Death of John the Baptist
14 At that time Herod the ruler heard the news about Jesus. 2 He said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He’s been raised from the dead. This is why these miraculous powers are at work through him.” 3 Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison because of Herodias, the wife of Herod’s brother Philip.
4 That’s because John told Herod, “It’s against the law for you to marry her.”
5 Although Herod wanted to kill him, he feared the crowd because they thought John was a prophet. 6 But at Herod’s birthday party Herodias’ daughter danced in front of the guests and thrilled Herod. 7 Then he swore to give her anything she asked.
8 At her mother’s urging, the girl said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a plate.” 9 Although the king was upset, because of his solemn pledge and his guests he commanded that they give it to her. 10 Then he had John beheaded in prison. 11 They brought his head on a plate and gave it to the young woman, and she brought it to her mother. 12 But John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus what had happened.
Feeding the five thousand
13 When Jesus heard about John, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. When the crowds learned this, they followed him on foot from the cities. 14 When Jesus arrived and saw a large crowd, he had compassion for them and healed those who were sick. 15 That evening his disciples came and said to him, “This is an isolated place and it’s getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”
16 But Jesus said to them, “There’s no need to send them away. You give them something to eat.”
17 They replied, “We have nothing here except five loaves of bread and two fish.”
18 He said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 He ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. He took the five loaves of bread and the two fish, looked up to heaven, blessed them and broke the loaves apart and gave them to his disciples. Then the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 Everyone ate until they were full, and they filled twelve baskets with the leftovers. 21 About five thousand men plus women and children had eaten.
Thoughts on the passage:
If you are like me, you probably were unaware of a big landmark that occurred in August of 1619. This marked the first time that slaves were brought to this country. It this dark moment in our history creates a legacy that we are still suffering from. The stain of racism in the United Methodist Church does not end there. We drove African Americans from the church in the 1700s, treated those that remained as less than equal to whites, and divided over the issue of slavery. Even when the churches came back together in the 1920s, we still created a separate region for African American churches. When it comes to confronting the brutal facts about our church, our own struggles with racism seem a good place to start.
In “Good to Great,” Jim Collins highlights the fact that all the successful companies made the shift to being great companies by confronting the brutal facts. Rather than run from bad news or hide it in data, they seemed to almost delight at times in looking for problems. They were more than willing to pick up rocks to see what things were crawling under them and then assess what they could learn. This allowed them to see problems and deal with them promptly rather than having them fester and grow. The comparison companies, by contrast would often ignore the evidence in front of them if it did not match their plans. Their seeming blindness to problems caused them to make costly mistakes.
I will be the first to admit that confronting the brutal facts is not what I would call fun. I am an optimist by nature. I like to look for the best in the world. Confronting the brutal facts means that I need to realize that sometimes the glass is not even half full. My own willingness to look at the facts and learn form them gives me a chance to do better. It is that trade off that I know I find helpful when I left doing something it is against my nature to do.
Evangelism is an area where the brutal facts are not comfortable when it comes to the United Methodist Church. A study down in the early 2000s found that on average a United Methodist invited someone to church once every 30 years. While I would hope that figure has improved since then, I would not be surprised if it is still remarkable high. Inviting people to church is not something we do naturally.
Unfortunately for us when it comes to church growth, invitation is not our only area of concern. Decline birthrates have been a contributing cause of the decline of the United Methodist Church as there are fewer and fewer cradle Methodists. In addition, more and more people of all denominations are leaving the church, identifying with a growing group of people in the United States who are the “nones,” those with no religious affiliation. All of this creates a brutal fact, our churches are shrinking.
These brutal facts lead us to the reality that our own church has been in decline for years. We are an aging congregation with fewer members and fewer resources than we have had in the past. As we think about how we can become a great church, we are starting from a place of real challenge. We will need to accept this if we are going to move forward. No amount of optimism on my part will make these facts vanish.
I chose our scripture lesson for today because I felt like it really told of a moment when the disciples were struggling to confront the brutal facts. The story begins with the death of John the Baptist. His capricious death at the hands of Herod was a sobering reminder to Jesus and the disciples of the stakes of their ministry. It represented both a personal lose, but also carried with it a threat that they too could be next. The news of John’s death causes them to withdraw.
Any parent can sympathize with what comes next. It never seems to fail as a parent that when you most need some time to yourself is when your kids can just not live without you. The same happens to Jesus. Even as he withdraws to be alone, the crowds gather around him. Jesus sets aside his own grief to deal with their needs. As the hour gets late, the disciples are faced with some more brutal facts. They are tired and grieving and now there are so many people who need to be fed. They cannot imagine how this might be achieved and so they tell Jesus to send the people away. When told by Jesus to feed them instead, they try to confront him with the brutal facts, all they have is five loaves and two fish. There is nothing they can do.
In case you are still feeling good about things, here are some more brutal facts I want to share. Over fifty percent of the children in our schools qualify for free and reduced lunch. Over 1 in 6 women report being victims of sexual assault. In the United States where were more than 47,000 deaths by suicide. People are hungry, people are hurting, and people are dying. The problem is not that our church is dying, the problem is the world is dying and it needs our church.
Are we ready for some good news yet? The point of confronting the brutal facts is not to wallow in our despair, but to give us the information we need to make a difference. Jesus confronted the brutal facts in the story. He knew that there were five thousand people who needed to be fed and he knew that they only had five loaves and two fish to feed them. He knew it would take a miracle, so he gave them a miracle.
We need to confront the brutal facts about our church and our community, but we cannot think we have to do it alone. God has the power to take our simple gifts of a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish and turn them into a feast to feed thousands. God has the ability to take what seem like our finite, limited, and often dwindling resources and make them into an abundance. Are we ready to ask God for help?
One of the concepts that Collins talks about in his book is the Stockdale paradox. It is named for Admiral Stockdale, who was held captive for eight years in the Hanoi Hilton. Not only did he survive but he helped those under his command who were also captured to endure in horrific condition. When asked about the people who did not survive, Stockdale said they were the optimists who believe they would be home soon and then died of a broken heart. Those who survived did so held in tension the faith that in the end they would prevail regardless of the difficulties and at the same time confronted the most brutal facts of their current reality and dealt with them.
For each of us, we are the disciples, we need to confront the brutal facts that we have only a few pieces of food and a multitude to feed. We cannot lose sight of the fact that we do not have to do it alone. In fact, we know we are not going to be able to do it alone. Rather, our job is to be open to how God is going to use us in this moment to transform the world. We need to see what is around us now and be open to how God is calling us to act to make the world around us better.
Questions to Ponder:
Do you think of yourself as an optimist or a pessimist or a realist?
What does confronting the brutal facts look like to you?
Where do we allow room for a faith in God when it comes to looking at the way the world is?
O God, often the needs before us are overwhelming. It is tempting to fall back on what we know, our money, our safety, our own self-interests. Help us to have the courage to give these up as we respond to your call. Give us the courage to know that when we follow you, your love and grace will be more than enough for all our needs. Bless us and be with us as we seek to make this church a great church that brings about your kingdom here in Willmar. Amen