind of party that was all about the wants and desires of those few powerful ones who were there in the palace and ended with the execution of John the Baptist. Right after that, Mark tells the story of Jesus’ party, his kind of feeding.
The story says:
“The apostles then rendezvoused with Jesus and reported on all that they had done and taught. Jesus said, “Come off by yourselves; let’s take a break and get a little rest.” For there was constant coming and going. They didn’t even have time to eat.
[We know that feeling; often we set the worst examples for those we wish to serve; we need to remind one another, as Jesus did and as we try to do, that what we really are feeding one another with is not food and water, etc., but it is presence of one another which is blessedness enough and from which all else can grow and flow. We need, as here, to first feed ourselves with rest and renewal and reflection.]
32-34 So they got in the boat and went off to a remote place by themselves (the story continues; in most translations it says they go to a deserted place, an abandoned place of Empire as we might say; not to the coolest part of town, not to the overserved.] Someone saw them going and the word got around. [Oh man! There goes the rest. Everytime, it seems, we try to step away for a day, a week, there is a crisis that seeks to pull us back; we know that so well.] And yes, From the surrounding towns people went out on foot, running, and got there ahead of them. When Jesus arrived, he saw this huge crowd. At the sight of them, his heart broke—like sheep with no shepherd they were. He went right to work teaching them. [one of the key questions of the missional church is for whom does your heart break, or for whom would it break except our society keeps from focusing on them as it should? And let church be grown in response to that question.]
35-36 When his disciples thought this had gone on long enough—it was now quite late in the day—they interrupted: “We are a long way out in the country, and it’s very late. Pronounce a benediction and send these folks off so they can get some supper.” [probably more concerned about their own supper, though, their own interruption in their plans, their jealousy that Jesus wasn’t spending enough time caring about their needs; after all they were the leaders, the insiders?]
37 Jesus said, “You do it. Fix supper for them.” [There is the big difference. To the disciples, the crowd was not a community; they were not neighbors, but needs; the disciples saw them as individuals who should go eat by themselves, in their own homes. Reminds me, of what another 80 year old long time member of our community once said about all the meals we held, all the community connections we sought to create: What’s with them? She said, of the people coming; Don’t they have homes of their own?” Jesus sees them as one people, as part of the group, not as us and them. We feed our own because they are our own.]
The disciples replied, “Are you serious? You want us to go spend a fortune on food for their supper?” [It is always about what it will cost us; and the disciples are thinking they have to do a feeding more like in the mode of Herod than Jesus, to spend a fortune; there is only way to feed that many, they think; and there is if you keep within the same framework, same default mode, as the Empire, that it has to be big and impressive, well done, orderly. To do less might be to shame Jesus, they’d be thinking.]
38 But he was quite serious. “How many loaves of bread do you have? Take an inventory.” [See, he says, you don’t have to look elsewhere for your food, your resources; don’t have to bring in food from a thousand miles away; feeding, church, relationships are really simpler than all that. There is always Enough. The theology of Enough. The church of the Enough, we say. For our needs, not our greeds.]
That didn’t take long, they discovered. “Five,” they said, “plus two fish.”
 Jesus got them all to sit down in groups of fifty or a hundred—they looked like a patchwork quilt of wildflowers spread out on the green grass! [And here we see the power of growing smaller to do bigger things; the power of connecting people with one another, in groups they are connecting not with him as the sole teacher and leader and provider; just re-orienting the space changes things, makes the miracle possible. Reminds me of the church of 80 that was struggling to survive to pay a full time minister and pay for its building and programs, and the minister comes in one day, tells the people to get in eight groups of ten based on who lived closest to whom, and he says this is your new church; these are who you will meet with weekly and where you will serve the neighborhoods, and we will get together as a group once a month to share and celebrate; and what was a very vulnerable situation became a vanguard church; the minister also took a part time job in a poorer part of town where his less money could go further, and after awhile more and more of his members were moving to do the same, resourcing and sustaining both their lives and the struggling community.]
Jesus took the five loaves and two fish, lifted his face to heaven in prayer, blessed, broke, and gave the bread to the disciples, and the disciples in turn gave it to the people. He did the same with the fish. They all ate their fill. [Community, as the theologian Jorgen Moltmann writes, is the opposite of both poverty and wealth; Jesus had helped to create community, how they saw themselves as one, empowering one another; that filled much of their need that so often without it fuels our greed; some think maybe in the more connectioal groups formed they discovered more food among themselves; some think it was a physical miracle of multiplication, making more of what hadn’t been there before. Both those standard approaches to the miracle of the loaves and fishes focuses on the wrong thing; like the disciples, the interpreters are focusing on the physical manifestation, the bread and fish, when we should be focusing on what has been changed in and among the people.]
The story concludes, driving home this point: The disciples gathered twelve baskets of leftovers. More than five thousand were at the supper. [Some might I am sure, and I am naming no party affiliations, today read this and think see all we have to do is cut back to five loaves and two fishes, or the equivalency in the food programs for the poor, because the poor don’t really need more, they just need to be more grateful for what little has been given to them and see how that will miraculously make them feel better? But Mark ends it, with Mark’s great irony: After all that, there were twelve baskets of leftovers. Jesus’ way was to result with more than is needed for those in need, not less and less. The leftovers are gathered together and will be used to feed the community at large, those not there, just as the 99 percent put more proportional resources into the community today than the 1 percent.].
So, in the end, who is fed in the story of the loaves and fishes? Not only those in need and hungry there, and not only the disciples who were fed the truth of growing relationships of love and justice, but the whole community, including those who might have been on the sidelines mocking those who had gone to such extremes in hopes and trust of being fed both by spirit and by body.

What feeds us, nourishes us, helps us grow in service with others and roots our lives in the Ground of Being itself? Love that reveals how we ourselves are foods of the Spirit for another and for those who follow us. Love that, as our reading from Wendell Berry said this morning, in words we have painted outside our community center, reveals the abundance of this place which will be the health and wisdom and indwelling Light. The very hardship, he reminds us, the very audacity of our vision to save lives and the life of the spirit of our community, is its possibility.