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"Before the Gospel is a word," Frederick Buechner writes, "it is a silence."1
It was silence that Jesus needed so desperately. For chapters now in Matthew Jesus has been on the go - town after town, crowd after crowd, everyone had been demanding things of him - that he inspire, that he heal, that he teach, that he offer something so different, so new, so perfect. On top of the exhaustion he got terrible news - John the Baptist, his cousin and partner in ministry, who had announced Jesus' own coming, held his shoulders as he thrust him under the waters of the Jordan River, was dead. King Herod had John beheaded in prison. Word got back, Jesus overcome with grief. He tried to get away, as we heard in last week's text, but the crowds pursued him. The disciples tried to protect him but Jesus, having compassion for the people, blesses the five loaves and two fish they bring, transforming it into a meal for thousands.
The beginning of this story is oft ignored. I, myself, ignored it three times in my first readings. Listen again: Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. The story begins in sadness, in grief. Jesus withdrew on the boat to be alone, to weep, to remember; he immediately before this had heard of his cousin, John the Baptist's, death. Beheaded at the request of King Herod's niece during a raucous birthday celebration for Herod, John died in a gruesome and meaningless manner. A death made possible by fear - fear of John's prophecy, of the power he said was coming in the form of Jesus. Scripture tells us, His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus. And this is where our story picks up - Jesus, in a boat, trying to grieve alone.
How many of you had a mustard seed in a piece of jewelry growing up? I had one in a necklace. I remember being by my mother how this tiny little seed could grow into a big tree, and that this was a sign of God's love for me. I liked to wear it. But I had no idea what a mustard tree looked like because we didn't have one in our yard or neighborhood. Still, I was impressed, in the way that young children are impressed. But I don't think I really understood the mustard seed any more than I understood that Jesus died on a cross for me.
Right in the middle of the sermon, I looked over to my right and I saw it. It was three Sundays ago in St. Giles Cathedral, the high kirk of the Church of Scotland, and I was staring at a stool. The sermon was a thoughtful exposition of a text from Matthew, but I couldn't see the preacher very well, and it was easy in such a beautiful place to get distracted. Then I noticed her stool, and it was right there. Back on July 23, 1637, the worship leader for the day stood to begin worship with the Anglican Church's new prayer book - not Reformed worship, mind you, but the Anglican prayer book. The first phase of the reformation in Scotland was about Catholic versus Protestant. But after they mostly firmly decided Protestant, they then had to decide Reformed or Anglican, the Church of England. The minister that day in Scotland using the prayer book of the English was experienced as betrayal. Legend holds that one Jenny Geddes was so enraged that she hurled a stool, striking the dean of the Cathedral in the head, starting a riot.1
When we started, the weather wasn't all that bad. The day before it had been low 70's and sunny, far better than what you'd expect in Scotland, even in the summertime. In many ways, the whole trip had been leading up to this - flying overnight from Raleigh to Philadelphia to Glasgow, tromping with our bags through the city to our hostels, a beautiful art museum near Glasgow University, lawn bowling on some fields prepared for the Commonwealth Games, slated to start in a month. A few of us fell asleep at lunch; a few at dinner.