Tuesday, 05 August 2008 16:59

A Lonely Place

“A Lonely Place” - Matthew 14:13-21
A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
August 3, 2008
University Baptist Church, Minneapolis, MN

We know this story so well.  It’s told more often in the Bible than any other story.   Six times it’s told.  It’s as if the Bible is telling us to pay attention.  We know how the crowds were pressing in on Jesus and that they needed to feed them.  We also know about the scarce resources that the disciples had: five loaves and two fish.  And we know that by some miracle— some magic from Jesus or was it the finding of resources they didn’t know they had—everyone was fed so much that there were twelve baskets leftover. 

But I want to focus on two things that might not get looked at as much.  The first is the contrast of this meal with the one that proceeds it in the Bible.  The other is the fact that Jesus tried to get away to a deserted place.  Maybe through this examination, we can look with new eyes upon the popular story of the loaves and fishes and it will give us a reminder of who Jesus was and who we are to be.

First of all, let’s go back a few verses to the beginning of the 14th chapter.  Matthew tells the story of a birthday party thrown by Herod for Herod.  Not everyone was invited to this party.  It was a party of the elites.  It goes without saying that there was plenty of food.  There was also intrigue at the party reminiscent of night time soap operas.  You see, Herod wanted to have a dangerous liaison with Herodias who just happened to be the wife of his half-brother Phillip.  Since John the Baptist said it wasn’t right for Herod to be involved in such an incestuous relationship, Herod had him arrested.  If you tell the king what to do and what not to do, you pay the price. 

The people who were at the party were Herod’s friends and accomplices.  They didn’t dare cross him, for they knew about his wrath.  At the party, Herodias’ daughter danced one heck of a dance.  Herod was so pleased that he promised her whatever she wanted.  At her mother’s encouragement, she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.  Herod, not wanting to go against his promises to a guest at his own party granted her wish.  That’s one twisted dinner party and a host whose priorities are mighty messed up.

It’s no accident that the next story in the Gospel is of a different kind of party.  It’s not thrown in a palace.  It’s thrown on a lakeshore.  Everyone is invited.  No one is turned away.  Everyone gets food and it never comes at the expense of the innocent.  The propaganda of the day was that the gods provided food for people through the emperor.  Jesus showed that God’s will is that people should be fed, even in spite of the emperor.  This was real hospitality and it’s as much a miracle as the so-called multiplication of the loaves.

This brings me to the second thing I wanted to point out this morning.  This event happened right after Jesus heard about the death of John the Baptist, his friend, his teacher, his kin, his predecessor.  When Jesus heard about John’s brutal killing, he went off in a boat to a deserted place.  I imagine that it was a lonely place.  He and John had been kin in the faith and had made similar friends and enemies.  Jesus, I imagine, wondered if his fate would be the same as John’s.  I imagine he missed his cousin.  He was angry at Herod, at Herodias, at all of the people who stood by watching it happen and saying nothing.  He got another cruel reminder that the road is hard and the work is seemingly never done.  So he went off to a place to be by himself.   He needed to grieve, to contemplate, to reconnect, to rejuvenate, perhaps to reconsider some things about himself.  This is what we do when someone significant in our life dies.

But he could not be alone.  The crowds followed him with their very real needs of food and hope.  Jesus obliged, as we all knew he would. But what about his need to go to a deserted place?  We’ll see it again in next week’s scripture from this same chapter.  Jesus never seems to be able to get away.  One can be surrounded by people and still be in a lonely place.  The question is, what do you do with that loneliness.

Today, we remember the 13 people who died in the 35W bridge collapse just one year ago.  We all remember where we were when it happened. We all remember the frantic phone calls assuring each other’s safety. We all remember the 13 people killed and the dozens injured. We all remember how fragile and blessed life is. And for many this is a time of great sadness, reflection and even loneliness as we remember the loss of a loved one or the hardship that the bridge collapse has caused.  No one can know the loneliness of a survivor other than a survivor.  Even surrounded by people, they can be on their own island of despair, offended by the simplistic words of supposed comfort “It’s all in God’s great plan.”       

I heard Methodist Bishop Sally Dyck say on Friday at the Interfaith Remembrance Service that we have all become amateur bridge engineers.  We can point out the potential flaws in the design.  We can talk about gusset plates.  We can talk about uneven weight distribution and we can wax angrily about transportation funding and tax policy.   We can also talk about redundancy. The bridge was built without the redundancy that makes it possible for one critical failure to make everything else fall down.  If there was a redundant set of girders or gusset plates or arches, the bridge might still be standing today.  Redundancy.

It seems to me that when John the Baptist died, the message that Jesus was trying to convey lost its redundancy.  Jesus was in the lonely place of having to tell the story, having to show the story, having to be the story all by himself. He was in that lonely place of despair that we have experienced at one time or another—where we have to decide whether we are willing to take up that mantle, that cross, that platter and move forward. 

Thousands of people turned out on Friday to the bridge memorial.  Hundreds of thousands of prayers have lifted up to the sky and have surrounded all of the victims and their families.  And each of them is a reminder of the redundancy that is alive and well in this city and in this world in the midst of tragedy.   

Jesus went off to that lonely place, thinking that everything was lost.  And yet there were his disciples, some of whom were likely John’s disciples, too.  They were mourning just like Jesus. And I bet they held him up and propped him up.  They became each other’s support, their redundancy.          

Strengthened by the redundancy of the disciples, Jesus went on to give an object lesson of real hospitality.  He went on to show what a real inclusive feast is like.  It’s like a miracle.         

Sisters and brothers, the church is at its best when we are the redundancy we need to face the challenges and the blessings of this world.  If you are in that lonely place, remember that you are not alone.  Remember that there are those out there who love you and who want the best for you.         

If you are not in that place, remember that someone else might well need the reminder of your presence, your support, your love, your comfort, your listening ear, your generous spirit.            

We are each other’s redundancy.  We hold each other close and we grant for each other hope and purpose and blessing.           

And when we remember that, then this meal that we are about to celebrate becomes not only a time when we remember the last supper, but it also reminds us that miracles can happen when we are each other’s redundancies, the answer to the lonely places of too much of our existences.         

Thanks be to God who has not and will not abandon us.            Amen.