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"Plenty to Go 'round"

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Aug 06

Text: Matthew 14: 13-21

This past Wednesday, an old friend and I loaded up our gear, strapped our sea kayaks to the roof rack, and headed about three and a half hours north to Muscongus Bay on the Maine Seacoast for our annual kayak camping trip. I’ve known this friend for over 30 years. We’ve been doing these summer trips together for the last 12. This year, we decided to be a bit more ambitious than usual. We picked an island which the Maine Island Trail Association guidebook describes as being ‘well out in the bay,’ a good four- or five-mile paddle, one way, with plenty of open water. We were psyched to go for it. The weather and marine forecasts were looking good, mostly sunny, not too windy, some areas of patchy fog. As soon as we were out of the harbor at Round Pound and out on open water, one of the densest fogs we’ve ever seen enveloped us and did not go away. Within minutes, we couldn’t see the land ahead of us or behind us. Occasionally, we would hear a lobster boat in the distance which only freaked us out all the more. Given the poor visibility, one could be heading straight for us and not even know it!

Though we were clearly at risk of overshooting our mark and losing our bearings, we both had compasses and a good idea of where our island was relative to others in the bay. So we pressed on, through the fog, checking our compasses and maps frequently, and expressing ourselves in expletives even more frequently. After a good hour and a half of paddling with nothing in view but the gray white mist and the occasional lobster buoy, our island finally came into view, thank God! It was just a few hundred yards ahead of us when its 9 acres of spruce trees and rocky shores gradually became visible. At the risk of mixing metaphors, we “stuck the landing” perfectly and were thrilled to come ashore.

Even on a cloudy day, the quiet serenity of the Maine coastline- the sightings of ospreys nesting, bald eagles perching, a cold swim in the vast ocean, the beauty and immensity of it all- usually leaves us stunned that we are almost always the only ones out there. What’s more, there’s that right and totally restorative mix of solitude and companionship, quiet and conversation, both on the water and on the island. Why don’t more people do this, we’ve often marveled, at least when the skies and waters are clear? There are lobster boats out there, yes – I gather Muscongus Bay boasts the highest density of lobster buoys in the world! We occasionally see sail boats in the distance and a few motor boats too, but hardly ever do we run into other kayak-campers. Until this time, that is!

Someone had beaten us to our chosen island! We spotted the brightly colored tent first. Our relief at finding the island through the fog quickly turned to dread that we would need to find yet another island, and the nearest one was at least another hour of paddling. Fortunately, there was room for us all, a point that was made clear to us the moment we made eye contact with our fellow travelers. There were three of them. “Hello” one said! “There’s plenty of room here. Come on up.” Sweet relief! There was a backup camp site at the other end of the island. Plus we learned that they were leaving first thing the next day. Except the next night, just when we thought we had the place to ourselves, we encountered another guy and his dog, who were looking to camp as well. So we returned the favor to him as he anchored his Boston Whaler to the shore just as we were serving up steak tips for dinner. “There’s plenty to go ‘round,” we said. “Help yourself!” And he did. All told, we ended up in conversation with 6 different people over our three days. We were 5 miles out in the ocean! It was a veritable crowd and not at all what we were expecting but it added a welcome texture to our journey.

Forgive me for the extended travelogue. I hope it explains why I find myself less taken this time by the miracle of Jesus feeding 5,000 people and more captivated by the opening lines of our story from Matthew: “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” In some translations, the word for withdrew here is “retreated!” Jesus ‘retreated’ in a boat. He needed some alone time! He needed some down time! In particular he needed some time to grieve his cousin and mentor John. The story immediately preceding ours is about a much different kind of banquet, a birthday party for a king, king Herod! At said party, Herod’s daughter dances for him. Herod is so moved that he promises her any wish. Well… she asks for John the Baptist’s ‘head on a platter!’ Yes, that’s what is says, exactly. Nice, right? The scripture tells us the King was grieved, but a promise is a promise so he reluctantly made it so. Cut to the very next scene: “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” Talk about paddling through a fog! Who could blame him for wanting to get away for a bit? But then check out the very next line. “But when the crowds heard it, they followed him!” The disciples even try to tell him: “Send the crowds away to go get food for themselves.” But he told them that they need not go away.

So my question is this: What happened to his “me” time? How does he go from needing to retreat to feeding 5,000 people? Set aside the miracle of the abundant provision, there’s something else at work here, something that may be just as much of a miracle. You see, he could barely get away. But, he did have that time in the boat. And fog or no fog, maybe, just maybe, that was enough! Maybe that was all he needed to re-orient himself, to find his true north in God, and so too to recharge and enlarge his compassion once again.

The passage recalls when the Israelites wandered in the desert and were given Manna from heaven. The themes of wandering and deserted places are clearly important here, not to be overlooked. It also anticipates the last supper, with its formula ‘he took the bread, blessed it, broke and gave it to them.’ We can easily forget that there is wilderness of grief that surrounds that tender and intimate meal in a room set apart.

I wonder…what miracles can happen when we allow ourselves to head away from the crowd for a time, to head toward those wilderness places that we think will be deserted? What happens when we intentionally retreat into the wilderness? Is it just alone time we are after or is it something more? Time in relatively deserted places have a way of changing our perspective, and enlarging our sense of proportion, if not our generosity and compassion too.

For me, I’m convinced that it was the passage across those broad and foggy channels that made all the difference in the atmosphere of our interactions with those strangers. Had we run into each other on the shore we barely would have given each other the time of day, so surrounded were we already by the crowds of tourists, let alone that handheld crowd of constant contacts! I love what William Powers, author of Hamlet’s Blackberry, says about our increasingly digital, social media existence. The Iron Rule of it is “never be alone.” Almost entirely out of range of cell phone coverage and endless to-do lists, we were in a new world, with new reasons to appreciate each other, to want to care for one another.

You see, we had already made that commitment to set aside our otherwise busy lives to commune with self, nature and/or a friend or two. We had already ventured out on our own, to “get away.” We had each navigated our way there, whether with our eyes through clear skies or by using a compass through the fog. The fact that we all arrived safely across those channels was itself a miracle, and there we were, somehow together, somehow with a different measure of what counted! Amazing the difference a mere 5 nautical miles can make, the transformation that can happen in the crossing! For how much easier is it to find our grounding and reliance in God when we are in retreat? How much easier it is to enlarge and recharge our generosity and compassion and capacity for wonder, to embrace our infinitesimal role amidst the infinite vastness of God’s creation? How much more likely are we to grow from our daily lives where we never have enough time, enough space, enough to feed our various appetites… to grow from such scarcity into an awareness of the amazing abundance that God offers us – through the wonders of creation, or through the seemingly bottomless hospitality of strangers!

Two campsites on a nine acre island? There’s plenty of room! And of course there was. Two carefully measured and pre-packaged servings of steak tips from our day cooler? It was more than enough to feed a crowd, and to share a sense of communion.

I was reminded of the wisdom of Thoreau who during his so called “experiments with solitude” at Walden Pond would always keep three chairs in his house: “one for solitude, two for friendship and three for society.” Jesus knew that our needs for solitude would always be held in tension with our need for friendship and society. Maybe this is why he didn’t seem surprised by the crowds or deprived of his “me” time (if that thought ever crossed his mind!). Despite how the story ends, at the beginning he is clear about his intention to retreat. In the end, he got the distance he needed, but maybe it didn’t matter how much or how long. He had crossed some threshold into a deserted place at least for a time. He was able to get away from the crowd, perhaps just enough to entertain that ‘crowd of sorrows’ within him. In fact, maybe that’s just where he got the practice such that he knew he could entertain a crowd of 5,000!

Many of you, I know, have heard the Rumi poem, The Guest House. It’s one of my all-time favorites.

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.

When we take time away from home or even just time alone, that is often when we become aware of the guest house of being human. We get practice in welcoming unexpected visitors, like a fog or grief rolling in. Time in a guest house is a chance to remember that we are human and have needs that we ourselves can’t meet. And it’s time to remember that a so-called retreat can often go hand in hand with extending or receiving hospitality to and from strangers, both within or beyond. For me, even those two hours in the fog was enough! I had left the “real world” behind. I had been transported by the adventure of it all and had, by God’s grace, unwittingly enlarged my capacity to welcome whatever I encountered.

I wonder what are those threshold moments for you. Is it literally crossing a certain bridge on your way to a favorite getaway, that moment where you can feel your shoulders release or when your breathing relaxes. Is it entering into a quiet place in a favorite public park, maybe crossing into the shade of a favorite tree? It doesn’t have to be fancy and it need not involve a boat! For some of us, maybe It’s coming through those doors right there, coming to church for some precious time to be alone or to be alone together with others. I’ve even heard some of you with young kids say “It’s a miracle that we made it here!” Amen to that!

And here’s the thing, when you’ve traveled a distance, whether geographic, nautical or spiritual, and find yourself in a guest house, whether in nature, or at church or in your own soul, the tiniest taste of goodness can go a long way. As our old vision statement says, ”Strangers become guests and guests become friends and friends become family.” And just a few loaves of bread can feed a crowd with a peace and nourishment the world cannot give.

So…set a course, and an intention to retreat for a time! Blaze through whatever fog may be keeping you where you are! Choose your own small adventure, whether in solitude or companionship. Pack light. And trust that you will encounter a miraculous abundance, more than enough of exactly what you need! In fact, little kids or not, why not consider it a miracle that you made it to church today, that you’ve crossed a threshold to be here with us, and that you are invited by Christ to share in a meal. When the time comes in a few moments, close your eyes. Smell it. Taste it. Savor it! Grain of the earth. Fruit of the vine. There’s room for everyone and there’s plenty to go ‘round. Thanks be to God! Amen.

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