There has been a progression with our stories the last few weeks. The seed sower (who I described as a terrible farmer), he represented the abundance of God with his willy-nilly spreading of seeds. The next week we had the wheat and tares sowed together and the command that the weeds should be left to grow alongside the wheat. A kind of vision of tolerance and the image that even though we harbor weeds in our own hearts, those can be removed at the last and only the wheat will be left. Last week was the mustard bush for all the birds to rest in and the vision of the sourdough starter that turns the whole lump to leavening, and the fishing net that collects all the species of fish together. Each week there was a reference to wheat or bread.
Today we have the feeding of 5000+ people with limited resources. The progression continues from seed to wheat to dough to bread.
In today’s story Jesus is trying to be alone. The story preceding this is Herod’s birthday party with John the Baptist’s head presented as a gift to Salome. It is no wonder that such disturbing news would cause Jesus to want to be alone.
Yet, this story is about Jesus’ compassion. Jesus wanted time to recharge--maybe he was an introvert who needed time alone to get his strength up, to contemplate and to sort out his next steps. Yet, when he came ashore from the boat, he was moved with compassion because he SAW the people who were sick and in pain, who had questions for him, and really just wanted to be seen and heard.
So we have seed, wheat, dough and bread and I’m thinking of an egg salad sandwich. In my case, last Wednesday, a group of us went out looking for people to find out what they needed. I had a bag of egg salad sandwiches slung on my shoulder--surprisingly heavy. Another person had the table and someone else had a granny roller--one of those rolling carts blue with bright white polka dots. Yeah, you can see us coming.
Wednesday was near the end of the month and as we approached the bridge, we saw the gathering sitting on a cement circular bulkhead thing under the State Street ramp for the Chehalis River Bridge. They knew we were coming just like the crowd knew Jesus was coming.
We, though, were hoping they would be there, so we weren’t disappointed. We set up the table, which went together very easily for once. And, we began to set out sandwiches, homemade cookies, snack cracker packets, juice bags, coffee and hot chocolate packets and stirrers. The people began to cross the street and gather around. One man, I’ll call him, Jess, came over and said, “I’m really hungry and I’m glad to see you. Can I have two sandwiches?” I told him to take two and he said something else I don’t remember and I gave him a hug--the sideways type, and told him it was good to see him. I hadn’t seen him for a few months.
You know it would be very easy to go out with Chaplains on the Harbor and stand BEHIND the table and make sure people got what they needed, but just like here at communion, I move from behind the table and have direct contact with no barriers--well, except here we have a communion rail and there, it is obvious I don’t live on the streets and it is often obvious that they do.
It would also be very easy to stand in front of the table and wait for people to come to me for conversation--and they do. But, instead, I cross the street and ask if I can join them on the circular bulkhead thing.
I think about Jesus and his need to process his grief--maybe re-evaluate his ministry--and how he met this crowd of people with compassion instead. He listened to them, he spoke to them, and he healed the sick even though it was not his plan for the day. He SAW them and once he SAW them he was moved with compassion FOR them. And, the thing is, Jesus had something to give.
I am finding that once I have spoken to a person who is living on the streets that I see them everywhere. I always thought I saw this population but I find myself identifying them more easily and also recognizing that I do not see all that I think I do. When we went to Palm Springs, I was looking for people who lived on the street and we visited a transitional housing shelter. I said hello to people I would have pretended not to see in the past.
Now I keep Ziploc bags in my car with food bars and socks in them because I don’t want to ignore or pretend not to see people anymore. If someone has a sign asking for help, I have a bag for them if I can get to them.
As an example, Anne and Aaron and I had stopped at Trader Joe’s to pick up some supplies for our trip to Central Washington along with something for lunch. We came out to the car and ate our lunches there. I ended up with half of a falafel wrap and some dipping sauce in an open container. So, I put the wrap in the cooler and started walking back up to the store to get rid of our trash and that dipping sauce. I was focused on that trash can next to the Trader Joe’s like Jesus was focused on that shoreline. And my heart was moved to compassion maybe like Jesus’ heart was. I saw a young man lift the lid of the trash can and start going through it--I’m thinking recycling-- and then he pulls out a takeout food container and opens it and smells it and puts it back. When I got to the trash can, I threw my stuff away and turned to him and asked if he was hungry. He said, “Yes.” He was standing there with a young woman and two bikes. I told him to wait a minute that I had something for them in my car--not much food but something they could have. I brought them each one of my Ziploc bags and I also brought my remaining half-wrap from the cooler. I hadn’t eaten any of it and I thought, “Well, if one is willing to eat trash, half a wrap from a little old lady probably won’t put them off.” They were happy to have what I gave them and asked me about services in the area, which I couldn’t tell them. But, the important thing is, I saw them and I engaged them in conversation. I will never have enough to supply all the needs, but I could cover one meal and recognize their humanity.
This is what Jess told me on Wednesday sitting on the bulkhead together. We had been talking a while about his life and the things he had done and how he has survived living on the street. He said if he has something that someone needs, they don’t have to ask, he will offer it if he sees they need it. This man also has compassion for others. He said the really frustrating thing for him is that he has so little to give and often can’t provide what others need. So, I asked him what he wants or needs from people like myself who want to help. And, he told me, while gesturing moving a pointed finger from his eyes to mine; “This, this is what I want and need. I want conversation.” And, I said, “You want to be seen for who you are?” I know Jess trusts me because he left his bag sitting near my feet and knew I wouldn’t take it from him. Between us there was a cookie, an egg salad sandwich, and some of his small possessions. And over them we talked about God and living and surviving. You know, sitting on that cement circular bulkhead thing is normal for me now. Smelling alcohol on people’s breath, watching people eat, and talking about anything and everything seems normal. I often pass this bulkhead in my car while avoiding the traffic on Heron Street and every time I do, I look for my new community and wonder where they are and if they are okay.
This compassion can translate to anywhere. We just need to recognize the abundance we have received from Christ so we can spread it around--seeds, wheat, dough and bread--and egg salad sandwiches and the strength to ask, “Are you hungry? What do you need?” And then recognize that maybe all we can offer is one meal, a pair of socks, a conversation and the memory of communion no matter how brief.