Jennifer Whipple
Congregational Church of Brookfield

The Circle of Blessing

Matthew 25:31-40

As many of you know, a combined group of senior high youth along with 6 adults from First Church Danbury and here at CCB recently spent the week in Port Charlotte, Florida and the surrounding area. We spent the week working on rebuilding homes and learning about the mission and services of a variety of non-profit organizations, all of which were formed to address the damage to homes and lives in the wake of the hurricanes that hit during the summer of 2004. We were also blessed to learn a good deal about some of the homeowners we served and worked alongside. At the end of the week we spoke as a group for a bit about sharing the stories…about not letting the experience begin and end in Florida but bringing the experiences and the stories of those people who have felt forgotten back home with us.

In light of that, this morning I would like to introduce you to a woman named Laurel. Laurel isn't here in body, but she is here in spirit and in her story. You see, Laurel lives with her dog, Asa in Punta Gorda, Florida which is right over the bridge from Port Charlotte. She runs a dog grooming business out of her garage, only grooms the ones that are easily carried under one arm though. Laurel is an artist who loves music and has a library of books about the Bible and Faith that could rival most of the bookshelves of the pastors and scholars I know. She has a smile that could win anyone's heart.

Laurel also has a newborn grandbaby and a daughter in her mid-20s who is battling Cancer. She has friends whose homes were completely demolished by Hurricane Charley which hit their particular area especially hard in the summer of 2004, and she calls herself lucky that her house was still standing despite all of the damage to her beautiful home and gardens. Laurel's house doesn't look like much today, but the pictures that hang on the walls show that it is a home full of love and one that will be rebuilt both physically and emotionally in the days and years to come.

When I knocked on Laurel's door early last Wednesday morning I had Pastor Laura from First Church Danbury and 10 young people from the mission team from our two churches along with me. The look on Laurel's face when she saw us gave her away. She had no idea what was going on, who we were, why we were there, and what would happen to her home and all of our lives in the next three days. A man named Ziggy had sent us over to Laurel's house that morning. Ziggy is the project manager and coordinator at the Interfaith Interagency Network of Charlotte County (also known as IINCC). He charged us with pulling up all of the old tile floors in her house so that new flooring could be laid. After her initial shock, Laurel invited us in and immediately called Ziggy asking what in the world he was thinking sending a group of teenagers with only work gloves and hammers to her house to pull up her floors. She kept saying that if she had known she would have cleaned. That was amazing to us, considering there were only two rooms in Laurel's house that even held any furniture let alone much else, one was her front room which housed her art supplies and bookcases, and the other was her kitchen which also served as her bedroom while the rebuilding was taking place. Ziggy calmed Luarel down and told her to trust us, that we knew what we were doing. And of course we did, after all two pastors and a crew of teenagers, we know everything there is about home improvement!

We set to work that morning, moving what furniture there was in order to reach all of the places where the floor tile remained and pulling it up…all the while telling jokes, singing songs, talking about our favorite TV shows and what we expected from the rest of the week. We periodically checked in with Laurel who was grooming two poodles that morning, and she sent Asa in to check on us. By lunchtime we had all of the flooring pulled up and in a pile awaiting the trash trailer that was to come. Later that afternoon we helped clean up Laurel's yard a bit, and in the next two days the group managed to clean up the mess left by the last sheetrock crew, tear down three rooms worth of sheetrock and re-insulate the ceilings in Laurel's house, as well as mow the lawn, weed the gardens, and give Laurel a head-start at rebuilding what she used to call her "oasis," a relaxing garden area alongside her house that she had given up on after the hurricane.

In those three days Laurel shared before and after pictures of her home and the homes and businesses in her area, shared stories of the courage and strength of the people she knew and of her daughter, introduced us to all of her customers, allowed us to play with Asa, and spent time laughing and smiling alongside us.

We could feel the Spirit moving and God working during our time at Laurel's house. She was transformed from a woman who seemed so sad and lonely, who felt forgotten, and who had definitely been surprised and embarrassed by her house upon our arrival, to a woman who opened up to us and shared her life and her home with us.

We were transformed from a work crew joined from two different churches without a lot of technical know-how among us, to a community bound together by a common goal, who were given the gift of stories and enthusiasm for recovery and rebuilding. Laurel looked at Pastor Laura and I at the end of one work day and said these words. "I definitely wasn't expecting two women pastors and a group of teenagers. I was expecting two old guys with some overalls and lots of tools. I sure am happy that I got you though. These young people are wonderful. They have so much energy and strength. They have such great attitudes about the work they are doing here. This whole experience has given me back my hope and vision. For so long I had given up on anything getting done, just dealing with living in my house the way it is now. Now I can see that we are on the way to making a huge difference. I am ready to get back to work here. Thank you all so much!"

It is stories like this which remind us of the circle of blessing…the blessings of God, the blessings that we are able to offer others, and the ones that others offer us in return. God has blessed us in many ways…the greatest of which was God's coming to us in Jesus Christ and teaching us what it means to be obedient to God's will and to help bring about the kingdom on earth. Our faith and the amazing gift of salvation that comes through it compel us to serve others, to share with others, to enter into relationship with all people out of Christian love; whether it is through sharing stories, offering a helping hand, or opening ourselves up to receive the knowledge and gifts others have to offer us.

The author of the gospel of Matthew was aware of the circle of blessing. He focused on a few main themes in his gospel. He focused on Jesus as the Christ, as the Messiah that had been promised to come and lead the way for those who were willing to follow. He focused on the coming of the kingdom of God, the subject of much hope and prayer, a way of life that would bring about peace and joy for all people. He focused on community, on its creation and preservation, of acting for the good of all, especially those who were downtrodden and needed to feel something extra of God's love and blessing in their lives. Finally, the gospel writer focused on justice, on following the example that Jesus provided of obedience to God's will and through that obedience the bringing about of better social conditions and the gift of salvation.

In the scripture which was read from the gospel of Matthew we are reminded of the calling which arises from our faith in a God of compassion and justice. "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." Can you imagine how differently we might act if we kept in our minds those words? "Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."

The mission team used this text from the gospel of Matthew during our final night's devotions on the trip to wrap things up, to talk about the ways each of us had used the gifts God has given us to serve and how each of us was served during the week. Each time I read this text I am reminded that we are given a positive challenge from God…Stay faithful, listen to me, and do what you can.

We all have different strengths and talents, different skills and gifts, and none of us is asked to use them on our own. Rather we are asked to do what we can in this world to help bring about blessing in lives. Even when it seems like we are doing the very least, that little bit can be the least expected and can make a world of difference for someone in need, someone who has felt alone and forgotten. This challenge does not mean that we all go and work to rebuild homes in Florida or New Orleans, but rather that we listen to the ways God is calling us to use our own gifts. Perhaps it is through listening to or spending time with someone who is lonely, or maybe through serving at a soup kitchen, knitting gloves and blankets for a shelter program, or even welcoming someone who is new to your neighborhood or community. We are called to do what we can with what we have. The amazing thing is that what little tasks we are able to accomplish can mean the world to the people whom we are serving, and in turn open our eyes to new, different, and hopeful points of view which we might not have seen otherwise.

The group of us who traveled to Port Charlotte, Florida were truly blessed last week as we learned about living in community and caring for others, as we worked alongside people like Laurel and were able to hear their stories. It was wonderful to watch youth and adults from two different communities come together to share the gospel in word and deed as they worked so hard to help rebuild homes and lives. It is experiences like this one that bring the idea of mission and purpose to the forefront, but each of us has everyday actions that add to the circle of blessing. The circle of blessing is truly alive and well within each and every one of us. You just need to think for a moment to realize the stories and experiences about it that you have to share.

Anyone who saw the inside of Laurel's house after we left her would have thought that we had done nothing but tear it apart. But Laurel saw the promise and hope of rebuilding and recovery. She saw things beginning to move forward. She could envision her new bedroom and a room for her daughter and grandbaby. She could see her oasis come alive again.

And although we knew there was a long way to go, we were given the gift of seeing and feeling Laurel's transformation, of knowing that she could only move forward. We were given the gift of Laurel's faith and hope, of her knowledge and willingness to open her home and share her story. And all the while we knew that God had gifted us with this community of faith behind us, supporting us and praying for us all the while.

As we move into the days ahead may we be aware of the circle of blessing in all of our lives and, strengthened by our faith, continue to help it grow through our own acts of compassion and justice, big and small alike. Amen.