When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”
(Preached on Sunday, August 6, 2017)
The Wilderness is a pure place. At least that is my sense of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness where I just spent 6 days of vacation. I say it is a pure place because it is a place where the basics of life are what you focus upon. Each day the primary focus is upon how you will travel from one place to another; finding a campsite to set up your shelter for the night; setting up that shelter; cooking your meals; cleaning your dishes; hanging your food pack so the bears and other critters don’t deprive you of your food. These are your primary activities; they consume most of your time, energy, and attention each day. And sometimes it can be a bit challenging whether you will be able to take care of any one of them.
That is why my brother and I spent two nights on the “Ant” Campsite. Let me explain. The Boundary Waters is a backcountry wilderness area. To preserve it and minimize the impact of human visitors’ access to the area is by permit and there are a limited number of permits into the area issued for each day for each entry point. This helps control the number of people you might see and interact with during your trip and preserves the experience of wilderness solitude. Along with this control, part of the regulations include where you can camp: only on an established campsite, which you know because it has a metal fire grate and a wilderness latrine toilet (literally a toilet like structure sitting over a hole in the ground.) So, one of your tasks each day you move, is to find a new campsite for the night; one of these pre-established sites.
It is usually not a problem. Most of the lakes have one or two campsites on them and the larger lakes have quite a few. But a week ago Friday, Phoebe Lake appeared over-booked! My brother and I had spent the day traveling by paddling our canoe up the Phoebe River, through several other lakes, over several beaver dams, small rapids, as well as carrying the canoe and all our gear in three large packs over several miles of rocky portages. It was a beautiful day for travel, filled with bright blue sky, fluffy white clouds, white and yellow water lilies, and quite a lot of interesting forests, wetlands, and other scenery. Still, it required a lot of physical exertion and we arrived at Phoebe Lake where we planned to spend the next two nights tired and ready to find a campsite and rest. The problem was, after arriving on the lake, all campsites we were finding were occupied. We finally found what appeared to be a beautiful campsite on an island. It had a nice rocky landing easily accessible. It faced east and had good ventilation from several sides. There were several large logs positioned around the fire grate to provide good seating and work areas for cooking. And it had what appeared to be two very good tent pad areas, which appeared fairly flat, level, and not too rocky or full of roots to impact your sleeping. In fact, both tent pads were so nice it took me several minutes to decide which one to use and I was just getting ready to lay down the tent to set it up when I looked at the ground and noticed a horde of red ants moving along what appeared to be an ant highway right through the middle of the area. There were literally hundreds of ants each carrying some small white object in its mouth. I could not tell if they were bringing food back to the colony or moving the larvae from one colony to another, but whatever it was, it did not look like a good place to set up home for the night. So we started to use the other tent pad, but there was a large, rotting log right next to it which concerned both of us that it might be filled with ants. So, greatly bothered by the ants we decided to look for another campsite. We loaded up the canoe again and left. It appeared there were at least 4-5 campsites on the map we had not checked out so we went in search. To shorten this tale: we paddled all over the southern shore of the lake for an hour only to discover that the other campsites were already occupied or we could not find them even though the map said they should be there. So, fearing we would have no home for the night and might have to push on to another lake we went back to live with the ants. When we returned they had disappeared, evidently into their nest for the night. We did not see them again until the next afternoon when like clockwork they emerged once again in three foraging parties searching the area for food.
For the followers of Jesus and the crowd of 5,000+ people who had followed Jesus into the wilderness it was not a concern about shelter, or ants, but a question of food that confronted them. What was Jesus doing in that deserted, isolated place? To answer that question we need to remember the context of what has happened up to this point in Matthew’s gospel.
Jesus is in distress. He’s still shaking the dust off his feet from an unhappy visit home where the hometown folk first fawn over him and then take offense at his sermon and want to toss him over the edge of a cliff. Shortly after that he learns that King Herod has had his cousin John the Baptizer beheaded. You could say that things have not been going well!
Clearly Jesus is spent – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. So he withdraws to a deserted place. He clearly needs some rest and relaxation. He needs to recharge his batteries. He probably needs to go “off the grid” and spend some time reflecting on his ministry, his call from God, the risks and dangers of proclaiming the message he had received from God, which is even more radical than was John’s message. No wonder the disciples want to shield him, urging him to send the crowds away. They too must be dispirited. It’s gratifying to help others when you’re feeling good. But how do you summon compassion when you’re depleted?
But Jesus did have compassion. He did not like the idea of the disciples to send the crowds away. Instead he said to them: You give them something to eat. They protested: You must be joking! We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish. And Jesus said: Bring them to me.
More important than “how” the miracle worked is the “why,” of course: Jesus’ deep compassion for the suffering of the people, and his response. Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor points out that “where the disciples saw scarcity, Jesus operated under a different set of assumptions … Jesus knew beyond a shadow of a doubt … that wherever there was plenty of God there would be plenty of everything else.”
The wilderness is a place of great testing. It is a place to face your demons and fears and find your place of trusting God – truly trusting. The disciples must frankly confront their limits and die to their own power to transcend them. Having assessed what they have, they then, hand Jesus their gifts, even though small and inadequate, and they literally place the situation in his hands. When you persevere and allow the wilderness to teach you humility, you are then able to adapt to the wilderness instead of forcing it to adapt to you. When you do, you discover it has amazing gifts to offer. And you discover that there is enough even in the wilderness.
A nurse arrived home at midnight after working a double shift in an inner-city emergency room. It felt so good to crawl under the covers and scrunch into the king-sized pillow. But just as he drifted off, he heard his six-year-old daughter crying, “Daddy.” She had awakened with a high fever, and as much as she loved her mother, she always wanted her daddy when she was sick. So her exhausted father spent several hours sitting with her until she felt better and drifted off to sleep. Did it frustrate him to lose sleep when he was bone-weary already? “No,” he responded. “When your child’s sick, a little love is more important than a little sleep.”
A pastor was wrapping up her day, the last day before a well-deserved two-week vacation. At 4:30 p.m., a bruised woman came into the office. Her husband had beater her the night before in a drunken rage. It was not the first time. It had taken her all day to make up her mind, but when the children had gotten home from school, she packed them all up and left. Could the pastor help her get into a women’s shelter? The pastor wanted to go home and pack for her trip, but instead she spent the evening getting the woman and her children dinner and into an area shelter.
We all find ourselves at times in the wilderness and we wonder if we have enough resources or if we will find enough of what we need to survive. Jesus shows us that even in the wilderness, there is always enough God. And with God, there is always enough.