Plenty in a deserted place (Sermon for Midweek 4, Lent 2016)
10 On their return the apostles told Jesus all they had done. He took them with him and withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida. 11 When the crowds found out about it, they followed him; and he welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured.
12 The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place.”13 But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” 14 For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, “Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” 15 They did so and made them all sit down. 16 And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. 17 And all ate and were filled. What was left over was gathered up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.
Yesterday I was getting ready for the day, and feeling like I was pretty on top of things. I had to be at a clergy gathering at 9:30, and I had already taken care of several things that morning, including a nice long walk. As I took a leisurely shower, I thought, “Before I leave, I’ll cut my nails, make breakfast, fold the laundry, feed Grace, and put the dishes away.” [All things I had been putting off for too long!] “In order to get Grace to daycare and get to ministerium on time,” I thought, “I’ll plan to leave a bit after 9.” Oh yes, everything was right on track… until I got out of the shower and saw that it was already 9:05. Out went my ambitious to-do list, as I scrambled to just get out the door as fast as possible.
That’s always how I feel at about this point in Lent. We’ve been chugging along on our journey, and feeling pretty good about our progress. Many of us have kept up on our Daily Bible readings, and gotten a walk in each day. Maybe you have started planning a splendid Easter day with your family. The warmer weather has kept us all perky and moving right along… and then suddenly Easter is only a couple weeks away and there is so much to do and oh my goodness where did the time go?! Then in the rush to plan and pray and visit and read, all of my discipline starts to make its way swiftly out the window.
And what I am left with, I find, is a feeling of hunger.
Hunger for what? I don’t know exactly. Maybe, hunger for the way I felt in my leisurely shower, when I was blissfully unaware of time and responsibility. Or, hunger for the chance to sit and just be with God. Hunger to spend time doing what feeds me. In short, I suppose it is a hunger for God.
“The day was drawing to a close,” Luke tells us, when the disciples suddenly realized, after a long day of ministry, healing, and teaching, that Jesus needed to send this hungry crowd back into the city to find food and lodging. They were out in the wilderness, in a deserted place, where they would never find enough provisions to satisfy this large crowd. The disciples are smart, I think, to send the people out of the wilderness and into a place where they can get what they need, but no: Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.”
Of course, they protest: “We can’t do that, Jesus,” they say. “There’s not nearly enough out here in this deserted place to feed all these people! There is too much need, and not enough resources. We can’t do it.”
I think this is often my complaint, and I think many of us have that complaint. There is too much need, and not enough resources. We stretch ourselves too thin. We take on too much to leave any time doing what truly feeds us. We look around us and see only lack, rather than potential.
Nowhere is this more true than in a deserted place. Deserted places have a way of sucking the hope and possibility right out of you. They are places that lack: lack the people we want in our lives, or the time we wish we had, or the resources or energy we never can muster. The wilderness is like that – a deserted place if ever there was one.
But Jesus won’t entertain the disciples’ concerns; he just proceeds with his plan to take these limited resources, and feed the people. For Jesus, there is no place that is so deserted that there is not enough to be fed with what is needed. Where the disciples see “not enough,” Jesus sees plenty – that is, if they work together. He has the disciples sit everyone down and organize them. Then he takes the food, says a prayer of blessing and thanksgiving, and voila, everyone is fed, with plenty to spare. It is one of the most famous miracles in the Bible, and one that appears several times, at least once in each of the first three Gospels.
But where does this leave us – those of us who still feel like we are in a deserted place, still waiting for that miracle that turns our hunger into fullness? Right now, we are still in the wilderness of our pilgrimage journey. We are still searching. We are still seeking. But what are we seeking, and how? Are we broadly searching the horizon, like the father in the Prodigal Son that we heard about on Sunday? Are we identifying the smallest details of what is right before us, like I did when I saw my first flower of the season on my walk on Monday – a little bunch of purple growing right on the edge of someone’s lawn? Are we sitting still and just listening – to the birds, finally singing their song again, or the wind blowing through the yet empty branches, or the sound of people and dogs once again walking outside – and hoping that in the sounds of life, we will find life of our own?
One of the challenges of parenting a baby is that every need she has, she needs someone to take care of it for her, but she lacks any meaningful language. So every cry she makes is a puzzle: what is her need right now? We go through the checklist – is she hungry? Tired? Needing a change? Hot? Cold? Lonely? Bored? Once we figure out her particular need, her literal or metaphorical hunger, we can feed her, give her what will fill her up, satisfy her. It’s pretty gratifying, to see your child go from screaming, to completely content, just as soon as she gets the precise thing that she needs.
If only it were so easy for us complex adults – to be able to identify exactly what we need, and then to have that thing and be satisfied. (Hungry? Tired? Needing a change? Hot? Cold? Lonely? Bored?)
Whatever it is, Jesus has that thing, that thing that we need. Or at least – if we work together – he can help us get it. That is what this journey is all about – both our Lenten pilgrimage journey, and our life’s journey. Will we doubt, and get stuck in our mindset of there not being enough in this deserted place to satisfy the need around us and in us? Or will we trust that Christ can always make plenty out of what we perceive as scarce?
Let us pray… God of plenty, you have filled the hungry with wondrous things, even when all we can see is a deserted place. Help us discern what hunger we have, and guide us to a place where that hunger can be filled, so that we might know your abundance. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.