Sunday, August 6, 2023
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
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. 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.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 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.
In the church of my childhood, Bible memorization was a very big deal. We even had contests and prizes. Of course, we all memorized John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…”. But that’s not the first verse I learned. Instead, it was John 11:35. I chose that one because, in English, it’s the shortest verse in the entire Bible. Just two words: “Jesus wept.” --But while it might be short on words, over the course of my Christian journey, I have found it to be very, very long on meaning.
Think about it for a moment. To say that Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, wept… is to say a mouthful about the mystery and the magnitude of the Incarnation. If Jesus wept, then that means that God stands beside us in the cemeteries and hospitals and empty rooms of our lives, wrapping us in everlasting arms, and weeping with us over those things that break our hearts.
Now that idea messes with lots of people’s images of God, because weeping, for us, is seen as a sign of weakness. And we like empty tombs far more than crosses; Easter far more than Good Friday. But a Good Friday life is mostly what we have. And so did Jesus.
Today’s passage is a prime example of that. It opens with these words: “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself…”. And what he heard that caused this kind of reaction was that John the Baptist had been beheaded.
And this news was especially horrible because it was so personal. John was Jesus’s cousin. They were family. They had been born within months of one other. Their mothers were close. Likely they played together as boys. Likely they loved one another dearly. --One day, John went into the ministry. And John famously baptized Jesus. Maybe John even taught Jesus a few things. But then, on another day, the tables turned, and Jesus went into the ministry. And John saw what God was doing in Jesus. And so, John began to point the crowds away from himself and toward Jesus. But now John had been murdered by the pompous and ruthless Herod. And this had shaken Jesus to his core. And so, he did what many of us do when the world breaks our hearts - he withdrew from the society and sought solitude by rowing across the lake to a deserted place.
That’s what I do too when life is hard. I want to be quiet. I want to be left alone to think and pray and to nurse my wounds and take a nap and let myself be human.
That might be what I want, but that is rarely what we get. Because life goes on. And our obligations don’t care what kind of day we’re having. And folks depend on us - like those multitudes who were clueless about what kind of day Jesus was having. They had their own problems to deal with. They were sick and poor and hungry and looking for meaning and purpose and God. And they believed that Jesus could give them what they needed. Maybe they never considered that he might have his own pain. And so, when he suddenly disappeared, they went looking for him. And when they heard that he had rowed across the lake, they walked around the long perimeter until they came to where he was.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I suspect that I would likely feel resentment about this invasion of my private space on such a difficult day. But the Gospel writer says that when Jesus saw them, he had compassion on them.
The English word “compassion” means “to suffer with.” In the Greek of the New Testament, the word translated as “compassion” is stronger still. It means that when Jesus saw the suffering of the people, it “ripped his guts out.” It broke his heart in two. It was visceral.
Now maybe the disciples had compassion for the people too. Maybe that’s why they asked Jesus to send the people away – not because they were cold and indifferent, but because they were genuinely concerned about getting these people some food. “Send them away, Lord, so that they can go get something to eat.” But Jesus replied: “They don’t need to go anywhere to be fed. You give them something to eat.” Or a more direct translation from the Greek is: “You, yourselves, you give them something to eat.”
You know the rest of the story. It’s the only miracle that is retold in all four Gospel. There were only five loaves and two fish. And Jesus took the bread and blessed and broke it. And somehow, although we are never told how, there was enough for everyone to have all they wanted.
Scholars believe that the early church retold this story every time they celebrated the Lord’s Supper because of the Eucharistic parallels. Just like at the Last Supper, Jesus took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples. On that day, all Jesus had was five loaves and two fish. And on this day, all we have are tiny cups of juice and tiny cubes of bread. But now as then, when Jesus blesses it, there is enough grace and mercy and forgiveness and peace and love for us to have all we need.
Now that, in and of itself, is a sermon. And I could stop here. Except you would miss these other two wonderful truths. The first is this: Bible editors often label this story as “Jesus feeds the 5000” or “Jesus feeds the multitude.” But actually, Jesus didn’t feed anyone that day. All he did was bless and break the bread. Then, he gave it to his disciple for them to give to the people. The disciples were the ones who made the grace of God a reality for the masses. And that arrangement has never changed. We receive from the gracious hand of God, and then we give it away.
The second wonderful truth is all about the awful day that Jesus was having, as he mourned his cousin and his friend. And it is simply this: the practice of compassion moved Jesus from depression and sadness to joy and gladness.
Jesus was lost in his grief. Jesus was likely afraid, lonely, and confused. But then human need presented itself. And so, he did the compassionate thing - and he was lifted up. Now maybe it was only a temporary relief. Maybe later that night, all the grief and fear came flooding back. But in that moment of feeding hungry people and touching little children and healing the sick, Jesus found a way of the miasma. And so can we.
My grandmother used to tell a story about her younger days. She had four children in her blended family. They were rabble-rousers, often in trouble, forever a worry. And she did worry and she prayed and then she worried some more. The worry became debilitating. One day, she said, while she was praying for her own children, a voice in her mind said: “Go out and work with other people’s children.” This was not something she wanted to do. It was not easy for her to do. But my grandmother was sure that this was the voice of God. And so, she obeyed. She went to the local park commission in Middletown, Ohio and volunteered for an after-school program for the disadvantaged. She provided recreation and guidance and love – the very things she wanted for her own children.
And her own kids, including my dad, well, they turned out OK, even if two of them did become preachers. And if my grandmother could stand before you today, she would tell you that in her willingness to practice compassion, she was lifted out of her own darkness and experienced peace and joy and purpose.
We are not called to be superhuman. We can feel whatever we feel. Tears are holy. Pain is human. Doubt is normal. We just can’t live a steady diet of that. So God gave us the Sacrament of Compassion – a wondrous kind of bread – that can feed multitudes, and will most certainly feed us too.