Matthew 14:22-33 “The Time In-Between”
“He went up the mountain by himself to pray.” Just half a verse, easily missed. Jesus sent his disciples away, literally put them in a boat so they couldn’t interrupt him, and headed to the mountains to be alone with God, if just for one night. This moment of self-care is so easily overlooked because it comes between two of the most well remembered miracles of Jesus’ life. It comes right before he walks on water, and comes right after he feeds 5000 people with five loaves and two fish. Allow me, for a moment, to reorient you with where we are in the story.
As Matthew tells it, just a day or so before where we find ourselves in today’s scripture, Jesus learns of the death of John the Baptist. John, Jesus’ cousin, the man who baptized him, the one who prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry, had been killed by King Herod. Jesus heard about John’s death and went off to a deserted place to be alone. I have no doubt Jesus was grieving. There was a connection he had to John, and while the Gospels don’t spend a lot of time describing their relationship, it is not a stretch to assume it was an important one. So, John’s death by the hand of King Herod would have grieved Jesus. But, more than that, Jesus likely saw John’s death as a foreshadow to his own. Remember, John was a prophet, someone who preached the message of God’s Kingdom before Jesus. Someone who threatened the status quo and who challenged the Roman Empire. John not only prepared the way for Jesus, but Jesus carried on the same message. So, when Jesus heard that John had been killed by the same powers Jesus was speaking out against, he likely knew it was only a matter of time before his life would be in danger as well.
This was a lot to grapple with, so it is understandable that Jesus wanted to head out alone, to be think and pray and be with God. But, the crowds that Jesus had attracted followed him. And soon, what was once a deserted place was filled with 5000 people. When Jesus saw this crowd, despite his desire to be alone, the Gospel says he took compassion on them, healed their sick, and when the disciples realized that they did not have any food to feed them, Jesus took five loaves of bread and two fish, and all were fed.
Jesus took compassion on them and delayed his own time away to take care of himself. But, here’s the thing, the word ‘compassion’ – the word that is used in my translation of the Bible, isn’t nearly descriptive enough. The Greek word translated as ‘compassion’ actually means twisted bowels or gut-wrenching. Jesus, already twisted up inside after the death of John the Baptist, looked at the crowd of sick, hungry, hopeless people in need of love and care, and felt a call to serve them deep within himself. Their need for a reminder of God’s love was gut-wrenching for Jesus – so it is no surprise then that he would set aside his own need and care for them.
We do that all the time, don’t we? We look at the pain of the world, place a higher value on it than our own pain, and set ourselves aside to tend to everyone else. That is why I didn’t preach on this story last week, even though it was the Gospel reading most pastors dealt with. It felt too dangerous to me. It felt too dangerous to highlight a moment in Jesus’ ministry when, even though he knew he needed to take time to care of himself, he instead took care of the people around him. It felt too dangerous to point that out in a world when we see nothing but fear, sickness, pain, grief, and gut-wrenching uncertainty. Just this week an article in the New York Times pointed out that one year ago this month, the National Center for Health Statistics said that 1 in 12 Americans reported symptoms of an anxiety disorder. This year, that number is more than 1 in 3. And the Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll reported that 53% of American adults, over half of the adults in our country, now believe the pandemic is taking a serious toll on their mental health. For African Americans, that number is 68%. The tracking poll of the Kaiser Family Foundation goes on: 36 percent of Americans report that coronavirus-related worry is interfering with their sleep; eighteen percent say they’re more easily losing their tempers; and thirty-two percent say it has made them over- or under-eat.[i]
In a time of tremendous physical and emotional dis-ease, it felt irresponsible for me to point out that Jesus set aside his own time and need of self-care to take care of the people around him, so I ignored this scriptural story. But, then the story continues where we pick it up today. Jesus finishes miraculously feeding the 5000 and, as the scripture says, “Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray.”
Full disclosure, I am only a couple of weeks away from my own much needed time away in the mountains to rest, rejuvenate, and be with God. It is no surprise then that as I studied this scripture it wasn’t the miracle of walking on the water that stood to me. Instead all I could see was Jesus heading to the mountains to care for himself, even if it was just a brief in-between moment between two important stories. But, that got me thinking even more about those in-between moments that carry us from one moment to the next, but are often not paid much attention to. When the scholars write the history of this momentous time in our global history, it will highlight the big things: the start of the pandemic, the shut-downs, the tumbling economy, the social and civil unrest, the re-focus of our national attention on Black lives. Historians will talk about the surges and the deaths. They will talk about the election, and the extraordinary work of scientists developing a vaccine. And the story will conclude with people emerging into a world that will likely be forever shifted to something we cannot today imagine. History will record the big things, but the reality is, it is the in-between moments that are even more important. It is the in-between moments of Zoom calls and handwritten letters. Slower mornings and a quieter earth. Family arguments and a recommitment to focusing on what matters. Grappling with our history by reading and talking. Reimaging church and being willing to try new things. Sitting quietly in our gardens or getting away to the mountains to be alone with God. History won’t record those moments for each of us, but they are the moments that carry us from one extraordinary event to the next.
Jesus fed the 5000 and Jesus walked on water. But, in-between? In-between he stepped away from the gut-wrenching reality around him and was alone for a time with God. It was that time in-between that carried him from one event to the next. We are so lucky that our Bible does record it, but if we are not careful, we can easily read right past it. So, let’s be careful to focus on the in-between. Let’s be careful to focus on the quiet days, the days that were once filled with gatherings and events. Let’s revel in the in-between moments, to make sure to pay attention to them, so we can prepare ourselves for whatever the next thing is. Maybe it is a quiet cup of coffee in the morning when you would usually be getting ready to leave home for work. Maybe it is a walk around the lake, or maybe just around your yard, when you would usually be at a committee meeting. Maybe it is the church Zoom fellowship hour, or our 1st Congo Convo, when you would usually be busy with chores to get ready for another week. Maybe it’s a quiet moment at home when the kids are happily playing or learning on their own and you realize you soon may be aching for these months together at home. Maybe it is a much-needed trip to the mountains, with nothing to concern you but what book to read next or trying to spot a moose walking by.
Those in-between times carry us. Jesus experienced gut-wrenching emotion and knew he needed to step away for a time so desperately he literally sent the disciples away on a boat. But, when he re-emerged from that time away with God, he didn’t come crawling back exhausted and beaten. He walked on water. My Beloved Community, don’t pass over the in-between times during this extraordinarily difficult year. Instead, bless them. Turn them over to God and give God thanks. These in-between times will carry us forward.
Let us pray:
God of Compassion, when you see the human need around us, you experience a gut-wrenching need to care and love us. Help us to open our eyes to see that those moments of care and love come during the in-between times. The times that allow us to recover and rejuvenate from the before, and prepare us for the next. When we are tempted to just pass over those times, help us to instead offer them to you.
Gracious God, you are the source of all our blessings. You have been extravagant in your generosity and have planted within us the seeds of hope. Help us, during the in-between times, to nurture these seeds that they may grow within us. Give us the strength to care for ourselves, trusting that your love and presence is never separated from us or from those around us. And, when we feel strong, give us the faith to share from our abundance, so that others will be able to nurture their hope as well.
We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, the one who showed compassion to others and the one who taught us to show compassion for ourselves. And we pray in the way Jesus asked us to pray by saying…Our Father…