Sunday, August 6, 2017

Sermon: "You Give Them Something to Eat" (Matthew 14: 13-21)

Sixteen years ago, Jesús Lara Lopez came to the United States from Mexico. According to news reports, Jesús got a work permit, and a job at a packaging facility in Willard, Ohio.
He’s never been charged with a crime. He’s paid his taxes. He’s never received food stamps. His four children, born since he arrived in the U.S., are all U.S. citizens.
A few weeks ago, on July 18, he was deported back to Mexico. His children and about a dozen other family members, friends, and supporters, went with him to Cleveland Hopkins International Airport for an emotional farewell.
Imagine being a child, his child, having to say goodbye to your father, watching your family get torn apart, not knowing when you would ever see your father again.
Immigration officials say they prioritize the arrest and removal of those who are threats to national security and public safety. But Jesús Lara Lopez was clearly NOT a threat. Why was he deported? Why was his family ripped apart by the U.S. government?
I really didn't know the answer to that question, until I heard William Barber mention a man who was at the General Assembly - an immigrant who has never been stopped, never been questioned. This man is from England. He's of the "right" race. It's a racial thing. Racism is why Jesús was deported.
Many Americans are happy to see him go. “Send him away,” one commenter said. “Send his wife and kids, too.”
But as I said, his kids are U.S. citizens. So they will stay. Without their father.

“Send them away.” That’s what the disciples said when a huge crowd gathered around Jesus. The crowd had listened to Jesus speak. When Jesus needed a break, he tried to get away, but the crowd followed him. The crowd was hungry for the words that came from Jesus’s mouth. And then, the crowd was hungry for food; hungry for bread; hungry for nourishment.
“Send them away,” the disciples said. “Send them away so they can go to their villages and buy food for themselves.”
It’s not so different than what many Americans are saying about immigrants and refugees. “Send them away. Let them find food back home. Our resources are limited as it is. Why should we feed them? Why should we provide for them? Send them away.”
It made sense to the disciples. It makes sense to many today, including our president, who plans to cut in half the number of immigrants and refugees to the U.S.
But it does not make sense to Jesus.
He said, “They don’t need to be sent away.”
No one else said that. To everyone else, it made perfect sense to send the people away, to send them back home to find food. Send them back home so they can get what they need.
But that did not make sense to Jesus, and the reason, scripture tells us, is that Jesus had compassion. That’s what set Jesus apart. That’s what led him to respond differently. He saw the crowd, and he had compassion on them.
And his compassion prevented Jesus from sending them away.
What is compassion? Compassion is kindness, and mercy, and love. In the ancient languages, the word for compassion refers to the bond between a mother and the child of her womb. The connection between a mother and her unborn or newly born child is strong and powerful. For a newborn child, there is no distinction between child and mother. There is no recognition of a distinction between the two, no concept of separate, individual identity. That’s how close and strong and powerful the connection is.
The mother feels this connection, this bond.
That’s compassion. That’s the love Jesus has for the crowds, for all people. It’s a recognition that we are bound together as one, that your suffering is my suffering, so how can I not help when you need help.
According to Milia Islam Majeed, director of the South Coast Interfaith Council, compassion “calls us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. It not only impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow human beings, but it also asks of us to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another in our place.”
Bible scholars have pointed out that compassion is God’s nature. What is God? God is compassion. So the best way to connect with God is to act with compassion. God has compassion on us because God knows there is a connection between us and God.
When we become aware of the connection, that bond, between us and all living things, we are compelled to act with compassion. When we recognize that we are all one, brothers and sisters, united by the Spirit - how can we NOT act with compassion?

The disciples were still learning this. “Send them away,” they said. “What are they to us?”
But Jesus, who was fully aware of the connection between all people and God, said, “You feed them. You take care of them.”
The disciples said, “Us? We don’t even have enough for ourselves! Why should we sacrifice what we have for them?”
This is of course the same argument that many use today to deny service to the poor, to take healthcare away from the poor, to deny welfare, to deny other forms of aid, to deny immigrants and refugees a place to dwell among us. “Why should we care for them? Why should we make room for them? Why should we support them? Why should we allow immigrants and refugees to have the benefits that belong to citizens of the United States?”
The disciples said all they had were five loaves and two fish.
(As a side note, Matthew says nothing here about a boy. In other versions of this story, there is a boy present who has the five loaves and two fish; but in Matthew’s version, it is the disciples who say, “we just have five loaves and two fish.”)
Jesus said, “Bring them to me; bring me the five loaves and two fish.… Watch closely. I need to show you something. There is something you need to learn…”
Jesus took the five loaves of bread, blessed them and broke them. Then he gave the bread to the disciples, and they gave the bread to the people.
And the people ate and were filled. And they took up what was left over of the broken pieces: twelve baskets full.
Abundance, from compassion.
The disciples could only see scarcity. They could only see limitations. But Jesus showed them endless abundance.
Maybe there are some today who say that’s nice and all -- in a Bible story. But in the modern real world, resources don’t just multiply like that. And if we just welcome anyone in, we’ll run out; we’ll run out of resources, we’ll run out of money, we’ll run out of jobs.
That just sounds so logical, doesn’t it? Even those of us who are motivated by compassion find ourselves admitting that sometimes, there just isn’t enough to go around, and that we need to be careful and cautious with how we hand out resources.
However, studies actually support Jesus’s abundance mindset, the mindset that says there is more than enough, as long as we share generously with those in need.
Studies show that greater welfare aid actually benefits the economy. Help those who are poor, and the entire economy benefits. Help those who are poor, and everyone - not just the poor - wins. Help those at the bottom, and the benefits will trickle up.
And studies show that better health care helps the economy. Provide the people with health care, and the economy will benefit. Care for as many people as you can, and everyone - not just the poor - wins.
And studies show that investing in education helps the economy. Provide free, well-funded education for all, and the economy as a whole will benefit. Support quality public education, and everyone wins.
So why do so many NOT want to help the poor? Why do they NOT want to help immigrants and refugees? Why do they NOT want to provide universal, single-payer healthcare? Why do they NOT want to adequately fund quality public education?
Either they lack compassion, or they lack faith in God’s abundance, or they're racially biased. Or all three.
Oh, it may sound to some that advocating for things like health care and education and welfare and immigration is being political. But it’s not being any more political than Jesus was.
When Jesus fed the 5,000, not only was it an act of compassion; not only was it an act of faith in God’s abundance; it was also a political act directed squarely at Caesar.
Caesar called himself the giver of peace. Caesar called himself the giver of bread. But Caesar gave bread in exchange for peace - and by “peace,” Caesar meant compliance & obedience.
In being a “giver of bread,” Jesus portrays himself as an alternative to Caesar. Caesar provides a little bread to the people out of what appears to be Caesar’s wealth & abundance; Jesus provides an abundance of bread out of what appears to be little. Yet it is Jesus’s meager supply of five loaves and two fish that multiplies, while Caesar’s bread never seems to be enough.
Also, Caesar provides bread in exchange for compliance; he does it to keep the people quiet. He does it to keep people loyal to him and to the kingdom of Rome. Jesus provides bread out of compassion. He does it because of love.
Everything about the feeding of the 5,000 is set up to be a contrast between how things are in the Caesar’s kingdom and how things are in God’s kingdom.
So is our demand for compassion for refugees political? Is our demand for health care political? Is our demand for fully-funded public education political? Is our demand for fully-funded welfare and social services political?
Yes. It is, in the very same way that Jesus’s actions were political. We’re not taking sides with the Republicans; we’re not taking sides with the Democrats. We're taking sides with what's right. We're taking sides with Jesus.
It’s not easy. One reason I pray and study the scriptures and read my Bible and listen to other Christian teachers and preachers is so that I can grow in compassion and grow in my understanding of God’s abundance. These things are not easy for me. They are not easy for any of us.
But it’s what I want. I want to be more like Jesus. I want to follow the way he teaches. I want to live in his kingdom. I want to be more compassionate and more generous. That’s really why we’re here: to worship the God of abundance, the God who gives so much, and who always has more to give; to learn how compassion might inspire us to be more selfless, more loving, more compassionate ourselves; to learn how we can truly be a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.

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