Compassion, Aug. 2, 2020
The following is a version of a sermon based on this morning’s gospel. (Matt14:13-21)
He had compassion on them.
This morning, like most Sundays for the past 18 years I went to help serve breakfast at 6:00 AM at St. Stephen in the fields, in Kensington market. This breakfast routinely program serves 140 meals to people who are marginally housed and who struggle financially. It’s not always easy to roll out of bed at 5 AM to get there but I know the need is great. And giving up an hour of sleep is a small sacrifice.
Pre-covid I’d take six loaves of bread that were donated by the local Cobs store on Queen street so we could make toast for the guests to go along with boiled eggs, porridge, bananas and orange slices.
Many of the regular guests are Asian immigrants. They are poor. A small, but significant number, live on disability pensions and use wheelchairs, walkers or canes. Many live in rooming houses or shelters, or sleep outdoors in the Spring Summer and early Fall. A number of guests have some form of mental health or addiction issues. They are the 21st century equivalent of the marginalized people who followed Jesus to his solitary place, described in this morning’s gospel.
The background of this morning’s gospel is that Jesus had tried to go somewhere quiet to be by himself and to remember his cousin, John the Baptist, who had been beheaded. Word of John’s death had just come to Jesus along with the news that Herod thought that Jesus was John, reincarnated, so Jesus, himself, was under threat.
John had baptized Jesus in the Jordan, which is when the Holy Spirit appeared over Jesus and the Father spoke about Jesus as his beloved son. The experience was so significant that Jesus went to the desert for 40 days to pray and understand the meaning of these events. John’s baptism was a turning point in Jesus’ life. Jesus probably wanted to recall his cousin and honour his memory in peace.
Instead, when Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by this large crowd of 5,000 men…not counting the women and children. Rather than look for another quiet place, when Jesus saw the need and the hope in the faces of the crowd… the gospel says that, He had compassion on them. He changed his own plans and healed their sick.
When people come to St. Stephen’s they come for breakfast not for gospel lessons about how to live. Our first duty is to have compassion on them as children of God, whom he loves…like Christ did. We take our cues from Jesus, who first healed the sick, then he fed the thousands with five loaves and two fish.
It seems clear that the crowd, in this morning's gospel, came because they hoped that Jesus would heal their sick. He had been doing that throughout Galilee. Even people who had just touched a piece of his clothing were cured. Matthew recounts that his reputation as a healer had spread throughout Galilee and into Syria.
Jesus understood their needs. His “sermon” on this day had little to do with words. He demonstrated kindness. He touched the lame, the blind, the deaf and the possessed and healed them. His “sermon” was his compassion.
It must have been spellbinding to watch him approach someone who couldn’t see or walk and to see the person recover their sight or mobility. I imagine that the crowd followed Jesus as relatives or friends tried to draw Jesus’ attention to the sick person whom they had brought. The combination of hope that he enkindled plus the joy of recovery must have swept through the crowds like a wind. It wasn’t only those who were cured who rejoiced. The relatives or friends who brought them celebrated their recovery.
However, the crowd hadn’t planned well. In their eagerness for his cures, they didn’t bring food.
As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said,“This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” …hardly a compassionate response to the situation!
It was probably obvious that people were getting hungry. Maybe after the cures they hoped for more. Or perhaps they just wanted to be near Jesus. He was unlike any other leader they knew in both his kindness and his accessibility. And certainly, the way he exercised power was vastly different than Pilate or Herod who exercised authority based on fear, but who never cured or helped them.
If it meant being hungry, they may have thought that was an acceptable price, just to be close to him.
And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Then he took the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves.
The description of giving thanks and breaking the bread sounds a lot like, or foresees, the institution of the Eucharist at the last supper when the gospel says…he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them,
Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. It was a miraculous amount of food. From scarcity came abundance.
When the covid restrictions hit We knew that we could not continue the breakfast programs at St. Stephen’s….at least in the usual way. But, like the people in this morning’s gospel the need for something to eat was overwhelming. In contemporary language, they have no food security.
We decided to continue the breakfasts. Instead of the sit-down meal volunteers come on Friday afternoons, And make up a hundred bagged lunches with a vegetarian or meat sandwich, banana and cookies.
On Sunday mornings, we dress in face shields, masks, gowns and gloves and let one person in at a time to select one of the bagged meals, get a coffee or tea, use a washroom then leave. We serve almost exactly 100 people a week this way.
The outreach director at St. James cathedral decided to do a similar program. She knew from another volunteer that I got bread from Cobs and asked if I could get them 10 or more loaves.
The six loaves of bread that I had been bringing doesn’t translate into 100 sandwiches at St. Stephen’s. We’d need at least 10 loaves let alone another 10-12 for the cathedral.
I was reluctant to ask the manager of the local Cobs because I feared that quadrupling the amount of bread I’d been asking for would stretch the limits of generosity since I know that he also supplies The Salvation Army, Centre 55 and Second Harvest. But I asked.
His answer was “sure… But I may not be able to get them all sliced if that’s ok. Slicing is time consuming.” I said yes. So, the generosity of the local Cobs owner “multiplied” the bread fourfold.
We’re not feeding 5,000 but the compassionate generosity means that we can feed more than 200 people at the two locations. The increase in bread is not a miracle of multiplication of the loaves. But it sure feels good to be able to provide the makings of that many sandwiches.
Our discipleship is in doing what we can and giving what we have, generously, in acts of compassion. That compassion is the true lesson of this morning’s gospel, not the miraculous feeding of 5,000 from five loaves and two fish… as significant as it is as an additional proof of Jesus’ power.
Jesus’ example of compassion is our call to action. When someone interrupts our plans with a request for help, we can look to Jesus as a model for our response. And when someone asks for help, we can look at the miraculous multiplication of food (or even the 24 loaves) as a sign of how God will respond to our request.