The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, 23 July 2006
[A note to readers: I have asked that my sermon from 02.20.2005 be removed from the Goettinger Predigten sermon archive. Some seventeen months after this sermon was posted, a former seminary professor read the sermon and took issue with its characterization of my MDiv professors, most of whom are dead. My issues with some former professors had to do with my perception that they were in favor of blessing homosexual sexual behavior by ordaining practicing gays and lesbians to the Holy Ministry and/or in favor of amending Scripture’s masculine language for God particularly within the Church’s worship. Rather than spending time I do not have tediously documenting which professors might have advocated such radical changes and where they might have done so, I have simply asked that the sermon be removed from the archives. If anyone might have inferred from that sermon or if indeed, as alleged, I did have any uncharitable thoughts towards former professors, including attributing to them a hubris which only God knows exists in any heart or mind, I repent in dust and ashes. God alone will be our judge. Let us flee from our sin to His mercy in Jesus Christ.]
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 [English Standard Version from BibleGateway.com]
30 The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. 31And he said to them, "Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. 33Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.
53When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored to the shore. 54And when they got out of the boat, the people immediately recognized him 55and ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was. 56And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.
JESUS MEANS COMPASSION
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Mark tells us: “When Jesus went ashore He saw a great crowd, and He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” The people needed help. They needed a real leader. They needed God’s king, Jesus. But they didn’t know He was what they needed. Let’s hold that thought for a moment.
This first part of today’s Gospel reading is the introduction to Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, a story we don’t hear today. Beginning next week, we will hear John’s masterful sixth chapter over the next five Sundays. As he describes the feeding of the 5,000 there, John the Evangelist will help us ponder what it means to say that Jesus is the Bread of Life.
Immediately after Mark’s telling of the 5,000 there is another story that we don’t hear today. It is very similar to one we heard recently about Jesus calming the sea. Just before we hear the second part of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus walks on the water.
So back to where we began a moment ago: today in two different paragraphs from Mark’s sixth chapter, the focus is on Jesus’ kingly care for the people of God. Today Mark tells us that Jesus means compassion.
If you have ever been around a small child that seriously needs a nap, you can see she or he doesn’t quite know what to do with her or himself. A parent needs to tell the child sweetly but firmly that it’s bedtime. If you have ever been around a gang of rowdy kids that are beginning to pick on each other, you can see that an adult needs to step in and bring a bit of order before things get out of hand. If you have ever seen an adolescent who has neither focus nor a sense of responsibility for him or herself, you know that someone has to firmly close the free lunch counter and remind that young person that the time for earning her or his way has come. Many have found that boot camp is a really good place for such a young man or woman to go to learn what it means to be live under authority.
Now it’s important to note that there are many times in life when people really don’t know what they need. For instance, if you polled a grumpy child, she probably would never say she wanted a nap. If you polled a group of out of control boys, they would never say they needed supervision. And if you asked an adolescent deeply devoted to the good life while using someone else’s credit card, you would never hear the words: “For God’s sake, please take away all financial support and force me to become responsible for myself.”
It’s kind of like those that are always doing religious polling and then reporting the results. If you asked the average unchurched guy or gal if they really wanted Jesus to be the Lord of their lives, you wouldn’t get the answer: “Oh, by all means, I’m ready to surrender my life to One greater than myself.” If you asked the average church member and perhaps the average churchgoer if they really wanted to give up all sense of personal autonomy and yield their lives to the Lord Jesus and His will, you wouldn’t hear the answer: “Oh, yes, I knew all along that what I did with my body and all things (including time, talent, and money) all needed to be put under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.”
Religious polling like any other polling can only reflect the attitudes, opinions, and tastes of those polled. It really doesn’t demonstrate their awareness of their need for God’s king, Jesus, or their readiness to surrender their whole selves to Him.
So to say that Jesus means compassion is to say that (as He says of His Father in Matthew 6) He knows what we need before we ask. We, on the other hand, often are so distracted by the cares and concerns of life here that we cannot begin to fathom that we need a Good Shepherd now.
Thirty years ago, when I was a beginning seminarian, my pastoral supervisor in my fieldwork parish reminded me that the word “pastor” means shepherd. But then he said, “The people already have a Good Shepherd in Jesus.” He said it was as English mystic Evelyn Underhill had written some time before, that the best that could be said of clergy is that we are sheepdogs. Sometimes we do a good job helping the Good Shepherd, and sometimes we just bark a lot and cause general confusion among the flock.
Jesus means compassion. He knows what we need…which is a whole lot more than what we think we need at any given moment. We need Jesus to save us from ourselves. We need Jesus to save us from those that would lead us astray like a bunch of lost sheep. We need Jesus to do more for us than what we hope or imagine that He ought to do in any given situation.
Someone once wrote that the good is the enemy of the Great. How easily we can settle for the good in any moment. It is good to be alive here. It is good to be surrounded by those we love. It is good to have nice things. It is good to have financial security. It is good to be able to go places and do things that are accessible because of good health, and because of having discretionary time and money.
But if we have learned anything at all in our congregation in the past year, it is that you can be going along enjoying the good and suddenly have the bottom drop out. Beloved small children can get brain tumors. Dear ones can be diagnosed with cancer overnight. Suddenly the good life that we have enjoyed is not what we really needed.
We can be going along with parish life with all of its goodness and, to be honest, all of its petty gripes and aggravations over style or personality or preferences. Yes, we can be worshiping, praying, studying, serving, nurturing, and giving, and, then, all of a sudden we discover that we have been doing all along is, at best, only the good. All that we have shared together suddenly turns out not to be what we really needed. And we couldn’t see it, because of the good and even because of the not so good.
Suddenly chronically sick children and adults, our church family, people that are so much a part of us began to hurt, and we with them. In our pain, and now today in our grief over the death of five year old Emily Wade, we see that the good in our life apart and the good in our life together have kept us from recognizing that we, too, can become like sheep without a shepherd. And God knows we need a Good Shepherd now.
Jesus means compassion. Each Good Friday we sing that classic Lutheran hymn, “Ah, Holy Jesus.” Hymn writer Johann Hermann wrote: “Lo, the Good Shepherd for the sheep is offered; the slave hath sinned, and the Son hath suffered; for man’s atonement, while he nothing heedeth, God intercedeth. For me, kind Jesus, was thine incarnation, thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation; they death of anguish and thy bitter Passion, for my salvation” (Lutheran Book of Worship, #123, stanzas 3-4).
When you’re going along in life enjoying the good, or working for the good, or even hoping for the good, pretty soon you lower your focus and take your eyes of the Great. It takes a crisis – even a series of crises – to understand at last that we need a Good Shepherd to save us from ourselves and even, at times, from the idolatry of the good. We need a Good Shepherd to free us from that unholy trinity (sin, death, and Evil) that works overtime to scatter God’s sheep. We need a Good Shepherd to destroy the power of that unholy trinity (sin, death, and Evil) so that we might enjoy God’s life and God’s love forever. At the last, we need a Good Shepherd to separate us from a world filled with wolves and woes, and to bring us safely to our home with God in Paradise.
Jesus means compassion. Yes, we know that because of sin, all of us will die someday. It is the Father’s judgment upon our brokenness. But Jesus does not tell us why we suffer in the way that we suffer whenever we suffer. If we look to understand such things in this life, we will never understand it. So Jesus enters into our suffering with us, so that our suffering becomes joined to His suffering. Our cross is joined to His cross. And the Shepherd’s mark placed upon us in Holy Baptism, the mark of His cross, becomes His compassionate reminder that nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Sometimes we cannot see that as we helplessly watch the good being taken from us. Sometimes we cannot see God’s compassion in Jesus Christ when our hearts are breaking because of the suffering and dying going on around us and even in us. In such moments, the unholy trinity (sin, death, and Evil) try to pull us away from the compassion of God in Jesus Christ and from what we truly need. Oh, how we need a Good Shepherd then, and, oh, how we need a Good Shepherd now!
Jesus means compassion. He is not removed from us in a heaven light years away. He comes down to earth, comes down to us in bread and wine and fills His earthly body, the Church, with the power of His endless life…that we, the baptized, might become again His caring voice, His strong arms, His listening ears, His nail-scarred hands, and His swift, wounded feet.
Jesus means compassion. He needs you and me to be His body in the world, filled not with ourselves, but filled with His love and mercy.
When my father died many years ago, my mother was widowed at 53. I told her that she had just become a member of a club that no one wanted to join. Her first year as a widow was dreadful, lonely, filled with confusion, anger, and little understanding. Then a neighbor, one of my father’s pallbearers, died suddenly. His wife was widowed in her 40s. Then my mother heard the call to forget herself and to take up her cross and follow Jesus.
Jesus means compassion. To be baptized is no longer to be an island. To be baptized is no longer to be autonomous. To be baptized is no longer to live for self. To be baptized is to be a vibrant, vital member of the living body of Christ in the world. To be baptized is to be filled by the Holy Spirit with the compassion of the Lord Jesus for the sake of those that are yet like sheep without a shepherd – for the sake of those that do not yet know that they need a Good Shepherd now.
Jesus means compassion. Because you are the body of Christ and individually members of it, take up your crosses and follow Him in lives of compassion. Give yourself away for the sake of the world that God loves more than He loves His own life.
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
© Samuel D. Zumwalt
[An mp3 version may be accessed on Sunday, July 23, by clicking on the icon at the top right page “This Week’s Message” at www.stmatthewsch.org]