Guest Post: Of Crowds, Compassion, and Miracles

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Written by Debbie Brown, Council President, Our Savior’s Lutheran Church
Sermon given at Our Savior’s on August 6, 2017.

This week, I was reading about a man named Stan Brock. Some of you may know him from the TV show The Wild Kingdom. Before he became famous, Stan had a life changing experience while working in Guyana South America. This experience moved him to establish a non-profit organization for healthcare access called Remote Area Medical®. 

He describes his experience like this:

“My vision for Remote Area Medical® developed when I suffered a personal injury while living among the Wapishana Indians in Guyana, South America. I was isolated from medical care, which was about a 26-day journey away. I witnessed the near devastation of whole tribes by what would have been simple or minor illnesses to more advanced cultures. When I left Guyana, I vowed to find a way to deliver basic medical aid to people in the world’s inaccessible regions. So, in 1985 I established the non-profit, Remote Area Medical® or as most people know us – RAM®. RAM® is the way I have kept that promise, not only to the Wapishana Indians, but to thousands around the world in similar conditions. In other words, there are Wapishanas everywhere.”

Today, RAM holds more than 700 clinics in convention centers and football stadiums across the United States. More than 80,000 volunteers bring dental and vision care to nearly 1.5 million people who do not have these benefits through insurance or cannot afford to pay for them.

This summer, people gathered in Wise, Virginia. Some of them arrived two days before the clinic opened – many slept in their cars, in tents or on blankets spread beneath the open sky. Each family was given a piece of paper with a number on it. They could only hope that their number was low enough to get them in for treatment.

As I looked at the pictures of the people gathered there, I couldn’t help thinking about the crowd in our Gospel reading today who gathered at the lakeside waiting for Jesus.  They could only hope for an encounter with this miraculous man of God with the ability to heal.

It was in this setting where we see the miracle of feeding a ridiculously crazy number of people with a ridiculously small amount of food. But this isn’t the only place in scripture where this story is recounted. Including today’s reading, feeding miracles are seen six times in the New Testament. It is the only miracle told in all four Gospels. 

There is a theory that if you want someone to hear a message, it has to be repeated three times. Since this story is included twice that many times in the Gospels, the writers must have really wanted to be sure we get the message.

But what is it about the re-telling of this story that is so important? What does it say about God and Jesus’ mission? What does it say about us?

I think we can all relate to the people gathered at the lakeshore that day. We know what it is like to need healing, and we all experience hunger – both physical and spiritual. We hunger for food, attention, companionship, good health, success, peace, love, and wholeness. This is where God enters into our lives through Jesus and offers us hope.

This morning’s first lesson invites us into a relationship with God. The reading comes from Isaiah. It was written for the people of Israel who were living in exile and describes the life that God promises them. It is a beautiful passage that reminds us of God’s abundance given to all people at no cost.

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” (Isaiah 55:1-2)

Perhaps you, like me, are drawn to this vision. We yearn for our world to be like this, but we live in the reality of a hungry world where our hunger never seems to be satisfied. 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus had been healing and teaching people about God’s kingdom when he heard the news that Herod thought he was John the Baptist’s ghost, out for revenge. The crowds that followed Jesus were proof to high people in high places that he was a threat to their status quo.

Jesus knew he was in danger, but his work isn’t finished yet. So, he withdraws from the region until it is the right time for him to return. He and the disciples get into their boat and head to the other side of the lake.

Somehow, the word about his destination got out. The people discovered where his boat was headed, and when he came ashore, a crowd was waiting for him. We are told the crowd is around 5,000, or more like 10,000 people including the women and children who gathered to see him.

We couldn’t blame Jesus if he needed more time to recharge after the distressing news he heard. But Jesus didn’t yield to the temptation to shield himself from his grief and pain and the suffering mass standing in front of him. Instead, something pushed him to go on. As soon as he got off the boat, he began to cure all who came to him.

We are told that he was driven by compassion.    

Thomas Merton, a catholic monk and mystic, said, “The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.”

Compassion is not just feeling sorry for someone; it brings us to the recognition that all of us are in this together and we need to support one another through life.

We would say that compassion comes from the heart, but in Hebrew, the word “compassion” connotes a feeling that comes from the bowels… deep down in the center of the gut. Compassion is the ability to understand another’s pain. It involves walking with people in their suffering and results in a deep desire to somehow mitigate that pain. 

Too often, we find ourselves identifying with another’s pain so much that we do one of two things. We experience the pain so deeply that we fall into a state of hopelessness. OR, we do everything we can to protect ourselves from it. We ignore the pain we see around us by putting up walls to keep it out. We turn a blind eye to people in pain, all the while convincing ourselves that their pain is the natural consequence of their behavior. We give up trying to alleviate the pain, and we forget that God has always had other plans for all of creation. 

I think the disciples are at this point. I am guessing that after a long day, they are beginning to get hungry too. They are not insensitive to the people’s needs, so they come up with a solution. Jesus should send the crowd away to the nearby villages where they can get some food.

But Jesus doesn’t heed their advice. Instead, he gives the task of feeding the people back to the disciples. 

I can hear them now… are you kidding me Jesus? We can’t do this. We have five loaves of bread and two fish – barely enough to feed us…. and you want us to feed all these people? We will all die of starvation here!  Jesus tells them to bring what they have to him. He lifts the bread to heaven, offers it to the Father, breaks it, divides it and gives it to the disciples to distribute. Everyone there is filled and there are twelve baskets leftover – one for each of the disciples.

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”

Too often we, like the disciple don’t believe that God has provided us with enough resources to carry out God’s work in the world. We live with an attitude of scarcity and forget that our God is a God of miracles. The feeding stories remind us that the only way we can break out of this state of mind is to place all that we have back in God’s hands. No gift is insignificant for God to make a miracle.

Today in worship, we will present our financial gifts during the offering. On our behalf, the acolyte will receive our gifts and lift them to God, dedicating them to God’s work. We can expect to see miracles…miracles made possible with the gifts we have placed in God’s hands. We are not a huge church with a huge budget, but we make a difference for others.

As a member of the council, I have witnessed many miracles made possible because of your gifts.

We provide food for more than 100 people each month through the Food for Friends program. We help to stock the Food Pantry in South Hadley by bringing needed items every month. We support a student in Haiti, providing him with an education and basic medical care. We have stepped out in new ways to share the Good News with our Hymns and Beer evenings.

Even seemingly insignificant things like the tabs from soda and vegetable cans are gathered to support the Shriner’s hospital. This one small gift has brought miracles to many children who need medical care.

Last Saturday, Our Savior’s had a booth at the Fall’s Fest. I hope you had a chance to stop by to see what we were doing. Amanda and I shared the job of running the booth in the early afternoon. She has the gift of gab and was great at attracting people to our table by inviting them to receive a ticket for a free drink just for spinning our wheel.

The wheel was like a small Wheel of Fortune, except that there were 12 numbers on it and several other slots that would provide a free ticket and even a water splash. This of course was a favorite for the kids. Even Pastor Anna and I got in on the fun…and yeah – I got her wet.

It was up to me to handle the educational piece. If the wheel landed on a number, I would ask the winner a question about water. If they didn’t know the answer, we talked a bit about it. The best part was when the kids realized we were playing this game with clean water while others didn’t even have proper sanitation or clean water for drinking and cooking. 

Not only did we bring attention to the need, we also shared concrete ways to preserve water and to support initiatives that bring clean water to those who have none. To top it all off, the tickets we gave out were purchased from the Falls Fest organizers who donated all of the money back to the South Hadley Food Pantry.

Your gifts of financial offerings, time, talents, and passions placed in God’s hands helped to support all of these activities.

But there’s more…Each week, as we present our financial gifts, we also bring the elements of Holy Communion to the altar.

In the last few months, Pastor Anna has been including an explanation in the bulletin for each part of our service. Just above the heading for the offering, you will find the following description:

“We begin the Table rite by offering our gifts to God: our selves and our talents and resources, while the community offers Bread and Wine to be the Eucharistic feast.” 

Bread and wine – simple ordinary gifts that we offer to God. They become Jesus’ body and blood for us. In this celebration, the divine and the human are joined together – interconnected. In this meal, we receive the gifts of forgiveness, community with all the saints, and the promise of life.   

Nothing we bring to the table is insignificant.

Today and every week, God gathers us at the table and creates a miracle. God offers the gift of grace and mercy and invites us into a holy story, a place where our meager offerings are multiplied into greater blessings.

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”

Amen.

For more information on Stan Brock and RAM®: https://ramusa.org/about/

For more Thomas Merton quotes: http://www.azquotes.com/author/10004-Thomas_Merton/tag/compassion

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