Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Journey's Arc - Sermon on Matthew 14:13-21

We are all participants in a sacred story.

We are all participants in a story that begins in that quiet, still place in which we begin to know God, a story that that draws us into engagement with others in God’s great kingdom of abundance, a story that finally invites us into restful recollection of God’s movement in our lives.

Do you remember , back in high school, learning something about the arc of a narrative or a drama? The geometric half-circle that depicts the unfolding of a narrative? A story begins with, well, with a beginning: a place, a situation, a person or some people. And as the story moves forward, complications develop, challenges arise, assumptions are tested, the unexpected happens – until a point of crisis is reached.  And then matters are settled, and tension dissolves. 

It’s an arc of narrative that we know well; we learned it when we studied novels and plays in school, we see it on television and in the movies.  I read a few days ago that Harry Potter is the story which has formed the backdrop of the lives of many of today’s young adults.  The first Harry Potter movie was released ten years ago and the new and final one is filling theatres this month with young adults in their twenties --now there’s an extended story arc! 

Today’s  gospel story is much shorter than the Harry Potter series, and it’s so familiar that it’s hard to hear afresh.  It is, in fact, the narrative of the only miracle, other than the resurrection itself, to appear in all four gospels – which tells us that all four gospel writers and communities, each with a distinctive take on Jesus’ life and its meaning, understood this event, this feeding of the multitudes, to be of great significance.   

It’s important in many ways, some of which we’ll explore together this morning, but one thing it offers us is a vision of the arc of the entire Christian journey – Jesus’ story and, therefore, our own as well.  This short narrative, so compact and so jammed with activity – it tells us the story of our lives in a nutshell. So let’s start at the beginning, the quiet beginning in which God is discovered in the stillness.

Some of you know that about ten days ago I returned from a weeklong silent retreat.  Now, when I mention that I’ve been away on retreat, I usually get two reactions.  First, people look stunned, laugh, and tell me that they could not be silent for seven minutes, let alone seven days.  Last week I mentioned to a friend that some folks make 30 day silent retreats, and she clasped her forehead in her hands and put it down on the table where we were sitting.  The thought of a month of silence was completely overwhelming to her! But after the initial moment of shock passes, people become curious, and ask me what a silent retreat involves.  So let me tell you:

I traveled to a big retreat house in eastern Pennsylvania, one of several such houses scattered around the world and run by the Jesuits. The Jesuits are a Catholic order of priests and brothers, famous for both their schools – here, St. Ignatius High School and John Carroll University – and also for their spiritual companionship and counsel.   There were 40 or so people of many different Christian traditions on retreat, plus maybe ten retreat directors, both women and men, which meant that about 50 of us spent a week together in silence. 

Meals – silent.  Pool – a Godsend during July – silent.  (No Marco Polo!) Grounds, libraries, chapels – all silent, except for daily mass and your daily meeting with a spiritual director, who listens to what’s been going on in your life of prayer, offers some comments, and then suggests a passage of  Scripture or maybe some other possibilities on which you might focus until your next meeting.

Prayer in this context might most frequently be described on terms of conversation with God – most especially, listening to God – although over the course of a week, I suppose, just about every form of prayer is taking place somewhere at some point in the retreat.  But I think that it would be fair to describe it as prayer that is deeply grounding, prayer in which you become very much aware of God’s desires for you.

This, I think, is the kind of prayer in which Jesus often engages on his forays into the silence, something we often see him doing in the gospels.  Jesus frequently steps away from the crowds who surround him to spend time alone with his Father.  He disappears for a night of prayer before he calls his disciples.  He spends forty days in prayer, alone, in the desert, at the outset of his ministry.  And, of course, at the beginning of today’s reading, he has slipped away in a boat to pray, no doubt grieving the death of his cousin and lifelong companion, John the Baptist.

Thus, as we begin our encounter with this passage, we see that the arc of the spiritual journey begins in prayer.  And Jesus – I think that Jesus must emerge from these periods of prayer as one absolutely incandescent, as someone radiating light from within.  How else to explain the hold he seems to have on people, the disciples who were willing to drop everything to be led and taught by him, the crowds who seek him out and follow him? 

As Jesus begins to walk amidst the crowds again, the middle portion of arc becomes apparent:  action.  Prayer grounds movement outward. 

The Jesuits, with whom I spent time in Pennsylvania, are often referred to as “contemplatives in action” – people whose prayer launches engagement in the world and service to others.  

 In our own Protestant tradition, probably the most well-known example of the same set of values is represented by Church of the Savior in Washington. D.C., an ecumenical community  which emphasizes the inward and outward journey.  In fact, COS maintains a website of daily readings called – that’s where I found the quote that appears in our bulletin today.  And it was through COS that I first experienced an extended period of silence, on a week-end retreat that some of its members brought to Cleveland several years ago.

Have any of you heard of COS?  It’s more a community of churches than a church – when people join COS, they become part of – or sometimes even found – a mission group  committed to addressing an issue of social justice.  I have a friend here in Cleveland, a woman in her 90s,  who spent some 30 years as a member of COS working on issues pertaining to homeless women.  Each of these “sub-churches” prays and worships and studies and works together, so that the members’ lives – their arcs of narrative and journey – are fully integrated around attentiveness to God in the context of a critical societal challenge.

Jesus begins his outward movement in this passage by healing some of those who come to him. We are told that “[w]hen he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.”  His prayer, his transition from inward to outward, pervades his vision and inspires him to care for others. 

It’s a move we might recognize – when I discussed this passage with a friend this past week, she said that when her children were younger and somewhat troubled, her mother said to her, “Be sure that they’re doing something to help someone else.  That’s the best thing for them.”  Many of us have been the beneficiaries of that kind of advice, and it’s just what Jesus does – he moves out of himself and toward others. 

Now the arc of the story begins to move toward its climax, toward its highest point of drama and contentiousness – and significance.    The crowds are milling around, tired and hungry and no doubt a little cranky -- and the disciples want them to disperse.  But Jesus continues his movement outward; he continues to demonstrate what it means to be a contemplative in action – and in the most profound sense.  Because – did you notice this?  -- he doesn’t just feed the crowds.  He gets the disciples involved in feeding them.  He tells the disciples to feed the crowds and, when they resist, seeing nothing but the challenges of scarcity and insufficiency in front of them, he shows them what to do. 

We are called to do more than serve others – we are called to engage others themselves in service, in the work of God’s kingdom. 

Look at this climax, at the pinnacle of this story.  Look at how many aspects of our sacred story merge as Jesus acts. Look at the kaleidoscope of worship, service, and the call to others.

When Jesus sees what little seems to be available, the five loaves and the two fishes, he takes them, breaks the loaves of bread, blesses them, and gives them to the disciples.  Does this sound familiar?  Of course it does – it’s clearly a foreshadowing of the Last Supper.  What Jesus will do later will mirror exactly what he does here.  In  blessing and breaking the bread, he offers grateful worship and provides nourishment, nourishment which his disciples, and we ourselves, will come to understand is spiritual as well as physical, -- and then: he engages others.  He gives the food to the disciples to give to the crowd.  Because God’s Kingdom is a community of care and service, a community into which we are all drawn by love and from which we are all sent forth with God’s abundant gifts.

Look at the words we use for this event, when we replicate it.

One of them is eucharist, which comes from both the Latin and the Greek eucharistia, and means gratefulness or thanksgiving.  Prayer that reflects gratitude, engagement with God – that’s the contemplative approach. 
Another word is communion, which also comes from Latin, and means exactly what it sounds like it means:  communal, community, gathering. There’s the action, the move outward. 

And finally, our official Presbyterian term is the Lord’s Supper, a phrase which we understand to mean the meal over which Jesus presides, the gift of life which he offers us.  Isn’t it interesting that in the Lord’s Supper the two strands of the arc converge?

– the contemplative and the active,
the inner and the outer. 
Prayer and action. 
Gratitude and community. 
Eucharistia and communion.

Well, we’ve followed the arc upward to its pinnacle, and now what?  What happens as one story in our journey ends and another begins?

I have another tidbit for you from my retreat.  For the last day, my retreat director suggested spending some time “gathering together” my prayer and reflection of the previous week, and the text he referred to was ours of today. (I perked right up, knowing that I might be preaching on this text.) “Remember,” he said, “that when the meal is over, the disciples take up what is left of the broken bread, twelve baskets full. This is a time for you to take up and reflect upon where you have been this week.”  

And what I see is that we are back to prayer: prayer as reflection on what we have done and not done, and on what has happened and what it tells us.  Because our sacred story involves memory, because Jesus always invites us to remember who we are: his beloved people, called to receive in abundance where we once saw scarcity and to share with abandon the extravagance of his love for us.

We are called to gather up and reflect about what we do in worship and in mission – just as we see happening in today’s story.  It seems that a “gathering together” is a spiritual mandate – a mandate to look at what’s left over and to begin to imagine the future.As we move through the processes and cycles in which we engage in the work of God’s kingdom, we should also take the time to pause -- to reflect, to refresh, and to renew. We end as we began and as we will begin anew: in prayer, in reflection and in communion with our God.

And so there we have it: the arc of the Christian journey: prayer  --  action -- prayer.  Contemplation – and then movement outward into worship and service and engagement of the  community – and then reflection. 

This little narrative tells us our own, revealing our lives to us through this episode in the life of Jesus.  As he did, so we are called to do. We plumb the depths of our relationship with God in prayer  -- we move outward in gratitude and  in worship, seeking to nourish others and to invite them to share in the ever-expanding generosity of our loving Creator – and we return to our God in the quiet so that we may be restored and refreshed, gathering and storing God’s surprising gifts, and preparing to begin again.

Amen, and thanks be to God.


  1. I am getting to go on retreat for the first time on September. I appreciate your sharing of your experience, and hope that I shall be able to see it as part of a bigger story.

  2. The arc of prayer. Thank you! How was it to preach this?

  3. I think it preached well -- many compliments and engaged comments from the congregation for whom it was preached. What our guests thought - I'm not so sure.

  4. I thought of that end of retreat exercise during yesterday's Gospel, too!

    I love this image of Christ returning from prayer: absolutely incandescent, as someone radiating light from within

    Light from Light

  5. So much better than the sermon at my church yesterday! I love the thought of prayer as a pause that refreshes and allows us to continue our work.

    In the text at my church, the reading starts with Jesus learning of the death of his cousin John the Baptist. His initial retreat in the boat was to get away but when he returned to shore he healed people, told stories, and then - not wanting them to leave - he fed them.

    I really like the thought of prayer or retreat as gathering up God's gifts. This bit I will keep and think about frequently.

  6. So nice to catch up with you again, since you and I have both been gone. I was the cook on our church's youth mission, and was so surprised by the impact on me. Healing. It is amazing what "moving out" does for an aching soul. I loved what you wrote in your previous posts--the reflection on Norway's tragedy, and the one on consolation. Those words touched me. I would like to connect with the Jesuit retreat center in PA. Not so very far away from me, and perhaps one day I can meet you there (though I guess being on silent retreat, we could only wave to each other!)Can you give me their website or address or whatever? It will be interesting to see what else emerges from your retreat. Am also wondering how the book is coming. You are often in my thoughts and prayers.
    Much love, Karen (East)