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Beyond the Comfort Zone
Mat. 14:13-21
Nail-Bender in NC

Who knows why Toritha did it. It didn't just seem fool-hearty, it was down-right dangerous. She would go into the streets of her local project during the late hours of the night, confronting drug pushers, addicts, and urban violence of all kinds. Toritha felt the need to go. No, it was stronger than that. She felt compelled to go. She could almost not help herself. But, she was frustrated because she could not find those who were willing to go with her, to go into that project at one o'clock in the morning to confront the drug dealers, the violent gangs, and the despair of the streets. Try as Toritha might, there were few who would join her. And we wondered, why in the world would she do it. Why would she do it. No doubt, Toritha was a puzzle.

Just as he was, but for an entirely different reason of course. Who knows why he did it. Maybe it was the poison of power. The awfulness of pride unchecked. Perhaps it was no more and no less than the allure of unbridled sexual energy unleashed in the context of the drunken banquet, a birthday party no less. Whatever the reason, he had it done. And all the evil of the moment, all the horror of the most malevolent nightmare, all the malignant power of self destruction and destruction of the other was brought to that table - brought to the table by the girl who had just danced, brought to that table and presented to her mother.

And her mother, ever so slowly with drama and flare, raised the cover and there, there for all to see, was the grotesque sight of power unleashed, there was the bloody head of John the Baptist.

That was the news they to brought him. That was the news, you know. And as the story was told the horror washed over him, debilitating and crushing. The breath escaped from his lungs and his mouth opened, but no words would come. Finally, unleashing the agony of his soul, his head fell back. He wailed, "No," "Noooo!" And the sobs poured out. He wrapped his arms around himself, squeezing, trying to ease the pain that was too much to bear. His breath came in short gulps and the chest heaved in and out.

The disciples placed their arms about him. The beefy arms of fishermen. These who knew him, these who had traveled with him and eaten with him and shared with him. They placed their cracked and callused hands on him, flesh on flesh, attempting to take some of his pain away, attempting to comfort him. But comfort would not come. The intensity of the grief would not, could not be lessened. The nightmare of this truth was too real, the wound which had seared him to the core of his being, was too deep. He cried. "Oh, my John, by beautiful cousin John. My dear John." The pain. The pain …

After a while he withdrew from them. Sometimes, even the touch of one who cares is too much. Sometimes even hands which reach out with love can't quiet the agonized spirit. So with an anguished mind and broken heart, he went to that place of solitude, where the lapping of the water and the silence of the rocky shore embraced and caressed his damaged soul. Sometimes only silence will do. Silence and the quiet voice of God.

News never rests in one place. Soon the entire region knew what had happened. John's death was on every tongue, desperate voices and willing ears met time and again, and like wild-fire the story was conveyed follower to follower. For they too, had known John. They too, had been baptized by him in the brown water of the Jordon. They too, had been stricken by the nightmare which had been so horrendously thrust upon them. And in their distress and in their sadness and in their confusion they began asking the question to one another, "Where is Jesus? Where is Jesus?"

In an area that had been peopled for over 2000 years, there is rarely any true hiding place, any true place of solitude. So whether he wished it so or not, they found him. He saw them coming, there along the shoreline, through the haze of the mid-day sun. It was small groups at first. Just two or three at a time. Then as the word spread, dozens, and then hundreds. In their anguish they came. In their hurt and their agony, they came. Men and women and children, they came. Young and old, they came. With throats constricted by sobs, with eyes red from tears, with hearts broken by interrupted promises, they came. The crowd swelled until they formed a dark mass in front of him, stretching along the shore like some unbroken wall of sadness. Thousands.

And as he looked upon them, as he rowed the boat toward them, his heart broke. So much pain. So much pain. Once again, the salt on his cheeks from earlier tears, mixed with new moisture as he opened his life to their lives, as he met their brokeness with his own. Soon he was among them, talking and touching, healing and holding. He might have been overwhelmed by it all, he might have drowned in all that pain, except for a miracle of God. As he embraced them, they too embraced him. As he shared their tears and their agony and their loss, they too, shared his.

One hour flowed into the next and with the promise of created order, even here, enveloping the chaos of horrific brutality, dusk began to fall. It had been such a difficult day. It had been the kind of day which drains the emotions, leaving one limp, with barely enough energy to place one foot in front of the other. They had clutched one another and had found some sense of hope in what appeared a hopeless circumstance. They had cried together, had suffered together, had prayed together. Somehow, even in the midst of such despair, even here, there had been the hope of God's presence, even here in this realm of sorrow. But now, it was time to leave. Nightfall was coming and they were far removed from the comfort of home, far removed from the assurance of the evening meal. The children were beginning to get restless and mothers turned their attentions to hungry mouths.

One of the disciples approached the teacher. Perhaps it was Peter, head-strong and impatient, grief-stricken Peter, whose anger was certainly now churning down deep in his gut, Peter the zealot, who desperately wished to overthrow Herod and all he represented. Certainly his anger was at a crescendo. "How could Herod do this?! How could he so oppress and dehumanize?!" Perhaps it was Peter who suggested that the crowd leave. "Rabonni, send the crowd away so that they might buy food."

Who could blame him? Of course the crowd should go. It had all been so hard, almost too much to take. The disciples had done all they could, all that could possibly have been expected. They had held the grieving masses. They had forgone their own pain and had reached out and comforted. They had done so much more than most would have done, than most could have done. And now it was time for the crowd to go. They had given all they had. Now it was time to send the crowd away, for they had nothing left to give.

Who would have expected the answer? Who could have expected the answer. "No, you will feed them."

"What?! No, Rabonni you do not understand. We have no food. We cannot possibly feed them."

They looked at one another incredulously, concern on their faces. The shock of his cousin's beheading must have been too much. The agony of the day must have overwhelmed his sense of reality. Standing before them were thousands. And here all they had were the meager rations for their own small group, barely even enough for them, five loaves and two fishes. Why, even if they fed a dozen or two, there would be nothing left. How could they give away all their food, when they still had such a long journey. Didn't he understand, there would be nothing left.

Had they not been in such pain, had the last 18 hours not been a living nightmare, they would have laughed. They would have thrown back their heads and laughed the laugh of men hearing the impossible. They would have laughed until they cried. A wonderfully funny joke. In other circumstances it would have been nothing more than a very good joke. In other circumstances.

Now, they just stood dumbly looking at one another with concern on their faces and despair in their hearts. For surely, their master had gone mad.

Yet, he stood before them and simply softly said, "You will feed them."

Not knowing what else to do, overcome by the confusion of the day, the disciples did as he asked and brought the large crowd before him, directing them to be seated on the grass beyond the shoreline. And after he had blessed the bread, they moved out among the hungry mourners, distributing the food to small groups sitting together, to the old and the young, to the men, women, and children. They passed out bread and fish, fish and bread, to dozens, to hundreds, to thousands.

The disciples had wanted to keep it for themselves. They had needed to keep it for themselves. It was all they had and it had been so little. But in the end, it was enough. There was even baskets left over. Perhaps the excess was to take to those who were not there, perhaps to be used to feed this small strange band of travelers in the days to come, or perhaps just to proclaim the abundance of God when we are willing to give of ourselves, even to give out of our lack. You see, there is always enough. In the Kingdom, there is always enough.

And the day which began with such horror finally came to an end. Jesus, once again went to a place of solitude. And though the pain was still present, though his loss was still great, though he would continue to journey through the path of grief, he had taken the first step beyond the agony. He had not shouldered this burden solely on his own, but had shared it in the context of community and, had in the giving of his own life on this day, in the entering into the life of the other, he had found the healing hand of God. You see, that is the way it is with God, you know. In the Kingdom, there is always enough.

And that is the truth about this place called Kingdom, that is the truth about the gospel lesson today. In the Kingdom, when we are willing to give ourselves away, when we are willing to open ourselves to the possibilities of God, not only will we find wholeness, but there will always be enough. Yet, this truth is sometimes very hard for us to hear, for it is a truth that points us to places where we might not want to go and to things which we might not want to do. It is an ironic truth. It is a truth that moves Jesus out of his place of solitude. It is a truth that must also move us from our places of solitude.

For the truth is this: This Kingdom of God that we learn about here in our worship and our music, cannot and will not remain exclusively tucked comfortably away in our hymnollogy or safely confined to our liturgy.

This Kingdom of God, where Jesus greets us within the boundaries of our sanctuaries, cannot and will not be contained solely within the walls of temple.

This Kingdom of God, where we meet Jesus in the silence of prayer and the quietness of meditation, cannot and will not remain locked within the recesses of our own individual souls.

For this Kingdom of God is the Kingdom of the living Lord, Emmanuel, God with us, who calls us to meet him where he is, right in the middle of all the heartache and pain and hurt and dirt and sorrow. Right in the middle of the grief and hunger of 5000. Right in the middle of the hungry and the thirsty. Right in the middle of those who are naked and those who would be a stranger. Right in the middle of those who are sick and even into the walls where we find the prisoner. Brothers and sisters in Christ, he calls for us to meet him out there, along the shoreline of pain and suffering and despair.

For brothers and sisters, if what we do in this place, has no connection with what we do out in that place, if what we read in this book, has no impact on our lives out there, then we miss most of the truth of today's lesson. For Jesus goes, even in his own grief, he goes to those who suffer … and he loves. And calls us to do the same. So that like him, we might find healing, and like the disciples, we might learn that there is always enough. And knowing that, maybe Toritha wouldn't seem like such a puzzle after all. For even in the roughest neighborhoods, one might still find those who will follow. Slowly, ever so slowly she began to build a cadre of those who would journey to the streets with her. Many who went were parents of those who had been convicted of violent crimes. Toritha referred to these folks as the "unseen victims." Parents whose hearts had been broken and who were riddled with the guilt of the crimes of their children. Yet, here they were, on the shoreline of grief, on streets filled with pain.

And with her, there were other disciples, some of her strongest supporters, parents whose son was in prison for murder. You see, Toritha had known that they were in desperate need of love and support, and so she had reached out to them, had fed them among the 5000, had responded to their pain when they were in the deepest need.

And in the end, like Jesus, Toritha herself was healed. Indeed, Toritha was a woman who had learned what it was to feel the loss of a loved one. For the parents who were her greatest supporters, these parents whom she had loved, were not just any parents. No, they were certainly not just any parents. They were the parents of the man who had killed her own son.

But in the Kingdom, there is always enough.

May God give us the courage, to move beyond our own comfort zones and into the place along the shoreline, that place where Jesus dwells. Amen and amen.