“Lessons From a Barren Place”
Matthew 14: 13 – 21
Several years ago I was asked by the Greater Binghamton Chamber of Commerce to deliver their annual Thanksgiving address. For the uninitiated, this involves delivering a speech to about 500 people in our community that includes politicians, business leaders and executives from many non-profits in our area. It’s quite an intimidating idea to try to put together something meaningful for all of those people.
On top of that, the first Thanksgiving luncheon I attended was when Eliot Spitzer’s wife Silda came to speak in 2007. Then within a month after she spoke all of Elliott’s infidelities came out.
So when I was asked to speak, not only did I have to have some outstanding content to give them, I also had to make sure that I didn’t have anything buried in my closet that would come out to bite me. So I talked it over with my wife and she assured me that we didn’t have anything too embarrassing. She said there was that time at a Seder meal when I set my jacket on fire, but that was just clumsiness and just a little embarrassment. So from her perspective I was good to go.
But as I was thinking about it, there was something that I want to confess to those people. And being as we again have people from all over the county gathered here at Nativity Lutheran Church, I thought it might be a good idea to come clean here with you too. Just get it over and done with in one fell swoop. Yes, it’s kind of embarrassing, but don’t be too hard on me.
It pains me to say it, but yes, I do really enjoy the occasional chick flick.
It seems that after nearly 24 years of marriage my wife has worn off on me and I do now succumb to watching movies that do not involve blowing things up, kick boxing, underwater espionage and martial arts. I do enjoy those movies mind you. But there’s something sentimental in me that just loves the story line of a good love story.
Sleepless in Seatle. You’ve Got Mail. Philadelphia Story. Benny and June. When Harry met Sally. Yes, I’ve seen those and more.
One of my wife’s favorite movies is “Return to Me” starring David Duchovny and Minnie Driver. Those of you that have seen that movie know that the main character’s wife Elizabeth dies and her heart is used to save someone else’s life. The person who is the recipient of the heart transplant named Grace falls madly in love with the husband of the person who gave the heart. One of my favorite lines comes at the point where the whole story comes together the leading man played by David Duchovny says to his soon to be father in law, “I will always miss Elizabeth, but my heart aches for Grace.”
And that is the moment where I start to bawl like a little baby. I guess deep down inside I’m just a sentimental ball of mush and I have been getting much more so as I get older.
In some ways that aching for grace is kind of a parable for where I see our culture today. We are judged and put on the spot more today than at any time in the history of our planet. We have resumes we put out and with so many people out of work we put them through the gauntlet – inspecting them so closely and looking for any imperfection or weakness that we nearly choke the life out of it.
Mercy, Peace, Love, Forgiveness, Long Suffering, these all require a type of grace that we hunger for and yet is lacking in our dog eat dog, first one to the top wins culture that we live in. Weakness is seen by those with this lens as a place where a person can be exploited and used as others scratch and claw their way to the top of the pile.
People in Jesus’ day were hungry for grace too. In Matthew 14 Jesus had gotten some rather unsettling news. His cousin John the Baptist had been killed in a rather gruesome way by King Herod. It was Herod’s birthday, and when Kings had birthdays, it was always a cause to invite all of the nobles and the powerful people of the kingdom to a party. And it was quite the party filled with much feasting and debauchery that only a king could command. After the people were well fed and watered, Herod sent for his young step daughter – or if you will his niece – because the text tells us that Herod had married his brother Philip’s wife Herodias and the girl is only named as Herodias’ daughter – and has her dance and be leered at by his company.
And Herod the king gets amorous and aroused. So enamored is he with his niece, that he promises to grant whatever she wants. The text says, “Prompted by her mother, she said, ‘Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” And Herod does exactly as he said he would.
All around Herod on his birthday were those whose main purpose in life was to posture and preen, looking for the connections and networks that would help these nobles assume more power and prestige, increasing their social capital, climbing the ladder of success and privilege. They were hungry like a wolf and they were willing to do whatever it takes to get to the proverbial top of the mound.
In contrast to the wheeling and dealing that was going on in Herod’s party, Jesus withdrew to a lonely place to be by himself. But a crowd assembled around Jesus in that barren place. They were the sick and hurting mass of humanity that Herod’s crowd would have ignored . And Jesus ministers to them there in that barren, deserted place, curing their diseases and ministering to their souls.
Herod would never have been found in that deserted place. If he were left with a few solitary moments to reflect on the patterns of his life, the violence and murders he perpetrated, the debauchery and incest, the way that he casually used his relationships for his own selfish purposes, the practice would drive him mad. And if there were no politically expedient reason for his withdrawal, Herod would never spare the time to retreat and be alone.
But Jesus withdrew to a lonely, barren, deserted place and there a crowd gathers and in that barren, deserted place they are loved, healed and fed. In short, they are provided for by the hand of a generous King. There in that deserted place, away from the Herods of the world, away from those who exist only to grasp power and prestige, these hurting, wounded folks are fed by the grace, the love, the mercy and the food of a generous King. Unlike Herod who was a king appointed by Rome, the genealogy of Jesus is recounted earlier in Matthew back through Josiah, Solomon and David. This King would listen to the prophets and fulfill what they said about good, benevolent kings. And King Jesus would provide for his people, by lovingly blessing, breaking and giving of the food until all are satisfied.
Today we exist in a world dominated by Herods. The rich seem to get richer and the poor poorer and the middle is shrinking rapidly. In the face of this situation, it seems that many are riding high on the hog while most of us find it hard to get by. Gas prices are up. Food prices are up. The stock market has more down days than up days and many of us are anxious about what this all means.
Barrenness is all around us and we seem to be floundering wondering what direction we should take. And in the face of these anxieties comes the command of Jesus to feed these people. And we think, “What do you mean? Feed these people. There’s got to be at least 5,000 men in that crowd, let along all the women and children!” And we throw up our hands in despair with the disciples and say with exasperation in our voice: “With what? We have hardly enough to feed ourselves let alone feed this mob.”
But Jesus won’t let us off the hook that easily. He knows that in that barren place that God’s grace thrives. God provides and five loaves and two fish, when they are blessed, broken and given are enough to feed that crowd. God wants us to become more dependent upon him and not to react in fear that this crowd is too big, the demand too great, and the hurt too deep.
In the face of the need God wants us to trust him. And as the body of Christ, we realize that it is our place to be blessed, broken and given. And that when all these little pieces are added up there is enough to feed the world with leftovers. The first step is to begin to see the world differently.
Every week we come to a lonely place, to this sanctuary, to worship and commune with God. We come together with other disciples to sit and hear the sacred texts and find perspective on our lives. Around us are the hungry masses, waiting to see if we really do strive to feed people and meet real human needs or are we just looking at them as Herod would – merely as people to be avoided.
Friends, the church always exists in barren places where we have nothing to depend upon but God. There in the barren places the hungry gather around looking to be fed. They are waiting to see if we will embody the Christ we profess to know and reach out with what we have to meet their needs.
It is our job to be blessed, broken and given to the world – and sometimes that will require us to move beyond our comfort zones and reach out to the hungry world. And while the pull of Herod is strong, the pull of Christ is stronger. He will always love and serve the broken, brittle, wounded parts in us and will ensure that even in barren places there is enough to feed the poor, the broken and the lonely. All we need do is be open to the call of God and his providence.
The Apostle Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Philippians, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death. Not that I have already attained this or have reached the goal, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own, but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Let’s continue to speak new life and resurrections into places and people who many had given up on. Let’s learn to be people characterized by second, third and fourth chances and not on the way things have always been. Let’s risk getting hurt. Let’s love like there’s no tomorrow. Let’s show mercy and grace and learn to be Christ’s people in this barren place. In short, let’s be blessed, broken and given to the world, and let’s press on to become more like our King and be amazed at all the things we can do by trusting in the providence and care of our God