by David Baer, February 8, 2015
Text: Matthew 14:13-33
Does it ever feel like you’re running at a deficit? I don’t mean a deficit like the federal government’s budget, which has been in deficit for almost every year in the post-war era, except 1998-2001, and a few other stray years here and there. At this point, that deficit feels almost like the force of gravity. It may be a drag, but it’s not going away. No, I’m not talking about a deficit in your finances. I’m talking about folks like a dad I know who spends every hour from the time he gets off work to 10:00 at night ferrying his kids around to their activities. I’m talking about most of us, who don’t get nearly enough sleep at night to face the next day at our cognitive and emotional best. I’m thinking of someone taking care of a parent or spouse who never gets a break, because there’s always some crisis or other intruding into the quiet moments. Life seems designed to run us at or over our maximum capacity of energy, doesn’t it? And that’s leaving aside the subjective deficits we have to deal with. When we’re supposed to be relaxing and recharging, we take in media that do their best to convince us that we’re not thin enough, not glamorous enough, not doing enough to protect our kids—thanks, Nationwide! There’s not enough time, not enough money, not enough energy to fulfill others expectations, to measure up to our own sense of who we ought to be. We’re operating at a deficit.
Jesus, I think, had a sense of when he was approaching a deficit, and he had a way of dealing with it. He used to go off by himself from time to time to pray. In this morning’s story, what prompted Jesus to go on retreat was the news that John the Baptist had been put to death by King Herod. John baptized Jesus. John had been preaching about the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Kingdom of God, since before Jesus began his ministry. They’re kindred spirits, and maybe even literal kin, since one of the gospels tells us that their mothers were related. We don’t get a glimpse into the interior world of Jesus, into his mind. The news of John’s death might have convinced Jesus how dangerous it was to speak up for God’s kingdom. It might have prompted Jesus to reflect on his own path and where it was leading. We don’t know what Jesus was thinking or feeling, but we know that when he heard the news of John’s death, what Jesus did was to set out for a deserted place.
His solitude didn’t last long. The crowds got wind of his movements and raced ahead of his boat to meet him on the shore where he landed. And when he came ashore, they began pressing in on him for the healing they knew was within his power to give them. Jesus had compassion on them and gave them what they needed, but time slipped by, and soon it was evening. The disciples suggested, very reasonably, that it was time to call a halt. Send the people away, they said. Let them find their own food. The thought that the people could buy provisions in nearby towns was a polite fiction, since so many were poor and in need. But in any case, the disciples said, let them worry about that. Skipping dinner and going home hungry was a relatively small price to pay for seeing Jesus and being healed.
But Jesus said, “You feed them.” This wasn’t just an impossibility. It was a threat. Unlike the desperate crowds, the disciples had prepared. They had packed a modest amount of food, enough to make a supper for twelve disciples and their teacher. And now Jesus wants to take their planning, their preparation, their work, their food—everything they had—and scatter it among thousands of people. And what could the result of sharing so little possibly be? When all the bread is divided and distributed, no one would have more than a crumb or two. The disciples are perturbed. It’s not fair. And on top of that, it can’t possibly work. But in spite of their confusion they hand over their meager provisions to their teacher.
Contrary to all their expectations, in the hands of Jesus, blessing, breaking, and sharing, a small supper becomes a feast. Thousands of men, women, and children sit down and eat their fill. Five loaves and two fish are not enough. But five loaves and two fish, plus Jesus, fills the bellies of thousands and twelve baskets worth of leftovers to boot.
Then, as if that wasn’t enough to get the point across, Jesus does it again. He sends the disciples ahead of him, across the lake, only they can’t quite get there, can they? It’s a parting that foreshadows the parting that is still to come. There will come a time when Jesus won’t be leading the disciples by the hand. There will come a time when the disciples are trying for all they’re worth to go where Jesus wants them to go, and they’re making no progress, as if they’re trying to sail into a strong headwind. When we read this story, I think we have to imagine that’s how they first told it. This was a story about what it’s like to be the church, to struggle with the direction Jesus has given you.
I imagine the disciples felt panic, in their boat, far from shore, and frustration, too. After all, they’re trying to do what Jesus asked. They’re doing their best. They’re even putting their lives at risk. And it isn’t enough. They fight with the winds most of the night, until the wee hours—the Greek text says literally, “the fourth watch of the night,” the last three hours before sunrise. Have you been through anything like this? Have you ever felt like you were giving God your best, and it wasn’t enough? Have you ever wondered if your sea of troubles would ever quiet down, if you’d ever get safely to the other side of it?
The disciples see Jesus coming to them over the water, and they think he’s a ghost. Rather than reassuring them, his presence only makes them all the more certain that they’re doomed! Peter is the only one brave enough, or stupid enough, to want to go out to the figure on the waves to see for himself. “If it is you, Lord,” he says—notice the if—“command me to come to you on the water.” It’s only when Peter is sinking in the waves that he cries out with the words he should have shouted from the start: “Lord, save me!” Jesus takes him by the hand, and they get in the boat. The wind stops, and there’s calm. Now the disciples are sure that it is Jesus, and what’s more, they call him by a name they have never used before: “Truly you are the Son of God!” With Jesus in their boat, they can make it to the other side.
Even a crew with expert fishermen are lost in the face of implacable winds and battering waves; but a crew of fishermen, tax collectors, and misfits with Jesus in the boat are going to reach the other side.
This week the Session met to discuss the budget for the coming year, and we are facing some challenges as a congregation. We’ll be talking with you about those challenges more as we come to the annual meeting. It’s not just our church. The presbytery, the group of churches that we’re part of, has its own financial challenges, deeper and more difficult than ours. It seems churches almost everywhere are trying to do more and more with less and less. The needs are the same as they’ve ever been: people in our communities are hungry for bread and for the bread of God’s word, maybe now more than ever, and yet our budgets are stretched thin.
I’m not going to say that these problems aren’t real, or that God will miraculously take them away if we just pray hard enough. We owe it to ourselves to wrestle honestly with the question of how to be good stewards of our resources. But I was also struck by something I heard another pastor say recently. He said that sometimes God allows you to experience failure, like Jesus allowed Peter to begin to sink, so that we can experience God’s grace and faithfulness all the more strongly. What opportunities to serve, what new ways of being church are being opened to us as some of the old doors are closing? What ways of being faithful is God opening to you in the your life of energy, time, and resource deficit? Where is Christ extending a hand to us in the middle of the waves?
Who is this Jesus? He gathers our loaves and fishes, our stretched budgets, our too-busy lives, our inadequacy, our insufficiency, our lack and blesses, breaks, shares, and feeds those hungry for bread and good news. He strides across the waves to meet us when we are stuck and scared. “Take heart,” he says, “I am here.” Amen.