Helmut Thielicke said - 'Tell me how much you know of the suffering of your fellow humans and I will tell you how much you have loved them.' Quite true. And I would add - tell me how much you know of your own suffering, and I will tell you how much love you have to give. I have a wonderful memory of being seven years old and learning this lesson from a group of Vietnamese kids my own age. They were what we called then 'boat people', and my parents involved our family in a series of picnics which offered the opportunity for these new arrivals to meet some locals. You might expect that the point of me telling you this is to show that our loving them gave them strength for settling into life in a strange land. That may have been true. Yet my point is that their loving us taught me a lesson in digging deep into tragedy and finding compassion.
I took my skateboard to the picnic to share with the kids. It had never crossed my mind that they had never seen a skateboard. In fact it had surprised me that some of these kids couldn't speak my language. It shocked me that some of them couldn't speak at all; traumatised by the escape, the journey and their treatment on arrival. These kids had packed more tragedy into their short lives than I would ever know. They were the innocent victims of war.
The lesson for me came in seeing a boy my age ride a skateboard for the first time; sheer uncontainable joy as he careered down the hill, complete freedom of expression as he squealed in delight, enormous appreciation for my willingness to share my board.
Whether it was the kids or the adults, what was most striking was the patience, and gentleness of these people. Seemingly untainted by the horror of their lives, yet that would not be possible. They were digging deep into their despair and fear and finding compassion for us. They were ministering to us. It was their compassion to us which is the point.
Jesus was reeling from the loss of John the Baptist. It could have spelt the end of the movement. It certainly warned of what was to come for him. The violence, the injustice, the public mockery of John all served to sink Jesus into a depression. He withdrew to take stock and mourn the loss of a man and a dream. Crowds came and in spite of this despair, the text says ' he had compassion on them'. Again, it was compassion growing out of a personal despair. The result we are told in the text was healing.
Much could be said of this passage. It warns against placing limits on generosity. It was a miracle of quantity, not just enough. It warns against charity in social welfare, as this was a miracle just as much of wealth creation, as it was distribution. It was a miracle of creating a loving environment. It was about the spread of a generous spirit; from Jesus to the disciples to the hordes, and all originating from the depths of Jesus despair.
Environments of compassion can be created. A sociology experiment I heard of pointed to this as a group of students decided to see whether pleasant smells could make people more loving. They went to a mall to carry out their experiment, much of which was conducted in the food court, right next to the Cinnabun booth and Mrs. Field's Chocolate Chip Cookies. The rest of their tests were carried out in other areas of the mall. In the first test, shoppers were asked if they had change for a dollar. In the second test, one of the students dropped a pen to see whether anyone would pick it up and return it. The group found that in the part of the mall with the pleasant smells, people were much kinder and more caring. If they couldn't change the dollar, they sometimes suggested other places to try or offered to take the tester somewhere to get the dollar changed. In the second test, people almost always picked up the pen and chased down the person who had dropped it. In the other areas of the mall, however, people hadn't done that.
A little cheesy as an illustration, yet I think we are allowed to be a little romantic with a text such as the wonderful cheesy miracle of Jesus. Feeding 5000 men, plus women and children, with a piece of bread and a fish. That's the stuff of fairytales. Again we see the truth of the growth parables; from tokens or tastes of life, greatness will grow.
As we approach our communion celebration, we approach the token of God's love for all people and we are reminded that God's love grows out of God's understanding of suffering.
Today we acknowledge World Peace Day, and are challenged to live out the life giving message of the gospel to create environments of love and non violence. We find the strength for this compassion out of our own understanding of suffering.
'Tell me how much you know of the suffering of your fellow humans and I will tell you how much you have loved them.'
Tell me how much you know of your own suffering, and I will tell you how much love you have to give.