A Table in the Wilderness
Matthew 14:13-21, Psalm 78:14-20, 23-25 Romans 8:35-39
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The Psalmist asks: "Can God set a table in the wilderness? Is God able to give
bread or to provide meat for God's people?" "Yes," we are reminded,
"God provided for them food enough."
Our Gospel reading this morning opens with Jesus withdrawing in a boat to a deserted
place by himself. What our reading does not tell us is that his retreat is precipitated by
the news of the beheading of John the Baptist. It was a gruesome death brought about by an
open-ended promise made by Herod at his own birthday party. And when Jesus heard about it,
he withdrew in a boat to a lonely place by himself.
What a natural response to such sorrow and pain. To want to withdraw--to be left alone
to sort it all out perhaps. But as is so often the case, when others hear the sad news,
they want to find us--to help in some way, to share our pain, to feel better themselves?
When Jesus went ashore, he saw the crowd that had grown to over 5,000. And he had
compassion for them and jumped right back into the swing of things--curing the sick. There
he stayed until late in the day, until stomachs started rumbling from hunger.
Now the disciples suggested that the crowds be sent away to villages where they could
get some food. But Jesus said that wasn't necessary; the disciples could give them
something to eat with what they had. There was no reason to send these people away. To
apply the apostle Paul's words from our second reading this morning: Nothing needed to
separate these people from the love of God in Christ Jesus. God can set a table in the
wilderness. God is able to give bread and provide meat for the people. And, indeed, God
provided for them food enough. With a bunch left over.
The late Archbishop Michael Ramsey in his book *The Christian Priest Today* (which is a
collection of addresses given to those about to be ordained priests) says something that
most certainly relates to our Baptismal Covenant and therefore applies to all of Christ's
disciples. As I apply it here, he suggests that we are "called, near to Jesus and
with Jesus and in Jesus, to be with God with the people on our heart."
What strikes me in our gospel reading this morning--in light of the Archbishop's
words--is that Jesus broke bread with the people on his heart. Jesus' own sorrow led him
to greater compassion and understanding toward those who suffer. And from his own
suffering and grief, he then took time to help the needy--to relieve their suffering.
Jesus took time to break bread with the people on his heart.
When I think of the suffering in the world--especially the gruesome, brutal suffering
from injustice and oppressive attitudes and behavior--my tendency is to want to "get
away" from it for a time in order to reflect on it and deal with it within my soul.
And that seems like a natural response. And so by the time I go ashore, if you will, it is
as if my pain, anger, confusion, sorrow--whatever thoughts and emotions I have been
dealing with--all motivate me to take some sort of action--to make a positive
difference--because of the suffering. For isn't it true that when you and I (as
individuals or as a community of faith) come from our own solitude of grief and prayerful
reflection of suffering and wrong--isn't it true that at those times we find ourselves
empowered through it all to take positive action so that others will not suffer or be
wronged in the same way? And I wonder, wasn't this what Jesus was doing? Wasn't this what
Jesus was doing when he broke bread that day with the people on his heart?
Jesus did something that evening that has become so familiar to us--He took, blessed,
broke and gave to his disciples. This image is at the heart of our Christian worship--our
eucharistic celebration. But these were not the only eucharistic actions of that day. For
after Jesus had given the broken bread to the disciples, Scripture tells us the disciples
then gave the bread to the crowds. Taking, blessing, breaking, and giving are at the heart
of our eucharistic worship. And they are at the heart of our eucharistic life--a life of
compassion and abundance.
Our society and our world is largely one of separations--people being separated out and
turned away because of trouble, hard times, hatred, hunger, homelessness, bullying
threats, and backstabbing, to repeat the one's Paul mentions. And the list does not stop
there. But the compassionate Jesus says, "no" to this separation. In the midst
of the wilderness of these difficulties God did not--and does not--send anyone away.
Rather God sets a table and provides food enough. No one will be separated from the love
of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Out of his own pain over what had happened to another,
Jesus then reached out and broke bread with the people on his heart, gave it to his
disciples, and said "go and do likewise."
We live in the wilderness of the world. And we carry with us God's picnic basket
complete with table cloth, silverware and food. And, by God's grace, a table is set in the
wilderness--smack dab in the midst of our lives. It is what our eucharistic life is all
about. Taking, blessing, breaking and giving ourselves out of compassion with the people
on our heart.
Let me read you a couple of verses from a hymn that we will be singing during communion
Strangers and neighbors, they claim my attention; They sleep by my doorstep, they sit
by my bed. Neighbors and strangers, their anguish concerns me. And I must not feast till
the hungry are fed. People are they, men and women and children; And each has a heart
keeping time with my own. People are they, persons made in God's image; So what shall I
offer them, bread or a stone?
Jesus shows us in the gospel story for today that out of his pain for another, and
therefore out of our own pain for others, comes compassion and thus abundance. And baskets
are full. . .and the hungry are fed...and Eucharist is lived. For that is what happens
when we break bread with the people on our heart.