Based on Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 17, Romans 9:1-5, Matthew 14:13-21
A story is told by James M. Braaten in his book “The Greatest Wonder of All” about the unexpected blessings of one person’s compassion towards another. The story concerns a boy named Douglas who was a teenager, and who had been feeling poorly for several days. His mother took Douglas to a hospital in nearby St. Louis where he was diagnosed as having leukemia (a cancer of the white blood cells). The doctors talked to him in frank terms about his disease. They said that for the next three years he would have to undergo chemotherapy. They told Douglas he would go bald and that his body would most likely bloat. Upon learning this, he went into a deep depression. Hoping to bring him some cheer, his aunt decided to send Douglas an arrangement of flowers. She told the clerk that it was for her teenage nephew who was in the hospital with leukemia.
Sounds like something any of us would do for family in that situation, doesn’t it? It is a very human impulse to reach out when we know someone is struggling and try to do something to help them a bit – or just brighten their day. It is something we all have been doing for those we know who have been hospitalized during these last few months when we haven’t been allowed to visit. Our scripture readings for today speak to us of the way that God gives all of us unexpected blessings, but sometimes not without some discomfort. Jacob has to wrestle with an unknown assailant the night before he is to meet with his estranged brother, Esau. Jesus has been thrown out of Nazareth and learned that his cousin John had been beheaded and now faces a hungry crowd of thousands with two fish and five small rolls. The Psalmist pens a song asking for deliverance from persecution, knowing that God will give the blessing of an answer. Paul speaks of the unexpected blessing of being in Christ while having been a devout Jew and persecuting the followers of Jesus; Paul the beneficiary of God’s unexpected compassion. Before we go further, let us greet God and thank God for the unexpected blessing of being made in the image of never-ending compassion and love…
The Psalmist and the Apostle Paul are both teaching about God’s ability to “wondrously show your steadfast love” through hearing the cries of the afflicted and in continuing to seek relationship with one who sinned against the believers in Christ. Paul has already noted that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. He and the Psalmist count on that when they pray to God for deliverance and for continued relationship. They know that God will answer in the way that fits God’s will for the situation; and they are at peace with that trust.
Jacob is headed for a day of reckoning with Esau and his 400-armed men. Jacob knows it will be a difficult day, and he tries to placate Esau by sending his herds, wives and children ahead of him in greeting and remorse. During the night, Jacob is accosted by an unknown “man” and they wrestle until dawn. When the sun was about to come up, the assailant put Jacob’s hip out of joint in order to try to get away. Jacob held fast to him and asked to receive a blessing before he turned the person loose. Jacob received the unexpected blessing of a name change from Jacob (one who supplants) to Yisra’el (one who strives with divine and human beings and prevails).
Jesus has gone away to a “deserted place” to process the reality of being kicked out of his hometown of Nazareth and the killing of his cousin. He hopes to be alone with his Disciples, but the crowds hear of his whereabouts and come in a great mass to be healed and to listen to his teaching. Jesus heals all day and finally stops when his students remind him that the people need to be dispersed so that they can find something to eat (and so Jesus can get some rest). Jesus, again showing compassion for the crowd says to the Disciples, “…they need not go away; you give them something to eat….” The Disciples were at a loss because all that was in the larder were two small fish and five rolls. Jesus provides an unexpected blessing through a miracle that not only filled the bellies of many thousands, but also provided 12 baskets of leftovers!
Seems like a good time to pick back up with our story of Douglas and the flowers. The flower arrangement arrived at the hospital and was beautiful. Douglas read the card from his aunt without emotion before he noticed a second card. The second card read: “Douglas – I took your order at the flower shop. I had leukemia when I was seven years old; I’m 22 years old now. Good Luck, my heart goes out to you. Sincerely, L.B.” His face lit up and he said, “My diagnosis does not have to be a death sentence”! How interesting…Douglas was in a hospital filled with millions of dollars of the most sophisticated technological equipment and medications. He was being treated by expert doctors and nurses with specialized medical training. However, it was a salesclerk in a flower shop, a young woman making minimum wage, who by showing compassion – gave Douglas the unexpected blessing of hope and with that the will to carry on.
Jesus was hurting…he had been unable to do any acts of power in Nazareth “because of their unbelief”. On top of that, he learned that Herod had killed his cousin John, and he was grieving that loss. He had hoped to get away to the country to breathe the air and have some space, but the people followed him. After the boat in which he was riding landed, “…he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick….” Jesus, out of God’s great love for him and for all creation, did not wallow in his own needs but waded into the throng and healed. He was a penniless, itinerant teacher, doing more to improve the lives of those around him than the countless Temple and community leaders of his day.
Today we are hurting, grieving the loss of what once was, and anxious about the world that we will live in moving forward. We are, for a host of reasons, currently more inwardly and individually focused, and we are thus more likely to think of ourselves before we consider the needs of our neighbor and the broader community. This way of thinking and acting is neither Christian nor is it the way for us to create a community that is safe and whole. Our job as disciples of Jesus the Christ is to continue to grow into the loving mind and heart of Jesus, no matter our life situation. This calls on us to be compassionate to each other, recognizing the humanity and needs of every individual. This job description calls us to be unexpected blessings to each other, like L.B. was to Douglas. All it takes is a porch visit, phone call, note card in the mail, shout out on Facebook, et cetera, expressing your friendship and wishing the other well. Being compassionate to one another in this current time of divisiveness is the way that we all can do our part to heal our world and live fully into our Christian vows. This week’s homework, therefore, is to reach out to at least three people from church who you don’t regularly interact with and gift them an unexpected blessing. You’ll find that by doing God’s work in this way, you will be blessed as well. Amen!