If I Were Preaching, Matthew 14:13-21, Reflectionary

On Empty

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.

Matthew 14:13-14, NRSV

It’s hard to read this week’s gospel lesson without referring to the preceding verses that set the scene. John, who prepared the way for Jesus, had been murdered as part of a palace plot, beheaded as the prize requested by a young girl at her mother’s instigation. King Herod let it happen because he felt ashamed and embarrassed by his life and the truth John told him about it. This summer I’ve heard many stories about violent losses, not just on the news but from friends I wish I could comfort. Sometimes we can only sit with the trauma of the incomprehensible and allow ourselves to grieve.

Jesus heard this terrible news about a barbaric death, and he needed to get away. Mark’s gospel established the idea of Jesus taking time apart to pray and renew himself, only to be followed by the searching disciples or roused by them from a much-needed nap. Here he tries but is followed not only by his friends but also by crowds of people. I imagine him feeling depleted and shocked, bound to be considering his own mortality. 

Consider the context of the times, in which an oppressive regime wielded control over their lives and threatened their community values. I wonder how many people who followed Jesus that day felt the same way: empty, grieving, even a little desperate, willing to trust a teacher who had come out of nowhere to attract so much attention. 

And I wonder about Jesus, emptied out by shock and sadness, yet moved by compassion to help those who needed what he could give. I think of him, moving through grief to heal others.* I think of him, touching people who needed filling, not just with fish and bread, but with hope. Writing about this passage years ago, I said, “It is the hope we receive when we share the broken bread and the outpoured cup. That tank is never on empty.”

For those of us still worshiping online, or in person but at a distance complicated by safety protocols, finding that hope can be complicated. We are without the common elements and practices that restored us so regularly we may not have realized their sustaining power. We may well identify with the disciples, reporting to Jesus that the crowd is hungry.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

Matthew 14:16-17

We have nothing here, they said. How relatable! Pastors and church leaders, businesses and schools systems and families, people with jobs and those without have been looking around for months now to figure out how to manage in untenable circumstances. We have experienced the literal emptiness of grocery store shelves and the existential emptiness of lost plans and experiences.

We feel empty now, but we know what happened next. Jesus made more than enough out of what seemed like nothing. He did not call down bread from heaven like manna in the wilderness. He made more out of what was already available.

If I were preaching this week, I would acknowledge some of the ways we are running on empty. I encourage you – as I am encouraging myself – to name the grief we all feel as part of the story, just as it was part of Jesus’ story. Then turn toward identifying what might fill both us and others. What bread and fish do we have to share? What resources are available in our community of faith that God might multiply?

Jesus had compassion for the people. May we be moved to acts of compassion in his name.

*The Greek in verse 14 indicates a visceral response to the needs of others.

I will be taking time for professional development and vacation in August.
My weekly Reflectionary email (subscribe here) will move to Tuesdays when it returns on September 8, and these blog posts will push later in the week.


Flea Market Fever Dreams (on preaching this week)

The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands…

Acts 17:24, NRSV

Over the weekend, a big flea market in my town reopened, although we are still under a Stay-at-Home order that allows only life-sustaining businesses to be open. An article on the local paper’s website told the story. The next morning I read about a restaurant in Colorado that opened for Mother’s Day. In contrast, the pastors in my circle of friends and coaching clients are proceeding with caution because of stories like this one from Calgary, and I want to know why people didn’t pay attention to this story from New Jersey. I understand the desire to return to work, and particularly to church, but the warnings we have received about the vulnerable, and the prohibition against singing, point us toward waiting and demand that we offer a vision for what the church is and can be right now. 

God does not live in shrines made from human hands. 

This week’s lesson from Acts gives us a way to talk about the current situation. Paul spoke at the Areopagus hoping to win over people who might have thought their way of belief and worship and his way of belief and worship were incompatible. He looked for a common value, the thing groups or individuals operating in opposition might actually understand to be shared. The divided nature of our world now makes this particularly difficult. How do we handle things when the Christian value of love for neighbor can come into direct conflict with American values of freedom and independence. A sign in the window of the Colorado restaurant announced,

As seen on Twitter.

The news stories read like the troubled dreams I have had in recent weeks. While my daily life has been lived at home, my inner world takes me to crowded spaces where others do not believe there is a problem. We not only lack a shared understanding, many lack the desire to find one. It can be hard not to drift into despair when we read the news. 

Friends who are preachers, here’s the good news. It’s not our job on a particular Sunday to change the entire world. It’s our calling instead to speak to this moment in the lives of the people we serve. I note, in my conversations with coaching clients, colleagues, and friends, that most congregations are acting like themselves, but amplified. Thoughtful and cooperative church folk are working well together; conflicted congregations are divided; antagonists are still antagonistic. You know your situation best. What is the story that will remind your livestream-watchers and Zoom participants who they are and whose they are? What common value do they all hold dear?

Paul praised the religious inclinations of the people he met on Mars Hill. We might note the way our listeners care for those closest to them, or serve in the local community, or make sure never to forget the members of the congregation who are fragile or homebound and might be “no tech” in this time of social distancing. Certain voices may be calling them fearful; you can remind them that they are caring. Certain voices may want to call our decisions political; you can remind them that our decisions are made based in our faith. Certain voices may declare them “sheeple;” you can remind them who guides their flock.

Preachers, I am praying for you in this difficult season. Speak from your context and find the highest common denominator that will resonate with the people you serve.