Based on Matthew 14:13-21
I had the flu. It was terrible. And I had it as project deadlines were approaching in one of the harder classes I took in seminary; an advanced preaching course with one of the world’s best preachers, Theresa Fry Brown. I had begun the class with excitement, eager to learn all I could from Dr. Fry Brown, but at this moment several Octobers ago, laying in bed with a high fever, I regretted choosing to take this class. It was proving the death of me, especially because I had a massive project due in that class that was hanging over my head. I had tried to work on it, but my fever, and the resulting symptoms, were so overwhelming, I found I couldn’t focus the way I needed to.
So when the flu started to abate, and my temperature returned to normal, I rejoiced at the opportunity to get back to work. But on that same day that I started to feel better, the patriarch of one of the churches I served at the time suddenly passed away. After visiting with the family and beginning the planning process for the funeral, I drove home, stressed out of my mind about how to get it all done. I now had a funeral to plan, I still had this massive project for my preaching class, and I was behind on my readings for other classes, not to mention that it was Wednesday and I had done no work toward a sermon to preach for that coming Sunday. Not even the beginnings of one.
And on top of that, at this moment in my life, I was feeling particularly empty in my soul. Life’s like that: there are times where we’re full and times where we’re empty, and this was an empty moment. I was emotionally tired, physically tired and sick, and spiritually exhausted.
I had no idea how I was going to do it all. In fact, I doubted if I could. I felt an instinct to get away, to isolate myself from pressures and demands, so I could focus and take care of myself. I could hear Lenny Kravitz in my head singing, “I want to get away, I want to fly away.” That was all I wanted in the whole world at that moment.
Which is exactly how I find Jesus this morning in our scripture. Hear now Matthew, chapter 14, verses 13 through 21.
Jesus strikes me as physically, emotionally, and spiritually tired in our scripture this morning. The famous story of the loaves and fishes, the only miracle of Jesus that’s in all four gospels, one of the most famous moments in all of scripture, is preceded by tragedy in Matthew. Just before the Scripture we read this morning, King Herod executes John the Baptist on a whim.
Matthew reports that Herod was on the fence about executing John the Baptist, which had left his followers and friends, like Jesus and much of the population of Galilee, with hope that John would at least be allowed to live. But at a banquet that King Herod threw, his family manipulates him into executing John the Baptist. Not only that, but to execute him immediately and bring his head, on a platter, into the banquet room for his guests to celebrate.
Word travels quickly around the Galilean countryside that John the Baptist has been executed. The people’s hopes are dashed and Jesus is aggrieved. The news about the execution is what Jesus heard when verse 13 says “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew.”
Jesus withdrew by setting sail across a lake, hoping to get away from the people. In my mind’s eye, knowing how much Jesus must have suffered emotionally hearing about John’s death, I can imagine him needing some alone time, needing some space from all of his responsibilities, all of the ways people demanded things of him, all of his duties to teach, in order to be restored spiritually and emotionally.
That’s certainly my instinct in times of emotional challenge, in times when my spirit feels dry, like that October years ago. To retreat, to get away, to walk into nature or to go kayaking or to go to Emory or to go to Epworth by the sea: my favorite places where I feel at home, where I feel at peace, where I can find rest from the responsibilities of my life, from the demands on me, from my duties; this is my instinct in order to recharge.
And in our scripture this morning, that’s what Jesus does: he escapes, isolates, getting away in order to recharge.
I bet we can all relate to that instinct. We need to get away, we need space.
Life places many demands on us. There are the demands of family that ask much of us, whether we’re raising children, caring for elderly relatives, or somewhere in between. There are the demands of our jobs, which often impinge on our time with the relentless beeping and buzzing of our phones, alerting us to messages and emails that demand our attention. And whether or not we’re retired, there are the demands from our volunteer efforts.
On top of all this, there are the demands on our emotions: to be present with people we love, to show empathy and concern for our loved ones and our neighbors. At moments in life, when we’re grieving, or we’re angry, or we’re frustrated, or we’re deeply depressed, it can all feel like too much; too much because the weight and presence of a challenging and difficult emotion, like anger, grief, depression, and the like, takes over our lives and threatens to undo us as it distracts us from keeping up with all our many demands.
And such moments in life, where challenge is high and support feels low, drain our spirits. There’s little we can do in such moments, it seems, except escape.
And so we do. We escape to our man caves and sewing rooms, we escape to the beach or the mountains, we escape to our happy place seeking to find rest and peace.
That’s what Jesus does as he crosses the lake. Jesus is drained, Jesus is dry, Jesus is overcome by emotion, and so he escapes to find rest and peace; the restoration of his soul.
Problem is, the people follow him.
They are aggrieved, too. They are worried, for their King just killed their prophet. They have political fears, they have deep and abiding sadness, and so they run to their leader, Jesus of Nazareth, looking for healing and hope, for answers to their questions, for justice!
I imagine Jesus feels like he doesn’t have anything left to give as he sees the crowd approaching. He just needs some space! I also imagine Jesus doubts how he’s going to help the people, that he feels resentment building up within him, that he feels the panic of knowing your isolation is about to be invaded. Can’t they just leave him alone! Can’t they just give him some space?! Can’t they just wait?!
That’s where I was that October as I recovered from the flu, felt the bearing down of work from school, needed to get ready for Sunday, needed to write a funeral, and needed to be emotionally and spiritually available to a family grieving, all in the midst of a season of my life characterized by a dry soul and an empty emotional reservoir.
Perhaps you can think of times in your life like that. The well has run dry, there’s nothing left to give to others, you just need rest and escape, but the demands of life, the demands of people in your life, won’t let you simply rest and restore, like the crowd following Jesus around the lake.
What do we do in times like this?
Wednesday morning, I parked the car in front of Lolly’s to take the boys in. That’s Carter’s everyday school and it’s where Jack spent Monday through Thursday while he waited for Friday to arrive, the first day of school in Bleckley Co. On Wednesday, as I got Carter out of the car, he asked to take his baba with him, his blanket that he carries around with him at home like Linus. I told him that baba had to stay in the car, that baba couldn’t go to school, and Carter lost it, as toddlers are wont to do.. He wailed, he cried, he was so incredibly sad! This moved Jack’s big heart and he went to give Carter a hug. Carter shoved him away and said “uh!” Jack, looking dejected but not ready to give up, tried to put his arm around Carter as we began to walk in. Carter screamed at him and shoved him away again. Jack, still trying to be a comfort, went to hold his brother’s hand, but Carter slapped Jack’s hand away. Carter was determined to be alone in his suffering, in his grief, in his sadness.
That’s how I perceive Jesus wanting to react to the crowd in our scripture this morning. Jesus is suffering, he’s grieving, he’s deeply sad, and he’s sailed across the lake to be alone, to get away, to isolate himself to recover. Just like Carter wanted to isolate himself, rejecting the offer of love, the offer of comfort, the offer from Jack to suffer with Carter.
When the demands of life just won’t quit, when it all feels like too much, it’s tempting to act like a toddler, being mean to those we love in order to isolate ourselves. We act that way when we’re impatient, or unkind, or generally mean, to those we love; not because we don’t like the people who are making demands of us, but because we’re choosing an unhealthy instinct to force people away from our presence by making ourselves unwelcoming. Resentment, bitterness, builds up inside of us and we choose to treat poorly those we love the most so that we can have the isolation we think we need.
It’s also tempting to shut down, stop being emotionally available, and instead be cool toward others. When asked how we’re doing, we grunt a “fine” and move on with our lives. Or we refuse to admit that we’re struggling on the inside, that we’re dry, and we put on a show, we don our Tom Hanks skills and act like everything’s ok.
Certainly, it’s tempting at times like that, when our isolation is invaded and the demands on us just won’t quit, to turn to unhealthy habits. It’s tempting to take on a persona and act like it’s ok, or be mean and cruel toward those we love, or shut down and put up walls. But doing so leads down a dangerous path, for it’s in those moments that it’s the most tempting to self-medicate by drinking too much alcohol or other using other substances that seem to dull the pain and take away the pressure, at least for a moment. Or to watch things we shouldn’t, trying to make ourselves feel better. Or to buy things we shouldn’t, going on the shopping spree who’s credit card bill we’ll later regret.
So if we shouldn’t shut ourselves down emotionally, or be mean to others, or act like it’s all ok, or self-medicate, what are we do to when we’re just trying to escape to get restored, when we’re just trying to get away to find peace, when we’re just trying to create some space so we can feel whole again, when we’re just trying to cross the lake, but people won’t leave us alone, but the demands on our lives refuse to quit, the crowd keeps following us, the phone keeps beeping and buzzing, and family demands our attention. What are we to do in those moments?
In the White House, up in the study on the main floor of the presidential living quarters, the president was mixing cocktails as usual. Around him were his closest friends and compatriots: some of them cabinet members, others secretaries, others still family, but all enjoyed a close, personal, relationship with this cocktail-mixing president.
The president loved to experiment with different ingredients, as he played host to his friends, such that they never quite knew what they were going to get. He would wheel around in his chair, tray laying across his lap, delivering drinks, talking about the day’s news. Some days, the news was less terrible than others, but in general, the news was always terrible, which made the president anxious, fearful, and heavy laden with burdens. And so the president, while sharing drinks and chatting with his friends and family, would often confide in the ways he was struggling, the things that ailed him, the worries he faced in this critical hour of our country’s history. He spoke directly to his emotional state and well-being, seeking the comfort of this close group of family and friends.
In this small, cocktail crowd, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt found healing as he steered the country through World War II.
We have this image of the strongman president; the president who needs no one, who stands alone making critical decisions. We have an image of presidents who have many advisors, take their advice, and then retreat, isolate themselves, shoulder the burdens and pressures alone, in order to make decisions. That’s part of why this story, this daily tradition in the FDR White House, stood out to me in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “No Ordinary Time.” One of our strongest presidents, one of our best presidents, the one who led us through World War II very successfully, did not isolate himself, did not go at it alone, did not play the strongman. No, he went to his community, his closest compatriots, and asked them to share in his grief, share in his struggles, share in his suffering. And they did, and he was stronger for it.
Many of us want to be that strongman. We can do it on our own, we think. We can make it happen without others. We can solve our emotions, overcome our suffering, all by ourselves. We just need a little space and time, and if we could get that, we’d be fine, is what we think. We value that strongman approach, but the strongman approach is the path to weakness.
Jesus demonstrates that here, and elsewhere when crowds will not leave him alone. Each time a crowd finds him, he chooses to be with the crowd, to enter into that crowd’s suffering, and heal them. That’s true in our scripture this morning. Jesus goes to the crowd, he welcomes them, he communes with them, and he heals them. I think that’s why Matthew makes it clear that healing happened before the feeding of the five thousand. In verse 14, it says Jesus had compassion on the crowd and cured their sick. Before he fed them, before he worked the famous miracle in this scripture, he healed them and, I think, found healing for his own grief and anguish over the execution of John the Baptist.
We could all use a little bit of space at times, but more often than not, in the midst of our stress, in the midst of our anxiety, in the midst of our trials, in the midst of our suffering, in the midst of whatever challenging and difficult moment we’re facing, what we need is to surround ourselves with a crowd of folks who love us, who care for us, who believe in us, who will suffer with us. We need our own crowds who follow us around lakes to come and get us, to be with us, to enter into our suffering.
That’s how I made it through my hard time, when I had the flu, deadlines at school and church, and a funeral to write and family to comfort. I was dry, I felt I had nothing left to give, and my instinct was to isolate, to be the strongman, to figure it out on my own.
But my friends wouldn’t let me do that. Our across the street neighbors noticed that I was off and asked me about it. I spilled all that was on my plate and they entered into my suffering. My best friend also noticed that something was off and I told him all about it. He entered into my suffering, too. And of course, I shared everything with Dana and she, too, entered into my suffering. I had my own crowd with whom I suffered.
And because I had the strength of that crowd, I found the healing I needed. But not only that, I discovered an abundance of what I needed to be the pastor the grieving family needed me to be, the pastor the churches needed me to be, the student Candler needed me to be, and the person I needed me to be.
And so we must choose to suffer together. That’s what we do in those moments when we want to isolate but that isolation leads us to bad behavior. When we want to isolate but the pressures of life just won’t quit. When we want to isolate because we’re dry but more is required from the well of our souls. When we want to isolate but the crowd finds us. We must find folks with whom we can suffer.
That’s what Jesus did. Jesus went to the crowd, no matter how dry he might have been, no matter how much he wanted to isolate, no matter how resentful he might have at first felt, no matter how annoyed he might have been; he chose to go to the crowd, empathize with them, and suffer together with them, sharing in the mutual grief and sadness of this moment of John’s execution.
For there’s healing power when we choose to suffer with others; the power of Christ in each other healing us and providing for us with abundance.
That’s the point for us from this very famous story of Jesus: when life gets tough, don’t isolate; run to your crowd. When we run to others, we discover the healing power of Christ in each other because we find in our crowds all that we need to be strong, to make our way through the challenging and difficult moments of life, to be healed and made whole again. God has ordained it that way: we were not designed to be alone. And when we choose to enter into that design, when we embrace how God has made us, we discover that God offers what we need not in short supply, like five loaves and two fishes, nor in only an adequate quantity, but in abundance. In this story, the loaves and fishes are so abundant that they have baskets full of leftovers. That’s how God provides: giving more than we could ask or imagine.
So when you’re stressed about money, go to your crowd and talk about your struggles, and find there the healing you need and the provision you need in abundance.
When you’re worried about the future, go to your crowd and talk about your struggles, and find there the wisdom you need in abundance.
When life won’t quit making demands of you, go to your crowd and talk about your weariness, and find there the strength you need in abundance.
When your soul has run dry and you feel God is far away, go to your crowd and talk about your despair, and find there the hope you need in abundance.
Whatever the experience, whatever the deep and difficult and challenging moment of life, go to your crowd and find God speaking to you there, healing you, offering what you need in abundance.
Perhaps that crowd is your family. Perhaps that crowd is a small group of friends. Perhaps that crowd is a prayer group. For sure, that crowd can be this church. There are tons of loving, empathic, folks in this church who will readily enter into your suffering. All you need to do is share your suffering, ask for help, and discover the healing power of Christ’s presence when we are in community together as a crowd.
When we choose to suffer together, when we choose to be real about how we feel, when we choose to bring ourselves humbly before our crowd asking that we walk a hard journey together, we not only find healing for our suffering, but an abundance of whatever it is we need.
So go, find your crowd. Go beyond the instinct to isolate and get real with those who love you. God is waiting for you there, ready to heal you, and offer you abundance, through the people who love you, through your crowd.
This day, and everyday that life gets to be too much, go run to your crowd.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.