Today, we take another lesson from Jesus. Part of discipleship, part of the training program of the Kingdom of Heaven, is sometimes retreating into a deserted place; being alone with God; giving our pain to God, instead of passing it on to others.
Jesus’ cousin John, Jesus’ forerunner in proclaiming the kingdom of God, his ally—the king cut his head off. And that is where we meet up with Jesus in Matthew’s narrative today. You all know the story about John the Baptist’s beheading. Just imagine it all posted as tweets and videos on social media to make the corruption of it feel more familiar.
At king Herod’s birthday party his young niece does some kind of dance for him. The king is sleazily pleased and promises her anything she wants. The girl’s mother, who wanted to be with Herod, gave the king an excuse to kill the dangerous John the Baptist, and told her daughter to ask for John’s head on a platter. Bound by his word and happy for the chance to crush the rebellion he feared John’s preaching about repentance and God’s justice was stoking, bound by his word Herod has his soldiers kill John and bring his head out on a serving plate.
Nothing could be more gruesome and crooked than this display of injustice and profanity. Jesus hears of this depravity, this murder, and he retreats in a boat to a deserted place. Which is another way of saying he goes into the wilderness, that place of retreat to be with God, the same space the Israelites went into after escaping slavery, the same Elijah escaped to as well when he was a fugitive. Jesus goes there to grieve for John I think. And in Matthew, everyone follows Jesus out on foot to this same deserted place.
We’ve all lost something before and felt grief. Lost a partner, a child, a grandparent; or lost a job, a hope, a future. We’ve all felt the shock and the pain and the emptiness. And I bet you’ve noticed how families can come apart at the seams as they grieve. Old feuds are rekindled, grudges unearthed, bitterness and rivalry making an already difficult situation worse.
Well, here we are, a collective family, in the middle of a pandemic. You can deny it, you can rage at it, you can weep over it, you can bargain about it, you can accept it. Whatever it is, It’s grief. Just like Jesus who lost his friend so violently, our world, our country is changed. It’s a done deal. Normal is gone.
And that is so scary, I’m right there with you. I’m scared too. I’ve had to let go of a lot of things as well. All these emotions aren’t going anywhere. And as I mentioned on Pentecost, under the power of sin: our fear can breed anger, and anger can yield violence.
There are actually threats of war in our community. I’m going to level with you all today:
I am getting worried about you. Not as a nation, or as a culture—I’m worried about you as a church. You all are a church family. Decade after decade, I’ve been told about the way you care for each other, I’ve seen you grieve each other’s sadnesses and celebrate each other’s joys. There is a compassion, and a faithfulness that binds you all together in Christ.
But I think we need to take a moment of retreat with God right now. There are more and more encounters that reflect anger, and sadness, and fear, and a general feeling of being worn out. That worn-out feeling is dragging us down. It’s causing people to tell me: Joshua it’s a political minefield out there these days. Pastor, you won’t survive, don’t make church political!
Well, too late folks. Because it’s already been done, that’s the world we live in. Why can’t we talk about the disbelief of coronavirus statistics? Or why can’t we talk about police and Breonna Taylor, why can’t I talk about racism? Why can’t I? It all comes back around again. It’s not because of politics, but because of fear and because of grief. From Left to Right, you are all brimming. “Trump is going to steal the election,” speaks your dread. “Commie Wolf has taken my freedom,” breathes your suspicions. We have replaced our grief with anger and swapped our faith with fear.
Jesus doesn’t go and zap Herod for being a crook. But he retreats into the wilderness and cures people and feeds them too. Let’s give our fears and sadness to God first before we convert them to distrust?
You know all our tension is because of the pandemic, our fresh awareness of how fragile life is. Every argument over masks and case numbers and whatever else: all I can hear is fear and sorrow. Broken by the world, broken and afraid, you cannot hide that you are, as Isaiah names it, hungry, and thirsty, and hurting.
So, we thank God for Benjamin Craig Kershes today, praise be to our Lord Jesus Christ,that we may be reminded of how we are all truly welcomed, soft and helpless, into the body of Christ. We think we are all grown up, all big and strong and independent with kids of our own,
with big problems and big mortgages to worry about, but, in God’s eyes, we are all penniless and precious babies along with Benjamin..
Isaiah is so right when he proclaims, “Hey you, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” The food and drink of eternal life is here, priceless and free. The waters of the tree of life in our font.
Why do we spend our money on that which is not bread? Will MSNBC feed us the spiritual bread we need to live on with hope? Will Fox News be there to baptize your child into the eternal and beloved Body of Christ? No. They won’t, because in the end they don’t care about you, they deal death like the rest of the idols we all waste our time and money on, as Isaiah proclaims.
So, when you see Benjamin join the body of Christ now, remember this: he is you and you are him. You are fragile and foolish too, and you are forgiven and forever held by the Lord. We can retreat in prayer. We can go to the wilderness place to rest awhile. When you’re sad, be sad in the Lord. As you grieve, grieve with the Lord. When you’re afraid, let God carry that fear with you. That’s the point of prayer! That’s what we do as Christ’s body, the Church, we rest in God. We are filled with his love, his power, his peace.
There is an important detail, too, in our Gospel from Matthew. Having retreated to be with God, Jesus is followed. And in the wilderness place his thousands of followers grow hungry and restless, just as we, his followers today, grow angry and fearful.
But Jesus does not conjure food. He doesn’t wave a hand and fill the bellies. He turns to his disciples, those ones in his training program. The disciples say, “Send away these hungry people. It’s more than we can handle.” But Jesus says to them, to us his Church, Jesus says, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
The loaves and the fish come from your stores. Multiplied by God sure, but it’s your offerings. It’s God’s love poured into your hearts that keeps us in hope. Jesus was moved with compassion for the crowd, writes Matthew. And, now, just the same, it’s your love and compassion that keeps each other going, as a church family.
“Listen, so that you may live.” It is on this our faith and hope rests: today we welcome Benjamin, and we remember we were all welcomed like him, by no power of our own, but simply by the love of Christ.