Pentecost +9 2020
St. Brendan’s Anglican Church
Rev. Doug Floyd
Nehemiah 9:16–21, Psalm 78, Romans 8:35–39, Matthew 14:13–21
We live in the middle of our lives; that is, we live in the middle of all the confusion, all the joys, and sorrows, all the questions that usually don’t have clear answers. We may try to make decisions using analytical, intuitive, emotional, or other tools, but we are often struggling to make sense or find clear answers.
When the COVID crisis started, several different research groups released anticipated infection rates and deaths. These models varied widely in their predictions, and all fell short due to a lack of data. As more information has been collected, the models have improved, but there are still many questions.
We are continually developing our models about our lives, even though these may remain unspoken. Our models also lack data and often make incorrect forecasts. We are interpreting our lives, our relations, and our world. We are trying to make sense and trying to make decisions in the midst. We are trying to understand our role as disciples. What are we called to be? What are we called to do?
When I was in college, my sister and I visited Calvary Baptist Church in Knoxville. This minor move was a rather dramatic step considering that we were raised in Independent, Fundamentalist Churches that looked at Southern Baptist churches with suspicion. She had been away at Carson Newman, and when she came home, she told my parents that she could not go back to their church. Surprisingly, they agreed.
One moment we were visiting Calvary Baptist, and what seemed like the next moment, I was deciding to enter into ministry as a life vocation. I was caught up in a series of moments that led me down a varied path of serving in a Black Pentecostal church, a Roman Catholic Halfway House, and even a Quaker church while in graduate school. One small decision to switch churches seemed to set in motion a series of other choices. Or did it? Maybe I would have followed the same path either way.
Our lives are made up of moments that stretch into habits and patterns that become a lifetime. At times, it may feel like we are stumbling from one set of experiences to another, or it may feel like we’ve been following a clear plan all along. For me, it has often felt like I was traveling on a highway that suddenly had a detour sign. I followed the detour and abruptly ended up on another road heading somewhere else.
Now let’s look at the disciples as they are struggling to understand the path of following the Lord. In today’s Gospel, Jesus hears about the death of John the Baptist and withdraws to a desolate place. He leaves the crowds. As the disciples go out in the boat with Him, they are entering a place where His love will be revealed in a surprising and extraordinary way. They don’t realize this. They are merely accompanying Him as He goes into a place of desolation.
Then the people come. Think about them showing up uninvited. Based on the way disciples have acted in other situations, they may feel a need to protect Jesus from the crowds. You could almost imagine the disciples saying, “Don’t you realize that the friend of Jesus has just died, and He’s come here to be alone?” “Can’t you give Him some privacy?”
Before they can respond, Jesus has already gone ashore and is healing them. He is already showing compassion upon them in their weakness. The night begins to approach in this desolate place. What an image of need. The sun is going down in a place of desolation. That sounds like some people’s lives.
It makes me think of Bob Dylan’s song, “Not Dark Yet.” He sings,
I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
What a description of our human condition. The sun is going down in a place of desolation. It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there. The Son of God steps into this vacancy, this numbness, this coming darkness with compassion and healing. Do the people deserve it? No. Of course not. This is the abundant, unexplainable mercy of God. The disciples want to send the crowds away. Jesus tells them to give them something to eat. This is an impossibility. Where will the food come from in the middle of nowhere?
All they can find is five loaves and two fish. Jesus takes this meager offering and offers an abundant feast that satisfies over five thousand people. In the place of desolation, at the edge of darkness, with a scant offering, Jesus invites His disciples into an unthinkable demonstration of God’s generous love. It’s never too dark, never too desolate, never too meager for the unbounded love of God.
We serve the God who speaks light, breathes life into clay, and transforms a sin scarred world into a city of peace. This is the God who sustains His idolatrous people as they walk through the middle of the desert into the promised land. All the way, they seem blind to His abundant gifts.
All the way, we seem blind to his abundant gifts. Like the ancient Hebrews, it is easy for us to lose our eyes in the desert heat and see only problems in the world. It is easy to fall into a habit, a pattern, a lifetime of complaint, wondering why we’ve never seen the hand of God. All the while, we’ve been blind to His gracious love.
As disciples of Christ, our eyes have been opened to the love of God in Christ. Like the first disciples, we are learning how to see the movement of God’s love in the world, in the places of desolation, among those who like ourselves are unworthy of God’s love.
In our Romans reading, St. Paul assures us that we will face difficulties, pain, challenging circumstances in life. Struggle is not the surprise. The surprise is that nothing, nothing will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ.
In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-39)
We are learning both the depths of God’s love for us, even as we are learning to step into the depths of God’s love for the world. This unspeakable love makes me think of St. Josephine Bakhita. Born around 1869 in Sudan, she was kidnapped when she was 7 or 8 years old by Arab slave traders. She was forced to walk about 600 miles barefoot on the way to El-Obeid.
Along the way, she was bought and sold several times, forcibly converted to Islam, and beaten mercilessly. She bore over 144 scars in her body from brutal beatings.
Eventually, an Italian merchant bought her and took her home to Italy. For the first time, she heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ and came to love this King of Kings and Lord of Lords. From then only Jesus was her true Master. When the Italian merchant tried to take her back to Africa with him and his family. She refused and sought refuge in the church. The Italian courts ruled that when that merchant brought her onto Italian soil, she was legally free. She joined a convent and lived her final 42 years in a convent in Northern Italy. During WW2, the locals said that her presence in the community brought them peace amid the bombings. A young student once asked Bakhita: “What would you do if you were to meet your captors?” Without hesitation, she responded: “If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands. For, if these things had not happened, I would not have been a Christian and a religious today.”
Bakhita never did anything dramatic. She lived a mostly hidden life in her convent, and yet the church canonized her. She models a way of little kindnesses in response to God’s love. In her, we might think about how art surrounded by small graces, little gifts of love from God that surround us each day. At the same time, we may not do dramatic works for the kingdom; we may lead quiet lives, or we may be called to great sacrifice. Either way, we follow in the path of God’s revealed love by offering little graces, little kindnesses of love in our words and acts each day.
Though we often do not understand the times in which we live, we do know this we follow in the way of His love. May we also have eyes to see and ear to hear as His leads in the way of love toward undeserving, often unkind, and even ungrateful people. Nonetheless, let us love like our Master, trusting that He will transform our meager offerings into an abundant feast.
 Dylan, Bob, “Not Dark Yet” on Time Out of Mind, Copyright © 1997 by Special Rider Music <https://www.bobdylan.com/songs/not-dark-yet/>
 See “Josephine Bakhita” on Wikipedia. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josephine_Bakhita#cite_note-23>