Empowered Despite Grief 9th Pentecost
Psalm 17:1-7, 15 Matthew 14:13-21
Friends, you and I are one chapter in a l-o-n-g story—the story of God’s work in this world. There have been some pretty embarrassing chapters about our spiritual ancestors—painfully recorded in Scripture. And there have been some funny moments—like when Peter saw Jesus walking on the water, and asked him to call him out of the boat and walk on water as well. When he suddenly realized that he was walking on water, he started to sink!
Yes, the history of our family is full of all kinds of characters and an amazing variety of events. I want to begin today with a tragedy—a tragic event that set the stage for our Gospel reading for today. It’s about a man named John.
Our family has always referred to him as “John the Baptist”, but that gets kind of confusing because we know guys named John who belong to a Baptist church. I’ll call him “John the Baptizer” because his ministry was all about calling people to repentance and being ceremonially washed clean—baptized as a physical, outward sign of their inward cleansing and forgiveness. John was some kind of cousin to Jesus, and he was called by God to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah—and he did his job faithfully.
Of course, he talked to all the common people who came out to hear him, and he addressed the religious authorities when they asked him who he was. (Or, to put it in today’s vernacular, “Who do you think you are?!) His call to repentance even extended to King Herod! You see, Herod had stolen his brother’s wife, named Herodias, and had moved her and her daughter Salome down to his palace in Jerusalem. John kept telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have her.”
So Herod had him arrested and put in prison, and he would have killed him right away had he not been afraid of the people, who considered John to be a prophet! But you already know the tragic unfolding of events that pushed him to have John’s head cut off. Then John’s disciples took his body and buried it, and went and told Jesus about the tragedy of John’s death. And here begins the narrative of today’s reading, “Jesus heard the news, and he withdrew privately in a boat to a solitary place.”
Isn’t that what we do when we are grieving a significant loss? We take time off from work; most of our responsibilities go into “a state of suspended animation”; and we live in bereavement.
If we want to be alone, people leave us alone. But our text tells us that Jesus withdrew to a solitary place (i.e. an uninhabited area), a place across the lake. The crowds of people who had been listening to him found out that he had moved, and they followed him there—walking around the lake.
When Jesus saw the crowd, he had compassion on them. He didn’t say, “Can’t you people leave me alone for a little while? Don’t you know that I’m grieving John’s death?! Go away!” NO. He had compassion, and he healed their sick.
Suffering his own personal loss did not stop him from identifying with the anguish of those who were ill, with the pain of having a loved-one in need of healing. While he was mourning the loss of his cousin, he still did the work he was sent to do and cared for the people.
Then our story takes a little twist. It’s getting late. The Disciples are starting to think about dinner. (I can relate.) They are in an uninhabited area so there are no handy places to get food. They are tired, and dealing with their own grief. (After all, Andrew and John had once been disciples of the Baptizer.) They encourage Jesus to send the people away to a village so they can get something to eat. And Jesus says the most ridiculous thing to the Disciples, “They don’t need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
The Disciples responded, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish!” Now, Matthew doesn’t tell us this little detail, but John adds in his Gospel that Andrew—who is the brother of Simon Peter, the one who brought Peter to Jesus in the first place—Andrew says, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”
And Jesus responds, “Bring them here to me.” And they did.
Friends, you all know the story of the feeding of the 5,000. It’s a pretty impressive miracle, no argument. But the exchange we just witnessed is also a mighty substantial miracle. The Disciples could very well have said, “We don’t have anything to give them.” But they didn’t. They are carrying a load of grief and probably hunger—but they feel compassion for the others. They have taken their focus off their own loss and have identified with these poor folks who are willing to follow Jesus around the shore of the lake on foot just to get within reach of his healing hand. That shift of focus seems miraculous, too! And to hear Andrew’s comment to Jesus: “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two fish—but how far will they go among so many?” makes me think of the miracles that you and I participate in. It happens when we see a need and sense God calling us to address that need, AND we also sense our inadequacy to fulfill that task. We stand in the shoes of the Prophet Isaiah, who was aware that he was a man of unclean lips. And yet, when God asks, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” said, “Here I am, Lord. Send me.” (It’s implied that he also asked, “Am I enough?)
The miracle occurs when imperfect people are empowered to do God’s perfect will.
Sure, we see the “impossibility” of the task set before us. And we also battle with the internal struggle that says things like, “I don’t feel like it” or “Not me, Lord, I’m not gifted in that area” or “I’m going to spend my energy pursuing this other thing that I’m fascinated with—don’t bother me.”
But all God needs is a little faith—just faith the size of a mustard seed. A faith that might say, “Here is a boy with 5 small loaves and two tiny fish—but I don’t know what good it will do.” But that’s the miraculous good news: God takes even the tiniest shred of willingness on our part, and multiplies it into something enormous and overwhelming! Even the tiniest shred of willingness. In the midst of 1. Our preoccupation with other things, and right while 2. We are not feeling like doing God’s work, and at the precise moment when 3. We are doubting our abilities, we can give to God all that we are able, and then just put the rest in God’s hands. AND THAT’S ENOUGH!
At times like those, I hear a little song that I used to teach the children’s choir, based on Paul’s words to the church in Philipi: “I can do all things, through Christ who strengthens me.”
Friends, God provides the miracle. God’s power is actively at work around us and in us and through us. No matter how we feel.
Melissa and I remember vividly a time when the kids were tiny, and both of us had a severe case of the stomach flu. We were lying on our bed, our bodies aching, and we didn’t want to move. But the kids had to be put to bed. I got up and got Chris bathed and in his jammies and tucked into bed, then I fell back into bed myself. Melissa dragged herself into the nursery, changed Erin’s diaper, got her fed and dressed for bed, and then she crashed. It felt impossible to get up and do this, but we knew it had to be done.
WE CAN DO ALL THINGS THROUGH CHRIST WHO STRENGTHENS US!
God is ready to do miracles despite our shortcomings. Jesus said, “All things can be done for the one who believes.” And we cry out, “I believe! Help my unbelief!”