Sunday, July 31, 2011

Compasstionate Acts of Love

Matthew 14: 13-21
Here’s a quiz to wake you up this fine summer’s morning.  What do Sister Eileen Boffa, Sister Cheryl Driscoll, Millard Fuller, and Mother Teresa have in common? 

They all achieved a lot from a little.

Who are these people?  They are ordinary human beings in whom God has worked to accomplish extraordinary things in this world.  All they saw was abundance and not scarcity even though life was, at times, sparse.  For them today’s scripture of the feeding of the 5,000 would have been a faits accompli.  That is, the disciples with their 5 loaves and 2 fishes and a stark command from Jesus, to feed so many people with so little would have already been already accomplished in their minds.  No question, it can be done, with their let’s get started attitude.

Sisters Eileen and Cheryl were the founders of Mercy Learning Center in Bridgeport.  Sister Eileen had been the principal at Sacred Heart Elementary School on Park Avenue and Sister Cheryl had taught first grade there for 15 years. They knew that Bridgeport had 34,000 illiterate adults because they had taught many children whose parents could not read.  With a simple flyer that read “Want to Read?” they went down to WIC and other various programs and handed them out to illiterate mothers but also had to extend a verbal invitation…since the women couldn’t read.  They’re motto, “Educate a woman, educate a family”.  Today they have educated over 4,000 women. 

Millard Fuller is the founder of Habitat for Humanity.  A self made millionaire by 29 he and his wife sold all that they had and gave it to the poor.  They intentionally had nothing left but their faith.  Redirecting their lives they went to Africa with an organization which built homes for people who didn’t have homes.  From this experience the seeds of Habitat germinated.  For them an abundance of material goods did not mean a life lived abundantly. 

Mother Teresa, of course, accomplished so much with so very little in Calcutta, India.  The order she founded, The Missionaries of Charity was simply to love and care for those persons whom no one was prepared to look after.  Her remarkable ministry flourished amid the most deplorable of human conditions. 

It all starts with so little. Today’s passage is one that is familiar to us probably because it is recorded in all four of the Gospels with some variation.  Right before Jesus boards his small fishing boat for some seclusion and respite on the Sea of Galilee he receives word that, John the Baptizer, his cousin, has been put to death.  You remember that gruesome story where Herodias dances before Herod Antipas and asks for John’s head on a silver platter. 
So Jesus withdraws perhaps to grieve his loss and rest.  But others did not know this, or if they did they still wanted Jesus and disregarded his need to be alone.  We can appreciate his dilemna.  We sit to rest with newspapers in hand after a long hard day and the phone rings.  We put the children to bed and then you hear a little voice say “I can’t sleep, I need some water, I’m so thirsty”.  Can’t you just hear the sigh of frustrated exhaustion?  I marvel at Jesus’ compassion and ability to put his fatigue and feelings aside and address the needs of the people regardless of his physical or emotional state. 

He sees them coming, the broken, the sick, the thirsty and hungry people and he comes ashore.  In his understated compassionate manner he begins to heal them.  But it was getting late, the sun was setting over Tiberas and Capernaum. The disciples strongly urge him to send the people away.  Imagine that?  Send the people off to fend for themselves, a crowd of 5,000.  But Jesus, the master of extravagant hospitality, quips back pretty quickly.  “There’s no need to dismiss them.  You give them supper.” [i] 
They scratch their heads.  They look around.  “Uh, Jesus”, they replied, “We only have two fish and five small loaves of bread!”  Unflappable Jesus says, “bring them here”.  He looks up to the heavens and blesses the bread and fish.  He tears the bread apart and then gives the pieces to his disciples who in turn feed the people.  Truly a miracle.

But this, my friends, is the miracle’s secret…that so little turns into so much when Jesus and his cause is involved in whatever we do.  This is the compassionate act of love for each time that we help another human being we are reenacting what Jesus did, that is to give thanks for the food that we have, divide it up to share and then give it out to others.

Herein resides also the question for ministry today.  How is it humanly possible to feed so many with so little?  It was pertinent to the first century followers of Jesus and definitely apropos to ministry today.  How in the world are we going to metaphorically feed others when there are so little resources to begin with and dwindling rapidly with a looming debt crisis? There is so much need in this world, in Stamford, in our neighborhoods and we are just one person, one church.  Living plentifully is what ministry is about. 

In the 10th chapter of John Jesus says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (10:10)  To feed 5,000 people takes on a whole new meaning if understood on Jesus’ terms. To do the ministry that is sorely needed in our communities and world knowing that we can accomplish anything in Christ’s name is what this is about.  There’s plenty of food, don’t worry, there always will be that is his promise. 

Pastor Cheryl Bridges Johns says: “Ministry is about multiplying resources so that what might have been a social handout becomes a revelation of amazing grace.” A social handout is a buck given to a beggar in downtown New Haven, bus fare handed over to a person waiting for a bus on the front steps of the welfare office, shelter for someone who might otherwise sleep in a cardboard box under I-95. 

Yet a handout given from the heart, in the compassionate name of Jesus Christ, is a revelation of God’s good and merciful nature.  Anyone can offer a bowl of soup.  But when Christians offer that same bowl of soup it embodies our belief in goodness over evil, life over death and above all God’s forgiving love and grace without condition.  It is a Christ-filled compassionate meal and invokes his sacred meal that is blessed, broken and given.
To be certain we are living in a mode of scarcity today.  This economic downslide has affected each one of us as individuals and as a church for who among us has not experienced in some way overwork, indebtedness and certain dissatisfaction with our situation?  Some of us have probably experienced a sleepless night or two worrying about what challenges tomorrow will bring. 

Indeed we should tighten our belts, pinch our pennies, and clip those coupons because we have to be wise and prudent stewards of our resources.  But we should not wring our hands in despair and operate out of a place of scarcity.  That will severely damage our spiritual health and well being.  It is ‘for such a time as this’ (Esther 4:14) that God’s care, concern, love, and giving nature kicks into high gear!  Christian faith and ministry is most efficacious when there is so little.  Many successful ministries were conceived out of prayer, great faith and from little to no resources. 

I believe that God, through the example of Jesus, asks us and prepares us for the ministry that is at hand, on our watch, right now, imminent with all of the proverbial food that we will need to assuage the hunger.  People each day hunger for truth, love, justice.  People each day hunger for food, real food, a roof to shelter them from the weather, meaningful employment and deep relationship.   

There is no lack of ministry, there’s plenty of that around.  Sister’s Eileen and Cheryl, Millard Fuller, and Mother Teresa, can attest to that.  They are also a witness to the fact that there is no lack of resources just miracles to believe in, and lots of them.

When we let Christ-like behavior guide us we can live out of abundance rather than scarcity.  We can feed Christ-like portions of the Gospel to others and we too can be fed ourselves.  We can enact that sacred meal of blessed, broken and given and know that there will be enough for all.  We have nothing to fear or be skeptical about.  There’s plenty.  Like the refrain of a hymn from a Jamaican folk tune “Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ”…. Jesus lives again, earth can breathe again, pass the word again, loaves abound.


[i] Eugene Peterson’s , The Message.  Matthew 14:  16.
Artwork & Photo
1- Artist Unknown
2- Overlooking Sea of Galilee
3- Mosaic in floor of the Church of the Loaves and Fishes, Tabgha, Galilee Israel

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