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“This is a Lonely Place…”

a sermon based upon Matthew 14:6-21

It was Mark’s Gospel that first told the story of the beheading of John the Baptist by King Herod. This king is the son of Herod, the King, who killed the children in Bethlehem 30 years earlier in an effort to eliminate the baby Jesus. (!) I guess brutality was still a hallmark of the Herod family in this second generation.

The Gospel of Matthew re-tells the story of the beheading for his Jewish audience, but neither Luke nor John choose to include this horrible event when they wrote their Gospels. This was a sad and traumatic experience – then as now!

Beheading is a gruesome act… intended not only to execute the victim, but to heighten terror in the people who care about them. It is nauseating, vicious, and bloody… as we have seen in the news over the years from the Middle East, where terrorists still do it and then they post pictures on the internet -- gruesome, X-rated videos!

The callous, almost frivolous, reason given as to “why” King Herod executed John the Baptist – a promise that he made to his step-daughter during the King’s birthday party – adds to our revulsion. How simple, and sad, is the next sentence: “His disciples came and took the body and buried it; and they went and told Jesus.” (14:12)

It was Mark’s Gospel also that first told of Jesus feeding 5,000 men (plus women & children) from the five loaves and two fish that the disciples had on hand. Apparently, this miracle was memorable!

This event was picked up not only by both Matthew and Luke when they wrote their gospels, but even by the Gospel of John two or three generations later. It’s the only miracle that is reported in all four of our New Testament gospels.

Now, I’m going to have us look at both of these stories side-by-side this morning. First, the death of John the Baptist… and then, the feeding of the 5,000.

I preached a sermon about the beheading of John the Baptist back on July 3, 2016 (some of you may remember it, because I told the story in “first person” -- from the perspective of “Joanna, the wife of Cuza”, who was King Herod’s chief steward, and responsible for the silver platter on which the Baptist’s head was presented). YUCK!

But the good news that came out of that horrible story was that Cuza’s wife, Joanna, became a follower of Jesus! She is named in the Gospel of Luke (8:2-3) right alongside Mary Magdalene and other female disciples, who followed Jesus and “provided for them from their means”. Joanna, Suzanna, & Mary Magdalene… served Jesus.

Looking back in my sermon files, I realize that I first wrote about the beheading of John the Baptist all the way back in March of 1984, in a Lenten devotional that we published in Zurich, Switzerland, where I was serving as an Interim Minister at the International Protestant Church…. (36 years ago!)

Only two times in my career have I focused on the death of John the Baptist. (!) I guess that means I tend to avoid the bad news of public brutality as much as Luke and John did in their day.

Regarding the miracle of Jesus’ multiplication of fishes and loaves to feed 5,000… I first preached about it in August of 1988, at Bay Shore Church in Patty’s hometown (Long Beach, California), where I was an Associate Minister (31 years ago); then again 16 years later in March of 2004, in Torrance, where I was the Minister of the Seaside Community Church; and I preached on it yet a third time (seven years later) in 2011, at Los Altos UCC in Long Beach.

“Feeding so many with so little” was a challenge each of those three churches were struggling with. And so I thought that preaching on the miracle of unexpected abundance, of sharing what one has with others, and of trusting God to be a generous provider, needed to be said. In effect: “Trust God! Have faith – we can do this!”

In six-&-a-half years, I have never preached on this Bible story here at First Church Alpena.(!) Even though this “feeding of the 5,000” story is the only miracle that is included in all four of our Gospels, I have never preached about it here. (!) And I’m not going to today, either! That’s because I do not think that this congregation has that problem. However, I have discussed it at length in Monday morning Bible Study (twice) and in the Tuesday afternoon Bible study (first at Barb & Glen Kett’s house, and again at Jim & Patty McNeil’s home).

What I am going to do, however, is have you notice the linkage between those two stories. We talk about King Herod’s execution of John the Baptist, and we talk about the feeding of the 5,000. I have shelves of “commentaries” on one or the other of those passages -- books of sermons by other Ministers preaching on one or the other of those stories -- because they are always treated as separate events.

(That’s how the “lectionary” works. Selections of Scripture are packaged in a pre-arranged bundle for Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and other more “liturgical” churches to use according to a three-year rotation calendar. Sunday School curricula is also produced in tandem with the “assigned” readings. But the “link” between the stories is often neglected.)

Here’s how I see it: The butchering of John the Baptist as a public spectacle at King Herod’s birthday party would have been gruesome to witness. This would have been a public act of terrorism at the highest level of government, letting the disciples of John know that they were outside the law – perhaps subject to the same fate!

And yet, Matthew tells us that “his disciples came and took the body and buried it; and they went and told Jesus.” (Matt. 14:12)

This was a bold thing to do. (!) To come forward in public and provide for the burial of your recently-executed leader -- removing a beheaded corpse from inside King Herod’s prison -- took courage!

Then they went and told Jesus (!)

As you know, Jesus had been baptized by John. Jesus was a significant part of the Baptist’s movement from the very beginning.(!) The Gospel of John begins by having the Baptist telling everyone that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John told everyone who asked who he was, that he himself was not the Messiah. John the Baptist said he was not even worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals. He had come, says the Baptist, as “a voice in the wilderness, to make a straight path for the Lord.” And then he pointed to Jesus as the one his disciples should follow. (John 1:19-37)

John’s disciples bring word to Jesus that the Baptist had been beheaded, and that his body had been buried. Matthew tells us: “Now, when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a lonely place apart.” Jesus wants to mourn in private. Jesus needs to grieve. (!) Jesus goes on a “retreat” (in effect) to find solitude… I suppose he needed to to process the news that rocked his world.

There’s an old hymn: “I love in solitude to shed the penitential tear, and all God’s promises to plead, when none but God is near.”

I get that! I so get that! Getting away, getting out of town, being alone; being “out there” in solitude, with no one but God beside you… I think Jesus had feelings just like you and I do. He was human, after all. Yes, he expressed the fullness of divinity, but in a fully human way. Jesus wanted to mourn in private. Jesus needed to grieve.

But when the crowds heard it (Matthew goes on to say), they followed him on foot from the towns. As he went ashore, he saw a great throng. And he had compassion on them, and healed their sick.

I tell you, I feel for Jesus! He wants the time and the space to grieve the death of his faithful friend – and to process his anger at the brutal beheading. Jesus needs to make sense of the senseless – buck up his courage to face these new terrors – find a way to carry on the legacy of ministry that John the Baptist had begun.

But the crowd won’t give him the time, nor the space. Even though Jesus has taken a boat out onto the lake, and has come to shore in a “lonely place apart”, the crowd comes by foot… following him. Jesus was confronted by “a great throng”… and he healed their sick. I can tell you that Jesus Christ was much more patient, more compassionate, more of a caregiver/healer than I would have been!

John the Baptist has been beheaded. This is a crisis moment! Jesus has been told the news, and he is in grief! And yet… he has compassion on people who are needier than himself. He heals them. Well into the evening…

Jesus’ disciples come to him and say (in effect) they’ve had enough. It’s late. It’s been a long day. These people are needy. Here’s how Matthew puts it: The disciples came to him and said, “This is a lonely place. And the day is now over. Send the crowds away… to go to the villages…. and buy food for themselves.” (14:15)

Makes sense, right? They got here on their own; they can move along now, right? There are markets in the villages, maybe a restaurant or two. They’ve been helped… they’ve been healed. Now they should get on with their lives and out of our hair, right? Don’t they know that Jesus has bigger fish to fry than what he’s doing with them? There’s got to be at least 5,000 of them or more!

“This is a lonely place, Jesus! And the day is now over. Send the crowds away to go to the villages and buy food for themselves.”

Jesus said: “They need not go away. You give them something to eat.” [You give them something... You…] They said to him, “We have only five loaves here, and two fish.” And you know how the story goes from there. The crowd sits down on the grass; Jesus holds up the loaves & fishes, looks up to heaven, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to his disciples to distribute. … In the end, it was enough.

It is tempting for me to take the rest of my sermon time this morning talking about the feeding of those 5,000 – and about the 12 baskets of leftovers… and about the satisfaction of all those hungry bellies… and the astonishment of the disciples who had never imagined such an abundant result from so small of a beginning! Yes, it’s tempting to do, because it has been done so often. (!)

But it is important to me to remind you of the linkage between the two stories. Having received news of John the Baptist’s violent death and subsequent burial: Jesus withdrew from there in a boat… to a lonely place apart… And then, when Jesus’ disciples describe the location, they say: “This is a lonely place, and the day is now over. Send the crowds away.” (Matt. 14:15)

A lonely place. Jesus sought a place apart. A place of solitude in which to reflect, to grieve, to plan, & to pray. A “lonely place” can be a healing place, when life seems to be making too many demands.

But there is also “a flip side” to solitude… When you feel stuck in it, like it’s a place apart from your real life -- a lonely place that you have not sought in order to be on retreat and to reflect, but has come over you… and has swallowed you up… in “loneliness”.

Former Senator Charles Percy, in his book “Growing Old in the Country of the Young” (McGraw Hill: NY, 1977, page 111-112) tells of a visit to a Chicago nursing home where he met an elderly woman who had spent 27 years in nursing homes. During all those years, she had received only 30 letters, and she had them wrapped in what she called “my precious bundle.” She kept it under her pillow.

“When people are isolated from their normal environments, no longer see their friends and loved ones, no longer contribute to society, they regress and die,” says a North Carolina family physician. “I have seen old people in a reasonably healthy condition, who, when

put away in the isolation of custodial-care facilities, lost total interest in life. They refused to communicate, refused to eat, became totally bedridden, wasted away and died. This is a disease process called ‘isolation’ and should be so designated on the death certificate.”

One man in a barren Chicago nursing home said to Senator Percy: “I do not belong to life.”

“Depression is almost universal in older people,” says one psychiatrist. “Depression usually begins when elderly men and women, after years of independence, find themselves ignored by a society that no longer has time for them. Withdrawal and loneliness are the inevitable results.” (unquote)

As much as I am a strong supporter of having people “take time out” and “take time away”, and to “be by yourself” when you need to think, or to unwind, or to process your feelings and make some decisions… Take care that you don’t go to the extreme of isolation, withdrawal from others & loneliness; that’s not what Jesus was doing.

In order to process the news about John the Baptist’s violent death and what that might mean for the movement they have begun: Jesus withdrew from there in a boat… to a lonely place apart…

However, when Jesus’ disciples refer to it as a “lonely” place, there’s something else going on. They are overlooking the fact that there are more than 5,000 people present! I mean, how lonely can a person be in a crowd as large as that? (!) Lonely?

Back in 1950, David Riesman wrote a widely-read book of social analysis called “The Lonely Crowd” (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press). His subtitle is “A Study of the Changing American Culture”. He said that most pre-modern societies produce “tradition-directed character” most easily noticed in recent immigrants from peasant societies. What they meet in American culture is usually a more “inner-directed” type of person – which is characterized by biblical & utilitarian values of individualistic and independent citizens, more attuned to their own personal morality than to the cues of his or her neighbors. That’s the “rugged individual” or the “entrepreneur”.

But David Riesman did not actually “endorse” this inner-directed, independent American, because there was also very strong social pressure in postwar America for people to “conform” to certain social values. The people who prided themselves as being an independent inner-directed person, in his opinion, were really responding to their immediate social environment without knowing it. His book helped explain the rise of “expressive individualists” such as the Hippies, and the non-conformist Hare Krishna, and the student protesters, and the hidden social prejudices which became so publicly apparent during the Civil Rights era.

The “self-made man” – the inner-directed person – actually lacked genuine autonomy… because we are all interdependent.

I thought of David Riesman’s landmark study of the trans-formation of American character because of the disciples’ statement -- while surrounded by more than 5,000 people -- “this is a lonely place.” Are there people who feel “lonely” in the midst of a crowd?

The “Lonely Crowd”… each person feeling separate from the others. Each person is responsible to look after their own needs, without the traditional “other-directedness” of old fashioned villages.

I encourage you to read this month’s AARP Magazine (Dec. 2019/January 2020, page 50ff) article “The Loneliness Epidemic”.

“Loneliness,” says Louise Hawkley, a senior research scientist at the University of Chicago, “is a universal human experience, and being the social animals that we are, there must be implications when those social connections are not satisfied.” There is a human need to be embedded, connected, integrated in a social network, she notes. When that social network is missing, “the consequences are very real in terms of mental and physical health.” The article points out that people are becoming more socially disconnected in a variety of ways.

But others point out that people who feel lonely – that intensely personal experience of being alone, rejected, disconnected, & with longing – has little to do with one’s living arrangements or presence of other people around you in public. (!) The feeling of loneliness can happen in a crowd. Researchers ask, “So, what’s the point of loneliness? What purpose could it possibly serve for our species?”

The article points out that “our earliest ancestors were sociable creatures – they had to be. Those on their own were vulnerable to attack, easy pickings for hungry predators. According to this evolutionary model, loneliness may have evolved as an early-warning system, a signal in our body that something is not right. A feeling that prompted us to get back to the safety of the group!”

The stressful urgency of our emotions being on “high alert” may work as a short-term response, but it can be deadly when it is on-going. Like having too much adrenalin in our system, we become anxious when we feel lonely. The stress of loneliness & depression can impair our immune system and inflame tissue breakdown. The human psychology interprets loneliness as a kind of threat![1]

The human body, responding to millions of years of evolutionary conditioning, wants to be with other people; but the modern, lonely brain, under the influence of the inflammatory response & heightened levels of stress, senses a threat in its encounters with others… which chooses to isolate us further. (!) While the body wants to approach others to survive, the lonely brain has a short-term self-defense mode that sees more “foes” than “friends”. When you put someone who is feeling lonely into a room alone… then every person who comes into that room will be perceived as a threat.

That unconscious sense of threat can lead to an endless behavioral cycle in which the lonely person sends out signals of disinterest, even hostility, which then causes others to withdraw.

Maybe an anti-inflammatory (such as Aleve) can break that negative feedback loop, so that instead of interpreting every little comment as something negative, maybe slowly, over time, people will feel a bit less disconnected from others around them, a bit less lonely. What we can do is to help “silence the mind that sees threat everywhere, so therapy can work with a malleable and open mind.”[2]

I think Jesus was doing that very thing when he invited those 5,000 strangers in the crowd, to sit down together, and have a picnic. The more we see ourselves “connected” to others – understood by them, & valued – the less isolation we will feel. Let’s do that! Amen.

[1] Page 54

[2] Page 55

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