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Sermon for August 6, 2017

Anna V. Copeland, Preaching

Matthew 14:13-21

Feeding the Five Thousand

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. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the 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.”  Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

                          

The Face of Compassion

Somewhere in West Tennessee, not far from Graceland, nine women -- or "The 9 Nanas," as they prefer to be called -- gather in the darkness of night. At 4am they begin their daily routine -- a ritual that no one, not even their husbands, knew about for 30 years. They have one mission and one mission only: to create joy through compassion. And it all begins with baked goods.

“One of us starts sifting the flour and another washing the eggs,” explained Nana Mary Ellen, the appointed spokesperson for their secret society. “

Over the next three hours, The 9 Nanas (who all consider themselves sisters, despite what some of their birth certificates say) will whip up hundreds of pound cakes, as part of a grand scheme to help those in need. And then, before anyone gets as much as a glimpse of them, they’ll disappear back into their daily lives. The only hint that may remain is the heavenly scent of vanilla, lemon and lime, lingering in the air.

They began their plan 35 years ago -- when the “sisters” got together for their weekly card game -- something their husbands referred to as “Broads and Bridge.” Two of the women started talking how their grandparents lent a hand in the community and lives changed. Each woman around the circle had been taken in by MaMaw and PaPaw and raised as if they were their own, when their own birth mothers or fathers had died.

“MaMaw Ruth would read in the paper that someone had died,” Mary Ellen remembered, “and she’d send off one of her special pound cakes. She didn’t have to know the family. She just wanted to put a little smile on their faces. And we started thinking about what we could do to make a difference like that. What if we had a million dollars? How would we spend it?

So the ladies began brainstorming. They figured out a way to put aside $400 a month and then they started eavesdropping. They became more mindful and attentive to the conversations around them. When they heard about a widow or a single mom who needed a little help, they’d step in and anonymously pay a utility bill or buy some new clothes for the children. They clipped coupons and went to sales and collected things to give away.

The Nanas would find out where a person in need lived and send a package with a note that simply said, “Somebody loves you” -- and they’d be sure to include one of MaMaw Ruth’s special pound cakes.

The more people they helped, the bolder they became.

“We gave new meaning to the term drive-by,” Mary Ellen said with delight. “We’d drive through low-income neighborhoods and look for signs of need. Then we’d return before the sun came up, like cat burglars, and drop off a little care package.”

For three decades, the ladies’ compassion toward their neighbors went undetected, until five years ago, when Mary Ellen’s husband, started noticing extra mileage on the car and large amounts of cash being withdrawn from their savings account. “He brought out bank statements and they were highlighted!”

So 30 years into their secret mission, the 9 Nanas and their husbands gathered in Mary Ellen’s living room and the sisters came clean. They told the husbands about the eavesdropping and the drive-bys. And that’s where their story gets even better -- because the husbands offered to help.

These days, the 9 Nanas sell pound cakes on-line to raise money and today they are able to take on even bigger projects, given their online success. Recently they donated more than $5,000 of pillows and linens and personal care products to a shelter for survivors of domestic violence. And that million dollars they once wished for? They’re almost there. In the last 35 years, the 9 Nanas have contributed nearly $900,000 of compassion to their local community.”

We spend a lot of time complaining and lamenting about the state of our world right now, angry with those out there somewhere who are supposed to fix it.

Have you ever noticed that there isn’t a single parable or story by Jesus about relying on Caesar to fix the problems of the world? Jesus’ stories always begin with teeny tiny faith only as big as a mustard seed. Jesus lifts up the compassion of a boy offering to share his lunch and the world is fed in today’s familiar parable of the feeding of the five thousand. Our church member Betty Kehoe’s volunteerism at the York Hospital began one Tuesday morning as a volunteer and grew to 10,000 hours one-half day of compassion at a time.

God comes alongside us in Christ and transforms our life and then we become compassionate Alongsiders for the world. That’s how it works. This is where it begins. There’s no other way. There never has been.

We all know there’s a deep hunger in our world right now. We feel it as an ache in our own gut. Mother Teresa described it succinctly when she said: “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is truly the most terrible poverty”. That need is among us everywhere.

A human’s deepest need is to be loved. In developing countries around the world, millions of children suffer from the loneliness and isolation of crushing poverty. They need daily provision, as do we all. But they also have a profound need to be loved and welcomed into family and community and encouraged to be all that God made them to be. Yet this is perhaps the hardest need to meet because it can’t be bought or traded or legislated. It can only be freely offered one person, one community at a time.

A Cambodian Proverb says: “Only a spider can repair his own web.” In every community, only the people in that community can see and respond with compassion to the needs around them.

There’s an International Non-Profit called Alongsider International that creates partnerships with church networks in each country where they serve. Their mission is to: “equip compassionate young Christians in poor nations to walk alongside those who walk alone, to love, welcome and encourage the most vulnerable children and orphans in their own communities. They believe the answers to each nation’s problems lies in the people of those nations.

In south-east Asia, one young man named Daly lived in abject poverty in a neighborhood of tin huts with dirt floors. He spent all his time studying so that he could one day go away to the university and escape. All he dreamed about was how he could get money, and what he would do with it. Then one day, he heard about a little boy who lived just around the corner from him. The boy’s mother had died and the father was disabled from a war injury.

Daly was a Christian and through his church heard about Alongsiders. He prayed about his future and decided that God wanted him to stay in his village and become an Alongsider for this young boy. He will stay with this young boy, giving him the love and stability that the child would not otherwise have known.

Alongsiders International is a movement of one generation helping the next, in Africa, Asia and beyond. Children help children. Daly said, “Look for those who need love in your community. The ones who are feeling hopeless.”

This is the lunch bag of loaves and fishes where God’s transforming compassion for the world begins. We do this when we take our kids on mission trips. We do this when we teach our children to be generous. We do this when we witness and celebrate our kid’s good sportsmanship when they respond with compassion towards those who lost the game or those who got hurt while pouring it all out on the field.

My college roommate and I never had any money when we were really young. Both our parents were of modest means so paying the first and last months rent and a deposit was near impossible. The first time I got an apartment on my own I made those payments but there was nothing left for food. My former roommate Joan bought a bag of groceries for me and left them with a kind note on the porch. Her compassion for my anxiety overwhelmed me, moved me and changed me. Compassion shared multiplies the gifts of God.

What stops us from expressing compassion to those in need of it is so often fear. We fear that we won’t have enough for ourselves. We fear getting criticized, or hurt or rejected. And we live in a culture and a time in history colored by a false sense of fear of the other.

We sing “Amazing Grace”, as we did this morning and love this heart-wrenching hymn. We sing “twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved. We know what grace is, the unmerited, undeserved love of God in Jesus Christ, the power of God working in us to give us lives we could not have had on our own.

But what could John Newton, the writer of Amazing Grace have meant when he said that grace both teaches us to fear and also relieves our fears?

When John Newton came to the awareness that he had sinned against God and humankind through his business running a slave ship from England to Africa, he fell to his knees stricken by all the harm he had done. Awestruck and shaken, he experienced God’s overwhelming, unmerited grace to forgive him. This is the kind of fear that gave him the words to Amazing Grace. This sense of being awestruck comes us when God utterly transforms and renews our mind, body and spirit: when God turns us around after we’ve wandered recklessly in the wrong direction. God teaches us this kind of fear, the vulnerability of opening ourselves to the power of God at work in and through us enable us to risk impossible things.

When we fear God we do not need to fear anything else. American Methodist Bishop William W. Willimon writes in his recent work “Fear of the Other”: “Courage is not the absence of fear but rather having a reason for doing the right thing in spite of our fear – revering or honoring something more than safety.”

A little boy a long time ago was no doubt in charge of carrying his family’s lunch to the hillside to hear a Rabbi named Jesus. He risked getting in trouble with his mom by giving his lunch to one of the disciples who said he needed it, while no doubt most in the crowd kept their own stash hidden under their cloaks fearing they wouldn’t have enough if they shared what they had.

Each of the 12 disciples were no doubt also afraid that they didn’t have the means to do what Jesus asked them to do, feed a hungry crowd of five thousand, but God provided a way through the fearless compassion of a child. At the end of the day God’s grace provided an abundance of leftovers after everyone was satisfied.

We think we’re the only ones who feel a little lost, adrift, hungry for something we can’t figure out how to satisfy. But God has a plan. Trust God enough to give up even a little bit of time, a little bit of bread, a little bit of compassion, and God will fill our emptiness and the loneliness of the world with the very substance of God’s own self, the bread of life for a hungry world.

Amen

(The Business Nine Women Kept A Secret for Three Decades

By Lori Weiss, syndicated from Huffingtonpost.com, June 29, 2012)