by Brian Jones
Almost exactly a year ago, I was standing here and we were talking about the story of Jacob and Esau. Specifically, we looked at how Esau threw away his birthright, trading his future for a momentary craving of a bowl of lentils. Surely Esau must have looked back at that decision with an ache in his chest and thought, “What a waste.”
A few of you criticized me for this “stew-based” sermon. I heard several times, “You are the mission pastor. We expect a sermon about missions from you! We weren’t interested in hearing about lentils.” To which I replied ¯\_(ツ)_/ ¯
But I can give the people want they want! So I was studying this morning’s scripture passage with the intention of writing a good, old fashioned missions sermon. After all, I love what The Feeding of the Five Thousand says about the heart and character of Jesus. Certainly, Jesus’ compassion for the poor was on full display here. In fact, a major theme of the Gospel of Matthew is Jesus’ concern for the poor. Over and over Matthew illuminates Jesus’ grace and compassion toward those who are considered the down-trodden, the vulnerable, the outcast.
The passage this morning is also interesting in that Jesus wouldn’t let the disciples send the crowd away in order to have the people take care of their needs on their own. No, Jesus was clear to his disciples: helping others in their time of need is something that a disciple of Jesus is expected to do.
But that’s not all that I like about the story of The Feeding of the Five Thousand. I also like that there is a real practical sense to their mission strategy that day. In fact, when this same story was told in the Gospel of Mark, it was explained that the disciples had the people sit in groups of 100, then 50, in order to get them organized for lunch. That’s really getting into the weeds of tactics there! But interwoven in the practicalities of the account of the loaves and fishes was the fact that there was something amazing going on here, something miraculous. I think that interplay has something to teach us about mission here at Colonial. We are to plan our mission strategy well, but in the end, we aren’t really doing anything unless Christ is involved.
But despite all the rich implications I think this text has for mission, my attention was fixated elsewhere. Over and over I kept drifting back to a single line from this morning’s scripture. In fact, I was preoccupied with a single phrase, but not for how it sits in the context of the story. I was wondering what it might have to say about the emotions that many of us in this room are feeling.
So I called up Kyle Roberts, our Theologian in Residence, who happens to be writing a commentary on the book of Matthew. Unfortunately, he confirmed what I already knew. “Yeeeeah,” he said, “that’s a leap. I doubt that was what the writer was thinking.”
But then Kyle added, “Cool imagery though. As long as it’s interesting, I say go for it.” So I’m taking that as full permission to wander off on a rabbit trail this morning, with the intent of examining what a single phrase from the story of The Feeding of the Five Thousand might say about our lives and our faith.
So for the rest of our time this morning, we’re going to talk about the phrase “and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces.” Or to think of the phrase in the form of a question, it might be, “What did they do with the waste?” Jesus had the disciples gather up the left-overs, the waste, the broken pieces, and I think that imagery might have something to say to each of us in this room this morning.
Most of us have poured our energy into something, yet haven’t gotten the results we’ve wanted. Maybe you got a degree in something, thinking that it would lead to a job in that exact field that would be both well-paying and provide meaningful work that gives you joy. You put in the hours studying and you got the degree (but not the job) and you think, “Did I waste my time? My money? My energy?” I have a Biology and Chemistry degree everybody, and just look where I am now.
Or maybe you poured energy into a job or a business, yet all that money you hoped to have some day never materialized. You think, “That was ten years of hard work and I have nothing to show it.”
Or maybe your marriage just didn’t work out, despite all the energy, effort, and emotion you poured into it. You wonder, what about those nine years, those 16 years? That’s a whole chunk of life, and it shattered into broken pieces, and you think, “Was it all just a waste?”
Maybe it’s a lost opportunity, or a lost relationship, a horrible mistake you can’t take back. Maybe it’s effort spent on something or someone that just didn’t work out the way you hoped it would. And you wonder, “Was it all just a waste of time?” “How do I gather up these broken pieces in my life?”
In my limited 41 years of experience, I’ve found that brokenness can find its way into our lives in two very different ways. Sometimes our life can be marked by a big, dramatic event that leaves an indelible mark on us. It’s a moment of brokenness that we can pinpoint.
But more often than not, it’s not a single moment at all. Instead it’s a season, a stretch of months or years. Sure, we can mark an actual date where the job went kaput, or the papers were filed, or you had that last big fight before the front door was slammed and they walked away. But when we reflect back, we replay the footage of the years that led up to that point in our mind, we can think, “Was all that a waste?”
That’s not to say that time wasn’t filled with activity. Our culture runs fast, so our lives are filled with busyness, sometimes monotonously so. Maybe you’ve been fighting the same fight with your preschooler for what feels like 18 years now, or you’ve filled the same report at work for the twelve thousandth time, or maybe retirement just hasn’t been fulfilling like you thought it would be. Sure, we’re keeping ourselves busy, yet our minds get into this cycle of “am I just wasting my time?”
But as we all reflect on our lives, whether we have the ache of a soul-shattering moment, or a years-long stretch that we replay over and over in our memories, we all have these regrets and hurts in our lives. We’re all carrying broken pieces of some type.
This looks like a crowd that does a lot of four-wheeling. But just in case you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll tell you a story.
I grew up in Mullens, West Virginia — population 2,000, which meant I was a city boy. But in the Appalachian mountains, you can really wind around back through the mountains into what West Virginians call the hollers. It’s back in the hollers where the ‘wild’ from ‘Wild and Wonderful West Virginia.’ comes from.
The hollers contain thousands of miles of old dirt logging and mining roads, often times with deep ruts filled with mud. These country roads that John Denver sang about are where you need a four-wheel drive truck to make it through. On the flip side, there are some folks who like to explore these roads, you know, just for fun. They call it four-wheeling or ‘muddin’ and if you’d ask them, they’d tell you that it’s ‘almost heaven.’
Again, I was a city boy, so I didn’t go muddin’ all that much. But one day when I was in 11th grade my friend Jason Gautier gathered a few of us up one weekend to go explore some of the hollers that none of us had ever even heard much about, much less been to.
One small problem was that none of us had a 4-wheel drive truck. Gautier had it all figured out. He was borrowing his mom’s Ford Bronco II. The great thing was that it didn’t matter if we got the Bronco muddy because his mom’s real car was in the shop, and this brand new Bronco II was a loaner from the dealership. Perfect.
The Ford Bronco II had electronic fuel injection, a 4-speed E4OD automatic overdrive transmission, and a 351 cubic inch Winsor V8 engine. Honestly, I was a city boy, so I have no idea what that stuff even means. I just looked it up on Wikipedia. All I know is that Bronco had really big tires, sat up really high, and we were able to squeeze seven high school guys into the thing. A muddin’ we would go!
We had a couple of adventures that day, one involving some really scary men who told us to get off their property, to which we said, “Yes sir,” then turned that Bronco around and got out of there quicker than OJ.
Then when we got off the mountain, the Bronco was making a funny knocking sound and the steering wheel was wobbly. Turns out it was a broken tie rod, whatever that is. All I remember is I didn’t see Jason Gautier around much for the next few months.
But those are stories for another day. This morning I want to turn you all into proper mudders and explain to you the techniques you use if you find yourself stuck in the mud in a Ford Bronco II somewhere along the dirt roads of West Virginia.
If you find yourself stuck in the mud, everyone’s first instinct is to gun it. You put some effort into it, am I right?! Of course, all that tire spinning usually just digs you deeper into the mud.
Next, you’ll want to rock it. This isn’t to be confused with tossing a bunch of rocks into the rut, which is of course what you’ll want to do because that gives you more traction. No, by rocking it, I mean the driver will throw the truck into reverse and punch it, trying to rock back in the rut as far as it will go.
Right at the point where the truck is losing momentum in reverse, you throw the truck into drive, and punch it again, lurching forward. The truck rocks forward, then it rocks back, it rocks forward, then it rocks back, hopefully building up enough momentum to suddenly shoot out of the hole you’ve dug for yourself. Piece of cake.
There are more best practices when you are trying to get yourself unstuck from any mud you find your Bronco II sinking into. You’ll want all the weight to be on your back axle (assuming it’s your back tires that are stuck). For us boys that meant that all seven of us – with the exception of the driver, of course – piled on to each other’s laps in the back seat. All that weight directly over the tires really pushes the wheels down unto something solid, giving you traction.
There is one more advanced maneuver, but this is only for the really smart mudders. If you can coordinate it, you can get everyone that is sitting on the axle to bounce up and down. In bouncing you can lighten the load as you bounce up, then you slam really hard into the seat, which presses down on the shocks. Hopefully on that down push your wheels will grip and you launch out of there.
By the way, this can produce really hilarious results if you have a couple of guys that are standing in the back of a pick-up truck, trying to bounce up and down on the axle when the wheels suddenly find traction and the truck lurches forward, tossing them out of the back, head first into the mud.
Throughout all of this, the thing you don’t want to do is get out and try to push. First, you’ll get muddy feet. Second, you aren’t strong enough to push a truck out of the mud, regardless of how tough you think you are. And third, spinning wheels kick up a LOT of mud, so you’re likely to get a mouthful.
The interesting thing about all of this is the ridiculous amount of motion that is going on. You have wheels spinning, you have the truck rocking forward then backward then forward again, and you have an up and down motion that is bouncing the truck on the axle. That’s a lot of motion.
It’s a lot of motion, but no movement. You’re still going nowhere, stuck in the mud.
Our culture thrives on motion. Better yet, if you have a problem, our culture undoubtedly has a fool-proof, simple plan for you to put into motion. We’ve all read the ‘Easy Steps’ lists on Facebook. Maybe it’s ‘Five Simple Leadership Lessons that Will Shoot You to the Top’, or ‘One Fool-Proof Trick to Get Your Kids to Toe the Line’, or ‘Six Simple Changes to Give Us the Home of Our Dreams’.
Every single one of us has our wheels spinning with plans and to-dos, tips and tactics. We’ve all put our wheels into motion. We’ve gunned it, yet we didn’t see any movement out of the rut we found ourselves in. So we think, has it all been a waste?
We push to control our lives, elbowing to be in the driver’s seat. While there we white-knuckle it, holding on so tight as we put our plans into motion, yet feeling like we are only spinning our wheels. All the while, we’ve gripped that wheel so tightly that it robbed us of all our joy. We want desperately to control all the outcomes, but we are going nowhere.
Despite what the get-fixed-quick lists of our culture might tell us, we can’t control every outcome. We can’t ultimately control how people will respond to our efforts of control – they might love you, they may hate you or they may shrug their shoulders at you in indifference.
Part of spiritual maturity is coming to realize that you aren’t in control of all the outcomes. There will be waste. There will be broken pieces. What Jesus does in this story is to gather up that waste.
But what does Jesus do with it? Remember, we’re way out on a limb here, so the story doesn’t tell us. Besides, I can’t look into each individual’s story and know what those broken pieces might be. Maybe you have to let something go, maybe you need to hand a relationship over to God, maybe you need to call someone up and set them free, maybe you need to make an apology.
What I do know is that you need to let Jesus gather up those broken pieces, because I don’t believe for a second that it’s waste. Again, a wonderful theme throughout the Gospel of Matthew is Jesus’ grace toward those who were broken.
I recall the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, where Jesus told her that “those who drink the water he gives them will never thirst.” She had been broken and exploited, and was left with no one to reach out to. That is until Jesus gathered up what was left of her brokenness and she never went thirsty again.
I recall the story of Zacchaeus the Tax Collector, whom Jesus told he’d be going to his house. Zacchaeus was looking back at his career, thinking to himself, “what a waste.” Yet Jesus said come down from there, Zacchaeus. I’m going to spend time with you because my grace knows no boundaries.
I recall the story of the woman who was thrown at Jesus’ feet, condemned to being stoned to death. Yet Jesus said, “I don’t condemn you. Go and sin no more.” In that act Jesus showed that his grace doesn’t discriminate, it was for everyone, regardless of how broken they were.
The story of scripture is stories of grace, stories of people coming to Jesus with the broken pieces of their lives, and Jesus simply saying, “You let me worry about that. You need only to follow me.”
Frederick Buechner has been my favorite author for a couple decades now. Here’s what Buechner says about God’s grace in our lives:
“The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.”
“Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you . . . remember that the lives of others are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business . . . even your own life is not your business. It also is God’s business. Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought . . . unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy . . .”
Buechner is reminding us that our lives can contain broken pieces. Yet Buechner also reminds us that our lives contain the gift of grace, should we be courageous enough to hand the brokenness over to the God of grace.
Strangely enough, as I was thinking about the story of The Feeding of the Five Thousand, it brought my thoughts right back to Jacob and Esau. Esau traded his birthright, his future, his very relationship with God, for a momentary craving. He traded everything for a bowl of lentils.
You have to think that Esau was going over his life, being that he was now estranged with his brother, his family, having turned away from God, and thought to himself, “What a waste.”
Years later Jacob was reunited with Esau and the scriptures say that when Jacob looked at Esau it ‘was like seeing the face of God.’ God’s grace had found Esau. Despite the waste in his life, despite the broken pieces, grace had found Esau.
Just like for Esau, just like for Zacchaeus, or the Woman at the Well, grace found them all.
I think that same grace can find each of us as well. We just have to let Jesus gather up our broken pieces. Amen.
Benediction: May you have the courage to let Jesus gather up your broken pieces. May Jesus take what was sitting in the wastebasket – and through his grace – recycle it into something new in your life. Go in peace.