August 2, 2020
Sermon - Reverend Bob Phelps
What Are You Hungry For?
It’s been so long since most of us have been in a crowd of any size that the situation in today’s story from Matthew is hard for some of us to comprehend. It seems that everywhere Jesus went, a crowd followed him. This day was no different. In fact, Jesus was weary, and had tried to find some rest away from the crowds that always seemed to be there. Just before this story, Jesus and his disciples had received the sad news that Jesus’ cousin, the one we call the Baptist, had died. He didn’t die of natural causes. He was beheaded by Herod, but that’s a story for another day. Between the exhaustion that comes from being around people all the time and the news of his cousin’s death, Jesus just needed to get away. So he went to what Matthew calls a deserted place to be by himself.
A deserted place doesn’t necessarily mean a desert. For many years when we lived closer to the mountains, we took a couple of trips a year to the Smokies. We had a favorite place, away from the hustle of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, where we liked to stay. It wasn’t deserted by any means, but it was far enough away from all the tourist stuff that we could go and just be there. We went there for the same reason Jesus sought out wherever his deserted place was—just to get away and enjoy peace and quiet. There was a mountain stream nearby and lots of places to walk and a big porch to read on. Most people who knew us knew how much we enjoyed getting away to that place. A couple from our church had heard us go on about it for years, so one year they decided they’d go. Not with us, but on their own trip. They were supposed to be gone for a week, which was never quite long enough for us, but was about as long as we usually stayed. We were surprised when they showed up for something at the church in the middle of that week. We worried that maybe someone had gotten sick or something had called them back home before they had planned. But no. They said that was the most boring place they had ever been. Nowhere to go. Nothing to do. It was a half hour or so from there into either Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, but the route was, of course, mountain roads, and they didn’t like that. So they checked out early and came home and told us in no uncertain terms that we could have it.
That’s the kind of experience Jesus was hoping to have when he found that place of his. But that was not to be. As soon as the crowds found out where he was, they followed him, and his plans changed.
I don’t think those people went there expecting to be fed, but they were hungry for something. Many of them had been with Jesus before. Others had heard from them and from other who had heard him preach and teach, who had seen him heal the sick and help people in all kinds of ways. There was something about him that drew people, not just the signs and wonders, but something about the way he made people feel.
If we read Matthew’s story carefully, that’s the first thing we learn about this encounter. Jesus had come there looking for rest. So one option would certainly have been to just get back in that boat and find another place even further away. But Matthew says at the very beginning of this encounter that Jesus saw the crowd that had gotten there ahead of him, and he had compassion on them and immediately began to respond to their needs. This, in itself, is no small thing.
Most of the people who came to hear and see Jesus were not movers and shakers in their community. Most of them were poor, some of them were sick or brought others who were. Most of them came to Jesus because they didn’t have anywhere else to go. The culture in which they lived placed no value in people like them. Many of them had sought help in other places, but found none. There were no government programs to help them. There was no Help Office or MICA program in their community to keep them from falling through the cracks. There was no Outreach Committee in the synagogue to help them when things got rough. Most people brushed them and their needs away. The dominant thinking in their time was that if bad things happened to people, they had done something to bring it on themselves. Whether it was sickness or poverty or anything other than productive living, most people believed that if you had those issues, it was because you deserved them. I’m sure some of them thought they would surely wear out their welcome with Jesus one day, but until they did, they were going to continue to seek and take the welcome he offered.
But Jesus didn’t turn them away. He invited them to sit down. They may not have known who he was, but we do. The Savior of the world invited these others had cast aside to sit and rest. Tired and grieving as he was, he had compassion on them and helped them however he could. Matthew doesn’t go into much detail about that day, but we have seen crowds like this come to Jesus before. So we know that he didn’t just wave his hand and suddenly everyone there was healed and made whole. He interacted with people. He spoke with them as if they mattered, because they did matter to him. He taught. He healed. He had compassion on them.
This apparently went on for some time. Matthew says that they turned around and it was evening. The disciples became concerned because no one appeared to have made provisions for supper. Not for themselves, and certainly not for that crowd of people. Their plan was to send them away before it got dark and travel became more dangerous than it already was. But Jesus had something to say about that, too.
This is the second important takeaway from this story. First, Jesus had compassion on people that most everyone else had forgotten. Second, Jesus let the disciples know that he expected them to join him in his compassion for them, that they would be involved in whatever response got made to them. That, of course, brings us to the story we know: the disciples had no idea how they were supposed to provide for this mass of people. They try to get Jesus to send them away. His response must have taken them by surprise. “You give them something to eat,” he told them. There is no little boy in Matthew’s telling of this story, so we don’t know for sure where they came up with them, but they eventually scrounged around and came up with five loaves of bread and two fish, most likely what they had brought for themselves. Hardly enough to make a dent in the need that spread before them. “Bring them to me,” Jesus says. We never find out exactly how it happens, but somehow those meager provisions were enough. Everyone ate and was satisfied, and, in good church potluck fashion, they gathered up enough to feed them again when everyone was finished.
Hunger is at the root of this story. And hunger is not something most of us have much experience with. I’m sure some of us are getting tired of homecooked meals and take out. But few of us have really been hungry. Few of us would venture out to a gathering like the one we read about today without making some provision for meals along the way. That’s why I think those people were hungry for something besides bread and fish. They obviously hadn’t made provisions either. But they knew there was something about Jesus that they wanted, something they needed, something they were hungry for. So they went. And they had needs met that they didn’t even know they had.
Deciding what we’re hungry for is an important consideration for all of us. Most of us settle for far less that what satisfies our greatest need. These days, it’s just get something on the table and get it over with. Even when we’re not weighed down by this virus culture that has dominated our lives for months, we settle for far less than our deepest hungers cry out for.
Those people who dogged Jesus that day knew they needed what he had. They weren’t sure exactly what that was, but they knew there was something about him, something that fed a hunger deep within them.
That same hunger is within all of us. We occupy ourselves with so many other things that we often neglect to feed that deepest hunger. Augustine said long ago that our souls will never find rest until they rest in God. There is that empty place within us that only God can fill. We are masters at trying to fill that spot with all kinds of other things, but God put that spot within us so that we would hear his call and search until we found what filled that need. Nothing can feed our hunger like Jesus can. And once we find ourselves satisfied, we will not rest again until we find ways to feed others.
The disciples thought they were doing a good thing for Jesus when they tried to get him to chase all those needy people away. He had come there to rest, and they had followed him and brought their needs with them. They knew they didn’t have what those people needed, let alone what they wanted. Just send them away. Let them feed themselves. We can’t help.
We sometimes feel the same way about all the needs that surround us. There is so much that we are sure we can’t make a dent in it. Sometimes we just want it to all go away. We certainly don’t usually want it to brush up too closely to us. Just send them away. They need more than we have to give. Jesus helped those first disciples to dream bigger, to envision more than they had seen before, to help in ways they didn’t know they could.
I suspect that God looks at us and our response to overwhelming need and wonders if we have read this story all these years and still don’t get it. Surely someone will do something for all the people we see around us. The schools feed the children. So let’s get them back in school There’s a program for that. They get SNAP benefits. MICA helps all it can, and we help them. But what about those deeper hungers? Beyond nonperishable food items. What about that need that is within all of us for what Jesus has to offer? Who will feed that?
Jesus told the disciples, “You give them something to eat!” If we listen, I suspect we will hear him say the same thing to us. “You have found what satisfies your deepest hunger. Now go and feed others. You have been filled to overflowing. Now go and be sure someone else is full, too.”
The gifts with which God feeds our deepest needs are not in short supply. When the disciples cleaned up after that crowd had eaten and been satisfied that day, there were twelve baskets full of broken pieces left over. Everyone had eaten, and there was plenty left to feed them again.
We sometimes behave as though the gifts of God are exhaustible, that we can’t be generous in sharing God’s love with just anybody---there might not be enough of it to go around. There is always enough, and plenty left over because the gifts we share are not ours; they are God’s. And just as Jesus had compassion for those everyone else had forgotten, so God calls us to seek out those with the greatest need and share with them as abundantly as God has shared with us.
While we were in Florida working to establish a church, we had an opportunity to work with other churches in our area in a similar way to the way we work with churches here to feed people in the winter months. The feeding we did there ran all year. We started by taking one night a month. Other churches took others. Getting buy-in for that ministry was slow. There was a small group of us who were committed to making it happen even if we had to do it ourselves every month. We kept inviting others to help us. Sunday School groups, other groups. We asked no questions of those who came. If they showed up, we fed them. Simple meals mostly, but wholesome and nutritious. One night one of the big doubters of that work agreed to come and help. He was not impressed. We were trying to organize a church, he said. And he didn’t see anybody in that crowd who could help us do that.
I’m sure something like that is what motivated the disciples’ efforts to chase all those people away. But Jesus saw need, and saw that he and those disciples could meet it. The question is not so much what we will gain from our service. It is a question of who will feed the deepest hungers of the world if we don’t?
What are you hungry for? Who feeds that hunger for you? Who will feed it for others? Amen.
Prayers of the People:
God, who is full of compassion and abounding in steadfast love for us and for all people,we come to you in prayer today trusting your promise to hear us and to respond, not as we deserve or as we have earned, but as your covenant binds you to us. We experience your grace and mercy again and again. Help us to be grateful and generous in our response to such gifts. Even in our darkest and most lonely places, you come to us and bless us and help us find the way to new life, to reshape ourselves in light of your call. We give you thanks that you never let us go. Strengthen us to hold onto you as tightly as you hold onto us. We thank you that you are present in this place that is dear to us and that you are somehow still among us when we cannot gather here, binding us into a community of faith and trust that transcends walls and boundaries. We come to you like that crowd came to Jesus, searching for relief of our deepest needs, fearful that we have not found them in other places, and eager to see how you will answer our cry. We are thankful that when we come to you, you never turn us away, but you encourage us to sit and be fed. We know that we have feasted on the bread of heaven and the fruit of the Spirit and been filled to overflowing. Help us to go forth and to be part of sharing the gifts we have received with those who still search. Help us to claim the joy of being blessed to be a blessing to others. With all that in our mind and on our heart, we remember all who are hungry in our community. We give thanks for our partnership with the Salvation Army that has helped us to do something in response to that this summer, and we look forward to opportunities we will have when this virus subsides to help in other ways. As this universal health emergency continues, help us to help others find security and hope. We know that people among and around us long to have their hunger fed, to be healed in body, mind, and spirit. These are not strangers. These are your people, people like us, people who look to you. Help those who look to us see you, O God. Help us to see people with the same compassion and love that you do. Help us to share your love and your mercy with all we meet, family and stranger alike. We know that if we will respond to your call in faith, you will provide more than we imagine so that we can meet our own needs and the needs around us. Keep us attentive to your call and faithful in our response, we pray in the name of Jesus, who taught us all to pray when he said, Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Pastor, J J White Memorial Presbyterian Church
110 Third Street McComb, MS 39648
church phone 601.684.4189