Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 11B] - July 19, 2009 (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56)

As you are no doubt aware by now, a group of our youth will travel this week to the city of New Orleans in order to attend the ELCA Youth Gathering, an event so large that it can only be held every three years. This year an estimated 37,000 Lutheran youth and adult volunteers will stream into this humid, flood-damaged, but beautiful city in order to worship together, learn together, and serve together. During the Gathering, every youth group from across the nation will be volunteering in New Orleans in some way through a community-building environmental program. Some will be helping to rebuild from Hurricane Katrina.

No matter what we all will be doing, I’m sure that coordinating service projects for 37,000 youth volunteers within the span of three days must be an enormously complicated undertaking. In fact, although it would be difficult to verify this, it is highly probable that the 2009 ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans will be the largest service community in the history of the United States, and maybe the world. Some are suggesting, that is, that never before have that many people come together at one time for the express purpose of doing volunteer service work. We will be a mob with a mission.

There is a mob with a mission in today’s gospel text: get to Jesus at all costs. He gathers with his disciples; the mob finds him, ignoring even their hunger. The disciples whisk him away to the other side of the lake; the mob sees where they’re going and beats him there. They are relentless in their pursuit. Later, once Jesus crosses the lake again and lands at Gennesaret, the crowd recognizes him at once and rush at him and press in on him wherever they get wind of his presence. In village, town, or marketplaces, Jesus is the target. It’s a little bit like celebrity-status for him, and I imagine that if the camera had already been invented back then, some paparazzi would have been involved, their mopeds buzzing around and flashbulbs flashing. Overwhelmingly, though, this mob wants to get to Jesus because he can heal, he can feed. He can give hope. He can make a difference. “If we just get close enough to touch the fringe of his cloak,” some even think, “we’ll get a piece of the action.”

And this is how it continues for awhile. Their presence has been growing steadily for quite some time, but now it’s out of control, and the adoring mob will continue to grow, essentially pushing him up to and through the gates of Jerusalem.

One of the issues with this crowd in Mark’s gospel is that there is really nothing organize them or coordinate them in their mission. They are one giant, disorganized multitude. Mark describes them as “sheep without a shepherd,” an image which would have resonated strongly with Mark’s early readers. Here are likely thousands of people wandering around in the hills and towns of northern Israel, a place not only home to hundreds of flocks of real sheep, but also the historic home to God’s own flock of people. Many of these folks are, in fact, God’s chosen, and yet they are vulnerable and strewn about all over the place, haphazardly brought together by nothing but their own feverish desires. They had suffered at the hands of too many abusive and unfaithful shepherd-kings throughout their history, and here they are again, coarsing over the hills and through the streets to get to someone who can lead and guide and love.

And yet, for all its impressive size and energy, there is still something pitiful in this scene, something all-too descriptive of our own circumstances. The image of mad crowds straining and falling all over themselves to get to Jesus is reminiscent of our own desperate searches for meaning and healing. We may not understand ourselves as a part of a definable crowd with a mission, but there is something hectic and frantic and disorganized about so much of the human existence. So often, like sheep without a shepherd, we wander about aimlessly, following the flock in a loose-like fashion, drinking from any number of water sources and grazing in any type of pasture until something threatening scatters us apart from each other. And even in our more passionate moments we throw ourselves wantonly at whatever new-fangled remedy promises us fulfillment, happiness. Oh, at times, to have a mission! To sense that we have a life purpose or a goal that would never fail and then to have the stamina to follow it! Yes, this crowd that Mark describes with such vividness is really us. And we are altogether pitiful, pathetic, in our need for togetherness, in our need for guidance and loving care. Altogether pitiful, and it’s almost gut-wrenching.

In fact, that is exactly what our predicament is: gut-wrenching. Our clear need for rescue from all our isolating circumstances turns out to be truly gut-wrenching for Jesus. He stands there, looking out over this sea of humanity and instinctively feels compassion for us. In both the Greek and Hebrew understanding of the human body, compassion was rooted in the gut, in the innermost part of the body. In fact, the Greek words for “compassion” and “intestines” are almost the same. So often we attempt to stifle or deny those unpredictable deep feelings of compassion and empathy, but Jesus doesn’t. Like our hymn says, “his heart has never known recoil” ("Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life," words by Frank North) His response when he continually meets this crowd that presses in on him at every twist and turn is to reach out in teaching and in healing, to stand up as their shepherd as selflessly as possible.

And just as we may understand compassion as being rooted in the gut, in the dark center of the human body, we realize that Jesus, himself, is placed in the the dark center of the whole human experience. He is there, pressed in among the sick and downtrodden, offering healing and wholeness. He is there, pressed alongside the sorrowful and guilt-laden, offering hope and forgiveness. And he is there, pressed up against the cross, offering love and salvation with all those who trod the ways of death and abandonment. As Jesus responds to the crowd that has gathered, we see that his compassion may be his most defining characteristic, the emotion that guides him away from solitude and further into the people he loves.

This is how he will respond to us: knowing what we need even before we do, his gut-reaction is to love us and teach us and guide us in the midst of the dark valley of the shadow of death. That is true compassion, my friends, and we learn it only by pressing in among him as often as we can.

The crowd we had at church this week wasn’t quite of the same character as the crowd in today’s gospel lesson, but Vacation Bible School can come close to it at points. Amidst all the merriment, there are hurt feelings, skinned knees, snotty noses, and several cases of homesickness. Even as early as Wednesday, there are adult volunteers who are starting to show signs of exhaustion, who begin to understand why, as fun as it is, Vacation Bible School is only attempted once a year. It is always amazing to me how much gets undertaken in a week of VBS: the elaborate set designs, the music, the incessant hand-motions that go with the songs, the games, the Bible storytelling, the snacks, the coordinated outfits, the skits.

Yet I would venture to say, from experience, that the main thing the children take away from this experience is not a particular song or a specific craft or even a favorite Bible story. It is, rather, the compassion and attention of the volunteers they receive. They will remember the youth group members, pressed in among the kids, who selflessly allowed themselves to become human bean bags and jungle gyms for the week. They will be formed by the adult who, pressing themselves down to floor level, gave them extra attention as they struggled with the science lesson. They will, on some subconscious level if nowhere else, never forget the loving way they were brought into line after breaking the rules. These, more than anything else, are the things that they will take with them from this week. A congregation who knows that Christ has pressed himself into the center encourages these types of compassionate interactions, not only with children, but with all of God’s people. His compassion for us leads us to display the same urgent compassion for others, right up close.

I used to hear a song on the radio years ago called, “God is Watching us from a Distance.” The intention of that song, I believe, was to preach peace, to speak out against conflict and war and have us recognize our common humanity. Those are noble objectives, I suppose, but, as a friend of mine once pointed out, I’m not sure that telling us God is at a distance will ever achieve those aims, for a shepherding God could never lead from a distance. The God I have come to know—the God you have taught me more about—is the one who looks upon the scary, swarming mass of humanity and yet presses himself in among them, nonetheless. It is the God who continues to press in among his needy, hungry people in the form of bread and wine. God is watching us from a distance? Someone tell that to the children this week who learned about Jesus. Someone tell that to the people sitting in the hospital room, waiting for treatment. Someone tell that to the mob of 37,000 who will be led into the streets of New Orleans later this week. A God who dies on a cross is not a distant God.

Each time I used to hear that song come on the radio, I wanted someone to replace it with a recording of the 23rd Psalm, because I have come to understand that our God is in the crowd, close-up and with compassion. Tired, worn, and weary, but still reaching out and leading us to salvation. He’s holding high a rod and staff, pouring your cup so that it is running over. Goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of our life, and you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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