Sermon: My Brother’s Keeper?
August 6th, 2017 Rev. Betsy Perkins
First Baptist Church, Delavan WI
Scripture passage: Matthew 14:13-21, Psalm 145:8-9,14-21
There is a question that has echoed down the length of history and across every page of scripture, through families and communities, over the continents and oceans of the whole earth. It is a question as relevant today as it was when the question was first asked. The world’s first brothers, Cain and Abel, had an altercation in a farm field and when all was said and done, Abel lay dead. Murdered. God asked Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” Cain responded with his own defiant question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It can be argued that God has gone about answering that question in every story, every commandment, every poem and prayer that is recorded in His Word. Most decisively, God answers that question in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. This morning we hear one of the answers to that question, coming to us from an event in Jesus’ life, echoing into our lives this morning. Am I my brother’s keeper?
Jesus has moved on from the lakeshore where we sat and listened in and learned for the last couple weeks. Jesus has changed his mode of teaching from telling stories/parables to the mode of teaching in action. Yet he is still focused firmly on helping his followers to grow in their understanding of who God is and of the Kingdom of Heaven; what it looks like when God is in charge and when we are fully cooperating with the work of God through Jesus and through the Holy Spirit within us.
The stories we skipped over between the parables and the reading today, include Jesus’ visiting his hometown only to be rejected and disappointed by their lack of faith, and the death of his cousin, John the Baptist, who had baptized Jesus and had prepared the way for Jesus’ entry into ministry. Discouraged by these events and exhausted by the pace and demand of his work, Jesus decides he and the disciples just need to be alone in a quiet place to rest, to allow their souls to be restored. They get into a boat and head across the large lake to a wilderness area on the other side. But apparently there were “leakers” back in Jesus’ day, just like today. One person whispered to another, and that person hollered it out, and someone else announced it on the morning news, so that by the time the boat reached that lonely place it wasn’t so lonely anymore. A whole crowd of people had gathered in the hope that Jesus might meet their needs.
What happens next is one of the most remarkable demonstrations of Jesus revealing to us the heart of God. So remarkable that the story is recorded in each one of the four gospel accounts. Jesus was both a person and God, so when we see him – his emotions, his actions – we truly see God!
Jesus doesn’t react to the unexpected and needy crowd with frustration or anger. He doesn’t stomp back to the boat feeling sorry for himself. In fact, he doesn’t think of himself at all. Jesus’ heart is filled with compassion for the people! Bishop Tom Wright says, “[Jesus] translates his sorrow over John, and perhaps his sorrow over himself, into sorrow for them. Before the outward and visible words of power, of healing the sick, comes the inward and invisible work of power, in which Jesus transforms his own feelings into love for those in need.”
Later in the service we will affirm what we know to be true about God using the words of Psalm 145:8 “The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.” One of the reasons we can claim that with such certainty is because we see Jesus demonstrating exactly that in this story.
Jesus’ care and compassion is not just for the souls of the people – it is for their bodies, too. Matthew reports it in the same breath as he tells of Jesus’ response of compassion, “…he had compassion on them and healed their sick.” Jesus’ heart goes out in love and he acts on it. He does something about their immediate physical needs.
The next concern that arises is about hunger. It’s actually raised by the disciples. I wonder if they recognized Jesus’ response of compassion and love, and if their concern for the people’s hunger is an attempt to practice that, too. Again, the focus is on a physical need of every human body. Jesus doesn’t spiritualize the situation. He doesn’t suggest they can nourish themselves on his preaching instead. Rather, he sets in motion a picnic with real food to provide physical satisfaction.
Twin dilemmas of Hunger and Health Care –
Have you noticed that the two issues addressed in this story are the problems of health and hunger? Two thousand years have passed since this event and our needs are not very different, are they? Health and hunger continue to be huge global concerns, and have been the center of much national attention recently. The debate over healthcare and budget allocations for programs that feed people, like food stamps and meals on wheels, consumes our time and attention.
The World Food Program reports that close to 800 million people worldwide do not have enough food each day to sustain active, healthy lives (that is 1 in 9 people!). Here in the United States, a wealthy, developed nation, the fact is that 1 in 6 families are food insecure! Even closer to home, our own Delavan-Darien school district has close to the highest percentage of children that qualify for subsidized school meals in the entire state of Wisconsin! It is a fact that poor nutrition contributes directly to greater sickness and disability.
Healthcare facts are nearly as discouraging. 44% of the countries that report to the World Health Organization have less than 1 doctor for every 1000 people. Here in the US, we have 2 ½ doctors for every 1000 people. To make that statistic more understandable, it means that if Walworth County was about average, we would have 250 doctors to serve us. Compare that to a similar area of population in the country of Haiti, where they would have only 20 doctors! Or in Uganda, where there would be only 4 doctors! And while we may have adequate numbers of healthcare workers here in the US, not everyone is able to access that care. 10% of Americans under 65 (those not on Medicare) do not have health insurance; of the 90% that do, a quarter have it only because of publically funded insurance, Medicaid. 43% of all children in the US have publically funded healthcare! Every proposal that congress has been recently voting about would mean millions, tens of millions more Americans would be unable to afford and to access healthcare.
These are facts. But we live in an era now when facts seem to be up for debate, where true-facts and fake-facts are hard to distinguish. Facts can help create awareness and point us in helpful directions, but facts can also be used divisively and in self-serving ways. As Christ-followers, as the church, we are called not simply to facts, but to Truth (Amy Butler, in The Christian Citizen, Vol 1, 2017). We are called to share Truth that goes beyond facts.
The Truth is that in the face of human need, Jesus responded with compassion for every person. Human life is valuable. It is not God’s intention that anyone should have to go hungry or to suffer from an illness or injury for which treatment exists. Jesus demonstrated God’s concern for people’s physical needs as well as their spiritual needs; God’s concern is for the whole person. As one seminary professor reflected on the scripture reading for this week, he wrote, “To feed another person is to affirm their human dignity. To feed people till they’re full is to declare them replete with value.” (Matt Skinner, workingpreacher.org)
The disciples recognize the fact of the crowds’ need for food and the lack of food in that wilderness place. Their attempt at compassion and concern is to suggest to Jesus that he send everyone away so they can fend for themselves. Jesus instead calls them to a greater responsibility and to a deeper Truth: “You give them something to eat.” Are you hearing the answer to that age-old question? Am I my brother’s keeper?
Jesus invites his disciple to DO something about it! The discipleship objectives we have set for ourselves here at First Baptist Delavan include DOING something about health and hunger. We have volunteers out in the Park 5 days/week serving breakfast to people who otherwise might go hungry. We are committed to participating in the Blessings in a Backpack program to put food into kids’ backpack to eat over the weekends during the school year. In September, we will need volunteers to participate in a Saturday morning Food Pack that will further supplement the backpacks with a heartier meal. We feed the men of the homeless shelter. Some of you deliver Meals on Wheels. Others contribute and volunteer at the local Food Pantries. The children will visit the Darien Food Pantry during VBS this coming week. Our loose coins in May/June went to help provide healthcare and services to expectant mothers and their babies in Walworth County. The One Great Hour of Sharing offering that we collected last month will go to meeting physical needs, whether in food or medical care or other crisis care, of those facing natural disasters. In terms of healthcare, there are other things we can do as individuals – call our senators and representatives asking that they fix failures rather than undermine healthcare, that they work together rather than at odds, that they get about problem-solving rather than simply criticizing one another or criticizing the weak and poor among us.
Jesus’ invitation to his disciples was to grow in their recognition and understanding of the Kingdom Truth of mutual responsibility to one another in community – we are all children of the same Father God, brothers and sisters around the globe, with the generations before and generations yet to come. Jesus’ invitation to his disciples was also to recognize the Kingdom Truth that everything they had was a gift from God, not to be hoarded to themselves, but to be shared and used to bless others.
Like the disciples we are tempted to look at our limited resources and think them inadequate to make any real impact. We focus on our lack. We focus on overwhelming needs. We get caught up in the fear that if we share too much we won’t have enough for ourselves, or that it’s an either/or choice between helping neighbors and helping strangers.
But Jesus says, “Bring [what you have] here to me.” We take what we have FIRST, to God. The disciples share the five loaves and two fish with Jesus. Jesus takes them, blesses them, breaks them, and gives them right back to the disciples, multiplied enough to meet the needs of every person there. And not just meet their basic need, Matthew emphasizes that everyone ate until they were satisfied. In this country of platter-sized dinner plates and giant-sized portions, we regularly leave a meal feeling full, but for those who ate that day the sense of a full stomach would have been a sensation they had only on special holidays and feast days. Leftovers, for some of us, is the last thing we want to have, but for them it was further evidence of God’s generous, abundant and overflowing love and care. The Kingdom Truth is that if we live in Kingdom ways we must reject an attitude of scarcity and embrace the abundant and generous mindset of Jesus.
God was so compassionate and generous that He shared His only son with us. Jesus, that Son, was so compassionate and generous that he gave up the privileges of being God, to become human and to share acts of life with us (like healing and feeding the crowds) as well as sharing his very life for us on the cross. Jesus’ compassion and response to human need was the reason for his coming, his life, his death, his resurrection! In communion, which we move to now, we are invited to participate in the sacrificial sharing of Jesus, to be fed by his very body and blood, and then to commit ourselves to living in the Kingdom Truths of compassion, of sharing, of abundance.
Closing Song: “Break Thou the Bread of Life” # 315