This is the message I preached on Sunday, February 24th, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC I hope it blesses you! If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us! Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC. We also have Bible study most Wednesday nights at 6:30 PM at our fellowship hall.
Call to Worship, based on poem by Lillian Susan Thomas
If only it
worked that way,
and hope would
Sermon “Enough is as Good as a Feast”
Matthew 14:13-33 New International Version (NIV)
13 When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
15 As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”
16 Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
17 “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.
18 “Bring them here to me,” he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.
22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, 24 and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.
25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.
27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
29 “Come,” he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
These are the words of God for the people of God. May we hear God’s voice as we listen to them, discuss them, and embrace them in Christ’s name. Amen.
What stands out to you about these words of Scripture?
As I read these words, my memory goes back to a freezer and fridge overflowing with food.
Before my late wife passed, I don’t believe I had ever seen so much food in my life. Day after day after her passing, everyone brought by tupperwares of every imaginable food. In fact, when I moved to Durham a year and a half later, I do believe I still had tupperwares in my fridge left over from kind people who came by my apartment the first few weeks after Kat passed, worried I might be so overcome by grief I didn’t think to cook. Being raised by folks who taught me “waste not, want not,” cooking again for myself felt like a reward, since I made myself wait until I got some distance into the freezer, reheating meal upon meal until I began to cook for myself again.
Not only was I surrounded by food – but by lots of other kind gestures, like how my Sunday school class pitched in money and bought me a tree for Christmas, knowing how special decorating at the holidays had been for me. And one friend came over and insisted to clean and reorganize my kitchen, while bringing over a big container of pasta that lasted for weeks.
This was how my community cared for me in a time of grief and trauma.
When we join Jesus and his first followers in our Gospel lesson, they too are in a time of grief and trauma. Jesus’ mentor, John the Baptizer, who had organized a movement of repentance and renewal centered on baptism, the very same baptism Jesus went through earlier in Matthew, had been beheaded by the puppet ruler of Palestine, Herod. John had called Herod out for his violence, for his license when it came to women, for the way he used and abused others. Then, in the midst of a lavish party in Herod’s palace, with more food and drink than one could know what to do with, Herod’s niece had done a dance for him and, on behalf of her mother, the wife of Herod’s brother, a woman who Herod had taken as his own lover, she asked for John’s head on a platter.
As we begin today’s reading, John’s head has just been delivered on that platter as promised. John the Baptizer’s outcry against the sins of the comfortable, powerful, and well-established was finally silenced by the power of Roman state violence.
I can only imagine the shock and pain Jesus must have felt and the questions that must have run through his mind on hearing the news of John’s death. I can only imagine how heartbroken, confused, and lost those who had gone down with Jesus to the river Jordan to be baptized by John, must have felt to see him killed so brutally.
As individuals, as communities, as families, as a church, as a nation, we go through times of trauma and shock too, times which shake us to the core, leave us hurting and grieving, leaving us wondering what comes next and where to turn. What does Jesus’ example teach us about how to deal with loss, grief, and trauma?
First, Jesus models our need in the midst of such pain to take a time out, to stop and to simply be. Jesus knows his disciples are hurting and looking for comfort from him. He knows those who have looked first to John the Baptizer and then also to him for a word from God will be looking to him, hoping he will show them some way forward. Yet he puts a pause on his need to rush to respond.
It is easy, in the midst of your own pain, to simply react. To rush to decisions. To rush to new plans. Jesus could have done this. But he knew he needed to stop, to sit with what had happened, seeing what lessons it had to teach. He knew his need, as Hebrews 4 invites us, to come boldly before God’s throne of grace where he can find mercy and strength in this time of need.
Before he could help others who were hurting, he knew he had to reach out to the One who heals hurting hearts. Before he could share a word from God with others, even Jesus had to step away from the noise of what had happened, quiet his own heart, go to God, and listen. So Jesus begins by leaving the crowd and going away alone, just Him and God. Likewise, after he ministers to the crowd, he sends his disciples away by themselves so they can do the same; and he then pulls away from both to again pour himself into prayer, plugging into the presence and life of God.
Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, in a few weeks I am flying on an airplane to visit my longtime friend a UCC minister up in Boston. Likely I will experience what most of us do whenever you ride in a plane. Before takeoff usually they do a safety talk where they point out exits, explain seatbelts, and explain what to do if air pressure goes wonky. They always explain oxygen masks will fall down, and then tell you that, though you might be tempted to rush to put masks on the person beside you first, to secure your own mask first, because only then can you really help another with their own. What good would it be for both of you to pass out, breathless, while you are trying to help each other? Jesus models here the need for all of us to put on our own masks first, making sure we are giving ourselves the breathing room to spiritually reconnect with God, when we come out of loss and trial, or face crises of our own.
Next, Jesus models our need to let the tragedy or trauma we’ve faced from a situation open us up to welcome in other hurting people and share with them, rather than closing ourselves behind walls out of fear.
In large part because of the people who surrounded me with not just tupperwares of food but also companionship, listening ears, and love, I was able to take my own pain from being widowed and let it teach me how to have compassion on people losing loved ones during my work with hospice. Rather than breaking me in two, the experience broke me open to love and serve others in new ways.
Yet, like many of you, I have seen people broken by their pain in such ways that they become jaded, afraid to open to others, busily protecting themselves from ever getting hurt again.
In a way that response of fear seems to be the one the disciples have when they are over-run by those hurting people who cannot figure out how to move on after John’s death, who come and crash Jesus’ retreat to be alone and pray. The disciples see them and are worried they will run out: there is not only not enough food, but not enough energy, time, room, or resources, for such a crowd that have crossed the borders they felt Jesus’ retreat had marked off. Send them away, the disciples say. We have to protect our own food, time, space, energy. If we share, there will not be enough, they think.
And to be sure, resources are limited, from a human standpoint. This story centers on fish and water – the disciples go out on a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee and people share fish that had been pulled out of the waters of that same Sea. The reason people flock to the Sea of Galilee to fish there, was that food in general was scarce. Most ordinary working people in Palestine had been pushed off the farm lands where their ancestors raised crops for food by Roman leaders like Herod and wealthy aristocrats like the temple priests, both of whom John had called out to repent for how they had built great wealth by gobbling up those lands and generally mistreating the poor. Now many people had no land on which to farm. If they still lived on the lands their ancestors farmed, they weren’t able to keep the food they grew but had to hand it over to these wealthy folks who now owned that land and sold its crops for a profit. So food was hard to come by – and people had to fish the waters of Galilee just to get enough to eat. Add to this the real threat that John’s death brought — that the might of Rome might come for the lives John’s followers too – and you can see why the disciples might want to put walls up, to hoard what little freedom, food, energy, and resources they had just for themselves, and most of all not let in crowds of people who drew attention from Herod and his government.
It is easy to let pain become fear, distrust of others. For it to lead us to put up walls to keep out others who are hurting, who are different. To lead us to turn inward. Ultimately that just creates a situation where we hurt more, are lonely and isolated, and we multiply that hurt in the lives of others around us by pushing away from them when they need us most.
You can see how this can happen in our personal lives, and in families, but we see this tendency writ large in communities across our country right now, whether churches or towns; and across the country as a whole. People are feeling threatened and afraid by changes in our society, by people who are different, by the economic struggles they are going through, and so not only put up metaphoric walls but are arguing to put up literal walls, afraid of the stranger, the immigrant, the poor, the struggling and in need. That fear can lead us to think there is not enough to go around, and we must hoard what little we have from others.
Jesus chooses another path. When the crowd comes seeking words of comfort and direction, he welcomes them. He is moved with compassion for them, his heart breaking at their situation. The Biblical Greek used to describe what we translate “heal the sick” here literally means strengthen the weak. Jesus shares his time, his energy, his prayers, his attention and what good words he has for them, to strengthen them in this time of weakness. And, rather than sending them back to fend for themselves, he instructs the disciples to take what little food they have – just a bit of bread and fish, and let him bless it, and then have them distribute it to the crowd.
When he does so, everyone is fed and comforted by eating together. And much more bread and food is gathered than is ever passed out. The Bible does not explain how this happens. Was it like when Elijah went to the widow in his journeys and blessed her oil container, so so it never ran out, all based on God’s generous provision despite every law of nature , because she was generous and gave more than she thought she could afford to him, choosing generosity rather than fear? Or was it that everyone there had a bit of food with them already— some only a tiny bit and some a lot more than they could ever use— which they were all keeping to themselves out of fear, yet when those people saw the disciples sharing what little they had it inspired them, the whole crowd, to each chip in a bit? Either way, we are reminded that if we embrace the idea that we don’t need extravagance, but enough is as good as a feast, and that if, rather than seeking extravagance, we share with others, we will be amazed at the ripple effect it makes, leading others to pay it forward in ways that are truly miraculous! As I’ve said before, Jesus models that God’s way is not about building higher walls to keep others out but wider tables, where more can be welcomed.
Which leads us to the final message of this text. Which is how this is all possible. You see ,this call out of fear into openness and faith is frightening. Like the disciples at the end of our reading, we can feel that we are on shaky, uncertain ground. It can feel like we are about to be knocked over by waves, drowned. It can feel like being called onto choppy seas, called to walk on the water like Peter is called by Jesus.
In a way, it is. It is a call beyond who we can be and what we can do on our own. It is only possible because we follow one who can walk on the water, one whom the wind and wave obey – Jesus the Christ.
This would have been very clear to those who first read the Gospel of Matthew. The Gospels were all written as one of the last parts of the Bible. While the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life lived, people simply went to them to hear the stories of Jesus. These all seem to have been written in responses to persecutions in which Christians died, as a way of keeping the story of Jesus around.
In particular, the Gospels began to be written after the persecutions of emperors Domitian and Nero, under whose reigns the apostles John the Revelator and Paul both were killed. Nero in particular was known for throwing parties like the party Herod threw – full of piles upon piles of food, and pitchers upon pitchers of wine, all while the people of the empire starved. And, like Herod killed John the Baptizer as a part of his festivities, Nero was known for stringing up Christians and lighting them afire like Tiki torches to keep his parties well lit at night.
If ever there was a time for fear, it was in that time period when this persecution went on, which is the time period around which the Gospels were written. And yet, history tells us it was the great generosity in the giving of food and clothes, the care for the sick and abandoned, service to others, and other acts of people whose hearts were moved with compassion, offered by these first Christians in the midst of such persecutions that led the poor, suffering, and outcast to flock to the church. Those followers of Jesus chose to let their experience of suffering and loss, trauma and threat, not cause them to withdraw from the world and set up walls to exclude others who were different but instead to be moved with compassion for the world around them, and openly share with and serve others. Historians tells us it is this choice made by those persecuted Christians which ultimately caused the church to grow and thrive.
They could do this because they knew it was not up to them. They depended on the one who can make the most tempestuous storms and waves as still as pavement, as sturdy as the mountains, and easier to walk on than a sidewalk with just a Word. And in that one they could trust and rest secure.
And the same is true for you, and is true for me.
May we choose to trust, to follow Christ onto the waters, by living lives of faith rather than fear, compassion rather than closed mindedness, sharing and service rather than shrinking behind walls. Amen and Amen.