The Miracle of Compassion

Our service this morning is hosted by Trinity United Church, Rev. Sydney Elias presiding.

Order of Service:
Welcome and Call to Worship

God of this world and the next, we give you thanks for the promise,
the challenge and the blessings of this and every day.
May this be a day of hope, of expectation, of relishing each moment as a gift from you.
May this time of worship be a time of joy, of blessing, of refreshing and of healing, as we commit our lives to your service.
We pray in the name of Jesus. Amen,

Hymn: Praise the Lord with the Sound of Trumpet VU 245
Scripture reading: Psalm 145:8-9 (Chuck Howitt)
Anthem: We Walk By Faith The Chancel Choir (from October 6 2019)
Scripture reading: Matthew 14:13-21 (Janet Howitt)
Hymn: Break Now the Bread of life VU 501
Sermon: The Miracle of Compassion
Hymn: Grateful MV 182

Postlude: Chris Clarke performs Berceuse pour la Poupée Chinoise by Gérard Devos. IRSC# CABMN2000031

The Chancel Choir of Trinity United Church under the direction of Hayden Kerry and accompanied by Chris Clarke sings “We Walk By Faith” by Henry Alford and William Croft.

Psalm 145:8-9

The Lord is gracious and merciful,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
    and his compassion is over all that he has made.

Matthew 14:13-21

13 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. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 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.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 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. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

The Miracle of Compassion

Matthew 14:13-21

Almost three months ago, on May 11, I received the news that a close friend and colleague, the Rev Glenna Spencer, secretary of the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas and former Bishop of the Guyana Conference of the Methodist Church, had died. To say that I was shocked would be an understatement. To say that I was deeply saddened does not begin to describe how I felt. Rev Spencer was one year older than I am. We were both actively involved in the Methodist Church as young people, and she preceded me into ordained ministry. Always full of life, energy and enthusiasm, her death shook me to the core – I found it difficult to absorb and hard to accept. For me, it was a lot to process.

There are times when we are confronted by situations that are so unexpected, so difficult and devastating – so hard to deal with, that we need time and space alone to let it sink in; to absorb the fact and the meaning of what happened. We need some time to process it all. I suspect it was no different with Jesus.

Our reading today from Matthew lifts up the story of Jesus feeding five thousand plus with five loaves and two fish. And if that was not amazing enough, after everyone had eaten of those fives loaves and two fish, they were able to collect twelve baskets full of leftovers. It’s an amazing, challenging and uplifting story of grace and compassion. It’s a reassuring story of God transforming scarcity into abundance.

But when we read this story, we can get so caught up with the incredible miracle that we overlook the preceding event out of which that miracle emerged. Matthew beings this story with the transitional statement: “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” That meeting of Jesus and the crowd was not a planned event; it was quite the opposite. Jesus went to that place because he wanted to be alone. He was told something that was so significant that he wanted time alone to absorb it – he wanted time and space to think and pray.

What was he told? He was told that Herod, the regional ruler, had John the Baptist beheaded. Herod had felt threatened by John’s rising popularity, and he was angry because John dared to speak truth to power by rebuking him for unlawfully taking Herodias, his own brother’s wife, so he had John imprisoned. When it was Herod’s birthday, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, who was also furious that John had condemned her marriage to Herod, she said, ‘Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.’  Herod sent and had John beheaded in prison, and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. (Matthew 14: 1-12.)

It was when Jesus heard of that horrible and ghastly occurrence that he decided that he needed some time and space alone, so he got into a boat and withdrew to a deserted place by himself. 

I believe that for Jesus, the killing of John must have been a lot for him to process. It most certainly would have hit close to home for him. John was not a stranger to Jesus, nor was he was simply some eccentric figure, living an unconventional life that attracted the curious. Jesus knew John well. John’s mother, Elizabeth, was related to Jesus’ mother Mary, and the two women seemed to have been quite close. (Lk. 1:36). In his ministry, John was the forerunner of Jesus, preparing the way for him, and it is to John that Jesus went for baptism, an act which signalled the launch of his ministry. It is clear that Jesus greatly admired and respected John; he always had a lot of good things to say about him.

So to hear that John died the way he did must have been hard for Jesus to absorb. His death was cruel and unjustified – it was the price of speaking truth to power; something that Jesus was constantly doing. John’s death would have hit close to home for Jesus, and he probably needed time and space to process it. So in response, Jesus withdrew to a deserted place by himself, perhaps to grieve for his friend John, and to deal with the attendant sadness, pain and anger; and maybe even to contemplate his own death as well. However, his plan to have some time alone was thwarted, for a crowd carrying their own brokenness and needs soon find him, and despite his own pain and his longing for solitude, Jesus finds time for others; he readily responds to the needs of the crowd with compassion. He had withdrawn to be by himself, but he was not lost in himself. So throughout the day, according to Matthew, he healed their sick, tended their needs, and shared with them his presence. And then, when evening came, and they found themselves without food, he fed them.

Before this was a story of feeding, it was a story of healing – of making people whole again. Is that not what the salvation of God in Christ all about – making us whole, sustaining us for life, restoring the broken and strengthening the weak?

Note the contrast between Herod and Jesus. When Herod, driven by envy and pride, was depriving others of their life, Jesus, driven by love and compassion, was doing what was necessary to sustain life. Whereas Herod was all taken up with consuming the finest goods for his own pleasure and protecting his standing among his elite guests, Jesus, starting with gratitude for a small portion of God’s gifts – five loaves and two fish, caused the abundant growth of that small offering in an act of hospitality for those who had little to offer in return.

This story is about more than just bread and fish; it’s about the contrast between the powers of this world – which so often are abused, and the power of love which flows freely and generously from God to all. It’s about the contrast between the powers of this world, which so often seeks to silence the inconvenient truth, and the power of love which makes room for all, even at the expense of one’s own needs.

In healing and feeding the crowd, Jesus renews, embodies, and fulfils the mission of God, which is to make whole and care for the needy.  And in ordering his disciples to feed the crowd themselves rather than sending them away hungry, Jesus is making it clear that that is our mission as well and that only having just a little is no excuse. For the disciples, having just five loaves and two fish was no excuse. In the same way, for us, having only a little money is no excuse. Having only a few able-bodied members is no excuse. By setting out to feed the crowd with the little that was at hand, Jesus shows what can happen when we move from a worldview of scarcity to one of gratitude and abundance. By caring for the crowd, Jesus demonstrates what can happen when we move for looking out only for ourselves to the compassionate embrace of others.

Everything that Jesus did that day – giving up his solitude, healing the sick who were there, feeding the hungry crowd, was done because as Matthew writes: “When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them.”

God still cares deeply and passionately for those who are most vulnerable, and God continues to use us to care for them, even when all that we have is just a little. Let us be that miracle of love and compassion for which someone is waiting.

Thanks be to God.


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