Preached at First Congregational Church, Loveland UCC www.lovelanducc.org By Rev. Thandiwe Dale-Ferguson Scripture Passage: Matthew 14:13-21
Will you pray with me?
Holy God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Full of an extravagant lunch out with my study-abroad classmates (we are living and learning in the Darjeeling region of north-eastern India), I head to the internet cafe where I spend most of my Saturday afternoons. I feel a buoyancy in my steps as I anticipate the messages awaiting me from friends and family afar. I turn a corner and almost trip over a disheveled woman sitting with a small child in her lap. She looks up at me. “Food. Money. Anything, please.”
“Namaste, didi.” I greet her in Nepali.
Confusion flashes across her face and then she says, “Bhok lagyo bahini. Mero bhachalaai bhok lagyo. Malaai madat garnus na. My child is hungry. I have no money. Please help me.”
This woman and her child are not the first beggars I’ve seen today. Earlier, as I shopped in the market, I encountered an older man, clearly blind, holding a begging bowl in his lap. And by the shared taxi stand was the boy in ragged clothes. Each time, I find myself wrestling with how to respond.
That evening his disciples came and said to Jesus “This is an isolated place and it’s getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go into the villages and buy food for themselves…. We have nothing here except five loaves of bread and two fish.”
I can feel the disciples’ pragmatism — their desire to do the practical and therefore right thing. I can feel their sense of scarcity –they just have enough for themselves.
And even as I make that comparison now, it feels thin. I am nothing like the disciples. That day in India, facing a hungry woman and her child, I had enough money in my pocket to feed them for a month. But I let pragmatism take over: I need money for the internet cafe. I plan to buy sweets for my host family. I need some new soap and shampoo. I’ve been eyeing a pair of earrings in one of the Tibetan jewelry shops. Plus, if this week is anything like last and I spend 2 ½ hours reading and writing emails, I’ll need some money to pay for the taxi ride home….
But Jesus said to them, “There is no need to send them away. You give them something to eat.”
And I hear my aamaa’s voice, my host mother’s voice, just the week before when I had asked her how to respond to the many beggars I encounter in town.
“Chorri, daughter,” she had gently said, “you give to everyone that you can. If you have extra, you give something to everyone who asks. And if you cannot give to everyone, you give to those who need it most — the ones who cannot work because they are sick or disabled. Children. Women with babies.”
“There is no need to send them away.” Jesus says. “You give them something to eat.”
I have always read this scripture and heard my aamaa’s advice as being about generosity, about what happens when we share. But this week, I have been struck by the story’s beginning: Jesus receiving the devastating news that Herod has executed John the Baptist. And Jesus withdrawing — going to tend his own grief.
And still the crowds follow. Jesus cannot get away.
I tell you, this man, this son of God, challenges me at every turn because if it had been me, in frustration and anger, I would have told the disciples to turn that boat right around. How could the people ask more of me? Couldn’t they see I needed some time to be alone in my grief? That I was depleted?
But not Jesus.
Jesus feels compassion, gut wrenching, heart moving compassion for the crowd. Jesus loves the gathered people with the relentless, enduring love of God.
And in love, in compassion, Jesus stays. He engages. He teaches and heals. And when his disciples ask him to send the people away to get their own food, Jesus calls his disciples to compassion.
“You give them something to eat.”
When they explain how little they have, Jesus does not rebuke but models them but instead models compassion.
“Bring [the food] here to me.” Jesus takes the five loaves and the two fish, blesses and breaks them. Perhaps THIS is the first communion. Perhaps THIS is also the meal that we celebrate at our sacred tables — this meal where thousands have gathered and bread is blessed, broken, shared and everyone has enough. And what fills the people is not simply food but compassion.
You may wonder, what does a story about beggars, what does a story about sharing food, what does a story about compassion have to do with community?
Compassion is after all the heart of what it means to be community.
Community isn’t about following a particular set of rules. Or all sharing the same ideas. It is not about maintaining an institution or a set of traditions and practices.
Community is about compassion. Community is shaped by love. Community thrives when we give of our most authentic selves as Kathy so eloquently invited us to do in this morning’s reflection. Especially when it is messy. Especially when it is hard.
Community moves us look into places and faces that make us uncomfortable, to say that you are part of us too and then to acknowledge that the new us is different.
Being community sometimes calls us to do the unexpected and the impractical: to feed more than 5,000 people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. It calls us to healing even when we feel tired. It calls us to stick together especially when it’s complicated.
Jesus had compassion on them.
I wish I could tell you that I emptied my pockets and gave that woman and her child everything in them. That I picked up my bag and started the long walk home. But I didn’t. I gave the woman enough money for food for that day, but not so much that I would notice it was gone. The truth is I chose comfort over compassion or community.
Thankfully, I get to choose every day. We all get to choose. Will we choose compassion? Will we choose love? Will we choose community when faced with someone needing a bathroom or a ride or something to eat? When faced with viewpoints different than our own? When faced by injustice if standing up means bending or breaking the rules?
This week, as I have reflected on community and compassion, as I have reflected on my past shortcomings and the gift of everyday invitations to love, I have found myself filled with gratitude for OUR community.
Our gifts of time and money to maintain our property even as we gather virtually.
Our gifts of time and money to care for one another — from phone calls and cards to funds given to support those among us who have need.
The gifts of our children and youth lifting their voices to invite us into worship, confession, compassion and praise.
The gifts of our reflections — each Sunday. The sharing of our experience and questions and the invitation to go deeper.
And the gifts of our vulnerability and authenticity — I think of the letters from members of our congregation to our Church Board and Executive Committee urging that we move ahead into a discernment process around Open and Affirming.
This takes courage. This takes faithful prayer.
Each of these gifts take compassion and love.
And no, we don’t always get it right. Sometimes we choose the practical, reasonable, comfortable and easy over the difficult, messy, and transformative.
When this happens, may we, like the disciples, be invited into Christ’s compassion.
May we, like the disciples, be reminded that we are and that we have more than enough to go around.
May we, like the disciples, experience the miracle of compassion’s power to build community.
And may we today in our world become beloved community filled with and blessed by God’s compassion for the world. Amen.
© 2020 Thandiwe Dale-Ferguson, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
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