A Sermon preached by Fr James Heard on Sunday 19 July at St George's and St John the Baptist
Things are heating up on our journey through the Gospel of Mark. The disciples have returned from their first ministry tour – their inauguration into apostles, those who are sent. Exhilarated and exhausted, they must have had stories to tell Jesus – thrilling stories of healings and encounters with people. Perhaps there are also darker stories in the mix as well – stories of failure and rejection. Hard stories they needed to process privately with Jesus, their rabbi. Jesus senses that the disciples need a break. They're tired, over stimulated, underfed, and in significant need of solitude.
In addition, Jesus had just lost John the Baptist, his beloved cousin and prophet, the one who baptized him and who spent a lifetime in the wilderness preparing his way. What must have been alarming to Jesus was the way he was murdered, a terrifying reminder that God's beloved are not immune to violent or senseless deaths. Jesus must have felt heartbroken.
As the crowds throng around them at the edge of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus says to his disciples, ‘Let's go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile’. Jesus wants to provide a time of rest and recuperation for his friends. But he also is weary; the hunger he articulates here is also his own.
The short boat trip, however, is the only time that Jesus and his disciples have to themselves. The desperate crowd tracked their movement and hurried ahead of them. So, instead of arriving at a deserted place to rest, they’re greeted by a large and needy crowd. The quiet sanctuary Jesus seeks is nowhere to be found.
What was Jesus’ response? We can probably guess the disciples reaction and perhaps our own. My instinct would have been to turn the boat around and sail away. We are told that Jesus ‘…had compassion for them… they were like sheep without a shepherd…’ Jesus was filled with deep human compassion. The Greek word (σπλαγχνίζομαι – splagchnizomai) used to describe compassion gives a sense of ‘having one’s bowels turned over’!
It’s the seat of feeling. There is something profoundly physical about this com-passion, this feeling with. Feeling another's pain, feeling another's suffering.
The crowd was like sheep without a shepherd. And Jesus, the Good Shepherd, unlike the shepherds in our first reading, gathers his sheep, searches for lost sheep, defends them from predators, and he teaches them from a place of compassion. The lectionary reading then does a big jump – missing out the feeding of the 5,000 – and the second half of this week's Gospel is a repeat of the first. Jesus once again insists that the disciples get back in the boat and sail away. Retreat attempt number two!
But once again the crowds anticipate Jesus' plan, and word spreads. As soon as the boat lands at Gennesaret, the crowds go wild, pushing and jostling to get close to Jesus. They carry their sick to him on mats. In every village and city Jesus approaches, swarms of people needing healing press against him. They plead. They beg to touch the fringe of his robe and receive healing.
Jesus' response? Once again, he responds with a heart moved by compassion. "All who touched him were healed." For Jesus, compassion isn’t just a feeling but it also involves a doing. Jesus brought shalom, wholeness, to broken lives in a variety of ways healing people from all that oppresses and diminishes human life. Jesus showed his followers that compassion is inherent to discipleship, even when they are feeling exhausted and that they have no more to give.
We too are challenged by Jesus’ response. Jesus is inviting us live and do the work that springs from a heart filled with compassion, with empathy, with doing our best to experience another's pain. We can never reach this ideal because each person's pain is unique. But we help those who need help, not those we deem worthy of our help. It’s not our own help we offer, of course; we are merely the vehicles for Christ's healing touch, his saving grace, his word of hope.
Being surrounded by such huge need – and hearing and seeing on the television and our electronic devices such need around the world – it is easy to experience what’s been described as ‘compassion fatigue’. This week's Gospel reading balances the tension between compassion and self-protection. Jesus was unapologetic about his need for rest and solitude. He saw no shame in retreating when he and his disciples needed a break. Yet he never allowed his weariness to overwhelm his compassion.
Part of the reason we come to church – where the liturgy slows us down, taking us briefly away from the need to be useful, or achieve, or go on retreat, or meditate – part of the reason is to be refreshed, to experience God’s healing touch, to experience God’s love in the core of our being, to be renewed by the fountain of love, the source from which we minister to a broken world.
As we reflect upon our mission action plan in the coming months, we might ask how we can be a place of hospitality and compassion, a place of healing and of belonging. Ephesians reflects upon the place of belonging and wholeness that the church is called to be – and this belonging isn’t based on whether we’ve been circumcised (thankfully!) – a key issue in the early church – but nor is it based on race, or gender, or colour, or education. And nor is this belonging based on how much or little faith one has, which is why I rather like the metaphor of a ship for the church. It’s a metaphor that was an ancient Christian symbol. Christians in the early church marked their meeting places with rough scratchings of a boat and sail. Among the earliest Christian artworks are representations of the church as a boat, transporting and sheltering Christians through stormy and dangerous times. Mark uses the boat as a means of withdrawal from the crowd, a place of refreshment, and as a place of communion with the disciples.
There is some thing wonderfully Anglican, something profoundly corporate, something deeply catholic, in a ship as a metaphor to describe our spiritual journey. This ship we call the church includes those with much faith and those with little; it incorporates those who are starting out on their journey of faith, as well as veterans.
I wonder how we also might be places of refuge, of spiritual sustenance to those from our frenetic city who are spiritually hungry. As a church we are called to be a community that is inspired by Jesus and filled with compassion, doing our best to share another's pain; creating a place that offers a listening ear to those who are lonely; that offers a meal to those who are hungry; where we share in another’s grief; a place of prayer, and of place of healing to those whose lives are broken.