Summary: Serving others sacrificially and with compassion is the most important call in the Christian life, and it's more important that we heed that call, even when we may not feel like it, or believe we don't have the necessary resources.
This is a really busy time of year for everyone. Peak vacation season is quickly drawing to a close. The kids have headed back to school and are getting into that homework routine again. Extracurricular activities are kicking off. There are lots of Fall events to plan for. And all of us are left to adjust our schedules accordingly. For us, we’ve been getting Mary Ellen back into the school mindset, getting up earlier because her school starts earlier this year, and getting her signed up for some new after school activities. On top of that, both Ken and I have been busy preparing for our Charge Conferences, which are now less than a month away. That means lots of extra meetings for both of us in a short amount of time. This week alone, between Mary Ellen’s back to school schedule and our own meeting schedules, both of us had meetings or something else going on at work every night. I’m sure many of you are experiencing the same sorts of things. No wonder we are always asking, “Where has the time gone?”
In any case, I share that with you to say this: when my schedule gets really busy and I’m getting home really late at night, all I want to do is sit on the couch with Ken and either read or watch a movie; something that doesn’t require any brain power or interaction. I’m told this is a common trait of introverts, but the truth of the matter is that every now and then, we all get to a point where we need a break. Where we pick up in Matthew’s gospel this morning, that’s exactly how Jesus is feeling. He’s been at this ministry thing for many, many months now. He’s been walking all over the Galilean countryside preaching, teaching, healing, and ministering. Then, on top of that, he has just learned that his cousin, John the Baptist, has been beheaded by Herod. That’s why Matthew comments, “When Jesus heard this, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” Jesus is worn out, sad, and probably even a little scared. He just needs some time to himself, like any of us would.
But it is not to be. Jesus is well-known at this point, and the crowds follow him ceaselessly; hoping to hear his teaching, hoping to be healed. So, as Jesus rows out into the water for some quiet time, the crowds are following him on the shoreline, calling out to him. At this point, many of us would probably make the decision to just ignore the rest of the world for a little while. We turn our phones to “silent” and say, “Forget it.” But not Jesus. When Jesus saw the crowds, Matthew tells us, “he had compassion on them.” So Jesus immediately rowed back to the shore and he began healing the sick.
And here is our first lesson from the story of the Feeding of the 5,000. Jesus didn’t pull back into his shell when people needed his help. He had compassion on them, and he helped them. You know, I think one of the most difficult, hardest truths of Christianity to swallow is that it’s not all about us. We don’t mind “talking the talk.” And every now and then, we’ll donate some clothes or food for a needy person so that we can feel like we are doing what Christians are “supposed” to be doing, though really it’s more because we were doing a little Spring cleaning and just needed to get rid of some stuff. But when it really comes down to it, how often to we actually set aside our own plans, even our own needs, and show compassion to another?
I was reading an article this week about a new book coming out called Almost Christian. It was written by one of the premier theologians in the area of Youth Ministry, and it the book grew out of a research project called the National Study of Youth and Religion. Sadly, the study revealed that most American teens who called themselves Christian were indifferent and inarticulate about their faith. Though 75% of American teenagers claim to be Christian, only half deem it important, fewer than half practice their faith, and most can’t talk coherently about their beliefs. Based on these findings, the book claims that more and more teenagers are embracing what is called “moralistic therapeutic deism,” which is essentially a watered-down faith that portrays God as a “divine therapist” whose chief goal is to boost people’s self-esteem. In other words, we are teaching our teenagers a “gospel of niceness,” where faith is simply doing good and not ruffling feathers. We have lost the Christian call to take risks, to witness, and to sacrifice for others. But the thing of it is, this is really a problem across all age ranges, not just among teenagers. With that in mind, one of the most important reminders from the story of the feeding of the 5,000 is that “it’s not about us.” Being a Christian is not about what God does for us, or about what makes us feel good; being a Christian is about what we do for others. We must have compassion on others in their time of need and act on that compassion, even if we may not feel like it at the time.