Sunday, July 26, 2009

Compassionate Mark

(Yikes! How did Sunday roll around so fast? Here's my sermon from LAST week.)

This is our last Sunday with the Gospel of Mark for some time, as we will shift to the Gospel of John next Sunday.

This morning’s text, however, is a strange choice to leave Mark (6:30-34, 53-56).

Jesus’ disciples had just finished teaching out in the villages, having gone 2 by 2, proclaiming repentance, casting out demons, and healing the sick. Jesus senses that they’re tired, and could use some rest. So they go seeking a deserted place. But they’re recognized by the crowds, and they follow them there, and many even arrive ahead of them.

All this is set up for two major events: the feeding of the 5000, and then, afterwards, Jesus walks on top of the sea. Two BIG stories of the Gospel, and we get neither of them this morning.

Instead, our excerpt picks back up at the wrap up of the account: the Jesus and the disciples get off the boat, people recognize Jesus, and follow him wherever he goes, seeking healing.

It’s enough to make a preacher pull his hair out in frustration.

So what do we find, in the text allowed to us by the lectionary?

Jesus said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. (Mark 6:31)

The coming and going, and feeling of commotion is heightened every time I walk on Main Street (which is under major construction), or make the unfortunate decision to try and get across town by car. The commotion of construction contrasts with the promise that summer that is a quieter, slower pace. The text says, “come away to a deserted place, and rest a while.”

But I notice a wrinkle here. When I think of rest, and slowing down, I usually think of alone time: on a quiet forest walk, or settled down with a good book. That’s not the thing suggested here. Alone is not part of the occasion. The text says “all by yourselves.” It is addressed to the faith community: to take the time to gather together, resting from our labors and the commotion of our lives, and eat together, without agenda.

Eating together is a great example. We are a culture where eating so often is a thing to get done quickly: a bagel as we run out the door to get to school, the items to munch on at our work desk that passes as lunch, the drive thru window that is quick and easy, with little cost except to our bodies. Not only do we not take the time to eat well, the social event of eating so often gets lost. Slow down together, the text says, and eat with one another.

Even when our work is good, and we are accomplishing great things, we must be re-formed as a family in Christ, so that we may be joyful and refreshed for the long haul, so that we can then go back into the world as Christ’s hands and feet.

Ironically, what happens in our lives, happens to Jesus and his friends: interruption. “Jesus 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.” (Mark 6:34)

Yes, rest is needed, and our faith community needs its Sabbath time and its leisure time. And yet, sometimes one need gets trumped by another: sometimes leisure and renewal have to wait a little longer because the moment calls for something else, addressing the outreach needs of the community.

Karen Marie Yust of Union Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, writes that “while God calls us to renewal through communal practices of Sabbath keeping, Eucharist, and theological reflection, God also pledges to sustain us when the needs of others interrupt our plans for retreat.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol. 3, edited by David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor) While I would add potlucks to the renewal list, I agree with the sediment: the faith community is to realize the extent that the world is suffering, and the need for healing. This is where compassion comes in.

Douglass John Hall, professor of Christian Theology at McGill University in Quebec, suggests here that, considering compassion, German is more helpful and direct than English. The German word for compassion is Mitleid, he writes—quite literally, “with –suffering.” Of course, that is the literal meaning of “compassion” too, but most of us do not hear it. We think of compassion a synonym for pity. Pity is something you can manage from afar—at a once remove! Not compassion. You do not have compassion, really, unless you suffer with those to whom you refer. The precondition for compassion is unconditional solidarity with the ones for whom you feel it.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B Vol. 3, edited by David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor)

That’s how Jesus sees the crowd: a complete identification with his kind...with all of the people. Hall writes that this compassion is not just a “statement” about a good, generous, and loving human being, Jesus of Nazareth. This is testimony to the very nature of God: that divine compassion is the essence of who God is, as that we are called to the same thing: a radical compassion where we share in the woes...and the joys...of all life. We are completely invested in the well being of our neighbor. (Feasting on the Word)

The final part of our text, this morning, is this: "And wherever Jesus went, into villages or cities or farms, the people laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed." (Mark 6:36)

Jesus continues to go into the midst of people, and the people likewise come to him, believing that just by being in his presence, in the simple touching of the fringe of his cloak, they will be healed. And they are.

The Gospel of Mark speaks of people rushing and begging for an opportunity to be made whole through an encounter with God. Could any description be more foreign to most Episcopal Churches? With a world filled with uncertainly and brokenness, why aren’t churches full…recognized as one of the great places for healing?

After all, I think that Churches are more and more recognized as places where people are physically taken care of, through generous food pantries, meals, clothing collections, financial assistance, and so on...just as a lot of social agencies and groups are recognized as well. That’s a good thing. And, churches are often thought of as “deserted places to rest.” Read all the way into that one, my friends...but there is, in the midst of the irony about numbers dwindling numbers of people, an element of good can be found in the church being a place of silence and rest.

But The Episcopal Church, like all institutional churches, has fallen short: alienating people with bickering and power struggles, and marginalizing others in need of truth and justice. Many people have stopped seeking out the church as the place of individual and communal healing.

It is a roll that must be reclaimed in a new way if there is to be a future for the church, but we cannot do it as we’ve done in the past. Gone are the days where the Church should claim to be the exclusive gatekeepers of God, and set forth rules and orders under threat of God’s punishment. Gone are the days that we can expect people to return to the church on their own. Instead, we, the members of this church, must go outside of these walls in the spirit of the radical compassion Jesus showed us: where we share in the joys and woes of all, proclaiming God’s abundance for life and community, where others have declared scarcity and isolation.

Then, and only then, will people seek out the church for healing…and then the Church can be what it’s called to be…the fringe of the cloak of God.

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