Casseroles and Compassion

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 143; 147:12-20, Ecclesiastes 3:16-4:3, Galatians 3:1-14, Matthew 14:13-21


When we study the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, we usually focus on the most obvious part – namely, fives loaves and two fishes feeding five thousand men plus women and children. It’s an important and miraculous story on its own, but since the Gospels have been broken into chapters, verses, and headings (absent from their original format) we often read a section without considering the context of what comes before or after.

The first sentence in Matthew’s version of this story – “now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself” – is more meaningful when we remember “this” was the beheading of John the Baptist. More than a prophet announcing the Messiah, John was (depending on which scriptures you read) Jesus’s cousin, teacher, and friend. He prepared the way of the Lord. John’s death was a signpost on the road to Calvary.

How eager would we be to learn thousands of people had followed us to the place where we sought to mourn in private? Many of us would have turned them away. Jesus though “had compassion for them and cured their sick.” Even after he was done – probably many hours later, as it was evening by then – he didn’t choose to turn them away.

John’s parents were probably dead already. Jesus was possibly his only family, and many people who sought Jesus on that day were undoubtedly John’s disciples. According to legend, John did not get a traditional burial, so this gathering may have been as close to a funeral as things got.  What happens after most funerals? Friends of the grieving family bring food and offer support. Note that Jesus did not distribute the food himself: he instructed the disciples to do it, as they would have traditionally done if visiting Jesus in his home after a loss. John may not have had a funeral, but the meal afterward was thousands strong and presided over by Christ … in the only home he had … among his followers.

In the face of death, Jesus responded with healing, nourishment, and generosity – and persuaded the crowd to do likewise.  Whether we grieve or support someone who does, Christ offers hope and new life in ways we can’t imagine until we live them.

Comfort: We never grieve alone.

Challenge: At times we may be called to be compassionate when we really want to be left alone. At those times, can we remember that service is sometimes a path to healing?

Prayer: God of compassion, be with me when I grieve, and help me support those who suffer loss. Amen.

Discussion: What (if any) parts of– funeral rituals do you find most comforting?

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Peace as Mourning

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Readings: Psalms 102; 148, Genesis 3:8-15, Revelation 12:1-10, Reading John 3:16-21


Jewish mourning rituals are structured and lengthy. For up to a year later, depending on who has died, life is conducted differently. Loved ones help create space for the grieving process by being quietly present for it, rather than trying to make things better.  Anyone who has been in the receiving line at a funeral can tell you most words meant as comfort are anything but. Yet most modern Christian mourners get a funeral and a few days off work, after which our culture tells us to push through it as quickly as possible. We don’t grieve well.

Mourning is not simply being sad. It is not depression. It is the processing of our emotions. When we put on a brave face, the effects of grief will be miserably prolonged. If we choose suppression over healthy mourning, grief remains trapped below the surface only to emerge unexpectedly in endless drips or powerful gushers we are rarely equipped to handle. Mourning permits us to experience the full depth of our loss so we may eventually be at peace with it. The end of a Jewish mourning period signals a new beginning, a reconciliation with our changed reality.

Death is not the only loss we need to mourn. A sense of identity shredded when we lose a job; disillusionment in institutions we once respected; relationships broken beyond repair; a sense of security crushed by world events; younger, healthier bodies; hopes and dreams beyond our ability to realize: mourning helps us let go of these things. The weight of carrying them slows us down until we lag far behind the peace and joy in the life still available to us.

When the psalmist says:

My heart is stricken and withered like grass;
I am too wasted to eat my bread.
Because of my loud groaning
my bones cling to my skin. (Psalm 102:4-5)

he knows he must fully engage with his grief or be forever burdened with it. Advent is a time for recognizing how God mourns a lost humanity, and anticipating the new beginning he sends us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Comfort: Mourning is the mill that grinds grief into peace.

Challenge: Whatever you currently need to mourn, give yourself space to feel your grief while you read Psalm 102.

Prayer: As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God. (Psalm 40:7)

Discussion: When you experience grief, do you allow it to wash over you or do you put up defenses against it? Why?

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