August 6, 2023
Rev. Shannon Jordan
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. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 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.’ Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ 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. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
This miracle is the only one in all four of the gospels. What was so important for the early church that this miracle was included in all of them? Not even the birth of Christ is in all four gospels! Was it that it is the first miracle described involving the disciples in all four gospels? Was it the immensity of the miracle given the sheer numbers of 5000 men plus women and children? Was it that the fact that he showed impartiality in healing and feeding so many and the equality it shows across the crowds—healing in a time where people didn’t even know about germs and the huge majority were food insecure? I believe it is all of these—and that it shows the heart of Jesus.
While what Jesus did is worthy of countless sermons—healing and feeding—Patrick gave a wonderful sermon a few weeks ago in his Daily Bread sermon. I encourage you to go to our website and read it. Some statistics for why feeding the hungry is to important to First Presbyterian, are that in our county 12% of our neighbors and 17% of the children under age 18 are food insecure. In response, we give at least $14,000 to organizations that provide food to our local neighbors. Manna Food Bank, ABCCM, Haywood Street Congregation, Beloved Asheville, and Asheville Poverty Initiative are all organizations supported through the giving of this congregation who help feed the hungry in our community. It is important work.
Given we had already heard that sermon, as I read and re-read this passage, the word compassion from verse 14 kept jumping off the page for me.
Jesus was moved with compassion. That was Jesus’s “why” for what follows.
The first surprising thing is that Jesus felt compassion. He and the disciples had just heard that John the Baptist had been killed. Herod had a dinner party and he asked his wife’s daughter (and his niece) to dance at the party. She did such a great job that Herod offered to grant her a wish. Her mother prompted her to ask for John the Baptist’s head. So he had John killed and his head brought to the dinner. The placement of these stories highlights the difference between meal that ended in violence and a meal that Jesus blessed and broke and shared in a foretaste of the last supper, and our celebration of Communion.
Jesus was grieving the loss of his cousin and also the death of another religious leader. He went on a boat to find some place to be alone and grieve, but this crowd followed on foot. In the midst of his grief, he was moved by compassion for them and healed them.
The Greek word for compassion used in this verse is splagchnizomai (splangkh-nid’-zom-ahee). It means the gut or internal organs. Jesus felt it so deeply that he had to act for the people and heal them.
It made me wonder how to show compassion regardless of our circumstances? How can we become more like Jesus and show compassion for all?
First, as disciples, we study scripture. The idea of God showing compassion is throughout the Bible. There is a false narrative that the God of the Old Testament is vengeful and judgmental when in reality we see God having compassion over and over. We see him showing it to Adam and Eve as they leave Eden by sewing clothes for them. We see God having compassion for Hagar and Ishmael in the desert. We see God having compassion for the Israelites, hearing their cries and sending Moses to lead them out of Egypt.
Over and over in the Gospels we see Jesus showing compassion—and notice I said showing compassion, not just feeling it. True compassion requires action. Beyond the Gospels, we see compassion in the New Testament. We see it in Philippians 2: 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
We see it in 1 John 3:17-18 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
We need to learn and practice compassion through the power of the Spirit. We gain compassion by learning to look at others and put ourselves in their shoes. Galatians 6:2 states Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.
Henri Nouwen wrote: “Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.”[i]
When we know enough of a person’s story to know what they are going through, we are more compassionate.
In addition to studying scripture and learning how God and Jesus showed compassion, how do we learn to do this?
We begin to practice what Jesus did—caring for others—not just studying it. Immersing ourselves in the love of God so that it pours out of us. Choosing to love the unlovable. Choosing to forgive 70 times 7. Choosing to have the time in our daily schedules to listen to God and listen to the stories of others. Choosing to pray for people—asking God to meet their needs and to show us how we can help—a listening ear—a prayer—a hug, or meeting a physical need.
Having compassion is recognizing that hurting people hurt people. Recognizing that every annoying or infuriating or painful aspect of another person is covering a wound in that person. We don’t need to put ourselves in a place of abuse, but we can begin to respond with love and understanding and compassion and we can begin to have the humility to realize that we don’t know everything.
As I studied for this sermon, and reflected on the idea of compassion, I was sent the New York Times article this week by David Brooks titled, “What if We’re the Bad Guys Here?”[ii] In this opinion piece he writes, “So let me try another story on you. I ask you to try on a vantage point in which we anti-Trumpers are not the eternal good guys. In fact, we’re the bad guys.”
I won’t ask for a show of hands for those who cringed when they read this. I also won’t ask for a show of hand for those of you who heard that and thought, “Of course!” In the article, Brooks did a great job of making the reader examine things from the point of view not held by most New York Times readers.
I had a hard lesson on this type of compassion while in Alabama. As many of you know, I was in Decatur, Alabama before coming here. I was there beginning in early 2018 through 2021 and was pastoring the church during the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, and as you can imagine it was a rough time there.
As I addressed some of this in my congregation, there were certainly some who were outraged by the event. We also had many who just ignored anything I said about race or racism. Some sent me offensive emails. However, there were some who would actually invited me to discuss my sermons and my perspective. No matter how many conversations I had or what facts I shared, I was never able to convinced some of them that racism is still a thing or that blacks in Decatur had a harder time than the whites.
At the same time I was in a women’s clergy group that had switched to Zoom and we read Scapegoat: The Tommy Lee Hines Story, a true story that took place in Decatur. A man with the mental maturity of five or six years old was arrested and convicted of forcing himself on and robbing three white women. He was clearly not big or strong enough to commit the crime and didn’t have the intelligence to do it. When questioned it was clear he didn’t know his numbers, or even if December was a day of the week. He was tried by an all-white jury in the nearby town of Cullman. One reviewer of the book said it was much like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird which was written in 1960, set in 1933. However, this event happened in 1978. The white community responded with violence, cross burnings, and a Klan membership rally with 1000 people in attendance.[iii]
This is the town and the context this man had grown up in and had lived his entire life. I realized that if I had been born a white male in 1930 in Decatur, Alabama, and I had their personalities, their parents, their education, and their experiences, I would likely also be racist, and that is incredibly humbling to me. I was able, through the power of the Spirit, to have compassion for them and their views, even if I completely disagreed with them. For me it is easy to have compassion for the poor, or the people at intersections with signs, or the grieving or sick—it took a great deal of prayer to have compassion for people with whom I so disagreed.
One more note on compassion. Compassion is often something we learn from our difficult times. The rough patches of our lives. Whether grief, or illness, cancer, or job loss—when we experience something like this, we have much more compassion for others going through it. Things that aren’t talked about as much—divorce, addiction, mental health challenges—people who have experienced these tend to come around those experiencing them because they know how hard it is and how alone people feel.
Practice compassion. Pray for people. Listen to their stories. Enter their experience as Nouwen said. We are to carry one another’s burdens so that we can fulfill the law of God.
[i]Henri J. M. Nouwen (2017). “You are the Beloved: Daily Meditations for Spiritual Living”, Hachette UK.
[ii] https://www.nytimes.com/2023/08/02/opinion/trump-meritocracy-educated.html?unlocked_article_code=7kVS7gwe52pr58e4FGhkxGSp4_dx1lsG-wq658WMj2g_Qm4OOEPiHeFM2j2hFrxGlNv2fmxeV7lEhg100Os-WF-gyaE1FbWsIb7zVP9hK2yaNoixcrxkTsX5QLK8_1tRYtduO4wyOPyWM7HhfUnSl7YC_X84-e_WzMk3YVz6nhyMyZxgvcu2e0j6pyz5goPFExkEddlKHiPhaqHkh__mG4YxV3vmji-MMOe7Xk1irZFWdoDVtwSMDHdAqgS3P9rQDnr2xFm_kNGaaZ60kXIz_7tGqqsSQ4aGUh1eCHQSk6IGFlJTbahcJUILZ_C4AVT4Gam6s3HOVZdFpTrgeXVkoy2Q_2Q&smid=url-share , August 4, 2023.