The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Deserted Places

What does a deserted place look like?

by Karen Gibson

Gospel Reading: Matthew 14:13-21

For Sunday, July 31, 2011: Year A—Ordinary 18

Jesus is blown out of the water (and gets onto a boat) when he hears that John, his cousin, was beheaded over some family drama at Herod’s “Dancing with the Stars” party. Jesus wants some alone time. I get it. Head to someplace, anyplace, that’s deserted!

Even though Jesus desires to be alone, when he saw the crowds that relentlessly followed, he didn’t pitch a fit, get back in the boat, and try to make another getaway. Instead, Jesus’ heart is filled with compassion. He began to cure them.

So what’s the disciples’ deal?

The text starts in this supposedly “deserted place.” For me, deserted = alone. But the place was filled with people, i.e. not deserted. So the disciples start trying to fix this little problem.

They insist that the “the hour is now late.” I get that; the text says it was evening; the Lord’s had a long day. Then they say, “send the crowds away.” Then the disciples decide it’s time for everyone to eat. What?  Do we read anything in the text that made you think/feel like the crowds were hungry? At my house, people say they are hungry, when they are hungry. So what’s the disciples’ deal?  There’s so much conflicted reasoning here.

Who is this story about?

Aren’t disciples, regardless of their own experiential lenses, supposed to emulate Jesus?

Despite his personal grief over John and his desire to get away, Jesus wasn’t complaining about the time, nor was the crowd.

Seems to me, that the disciples, in their infinite wisdom (yeah, sarcasm) were trying to give the crowd the heave-ho. Maybe they were hungry or were tired because it’s past their bedtimes. Maybe they were ready to go home because they were weary. All of the maybes are screaming (perhaps because of my own lenses) the disciples are making this story about themselves.

Feeling deserted?

No matter how hard I try, I can’t finagle a single reason for them to say, “this is a deserted place.” It wasn’t. They were there. The crowds were there. Jesus was there. The place was not deserted. They were not alone. Subtract the crowds. It’s still not deserted. Subtract two or four or six disciples. It’s still not deserted.

Maybe the key is that the disciples felt deserted. I get that. My family, a group of my friends, an entire congregation, can surround me and I can still feel like I’m in a deserted place.

The Hardest Question

What’s the value of deserted places and do they really, truly, exist?

Rev. Karen N Gibson is the transition pastor at Pilgrim Lutheran Church in Lexington, SC.  She’s been told more than once, she doesn’t fit the stereotype of grandmomma or a pastor because neither – sport tats, cuss, want their daughter to dye a blue streak in her hair, and want another motorcycle.  The loves of her life are her husband, her family, her dogs, books, a quiet beach, driving, and serving God (but not always in that order).


  1. Jeff says:

    Karen, I too am always struck with the location (deserted place) of this story. I love your insight about being surrounded by people and still feeling alone. Can’t we all relate?!?! And yet, thats where Jesus feeds us. To answer your question, no, we are never alone. I for one think that people are starving for a bit of that good news! The message is simple…but doesn’t end there. Jesus tells his church to act in thier deserted place. He calls them to respond by passing the good news along. I think I will ask my people this question: “What will you add to the basket as it passes by?”


  2. Paula says:

    You go girl… proud of you. Thanks for the insights as I struggle to make a basketful out of nothing.

  3. Karen Gibson says:

    Right now my mom is in kairos, God time, with her life. I’m one of those disciples projecting what I feel, deserted, even though it’s not true. You are spot on with saying their are so many people in deserted places. We need to remember our times of being alone and put what we needed during those times into the baskets because someone, somewhere needs what we need/needed/may need. I know when I take 2.5 seconds to remember I’m not alone my heart shifts to a better place, centered on God’s love for me. It is also awesome when God makes someone’s path cross my path and we find out that we can share some of what we both have and we are filled, fed, not with just a worldly whew of shared experience, but a Godly breath of the Holy Spirit filling us with otherness.

    May you always be filled with God’s breath of otherness as you journey through life. K

  4. Chris says:

    The deserted place can be that place where I see others fitting in, but I am not one of them. I think of being at a social event where (I think) everyone else is part of the group; but I am not.

    I fear that experience is what happens to folks when they attend worship. That the rest of the crowd is at home here – settled here.

    I don’t know that we can say it too often – that we are all the lonely one, looking for a place to be included.

  5. Karen Gibson says:

    Chris, Amen and Amen!!!! I know the feeling of not fitting in – personally, from talking to people who have visited (and sometimes even joined) congregations and still feel lonely, and from talking to people who have given up on the church because it can be such a lonely place.

    I believe in my heart-of-hearts that God knows we all fit in, and is constantly trying to help us see (1) we do fit in because we are made in the image of God; (2) and we (especially the settled in folks) are called to make a space for all people to fit in. I dream of the church being a place where no one is ever lonely, because God’s love and compassion is so obvious, it overwhelms and wipes away all loneliness.

    May all people, everywhere, soon know, one of God’s plans for creation is unity and welcome that surpasses all loneliness.

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