Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Channels of Compassion
Mt. 14:13-21[1]
I think our generation must be the most analyzed generation of human beings in the history of the world. After all, psychology didn’t even begin as a formal scientific discipline until the late 19th Century. And it didn’t really take hold in our society as something helpful until the last 50 years or so. One of the results of the rising interest in the human being as a mental, emotional, and social creature is that there is now a fairly massive self-help movement. Much of this is good—for example various forms of 12-step programs have literally saved many lives. But sometimes too much of a good thing can be not so good.
One of the lessons of the self-help movement is that we have personal “boundaries” that we can maintain in our relationships with others. Again, this is a very healthy thing—especially in a culture like ours where people have been raised to be subservient to those around them, and wind up giving so much of themselves away that they have nothing left. But as with any helpful lesson, it has to be applied with care and thought, not just used as a hammer for any and every situation. When we apply that lesson with wisdom and compassion, I think we learn that there are times when we should maintain our boundaries and take good care of ourselves; and there are other times when we should set our needs and wants aside and offer kindness and care to those who are in need around us.
I think this is at least part of the lesson from our Gospel reading for this week. Jesus had given so much of himself to those around him that he withdrew to a deserted place to be alone. To make that happen, he took a boat from one side of the Sea of Galilee to the other. Now, I think we’d have to say that this was a good and wise choice on his part. He must have been tired from all he had been doing, and he was taking care of himself. But the crowds actually walked around the lake to find him. They literally took the long way around! And when they showed up, the Scripture says that he had compassion for them. It seems to me that Jesus’ interaction with the crowds that followed him provides us with an example of the lesson that there is a time for self-care, but there is also a time for putting our own concerns aside and simply offering ourselves as channels of compassion for those around us who are in need.
The story that follows is intriguing, because although it is the only miracle of Jesus recounted by all four Gospels, there is also no mention of what actually happened to make the five loaves and two fish feed such a massive crowd! Some have suggested that the example of generosity inspired those in the crowd to share their food with others. We don’t know that. Popular movies have depicted it as an instantaneous miracle—Jesus lifts the food in a basket to heaven to bless it, and when he brings it down the basket is overflowing with loaves and fishes. But we don’t know that either. We really don’t know and may never be able to explain how Jesus multiplied the loaves and fish.[2]
What we do know is that initially the disciples wanted to send the crowds away. I would imagine they too were tired and wanted to have some down time. After all, the whole reason why they got in the boat and went to a deserted place was to be alone. Or perhaps, in their characteristic “little faith,” they were afraid there would not be enough food.[3] Probably a pretty reasonable concern! And what we do know is that Jesus gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.
This brings us no closer to explaining this story. But I wonder if it could be that it was in the act of the disciples being willing to put their own concerns aside and to simply give the food they had to the crowds that the miracle occurred?[4] We still don’t know that for sure, but it does seem significant that the disciples who wanted to send everybody away turned around and served their food to the hungry crowds around them. And it would seem that the miracle happened somehow in giving. By setting aside their own concerns, their fears and their doubts, Jesus disciples became channels for God’s miraculous work. Perhaps one of the lessons is that true miracles happen in ways we can never explain.[5]
We’ll probably never know for sure exactly what happened that day by the Sea of Galilee, but I think this might point us in a direction. When we remain excessively focused on maintaining our boundaries, when we stay in our fears that there will not be enough or perhaps we aren’t good enough, when we just want to send others away to fend themselves, we inevitably withhold the loving kindness and compassion that we have been so generously given. On the other hand, when we let go our fears and concerns about our own well being—at least when the situation calls for it—and open our hearts to the people we encounter with a giving spirit, we become channels of the divine compassion that can have a truly miraculous effect.
Our compassion, our loving kindness may be small and faltering, but if we will just give what we have, perhaps in the giving it will be multiplied to meet the needs. When we give compassion freely, it ripples out far beyond our ability to explain or even imagine. When we open ourselves to be channels of compassion, those streams of kindness and mercy that flow through us have an effect that only God knows.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/31/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Douglas Hare, Matthew, 165, says that all the efforts to “explain” the miracle “hardly do justice to the story in the Gospels.”
[3] Cf. M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” New Interpreters Bible 8:324.
[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:447, where he says that Jesus feeds the multitude “with the little that the apostles themselves have to offer them, and all that truly remains for them is to deliver and offer the much that He gives in the form of the little that they have to give.”
[5] Cf. Charles L. Allen, “A Sermon: When Worlds Break Open,” Encounter 65.1 (2004): 75.

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