They need not go away

Sermon – They need not go away – Revd Sue McCoan Sun 6 Aug 2023

Bible reading: Matthew 14:13-21

What do you do when there’s a situation that is out of your control? Maybe something in the present, that you need to face; maybe past hurts where the situation is finished and the people involved long gone from your life, so there can be no resolution.

Our gospel reading has the disciples of Jesus facing just such an impossible situation: Jesus challenges them to feed a large crowd and they have no means to do it.

It’s worth unpacking this a bit. It was not unusual for Jesus to be dealing with crowds of people; they came to him all the time for healing and to hear him preach. And it was not unusual for him to be so engrossed in his work that he lost track of time and didn’t get chance to eat properly. What is different on this occasion is that they are in a remote place.

Normally, Jesus was teaching in the towns and villages of Galilee. At the end of the day, the people would simply go back to their homes. But we are told, at the start of this reading, that Jesus has gone to a lonely place, hoping to be by himself. He has done this in response to hearing the news of the death of John the Baptist. John, who was the forerunner of Jesus, who prepared the way for Jesus to come; John who uniquely understood who Jesus was and what he was doing; John the prophet who spoke truth to power, and now power has answered back with an almost casual cruelty.

No wonder Jesus wants some time to himself. Time to pray; time to grieve for John; time, perhaps, to ponder on his on mission, his own calling to speak truth to power and what that might mean for him. It doesn’t quite work out as he might have wished – by the time he has sailed across Lake Galilee, people from nearby towns have gone round the shore on foot and were there to meet him. I sometimes think the first miracle in this story is that Jesus doesn’t turn the boat straight round and head back to the middle of the lake. But no. Jesus has compassion on these people, spends time with them and heals them, just as he would anywhere else.

It is the disciples who spot the problem. Evening is coming, and people need to eat, and they are in a remote place where they can’t all just go home for dinner. In spotting the problem, though, they also see the obvious solution: send the people away. Stop the healing, let the crowds disperse, and then we can sort ourselves out, we twelve and you, Jesus.

It is a very sensible and practical suggestion. But it also shows up a subtle undercurrent in the disciples’ thinking. Which is that we are the real followers, the inner circle, the committed ones; those other people are just onlookers. They don’t matter as much.

The answer Jesus gives calls the disciples out on this assumption. ‘They need not go away’, he says. ‘You give them something to eat.’ They need not go away. If we are to resolve this situation, it’s not them that need to do something different; it’s you.

Ouch! The disciples are stung by this. Jesus is treating these random people on exactly the same footing as he is treating them. In fact he’s elevating the crowd above the disciples, because the crowd will receive food, but the disciples have to provide it. Oh, that’s hard. And doubly hard because they have no possible means of doing this – all they have is five loaves and two fish.

We’ll come back to how the situation was resolved. For now I want to leave the disciples in their stunned and uncomfortable state. And to share a situation that came to mind when I was dwelling on this bible story for today.

I was talking recently to a lady I know who was divorced many years ago, to her great sadness. The demands of caring for a disabled child had put such a strain on their marriage that they were not able to stay together. That much I knew. But now she told me that, after the divorce was complete, the minister of her church had given her a task: to write a letter to her ex-husband, asking for forgiveness for all the ways in which she had contributed to the breakdown of the marriage. I have to say I was shocked by this – it wasn’t her fault! Why should she be the one to ask for forgiveness? Why would a minister ask her to do it? But she did it. She thought back over all the things she might have done better, wrote them all out, asking for forgiveness, and posted the letter.

She said, it made all the difference to her. It shifted the situation, in her mind, from being this awful thing that had happened to her, to being a tragic situation that they were all involved with, and all damaged by. It changed the way she was able to relate to her ex-husband, and opened up possibilities for moving forward in the ongoing care of the child.

I was hugely impressed that she had had the courage to do this. It inspired me to go away and do some reflection of my own. I had faced a difficult time, and had been carrying that, ever since, as ‘this was a bad thing that happened to me. It was that behaviour, and those attitudes, and I suffered’. This lady’s insight enabled me to look back and ask myself the question she had been told to ask: in what ways did I contribute towards the difficulty?

And when I faced it, I could see quite a few ways in which my response, my attitudes, had really not helped. It was hard to do that exercise but it has made a difference. The situation can’t be changed now. But the way I look at it has changed. I see how hard it must have been for other people, not just for me. And I am, for the first time, able to pray for those people; I can own this as something we shared, and survived, and can learn from.

Which brings us back to the disciples of Jesus. We left them wanting the crowds to go away, and Jesus saying the crowds need not go away, you can do something.

What they do is give what they have to Jesus. They hand over the five loaves and two fish. And Jesus takes what they have and breaks it. He gets the crowd to sit down, says a blessing, and breaks the bread into pieces. (I imagine at least one of the disciples is thinking – that’s my dinner!)

But then Jesus gives back what has been blessed and broken, and it feeds every person there, with more than enough for all.

We can’t always change the world around us. We can’t change situations from the past. But we can change what we do with them. We can give what we have to Jesus, including our own attitudes and thoughts, and allow Jesus to break what we have given. And out of that breaking, Jesus will bring more blessing, for more people, than we can imagine.