"Turning The Tables on Self-Absorption”

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – July 31, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21


     Our lesson for this morning begins with Jesus receiving devastating news about the death of his second cousin, John the Baptist.  This news came to Jesus with intimate details that made John’s beheading among the most senseless murders that Jesus had experienced in his life, a death that he personalized.  Herod’s ruthless power had destroyed a member of Jesus’ family.

    John had been publicly preaching against Herod for some time, exciting his listeners to stand against the king.  Herod had taken his brother’s wife, Herodias, into the palace and made her his wife by mutual consent.  Because of John’s relentless condemnation of what Herod had done, the king had him jailed in order to silence him.

    Herodias developed a plan to rid the couple of this pest.  She designed a large celebration for Herod’s birthday.  The nobility of the entire realm had been invited to attend.  As was the custom, a lot of alcohol was consumed by the guests.  Herod had become intoxicated. 

    During the course of the evening, Herodias’ daughter performed a sensuous dance routine in front of the guests.  Herod was so enamored by her skills that he expressed his appreciation this way:  “I will give you anything you want even up to half my kingdom.”  After consulting with her mother, the girl was instructed to ask for the head of John the Baptist to be brought to her.  Because he had publicly promised the girl anything she wanted, Herod gave the order to have John beheaded rather than face the public embarrassment of declining her request. Herodias had her revenge.  Another prophet of Israel was silenced.

    Upon hearing of his cousin’s death, Jesus needed to get away from everyone.  He decided to get into a boat by himself, put the oars in the water and row to a desolate place where he could be alone.  There was a lot to digest and process.

    Jesus may not have fully realized the extent to which John’s death had affected the local people.  John was proclaiming a message that the Jews had not heard for centuries – “The Kingdom of God is at hand.”   Their prophet had been murdered by Herod and most of them needed to hear words that might bring healing to their spirits by making sense of what had just happened.  

    Just as Jesus began his period of reflection, he looked up and saw thousands of people coming in his direction.  Jesus was moved with compassion when he saw them and began healing their sick as he shared with them his thoughts.  By doing so, Jesus turned the tables on his preoccupation over John’s death and experienced instant liberation from the prison he created with his own thoughts.

    It was late in the afternoon when the disciples found Jesus and they asked him to send the crowd away because the hour was approaching when people would need drink and nourishment. Instead of doing that, Jesus invited the crowd to sit down as a miracle unfolded. 

    Jesus feeding the 5,000 has been one of those memorable stories we were taught as children. In my Sunday school class our imaginations generated lots of questions for the teacher. We asked, “Did Jesus make the fish?  What kind of fish were they?  Did Jesus also create more loaves of bread out of thin air?  Who baked the bread?”  The only explanation our teacher gave us was that this was one of the many miracles Jesus performed during his ministry.  She quickly went on with the lesson leaving us with a lingering question, “How did he do that?”

    This miracle is one of the few that can be found in all four Gospels.   John’s rendition of the story has information not contained in the other three Gospels that may provide some insights into how Jesus performed this miracle. 

    For example in John’s Gospel, Jesus asks Philip where the disciples could purchase enough food to feed all the people.  Philip responded, “Master, for everyone who has come here to have even a little food, it could cost us more than 200 silver coins just for the bread.”

     Then Andrew said, “There is a boy here who has five loaves of barley bread and two fish.”  (John 6:9)  What makes this story different from the others is that a boy was identified as the one who had the food.  Secondly, John’s Gospel is the only one that identified the bread as being made of barley.  Why are these two pieces of information significant?

    We discussed once before that John’s Gospel contains a number of passages that sound as though they have come from an eye witness.  For example, when Jesus was visiting the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, it was Mary who applied an entire pint of pure nard on Jesus feet and wiped them with her hair.   The scent of this very expensive perfume “filled the entire house.” (John 12:3). 

    Also, when Jesus told the weary disciples to throw their nets on the other side of the boat, the number of fish they caught was 153.   (John 21:11)   The fact that the scent of the perfume had filled the house and having the precise number of fish would not be in John’s Gospel unless someone had been there to experience these events.

    In the other three Gospels, Jesus asked his disciples to find out how much food was available from the crowd?  They came back with the report of finding only 5 loaves of bread and two fish.  Jesus knew, however, that his people would never travel any distance without taking food and drink.  Dried fish and bread were common staples to take on any journey.  Jesus knew that everyone had food with them.

    Jesus used the innocence of a little boy as an example of what everyone in the crowd had the potential to do. When the disciples asked if anyone had any food, this little guy came forward and said, “I do.” And he showed them what he had.  After the disciple carried the bread and fish to Jesus, his mother probably said, “Honey, sharing your food was a lovely thing to do, but Mommy packed that bread and fish for you.”

    All eyes were on Jesus as he invited the crowd to sit down in a grassy area.  As he began to share the young boy’s food, it was then that the miracle happened.  Everyone spontaneously began to share what they had with others. The disciples did not have to distribute anything.  Had a food distribution taken place for 10,000 people (men, women and children) by a handful of disciples, such a feat would have taken hours to accomplish. 

      Everyone ate and each person had more than enough.  In fact, there was such an abundance of food that 12 baskets were collected after the meal.  If the truth were known, some of those Jewish mothers had packed such a variety of food that the crowd of people had more to eat than barley bread and fish.  Jesus literally turned this occasion into a moment when a grieving community could experience the abundance that surfaces at a pot-luck supper just like we United Methodists do. 

    What is the miracle in this story?  Is there a truth that we can take away from this event and use every day of our lives?   The real miracle here is what changed the crowd’s emotional upset into peace. This experience changed communal self-absorption into a community that was willing to share.  This experience was among the gifts Jesus gave to his large crowd of listeners. 

    Jesus made visible John’s message that the Kingdom of God was at hand.  He once taught, “Unless you receive the Kingdom of God like a child, you shall not enter it.”  (Luke 18:17)  What brings this miracle to life for us is that it was a young boy that made his food available.  In his innocence, the boy was the only one who told the truth when he said, “I have bread and fish.” 

    When we share what we have, something happens within us to change the spirit of our moods and attitudes.  The boy was modeling one of the most fundamental, essential skills that make life worth living.  Jesus was communicating, “This young man has shown us what living in the Kingdom of God looks like.”

    Since we do not get blizzards in Bermuda, this story might cool you off.  Some years ago there was a tremendous blizzard that grounded all the aircraft for several days in one of the busiest airports in the world, O’Hare Airport in Chicago. 

    Self-absorption gripped everyone at the airport.  People had deadlines to make.  People had to get out of Chicago that night.  There were marriages and funerals to attend.  There were business meetings by companies that needed their board members and executives present.  Life, however, came to a standstill as four feet of snow fell within a very brief period of time. 

    In the midst of the chaos, a university professor saw the most inspiring event.  A Roman Catholic nun stood up on one of the seats and started getting everyone’s attention.  She said, “Those of you who have children, please let me have them while you try to make other arrangements!”  One of the employees from United Airlines saw what she was doing and quickly assembled a microphone with a long cord she could use.

    She had the children sit on the floor in front of her.  As more parents saw the wisdom in what was happening, the group of children continued to grow. The nun began using her skills as a storyteller. The professor said that her voice carried everywhere throughout the concourse.  She changed pure chaos into an environment of quiet and peace. However, much more began to happen that even the nun could not have anticipated.  

    People began to realize that their anxiety would have no impact on their closed airport. Following the nun’s example, they began to cordon off areas where airport-cots could be set up. By her example, the nun led a group of diverse strangers to reverse their energy from self-absorption to attitudes of sharing and cooperation.

    In a former sermon, I told you about a woman who was going to commit suicide until she was convinced to bake one more cherry pie and take it to a neighbor that no one had visited in quite some time. The three hours she spent with that woman turned the tables on her self absorption.

    As absurd as this may sound, the next time you are being dominated by thoughts about someone’s cruel comment, a personal failure, an ill-advised decision or a disappointing medical report, remember that your own highly energized thoughts have blinded you to all the blessings in your life that you take for granted.   We paint ourselves in the corner like this all the time. 

    Try to recognize what the pain of your spiraling thoughts is telling you.  Do some random act of kindness for someone.  Instantly, you will do for yourself what Jesus did for himself when he developed compassion for the grieving crowd.  Jesus did the same thing for thousands of people when he humbly broke the boy’s bread and began to share it.  

    Learn from Jesus to turn the tables on a condition that can easily immobilize you.  Reversing the flow of our energy will set our minds and spirits free.  Let Jesus’ miracle of feeding the 10,000 men, women and children become more than just a feast.  Let it become another tool in your tool chest for governing the rest of your lives. 

    Sharing always brings an end to self-absorption.  This instant reversal of your energy flow will bring instant results.  Experiment with this.  This week, when some disturbing influence has taken up residence in your mind, reverse your energy and focus your kindness and compassion on someone else.