|13||When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary
place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns.
|14||When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and
healed their sick.
|15||As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a
remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so
they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”
|16||Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”|
|17||“We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.|
|18||“Bring them here to me,” he said.|
|19||And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves
and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves.
Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people.
|20||They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls
of broken pieces that were left over.
|21||The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.|
I think I’m going to cry. Well, you’ve heard or read some of the history so I won’t bore you too much with that, but the fact that God has allowed Ellen and me to be back with you again is an incredible gift and privilege, and to look out and see so many faces of people that we love and that have been in ministry, that have been praying for us and supporting us in so many ways, is a tremendous blessing. This spot makes me cry. The first sermon I ever preached on a Sunday morning was right over there; that was in 1977. In 1987 I was kneeling right here as the Baltimore Presbytery ordained me, and just about 12 weeks ago, at this same spot Andrea, our oldest daughter, was married. Jerry did such a wonderful job of presiding over that wedding, and so it’s not just a spot, it’s the congregation. It’s just been a tremendous blessing to us.
Ellen started a bible study during the last interim we served. She was using the book, “Experiencing God’s Presence” with a group of women, and one of the questions in that book was, “besides your spouse and family, what is the greatest gift that you’ve ever received?” That was a challenging question. She came home that night and posed the question to me. We sat and thought a minute and I said I think I know the answer. The greatest gift, besides my family, is when Central Presbyterian Church supported us to go to seminary in the mid-80s.
And now I’m here delivering my first sermon as an Interim Pastor. Some people think that Interim Pastors are pastors who can’t find real jobs. But in the last 15-20 years there has been a strong effort to train people to go into the life of congregations, in some of their most vulnerable times, and help them and work with them and ask challenging questions not out of a judgement based mode but out of a curiosity based mode, so that preparation can be made for the next chapter of ministry.
I’ve just completed the first of what I trust will be many intentional interims in Butler, Pennsylvania. I was 30 miles north of Pittsburgh and so, in that congregation, tried to warm to the idea of liking the Pirates. I confessed that I forgave them because I remembered back to the 1979 World Series when, the Orioles were up 3-1 and then lost to that dreaded Willy Stargel and his group. But now, I don’t have to worry about that. I’m back in the Land of Pleasant Living, cheering for the beloved O’s. And my first official suggestion is that we put the O’s on the prayer list because they need a lot of help.
But seriously, it’s great to be with you again and I thank the Lord for this privilege. For those whom we don’t know, I promise I will try, and I will try to encourage others, to lay low on the good old days stuff, because there is nothing worse then being the spouse at your wife’s reunion. I’ve gone to my wife’s high school reunion three times and I swore I’d never go again. So you all who I don’t know, who we don’t know, are friends we just haven’t met yet and we’re really thrilled to be here over this next 12+ months, however long it is.
Listen to the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, Matthew 14:13-21:
When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”
Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
“We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.
“Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.
A few years ago we took a trip to West Point from Central Pennsylvania. Our son had just entered the Naval Academy, and so we wanted to see what the competition looked like. And so, being the kind of person I am, not always consulting maps, as someone has alluded to already in this service, we started out on 80 East, and in New Jersey we saw a great sign. It said “Express Lane to the George Washington Bridge.” I said express lanes are good (but I needed to get onto 9W which goes up the Hudson towards West Point) but the express lane sounds great, so I got in the express lane. And if you’ve ever done that, you know that you cannot get onto 9W once you’ve gotten into the express lane as you near the George Washington Bridge. So we had to go through the Bronx and then around 14 expressways and up to the Tappanzee and over into upstate New York. On the way back I consulted a map and learned that I had made a three hour trip into five hours on the way going. So it really helps to know where you’re going. I mean, I don’t think anybody’s going to argue that fact.
I want to ask you this morning, when it comes to your journey with God on the road to discipleship, are you going in the right direction? Are you in an express lane somewhere that you’re not sure if it’s getting you where you want to be? Are you hesitant to ask God for instructions back? If that’s the case then perhaps this interim time is not just a time for reassessment for the church, it may be a time for reassessment for you, personally, in your daily walk with Christ. When’s the last time that you felt the transforming touch of God’s power in your life? If it’s been a long time maybe it’s the time for reassessment. Personally and collectively, it’s important to have a clear purpose, to know where we’re going.
So here’s the question, are we on the right road today with Christ? Even though the entrance ramps and the exit ramps can be individually tailored, are we certain that God’s purpose for us is clear at this point in our lives? I like the way Max Lucado put it, “Pilgrims with no vision of the promised land become proprietors of their own land. They set up camp, they exchange hiking boots for loafers, and trade in their staff for a new recliner.” On our trip to West Point, at least I knew the goal and I could make the corrections but if we don’t know our goal it doesn’t matter how many corrections we make.
Like the conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat. “Which way should I go,” asked Alice. “Well, where are you going?” “I don’t know.” “Well, then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
A survey of executives asked them what are your top ten time wasters? One and two, #1 unclear goals, #2 a lack of priorities. So we can waste a lot of time when we are unclear of God’s goals and priority. Now what’s the goal and priority of believers in Jesus Christ? Someone might say well that’s heaven. Well we know that that’s not the case because if that were the case, then we should all go the way of the Hale-Bopp Comet cult. The priority for disciples of Jesus Christ is to be delivering help for human hurt and hope in Christ’s name. Eternity will be the ultimate expression of where we’re going, but it’s not the goal now. Christ likeness, in the Spirit’s power is our goal. If that’s your goal, you can make an on-course correction, if you need to. If that’s not your goal then it really doesn’t matter what road you take. And if that’s not your goal, then what is? Heaven forbid that we should be like people who seek Jesus for a free lunch, instead of seeking Him to know Him and to become like Him.
What was the Lord’s priority? He said I came to do my Father’s will. He said I’ve come to seek and save that which was lost. I came not to be served but to serve and to give My life as a ransom for many. And as His people, this is our call, our mission, our purpose; to give ourselves away in His name, as Central Church has been doing all along. The Apostle Paul stated it well, too, Colossians 1:28-29: “It is He whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom so that we may present everyone mature in Christ, for this I toil and struggle with all the energy He powerfully inspires in me.”
Now in today’s gospel text, in the feeding of the 5,000, we’re tempted to look at the wrong number. We’re tempted to think about the great crowd and the thousands of people whom Jesus fed. That demonstrates Christ’s power, but I believe that Christ’s purpose in this text was focused on a much smaller number, 12. He was trying to teach people what it meant to become a servant of God.
You know, people today, pastors let’s say, get together and before long, if they haven’t known each other, there’ll be a question: “about how many people would you say are in your church?” Answer: Do you mean on paper or really? And so then they’ll give some numbers. Well, here’s the real question they will ask, how many people are in attendance on Sunday morning? That’s the determining factor of how strong a church is, and then they’ll give some numbers. I suggest to you, that that is not the determining factor. I like the way Rick Warren puts it, when he says, “We don’t need any more members, we need ministers. The strength of an army isn’t how many people show up in the mess hall and have lunch, it’s how many people are out in the field delivering help for human hurt and hope.”
If your purpose is to be on the road to Christ-likeness, serving God, and building up the Church, and you need a way back, this text offers two road signs, to get back on that road if need be. The first thing is this, we must confess our utter dependence upon God. Note that this text starts with Jesus hearing and responding to some very depressing news. There is no lack of depressing news today. What did the perfect Son of God do when he heard that John the Baptist had just been killed, that’s the context. In fact, if you go back earlier in the context, Jesus had just been in his own home town and said “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and their own house,” and he did not do many deeds there because of their unbelief, and then it gives the account of John the Baptist’s beheading. What did the perfect Son of God do? When Jesus heard this, He withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by Himself. The Lord, the perfect Lord, got with God, His Father, and prayed.
When do you feel like serving the least? When you’re tired? When you’re rejected? When you’ve been betrayed? When you feel powerless? That’s the time you don’t feel like doing anything. And you look at this and you say well that’s Jesus, not me. That’s precisely my point. He can, you can’t. He can, we can’t.
I remember hearing about a teammate of Michael Jordan’s. He said Michael and I scored 70 points tonight. Michael had 68, he had two. But that’s the way it is with the Lord. He does it, we don’t, and so we tend to swerve and forget God’s purpose and we go off that road to discipleship when we’re wounded by life. Perhaps today you feel attacked or you feel rejected or you feel powerless or you feel depleted, and you’re ready to say, like the disciples, Lord, make these people go away. If so, I’ve got some good news for you. You’re closer to the road back than those who are smug, self-sufficient, and complacent. In the midst of this weariness that Jesus had, he had compassion, and in the midst of your weariness, He has compassion on you and can give you the strength you need. You just need to give Him your whole world, to place all in his hands.
Bruce Larson in his book “Believe And Belong” tells how he helped people struggling in their spiritual life, not just coming to know Christ for salvation but on that road when it got hard. He ministered in New York and so he would say to folks, “Come on, I want to take a walk with you.” They went on Fifth Avenue to the RCA Building and there, in the entrance of the RCA Building was a huge statue of Atlas holding up the world. The most beautifully proportioned man holding up the whole world, barely able to hold it all, bending under the weight, and Bruce Larson would say, “Now there’s one way. You can try to live that way, but come across the street with me,” and there in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, behind the high altar, is a shrine to the Little Boy Jesus, maybe He’s eight or nine at the time. In that shrine, Jesus, the Little Boy, has His hand out like this, and the world is in it, and Larson would say, “That’s the other way that you can live. You can give Him your whole world and find the strength you need again but you must surrender everything to Him. Those who do this have found the road and are walking on it.”
And secondly, believe anew that God wants your participation to do something to help and heal others. Many people think that God, for some reason, by-passed them on the spiritual gift thing. What was going through the disciples’ minds when they heard Jesus’ response to their tiredness? Lord, we’ve been ministering to these people all day long, make them go away. And Jesus says they don’t need to go away, you give them something to eat. And in that one statement, you give them something to eat, we have a tension between the possibility and the impossibility of this. Again, only Christ could, they could not.
The point being, Christ wants to use us in significant ministry. Isn’t it fascinating to think that the thing that God may want to do here or in your life may, at this moment, seem insurmountable, or seem unthinkable. Like the disciples, our natural tendency is, “Jesus, please make this problem go away.” And the Lord says, “This problem doesn’t have to go away, you have to come and give Me what you have and I’ll take care of the problem.”
Is there anyone in your life that you say, boy, I’d like to see them go away? Anything in your life? We have a ten week old puppy, there are two parts of me, I love that little puppy, but at 3:00 in the morning when its yapping for an hour in that crate and won’t be quiet, I think, I want this to go away.
The point I’m trying to make is that there is a part of all of us that when we’re stressed we say I want out of this, and Jesus says no, you come to Me. Weakness is no excuse. Moses stuttered. David’s armor didn’t fit. Paul had ministry coworkers who deserted him. Peter was afraid of death. Lazarus was dead. Elijah was burned out. Jeremiah was depressed and suicidal. There are lots of reasons why God shouldn’t use us, but if we love Him, if we hunger for Him, if we come to Him, He will give us what we need to bless others.
Now we’re here because somebody believed. I’m sure, when the Baltimore Presbytery in 1949 approached Murray Smoot and said we want you to replant this thing called Central Church, that Murray and Dotty got on their knees in that manse and said, “Now Lord, exactly how are we supposed to do this, with a little group of people?” But by 1952, the little building over here was built, and by 1957 the structure in which we sit today. And just last Thursday, I was sitting with the Third Service Task Force, thinking about the next phase, the next step, of growth. You see, God wants new chapters written.
I know that a lot of people are grieving when a pastor, a beloved pastor leaves. Ron did a wonderful job, and this church has grown under Ron and Jerry’s ministry and leadership in an incredible way. But God has called Ron elsewhere and God is calling us now again to say what is it? How shall we give them something to eat? In fact, Ron wrote me an E-mail and he said, “Tell the people I have a confirmation of my call. Somebody gave me Redskins-Cowboys tickets for December 10th!”
You see, you give them something to eat is a process of dependence and discovery, and it changes all the time, and never to be stale. No stale bread. Our purpose is to humbly rely, to humbly believe that God wants to use us, anew and again. I’ll never forget hearing Dick Halverson, who most of you know was Chaplain of the Senate. He was pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church for 22 years in D.C., I’ll never forget after he heard that he was going to be Chaplain of the Senate, his saying, “This is the thing that God has been preparing me for my whole life.” After 22 years of unbelievable ministry at Fourth Presbyterian!
Do you need a clear purpose? Here it is: turn your life anew over to Jesus, put all that you have into His hands, and you will be filled and others will be filled, and there will even be some left over for someone else. You give them something to eat.
Let us pray.