Sermon on Lectionary text for 16th Ordinary B, Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Fringe People

waiting
waiting for healing

This past week I have been having a lot of fun following the experiences of the youth group from the church in Cincinnati (that I became a Presbyterian in) as they went to Budapest, Hungary and led a youth day-camp in a city church there.  I have been able to look at over 200 pictures that their youth director has posted on his Facebook page.  It has brought back a flood of memories; we were frequently in and out of Budapest over the dozen years we spent as missionaries, first in Romania then in Croatia.  I recognized most of the places in those pictures, and I could feel the joy of their discovery of that beautiful city and its wonderful people.

The last pictures were of their arrival back at the Cincinnati airport – lots of pictures of hugs from awaiting parents.  The youth looked rather tired.

That airport reunion moment is a lot like the moment we start with in this gospel text.  Mark allows us to see the personal interaction between the apostles that have just returned from their mission work.  Jesus had sent them out, two by two, on their first mission trip, and now they are back together (Mark 6:8).  They have not been able to post any pictures of the trip on Facebook, so all they can do is tell Jesus about “all they had done and taught” (6:30).

I want so badly to log-on to their “profile pages” and look at their pictures – or at least  for Mark to keep his camera rolling and stay with this scene long enough so that we can hear about how it went, what they experienced, what they learned, but those frames lie on the cutting-room floor as mark jumps to the end of the discussion as Jesus, very compassionately, says to them,

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while. (v. 31)

Rest

If they were going to have anything to offer the people in ministry, they needed time to rest, a sabbath of time-off, time specifically to be with Jesus.  It was not that their work was done, that everyone who had come looking for Jesus had been taken care of – in fact just the opposite: so many were still coming they did not even have time to order the pizza (v. 31).

Jesus knows that there is a rhythm between work and rest that has been structured into the universe.  Every plant, every animal, and everyone of us has been made to need both times of activity and periods of rest and renewal.  It is part of the rhythm of creation; six days of labor, and the a Sabbath for rest.  There is a time for active service, and then there is the need to withdraw in order to be with God.  So they got into the boat, pushed off and eventually came to shore.  But people there recognized them and came with their needs.

What is Jesus going to do now? His retreat has been interrupted; plans for a nice quite time have been spoiled.  It would be understandable to feel irritated, even to the point of being resentful, but that is not Jesus’ response.  Mark lets us see into Jesus’  mind as he shows us Jesus noticing the condition of the people

As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. (v. 34)

Compassion

Jesus was motivated by compassion; he saw people suffering and it moved him.  He cared.  He had the same exact experience that God had when he heard the cries of the Israelite people enslaved by Pharaoh in Egypt.

Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, (Ex. 3:7)

Just as Jesus had learned the rhythm of work and rest that the Creator had built into the universe, so he had also learned why: the answer is compassion.  The Creator of every man, woman and child in his image loves each and every one of them.  When they suffer, their cries reach his ears; he cares, and he responds.

I think we can take great comfort in the knowledge that when we suffer, we know that God sees and that he cares.  He is not indifferent to the things that cause us pain, grief, sadness; he looks, with compassion.

Now at this point in the story of Jesus out there with the suffering crowds, something unexpected but powerful happens.  Jesus looks at them with compassion, recognizing that they are like sheep without a shepherd – and he responds: by what?  healing?  feeding them?  No, although he has been doing that  just recently, rather, this time Mark tells us Jesus’ compassion leads him to “teach…many things.” (v. 34)

Teaching many things

Mark again ends the scene before we get to hear the juicy stuff.  What did he teach them?  I want to say to Mark, “ Look, if you don’t have time to show us the hole lesson Jesus taught, how about just the main points of the outline?”  But he doesn’t even summarize; those frames too are on the cutting room floor.

So why tell us that Jesus taught them without telling us what he taught them?  Because this whole story that Mark is telling us is the teaching!  We are meant to learn the lessons Jesus taught by means of living.  This is powerful.  Compassion is behind everything Jesus does.  First in this text it was Jesus’ compassion for his weary disciples that motivated him to arrange for a time of rest after their mission trip.  He cared about them and he knew they needed quite time to re-connect with God in order to serve people out of a full heart.

And then when the needy crowds found them, again it was compassion that was in his eyes.  Their suffering moved him.  This is the lesson we are meant to learn from Jesus the teacher of “many things.”  God cares when people suffer – so God’s people care when people suffer.

Healing

What was the result of Jesus out there with those needy people, being compassionate towards them?  Healing.  The presence of God’s compassion among suffering people always has a healing effect.   Compassion is so powerfully healing that all you have to do is get a glancing brush with the fringes of a compassionate person’s tunic to feel its power.

The presence of God’s people who have learned to be compassionate is a healing presence.  Just as we experience healing as we understand God’s compassionate response to our suffering, so we become vehicles of healing as we respond compassionately to needs around us.

Concrete compassion

Now, I’m not one for solutions that look like posters of rainbows, butterflies and unicorns under shooting stars.  Compassion has to be meaningful or else it’s useless.   This is the moment at which we step back from this story and ask ourselves: if we are called to learn from Jesus and therefore to respond to the needs of our world with compassion, what concrete forms will that take?  I know you are thinking that I’m going to start talking about the Christian Service Center right now, aren’t you?   Well I could, and that would be completely correct to do – what a concrete way of showing compassion!

Crowds coming?  What crowds?

But something else struck me as I was reflecting on Mark’s text before us today.  Crowds of people were coming out to the middle of nowhere to meet Jesus because his reputation for healing was mushrooming.  Of course they were.  Everyone suffers; everyone needs healing compassion; why wouldn’t there be crowds coming?

But now, 2,000 years after Jesus stepped off of that boat onto the Gennesaret shore, the church has a reputation all her own.  And what is the effect of our reputation in the world?  Crowds of people are cutting their grass and reading the paper on Sunday mornings, while we have seating to spare.  Why is that?

Is it that there is no suffering going on in these pretty homes and in those families?  Is it because everyone has discovered peace, contentment and tranquility that healing is not required?  Or is it simply that they have no reason they can see to believe that’s what we are offering?

The truth is, I believe, that after 2,000 years, the church has a huge reputation to live down.  We have, over the years, not, as a rule, been the source of access to God’s healing compassion.  Rather we have been strong on judgment, condemnation and exclusion of fringe people.

As a result, no, there are not crowds coming to us.  That leads me to only one conclusion: we have to find ways to go to them.  We have to step out of our boat – step out of the church building that they are not coming to and meet them on their terms, where they are.

The future: less, not more

If there are lots of people who are old enough now to own a nice home with a lawn to mow on Sunday morning and who read the Sunday paper who do not believe the church has anything healing to offer – and there are – there are exponentially more people who are coming up behind them in the next generation who are not yet home-owners who have already decided that they don’t need a lawn-excuse to feel free from church on Sunday mornings.  They don’t even read print versions of newspapers anyway – they get their information online.   If the crowds are staying away from us now, in this generation, it is the multitudes that will be staying away in the next.  If we are disciples who have learned the lesson Jesus taught, then we must learn to take his compassion to suffering people in new ways.

Neighborhood-based groups

Right now we are in the beginning stages of developing a strategy for meeting together in small groups in our homes, exactly for the purpose of getting out into the communities where we live – where other people like us are living – who need to get close enough to someone with Jesus’ compassion to brush the fringes.  They may not come in our church door today, but they may well come in the door to our living rooms.

This home-group system is part of the Acts 16:5 Initiative that we are engaged in.  The whole premise of this Initiative is that we do indeed have something to offer – we have touched the fringes; we have experienced some of the healing that God’s compassion brings – and we will experience more of it in community with other people who are on the same journey.   And the second premise of the Acts 16:5 Initiative is that as time goes on, less and less people will identify the church – the building under steeples and behind stained glass, as a place to start looking for the healing compassion that they long for.  Just like Jesus, we need to take God’s compassion out to where they are – out to the fringes.  The first step is one we need to make in their direction.

This is only one concrete implication of learning Jesus’ compassion for people.  There are as many implications as there are issues; every time we encounter humans, made in God’s image, we as disciples of Jesus Christ, as learners and followers of Jesus, are committed to finding compassionate solutions – from poverty and health care reform, to housing, education, and all the rest.  We are people of compassion because we have learned to see the world the way Jesus does, and to respond compassionately.



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