Sermon Text: Matthew 14:13-23
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The following is my original manuscript.
If you’ve followed the news recently, you may have heard about a crisis going on among us clergy. According to a recent Duke University study, we pastors suffer obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. Our life expectancy is lower. Many pastors don’t feel like they can take vacations; many of them feel guilty for slowing down or taking time off or taking time away. Many of them wish they could change careers. The problem, in other words, is burn-out. And this burn-out obviously affects their parishioners, not to mention their marriages and family lives. One doctor who studied the problem said that clergy “think that taking care of themselves is selfish, and that serving God means never saying no.”†
I’m sympathetic with my fellow clergy who struggle in this way up to a point… But let me put my cards on the table and say that I’m more sympathetic with this great Christian thinker named Dr. Don Martin. Maybe you’ve heard of him? Don likes to say that doing ministry for him—whether it’s preaching or going to Honduras—is a lot like eating chocolate cake. Do I have to eat chocolate cake? Now, it’s not always like this, of course. I’m not saying that doing ministry isn’t sometimes very trying and difficult, but I’ve been at this for six years now; I’ve had a career outside of church; and I honestly believe that doing ministry ought be a lot more like eating chocolate cake most of the time than eating broccoli, if you know what I mean. And don’t lie to me and tell me that you like eating broccoli. No one does! It’s something you eat because it’s good for you!
Look, I realize I’m speaking to a congregation of laypeople, not clergy, and you may think, “This doesn’t apply to me.” But I’m also speaking to what Dr. Martin calls the “most roll-up-your-sleeves-and-let’s-get-busy-doing-something-for-somebody-else” church in all of Christendom! This is a church that understands that all of us baptized Christians are called into ministry.
You answer the call when you do things like go to Paraguay, Honduras, and the Gulf Coast. You answer the call when you send thousands of packages of Oreos to troops in the Middle East. You answer the call when you volunteer at North Fulton Community Charities. You answer the call when you help to improve the lives of women and children at Atlanta Urban Ministries, the Drake House, Women’s Breakthru House, and Atlanta Day Shelter. You answer the call when you feed care for the homeless living under bridges in downtown Atlanta and at the Trinity Soup Kitchen. You answer the call when you take a week off to work at Vacation Bible School; when you chaperone a youth group trip; when you teach Sunday school; when you facilitate a Disciple Bible study. This church answers the call to mission when it does in a hundred different ways what Jesus does in today’s scripture—feeding the hungry—physically and spiritually; meeting real, tangible, physical needs while at the same time pointing to the God who loves us and wants to be in a saving relationship with us; and enabling people to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ. This is the mission that you as the church are called to perform, and you do it as well or better than anyone else. And on this Sunday in which we emphasize missions we celebrate that!
What a privilege it is to be a pastor here! You guys make ministry a lot more fun and a lot easier. Don’t think for a moment I’m not deeply grateful.
But the underlying spiritual problem to which this research on clergy burn-out points is potentially a problem that all of us face. No matter what ministry or mission activity we take part in, I want ministry to be for you more like eating chocolate cake than broccoli. I don’t want us to experience burn-out. It’s worth noting that Jesus—who did ministry more effectively than any pastor or layperson has ever done ministry; who did more important work than anyone else who ever lived; who accomplished more in his life than anyone else who ever lived—did not experience burn-out. We need to find out why! What does Jesus do that prevents him from falling into the trap that so many of us can fall into—in ministry; in mission; in our careers; in our family lives?
Our scripture begins, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place.” What had Jesus just heard? He heard that his friend and cousin John the Baptist, the prophet who first identified Jesus as the Messiah, the one whose own ministry inaugurated Jesus’ ministry, was beheaded by Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, who caused so much trouble when Jesus was born. It’s not hard to imagine that this news was deeply troubling to Jesus. And how does he respond? He gets on a boat by himself and withdraws to a deserted place somewhere on the Sea of Galilee.
There are other places in the gospel where, we’re told, Jesus goes off by himself to pray. Let’s think about this… If we’re not careful, we can read the gospels as if Jesus were not fully human like you and me, but was some kind of superhero, endowed with super-powers, including a 100 mbps broadband connection to his heavenly Father; and this connection was always on and available; as if he didn’t have to do anything to access it. But that’s not what scripture teaches at all. Jesus prays. It’s his habit; it’s his routine.
Prayer for Jesus is not some tacked-on extra part of what Jesus did when he wasn’t busy healing the sick and walking on water and preaching—it was at the very center of his life. Is it too obvious to point out that if it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me and you? If Jesus needed to pray, how much more do you and I need to pray?
I preached a couple of weeks ago in my sermon on salvation that a part of being saved means changing, becoming more Christ-like, and how this is lifetime process of learning to identify and overcome sin in our lives. I didn’t use the word at the time, but there’s a perfectly good theological word that describes this process: it’s sanctification. Through sanctification, God the Holy Spirit changes us—renews within us the image of God; enables us to love more fully with Christ-like love. It’s the process by which, as Paul writes in Romans 12, we are no longer conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we can discern the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Surely the most important way we do this is through prayer. Prayer is a way of continually opening up our lives to God; letting the warm sunlight of God’s love penetrate the dark corners of our lives; continually saying “yes” to God—continually giving our consent to God to heal us from our sin and bring us into a closer relationship with God.
But you know what the problem with adding more prayer to our lives is? It feels like we’re doing nothing sometimes. It looks like doing nothing sometimes. It’s invisible to people. No one’s evaluating us, grading us, or keeping track of our prayer lives—except for God of course. It’s not going to directly affect our salaries. And you better believe that as you make prayer a bigger part of your life the devil will whisper in your that you’re wasting your time, and you need to get to work. Yet, if I may use a football analogy, prayer is that critically important and necessary time in between running the plays. It’s our huddle, our timeout, our halftime. The mission work we do is running the plays, but prayer is the work we do to get ready to run the plays. If we as a church want to be more effective in doing the mission and ministry of the church—and avoid burn-out—we need to follow Jesus’ example and pray.
And you might say, “O.K., Brent, but I notice that Jesus isn’t even able to withdraw and pray for very long before getting interrupted by a new opportunity for mission. It’s not like he turns this desperate and hungry crowd away.” But let me ask you this: Does Jesus act like this is an interruption? Does Jesus seem put out by the crowds? Does he seem irritated when he sees them approaching him? No! Instead, Matthew tells us, he has compassion for them! He wants to heal them and feed them and care for them! He gets to heal them and feed them and care for them! This is eating chocolate cake for him. And Jesus is able to feel this way because he lives a life of prayer. And notice that after Jesus feeds the multitudes in today’s scripture, what does he return to? Look in verse 23. “He went up the mountain by himself to—what?—pray!”
Go and do likewise!
You can look into your own heart and decide what changes you need to make to your own life, what habits you need to develop, to help you with this. If you go to my blog this week, I’ll point you to some resources that might help.
Another reason that we can feel burn-out in ministry is that we feel overwhelmed. The task is too big, the challenge too great. Isn’t that the way the disciples felt? “We need to send this hungry crowd away, so they can go back to town and buy something to eat.” And Jesus says, “Don’t send them away. You feed them.” “Well, we would be happy to, but with women and children, we’re talking 20,000 people. I don’t think these five loaves and two fish will stretch that far!” Of course, not only does it stretch that far, but there are 12 baskets left over. Some commentator pointed out that 12 baskets left over sounds like a lot, but not when you’ve fed about 20,000 people!
The point is that somehow what the disciples had to give was enough. Not much more than enough, but just enough to accomplish the task. Jesus only asked the disciples to give what they had. Not more than they had. They had five loaves and two fish to give; they gave it; that was enough. Between the twelve of them they had the time and energy to distribute the food to the crowd, and that was enough. A recipe for burn-out is focusing on the overwhelming need: how do we feed 20,000 people? Instead we should focus on what we have to give! Because hat we have to give is enough. Jesus doesn’t ask anything more than that!
A recipe for burn-out is trying to work a miracle ourselves. “It will take a miracle to feed 20,000 people.” Maybe so, but notice something: the disciples aren’t responsible for working miracles; that Jesus’ job. We trust him to work the miracles. We give what we have—of our time and talent and resources—and let Jesus work the miracle.
We give what we have and let Jesus work the miracle. Amen? We’re not miracle-workers! The good news is that we don’t have to be! Jesus is the miracle-worker! And we trust him to take care of that.
You have enough for Jesus to work a miracle. I have enough for Jesus to work a miracle through me. Together, we have enough for Jesus to work a miracle through us. And there are people living in Honduras and Paraguay and Mexico and Mozambique who have seen a miracle because of what this church has done. There are homeless people in downtown Atlanta who have seen a miracle because of what this church has done. There are mothers and families who struggling to get back on their feet who have seen a miracle because of what this church has done. Adults in this church have seen a miracle; youth in this church have seen a miracle; children in this church have seen a miracle—all because of what this church is doing and has done. All because of Jesus!
What five loaves and two fish do you have to give? You have it to give! Give it!
[Respond with the “Prayer for Mission” from the Book of Common Prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.]
† Paul Vitello, “Taking a Break From the Lord’s Work,” New York Times, 2 August 2010, 1 (A).