I’ve never seen it myself, but I understand that in certain areas and cultures — mainly deep Southern rural, I would think — in some churches the center aisle serves as a clearly-marked divider. The men sit on one side of the church and the women and children on the other. When young boys become young men — whenever that might be — it becomes a rite of passage for them to cross to the other side of the aisle and join their older counterparts. It may seem strange to us, perhaps, but to each his own.
I’ve lived in enough different locations to know that cultural attitudes vary from place to place and from time to time. Culture is simply the result of attitude, and though it may be hard to believe – especially for those of us who have essentially lived in only one place all our lives – not everybody looks at things the way we do. I know that’s hard to believe, but try real hard to understand it, okay? 🙂
There are some who wish our church had a center aisle. For example, we have a lot of folk call or contact us asking if they can have their wedding here. Did you know that if our church had a center aisle we would be even more popular with prospective brides? One of our neighboring churches up the street has weddings every weekend, and I think the center aisle has a lot to do with it. Some young ladies planning their weddings, who have no affiliation whatsoever with a congregation of faith, look specifically for a church that has a center aisle. They may not darken the door of a church ever again, but for that one defining, all-important moment when they do, they want to walk down the middle of it.
Some of you who were involved in this church during the late 40’s and early 50’s might be able to enlighten the rest of us in regard to the architecture of this building… why this particular style was chosen, how the decisions were made, why certain colors were used. And, you might be able to tell us why there are two interior aisles instead of one. Was that simply the fashion back in those days? The prevailing style of choice? That would be my guess.
Well, there was no architecture involved when Jesus fed the five thousand in the wilderness. The whole thing was done outside. But there was a center aisle nevertheless. In those days, even when people gathered spontaneously, as was true in this case, and even when they did so under the open sky, they still found ways to separate themselves from one another.
Evidently, it made it easier to count. And you thought Baptists were the only ones who insist on counting everybody at church! Matthew tells us there were five thousand men in attendance that day. It was easier to count the men because they had segregated themselves from the women and children. That was the way it was done at the temple up in Jerusalem, and if they are going to expose themselves to any kind of religious instruction – whether it was done by the teachers in Jerusalem or by some relatively unknown carpenter from Nazareth out in the middle of nowhere – they were still going to separate themselves from the women and children.
That’s just the way things are done. No sense in arguing about it. That’s the way it is. And so, on that day by the seashore, when Jesus feeds the multitudes, that is what they do.
If Matthew had been a Baptist, we could be fairly safe in assuming there were at most a couple thousand in attendance. That’s another thing we Baptists do… exaggerate. But let’s take his word for it, shall we? Five thousand men. If each of them brought his wife and a child or two, which is not implausible, there could have been as many as fifteen thousand, twenty maybe, to hear what Jesus has to say, to take advantage of his marvelous powers. By any calculation, it is quite a crowd. The folk over at Alltel Arena would be happy to have that many in attendance for any event.
And, it’s a lot of people when you consider that Jesus originally had it planned so that only one person would be there… only he himself.
A SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “Your exegesis is right up there with the best of anybody I’ve ever read. Thank you for doing the foot work for those of us who are solo pastors in a too busy world.”
A thousand sparks to spark your imagination!
Matthew tells us it was a “deserted place,” a place where Jesus had gone to be by himself for a time of retreat and prayer. But the crowds wouldn’t leave him alone. They found out where he was going, and while his mode of transportation was a boat, they hot-footed it over and were waiting for him when he arrived. His time of retreat and prayer turned into something of a mob scene.
Though there is no mention of him, I can just see Simon Peter taking charge, can’t you? He gets out his bullhorn. “Okay, people, let me have your attention. We’re going to have to have some order here. You know how it’s done. Men on one side, women and children on the other. Okay, okay, let’s go, let’s go. Let’s have some order here.” And just as the Red Sea parted for Moses, the people do the same on command from Simon. They immediately form a center aisle right there in the wilderness and act as if they are at church.
You might think that Jesus would have been really, really aggravated to be bothered with all this. Not by the men and women being separated but from the fact that there’s anyone else around at all. This whole scene was not what he had in mind. His intent, after all, was to be by himself. He needed to be by himself. He has just gotten word that John the Baptist had been beheaded by Herod. He needs some time to grieve, not to mention contemplate whether the Baptizer’s fate might be his own.
I remember my strong sense of sadness upon hearing the news that Guy Whitney, Sr. had died. He had been my pastor many years before, had baptized me, as John had baptized Jesus. That simple act of entering the water together, though it happened so long before, had created a bond between us that nothing could break. When I heard that my former pastor – and the father of one of the best friends I’ve ever had in the world – had died, I wanted to be alone for awhile, to reflect and think upon this man’s influence on my life. Surely Jesus wanted to do the same.
Not only that, but it was the way the Baptizer had died… so needlessly, at the whim of a dancing girl!1 God’s messenger, God’s chosen minister, now dead… now so senselessly dead. Is that how it would be for Jesus as well? A sword, a cross, a stoning… it all meant the same thing. Would he, Jesus, face a martyr’s death as John has done? He needs to think about this, brood over it, pray. He needs to be alone. No doubt he is in a particularly reflective mood, and that simply isn’t conducive to crowds. Or, to put it better, crowds aren’t helpful when someone wants to be alone in his thoughts with God.
We all have those moments, don’t we? Pressures are building up, difficulties are about to overcome us, our energy is zapped. We need to stop and think, to pray, to reflect upon what is happening to us. It is an opportunity for renewal. We all need it from time to time. Well, so did Jesus.
But they won’t let him. The people just won’t let him alone. As his boat reaches shore there they are waiting for him. There will be no retreat this day, nor will he be able to grieve alone. There is going to be work to do. Kingdom work, but still work. The people have come with all kinds of maladies… illnesses, deformities, mental deficiencies. If there was a medical term for it, it is represented that day. They are like sheep without a shepherd, sick folk without a physician. They need help and direction. They need what only Jesus can give. And so, Jesus, Matthew tells us, has compassion on them.
Of course, this is not the only time Jesus is interrupted from his normal activities. A couple of instances come quickly to mind.
The time he is teaching in the house in Capernaum and the four men tear a hole in the roof to let their crippled companion down to him. One moment Jesus is telling a story about the kingdom and the next he’s got drywall in his hair. Talk about an interruption! On another occasion the local synagogue ruler asks him to come and heal his seriously ill daughter. As Jesus is on the way, he is interrupted yet again by the woman who reaches out to touch the hem of his garment.
Think about it… Jesus was always being interrupted.
How do you deal with such things? How do you handle it when you are interrupted? With aggravation or irritation? With anger or annoyance?
I recall the Sunday morning, just prior to the worship service, when I was going over my sermon. I always try to find time to do that so my thoughts will be as fresh as possible. The phone rang. I always answer it, because more often than not it is someone asking for the time of our worship service. Not this time. It was a lady explaining she had just moved to town and was out of money. Could we help with some food?
My first reaction? Annoyance. So I think to myself, “Come on, lady, I’ve got a sermon to preach. Don’t you know it’s Sunday morning? Of course you know it’s Sunday morning. That’s why you’ve called. You figure you can catch someone at church on a Sunday morning. It’s probably a scam anyway. Most of them are. Why did I pick up that phone? I don’t have time for this kind of stuff.”
Wait a minute… How would Jesus have responded? With an aggravated heart? I think of his parable of the Good Samaritan, about the priest and the Levite who pass by on the other side of the road. Which am I, the priest or the Levite? If I ignore her request, I slip into the sandals of at least one of them. Would Jesus be bothered by this kind of interruption? Not on your life. Jesus saw interruptions as opportunities to share the kingdom. How can I do any less?
How do you deal with interruptions? Jesus always responded with great compassion. He knew his time on earth was short. And while it was important… no, scratch that…while it was absolutely essential for him to have those times when he could be alone for prayer and meditation – when he could talk to his heavenly Father and listen to what his Father wanted him to do – when confronted with such drastic and tragic human need, Jesus could not help but respond with a heart of mercy and grace.
He spends the day healing the sick, and before they know it, it is starting to get dark. “Send the crowds away,” the disciples tell Jesus. “Send them away.” It’s not that they are completely devoid of compassion, it’s that they are realists. They are aware of the situation. No planning had taken place here. If they had known a revival was going to break out, perhaps they could have prepared a meal. But as it is, there’s simply not enough food to go around and not enough time to go get any. “Send them away.”
We know what happens next, don’t we? It’s one of the most endearing stories in all the gospels, one of the few stories that all four New Testament gospels include. That’s how important it is. In fact, it is so well-known that many people who know little or nothing of scripture are familiar with it. Jesus takes what little provisions are available to him, he blesses it, breaks it, and shares it with the people. Everybody gets fed and there is plenty of food left over.
Now, here’s something interesting. There is no mention in Matthew’s version of the story that the people were amazed at what Jesus has done for them. No one floods the aisles making public professions of faith because of this miracle. No one is questioning how Jesus has the ability and the authority to do such miraculous things. Matthew doesn’t say that Jesus’ fame spreads because of all this.
What does happen? Jesus and his disciples get into the boat and leave. That’s it. They just leave.
They might have counted the number of people who showed up, but they don’t record how many believed that day. Jesus shares himself and his kingdom with the people and simply exits the building. Jesus does what he does best and then leaves the rest to God.
I think there is a lesson in that, for you and me individually, but also for our church. Interruptions are going to come, but kingdom people see them not as things that get in the way but as opportunities to share the kingdom of heaven with those who so desperately need it.
If you stop and think about it, there are certain things we do that turn people away. We use code words that the uninitiated do not understand. We are slow to let strangers enter our circle of fellowship. We insist they do it our way or for them it’s the highway. We don’t always give it our very best. Sometimes, unfortunately, the church – our church – even subconsciously, sends them away.
If this story is to teach us anything, let it teach us this… We are to bring before Jesus what we have: our faith, our financial resources, our abilities and gifts, our feeble willingness to do what he wants, and lay them at his feet. And then we stand back and watch as Jesus takes these things into his hands, blesses them, and distributes them to others.
The miracle doesn’t occur if we send them away. So let us receive all who come to us, let us go out and bring them in, let us look into the faces of those who need the kingdom, and receive them and embrace them in Jesus’ name.
So let it be, Lord, so let it be.
Lord, help us to bring others into your fold, not send them away. Give us eyes to see the needs that people have, that in the name of Jesus we might point them in your direction. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
1Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 49.
— Copyright 2005, Dr. Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.