Compassion: Are you the answer to your own prayer?

30 The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. 31 Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

32 So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. 33 But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.

35 By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. 36 Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”

37 But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”

They said to him, “That would take more than half a year’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?”

38 “How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.”

When they found out, they said, “Five—and two fish.”

39 Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. 41 Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. 42 They all ate and were satisfied, 43 and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. 44 The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.

Mark 6:30-44

What follows is the text of a sermon I preached on 6th November 2011 at Southwater Community Methodist Church in West Sussex, for a Compassion Sunday service.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the expression to get out of bed on the wrong side. Sometimes, if we seem in a particularly bad mood during the course of the day, someone might ask us if we got out of bed on the wrong side.

Apparently this expression dates back as far as Roman times, when the left of anything was felt to be unlucky. For Romans, getting out of bed on the left hand side resulted in a foul temperament for the rest of the day.

My problem with this expression is one of perspective. Is the left hand side of the bed on my left when I’m lying on my back, or when I’m lying on my front? Depending on my position in the bed, the left side, or wrong side, alters.

I don’t actually hold to this ancient superstition. For me, what is most likely to effect someone’s temperament during the day is their first interaction with the wider world. If your first interaction is with someone who is unpleasant towards you, that, potentially, could leave you in a bad mood for the rest of the day. If your first interaction is a pleasant affair, with someone who responds to you in a loving, compassionate way, then you are far more likely to begin your day at least, in a cheery, happy fashion.

It’s amazing how such a small thing, a short interaction at the beginning of the day, can have such an enormous impact. Not only can the nature of that interaction set your mood for the rest of the day, but it can also impact on others around you because of the way that you, in turn, relate to them.

If someone shows you love at the beginning of the day, your attitude is likely to be loving and compassionate.

If someone shows you indifference, your attitude is likely to be more negative throughout the day. This brings us to our first point this morning.

In our reading today, we saw two totally different and contrasting attitudes towards the crowd of five thousand. Jesus shows compassion towards this vast throng, whilst the disciples see them as an inconvenience, an intrusion into their afternoon off.

In this well known passage, Jesus and his disciples have been busy teaching. By the point we encounter them, they are tired and hungry, and want a break. Jesus suggests that they go away to a quiet place to rest for a while. They headed off in a boat to find a spot where they could rest and relax, but crowds of people ran ahead. By the time the disciples’ boat had landed, there was already a large crowd of people waiting for them.

Now, if I was in this position, I think I would push the boat back into the lake and sail to somewhere quieter. Jesus takes a rather more charitable approach, however. Mark tells us that on seeing the crowd, Jesus “had compassion on them.” To him, the crowd were like “sheep without a shepherd.” He saw them as people who were wandering directionless, without a leader, unable to find nourishment or protection. He responds to their need by teaching them “many things.” He recognises that their primary need is to hear the Word of God, believing that this is the source of the direction that they lack.

The noticeable difference in attitude between Jesus and his disciples comes a little later, after Jesus has been teaching the crowd for sometime. The disciples suggest that, since it is getting late and people are getting hungry, Jesus should send the crowd away to find food. It is getting late, and they themselves are hungry. They have gathered in a remote place with no chance of finding food locally, so they think the best course to take is for Jesus to send them away so that they can fend for themselves.

It is clear that whilst the disciples are concerned that people by this time will be getting hungry, they personally do no feel any responsibility for the crowd. They are largely indifferent to their plight. They certainly do not believe that it is up to them to feed them. Tell them to go, they tell Jesus. Their attitude towards the people who have been listening to Jesus is “they’re not our problem.”

I have no doubt that if I was amongst the disciples, I would have felt much the same. The disciples were no doubt tired and hungry after a busy day, and the challenge of feeding five thousand people is something that they cannot even begin to contemplate. It’s not surprising that they feel no personal responsibility for the people. Why should they have to feed them?

I’m sure that we often follow the example of the disciples. We must all have seen hungry people and decided that they are not our problem. I’m sure we’ve all seen people in London with a cup and a “Homeless and Hungry” sign and walked past them without giving much consideration to their plight. They’re not our concern, we tell ourselves. Let someone else deal with that particular problem. We have enough stresses of our own to worry about someone else’s situation.

Sometimes as Christians, we might be moved to pray for the plight of others. We might ask God to intervene in a situation, but even then we are often reluctant to take practical action ourselves. When we see pictures of starving people in the Third World on television or in newspapers, we often pray to God and ask him to feed them. We see sick people and ask God to ease their suffering. We see victims of natural disasters and pray to God to support them.

When we respond in this way to what we see, we are responding in the same way as the disciples in today’s passage. These poor people in far away countries are not our concern. Someone else will deal with this issue. We’re tired and hungry, we’ve got enough on our plates without worrying about people thousands of miles away.

As I read about this miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand, though, I can hear God responding to our pleas in the same way as Jesus responds to his disciples here. Jesus’ attitude is very different to that of the disciples, and often far removed from the attitude that we take.

When Jesus sees the plight of the hungry crowd, out in a desolate spot, he displays not indifference, but compassion. He does not turn the crowd away as the disciples urge him to do. He does not release them to find something for themselves to eat. Just as he has provided for their spiritual needs by teaching them, he is now determined to provide for their physical needs. These people are his concern. They have sought him out, followed him, and listened to him teach. He responds to the crowd not with the detachment of the disciples, but with great compassion.

As is often the case, though, Jesus shocks his disciples with his response. He doesn’t agree with them that the crowd should be sent away. He doesn’t even respond immediately with one of his miracles.  Instead, he turns the issue straight back round to the disciples.

They say to him, send the people away.

He says to them, YOU give them something to eat.

He presents his disciples with a seemingly impossible task. They were flabbergasted by his instruction. How could they possibly be expected to give this huge crowd something to eat? The suggestion would have seemed preposterous. Yet the instruction is clear; YOU give them something to eat.

I have no doubt that God is saying the same to us as we see images of starving people, or people affected by disaster. We might pray to God, and ask him to do something, but as I read through today’s passage, I can hear saying back to us, YOU do something. I can hear him saying to us:

YOU feed the poor.

YOU ease the suffering of the sick.

YOU support victims of natural disasters.

This is certainly not to say that God does not care about people in need; he loves his whole creation, and that includes each and every person who walks upon the earth. He calls on us, though, to build his kingdom here on earth, to serve him, and, of course, to demonstrate his love to all people. We are often the tool by which God works out his plans for the world. He uses us, his people, to be the difference in the world.

That’s what Jesus asks his disciples to do here. He turns to his disciples and says to them “YOU give them something to eat.”  He turns it back on them.  If they want to see the kingdom of God come, if they truly want to follow Jesus, then they need to begin taking responsibility. They need to have the attitude of Christ in all things.

Here, Jesus’ attitude is clear; we must do something about these people. They are our responsibility. It is up to us to look after them. He wants his disciples to adopt this attitude too, which is why he says to them, YOU give them something to eat.

When we cry out to God for help for those who are less fortunate than we are, he turns it back to us and says, “you do it.”  He wants us to adopt his attitude and to have the same heart that he has for the people. He wants us take the initiative, to put our money where our mouth is and to take action.

I wonder how often when we cry out for God to help those in need we stop to think, what would he have me do? Do we share his attitude? Do we have the same heart for his people that he has? Do we combine pray with action?

There are two distinct attitudes in this passage; the “not our problem” attitude of the disciples, and the compassion of Christ. I wonder which is closer to our own attitude?

Our second point today is concerned with the miraculous way in which Jesus turns something small into something amazing. Jesus takes just five loaves of bread and two fish and somehow satisfies the hunger of five thousand people.

As we have seen, whilst the disciples are keen to turn the crowd away, Jesus shows great compassion and wants to provide for their physical needs as well as their spiritual needs. He does so, however, by shocking the disciples yet again.

When Jesus tells the disciples, “YOU give them something to eat,” they must have thought that he had gone mad. How could we possible feed this many people, they would have thought. There’s no where to get food from, and even if there was, it would cost far too much money to buy enough for five thousand people, far more money than they had.

Yet Jesus’ response to their disbelief is to ask them, “how many loaves do you have?” This must have seemed an absurd question to the disciples; there’s no way they could have had the quantity of food necessary to feed this large crowd. Jesus expects them nevertheless to do what he says and to trust him for the outcome, so they duly investigate how much food they have between them.

Jesus expects his disciples to do what he asks, and to trust him for the outcome, so they duly check how much food they have, and report back that they have five loaves and two fish.

No doubt they believed that what they had was completely inadequate. Five loaves of bread and two small fish was barely enough to feed the twelve disciples, let alone to provide enough food for five thousand hungry people.

No doubt you have also felt that way. I know I have when confronted with the needs of the world. Living in the UK, I may be rich compared to much of the world’s population, but when I see millions starving in Africa on the news, my paltry income seems totally inconsequential. Even if I gave every penny I have, I often think, that would hardly scratch the surface of the problem of hunger. How can I, as an individual, do anything about the millions of people starving in the world?  The millions who are staring poverty in the face?  The millions who have a very bleak future in front of them?  Even if I wanted to do something, I simply do not have enough cash to have any real impact on the situation. I’m sure you’ve felt the same. Like me, you’ve probably watched something like Comic Relief on television and given a tenner because you feel you ought, although you’re not convinced it will really do any good at all. Consequently, we fail to do anything. We leave it up to governments or the super rich to take action. They, after all, have the resources to do something. We do not.

In today’s passage, however, we see how Jesus can work miracles with even the smallest amount. The five loaves and two fish may have seemed inconsequential to the disciples, but in Jesus’ hands that small offering became enough to feed five thousand people. What’s more, they didn’t just have a crumb each, but ate until they were satisfied.  Amazingly, even after feeding five thousand people, there was enough left over to fill twelve baskets. Jesus simply gave thanks to God for his provision and instructed his disciples to distribute the food to the crowd.

Jesus shows us that no matter how great the need, if we offer what we have to God and invite him to use it for his glory, then there are no limits to what our paltry gifts can achieve. Jesus fed five thousand people with just five loaves of bread and two fish. That’s a meal for maybe a couple of people that fed a whole crowd. Think of all that we have been given and the impact that just a small portion of this could have if we asked God to bless what we have and offered it to him for his work. Just as something as insignificant as that first interaction we have at the beginning of the day can have a huge impact on us, and through us the world, just a small offering can have a massive effect on the world.

Today we’re thinking about the charity Compassion. This wonderful organisation are a testament to what just a little can do. It costs just £21 a month to sponsor a child through Compassion. That’s the price of a Sky TV subscription, or seven coffees from Starbucks. £21 is £16 less than the average UK mobile phone bill. In Britain today, £21 is not much more than the five loaves and two fish that the disciples managed to muster in today’s passage.

In the hands of Compassion, that £21 can change the life of a child in the developing world. Just as Jesus was concerned to meet the spiritual and physical needs of the crowd that followed him, child sponsorship helps to meet the spiritual and physical needs of a needy child. A sponsored child is supported, educated, fed, introduced to the gospel and prepared for adult life in a way that would otherwise be impossible. That young person, by virtue of their sponsorship, will influence others and potentially will alter the lives of their family and friends, their neighbours, and possibly their whole town or even their country. That’s an awful lot of impact for just £21 a month.

So often we pray to God and ask for him to change the world, yet more often than not we are the answer to our own prayers. We must strive to avoid the pessimism of the disciples, look at what we have got, and use that to bring about the change we pray for. We might feel that what we have is inadequate to have any impact on the world, but in today’s reading it is clear that that is not the attitude to have. We should strive instead to emulate Christ and embrace his attitude, using what we have to bring about change.

If you’re already sponsoring a child, well done. If you’re not, however, why not take the opportunity to do so today. You’d be amazed at the impact that £21 can have!

In conclusion, think back to that first interaction of the day. If someone shows you compassion, you are set up right for the day ahead. If you’re treated with indifference, it can wrong foot you for the rest of the day.

Compassion works with people, not at the beginning of their day, but at the beginning of their lives. If we embrace the attitude of Christ, accepting that the needy of the world are our concern, if we offer what we have to God through Compassion, these children will be set up right for the rest of their lives. The impact you can have on a child’s life is immeasurable, and can have an impact much more significant than you could even contemplate.

If we offer even a small amount to further the work of Christ’s work here on earth, he can transform it into something remarkable.

So let’s reflect today and in the week ahead on our attitude towards the needy of the world. Do we have a heart for the poor, as Christ has a heart for the hungry in today’s passage? Or, like the disciples, do we think of the needy as not our problem?

As the disciples offered up what little they had to Christ, do we offer up what we have, or do we hold back thinking that what we have is inadequate and unable to make a real difference?

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