Matthew 14: 13 – 21
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
August 3, 2014
Over the years, whenever I have been preparing a sermon, I read again and again the scripture that will be the focus of the message, and invariably that text will become the lens, the filter through which I experience everyday life the week prior to Sunday. News stories, posts on Facebook, events in my life and in the lives of others, songs on the radio, even overheard conversations at the grocery store—all act like a megaphone for that focus scripture. I call it “God following me around”. Drives me nuts when she does that.
This scripture was no different. I had thought that I would reflect on the theme of forbearance, patient self-control—something I’ve wanted to preach about for a while. Those disciples seemed to have no patience with a crowd of hungry people. Send them away to find their own food! Never mind that some of them had been sick and had followed Jesus on foot, many of them thirsty, tired, and mostly likely poor as well as hungry. So I thought about forbearance and then went on vacation.
What did God do with that? The universe then served up as many opportunities as possible for me to learn how to be forbearing. I went to get my first pedicure in about a year, and without warning, the woman serving me began telling me with a thick Korean accent how badly she was treated when she came to this country. That brought me up short. Driving back from Connecticut to Delaware took about six hours, including a stop for lunch and gas. Weeding crabgrass. Even waiting for cantaloupe to ripen before I can trap the groundhog who views our garden as his personal salad bar taxes my patient self-control. (By the way, Cynthia: 2, groundhog: 0)
The need for forbearance never takes a holiday. No one knew that better than Jesus. That thing that he heard was the death of his cousin John at the hand of Herod Antipas, hence the need to go to a deserted place by himself. But the crowds heard about it too and followed him to where he was. Even though they were feeling poorly, these people wanted to be there for Jesus but also to hear a word of good news, that Jesus would carry on John’s mission. However drained and grief-stricken he was, Jesus couldn’t help himself. He loved them and healed them.
In my moments of self-righteousness, I’ve wondered if the recipient of my forbearance is aware of the gift I am giving: not honking my horn when someone cuts in traffic, listening patiently even when I can only understand every other word. Forbearance is usually required when someone is solely focused on their own need, not realizing that others may be tired, hungry and thirsty too.
And this is where forbearance can get tricky. It doesn’t mean we’re supposed to be a doormat or to forgo our own needs in order to fulfill someone else’s. Forbearance isn’t about being a martyr or keeping score of how many times we’ve had to bite our tongue and count to ten. It’s not something we can do on an empty stomach nor do we have to do it on our own.
These disciples in the gospel of Matthew haven’t heard Jesus say “I am the bread of life”, so perhaps they’ve forgotten who they’re talking to when they say “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” Jesus simply says, “Bring them here to me.” We are to bring what we have, tired, hungry, thirsty though we may be, even if we feel like we have nothing to give. Our nothing will be lifted up, blessed, then broken open and shared, and yes, a miracle will occur. We will all be fed, with leftovers to spare.
Jesus isn’t asking solely for forbearance but for whatever love we have, even if we have to scrounge for it. For as much as we may grow weary in our forbearance of others, there are those who have patiently listened to us, forgiven our self-absorption and our faults, who have allowed themselves to be broken open for our sake, who have had to sometimes scrounge within their own hearts that we would feast on something rather than nothing at all.
We fervently wish, we hope, we desperately pray that Israelis and Palestinians would learn to forbear with one another, that they would take their nothing and lift it up, bless it, and break it open and share with each other; that American citizens on the Mexican border would forbear with Central American children; that those who fear a diverse, free American citizenry would forbear with LGBTQ sisters and brothers and those of color; that Congress would learn to forbear with one another and with President Obama.
But it begins here with us, in this workshop for the kingdom of God, this Body of Christ. It begins here with this simple meal, blessed, given thanks for, broken and shared, that all may be fed and not just some. It begins with us bringing what we have, even if it feels like nothing, so that Jesus can multiply it and put it to work, not for our sake but for the sake of making that beloved community visible, palpable, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.
Even if it means we must forbear with God who demands of us, “They need not be sent away. You give them something to eat.”
Thy will be done, O Lord, not mine. Amen.
"(I'm Gonna Sit at the) Welcome Table"