Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, November 14, 2018

To Be or To Do

Matthew 14:13-21

 Today’s interesting fact:  This is the only miracle of Jesus, other than the resurrection, that is explicitly mentioned in all four Gospels.  The disciples must have considered it to be a very important event. But why it was important is a somewhat more debatable matter.

 Some people argue that the passage reveals Jesus to be the “new Moses.”  Moses led the Israelites through the wilderness for 40 years, and they were fed by “manna,” a mysterious bread substance that fell from the sky every morning.  And some see that Matthew tries to present Jesus as a “new Moses,” the leader of a new Exodus out of the slavery of sin.  And of course, here is Jesus providing bread in the wilderness.

 Others argue that the passage is a preview to the Lord’s Supper.  And of course you can see it that way, but it’s a bit of a stretch to think this is all about communion.

 Others think the passage is meant to remind us of the Old Testament prophets Elijah and Elisha, whose ministry which was characterized by miracles.  And on one occasion, Elisha multiplied food to feed a crowd.  So maybe this is presenting Jesus as a new and greater prophet.

 All of those things are true to at least some extent.  But I don’t know that any one of them really “captures the meaning” of the feeding of the 5000.  At the very least we can say this:  The miracle reveals the ability of Jesus to meet our needs in great abundance.  There were even leftovers.  And who doesn’t like leftovers?  

 Coincidentally, the Scriptures tell us there were 12 baskets of leftovers.  And how many disciples were there? Twelve.  Bible scholars tell us that many people carried a basket on their back as they traveled about, kind of the first century equivalent of a backpack.  So maybe, it was the 12 disciples that picked up the leftovers for their own use.  That would of course produce an irony in the story.  The disciples said, “It can’t be done.”  But then Jesus did it, and even provided enough for all these doubting disciples to have leftovers!  

 A great story, and obviously, an important story to the early Church that included it in our Bibles four times.  But today, I want to focus on the part of the story that comes before the miracle.  

 Jesus heard the news.  What news?  Well, go back before this passage and you’ll see that this was the time when Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee and Perea, executed John the Baptist according to the wishes of his wife, Herodias.  

 That must have been difficult for Jesus.  We know that Jesus and John the Baptist were relatives of some sort.  Traditionally, they were cousins.  And they were probably friends as well.  So there would be a feeling of emotional loss.  But also, John’s death must have been a reminder to Jesus that his own time was fast approaching.  And we know that Jesus did not look forward to the cross.  

 Two of the other Gospels also inform us that this was right after Jesus had sent out the Twelve Disciples for a time of ministry on their own.  And no doubt Jesus wanted to spend some time with them to “debrief” them and talk about their ministry.  

 So Jesus wanted to go off and be alone with the Twelve.  We know from many places in the Gospels that Jesus made a habit of going off alone into the wilderness to spend time in prayer.  Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’ve always liked the guy so much because I like to go off into the wilderness by myself too.  This time Jesus was taking the Twelve with him.  

 Maybe Jesus intended to talk to them about his true identity and his purpose at this point.  In Matthew 16, Jesus took the Twelve to Caesarea Philippi to talk about those very things, and here in Matthew 14, he was going in that very direction.  So maybe this was a failed attempt to reveal God’s plan to them.  

 Whatever his intentions, it didn’t go according to plan.  The crowds saw Jesus leaving and followed him.  They went quickly around the edge of the lake as he and the disciples traveled by boat.  Maybe they had a headwind because by the time they landed on the sparsely populated northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, the crowds were already there.  They were like sheep without a shepherd, looking for someone to care for them.  And Jesus had compassion on them.  He healed the sick.  He taught.  And when evening came and they were alone in that uninhabited region, he fed them.  

 I think the story reveals one of the great tensions of the Christian life, the tension of being versus doing.  Jesus wanted to be alone, to be with his disciples, but his desire was interrupted by the needs of the masses.  And he made a compassionate response to them.  As Christians, we are called to both.  We are called to be and called to do, and both are important.

 We are called to be the people of God.  We should engage in acts of being, in acts that nurture and sustain our relationship with God.  This would include things like worship, the study of God’s Word, both individually and in community.  We should engage in prayer and meditation.  And we should find time to take “spiritual retreats,” getting away from the world

to hear God’s voice more clearly.  And of course, there are many other forms of personal devotion and faith enrichment.  

 But we are also called to do the work of God.  We should serve others through works of compassion and mercy.  We should engage in evangelism, faith-sharing, proclaiming the Word of God and the love of God to those who don’t know.  We should nurture and encourage each other in the faith.  And we should engage in works of justice to ensure that all people have the things they need to live:  food, clean water, shelter, and basic human rights.

 Jesus fed 5000 men plus women and children by himself.  But if Jesus wants to feed the world today, and he certainly does, it requires the Church, the hands and feet of the Body of Christ, to make it happen.  

 So both being and doing are important.  The danger is when we over-emphasize one and the other one suffers.  

Now there is always going to be a tension between the two.  We’re always going to feel pulled in one way or the other.  And we all have a natural inclination toward one or the other.  The Gospels tell us about Mary and Martha.  Martha was upset that Mary wasn’t working hard, but Mary was just content to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn.  Maybe those were just their natural inclinations.  Some people are just inclined to be still and to be in the moment.  Others are naturally inclined to be busy with doing something.  That’s where I find myself.  I have a hard time being still.  But whichever kind of person you are, you need to be able to do the other.  Sometimes I need to remind myself that it’s okay if such-and-such doesn’t get done today because there are times when I just need to be in the presence of God.  I find it easier to go do something than to sit quietly, read the Bible, and pray.  But of course, that’s important.  We need to learn the wisdom to balance them.  If we don’t balance them, something suffers.  

If we over-emphasize being, then other people suffer.  The needs of others, be they physical or spiritual, go unmet.  If the church were to spend all its time just singing and praising God, what would happen to those who have needs and whom God wants us to help?  How would the church ever create a next generation of the faithful if we don’t do the work of evangelism and discipleship?  

We need to have a rich inner life of faith, but if we over-emphasize it, we become self-centered.  There’s no such thing as authentic navel-gazing Christianity.  We should not be people who ignore the world around us because we’re only thinking about what’s inside me.  We need to be people of compassion and compassionate action.

On the other hand, if we over-emphasize doing, then we are the ones who suffer.  We wear ourselves out.  Burnout is a major problem in many churches.  There are folks who just keep doing and doing until they wear themselves out.  

We need times of personal, spiritual renewal.  We need to spend time in prayer and worship.  We need time apart from the world.  We should have our “days off” and take a vacation every now and then.  I know I’m not the best person to say that because I have a certain workaholic trend.  I did not do the best job of taking time away in my last appointment, so I’m trying to be intentional about doing it now.  

It’s about stewardship.  Stewardship is the first responsibility God gave to human beings.  And stewardship is just using what God has given us wisely.  And the first thing God gave us is ourselves.  We need to be mindful of ourselves and our needs.  It doesn’t do the world much good if we wear ourselves out because, then, we can’t do anything.  

The hard part is finding balance.  And I don’t think that there are any hard and fast rules for it.  Each of us has our own natural inclinations.  We need to learn to balance them.  Each of us needs to learn to listen to the Holy Spirit when it comes time to make decisions.  We also need to listen to our own bodies.  If we’re feeling worn out, that’s a sign that we have been over-emphasizing the “doing” and need to spend some time just being.  But we also need to be guided by compassion, just as Jesus was.  Otherwise we may always find ourselves saying, “Well, I should do something about such and such, but I just don’t know that I have the energy to invest in it.”  

Maybe the best advice is to say that we all need others to help keep us accountable.  We need another person to say, you need some time away.  Jesus did that for the disciples.  One of the other Gospels tells us that the disciples weren’t even finding time to eat, so Jesus told them, “let’s go away for a while.”  It didn’t work out immediately, but at least they had someone looking out for them, and we all need that.  And that’s why we live in a Christian community called the Church.

God values who we are and what we do.  We should value each of them, too.  We should strive for balance in life.  And we should look out for each other and help each other to find balance.

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