Wake Up and Smell the Cat Food: Report from Work Camp

August 24, 2014, Isaiah 58:6-12, Matthew 25:31-46

Thank you. Thank you members and friends of First Presbyterian Church for supporting the Youth Group on the Mission Trip earlier this month to Urban Immersion Service Retreats in Minneapolis. I want to spend some time this morning helping you to hear about and maybe even experience what our young people did on your behalf. When I remembered my title for this morning I laughed out loud. About the middle of the week most of the group was sitting around the table playing cards and someone wasn’t paying attention when it was their turn. I said, “Wake up and smell the cat food!” and this phrase got everyone’s attention. Some were sure I meant “Wake up and smell the roses!” But all I really wanted was for the game to continue. I always understood it as a corruption of “Wake and smell the coffee!” Whatever its origin, it became a repeated catch-phrase on the trip. Other catch phrases were “Oh, for the love of mustard,” and perhaps the most frequently used, “You people baffle me.”

When mission trips go smoothly groups become distinct communities, with their stories to tell, catch-phrases and common memories. Let me assure you—this trip went very well. Altogether there were 8 young people, 4 from this congregation and 4 from two other congregations in the Presbytery. Martha Rockenstein, the Christian Educator at Memorial Presbyterian Church in Appleton, our own Christian Educator, Kate Hood, and I were the adult leaders. The age range for the young people was big; we had everything from an entering 7th grader to a recent high school graduate.

Urban Immersion Service Retreats has a dormitory in downtown Minneapolis. Groups come in for half or full week retreats at which they work in agencies that help needy people, and reflect on their experiences after working. Our group of 11 was split into two teams and each team worked either a half day at two agencies or a full day at one, each day from Monday through Friday. Members of our team sorted clothes at Arc Value Village thrift stores, packed food at Second Harvest, did custodial work at a homeless shelter, played with kids at a transitional housing center and painted a garage for a man who could not do the work himself. We were exposed to a lot of different and complex problems around poverty. We were also exposed to an amazing number of faithful, hardworking people who work every day to address the needs of the poor.

I’ll just talk about three of the places we worked. The second day, a group went to Catholic Charities Family Service Center. Families can stay there up to 120 days as they look for jobs and housing. Our group was given the task of playing with kids indoors and outdoors, which gave their parents a break and also gave them time to use the center’s computer lab. We dug in the sand, played games of tag and baseball. We had a good time with the little ones.

We sent several teams to work at Second Harvest. They run a very modern operation. Every day teams of people come there and repackage food that for some reason cannot be sold by the manufacturer. We packaged tortilla into packages of 24 and sealed them in plastic one morning. The next day we packaged Frosted Mini-Wheats into one pound bags. These bags were sent to food pantries and soup kitchens in Minnesota and western Wisconsin. Workers had to put on hairnets, gloves and aprons before getting to work. The Frosted Mini-Wheats came in 500 lb. boxes. We worked in teams of three. One person scooped into a funnel; another weighed the bag and a third used a special machine to seal the plastic on the bag. Once your team got into a rhythm it was pretty satisfying work. Still, I wondered what it would be like to do this for 40 hours a week. We only put in 2 ½ hour shifts. Second Harvest is really good at training volunteers and helping them have a really good experience. At the end of our shift we saw a video about who would benefit from getting food from Second Harvest and they told us how many pounds of food we had packaged. One day our shift of 28 people packed

652 lbs or tortilla

1,001 lbs of Frosted Mini-Wheats and

960 lbs of pasta, enough food for 2,041 meals!

Our most satisfying work was on the first day. A group went to Mr. Spanjers’ house in Minneapolis and painted his garage. Mr. Spanjers had lived there for 62 years. He loved living there, but could not keep the place up by himself anymore. There were a lot of things that made this project satisfying. As we were getting started I introduced myself to Mr. Spanjers. He asked about the group of your people—did they have discipline problems? At first I misunderstood his question, I replied, “No, this is just the first day of our trip.” What he really wondered was whether the kids were forced to do volunteer work because they’d had trouble with the law and community service was part of their sentence. I explained, “No, we’re a church group.” He said, “Well, that’s my definition of angels.” Mr. Spanjers sat in his backyard and watched us work. We would take breaks to sit and visit with him. We could see how grateful he was. I made sure everyone who worked there talked to Mr. Spanjers. The personal connection that we made was as important as the work we did. And painting is really satisfying work. After scraping it, the garage looked awful and when we were done it looked really nice! But there was another aspect about painting this garage that we didn’t foresee.

Mr. Spanjers had a neighbor named Mike. Mike sort of looked after Mr. Spanjers. When Mike saw us working he got to work himself. He was a retired carpenter and he showed the kids how to put masking tape around the places we didn’t want to get paint on. He went to his house and brought some candy to share with the group. He was sort of motivated, or prodded maybe, into helping out. And you could see he was enjoying himself. I sat back with Mr. Spanjers and watched the kindness multiply. Maybe kindness multiplied a little too much because just as we sat down to eat the sack lunches we had packed for ourselves that morning, Mr. Spanjers’s son brought a bag full of sandwiches from McDonald’s. This presented a problem. I believe that to be a good guest one should eat food that is offered by the host. Having just eaten my lunch I was not at all hungry. Luckily, we had teen aged boys in the group—they can always eat more!

At the end of our work day, after supper we had a program each night that helped us understand poverty and to help us connect our faith with what we were doing with our hands. One evening we read this passage from Matthew. It is a stark and bracing passage. We read it and talked about it at Session Tuesday night. I find myself convicted by these words. The judgment in these words made the Session uneasy and should make all of us uneasy. It forces us to ask are we doing all we can—and are we doing it for the right reasons? We live in a nation of abundance. Yet in our communities there are people who suffer, physically, because of poverty. Last year 1 in 7 Americans needed help to get enough food to eat. The eyes of our young people were opened in Minneapolis, but we have hungry, needy, vulnerable people right here in Oshkosh.

I want to call attention to a few important points in this passage. First, Jesus is speaking of nations, not individuals. “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people…” Some will be blessed, some will inherit the kingdom, those who have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, cared for the sick and visited the imprisoned. This ties in precisely with what the prophet Isaiah said in this morning’s Old Testament lesson. The “fast” that God desires is not to deny oneself food and put on burlap and make oneself uncomfortable. The fast God desires and calls us to is to offer food to the hungry and hope to the afflicted—that’s when our cities will be restored and our nation’s glory will be rebuilt!

OK, contrast that with “the righteous” and I need to put that in quotes. The righteous will ask Jesus when they saw him hungry, thirsty, a stranger or naked or sick or in prison. If they’d ever seen him that way, of course, they would have tended to him. And at this point Jesus raises the stakes enormously, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

I want to close by giving you three things to think about. First, one way this church feeds the hungry took place in Magnolia Hall yesterday. We have free Community Breakfast open to anyone who walks through the door. I have high hopes for Community Breakfasts. I hope that people who have never been in our building before will find that they are welcomed here. But I also hope that what we offer them is more than food. I hope that we will welcome them as guests, and welcome them with the expectation that they have a gift to give to us. Not in a selfish way, but in a way that honors them as children made in God’s image, just as each of is. Community Breakfasts should not be a way we can mark off on our Christian duties checklist that we’ve fed the hungry before we go on to clothing the naked. I hope it can be the way we integrate our faith with lives. It’s pretty easy to fill bellies. It takes more on our part to make friends.

Second, and I always think of an old Far Side cartoon to make this point. A man is walking down the street with two armadillos under his arm. And he’s approaching a pan handler who asks, “Spare armadillo?” The first man thinks, “How do I get past this guy?” OK, so how do you respond when a pan handler asks you for money. It’s rare that I do not have some cash in my pocket, but it’s also rare that I give money to someone who asks me for it. As a follower of Jesus, though, in light of today’s gospel passage, aren’t you a little uneasy about ignoring altogether someone who is asking for money because he’s hungry? I think the same things as you probably, if he’s really hungry I’d be willing to give something. But I suspect he’d just the money for booze or cigarettes, or he’s not really needy at all, just lazy. It’s easier to just ignore him, pretend he’s not there. When was it that we saw you hungry? That would be Thursday, on the road by Wal-Mart.

Finally, I want you to think about what it would feel like to feed Jesus a meal when he’s hungry, or welcome him when he’s a stranger. This is not a way we talk about our faith much. But I’m really wrestling with this idea of giving Jesus a meal, or making sure he’s got clothes to wear. I like to think that we’d never turn Jesus away. And yet he says “when you have done it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” Well, have we?