Every few years, Mariah and I used to rewatch The West Wing. I haven’t watched it in a while. I’m not sure it holds up well anymore. After all, the pilot episode was almost twenty years ago. And the finale was in 2006. Given today’s political environment, the problems that the people in the fictional Bartlett administration face seem almost quaint.
But there’s this episode I think about every so often. It opens with Toby — the gruff and melancholy White House communications director — getting a call from the DC police, and they ask him to come to the Korean War Memorial on the National Mall. You see, it’s winter and the police have found a homeless man dead on a bench. And Toby’s business card is in the man’s coat pocket.
It’s a coincidence. Toby donated his coat to a thrift store. He forgot a business card in the pocket. The man got the coat. The police discovered the card. Toby could just walk away.
But… Toby sees a tattoo on the man’s arm, and he knows that the man is a veteran, and he is moved. And over the course of the episode, Toby will meet the homeless man’s homeless brother and arrange for a full military funeral at Arlington Cemetery.
Near the end fo the episode. the President finds out what Toby has done and confronts him. The President isn’t really that mad, but he asks, “If we start pulling strings like this don’t you think every homeless veteran will come out of the woodwork?”
And he’s not wrong. It turns out that, if you help people, people who need help show up.
A couple of weeks ago, we heard the story of Jesus sending his disciples out two by two. He gave them power over unclean spirits. He told them to go without a staff or bread or a bag or money or extra clothes. And they went. They proclaimed that everyone should repent. They cast out demons. They healed the sick.
And in today’s reading, they’ve come back to Jesus. And they’re tired. And they’re hungry. And they’re in desperate need of a break. And they are learning that simple truth: if you help people, people who need help show up.
There were so many people coming and going, Mark tells us, that the disciples didn’t even have the leisure to eat.
So Jesus does what Jesus does. He has compassion. He invites his disciples to come away to a deserted place and get some rest. But as they’re leaving, the people see them and rush on foot to the place where they’re going. So when Jesus and his disciples arrive at the no-longer-deserted place… it’s not deserted anymore. It’s full of people.
So Jesus does what Jesus does. He has compassion. Our reading this morning skips over this part, but Jesus teaches them many things. And when it starts to get late, he feeds them all with five loaves and two fish.
And after that, Jesus and his disciples leave the no-longer-deserted place. They go to Gennesaret. And when they get there, the people swarm them. Wherever they go, people who need help crowd them like paparazzi crowd a celebrity. They bring out their sick and beg for help. “Will you touch, will you mend me, Christ; won’t you touch, won’t you heal me, Christ?”
Because, it turns out, if you help people, people who need help show up.
And, Lord, don’t we worry when they do?
Most of you know that before I came to First Congregational, I worked for a nonprofit organization in Biloxi, Mississippi, called Back Bay Mission. Back Bay Mission helps people. And, because the Mission helps people, people who need help show up. And that can make things difficult.
The Micah Day Center can be full. The waiting area for the food pantry can be crowded. The waiting list for housing rehab can be years long. And no matter how many people the Mission helps, there is always someone else.
And that’s hard. The Mission doesn’t have the resources to help everyone who comes through its doors. So, sometimes, it finds ways to say, “no”. There are forms to fill out and rules to follow and waiting lists and all that stuff. And while the Mission is generous, and the people who work there strive to help as many people as possible, sometimes they just can’t help.
And the fact is that a lot of our systems for helping people — public or private — are set up with the idea of saying, “no”, embedded in them.
Are you a refugee trying to seek asylum in the United States? Follow the rules, fill out the forms, meet the criteria, or we’ll say, “no”. Even if you’re afraid for your life.
Are you homeless and cold and hungry, and looking for a warm place to stay and some hot food to eat? Follow the rules, fill out the forms, meet the criteria, or we’ll say, “no”. Even if you’re afraid for your life.
Are you hurt or sick, and looking for medical care? Follow the rules, fill out the forms, meet the criteria, or we’ll say, “no”. Even if you’re afraid for your life.
And there are even people who will tell you that saying, “no”, is the right thing to do; the moral thing to do; the Christian thing to do. Because if we don’t say, “no”, then those people will become dependent or get a sense of entitlement or refuse to work. It’s when we say, “no”, that people learn to be self sufficient.
After all, it turns out, if you help people, people who need help show up. And if we start pulling strings, all of the hungry people and thirsty people and strangers and sick people and naked people and prisoners will come out of the woodwork.
And, Lord, won’t we worry when they do? We don’t have enough for everyone. We can’t have enough for everyone. And if everyone does show up, what will happen then? What will we lose?
It’s tempting to imagine ourselves as Jesus and the disciples. It’s tempting to imagine that we are the ones who have what everyone wants and that there just isn’t enough to go around. It’s tempting to imagine that we are the ones with the power to save and feed and heal.
But our reading from Ephesians this morning tells us something else.
You see, we were not born into this. We were at one time without Christ, aliens from the commonwealth, strangers to the covenants, without hope and without God. We are not Jesus and his disciples. We are the crowds who are following Jesus around, crowding him like paparazzi, begging him for help. “Will you touch, will you mend me, Christ; won’t you touch, won’t you heal me, Christ?”
And when we cried out, God did that thing God does. She had compassion. She brought us in and offered us peace. And we are no longer strangers and aliens. We are now citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.
Now, there’s something else going on in this passage, and it is important. The story of our inclusion starts with us on the outside and other people on the inside. The Jewish people were chosen from early on, from the day when God appeared to Abram and told him to go to a new land and become the father of a great nation.
Jewish people were on the inside. Gentiles like us were on the outside.
And here’s the important part: and the law, the rules, the commandments and ordinances, said that the only way for us to get on the inside was to stop being Gentiles, to be circumcised (if you were a guy), to be purified, and become Jewish.
But, through Christ, God broke that barrier down. He abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two.
Because, it turns out, God always has enough for everyone. If you help people, people who need help show up. And God wants to help people — Christ wants to help people — so God threw the doors wide open and said to the whole entire world, “Come in.”
When Jesus comes to the no-longer-deserted place and sees the people who have gathered there, he has compassion for them, and he teaches them many things.
When it gets late and they get hungry, he has compassion on them, and he feeds them with five loaves and a few fish.
When he arrives in Gennesaret and the people bring the sick to him, he has compassion on them, and he heals them.
When he sees us, begging for help, he has compassion. And that leads me to two important conclusions.
First, the responsibility. We have a responsibility to remember that no matter who we see on the outside — whether they are on the outside of the church or our community or our country or our culture or our class or whatever — we were once in their position. We were once aliens and strangers without hope. And we have a responsibility to remember that Christ had mercy on us.
Second, God always has enough for everyone. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of unimaginable abundance. The community of Christ is a community of extravagant hospitality. And because we are on the inside, we can be as Christ — we can imitate the one who had compassion on us — without worry and without fear.
In that scene from The West Wing, after Toby has arranged for military honors for a homeless veteran, when he is being dressed-down by President Bartlett, the President asks him, “If we start pulling strings like this, don’t you think that everyone who needs help will come out of the woodwork?”
And Toby responds with the words I hope that we would respond with, “We can only hope so.”
You see, in turns out, if you help people, people who need help show up… and it turns out that we can help them. All of them. All of us. Hallelujah. Amen.