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God of Compassion
July 26, 2015
A reading from the Gospel of John:
After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’
When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.
Throughout the summer, we have been going through the Gospel of Mark from the lectionary and here we come again to this sudden shift over to John. We start at the story where thousands are fed from the influence of Jesus. This particular story is found in all of the gospels but today we will see this from the perspective of John. First, let’s provide some context first to the abrupt shift over to John’s telling of Jesus’ ministry. Leading up to this event, we find Jesus turning water into wine, cleansing the temple in Jerusalem, the encounter of the woman at the well, and the healing of the man at the pool, and all the these encounters being spread rapidly by word of mouth like wildfire. So it should come as no surprise that thousands would flock to see this man behind these stories.
This event falls near the Passover and many scholars agree this is a festival that has meaning with liberation from foreign powers who have oppressed to people of Israel. Expectations are on the minds of people coming to see Jesus. Hearing of the miracles that Jesus has done can only feed into the want and desires that people in the crowd may have. It’s certainly understandable, and only human, that they would see Jesus as a miracle-worker, and even as a potential king. Like their ancestors before them, they hold onto the promise of Deuteronomy 18:15, the promise of a prophet like Moses who will be raised up by God to lead them. This longing for freedom from empire after empire that oppresses them leads their sights short on what Jesus actually embodies as God in the flesh.
But there is something else going on. Something prior to the miracle happening. It is this moment of anxiety and worry. The moment of feeling that there is a scarcity of resources to fulfill people’s needs. It is something that we can know all too well in our own times. The harsh realities with stories cycling endlessly about dwindling water supplies from ongoing droughts.
The dramatic effects on people who are plagued with consumer and/or educations debt, causing stress on the financial resources of individuals. The heart-wrenching effects of poverty and homelessness still affect our society with no end in sight, leading to a mindset of many that there is not enough to relieve the situation. The unfortunate results of these messages from our society can cause us to become distracted. It is no wonder all of this causes us to find security and stability for ourselves. No wonder we worry and have anxiety about the future. No wonder we can lose focus on what God may be calling us to do in the present. No wonder we have the feeling of scarcity that can steer us away from what our mission is as disciples of Jesus.
This passage reminds us that we can lose focus on who God is in Jesus. Jesus challenges Philip in a test to see if he understands who Jesus is with the dilemma of feeding thousands of people in their midst. Instead of understanding what God can do in Jesus, Philip takes it solely upon himself to try and solve this dilemma and realizes he cannot due to the lack finances. Commentator Brian Peterson relates this short sightedness of Philip with us today and how often we can fail to see the depths of what God is doing in our lives. How we tend to focus more on what we have to do ourselves to make our needs met instead of not trusting more on the faith that God is at work in some form and fashion in our lives to meet our needs, whether it be spiritual, emotional, or physical. We often see it partially and maybe even distorted. Even the crowd fails to understand what Jesus embodies. They lose sight of how abundant is God’s grace, God’s compassion, God’s love embodied in Jesus. Not realizing God in Jesus working through the offering from the boy that the apostle Andrew finds. Rather, they see Jesus as a figure not embodied from who God is but a political head, a miracle worker, to meet what they think they need.
This passage provides an interpretive clue for what John is challenging us with this story of Jesus. To be aware of how God is acting in our lives with an abundance of love and compassion despite our feelings otherwise. This passage shows how we should remember instances of how God is at work in the world through different ways and means, especially in our own lives. Challenging us on how God acts in midst our fear…this fear of not having enough…and refocusing our faithful response to God’s abundant love and grace that is continually being revealed to us. Many of us can fall short sometimes, even myself, but since when is discipleship an easy journey?
Something that is ingrained in my mind was during my second year in seminary. It was that time between fall and spring semester. My accompaniment job had ended the month before. I had been reduced to a small amount of hours at my library job with two full weeks of no work during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. So there was little income coming my way during this time and my financial aid was drying out quickly due to the seemingly never ending bill payments. I remember with clarity really having to think about what is more important to use gas mileage on. In a nutshell, I withdrew. I began to focus more on how I can make my need met.
It was sometime after New Year’s that I received something remarkable. I decided to go check my mailbox even though there was never anything for me except for the occasional junk mail, but I decided to check anyway. Inside was this lone envelope with my name and no return address in the front. I picked it up and looked in the back of the envelope and saw the return address but didn’t recognize it. It was this random address from Goliad, TX. Well, I didn’t have any family or friends who lived in Goliad so of course my curiosity increased.
I opened the letter and to my amazement saw a check in my name. I looked at the check for a minute in astonishment and then I saw a note inside the envelope. I read it and it was a small scholarship from the Presbyterian Women of Mission Presbytery for seminary students under care of the presbytery. I teared up for a second and read that it was to help with any needs I may have and they were thinking about me and praying for me. Now it didn’t solve all of my problems, but that is not the point. The point is that it helped tremendously in inspiring me and reminding that God’s abundant love is active in my life in different ways.
This loving act compelled me to give some back to the church. However small it was, it was enough to remind me of God’s love acting through the community of faith…through this organization that sent me this gift. Compelling me to want give back not just this monetary offering but all of myself again. To focus again on having a whole hearted devotion as a disciple of Christ and giving more of that love and compassion that God has shown me. Thinking back to that winter, I had found myself losing focus on that and focusing instead on finding stability for myself in the situation I was in. Remembering acts of loving kindness like this motivates me to set my sights more on serving God with all of my talents and treasures. So does this mean I’m free from the fear of scarcity? I’d be kidding myself if I said 100% yes. What I do find to be true is that instances like this help me think about how God is at work in the world in my own life. How I was focusing more on myself and the effect of this act of loving kindness, steering me towards giving myself more fully to being an active participant in God’s transforming work in the world.
Let us travel 10 months later…300 miles south of here to the Texas border region. I spent time with a group of seminary students in the border region between Texas and Mexico, traveling from one border city to another. Seeing first-hand the humanitarian crisis that was happening with the influx of refugees from Mexico and Central America. People going through great hardships to seek some asylum in the United States. I along with my colleagues had the experience of getting the different churches that were responding to the crisis that has been happening. I witnessed an outpouring of love and compassion from the different churches in the region, ranging from one church providing space for new clothes, food, and a hot shower for these refugees to another church having a food pantry that served a significant amount of migrants. Seeing unity with the different faith communities as they all worked together to provide basic needs for these refugees who have gone through so much hardship and violence. It was inspiring to see the enthusiastic faith of God’s presence in these faith communities and the continuing desire to welcome the strangers in their midst.
While I was down there, it was amazing getting to know some of the volunteers and migrants. I got to briefly talk to one of the pastors from the network of churches that provided hospitality at the Sacred Heart Relief Center in McAllen, TX. I remember asking if he was worried if they would run out of resources to provide for the refugees that came through the center because there were so many people in need. He told me that they do keep tabs on the resources they have but it would be counterproductive to think too much about if there are enough clothing, food, towels, and other necessities. He believed that if they focused too much on what they didn’t have, then it probably cause them to turn away people, and that is not the mindset they wanted. They wanted to make sure that all the refugees that came through the doors of the relief center got what they needed. He, like many other volunteers, believed that the abundance of God’s love and compassion was active through love and compassion of the faith communities in the area, continually providing necessary treasures and providing the time and talents of individuals from those faith communities.
It is through remembering instances like these that others, including myself, remember what our baptismal calling is. Remembering how God’s abundant grace and love flows out from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and how God is and will continually be full present in our lives in abundantly different ways that can fill our hearts with the abundance of love and compassion towards God and the creation we are a part of. The waters of baptism and call from that sacrament draw us closer to God. Focusing mainly on ourselves…on our fears…steers us away. It is being keenly aware of God acting in the loving kindness through a multitude of ways in this world that can gain our focus on how abundant this love that God has for us and fulfilling what God has called us to do from that love and grace in our baptism.
Let us together remember how God has transformed us in the many aspects of our daily lives. Together we can grow more in the trust that God is with us and for us in the world. Out of this growth, we can be more whole hearted in our discipleship. The more we encourage each other by remembering the ways in which God works in our lives can compel us to focus more on giving all of ourselves into the redemptive work of God in the world we live in, so that there may be an abundance rather than a scarcity. We may not fully free ourselves from the fear of scarcity, but we can continually challenge ourselves to remember and reflect on how God’s limitless grace and love is with us in our daily lives and how that can compel us to respond towards humanity with that same abundance of love and compassion.
Let us strive to continually remember the abundance of what God can offer us and that we are not alone in what may come our way on our winding journey as disciples. God in Jesus opens our hearts and our hands to those around us. God makes God’s presence known in rough waters and calm in a myriad of ways. Unceasing with the grace and love filled “I am” fully present in our lives and continually showing us to trust that God’s love and compassion forever sustains us. Reminding us of our call to respond in kind towards God’s creation and all the while keeping us above the waters, trusting, resting, as Kierkegaard said, on the buoyancy of God. Amen.