Juntos Podemos

Genesis 32:22–31; Matthew 14:13–21, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on August 06, 2023

Our group was walking down a dusty gravel road in San Lucas Tolimán, Guatemala. I fell into step beside a local woman named Carla, who was serving as our interpreter for the morning at the women’s center. After we got acquainted, she began to tell me a story. A group of construction workers from the US came to San Lucas,and, in the span of a week, built a house for a local woman. It was a small cement block home with a simple wood cooking stove. But to the woman, who had been living in a makeshift structure with a dirt floor and cooking over an open fire, this new house promised an amazing transformation. The day the home was finished, everyone was celebrating—except this woman. She was crying, and her tears weren’t happy tears. When asked what was wrong, she said that she was feeling sad because even though she had this wonderful new house, her neighbor did not.

Those of us who traveled recently to Guatemala took time together at the end of each day to reflect. We shared our “pows”—the things that were hard or challenging. Our “wows”—what was beautiful or amazing. And we reflected on our “hows”; that is, how we saw God or Jesus that day. In Carla’s story of this woman’s compassion, I definitely encountered Jesus. Because it strikes me, reading today’s familiar story again, that it is really Jesus’ choice to have compassion and to act on that compassion that is the catalyst for God’s miraculousfeeding of the crowd. Now, Jesus had been on his way to a deserted place to be alone. And thousands of people followed him there—each of them needing something. I don’t about you, but the whole idea of being swarmed by a crowd like that makes me feel queasy. I think if I had been in Jesus’ shoes, I would have tried to hide, or run away. “Jesus,“ however, “Saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them.“

This word, compassion, in Greek, is interesting. It’s a real mouthful, I don’t really know how to say it correctly: “Splagchnizomai” that’s my best try. Strong’s Concordance fleshes out the meaning of the word as: “to have the bowels yearn; that is, (figuratively) to have compassion.”[1] Another commentator adds: “The noun form [of this word] refers to the bowels, lung, heart, kidney, or liver.” In the ancient world, people imagined that feelings emanated from the gut, more than from the heart. So there’s something very gritty, very immediate, and very embodied implied here about the compassion that Jesus felt and showed.

In San Lucas, vendors hang around the street between the hotels where visitors stay and the mission where we eat our meals. They are continually trying to sell us things—brightly woven cloths, bracelets, pens with our names on them, beaded birds. I know they aren’t doing this because it’s fun for them. They are there from dawn to dusk because their families depend on their income to eat. Economic opportunities, career opportunities, are slim in Guatemala, even for people with some education. And yet, when the vendors approach, I generally say “no gracias” and keep walking. They continue to follow, saying “maybe later?” Telling me their name, asking for my name. They are desperate to make a connection and make a sale. I’ve been asking myself why I avoid interacting with these vendors. It’s not that I’m worried about spending money; many of the things they are selling are very inexpensive. Today’s passage helps me realize that sometimes I just want to avoid situations that ask me to feel compassion, and to act with compassion. I don’t necessarily always want to feel that yearning in my bowels, that twisting of my gut. Witnessing the suffering of others makes me feel overwhelmed and helpless.

In today’s story, however, I notice two things. First, the compassion of Jesus is not just a feeling; it is a spur to take action. And second, Jesus doesn’t act alone. He mobilizes the community around him to act compassionately together. In today’s story, at first it sounds like he’s singlehandedly healing the sick in the crowd.And then, suddenly, we realize the disciples are right there with him, offering him their advice. It’s getting late.These people are hungry. Tell them go away and get something to eat. And then Jesus enlists them. “You give them something to eat.” They protest that they have already been working on it. They have taken an inventory of the available food; they know that this crowd has only five loaves and two fish. 

So, again, Jesus calls them to participate. Bring the loaves and fishes to me, he says. He blesses and breaks the food, and then he hands it back to the disciples, who distribute it to the crowd. This all makes me realize that we aren’t told when the miraculous multiplication occurred. Maybe after Jesus blessed the food, it was still just five loaves and two fish. Maybe the shocking abundance emerged in the act of the disciples and the crowd passing the food from hand to hand. Perhaps this meal was only possible through collaboration, through the shared compassion of Jesus, the disciples, the crowd, and God.

While in Guatemala, we did a lot of listening to people’s life stories. There’s a phrase I wrote down in my journal one day while we were listening to a talk by Philippe, who was a teacher in the school and then became the principal. “Juntos podemos,” “Together, we can.” Philippe reflected on the monumental shift he helped to bring about—over the last 60 years the rate of literacy among residents of San Lucas rose from just 5% to 95%! In the same spirit, Gustavo, a man who lost his family as a young child and grew up in the orphanage, told us his story. When he was a young teen, a sponsor from the US came to live with him in Guatemala for an entire year.This man taught him to weld. And that’s how Gustavo became the first person in San Lucas to open his own welding shop. In the years following, he trained more than twenty other men to weld, and these men now have their own shops! “Juntos podemos,” “Together, we can!”

Today’s story begins with a phrase that immediately caught my attention: “Now when Jesus heard this . . .” When he heard what? I wondered. Going back a few verses, I was reminded that Jesus had just received some horrible news. His cousin, and partner in ministry, John the Baptist, had been murdered. It happened amid a birthday bash for King Herod. Herod was a greedy, paranoid tyrant, part of the Roman empire’s ruling class that oppressed the ordinary people of the land and left them chronically hungry and sick. Amid the revelry, Herod’s daughter asked her father for a favor—she wanted John, who was in prison, beheaded, and she wanted his head delivered on a platter.

The picture, in today’s story, of the community around Jesus sharing the abundance of loaves and fishes is clearly meant to be a counterpoint, an antidote, to Herod’s brutal banquet and the ways of domination it represents. Feeling fear or guilt, being tired, or overwhelmed, are all things that can cause me to avoid feeling and showing compassion. And yet, it helps so much to remember that I am not alone. Our culture of individualism and competition is rooted in a toxic combination of capitalism and white supremacy. This culture perpetuates itself by making us feel isolated and powerless, by teaching us to believe that resources are scarce and we must fight one another for them. So, if we try to act alone, this world of stunning inequities will surely defeat us.Together with each other and with God, however, we can be a people of compassion who shape a world of compassion. Juntos podemos.

My friends, compassion is a divine gift. Compassion is how God is present in our bodies. God is the yearning in our bowels, the twisting of our guts that agitates and motivates and inspires, that gives us the power to come together, to suffer together, to rejoice together, to change the world together. Together we can. Amen.