Today in our gospel text we hear that when Jesus went on shore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured those who were sick.
Compassion… and sympathy… and empathy… often get confused with one another. And they are cousins, but there are important differences.
You might like spiders.
I happen not to.
They creep me out to be honest.
And not only do I not like the big hairy ones that could bite you and make you sick, but I don’t even like the daddy long legs that I have heard eat other bugs and make our life better and definitely would never actually hurt us.
There’s a good chance that if you’re like me and spiders also give you the heebie-jeebies, and you saw someone with a spider crawling up their neck and into their hair, you would have a reaction. You would probably jump and feel your skin crawl.
If you did have that kind of reaction you would have felt what is called “empathy.”
Science tells us how empathy works…. Scientists say that something called “mirror neurons,” rise up in our brains when we witness someone in pain…or someone laughing or smiling…and because of these mirror neurons we actually feel what that other person is feeling…
which is a really powerful thing…
its more powerful than what we call sympathy.
Sympathy is when you don’t actually feel what the other person is feeling but you can understand it. You can think about what it might feel like and you can relate in a certain kind of way.
So there’s sympathy and there’s empathy…
But compassion is different. It goes deeper. It ventures further.
Compassion actually means “to suffer with,” so when a person is compassionate, they don’t pretend the suffering of another doesn’t exist or run away from it, but they stay present with the person and their suffering
Compassion means to recognize and feel the pain of another person, but then to also take the step of trying to alleviate that person’s suffering and act to do something to help.
And we hear that Jesus had compassion for the crowds in the wilderness around the Sea of Galilee…
…which really is remarkable
because Jesus had just found out that his cousin John, who was a friend, and in some ways a mentor, had been murdered in a terribly grotesque and ultraviolent way – John had been decapitated and his head displayed at a party for people who I imagine celebrated and laughed and jeered at the spectacle.
And I don’t know about you but when I’m grieving or when things are difficult in my own life, I find I am not always in the best space to be there for other people.
It can be easy to be blinded by my own grief and to get stuck in my own head and it’s hard to see the needs of other people and harder still to take action to help.
I find myself more often being like the disciples in this story.
The disciples can’t really be described as compassionate.
They come to Jesus to present him with the need of the crowd, but rather than bearing with them and being with them…
Rather than entering deeply into the experience of the peoples’ need…
They would rather send them away to fend for themselves…
But Jesus, even in his personal grief, looked on the crowd with compassion.
He saw their suffering.
He was emotionally moved by their suffering,
AND he wanted to see their suffering end so he acted to help relieve that suffering.
Jesus took the time to connect with the people.
He didn’t want them to be sent away.
He wanted to be with them.
And he cured those who were sick, and he fed those who were hungry. And Jesus still comes to you and me.
Jesus still comes to those of us who are sick and hungry – to heal and feed us.
As I look around our country and world today, it seems there is not only less compassion, but less empathy or even sympathy in the relationships that play out in person and online.
Certainly, in the media and in politics and on facebook there is a lot of dismissing of people that see things differently than we do….and we turn away from those who are
Because Suffering of any kind can be difficult to endure.
It can be especially difficult to enter into the suffering of another person because you don’t have to, because it is uncomfortable and dark and unpleasant and scary –
but Jesus doesn’t get the heebie-jeebies to enter into our suffering with us.
God enters into life with us – all of us.
And God doesn’t send any one of us away to fend for ourselves.
Instead, God has compassion for us.
God Sees us, bears with us, and has acted to help us.
On the cross, Jesus has entered fully into our pain, fully into our despair, fully into our loneliness, our sickness and our suffering.
He doesn’t just listen with a sympathetic ear or offer empathetic advice…
he enters into our suffering and makes it God’s own.
God is with us…
bringing us into community, feeding us with love, calling us to serve in his name and to act for the sake of our neighbor.
By the Sea of Galilee, Jesus redirects his disciples toward compassion and points out the need of those hungry women and men and children and says to his disciples,
YOU give them something to eat,
and then he gathers what they have – five loaves and two fish – meager though it seemed and blessed it and broke it and, miraculously there was enough….and there was an abundance ….
In Jesus’ hands, what his disciples can scrape together is more than enough.
And what we have, placed in Jesus hands is multiplied…
This is commonly seen in and around the Holy Land, which is where we got this plate.
It is a reproduction of an old, old, mosaic that tells the story of the feeding of the five thousand, but with a twist.
Here you can see the two fish and the loaves of bread…but there are not five,
There are four loaves…
The fifth loaf of bread is the one that the community places on top to become the body of Christ and bread for the assembly that gathers TODAY.
Like the disciples and the crowd by the Sea of Galilee, WE also gather in the wilderness, we also are hungry, we also depend on God…
We are reminded that we are a part of this story…
Just as two fish and five loaves placed in the hands of Christ became exponentially larger, feeding 5,000, leaving 12 baskets of leftovers….
So whatever we bring to God, God will exponentially bless and multiply…
In planning for ministry, we often talk about actionable steps.
Not just feelings, not just sentiment, not even just hope, but action born of God.
I came to record this week and ventured into Price Hall to see piles of school supply kits that disciples of Jesus in our congregation have made with loving hands… maybe it was the banjo that caught my eye…
but not only do they have pencils and paper in them but the package is put together in a handmade cinch sack made by one of our quilters…
thread and fabric placed in the care of Jesus…has been multiplied and will be used to nurture those hungry for learning…
This week we are collecting detergent for ACTS House, which ministers to people experiencing homelessness in our community.
These gifts will be given to people and families who are in transition in the most difficult time in our living memory.
And we continue to collect food and give food to neighbors through our food panties.
We place these things in the care of Jesus and watch as he multiplies them for those in need…
Our rising seniors, the class of 2020 and our Epiphany Youth Group leadership team imagined a way to reach out to the youth of our congregation
– youth leaders and adult leaders this week and next will be delivering care packages with an EYG directory, candy and scripture verses, to remind our youth
that nothing can separate us from the love of God and nothing can separate us from one another.
We place paper and things in the care of Jesus and watch as he multiplies them…
Jesus’ compassion towards the crowds – and for you and to me, led ultimately to his passion itself, and to giving his life away for us on the cross.
As his Body we are called to the same action – we are called to give ourselves away.
And, like the bread that fed the multitudes, Jesus takes our lives in his hands…
Like bread, our lives in the hands of God, our bodies and souls, our money and resources, our desires and hopes, and we are more than enough…
Like twelve baskets of extras, God makes us more than enough to nourish and feed and extend his care to those who are hungry and in need in of hope,
May you know yourselves to be bread for the world in the hands of Jesus, full of compassion.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.