Sunday Lectionary – Proper 13
Years ago, toward the tail end of my time in seminary, I had to do an internship as a hospital chaplain. At the time, hospitals frightened me. Or rather, not the hospitals, but the people within them and their struggles with pain, be it physical, emotional or spiritual. I wasn’t very adept at dealing with their emotions, let alone my own at the time, and so the idea of being a spiritual guide to those struggling with those issues was truly daunting to me.
The hospital I ended up at was the trauma center for the area north of Los Angeles, and it routinely dealt with gunshot wounds and other forms of major trauma. It was also one of the surgery centers in the area, and, as is always the possibility, mistakes can be made, resulting in complications from these surgeries.
One particular floor of the hospital was the long term care ward, which housed a lot of people who had had these complications with their surgeries, and were now confined to their beds. People who had lost mobility, or an aspect of their life through no fault of their own. People who often were dealing with the anger of that loss.
It wasn’t an easy floor to spend time on.
On one day, I had been shadowing one of the other chaplains as he spoke with people throughout the hospital, and we ended up on this particular floor. When we got there, he had me shadow through a couple of rooms, and then as we approached a room for a woman who had been there for over four months, he said, “Now you go. I will wait outside and listen in.”
If our lives could have sound effects, this moment would have included the creepy stabbing sound from the movie Psycho that always accompanies the moment that characters experience sheer terror.
And so I went in, introduced myself as one of the chaplains and began conversing with the woman. I offered to pray with her and her daughter, and then continued speaking with them. I felt completely awkward. I felt out of place. I felt like I had no skills necessary to deal with what the woman was talking about. If I had been watching myself through the lens of a sit-com, I would have been curled up in a ball with the visceral reaction of “Oh my God what is that guy doing?” and just totally cringing.
Finally, my mentor came into the room, introduced himself to the woman and her daughter, and let them know that he had to take me away.
I. Was. Relieved.
He asked me how I felt, and I replied “Awkward. I felt like I was completely incapable of handling the situation. If you hadn’t come in there to get me, I do not know how I would have gotten out of the room without being totally rude and just suddenly walking out.”
He then turned to me and said, “Well, we need to work on your exit strategy, but you need to realize that you provided something wonderful back there. You listened. You prayed with them. You helped them to feel heard. And you helped them feel like someone else understood their pain. I know you felt awkward. I know you felt completely incapable of the situation. But you knew what to do, even if you didn’t know that you knew. What was obvious was that you were letting yourself get distracted by those awkward feelings, by whatever thoughts and doubts were running around in your head, rather than doing what you already knew how to do.”
In today’s Gospel, we find another story of a mentor, but instead of just one awkward guy, we find that we have a bunch of them, all feeling inadequate to the situation.
Today, the Gospel simply starts with “When he heard of this, Jesus withdrew from there in a boat.”
Which makes us ask, what did Jesus hear?
Well, in the previous passage, John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, had been beheaded by King Herod, because the king had made a rash promise to his niece after she danced for him and his visitors. Her mother then prompted her to ask for the head of John the Baptist, and Herod felt compelled to follow through on the oath he had just given to his niece.
His cousin John was dead, and Jesus was sad. He was emotional, and naturally, he wanted to withdraw from the people and be alone to grieve John’s death.
But the people followed him. And not just a few.
When he came ashore, the people were waiting for him, and despite his own pain at the loss of John, it says that Jesus had compassion on them, and he cured their sick. As evening approached, the disciples told Jesus that he should send the people away so they could buy food in the neighboring towns.
But Jesus turns to them and says this: “You give them something to eat.”
The disciples reply, “All we have is five loaves of bread, and two fish.” It’s as if they want to say, “Clearly, Jesus, this is an impossible situation.”
They’re staring at their hands, then at the crowd, then at Jesus, then back at the small amount of food in their hands, then back at the crowd. Most likely confused, and just a bit terrified. In Mark’s gospel, we see that the disciples even asked Jesus if they should go out and buy roughly a month’s worth of wages – 200 denarii – of bread to give to the people to eat. In other words, what on earth do you expect us to do? Should we use our own resources to solve this impossible dilemma?
It’s no wonder they felt inadequate, and completely unequipped for the situation.
But the only reason that Jesus would have asked them to feed these people would have been because he already felt that they were equipped.
In the tenth chapter of Matthew, we find that Jesus had given the twelve disciples “power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease.” We find in Luke’s Gospel, in chapter nine, that the disciples returned from this trip and reported all the things they had done. In Luke’s Gospel, the attention then turns immediately to the same story as we have in Matthew’s Gospel today – the feeding of the five thousand.
Luke’s Gospel makes clear the distinction between what the disciples had just experienced, and what is about to happen. They had been sent out to heal the sick, to cast out demons, and to preach the good news. And they reported back to Jesus that they had, in fact, healed the sick, and cast out demons. In short, they had been performing miracles, they had been doing mighty acts in the name of Jesus.
And yet, they are then confronted with a dilemma.
There are five thousand men, not including women and children, and they only have five loaves and two fish.
Jesus was asking the impossible.
You give them something to eat.
What were they supposed to do?
These disciples had been performing miracles. They had seen the mighty power of God at work, and here they were, feeling inadequate for the situation.
Jesus knew that the disciples were already equipped, and he wanted to give them the opportunity to expand their growing faith. He wanted to teach them to have even more of an understanding of the mighty acts of power that God could do in their midst if they only allowed themselves to see a glimmer of the possibility of the impossible.
Jesus knew that the disciples had within them what they needed to feed the people, but the disciples were overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation. Even though they had cast out demons, and had healed the sick, they failed to see how God could work in this situation because they were focused on the details – five thousand people, five loaves, two fish – rather than on the power of God to move mightily.
So often, we can do the same thing.
If we are people of faith, then we already have within us the grain of faith that can see the mighty hand of God at work in our lives. We are equipped with the seed of belief that grows with every experience. We may still get distracted by the details, especially when the details seem so large and out of place, but the more we allow ourselves to be taught, to see the miracles within even the most minute little detail, then we can truly learn to see God’s hand at work in all situations.
The disciples could have gone out with the two hundred denarii and bought food for people, but that would have meant taking matters into their own hands. And by taking matters into their own hands they would have lost out on the opportunity to let God expand their view of the possible. They would have lost out on having Jesus give them even more understanding and even more of that kernel of faith that they had experienced on their trip preaching to the lost sheep of Israel.
Twelve disciples returned from that trip where they had cast out demons and cured the sick. And then here they stood, dumbfounded, at how to resolve the situation of feeding a crowd. And then Jesus gave them the lesson of a lifetime. Not only did the small amount of food feed these thousands of people, but the disciples picked up twelve baskets of leftovers. It’s almost as if Jesus was personally saying to each one of these twelve: Not only is there enough for everyone, but there is enough for you. There is, in fact, far more than you will ever need.
When I am confronted with what seems like an impossible situation, I can choose to take matters into my own hands, and attempt to fix things using my own resources and my own power, or I can allow myself to feel that moment of terror and yet still look to God to teach me. To look to God to expand my understanding of what is possible.
Years ago, just shortly after I had finished seminary, I was a deacon awaiting ordination to the priesthood. I was still recovering, you might say, from having spent so much money on my education, and was not at all flush with cash. There was a special event happening in my denomination, and one of the bishops from the Philippines was coming to the USA. I distinctly remember in my prayer time that God told me to put aside some money for this bishop. And not just “some,” but the very specific sum of one hundred dollars. I was dead broke, and couldn’t imagine giving away any money, especially since my bills amounted to far more than just one hundred dollars.
I tried to rationalize, I tried to ignore, I tried to bargain, but for some reason, God kept putting this on my heart, and I finally relented. As I gave the money to my local priest to give to the bishop, I was almost in tears, wondering how this could remotely be God’s plan, seeing as how I didn’t have the money to deal with my own bills.
When the bishop arrived, he was overjoyed to hear about the money, because he had left the Philippines with no hotel reservation, no place to stay, no way to get around, and only $30 in his pocket. He was scared as he got on that plane, because the facts of the situation – a plane ticket and $30 – seemed so impossibly overshadowed by a situation mired in uncertainty. But God had told him that all would be provided, so he stepped onto that plane. When he arrived, people offered him a place to stay, and others offered to drive him around, people offered to feed him, and someone pushed the money I had begrudgingly donated into his hand. When all this happened, he was completely shook up. God had done more for him than he could have possibly imagined when he stepped onto that plane with only $30 and a plane ticket.
And, of course, when I heard my part in how things all worked out for this bishop, I suddenly forgot about my bills and how giving up some of my money had affected me. God’s plan suddenly made sense. And I realized how I had been taken part in God’s plan.
If I had fought with God, or ignored his prompting, I would have missed out on the opportunity to see the expansiveness of God’s power in this world. I would have missed out on the possibility of being a part of God’s work in this world. I would have missed out on being a part of the hand of God.
You see, miracles are not just things that happen to us, but sometimes they are things that happen through us, just like the disciples experienced when helping to feed these thousands of people with five loaves, and two fish.
It’s so easy to get distracted by the facts of a situation, by the enormity of what we feel we might be facing, and by the sheer terror of it all. And we may then attempt to take matters into our own hands, rather than allowing ourselves to be taught, to be molded and, ultimately, to be used by God.
This story in the Gospels is a reminder. It is a reminder that God can make the impossible, possible. And it is also a call to action. A call to see what God might be doing, and how God might want us to become a partner in doing His work in the world.
If we allow ourselves to follow God’s prompting, and if we allow ourselves to partner with His work, then we may very well one day see that we are the ones picking up twelve basketfuls of abundance.
Mike is a jack of all trades, master of none. He’s a data analyst, programmer, and loves to cook. If he doesn’t have his face buried in a book or is staring blankly at a computer screen, you can find him on a motorcycle, enjoying the ride.
Mike holds a Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary.