Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Of course, we meet both kinds every day. Upon waking, the optimist opens the window and says with a smile, “Good morning, God!” While, the pessimist rubs his eyes; clears his throat; looks out the window and says with a frown, “Good god, morning!” Pessimists always see the dark sides of clouds. Optimists don’t see the clouds at all- because they’re walking on them! Optimists expect to see their dreams come true- while pessimists expect their nightmares to come true. My favorite contrast is that of two children. The pessimistic child is placed in a room filled with toys, while an optimistic child is placed in a room half-filled with horse apples, – that is, manure. The observer returns an hour later. The pessimistic child with all the toys desired is bored and cannot find any joy. In contrast, the optimistic child is laughing and digging away in the horse droppings. When asked why, he responds confidently, “With all this manure, I just know, there has to be a pony in here somewhere.” Yes, optimistic children are the ones who make the most of life even when they get the worst of it.
This morning’s gospel teaches us that we all encounter disappointments along life’s way, but that reality doesn’t have to make a Christian glum or pessimistic. Christ-like optimism has the power to color, change and transform you and your perspective. And second, the story teaches us that a pessimistic and dour perspective can be revitalized and restored.
It is sometimes difficult to imagine that everyone experiences disappointment and setbacks in life. Scripture reminds us that Jesus too faced distractions and disappointments. For a moment, step back from the familiar miracle of the feeding of 5,000 and look again to the first verse. “When Jesus heard the news of the beheading of John the Baptist, he withdrew from there in a boat into a deserted place.” In that tiny, but powerful verse we glimpse Jesus’ own human struggle. John the Baptist was after all Jesus’ own flesh and blood. Their mothers, Elizabeth and Mary were kinsman. John was the holy prophet of God who had prepared Jesus’ way. He had poured water over Jesus’ head in the River Jordan, and it was John himself who had seen the Holy Spirit descend upon Jesus in the form of a dove. And now John was dead and his death shocked and saddened Jesus. It was as if Christ’s entire mission and the unfolding of God’s holy kingdom had been stopped in its tracks. And so we read, that in the face of this disappointment, and with a heavy heart, Jesus withdrew from the disciples and the crowds in a boat to find refuge in a deserted place alone.
Christians, like Christ himself, are not immune to life’s disappointments. How many faithful believers have I known, who have struggled to understand God’s will? A wife battles cancer only to discover a spouse with Alzheimer’s. A couple toils with issues of fertility, only to discover the financial cost of adoption. A widow laments the death of her husband, only to discover a son who is incurably ill. Old Norwegian bachelor farmers would say, “It could always be worse,” but personally you wonder what sort of imagination could dream of something more. Yes, men and women, young and old are constantly struggling to live with life’s distractions and disappointments.
Scripture reminds us that you and I, are born to be optimists. It is our divine given nature to be optimistic. But as we grow in years, we may be subjected to so much negativity that we begin to believe the world is gloomy after all. And yet my friends, in those pessimistic moments, you and I should find comfort in the image of Jesus along the far side of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus left the crowds to find his rest, but when the crowds heard the news of the John the Baptist, they too were grieved and followed Jesus on foot to the distant shore of the Galilee. When Jesus disembarked from the boat, he saw a crowd waiting for him. Jesus fled to a quiet place, and instead, he was greeted by a vast crowd eagerly demanding what only he could give. He might have resented them for the crowd had robbed him of his rest and peace.
But Jesus was not disturbed by their pursuit; rather he was moved with compassion for them. He healed and prayed and showed them mercy. That is how he sees your distractions and disappointments as well. It grieves his heart that you are struggling and hurting. God understands your turmoil, your pain and your crushed hopes. Let me assure you that there is never a moment when Jesus cannot be drawn into your life story. There is never a moment in which he is so far or distant that he does not know your loss, your pain and your struggle to cling to faith. That is how Christ-like optimism colors your world.
And yet there were pessimists present with their skeptical glances as well. Even Jesus’ most devoted disciples experienced moments of doubt. They were native sons of the Galilee and should have known the resources available, but instead we hear their words pessimistically spoken, “Send the crowds away; we have nothing here but five loaves and two fishes.” It is said the pessimist complains when opportunity knocks. Every good and faithful pastor has struggled with pessimistic Christians, offering the Seven Last Words of the Church, “We never did it that way before.” In church circles, we often joke, “How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?” “Change!” “My grandmother gave that light bulb in memory of my Uncle Torvald. It’s a memorial. My father installed it with his own two hands. What do you mean it’s burned out and we need to change it? Change. Well this church can live without you too.”
Now you may be wondering, so how can you revitalize and restore that sense of Christ-like optimism when it has been weakened by the disappointments of life and filled with pessimistic doubts? How can you renew the hope and promise in your life, the lilt in walk, the delight in your smile? Author and entrepreneur Frederick Mann writes, “One of the greatest powers in the universe is the individual power of choice. And the most powerful choices are positive choices.” Yes, you can choose to change. So where do you begin?
Let me offer two suggestions for those who have know distractions and disappointments along life’s way first- let scripture be a channel for your conversation with God; and second, place your needs, cares and possibilities into the hands of Jesus.
Many Christians today, including good church members, deny themselves the knowledge of Christ and his ways. The early Church father St. Jerome of Bethlehem, the author of the Vulgate Latin translation wrote, “Ignorance of the Bible means ignorance of Christ.” Many of us deny ourselves a regular opportunity or “quiet time” to speak and listen to God. I must confess, I too find myself anxiously conversing with God in the sleepless midnight hours or just before morning breaks. I’ve had one of two reoccurring dreams. One, I preached the same sermon two Sundays in a row, and nobody noticed. Or the other nightmare, the Church Council voted to change my day off to Sundays. In the distractions of life, more than any other time, you and I need to set aside our own quiet time where we may read God’s word and speak to him. Do not be ignorant of Christ or his word. He is the one who feeds you with the Living Bread.
You see, you can choose to begin anew today. But you must become aware of your own, negative, pessimistic words. They’re familiar words, “I can’t do that. I’m not good enough to . . . I’m afraid to . . . That makes me angry. No use trying since I’ll probably fail.” It’s what psychologists call “stinking thinking.” Whenever you catch yourself with a negative thought, immediately replace it with a positive one. It’s a simple but effective technique that takes energy. So is working out in the gym. If you want to reshape your body, working out one day for ten minutes will have no impact. The same is true for changing your attitude. If you’re serious, you have to work on it daily. Not much to ask for a restore and revitalized attitude and faith. If you come across an article or book that inspires you, a passage of scripture, read and reread it over and over again. Repetition is the key to change. The story of the Loaves and Fishes and the feeding of 5000 in the deserted wayside rest of the Sea of Galilee is a wonderful reminder of God’s presence even in the lonely, deserted places of life. It is through the scriptures that you encounter God’s steadfast presence in the past and his promise to be present with you now. In the quiet, lonely places of life, Jesus is there to greet you, and when Christ is there, your weariness will find rest and your hungry soul will be fed. Let scripture be a channel for your conversation with God.
Second, place your needs, your cares and your possibilities, however great or small in the hands of Jesus. It is up to you to decide how you will deal with the disappointments in your life. You may think that you have little of talent or substance to give to Jesus. “I’m too unimportant, or I’m not religious enough.” Or maybe, “Pastor Haug, I’m too old. I might still buy green bananas, but I would never take out a three-year magazine subscription.” What’s your excuse?
In the pessimistic eyes of the disciples, the five loaves of bread and the two fish certainly couldn’t feed the crowd of five thousand, but Jesus took these meager gifts, looked up to heaven, blessed them and worked wonders with them. This is the power of optimistic faith. It is not simply a “pollyanish” dream of what could be. It is Christ’s power at work within you that is able to accomplish abundantly far more than you can ask or imagine. You see, for men and women empowered by Christ, there is no reason for hopeless pessimism. Christian optimism is a firm conviction and a calculated commitment that in the hands of Jesus little is always much. Indeed, the one fatal thing to say is, “The little I could do is not worth my while trying.”
My friends, if you put yourself confidently and optimistically into the hands of Jesus Christ, there is no telling what he can do with you and through you. So when distractions and disappointments are holding you back, ask yourself what is the miracle God is waiting to do with your life? “And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.”
Are you an optimistic Christian, or are you still a sad and pitiful, pessimistic sight? God’s miracle is waiting for you. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.