By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Mark 6:30-44
Perhaps you have seen the Cascade detergent commercial featuring the adorable little girl with the ponytail. As mom is washing a casserole dish at the sink, the little girl posits the question: “My mom washes the dishes before she puts them in the dishwasher. So what does the dishwasher do?” It’s a good question. In 21st century America, we can only assume that, if you need to wash your dishes by hand before you put them in the dishwasher, something has gone significantly wrong with your dishwasher, your detergent or your water. After all, the entire point of a dishwasher is, well, to wash your dishes. A dishwasher is defined by what is does. So, too, compassion is a meaningless ideal if it does nothing. One might ask the question, “What does compassion do?”
This morning launches Trinity’s fall stewardship campaign, Giving in Gratitude, as this morning we look at the blessing of broken bread. Today is also World Communion Sunday. Each year on the first Sunday of October, Christian denominations around the world are encouraged to celebrate communion as an expression of Christian unity and ecumenical cooperation. Today, all over the world, Christian leaders will take bread, bless it, break it, and give it to those who have defined themselves by the one who first took, blessed, broke and gave the bread.
Our scripture this morning is Mark’s version of the Feeding of the 5,000. That particular miracle is the only miracle recorded in all four of our biblical gospels, revealing that it must have played a critical, foundational role in the life of the early church. In all of our gospels, the evangelists agree that Jesus was able to feed thousands of people with just five loaves of bread and two fish; clearly a miraculous feat. What Jesus does in this story is categorized as a gift miracle; miracles in which material goods – things like bread, fish and wine – become available in abundant and unexpected ways. They address our basic human fear of scarcity, of not having what we need to survive and to thrive. Curiously enough, gift miracles are never initiated by a request. For although we long for such blessings of abundance we, apparently, consider them too good to be true and don’t even bother to ask. Still, Christ offers; he takes, blesses, breaks and gives.
Jesus, himself, lived amidst a scarcity of time and energy. People pushed against him, dogged his heels wherever he went. Preacher Cheryl Bridges Johns writes of this particular miracle, “people are everywhere – they are coming and going – and they are not just following Jesus; they proactively anticipate where he is headed and hurry ahead of him. As Jesus and his disciples arrive at the place where they should find rest, there is a great crowd of people waiting for them.”[i]
Jesus had hoped to provide his disciples with a little R&R. They have just returned, according to our evangelist, from their first missionary adventure. Early in chapter 6, Jesus takes a bold step and sends his disciples out on their own to do the work of ministry in his name. He instructs them that, as they head out on this journey, they're to take no extra supplies. No bread, no money, no extra jacket for those chilly evenings. When they enter a village, they are to entrust themselves to the hospitality of that village. And if, by chance, a village doesn't behave hospitably, they're to move on to another location immediately.
Now, the next thing that follows in Mark's Gospel is an interesting aside that informs us of the beheading of John the Baptist. And, although we can't be sure, Mark's account seems to imply that, when the disciples return from their mission, Jesus has just heard this dreadful news of John's death and is grieving his passing. And so, as this morning's gospel story begins, Jesus has a desire to go away with his disciples to a quiet place. The disciples are, most likely, physically tired by their missionary journey and Jesus is, most likely, physically and spiritually taxed. He’s been working hard and he’s pained by the news of John's death. And, last of all, he is probably worn out from supervising these disciples. After all, they weren't the sharpest tools in the shed. This was their first solo missionary adventure. Any good leader would want some quiet, private time, to debrief and discuss; to let everything settle into place. But, so much for that plan.
It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care about rest. Early in Mark’s gospel, chapter 1, we read of how Jesus sneaks off early in the morning, leaving the home of Simon and Andrew, and takes a walk into the wilderness, uninhabited space where he can think and pray. His disciples hunt him down there. But Jesus isn’t apologetic for slipping away from them all under the cover of darkness. Jesus knows how to rest and he understands the need for rest.
Yet, in this morning’s scripture, rest is delayed. Let me say that again, rest is not forsaken; but it is delayed. It is delayed because of compassion. Tired and weary though he may be, Jesus has compassion for these people who have clamored after him, who are as needy and vulnerable as sheep without a shepherd. And his compassion will not allow him to walk away from them. More importantly, his compassion does not permit his disciples to walk away from them; to say, “No, I’m sorry, not today; I need a break.” Not only does Jesus spend the day teaching them. At day’s end, when the disciples point out their need for food, Jesus wants to know what they are going to do about it. Can you imagine what they were thinking: Jesus, you promised us a day off. Plus, we just back from the trip you sent us on; you know, the one where you told us not to pack anything; to just go with it. You’ve gotten us into a mess Jesus. Where are your boundaries? We’re tired and we’re hungry and we have nothing to give all these needy people.
You know, that word, compassion, is the Greek word from which we get our English word spelunking, that sport in which people explore underground caverns. In spelunking, people go deep into the bowels of the earth. The Greek, in fact, refers to the human bowels, the gut or intestines. Ancient Greeks felt it was the center of human emotion. Hence, our modern clichés “gut instinct” or “go with your gut.” Compassion is a deep feeling that comes from our emotional center. True compassion isn’t a feeling we can ignore. True compassion inspires us to do something, to respond to need. Compassion can’t turn a blind eye on suffering.
Friends, as I’ve mentioned, this is Stewardship month at Trinity and this month you’ll be challenged to consider why you give to Trinity and how much you give of your time, your talent, your treasure or money. And I can tell you one of the most important reasons why I give to Trinity: because of compassion. I see every day the needs of people in our church and our community and our world and I see the difference this church makes in responding to those needs. This is a church where we have compassion and respond when people are out of work or experience a death in their family or a sickness or an addiction. As a church, we respond with prayers and words. But we respond with more than prayer and words. We drive people to doctor appointments. We pick up kids from school. We babysit little ones. We drop off meals. We sit with people while their loved ones are in surgery. We connect people to legal resources and social services. And while most of those things don’t happen inside of these walls, within these walls is where our caring, compassionate relationships begin. This is the space where we encounter one another and listen to one another’s stories, and respond to one another’s needs because that isn’t simply what the church asks of us; that’s what Jesus tells us to do. “You give them something to eat,” Jesus says; or help them find a job, or a babysitter, or the right doctor, or an affordable apartment, or the right approach for managing a difficult situation at work or in their home. “You give them something…” Jesus says to us. And perhaps sometimes, when the needs are great, we might respond like the disciples: surprised, annoyed, frustrated. But the compassion of Jesus drives us to get practical: size up the situation, gather up our resources, see what we have to work with, pray over it all, and then trust that, if we really do all pitch in together and contribute all we can, everyone will get as much as they need.
Friends, I’m not suggesting you never take a day off. Remember, Jesus took time away for prayer and rest. But, I am suggesting that at attitude that says, “I don’t want to be tied down, I don’t want to have to give too much, I don’t want people to expect something of me, I’m just gonna sit here on the green grass and rest…” Well, Jesus doesn’t accept that response. He didn’t accept it from his disciples in the first century and he won’t accept it from his disciples in the 21st century. Jesus doesn’t let his disciples go with that.
And you know, sometimes we might even feel that we are too broken, or flawed, or weary to give much back. But Jesus was, literally, the bread that was broken for us. In fact, unbroken bread is pretty worthless. It is broken bread that blesses us. We may not have much – much time, much talent, much money – and we might feel like our lives are kind of a mess. But the grace of Jesus multiples even the smallest gifts.
This is a special place; a gift for which we should be grateful. We have gathered here in the presence of Jesus. He teaches us, he blesses us, and he says to us, “You give them something to eat” because that’s what compassion does.
[i] Feasting on the Word; Year B, Vol. 3; ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor; Westminster John Knox Press; 2009; p. 261.
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