By the Rev. Elisabeth Hartwell
Reflection, Proper 13, Year A
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August 6, 2023
Key verse: When Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them. -Matthew 14:14
Dear fellow preachers, here at the beginning of August, right in the midst of picnic season, we’ve arrived at Scripture’s most well-known picnic (also depicted in Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17, John 6:1-13, and Matthew 15:32-39). Honestly, I believe the biggest challenge with this Scripture is that it’s so familiar. How do we encourage our congregants to reflect on it with a fresh perspective, to avoid skimming over it because they assume they already know everything about it?
Preaching from such a well-known passage requires that we relate to it both with our heads and with our hearts. My own understanding of this scripture has to do with two words found within this miraculous story: compassion and hunger. The Greek word translated in verse 14 as “compassion” is splanchnizomai, which refers to a literal churning of the gut. In other words, Jesus doesn’t just feel a twinge of compassion when he sees the crowd. He has a very visceral, physical reaction and is deeply impacted by their hunger and their need.
Preaching effectively on this passage means we empathize with people’s deep hunger and convey the depth of Jesus’ compassion for them. In your sermon, you might do this by exploring the following:
- Ask your congregation to consider where hunger currently exists in our world. Can you find statistics that highlight the world’s deep physical hunger? In what other ways do our sisters and brothers in our communities and around the world experience hungers that are psychological, emotional, or spiritual? How do you see Jesus’ compassion at work, and how can you yourself give others something to eat in the midst of their deep hunger?
- Invite your congregation to introspect about their own deep hunger. Are they physically hungry? Spiritually or emotionally hungry? They may be hungry for human connection and relationships, meaning and fulfillment, love and acceptance, stamina and endurance to get through the day, the need to be heard and understood, or the need to make an impact (among many other possibilities). Invite them to discover their own place in the vast crowd whom Jesus feeds.
- Encourage your congregation to reflect on what ignites their own compassion. Each of us is likely to be moved by something or someone different. What stirs compassion in your congregants? What vast multitude of people do they look out upon, so deeply affected that their insides begin to churn? What does it feel like to have compassion and to want to come alongside someone else in their hunger?
My fellow preachers, this is ultimately a story about how to be good stewards of the common hunger we all share as human beings. We, and everyone around us, arrives hungry at Sunday morning worship. We’re hungry for our bodies, minds, spirits, and souls to be filled. How do we use the resources God has given us to assuage our own hunger, and how do we use the resources God has given us to satiate others’ hunger? In our exploration of this passage, we’re urged to approach hunger with the same compassion and empathy that Jesus does.
Two possibilities come to mind when thinking about how to highlight this Scripture’s meaning over the course of worship. First, will you be sharing communion during worship? Obviously, this story lends itself quite well to the sacrament of communion. How can you continue to bring out its meaning as you come to the table? You might invite your congregation to imagine they’re sharing communion somewhere other than where they are. What would it be like to share the bread and the cup with someone who lives half a world away?
Also, if you’re feeling really bold, you might consider having a bread-making machine in the sanctuary. Start making the bread well before worship begins, so that the scent of it baking fills the space. This could be a fun way to engage more of your congregants’ senses as you reflect on what it means to be hungry.
Invite youth to move beyond a narrow understanding of this Scripture’s meaning, that the people in the crowd were only physically hungry. You could engage in a sort of lectio divina with them, where you read it multiple times, and each time ask them to imagine different things about it. For example, what is like to imagine they’re Jesus in this passage? Or, one of the vast multitudes of people? Or, one of the disciples? What do they see, hear, taste, touch, and smell when they listen to this story? This scripture has the possibility to really come to life as they use their imaginations and senses to grasp its full meaning.
Ask children what foods they love to eat. What are their favorites? If they could have something to eat right then, what would it be? Invite them to consider that we all have things we love to eat, and that everyone around them does too. Encourage them to realize that it’s God who gives us what we need, both our food and all the other things we need in life. Invite them to say thanks for everything God provides for them, and then suggest that they have a role to play in helping others to have the things they need.
The Rev. Elisabeth Hartwell serves as pastor of Hiland Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, Pa.
Here are previous SOLI reflections for Proper 13, Year A
2020 – Compassion in action
2014 – Divine hospitality and abundance
2011 – Plenty: Satiating both physical and spiritual hunger