A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on July 31, 2011.
Isaiah 55:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21
Have you ever wanted just a little peace and quiet, a time and place to be by yourself? No distractions, no demands, no pressures. Just settle in, maybe with a good book or even just your thoughts. Forget the telephone, you don’t want a TV in sight. It could be your back porch, with a gentle breeze blowing through with the sound of a bird nearby. Or it could be your special retreat place, a secret known only to yourself. Whatever, wherever, we all need, sometimes, a place to get away from it all.
I still recall the Thursday morning in January 1995 as I drove through the northeast Arkansas delta. I was on my way to Baptist East Hospital in Memphis where Janet’s dad lay dying. It had been about a week since his stroke, and it had become obvious that he wasn’t going to make it. The family was to make the decision that morning to withdraw life support, and of course I wanted and needed to be with Janet during this emotional time.
This was my first experience with losing someone that close to me, and even as I drove I found myself in that place I described. My thoughts were going to how life goes by so fast and I needed to give more attention to those things I had wanted to do. The expression wasn’t around then, as I recall, but what I was doing was mentally working on my bucket list.
I doubt he had a bucket list, but Jesus is in a reflective mood. And yes, he too is grieving. He has just received word that John the Baptist has been murdered by King Herod, and we are told that when he heard this “he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”
It’s hard to be alone when a loved one dies. Well-meaning friends bring food. Family members gather to console one another. Plans have to be made, and rarely can that, or should that, be done alone. Generally, when you find yourself in grief, it’s hard to have any alone time.
Many of you remember Grady Nutt, the Baptist minister and humorist. One of Grady’s classic stories was of the seminary student who pastored a rural church on the weekends. Word came to him that a man in his church had died. Could he come and conduct the funeral?
He had never done this before, so he immediately consulted with one of his trusted professors to see how such things are done. After receiving counsel from his teacher, he drove out to the church field to meet with the widow of the man who had died. The professor had told him they would need to find a quiet place where he could talk with her and plan the service.
The problem was, the house was filled with people from the church and community. They couldn’t find any place at all to have this discussion, and since the service was scheduled for the next day, it was imperative that they do this. Finally, the widow suggested the only room that wasn’t being occupied at the moment… the bathroom. So, they went in there. She closed the door and sat down on the edge of the tub, and as Grady puts it, he took the “other seat.”
They had a beautiful time together – a real pastoral moment – sharing stories about the deceased, choosing scripture readings that conveyed her thoughts and memories of her beloved husband. And then they held hands as they prayed together. The only problem was that as he stood, he just instinctively reached over and pushed down the handle.
It was then that Grady reminded us: you just can’t un-flush a toilet.
No, when you are in grief it is hard to be alone. I have a feeling that Jesus knew that already. But just in case he didn’t, he was about to learn.
When Jesus’ adoring fans heard where he was, they followed him in droves. They didn’t know – and probably didn’t care – that he was grieving. Perhaps they had heard the news of the Baptist, but chances are they are oblivious to this kind of reality. The only thing they are aware of is that they can’t get enough of Jesus and his masterful teachings. And who knows, he might even perform a miracle or two. “Let’s go out to the wilderness and find him.” That’s all they had on their minds.
When his little retreat is over, Jesus sees the crowds, and as Matthew tells us, “he had compassion for them” and did indeed cure the sick. It wasn’t much of a retreat, but it was better than nothing at all.
They numbered about five thousand men, we are told, the people who clamored after Jesus in the wilderness. That, of course, does not count the women and children. I’ve often wondered… how did they know? Was there a turnstile, did they do a head count? Did somebody bring a calculator? How did they know?
Maybe the disciples were like my Uncle Laverne. We didn’t call him that – Laverne – but that was his name. To all of us, and even his wife, he was known as Skinny. At his funeral a few years ago, his son-in-law, who is a minister in Virginia, told of how Uncle Skinny counted everything. Tommy said if Skinny were still alive he’d count the number of cars in his own funeral procession.
Some people are just like that. They count their steps as they walk, the people who go by, anything that moves. But I think the point is, by telling us how many men were there that day, we are being given an idea of the magnitude of what happened. I don’t know if Jennings Osborne ever fed barbecued pork to as many as five thousand people, at least at one time, but when he put on a feed he had to bring his biggest equipment and a lot of meat. Jesus? He fed thousands from a single meager lunch. How big was that? Well, it was so big that it’s one of those rare occurrences that is recorded in all four of the New Testament gospels.
And to think, when this story started it was just Jesus, all by his own lonesome, grieving self. His time of retreat and prayer has turned into something of a mob scene. By the time the paragraph is written, he not only finds himself in the company of multitudes, he single-handedly feeds them all.
Well, maybe not so single-handedly after all. You know that Simon Peter was always available to “help.” Good thing he brought along his bullhorn. “Okay, people, let me have your attention now. We’re going to have to have some order here. You know how it’s done. Men on one side, women and children on the other. Okay, okay, let’s go, let’s go. Let’s have some order here.” And just as the Red Sea parted for Moses, the people do the same on command from Simon. They immediately form a center aisle right there in the wilderness and act as if they are at a church supper.
When you get that many people together, you gotta have some order. I told you a few weeks back that my brother Steve is a consultant to the company that produces the Memorial Day and Fourth of July concerts on the west capitol lawn in D.C., the programs that are shown live on Public Broadcasting stations across the country. One of his responsibilities, before the program begins, is to provide announcements and give instructions to the crowds of people who attend. He basically tells them how to behave, where the facilities are located, and what they can expect as well as what is expected of them. That sort of thing.
Can’t you just see Simon Peter doing the same that day in the wilderness? Maybe Jesus is grateful for his assistance. After all, I will remind you that he is grieving. He has things on his mind that would prevent him from doing what his helpers, like Peter, are willing and able to do. If he’d had his druthers, he’d rather still be by himself. But if you were to do a serious study of Jesus’ public ministry, I think what you would find is that more often than not his time is spent dealing with interruptions.
At least a couple of occasions immediately come to mind. You’re familiar with that story that took place in Capernaum, when Jesus was teaching in the house and the men bring their crippled friend to see him? When they can’t get to Jesus because of the crowds surrounding him in the house, they tear a hole in the roof and lower him down to the Nazarene with ropes. Not only was Jesus interrupted, think of the mess!
Are you familiar with the story of the synagogue leader who came to Jesus in the middle of his Sunday School class? He asked him to come and heal his seriously ill daughter. Along the way, a woman reaches out to touch the hem of Jesus’ robe so as to secure a healing for herself. You know that story, don’t you? Jesus was constantly being interrupted.
Happens to me all the time. Usually, I can’t help but think of such interruptions as an annoyance. Evidently, Jesus did not. He saw them as opportunities to reveal the nature of God’s kingdom and to share the presence and power of the One who had sent him to proclaim good news.
Sometimes our interruptions are quite personal and can be difficult. Tuesday afternoon, I met a young man who has had his life interrupted. As I walked through the lobby of St. Vincent Infirmary, I saw Michael Keck, who works there. He was talking with a tall fellow, and when I waved, Michael motioned for me to come over. He wanted me to meet Eric (they attend the church together). The first thing I noticed was the scar on the side of his head, reaching from the back above his right ear, all the way down to in front of his temple. Brain surgery, I thought immediately.
Eric is about to start treatments, and Michael wanted me to meet him. I was taken with his outgoing, bubbly personality. About that time, his attractive wife Tonya came over, I assume after having parked the car. For the better part of ten to fifteen minutes we talked together. Eric says he doesn’t know how much time he has left – he’s still quite confident that he will be fully healed – but he said this whole experience has taught him some valuable lessons. One is that he can’t afford anymore to be subtle or hesitant or timid about sharing his faith, or to act out of fear that he might offend someone. So now, with just about anybody who will listen, he asks them about their relationship with Christ. He’s been ignored, he told me, and on occasion someone will blow him off. But, he said, recently, in an airport, when he put that question to a fellow traveler, the man took his hand and asked if he could pray with him. So they stood and prayed together right there in the terminal. Just so happens the man was an air marshal.
Life is filled with interruptions. Perhaps the next time you are interrupted, a good question to ask might be, how would Jesus respond to this? Jesus always responded with great compassion. Like Eric, he knew his time on earth was short. And while it was important… no, scratch that…while it was absolutely essential for him to have those times when he could be alone for prayer and meditation – when he could talk to his heavenly Father and listen to what his Father wanted him to do – when confronted with such drastic and tragic human need, Jesus could not help but respond with a heart of mercy and compassion and grace.
Out in the wilderness, when he would probably have preferred to be alone, Jesus spends the day healing the sick. Before they know it, it is starting to get dark. “Send the crowds away,” the disciples tell Jesus. “Send them away.” It’s not that they are completely devoid of compassion, it’s just that they are realists. They are aware of the situation. No planning had taken place here. If they had known a revival was going to break out, perhaps they could have prepared a meal. But as it is, there’s simply not enough food to go around and not enough time to go get any. “Send them away.”
What happens next is so well known that many people who know little or nothing of scripture are familiar with it. Jesus takes what little provisions are available to him, he blesses it, breaks it, and shares it with the people. Everybody gets fed and there is plenty of food left over. All because Jesus was interrupted.
Interruptions are going to come, but kingdom people see them not as things that get in the way but as opportunities to share the kingdom of heaven with those who so desperately need it.
So if this story is to teach us anything, let it teach us this… We are to bring before Jesus what we have: our faith, our time, our financial resources, our abilities and gifts, our feeble willingness to do what he wants, as timid and subtle as that might be, and we lay it all that at Jesus’ feet. And then we stand back and watch as he takes these things into his hands, blesses them, and distributes them to others.
There are those times it takes an interruption for Jesus to get our attention, but when we place those interruptions in his hands, they become blessed indeed because anything – anything – in Jesus’ hands is holy.
Lord, we give you what we have and ask you to place it in your grace-filled hands. Multiple it as only you can, and may the kingdom be better for it. In his name we ask this, Amen.