Next week COVID restrictions will be lifted. We can have increased numbers in church and sing.
After sixteen months this is both a relief and cause for concern. Corona virus cases are rising rapidly and our ambulance service has never been busier. Because most of us have been vaccinated the numbers dying are less than during the last peak but still rising.
When the present crisis began we were given rigid guidelines from both the government and Church of England. Some regulations intensified our stress. There was the fear of touching my face mask in the wrong place, of having to sanitize hands again if I accidentally touched one of you, the fear of someone testing positive and having to cancel Sunday services and the fear of inadvertently breaking the law. Instructions were strict and detailed. None of us had been through a pandemic. We needed what Jesus called “shepherding.”
I learnt to be thankful for the rules because they applied fairly to everyone. Most followed them.
Since then we have gone through rapid changes. We have attempted to work out how restrictions applied across levels 1 to 4 and the traffic light system. Instructions have slowed down and we have got used to a new normal. From tomorrow we are being asked to use common sense to keep ourselves and others safe.
Jesus had compassion on the crowd in our reading because they were like sheep without a shepherd. I need a shepherd in the present situation.
As we continue to try and keep each other and ourselves safe we need compassion and empathy so we can honour those who will continue to distance and have fellowship with those in need of human touch.
Which is most important in this situation, looking after the needs of others or caring for ourselves?
Because you are lovely, I know that you are going to say that Jesus wants us to put others before ourselves. During the pandemic we have learnt we cannot love our neighbour unless we care for ourselves.
Jesus’ apostles had been on a mission trip proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, casting out demons, calling people to repent and healing the sick. They were amazed at what God had done through them. Excited, thrilled, brains whirring and adrenalin flowing, they wanted to see more, but they were exhausted.
Jesus was concerned for the well being of his volunteers for many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. Jesus invited them to come away to a deserted place by themselves and rest a while.
Many have been forced to socially isolate and spend too much time alone. Loneliness is not good. We need each other.
The apostles had spent too much time working with others. Their lifestyle was unbalanced.
We need time alone to cultivate our relationship with God and listen to him. There we find our worth as his children, loved and unique. We learn we are human beings rather than doers, and consumers. We have time to clarify our thinking and calling.
Jesus went up mountains or into gardens. Susannah Wesley had 23 children. The only way she could get alone with God was to put her apron over her head when she was praying. Retreat centres, swimming pools, toilets, the bath and shower are good places to pray without interruption.
Jesus knew his friends needed rest. Most of us need 8 to 10 hours sleep. Lack of proper peaceful sleep can cause depression. We become less effective, more prone to accidents and injuries, less able to make decisions and take risks, less creative and less able to learn. This leaves us more at risk of heart attacks, strokes and diabetes. During sleep we recover.
Leisure helps us relax. Doing something we enjoy such as singing, painting, listening to music or television is fun.
The disciples and Jesus had no leisure to eat. We need a healthy varied diet.
Jesus and his disciples were not able to have the time of refreshment they needed because many recognized them, and arrived ahead of them. Jesus could have turned the crowds away. His disciples were tired, the working day was over and he had needs too. I would have turned the boat round and pretended I hadn’t seen them.
Jesus went ashore and motivated by compassion he taught them. His heart reached out to them. This was more than mere pity. Jesus empathised with them. The Greek indicates there was a wrenching of his internal organs. He felt passionate love and anger because the crowds were like sheep without a shepherd.
Jesus is the good shepherd, a good leader who cares for his sheep.
In verses missing from our reading today Jesus satisfies the crowds and his disciples with five loaves and two fish leaving plenty left over.
The pandemic shows us all to be vaccinated across the world to stop mutations of the virus.
Jesus then sent the disciples back across the lake and went up a mountain to pray. His ministry depended on his relationship with God the Father. After prayer he joined his frightened disciples in a storm, walking to them on water. With God’s help we have power to feed the needy and still storms.
The disciples still hadn’t enjoyed time apart to relax. Like our ambulance service and National Health Service they were constantly responding to trauma and storms.
When Jesus and the disciples arrived back the whole region brought the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. They laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak. All who touched were healed.
We are expected to be like Jesus showing compassion in numerous ways. The early church held all things in common so no one lacked. In medieval times, education and hospital care was given by monks and nuns.
The church of today pushes for fair trade, offers medical help in poor countries, serves in food banks, offers debt advice, homeless shelters, toddler groups, street pastors and serves in countless other compassionate acts of love.
Governments, large corporations, bankers, and rich institutions need to do their share.
The sick were laid in the marketplace, the agora, a public space in which legal hearings, elections, and debates took place, in addition to the buying and selling of goods. It was the political and commercial centre of a city or town.
By healing the sick, weakest and most vulnerable members of a community in this space, Jesus was replacing the economy of this world with his values. While the marketplaces of the world belong to the rich and powerful, in God’s kingdom there is justice and salvation for the least.
When our leaders, our human shepherds lack moral compass, are exhausted and have to make difficult political choices we who follow Jesus need to remind them of their responsibilities towards the poor and sick.
The poor and sick also have a responsibility. Those who touched the fringe of Jesus’ garment were healed. Jesus, like all Jewish men would have tassels on the corners of his garments representing his identity as one of God’s chosen people called to keep His commandments. In touching the tassels the sick identified with Jesus and came under his protection.
We need balanced lifestyles which include work, rest, leisure and good food.
Time alone with God helps us draw on God’s resources in times of crisis when our needs are unable to be met.
Like Jesus may we bring healing by challenging the abuses of power in the market places of the world which make the countries that are most vulnerable suffer most? May we show enough compassion and anger when we see suffering, to bring change?