"Our Desire For Answers"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 8/1/1999
Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-23
How many of you can remember from the lesson, why all these people had gathered? Was it that Jesus' popularity attracted crowds like this? We might think so. There was another Gospel account where Jesus preached to and fed ten thousand. Most scholars, however, believe that this was the same event recorded twice. If this is the same experience, what drew these people? What made them come?
One of the current events that has had Americans preoccupied recently was the death of John and Carolyn Kennedy and her sister Lauren. A number of people in our area requested the Arch-diocese of Washington to open the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to hold a memorial service. The bishop said, "Yes." An enormous crowd of over 4,000 assembled for the service, including dignitaries, members of Congress, and other government officials. Who knows the mixture of reasons why they came. Some came to grieve. Perhaps others came to hear what the church had to say about a tragedy that had affected our nation's consciousness. People needed a place to go to bring closure to this sad chapter in our recent history.
What brought approximately ten thousand people to Jesus on that particular day was their response to a death, the death of John the Baptist. John's death was shocking to everyone. According to the early Jewish historian, Josephus, until the preaching of John the Baptist, the voice of prophecy had not been heard in Israel for over four hundred years. The people had the obvious question, "Why would God raise up a prophet and allow him to be killed in such a ridiculous manner?"
Most of us can remember the circumstances surrounding John's death. King Herod celebrated his own birthday with a party. His step-daughter danced in such a provocative manner that he was pleased. To show his appreciation for her performance, Herod promised publicly that he would grant her anything she wished. After consulting with her mother, Salome asked for the head of John the Baptist. To his chagrin, Herod had to comply. John was beheaded.
When the horrible details of this senseless act became public knowledge, people throughout Galilee undoubtedly thought, "Who is in control here? If God can raise up people to speak the truth, does God not also have the power to protect them? How could this have happened?" In needing closure, people left their towns to hear what Jesus had to say.
Sometimes our deepest spiritual needs do not surface until we experience some drama we fear we cannot manage alone. We need understanding or to listen to someone else's perspective. Perhaps we thought we knew God until we encountered our own questions or doubt. There was a dream that never materialized, a love that vanished, a sure thing that never happened, or a betrayal, the pain of which words cannot possibly define or describe.
Possibly the death of John the Baptist was a wake-up call. They were having their lives inspired by John. People were being baptized again. Lives were being changed. More and more people were gathering at the Jordan river to hear about the coming Messiah. Hope had been rekindled. But John's message was silenced almost as soon as it had begun. Because of this, people sought an answer. They left their towns in order to hear some word, some explanation, or some insight. John's murder placed Jesus in the center of the stage of what would happen next.
We have all had experiences that defy explanation. We could still hold ourselves aloof when we learned about the students at Columbine High School, or about Kennedy's airplane being lost at sea or about this most recent tragedy in Atlanta. Such events have no reasonable explanations. We can shake our heads momentarily but our lives go on basically unaffected. However, when it was our dad, sister or wife who was killed in Atlanta, or our daughter who was slain in Yosemite National Park by a motel handyman, the experience becomes intensely personal. We, too, want to leave our towns and seek the one who can quiet our minds and spirits.
As reasonable people, we conclude that "Such things don't just happen." But, they do. Such events occurred in Jesus' day and they happen all the time in our own. No where in the Scriptures does it say that life is fair, nor does it say that God will protect those of us who possess great faith and trust. Such people have no need for protection for they know that in whatever circumstance, they will be fine. This is one of the unanticipated joys of our faith journey.
There is no record of what Jesus said to the ten thousand people that came that day. We do know that Jesus led them to do what United Methodists know how to do best. They experienced fellowship at a potluck dinner. Jesus knew that Jews never ventured on a day's journey without taking along food and drink for their trip. His desire was to help them learn how to share with each other.
When the innocence of a child generously produced his loaves and fish, it opened the door for a miracle to happen. People shared and no one went away hungry. Every time we have a potluck at St. Matthew's, it is a miracle. I sometimes wonder what would happen if everyone brought pies, or salad, but that has never happened. We always have all food groups well represented, enough to take up 12 baskets each time we gather for such an event.
In the midst of tragedies that defy explanation, people gather. And where two or three are gathered, God is always in the midst of them. Healing happens. Closure begins. Just as we can gather during times of tragedy, it is equally comforting to know that we can come together to thank God when all is well. Amen.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, for enabling us to understand the horizons of our potential. All of us look forward to a time when your kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven. May all of us learn that kindness is not mere goodness, it is a power; that forgiveness is not a weakness, it is an ability; and that peace is not withdrawal, it is a choice. O God, guide us away from beliefs that suggest that your kingdom can come through force, new laws or obedience. Kindle in us such a strong desire to want heaven that we choose to live there now. Teach us not to wait for you to deliver us. Enable us to understand that no loving parent would ever try to walk, talk and grow for their children. May we mature in that trust so that we may grow to bear fruit according to your will and design. We ask these things in the spirit of love. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
How often, O God, do we take for granted our relationship with you. There are times when opportunities present themselves and we neglect to tell others about you. There are moments when we realize we have the keystone that makes sense out of life and we forget to give it away. Why is it that we can recommend with enthusiasm a great book, a terrific movie, a wonderful play, and yet neglect to mention with the same inspired words our relationship with you? Why is that so awkward for us? Why is our faith one of the most challenging aspects of life to talk about with other people?
Everyone of us has moments in our lives when events call on skills we fear we do not have, when hostile and angry thoughts try to gain control of our minds, and when our loved one engages in behavior that defies explanation. How freeing it is to withdraw into prayer and recognize the consciousness of the Kingdom as Jesus taught us. How still our spirits become when we remember that all is well in your hand. How peaceful our thoughts enable us to be when we realize that we cannot take responsibility for the lives of others. You have called us to stand in their midst and radiate who we are so that they might see more clearly whom they have the ability to become.
Enable us, O God, to remember the resources our church family gives to us. We can enter this sanctuary at any time. We can take classes with others. We can make a difference by extending who you have inspired us to become. With grateful hearts, we pray now the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to say . . .