“This” (Ninth Sunday after Pentecost)
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“This.” That single word is sometimes the entire post of a few of my friends on Facebook. “This” is usually the sole commentary for an attached article or sometimes a picture.
It’s as though there’s no better way to summarize something, or that an event or issue is just too complex to paraphrase in a sentence or two. Just read “this”. Look at “this.” “This” tells you how I’m feeling and what my perspective is.
“This” gives you the context for everything else that’s going on in the world around us.
I thought about those posts as I read today’s Gospel reading, because our Gospel reading also begins with “this.” “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there…”
And as with some of my friends on Facebook, Matthew has used “this” to sum up a whole series of events that set the context for what follows. “This” refers back to the long recitation in the previous chapter of how John the Baptist had been imprisoned by Herod Antipas. He had been held for long time, and then finally beheaded in a cruel act of palace intrigue. Afterwards, his followers were allowed to come and retrieve his body. They took him and they buried him.
Finally, they came and found Jesus and told him what had happened. “Now, (Matthew writes) when Jesus heard ‘THIS’”, he left where he was and looked for a deserted place where he and his disciples could process the trauma that had just happened.
“This” was a mess! John the Baptist had been an important person in bringing people closer to God. His murder impacted Jesus and his disciples as well as thousands of others. And Jesus was under no illusion that if Herod was willing to go after someone like John, Herod and others would also be gunning for Jesus. Next to his own arrest and crucifixion, the beheading of John the Baptist was possibly the most stressful and traumatic moment of Jesus’ ministry.
“This” happened. And now Jesus and his disciples needed a break to process it all, so they got in the boat and headed to a deserted place where they could pray and think and rest.
And it’s in the context of all of “this” that the feeding of the 5000 occurs. Sometimes we read this story and think that Jesus and his disciples were happily going about their journey when they just happened to encounter a crowd of people in a peaceful, happy moment. But at least as Matthew tells the story, this was perhaps the time when Jesus and his disciples most needed to get away and be alone. It was perhaps the most difficult and inconvenient moment to need to rise to the occasion.
And knowing “this” makes what happened all the more remarkable. In spite of the fact that now was just NOT a good time, Jesus called his disciples to:
- recognize an opportunity to do something really important to makes God’s presence known in the lives of others, in spite of all of “this”…
- look at what they had, instead of what they lacked (which is often difficult in times of great loss and insecurity)…
- act right now, even and especially, if the world seemed to be falling apart around them …
I don’t know that the disciples really wanted to do any of these things. Maybe Jesus wasn’t even excited about it. But they did it! And it had a huge impact on the lives of people who also probably felt like the world around them was falling apart. In fact, this one event had such an impact that this miracle we call “the feeding of the 5000” is the only miracle of Jesus recorded in all four of our Gospels …
And maybe, some of the impact came about because Jesus acted through his disciples in the midst of all of “this” – that is, in the middle of a time when everything seemed to be going wrong. Perhaps that was the time when people were most open to experiencing God’s presence in their lives.
As I said, this story appears in all four Gospels, so we read it almost every year. And yet, this year, the fact that Matthew tells us that this miracle occurred in the midst of all of “this” seems particularly important.
After all, we, too, are in the midst of – “this”! The pandemic, the economic crisis, the racial injustice, the political nastiness – the list goes on. If I just say things are tough because of all of “this”, everybody can relate.
And at times like “this”, it’s natural to long for a time when things aren’t like “this.” It’s natural to want to look for a spiritual or physical place of rest and refreshment. It’s natural to want to take a break and wait for a better time when we can really rally together and do great things for God.
But maybe “this” is precisely the time Jesus most needs us to be his disciples. After all, “this” is the time when the world most needs to experience God’s presence, just as it was back when Jesus fed the 5000.
And so, just as with his first disciples, “this” is also a time Jesus is calling us, individually and collectively, to be disciples who:
- open our eyes to the opportunities God is giving us to make his presence a living reality in the lives of others … (part of being a disciple in “this” time is having a different perspective – sometimes that just means looking around us instead of just down at our newsfeeds…)
- are particularly aware of the blessings we have to share, even and especially when they seem meager … (part of being a disciple in “this” time is focusing on what we have and being willing to share, instead of dwelling on what we’ve lost…)
- act boldly right now, instead of waiting to see if better times will arrive next week, next month or next year… (part of being a disciples in “this” time is about trusting God to be there for us so that we’re actually bold enough to give of ourselves when we wonder whether we’ll have enough for ourselves …)
“This” is a tough and stressful time that we’re all going through. And it may be like this for a while – at least longer than many of us had hoped or imagined.
But just as back when Jesus fed the 5000, “this” is also a time when Jesus is working in the life of the world. “This” is a time when Jesus most needs us to be courageous disciples. And that’s because “this” is a moment when the world around us most needs to see and experience the presence of God working through us.