Compassion for Our Companions in Christ
A Sermon on the Feeding of the Five Thousand
On Friday I said goodbye to my second wave of house guests, and suddenly, I was alone. Do you know that little Benjamin Franklin aphorism: both good friends and fish begin to stink in three days? After two weeks I did begin to think, just what WAS my life like before these people descended upon my house? And yet, to be honest, the only smells I remember were the fresh flowers my guests picked for the table and the fragrant food we shared in special places.
For two weeks my townhouse became bed and breakfast. We visited places I love to see and places I had not seen, both in Maryland and in the District. The Bay, countless Museums, Market Street shops – what a feast for the senses! The guests who left Friday were my wife's daughter and children, who took Eyleen back to Memphis with them. We had a blast taking the grand-girls to places like Five Guys and the Frederick library, borrowing books they finished before they made their way home. While those little ones were here, my house overflowed with laughter and messiness, and I loved almost every minute of it!
The first guests arrived and left the week before the grand-girls. These adults are dear friends we regularly travel with on vacation. This year, they had asked if our vacation could be in my back yard. Each morning we shared a bottomless pot of coffee, accompanied by local, luscious fruits of the earth. Ah, those peaches! Then we'd make our plans for the day – Will lunch be in Annapolis or Capitol Hill? – and the cars would load up, far too slowly for some – What IS taking him so long? – and then, off we'd go. Some days I joined them on their journeys, but there were other days when separate ways were required. I needed to work most of these past two weeks. After all, I had just returned from an extended time away, and we have been busy here at All Saints', doing the hard work of saying farewell, praying our goodbyes the past two Sundays with two beloved clergy who faithfully served God and God's people in this place.
Whatever the day would bring me and my guests, we gathered each night before bedtime, checking in with each other, sharing some good, old-fashioned conversation – the kind that ends when you just can't stay awake any more! During our last night together I asked one of those friends, a seminary professor of homiletics, what her focus might be if she were preaching today on the story of the feeding of the five thousand. "Food dumping," she replied.
She was referring to donations made with good intent by good people all over the world – all that food, clothing and other kinds of aid that, due to fraud, mismanagement or terrorism, never gets to make a difference in the lives of the hungry, the homeless, the dying. Another aphorism comes to mind: The road to hell is paved with good intentions. When my friend spoke those two words, "food dumping," I also thought of the super-size mentality so prevalent today, with restaurants serving portions twice the size a healthy person needs to survive.
"You give them something to eat," Jesus says to his disciples. And they do, filling baskets with leftovers from the more than 5,000 men, women and children who eat their fill. So much has been said in so many sermons about the miraculous nature of this story. So much has been preached from pulpits about the abundance of God's creation and the scarcity we experience. Those are good sermons. Today, I want to think with you instead about just who Jesus might be in this loaves and fishes story – and how we might follow Jesus today.
In order to consider how we might be disciples of Jesus, we need to examine the disciples and other people of Jesus' time. Let's take another look at the first half-verse of this text: Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself (Matthew 14:13a). What's the first thing you notice about that sentence? The word "THIS" stood out for me. What is the "THIS" Jesus just heard? What happened before chapter 14, verse 13? When we look at the first twelve verses of this chapter, we hear a story that could have been taken from today's headlines: "John the Baptist: Beheaded by King Herod."
John and Jesus have been confronting the powerful and elite, the Holy Roman Empire. It's no surprise that the Empire strikes back, responding "with hostile, violent attempts to silence their opponents" (The New Interpreter's Bible, p. 1772). Do you remember another King Herod headline, when he heard from the Wise Men about Jesus' birth? "Baby Boys Slaughtered." The church calls them the "Holy Innocents."
No wonder Jesus withdrew! No wonder Jesus got in a boat and tried to get his wits about him. Oh, the agony and grief Jesus must have felt when John's disciples came to him with that very bad news about his cousin, his fore-runner, his dear friend. As today's story begins, Jesus is what the prophet Isaiah called "a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief" (53:3). Jesus is a real human being, like you and me. And Jesus has a very real, painful goodbye to pray.
Next half-verse (14:13b): But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. How did the crowds know John the Baptist was dead? Then or now, there's no way to keep horrible news hushed up. The crowds must also have felt powerful pain from Herod's latest, murderous act. Earthly empires give power, not to the people, but to the Emperor. Herod the Emperor was a powerful terrorist, to be sure. The crowds could not help being terrified – Who's next? Is it me? They needed to find a safe place, just like Jesus did, and safe people to be with. Not only was Jesus safe for them, he had his own kind of power – power unlike any they had ever seen, power to heal the sick and raise the dead, power available to them – spiritual power from God.
No wonder the crowds couldn't get enough of Jesus! They longed for the healing that flowed through him. They left the safety of their homes and towns, and they followed, walking along the water, stopping at the shore to wait for him. They had a craving for Jesus' words, his touch, his presence. Maybe you are like the people in those crowds. Maybe you have come here today, soul-weary, your spirit thirsting to be quenched. Maybe you are sick and tired, or broken-hearted. Maybe you're hungry for some real food for your real, spiritual journey.
Next verse (14): When (Jesus) went ashore, he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. Compassion. That's the word Matthew uses throughout his Gospel account to describe this powerful man named Jesus. His power came, not from without, but from within. Jesus' works flow from the depths of compassion, his willingness to "suffer with," in that word's literal meaning. Throughout the Gospels Jesus sees the real, human need for health, truth, nourishment, peace of mind – and he is moved by that need, way deep down. He has compassion on them because they are "harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (Matthew 9:36). He teaches us that our God is a God of compassion. God has compassion for us, because God has the desire and the ability to meet us where we are, to love us for who we are, to love us just as we are. Compassion is divine medicine that heals sin-sick souls, all over the world.
Next Verse (15): 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. A deserted place, the desert or wilderness, is an ancient image of wandering and uncertainty, which can lead to temptation and rebellion. We know Israel was freed from slavery in Egypt (Deuteronomy 9:7), only to wander in the wilderness for forty years. Before he could begin his public ministry, Jesus was first tested in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11). But…who really wants to go to the desert or feel deserted? Who wants to wander, lost in the wilderness? Who really wants to go through any kind of loss or change or grief or goodbye or transition?
Next Verse (16): Jesus said (to the disciples), "They need not go away; you give them something to eat. Today, Jesus might have used these words: "Use your imagination. Your God is too small!" And I wonder: just how big is our God?
In the month of August you will have several opportunities to talk with me and others about your dreams and concerns for ministry here at All Saints'. We'll be talking about the things that God can make possible, things that have everything to do with how big our God really is. We'll also talk about some real, hard challenges we face. I hope and pray you will make the time to meet with us, face to face, for some good, old-fashioned conversations about God, conversations about some new things God might be doing here at All Saints'. I hope and pray you will also have your own conversations when you leave here today, at home or at work or on vacation, whenever or wherever you can.
I want to help you remember the kinds of conversations we'll be having with three words that all start with the letter "W." They are: Wandering, Worshiping and Welcoming.
Wandering is about the transitions, the changes, the losses we may be feeling, the wilderness you might find yourself in right now. Please join us any Sunday morning, at 9:15 a.m. or at 7 p.m., after our first and last services, in the Parish Hall. We'll talk about the tasks and the truths of congregations when they go through transitions. If you like, we can talk about your own wanderings. In this season of transition, Jesus walks with us, and God is doing a new thing in us.
Worshiping. As you know, worship at All Saints' has a different rhythm in the summer months, and this summer, we are trying an experiment. We have moved the Saturday evening service to "Sundays at 6" p.m. This experiment will only "work" if we try it! Won't you please come on Sunday at 6 p.m. once this summer? If you come on Sunday evening, you have permission NOT to be here that Sunday morning! This Fall our schedule will change again, and we will go through another transition. But it isn't certain yet just what that schedule will look like. Will we have the same schedule All Saints' has had for years – or will it be different? How might it be different? Do you have some ideas about that?
In your bulletin you'll see that there are three times, over the next 10 days, when we'll gather for conversation about our worship of God. Do you want to be part of this conversation? In a season of transition, Jesus walks with us and talks with us, as God is doing a new thing.
Welcoming. Welcoming is one of the hardest things Episcopalians learn to do. An old cartoon had the words "The Decade of Evangelism," with a member of that Episcopal Church saying to her priest, "I don't know why we need this Evangelism thing. Anyone who ought to be an Episcopalian already is one!" Did you know that many Episcopalians today did not grow up in the Episcopal Church? As a lifelong Episcopalian, I'm still getting used to that!
In your bulletin you'll also see some days and times for conversations about "Welcome." How welcome do you feel at All Saints'? Would you like to help others feel welcome? What has your experience of welcome been in any other churches or communities you visit? One night, the topic of conversation with my vacationing friends was about our experience of feeling less than appreciated over the years, both at work and in other places. Moving beyond our "pity party" mentality, we talked about those times when folks were friendly on the surface, but unfriendly, even frigid underneath, a dynamic one of them called "polite shunning." Where might you, I or we be, on the welcome spectrum: polite shunning…or open arms, open minds, open hearts?
Jesus looked on the crowds of people, opened his heart to them and had compassion. Then he challenged his disciples, his companions, to do the same. "Companion" literally means someone with whom we "share bread." I wonder: how will we share our bread and wine today? Will we share some food and drink with each other, for a journey we already share with Jesus? Will we actually give each other something good to eat, both here in church and later on, out there, in our world? Will we have compassion for our companions in Christ?
Sisters and brothers in Christ, even when our guests leave, we are never alone. Jesus is with us. As he walks with us and talks with us, Jesus is also welcoming us, his companions, with compassion. And God, who is bigger than we can imagine, our God is doing a brand, new thing – right here, right now.
Let us pray. Let your continual mercy (and compassion), O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because (this church) cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.