August 2nd 2020
Pastor Galen Zook
When I was in college, I served as the president of our Christian club on campus. We were one of the larger student organizations on campus, with over 100 active members. I’m not completely sure how I was chosen to serve as the president, since I wasn’t very good at administration and I was rather quiet, but I had felt God calling me to serve, and so when I was asked to lead, I reluctantly agreed.
At the time, we had a campus staff minister by the name of Valerie, who served as sort of a chaplain for the group. She also mentored and discipled me, and had an incredible impact on my life. She was and is a woman of deep faith, and a strong but compassionate leader.
One day we were talking about some of the issues going on in our fellowship, and I brought up a concern regarding two of the leaders in our group who were not abiding by one of the policies and procedures in our group. I brought it up because I thought that it was something that Valerie should address.
But Valerie, good mentor that she was, said, “You need to go and talk to them.”
Now I really did not like conflict, and having to have a difficult conversation with two of our leaders, and potentially asking them to pull back from leadership was not something very appealing to me.
But Valerie knew that I needed to do it — not only because I was the leader of the group — but also for my own personal growth and development. She knew that I would do anything to avoid conflict, but that part of learning to be a leader is not to shrink back from conflict, but to engage it with courage and compassion.
Moved with Compassion
In Matthew 14, Jesus went off to a deserted place. He had just received news that his cousin, John the Baptist, had just been killed by King Herod. No doubt Jesus was in shock, mourning and grieving the loss of his cousin who had prepared the way for his ministry.
But by this time, Jesus had grown so popular that the crowds refused to leave him alone. While Jesus was heading to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee by boat, the crowds chased after him, running around the sea on foot, and, there they were, waiting for him when he reached the shore.
The Gospel writer Matthew tells us that “when [Jesus] went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick” (Matt. 14:14). No doubt many had brought friends and loved ones who had grave illnesses and infectious diseases, many who were crippled and blind, many whom couldn’t afford medical treatment. Jesus was their last hope. And Jesus, although grieving the loss of his cousin, had compassion on them, and began to heal the sick.
The Greek word translated “compassion” here means to be monved from the seat of the emotions. It’s love and pity all wrapped up together. It’s a deep, heartfelt emotion that moves someone to take action. Our English word “compassion” means “to suffer with.”
Jesus was moved with love and pity for the crowds, he suffered with them, and he showed demonstrated his compassion for them through physical signs of healing.
Send Them Away
I don’t know what time of the day Jesus had arrived at this formerly deserted place, but
“When it was evening, [Jesus’s] 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” (Matt. 14:15).
Now, it’s possible that the disciples cared deeply about the crowd’s hunger, and they really wanted to make sure that the crowd got fed.
But more than likely, the disciples wanted to be rid of the problems of the crowd. Just as I wanted Valerie to deal with the situation regarding the two student leaders so that I didn’t have to take care of it myself, the disciples wanted Jesus to dismiss the crowd so that they didn’t have to worry about the crowd’s problems anymore.
If Jesus could just send the crowd away, then the seemingly never ending physical and spiritual needs of the crowd would no longer be their concern.
You Give Them Something to Eat
But Jesus, always the good mentor, always the best disipler, turned to his disciples and said, “‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat’” (Matt. 14:16).
You give them something to eat?? I have no idea what ran through the minds of the disciples when Jesus said that, but I can probably guess.
No doubt Thomas laughed out loud. Peter probably looked indignant. Judas most likely started to do the calculations in his mind about how much money it would cost to feed everyone. And Thaddaeus, who I imagine always sat in the back of the class, probably just looked confused.
One of the disciples — let’s say it was Bartholomew, since he doesn’t get enough speaking lines in the Gospels — held up the picnic basket which they had brought with them, and said “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish” (Matt. 14:17).
What Barthomolew didn’t say, but was probably thinking, was “and that’s not even enough for the 13 of us!”
When Valerie told me that I needed to talk to the two leaders myself, I knew she was right. Even though it wasn’t something I wanted to do, I knew it was my responsibility, and that as the leader I needed to be bold and courageous and talk to them.
Now the two leaders hadn’t had any sort of moral failure, nor had they committed an egregious sin. They had simply gone against the stated policy that leaders could only hold leadership positions in one Christian group on campus and had taken on positions of leadership in another group on campus, in addition to their role as leaders in our club. When I brought it to their attention, they hadn’t even known they had broken the rules, and from their perspective it was a crazy rule to begin with! They didn’t want to step down from either post, and in the end the situation got a little messy.
But Valerie had my back. She didn’t just tell me to deal with the situation. She walked me through exactly what I needed to do, and she supported me along the way. In the end I grew in my ability to deal with conflict, but I also grew in my compassion for these two leaders, as I saw how this particular policy impacted them.
Step by Step
In the same way, Jesus walked his disciples through the process of feeding the crowds. He instructed them to bring the loaves and fish to him, he told them to have the crowds sit down on the grass. He took the loaves and fish, looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to give to the crowds.
Interestingly enough, Matthew doesn’t tell us exactly how this miracle took place. Did the loaves multiply when Jesus broke them, or when the disciples gave them out? Did they multiply all at once, or little by little?
Matthew seems less concerned with how it happened, and more with the fact that everyone in the crowd ate and was filled, and that there was even more food left over than they had when they started. Matthew tells us there were 5,000 men, plus women and children — so perhaps as many as 20,000 people ate and were satisfied that day!
Now sure, Jesus could have done all of that himself. If he could multiply the loaves and fish to feed that many people, then surely he could have figured out a distribution system that didn’t involve the disciples.
But I think there was something he wanted to teach the disciples that day. I think he wanted the disciples to learn to have compassion by seeing the crowds up close and personal. As the disciples distributed the loaves and fish to the crowd, and as they gathered up the leftovers at the end, they had the opportunity to stare into the faces of those who were in need — the very faces of the people they had originally wanted to send away, the very people whose problems they didn’t want to have to deal with.
Courage and Compassion
We live in a society that is very polarized, a time when everyone thinks they are right, and the people on the other side are wrong. Many of us wish that we could just send everyone away who doesn’t agree with us, or who doesn’t see things from our perspective.
But perhaps rather than sending them away, God is telling us, “you give them something to eat.” Perhaps God wants us to interact with those who are different from us to help us learn and grow, to teach us compassion, or perhaps conflict management! Perhaps God wants to use those people in our lives who are very different from us to help us become more courageous and compassionate leaders, or neighbors, or friends, or coworkers, or relatives.
The reality is that God has compassion on everyone — even those people that we don’t get along with, or the people that we wish we didn’t have to deal with. Jesus loved the world (and everyone in it) so much that he gave his life for each and every person in the world — and that includes even those people we wish we could just send away.
And so this morning, I want to invite us to hold up those people before the Lord that God might be bringing to our minds. Let us ask God what it is that God would have to say to us about them. Let us open ourselves to the possibility that God may want to use us to reach them, and that in so doing, God may want to transform us to be more courageous and compassionate followers of Jesus.
God of mercy and healing, you who hear the cries of those in need,
receive these petitions of your people that all who are troubled
may know peace, comfort, and courage.
Let us take a moment of silent prayer to offer our petitions before the Lord.
Life-giving God, heal our lives,
that we may acknowledge your wonderful deeds
and offer you thanks from generation to generation
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.