This is the sermon I preached Sunday at St. Timothy Lutheran Church's Drive-In Worship. The gospel text is Matthew 14:13-21.
These last months have been ones of anxiety and fear for many. Friends have said they have suddenly burst into tears. Others have strange dreams. Reactions to the Coronavirus and its fallout have been many and varied. Addiction, suicide, and domestic violence have skyrocketed. People are finding it difficult to cope. Our emotions have been all over the place.
Jesus experienced emotions too. This gospel reading is a story of compassion in three movements. The first movement sets the scene for us. Jesus had heard about the death of John the Baptist. John baptized him and was perhaps a kind of mentor to Jesus. Additionally, John was Jesus’ cousin. That brings it a bit closer to home. A friend, family member, and prophetic forerunner of Jesus' ministry had been killed violently for speaking truth to power. Jesus went off to be alone and pray as he had other times. His emotions were likely mixed: anger, sorrow, and maybe concern about what this would mean for his safety. He needed to lay low. If you remember, later in Matthew, Herod, who had ordered John's death, thought Jesus was John coming back to haunt him. Jesus was a marked man.
No matter when Jesus tries to be alone, the needy find him. What did the crowds hear and want? Was it the news of John’s death or was it that Jesus was around? We don’t know for sure. It could have been both.
And Jesus’ reaction to this “great crowd?” I know what mine would be, but his was to have compassion for them. This wasn’t just a feeling sorry for them, “What shall I do?” emotion. Rather, it moved him to heal the people, to make them whole.
Matthew tells us that evening had arrived. It was getting late. At any moment it would be pitch dark. Sunset arrives much sooner in the Holy Land than it does here. When sunset is close to 9:00 pm here, the sun sets at 7:48 pm in Jerusalem. Once that approaches, it seems to become dark within minutes. There wasn’t much time to spare.
Matthew depicts the disciples more gently than Mark’s gospel. They were concerned. Shouldn’t Jesus tell them to go get some food before it’s too late? We might say that they had compassion for them. Jesus’ compassion had rubbed off on them because of the time they had spent together.
In the second movement in the story of compassion, we find the dialogue between Jesus and the disciples. I love the back and forth between them. The crowd “need not go away; you give them something to eat” (v. 16). Can you imagine what the disciples must have thought? "Us? You want us to feed these people? Jesus, are you dreaming? We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish” (v. 17). So, seeing the disciples were unable to feed the people, Jesus said, “Bring them here to me” (v. 18). What/who is the "them?" Is it the bread and fish or is it the people? Maybe both?
In the third movement of the story of compassion, Jesus takes charge, “order[ing] the crowds to sit down on the grass” (v. 19), and we come to the miracle proper. We don't know just when the miracle happened or how it happened—just that it did happen. Jesus didn't zap the bread and fish into being enough for over 5,000 people, although he could have. Jesus did not do this all by himself, although he could have. Instead, he involved the disciples. It was their hard work of passing out the food and collecting the leftovers that enabled the miracle to take place.
Today God uses God’s people to accomplish many of God’s miracles as well. The ELCA tagline, “God’s work. Our hands” describes the way God works. Our world needs healing physically and emotionally. The Coronavirus has broken many on several levels.
We suffer too from the heart-sickness of racism, although we may not realize it. It is inherent in many of our systems and institutions. Jesus wants to heal us of that if we allow him to. Can we look at others with the eyes of compassion that our Lord did? Spend time with Jesus and compassion will rub off on you as well.
Jesus “saw a great crowd and he had compassion for them.” Can we do likewise? Can we see others as Jesus sees them, as beloved, as created in the image of God? As our attitudes change, so will our actions. We too can be motivated by compassion, by Christ’s love.