Every Sunday we have four readings from Scripture that have been pre-selected by something called the Revised Common Lectionary. It is a three-year cycle in which the first year focuses on the Gospel of Matthew, the second focuses on Mark and John, and the third year focuses on the Gospel of Luke. Once those three years are up, we turn around and we start them again. There are some real advantages to this common lectionary. As the pastor, for one, it helps me to pick what to preach on each Sunday. Instead of simply opening the Bible and preaching on wherever my finger lands, I have just four texts chosen for me from which I could preach on. The other advantage is that pastors in the same town and even across the country are likely preaching on the same text. Therefore, you, as the listener, could call up a church-going friend or family member and say, “What did your pastor say about the feeding of the 5,000?” and off you go talking about the sermons you heard.
But there is one really big disadvantage to this way of reading Scripture – it completely disrupts the Christian story. The readings jump around all over the place, particularly in the Old Testament. Last week we had a reading from 1 Kings, this week a reading from Isaiah. Who can follow that story line? It would be like taking all seven books of Harry Potter and reading random sections from each book to your children each night. They’ll never quite know what’s going on in the story. Over time, one might slowly be able to build a picture in their mind, just how a jigsaw puzzle eventually begins to create a picture, but there are a lot of empty spaces too. When you don’t have a full picture of the story, you might miss what the text is really trying to say. There might be details that are missing that are crucial to understanding a text.
Let’s take our reading from Matthew for today. It begins…“Now when Jesus heard this…” And stop right there. When Jesus heard what? What did Jesus just hear? “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it…” And stop right there. When the crowds heard what? What is going on in this story!? It seems like there is something missing, doesn’t it? But if we just quickly skim the section before this what is missing is actually just one verse before this. Verse 12. “His disciples came and took the body (of John the Baptist) and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.” John the Baptist has just died. That’s what’s going on. That is what everyone is whispering about. John the Baptist. That’s Jesus’ friend, Jesus’ mentor. John, the one who, with a hand on Jesus’ chest and one on his back, dipped Jesus into the waters of baptism at the river Jordan. John, Jesus’ friend and mentor, the one who taught him and gave him guidance, has died. And he didn’t die from old age or natural causes. He was killed by Herod and the political superpower, Rome.
Let’s try and hear this text again with new eyes and ears. “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.” I suspect that we are no strangers to this feeling. The feeling of losing someone so suddenly that your stomach leaps up into your throat and all you can do seek shelter in your own isolation. Or perhaps you know the feeling of being with someone who is so deeply grieving that they just want to be by themselves and yet all you feel you can do is go after them and sit beside them silently, compassionately. That’s what’s happening here. The great crowd that has been following Jesus since all the way back to chapter 4 is showing compassion to a grieving Jesus. Compassion. It is a word that means “to feel with”, To feel the feelings of another person and to respond.
When Jesus heard of John’s death, he went to a deserted place – a desert place, an empty and dry desert place that is void of any life or hope. The perfect place for how Jesus was feeling – empty, hollow. But when the crowds heard of John’s death, they knew weight of this and what it meant for him. And so, without grabbing any food for the road, without any preparation, simply out of compassion they go to meet him in this desert place. And this is just the beginning of our story for today. It lays a foundation of profound grief but also profound compassion and now watch what happens as the story begins to swell and take on movement.
When Jesus takes his boat ashore and gets on land, he turns around and he sees this sea of people that has been right on his heels. And after what I can only imagine was a wave of love and support that washed over him, he in return has compassion on them. He begins to heal their sick and to care for them. There is this mutual exchange of compassion and love that’s beginning to develop. This beautiful moment of mutual care and support.
But then the disciples try and mess everything up. Because they cannot see what is happening right in front of them. They cannot see this beautiful moment between Jesus and this crowd of thousands of people. All they can see is the dark and deserted, empty place surrounding them. They begin to panic and say, “This…this is a deserted place and the hour is now late (and we know what happens out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night – it’s dangerous.) Send everyone away into the village where there are lights and places to eat. It’s safer there.” You see the disciples couldn’t see what had begun to happen. They couldn’t see the light that had already started to glow around them. This light, seeded by the compassionate exchange between Jesus and the crowd, that began to buzz and scatter the cold, darkness of the desert. The disciples couldn’t see it. So what does Jesus do? He wraps them up in the middle of the action, like a kid whose been standing on the sideline all game, too afraid to play. Jesus thrusts them into the center of the light. Jesus says to the disciples, “They need not go away. (There is no need to flee this place anymore). But they are hungry, so you give them something to eat.” He empowers them to partake of the compassionate exchange by feeding these people. Naturally they resist at first, as we all do when God is trying to open our eyes. They say, “We have nothing here (remember this is a deserted and dead place, there is nothing here). All we have is five loaves and two fish.” And now comes one of my favorite parts of scripture. Jesus asks the disciples for the bread and fish and then, in verse 19, he has the crowd sit down on….the grass. Tell me, where did this grass come from? This is a deserted place. A desert place. Dry and sandy. Where did the grass come from?
Contrary to popular belief, the first thing to grow in this story isn’t the amount of bread and fish, but it is the grass. The light that began to glow in the compassionate exchange was so bright that life begins to grow. Even in the midst of desert and death, compassion brings about new life from the earth and from our hearts. Just when the disciples think that there is nothing in this deserted place (no food, no light, only darkness), Jesus has them sit down on the grass. Suddenly, it is no longer dry sand between their toes, it is the soft blades of living grass. Life has begun to grow. And now that the cat’s out of the bag, there is no stopping it. Suddenly, everything begins to grow. The amount of food, the disciples’ courage, and hope for the future. An abundance of life all over the place. So much so that twelve baskets of food were left over in fact, which means there was room for more. More people. There is always room for more people in the kingdom of God. The miracle of this story isn’t that there was enough food for everyone. The miracle is the abundant life that was found in such a dead and deserted place. The abundant life that was created in the womb of compassion.
I am convinced. Convinced that the life we are called to is one of compassion. A life of feeling with another person. Those who have ever felt unheard or not listen to know the incredible feeling, the life- and light-creating feeling, of having someone understand what you feel. And it is that kind of compassion that has this miraculous quality in which it seems to grow more compassion.
When John the Baptist was killed, the temptation was to react, to respond in anger and hatred, to get even. But the crowd responds with compassion, compassion toward Jesus, the one whose heart was broken. And their compassion elicits compassion from Jesus and off we go. The whole world bursts into life – even those desert places.
God calls us to a life of compassion because God is found in compassion. And God is found in compassion because our God is compassionate, one who feels with us. Ours is a suffering god who journeys alongside us through the deserted places of this world seeking bring about life.
May we be the ones who encounter this God of compassion this week. And may we be the ones who reveal this God of compassion this week. AMEN