Here’s a trivia question for anyone who is a Beatles’ fan. Can you name a Beatles’ song that talks about preaching? There may be more than one, but the one I’m aware of is “Eleanor Rigby.” One verse of that song says, “Father McKenzie, writing the words to a sermon that no one will hear. No one comes near…” And then comes the haunting refrain “all the lonely people, where do they all come from?” Where do all the lonely people in the world come from? Great question and I don’t know the answer. But I know to whom they come. They come to the church.
Theologian Frederick Buechner says it’s not the presence of God in our lives that keeps us coming back to church; it’s the absence of God, the hunger for spiritual food to fill the God-shaped hole in our lives. We come looking for the rest and renewal Jesus promises in Matthew 11:28-30. Our weary souls leap for joy when we hear Jesus say, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Where do we sign up for that R&R Jesus?
But hold the phone before you get too excited. Just five short chapters later in Matthew that offer seems to have expired as we hear “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matt. 16:24-25) An easy yoke or take up your cross? Which is it Jesus – we’re getting mixed messages here! Almost makes me want to set up an empty chair and have a little imaginary chat with Jesus about this seeming contradiction, but then I realized that gig has already been tried and it didn’t exactly make anyone’s day. And to make matters worse, my research tells me that the verses about rest and the easy yoke appear only in this passage from Matthew. None of the other gospels include it, but the part about self denial and taking up one’s cross, that appears in Mark and Luke also, and Matthew and Luke both have it twice in their gospels to make sure we don’t miss it. And Jesus certainly walks that walk; so the Scriptures are clear that we have to take sacrifice and service to others seriously if we intend to be followers of Jesus.
Which makes me ask again, “where’s the rest for weary laborers in Christ’s vineyard?” We hear the message loud and clear, deny oneself – serve others – be a servant of all. We want to obey and follow, but we’re tired Jesus. We’ve been at this church thing a long time and it often seems hopeless. We feel empty, inadequate, and unable to keep our own soul and body together, let alone respond to the needs of all the lonely, hungry people – there must be 5000 of them!!!!
Where do they all come from? Where do we all come from? Empty nesters trying to cope with houses that are suddenly too quiet, kids in new schools searching for real friends, caregivers for the sick, single parents trying to be breadwinners and heads of household, the underemployed and unemployed, those without purpose and passion. Some of us are struggling with addictions, with problems of aging. Some of us are victims of bullies or peer pressure. Some of us are grieving the death of lifelong partners. All the lonely people.
One of the other things I wish Jesus hadn’t said is that “the poor will be with you always.” (Mt. 26:11, Mk. 14:7) But there is no historical evidence that he was wrong about that. I learned recently that even in the affluent suburb close to my home the number of lonely, hungry people is dramatically increasing. That shouldn’t surprise me, but the numbers did. 750 people per month on average are coming for assistance to the local ecumenical food pantry. 15% of the kids in our suburban school district are on free and reduced lunches, and in two of our school buildings that number is over 50%. And we know the problems are much worse in urban areas and vastly worse in other parts of the human family around the world.
Where do all those people in need come from and how can we possibly feed them all? That’s the question Jesus’ disciples also ask in the familiar story in Mark 6:30-37. Jesus recognizes that the disciples need a break from the ministry they are doing; so he takes them off to a deserted place for some rest, or so he thinks. But apparently someone tweeted or texted their destination because there’s a whole crowd of lonely people waiting for Jesus when they arrive, hungry for his words and his healing presence. Mark tells us they look like a bunch of sheep without a shepherd, and Jesus of course has compassion on them and begins to teach them many things. And when it begins to grow late and folks are getting hungry, the disciples suggest they send the crowds off to McDonalds or Chipotle to fend for themselves. But Jesus looks the disciples right in the eye as only Jesus can look at you, and he says, “YOU give them something to eat.”
“What? You must be kidding Jesus! It would take a week or more wages to feed this crowd. We don’t have that kind of money.” (That’s a loose translation) But Jesus says, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” (6:38)
There is a story in John Westerhoff’s book, Will Our Children Have Faith; about a young couple who had everything in life except the thing they wanted the most. They loved children and desperately wanted to have a family of their own. But no matter how hard they tried or how many fertility specialists they saw, their sorrow grew with each miscarriage and each passing year of unanswered prayers. Through their years of frustration and disappointment and anger, the person who supported them most through that lonely journey was their parish priest, Father John. He counseled them and prayed with them and walked their path with them each step of the way. And then the miracle happened. When Samantha conceived and was able to give birth to a beautiful baby boy there was no question what they would name him. He was baptized “John,” in honor of the faithful priest who delighted in seeing the little boy grow into the curious toddler who warmed Father John’s heart with his smiles and giggles every Sunday morning.
When Johnny was about two and a half he was out early one morning with his mother, taking the family dog out for his morning exercise. The dog chased a squirrel into the neighbor’s yard, and Samantha went after him. In those two minutes Johnny toddled over into the driveway behind the family car just as his father came rushing out of the house late for work. Tom, unaware Johnny was behind the car backed over his son and killed him instantly.
Father John came to the house as soon as he heard the tragic news and found Tom and Samantha in utter and inconsolable despair sitting on the bed holding each other as they wept. Father John didn’t know what to do or say. No words seemed able to touch the depths of the devastation these grieving parents were engulfed in; so the priest just sat beside them on the bed and cried with them.
A couple of days after he conducted the hardest funeral of his life, Father John stopped by the home to see how Tom and Samantha were doing. He was dreading the visit because he felt that he had been totally inadequate in his pastoral care of them on the darkest day of their lives. So when he reluctantly rang the doorbell he was bowled over when Samantha greeted him warmly and threw her arms around him. She thanked him profusely for all that he had done for them. He said, “But I didn’t do anything. I didn’t know what to say. I just sat there and cried.” She said, “You gave us all you had, and it was enough.”
When Jesus sends the disciples out to see how many loaves they have to feed the multitude, he doesn’t ask them to give more than they have, just all that they have. He says, “Go see what you have and bring it to me.” And when they surrender meager five loaves and two fish to him, they must have been thinking there was no way even Jesus could feed over 5000 people with five loaves and two fish.
But they suspended their doubts and gave him all they had, and when Jesus takes it and blesses it, not only is it enough to feed the multitude until they are satisfied, there’s enough leftovers to feed the next batch of lonely, hungry pilgrims already coming down the road.
I played a tough golf course several years ago and laughed when I looked down at one of the sprinkler heads on a long par 5 hole. I knew I was a long way from the green, but where I expected to see the number of yards from that point to the green, instead there were these words from, “All You Got.”
That’s what Jesus gave for us, and what he asks for us in return. I saw a piece of wisdom on Facebook recently that said, “When the going gets tough, we have three choices. We can give up, give in, or give it all we’ve got.”
Did you notice at the Olympics that they never give out any medals for running the 99 yard dash? To give all we’ve got means to finish the race, to stay with the mission of meeting the needs of the hungry and lonely people among us for as long as it takes. I’ve been looking for years in my Bible for the word “retirement.” It isn’t there because as long as we have breath we can give whatever we’ve got, all we’ve got.
We can’t do that if we are fearful and attached to things that don’t satisfy. When Jesus asks us to deny ourselves, what he invites us to surrender is our false sense of self that is defined by our resume or our grade cards or our trophy case or our worldly possessions. Those things have no lasting value, but the eternal peace and rest that comes from following Jesus can never be taken away.
The secret when we feel weary and overwhelmed by the needs around us and within us is to know that God doesn’t expect us to give more than we have. That would be unfair, and we do not serve an unjust God. But I promise you, in Christ’s name, that if we entrust God with all we have, our meager loaves and fishes will be more than enough.
(A sermon preached at Jerome United Methodist Church, Plain City, Ohio, September 2, 2012)