Mark 1:35 Matthew 14:13-21
August 3, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
You’ll recall perhaps that the gospel of Mark, the first written but second in the canon, jumps right into the life of Jesus, starting with his baptism. No manger, no shepherds, just the adult Jesus going straight to the river Jordan to be baptized by his cousin John, the Baptizer, a wild-eyed evangelist who has been proclaiming the imminent coming of the Messiah.
So in this first chapter of Mark, Jesus goes down to the river, is baptized, goes through forty days of temptation in the wilderness, calls the disciples, heals a man with an unclean spirit, heals the sick at Simon’s house, and he becomes very popular. There are crowds gathered around the doorway, trying to get to him. Then, before we are even out of the first chapter, we see this verse, Mark 1:35:
“In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”
But Jesus doesn’t stay there long – right away the disciples hunt him down and they say, “Everyone is searching for you!” And off they go to proclaim the message of God’s love for all people.
Now, for our second reading, the longer of the two, from the Gospel of Matthew, let’s set the scene. Jesus is well into his ministry, and his cousin John the Baptist has been imprisoned by Herod, for saying out loud that Herod should not have stolen his brother’s wife, Herodias. Herodias was, in the interesting way of families then, both Herod’s sister in law, AND his niece. And his wife.
Anyway, Herod threw himself a big birthday party, and for entertainment, he asked his daughter to do a solo dance, for which, he promised, she could have whatever she asked. Advised by her mother, the dancing daughter asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
Herod was afraid of an uprising if he executed John, but, he had given his word…
John’s disciples came and got his body and buried it, and went to tell Jesus. And that’s where our reading begins, in Matthew 14:13-21
13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.
15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves." 16 Jesus said to them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." 17 They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish."
18 And he said, "Bring them here to me."
19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Let’s sit for a moment, out on the grassy hills, and consider this story. Jesus has been trying to find some time and some quiet, far from the madding crowd, trying to find some space to pray, to be still, and probably to experience this fresh grief of the loss of his cousin and friend. He has to get in a boat go to the other side of the lake to do this, but even there, they find him. As in the first reading, everyone is searching for him.
I know this feeling – probably everyone knows this feeling – the sense that you just. can’t. catch. a. break. Mothers of toddlers know this feeling; workers and professionals of all types know it: teachers know it; kids even experience this – this feeling of wanting to scream – “Will everyone just leave me alone for a little while?”
Jesus wants to pray, those deep silent prayers without words, maybe just aching sadness, or longing, maybe just to catch up to himself. We can imagine that he might simply want to sit still in the gathering dawn, and experience God’s presence, know God’s peace.
It’s a bit different from the prayers we speak and read and hear in worship. More like meditation, this quiet time apart, just to be still.
But Jesus was compelled to come back, back to the crowds. And when he saw them, he had great compassion on them, so he turned his energy toward healing them, teaching them, being present with them, even in his grief.
As evening came, people were getting hungry. And rather than send them away, Jesus does this amazing act, and his actions are a foreshadowing of what he will do at table, later on in the gospel story, on the night when he is betrayed, when he breaks the bread and offers the cup.
He takes, he blesses, he breaks, and he gives.
This is a different kind of prayer altogether. It’s normal for us, at meal time, to “ask a blessing,” but usually we don’t pay a lot of attention to what that might mean. For many of us, myself included, asking a blessing at a meal, or saying grace, has become a perfunctory task that we do without thinking.
But think about it – saying “GRACE” – that word grace - charis remember that little Greek lesson? Charis means grace, and eucharist means thanksgiving. Grace – charis, is at the very heart of gratitude - the eucharist. Jesus takes the bread, blesses it – says grace! – and in that blessing, it is multiplied, made into more than enough.
In the same way, when we pray, when we ask for blessing – whatever we bring is magnified and enhanced by the presence of Jesus. When we pray, even if it is not a meal, we speak grace – grace to others, grace to ourselves, grace to the world.
The third century theologian and martyr, Origen, said that when we pray, we let Jesus pray in us, and let his peace dwell in us, his love emanate from us.
For some people, that takes the shape of meditation, being still and silent, and letting all the clutter and clatter of life sift away like silt, until we are centered.
For others that may mean visualizing, or naming, a person, holding them in the light, focusing our positive energy.
Some may kneel in solitude; others shape their prayers in song or music.
In a short while, as we prepare to receive communion, we’ll say a form of grace, too, in the Eucharistic prayer. After the service, you’ll receive a Sabbath pondering, about prayer, to reflect upon through the week. And in the bulletin, there is a suggested Sabbath practice.
The practice for this week is blessing, and I invite you to try it with me now. You may pause at this initially, thinking that blessing another person is a practice reserved for ministers, for a priest, perhaps. But in the Reformed tradition, you are all priests, all ministers, and so you are especially qualified to offer blessings.
We’ll start with something simple. Think of a person who needs a blessing. Perhaps it is a loved one, perhaps a child or a family member. Maybe it is someone with whom you’ve had a conflict, even an enemy. Maybe it is a public figure or a politician– God knows there are plenty of them right now who could use a blessing.
Close your eyes. Imagine the person – see their face.
Now, imagine light and love and grace surrounding them.
If you want to add words, repeat silently,
“Grace and peace to you. May God bless you richly.”
Now turn to a person near you. Reach out – if you are comfortable with it, take that person’s hand, and offer this Gaelic blessing – you can repeat it after me:
Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the gentle night to you.
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you.
Deep peace of Christ, of Christ the light of the world to you.
Deep peace of Christ to you.
I invite you to feel this deep peace as you come to the table, to carry it with you as you leave this place, to hold it in your hand and in your heart as a Sabbath blessing, a Sabbath peace to keep you through each day, so that Christ may pray in you, and your blessings may breathe grace and love to the world around you.
 Gaelic Blessing, from the composition by John Rutter. Words adapted “from an old Gaelic rune.” http://www.hinshawmusic.com/search_results.php?keyword=rutter&search=Search Accessed 08/02/14.