Sermon Seeds: For Compassion
Sunday, August 6, 2023
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost | Proper 13 | Year A
(Liturgical Color: Green)
Genesis 32:22-31 and Psalm 17:1-7, 15 • Isaiah 55:1-5 and Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21 • Romans 9:1-5 • Matthew 14:13-21
Cast the Net (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
When I served as an Associate Pastor at Mt. Zion Congregational Church UCC, we had developed a model of pastoral care that revolved around “Care Circles.” Every member and regular attender was enfolded into one of these circles in order to ensure weekly connections with everyone. These circles formed a network of care that reported particular concerns through ministers of pastoral care to care shepherds, who ultimately shared the pastoral needs they discovered to the pastor. I served as a care shepherd along with three other leaders. In one of our meetings, one of our care shepherds (with a professional background in social work) warned of compassion fatigue.
She explained that compassion fatigue occurs among those in the helping professions, and that we needed to have a plan to avoid it, identify it, and address it. She had put a name to an often overlooked cost of caring for others when our souls are engaged in the work. An article written for the American Psychological Association addressed the risks and reality of compassion fatigue in light of the pandemic:
Compassion fatigue occurs when psychologists or others take on the suffering of patients who have experienced extreme stress or trauma, explains Charles R. Figley, PhD, founder of the Traumatology Institute at Tulane University. It is an occupational hazard of “any professionals who use their emotions, their heart,” he says, and represents the psychological cost of healing others. “It’s like a dark cloud that hangs over your head, goes wherever you go and invades your thoughts,” he says.
Rebecca A. Clay
I wonder if the disciples exhibited preliminary signs of compassion fatigue in the gospel narrative. In Matthew’s account, the feeding of the five thousand occurs immediately following the killing of John the Baptist. This would have been traumatizing to those in the faith community. Many following Jesus had first followed John the Baptist who prepared the way. While there is no evidence that the twelve disciples specifically called by Jesus had participated in John’s ministry, the impact upon them would have been profound.
Jesus retreats at the news. Consistently, Jesus demonstrates self-love and self-compassion by prioritizing his own needs at the same time he cares for others. The crowds find and follow him. Rather than securing a better hiding place, Jesus provides healing to those in need. His disciples encourage him to send the crowd away, but Jesus has another plan.
When Jesus hears that John has been killed, he withdraws. This is the fifth time in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus withdraws after an act of imperial aggression or religious opposition. (2:14–15, 21–22; 4:12–13; 12:15–21). The text notes that upon hearing from his disciples what had happened, Jesus withdrew to “a deserted place by himself.” Readers can only speculate how he might have been affected by the beheading of this man who had been his forerunner and messenger. This was a portentous moment prefiguring Jesus’ own destiny. In the narrative he is given little time to reflect on these things—if that is what he had hoped to do—the crowds follow him even to this deserted place. All the same, when he sees the crowds he is moved by compassion (v.14). Even in the face of John’s death, Jesus carries on, engaging life-giving practices of healing and feeding. He urges his disciples to get engaged as well.
I wonder if engaging with the crowd during his time of grief helped to heal Jesus.
This miracle story is one of the most universally known and told. It’s a great demonstration of power and compassion. We marvel at the detail. They have five loaves of bread and two fish, an amount that would not even seem to feed the disciples and Jesus. How can it possibly be used to satisfy the hunger of thousands of people? The disciples have a scarcity mindset, despite having significant experience, at this point in their journey, with Jesus, the miracle worker. They evaluate the provisions before them and declare it insufficient for the task Jesus assigns them. They don’t have enough for the job.
Jesus invites them to hand over what they have to him. He breaks and blesses the bread. They begin to distribute the meal. When all have been satisfied, the leftovers exceed the original supply. It’s a miracle of miracles, fueled by compassion.
Jesus does not tell them to secure the ingredients to make more bread. He does not send his disciples, including professional fishermen, off with their nets to try their luck by the sea. He invites them to trust him with what they have…to believe that they, it, and he are enough.
Matthew’s account omits details found in the other synoptics gospels. We don’t know that the supply they have here is actually found from a young person in the crowd who came prepared. We do not receive details about the responsiveness of the crowd. No, for Matthew, this story is about Jesus and his disciples, fresh from trauma encountering basic human need. The disciples want to let the crowd fend for themselves. To be fair, there is no indication that the crowd asked, expected, or required this divine intervention in order to secure a meal.
It would seem the only reason Jesus performs this miracle is because he could. Maybe it fulfilled a need in him to experience good in a world that had just taken so much from him. We know that Jesus and John first became acquainted with one another while in the wombs of their prophetic mothers. They were cousins, and even though their relationship growing up is not chronicled in the biblical narrative, at a minimum, they would have been together for family gatherings and high religious observances of feasts and festivals. Jesus, who embodies love and wept for Lazarus, surely would have deeply grieved his cousin’s death.
The crowd found him in mourning and would not let him be alone. They remained with him. This meal almost serves as a funeral repast. Maybe, Jesus did not really need solitude. He needed community, and what better manifestation of it than at this colossal meal. This moment serves as antithesis to the murder of John, an act of evil, avarice, and depravity. The feeding of the five thousand demonstrates the kindom of God, including generosity, abundance, and flourishing.
The emphasis on discerning Jesus’ identity and God-given mission to manifest God’s saving presence and reign continues in the four scenes of chapter 14. First, God’s empire arouses opposition from Rome’s client ruler Herod, who was tetrarch of Galilee until 39 CE. Then Jesus attests the fertility and abundance of God’s reign in a feeding. He demonstrates his identity as God’s agent in walking on water. He exhibits the healing, restorative work of God’s empire in more healings. That is, the divisive effect of his ministry continues. The powerful Herod rejects God’s work, the crowds benefit from feeding and healing, and the disciples receive the disclosure of Jesus’ identity as God’s agent or son.
Jesus also benefits from the miracle. He is not alone in his suffering, and the powers of this world do not reign even if they occasionally prevail. Humanity are not created subjects to serve a distant ruler but are made companions who have a relationship with the Sovereign God. Jesus is surrounded by human siblings who will not let him go until he is as reluctant to part as they are. Jesus shares our burdens; what a gift that they shared his.
That is the essence of compassion, which literally means, “to suffer with.” A kindom perspective would expand that definition to include rejoicing as well as weeping, delighting as well as bemoaning, and ascending the greatest heights as well as descending the lowest lows.
I recently participated in a large public service project packing luggage with back to school supplies. It was crowded and even a little chaotic. The work was simple, and the company was plentiful. It reminded me how fulfilling and fun it can be to join in that type of simple effort. I also serve on a board of an organization devoted to preserving and protecting human rights. It’s a different way to serve, but despite the enormity of the challenges, it’s the most hopeful work I do.
Sometimes, we think that we protect ourselves by retreating from life’s problems and humanity’s challenges. The reality, and the example Jesus provides, is that when we enter into the waters of need with our nets ready, we yield an abundance of compassion. We have more than enough. We find healing. We are enough.
Cast the net for compassion.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
I’ve represented abused and neglected children who were prosecuted as adults and suffered more abuse and mistreatment after being placed in adult facilities. I’ve represented women, whose numbers in prison have increased 640 percent in the last thirty years, and seen how our hysteria about drug addiction and our hostility to the poor have made us quick to criminalize and prosecute poor women when a pregnancy goes wrong. I’ve represented mentally disabled people whose illnesses have often landed them in prison for decades. I’ve gotten close to victims of violent crime and their families and witnessed how even many of the custodians of mass imprisonment—prison staff—have been made less healthy, more violent and angry, and less just and merciful.
I’ve also represented people who have committed terrible crimes but nonetheless struggle to recover and to find redemption. I have discovered, deep in the hearts of many condemned and incarcerated people, the scattered traces of hope and humanity—seeds of restoration that come to astonishing life when nurtured by very simple interventions.
Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.
We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others. The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it’s necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and—perhaps—we all need some measure of unmerited grace.
—Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
For Further Reflection
“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” ― Mother Teresa
“No one has ever become poor by giving.” ― Anne Frank
“Compassion is the basis of morality.” ― Arthur Schopenhauer
Carter, Warren. “Matthew.” Gale A. Yee, Ed. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
Case-Winters, Anna. Matthew: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: a Theological Commentary on the Bible. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.
Clay, Rebecca A. “Are you experiencing compassion fatigue?” American Psychological Association, July 11, 2022. https://www.apa.org/topics/covid-19/compassion-fatigue accessed July 27, 2023.
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Organize a community service project such as assembling school supplies in backpacks.
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (firstname.lastname@example.org), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Genesis 32:22-31 and Psalm 17:1-7, 15 • Isaiah 55:1-5 and Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21 • Romans 9:1-5 • Matthew 14:13-21
Find the full text here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=153