Matthew 14: 13 – 21
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.
Sharing is such an elementary concept. It’s one of the first ideas we struggle with as a kid. “Mine” is a word we learn far earlier than “Ours.” The Dalai Lama wrapped up a lecture leaving some time for questions. A member of the audience asked him if he could offer an answer to the problem of world hunger. He simply responded: “Sharing.” Sharing is apparently, as they say, “Not rocket science.” We practice an open fridge policy at our house. If you come into our home, it won’t be long before we stipulate the policy. It’s the mi casa es su casa idea for your fridge. My fridge is your fridge. Whatever’s in there is up for grabs. Please help yourself. Just check the date on the cottage cheese first. You probably do this as well. But some are taking this hospitality to the next level. In some neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, you might pass a small café and see a refrigerator sitting up against the outside wall of the store. Over the fridge is a sign which reads, “Take freely, only what you need.” People walk up to that fridge, open the door, take what they need and walk away. I call this an open fridge policy. They call them solidarity fridges or social fridges. One café owner with a social fridge outside of his business said he was tired of so much food being wasted, thrown away and others foraging through the dumpster shortly after. “Why not share freely and preserve dignity at the same time?” he thought. These open fridge policies are catching on in other countries as well – Saudi Arabia, Spain and India among them. Jesus was deeply interested in compassionately sharing resources. As his followers, we would do well to follow suit. Today we continue our series entitled, (y)our WHOLE Life and share our special offering with Week of Compassion. As we focus on the gift of compassion, let’s imagine together how compassion not only brings dignity to others but makes our own lives more whole in the process.
When it comes to sharing, it often starts with a little perspective about what we have. How often have you opened the fridge and stared blankly at its contents – often full of food – but you think to yourself, or maybe say out loud: “We don’t have anything to eat!” The disciples of Jesus do this very thing in our in-road to the miracle of sharing today. First, the back story… Jesus has been teaching people out in the country… outside the city limits; off Route B, down the dirt road that’s great for muddin’ when it rains. Quite a crowd had gathered and the afternoon just slipped by like one of those magical days when you just seem to lose track of time. Time to spare, however, was going to cost these people something significant. These were working class folks who knew a tough life. They worked the arid land under the sun without SPF 50 sun block. Kids worked alongside their folks – not always in the fields; sometimes in trade shops – working in the shadows of the oppression of Rome and living shortened lives due to the tough conditions. All to say it means something that these people have followed Jesus out to this place.
But then Jesus gets a text from Peter. It’s about John the Baptist; the cousin of Jesus. He’s been murdered. Floored by the news, Jesus runs, scattered in thought, heart-racing, grief pouring out his pores from the epicenter of the explosion that occurred in his soul. He sprints to the edge of the lake, jumps on a Sea-Doo and goes full throttle toward what surely seems to be the end of the world where his eye meets the horizon in the distance. You know this same grief I am almost certain. None of us are immune from the pain of such loss. But that crowd knows the Sea-Doo will run out of gas at some point and they want to be there when it does. So they make their way on foot around the lake to see if they can eventually catch up to him. This certainly says something about their experience with Jesus. He was worth following. Considering the size of Galilee, this “Where’s Waldo” hunt of Jesus was no easy task. But… “I’ll be darned,” Jesus must have uttered under his breath as he pulled up to a new shore, seeing the crowd there waiting for him. And, so the text says, “He had compassion for them.” The root word of compassion indicates this is a guttural response; something he feels deep in his gut. It’s the same utterance of Jesus that the elders of our church chose as the scripture to put outside of our building to welcome any and all who would find their way through our doors: “Come unto me, all you who labor and I will give you rest.” Compassion.
Now, this story is the only miracle story found in all four of our Gospels. It’s a biggie! But by Matthew’s account, we don’t know what Jesus said to these people who had followed him to this new deserted place. It may be that he didn’t say much at all. But Jesus and these people were connected with a shared and common desire – they both needed consolation and encouragement. It may be, in part, that the grief Jesus was experiencing was what propelled him to have compassion for these people. Sometimes healing comes to us as we share what we have to bring healing to others. Matthew’s account says simply, “He healed their sick.” Maybe Jesus pulled out an old sermon (they teach you to always carry a sermon around in your back pocket just in case), but Matthew just says, “He healed their sick.” He didn’t ask any to sign a doctrinal statement or make a pledge. He didn’t tell them to “check with the Baptist church across the street” or ask where they stood on a divisive political issue. Even Jesus could not shift his aunt’s political beliefs over Facebook. And, it seems to me, when we’ve been hit hard by grief, we see another’s humanity more so than the labels we tend to see otherwise. Out of his compassion, Jesus gave of himself what he had to make somebody’s pain and struggle less so.
Poet Carol Lynn Pearson notes something similar about giving compassionately from the gut…how it helps others and helps her own spirit in the giving. She writes about being a blood donor:
“I love giving blood. Sometimes I walk in off the street when no one has even asked and roll up my sleeve. I love lying on the table watching my blood flow through the scarlet tube to fill the little bag that bears no address. I love the mystery of its destination. It runs as easily to child or woman or man, black or white, Californian or Asian, Methodist, Mormon, Muslim or Jew. Rain does too. Rivers do. I think God does. We do not. Our suspicious egos clot on the journey from “us” to “them.” So I give blood to practice flowing, never knowing where it’s going and glad.”
She, like Jesus, shares what she has because she can. What do you have to share because you can?
The backdrop of this story, the grief of Jesus, his healing of the sick, all leads up to the end of this long day when we reach the part of the story most people tend to remember. One Grand Slam Breakfast from Denny’s feeds the whole crowd. The disciples do what we probably would do. They’re tired too… Jesus took off on the SeaDoo and they were probably like, “Um kay?” Did they have to funnel along with the crowd to find him again? Had they not earned at least a private boat for the entourage? The sun was sinking and they were surely exhausted and hungry themselves. But Jesus is just healing one after another and they may have felt like they needed to rescue him for his own good from the demands of the crowd. So a few of them make the approach on behalf of the group. “Well, Jesus. We were thinking you should send these people on their way… it’s late and the Taco Tuesday special runs out in about forty-five minutes.” But Jesus is laser focused… his compassion either has him working in overdrive or he’s prepping to teach his core team to be resourceful. If this movement was to move beyond Jesus at some point, these disciples were going to have to figure some of this sharing and serving and compassion stuff out.
Jesus says back, “You guys get them something to eat.” Nothing but blank stares. It’s not even comical at this point. The disciples are hangry, you know? But one of them plays along, “Jesus, a year’s salary couldn’t buy happy meals for everybody here.” Jesus knows a moment is coming so he rubs the mud from his thumbs on his pants as he’s just given sight to another impaired seeker. “Whatayou got, guys?” Holding a boxed lunch, the disciple says, “Fish and chips for two.” Jesus looks up and scans the crowd – 5,000 men the text says along with women and children who, by golly we’re going to count so what, maybe 15-20 thousand. Jesus just smiles looking back at his frustrated disciples, “Got any tarder sauce? Give it to me.” And what happens next is what happens at this communion table every week – one loaf that feeds the whole crowd. Jesus does the same thing in that moment as he does in the upper room with the disciples when he instituted the Lord’s Supper. It’s that same four-fold formula: “Take, Bless, Break, Give.” It reads just like this: “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.” Take. Bless. Break. Give.
As the story winds up, the food is passed, everyone eats and there are twelve baskets left. The Greek may translate better, “Twelve lunch pails,” remain which I think is awesome. To me, this is symbolic of each one of the twelve disciples getting schooled in sharing. Jesus packs up the leftovers in twelve lunch pails – and I like to picture kids lunch pails like Star Wars themed or WWE Wrestling or something. I see Jesus giving a lunch pail to each disciple saying, “Don’t forget what we’re capable of together. Here’s your starter kit for the next miracle you’ll work again tomorrow.” They thought they had nothing. Jesus says, “Bring to me what you got.” And my, oh my…
It’s a good reminder that we need to take stock ourselves, asking the question, “What do I have to share?” You have five apples, give away three. Compassion starts in sharing what we already have in abundance. It may be apples or computers or an afternoon a week to tutor a child who has no adult that takes interest in their education. It may be carpentry skills or child-care abilities or an interest in teaching English as a Second Language. It might be preparing a meal for our Family Promise families. If you step in this way every day you begin to see that such a lifestyle is a way of achieving the balance between your own personal abundance and the world’s pressing needs. In time, this way of life becomes a part of you – like exercise for some or Sudoku puzzles for others. You just know that a part of your daily effort on this planet is to balance your abundance with the need of another. We might call this compassionship. I was with a group of ministers a few years ago on retreat in Arizona and met Martin for the first time. He had only been speaking English for a couple of years but was working hard to learn it well. As he led a devotion in a broken accent, he came across the word companionship but he pronounced it compassionship. It was my new favorite word. Imagine building relationships that you can call compassionships. You share your abundance. They share their abundance. Everyone gets better.
Jesus was healing his own grief-stricken spirit as he healed the bodies of the sick. He was teaching the disciples to grow their vision, to share what they had, to grow in faith. Everyone was winning here. This is what happens when we let the Good News be the Good News that it is intended to be. We don’t save it for ourselves feeling there isn’t enough to go around. We share. Jen Hatmaker, a provocative writer who moved from the benefits of suburban privilege to choosing to live more closely to those in greater need, “Yes. If the Good News of Jesus is not also true for a poor, single, Christian mom in Haiti, then it’s not true.” If it’s not true for our Puerto Rican brothers and sisters who’ve been looking for some to come with their lunch pails to multiply the healing still needed in that land, then it’s no good for us either. If it’s not true for the person sitting in this space today who has been burned again and again by the church who’s thinking, “This is my final try with this church thing” then it’s not true.
I just completed my four years of service representing our church on the Week of Compassion Advisory Committee. Nearly three years ago now, I traveled with the committee to China to visit some of our mission partners there. Now I’m from a tiny, rural, northern Missouri town (if you didn’t pick that up from the dirt road muddin’ comment earlier in the sermon) and honestly never imagined going to China in my lifetime. But it was a deeply powerful experience to visit Christian orphanages and Seminaries and care homes for the elderly, schools for children with special needs and other programs for which we shared compassionships or partnerships. In the middle of the trip, we ended up in the middle of nowhere China… I mean we were in deep at this point. We entered a little village called “Red Flower” in English. We were greeted by a little church choir who sang to us wearing their brand new choir robes of which they were so proud. And we met a saint of the church, a beautiful woman of 102 years, who had never met a foreigner before. She smiled and clapped as their choir sang and as we offered a spontaneous song back to them too. She held my face in her hands and offered me a blessing. I wonder if she’s celebrating 105 years soon or if she’s joined the resurrection. If the Good News isn’t true for her, it’s not true for me. That woman loved her some Jesus.
But what really struck me was when we ventured out to the edge of that village into a field, the hillside if you will, and stopped among the crops and, particularly, this orchard of fruit trees that a Week of Compassion partner organization had helped the community plant and tend which multiplied the income of their village exponentially. I stood in that field arms wide open; my mind flashing with all that we had seen of Week of Compassion’s impact and thought back to the last special offering we shared at HACC for this ministry earlier that year. I remembered Carrie and I praying over the gift we would give and wondering how it could possibly make a dent in the great needs of the world. But our gift along with yours made for the largest special offering to Week of Compassion of any congregation in the United States and Canada that year. Can you believe that Harvard Avenue Christian Church? And then there I was, arm around a saint of China, arms around a Chinese orphan, arms around a huge class of seminarians, and now arms open wide in a field where our small gifts, in the hands of Jesus, were changing the world – saying, “We believe the Gospel is good news for everyone.” Maybe it’s an open fridge. Maybe it’s an open heart. What will you share? When we’re partners, it’s just a balance of giving and receiving as there is need. Sometimes these partners are people we’ll never meet and never know but we give financially and there is a wholeness that comes in the giving. Sometimes, however, partners become brothers, sisters – and we carry each other. Give your gifts. Give yourself. Sharing is a beautiful thing.
 Kassam, Ashifa. “The solidarity fridge: Spanish town’s cool way to cut food waste.” theguardian.com. June 25, 2015. I discovered this source via Homiletics in their coverage of this Matthean text in a message, “Solidarity Feeding.” Their commentary on the text also contributed to this message. A second source includes “Social fridges’ open in Argentina as poverty rises.” todayonline.com. May 11, 2016.
 This particular word was shared via a friend on Face Book. To learn more about Pearson, visit http://carollynnpearson.com/