Sheep Without A Shepherd – Sermon on Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 Pentecost 8B

July 19, 2015

We stopped outside of Caspian for gas as we headed home from a few blissful days on a lake in Michigan’s Upper Penninsula. As we pulled out of the station, the transmission slipped. And kept slipping. “Let’s get to Eagle River,” Bruce said. “Maybe we can find a mechanic to look at it.” The clerk at the auto parts store told us where to find the car dealership, and as we pulled into the service department, I Googled “transmission repair Eagle River.” Just in case. Sure enough, no one could look at the car before afternoon. So we headed out to Eagle Transmission on the edge of town, figuring we could always come back if we needed to.

The mechanic at Eagle Transmission took us for a ride, with his computer plugged into our car. “Well, it’s one of two things. It could just be the solenoid, which means 4-6 hours and about $850. Or the clutch plates are already shot, and we’re talking a total rebuild. I’m booked up into next week. You can try taking the back roads home. Stay off the interstate, because you can’t go more than 35 miles a hour, or it will try to shift into third gear and you’ll tear up those clutch plates for sure. Good luck.”

Bruce set the cruise control at 35 mph, and we charted a course across Wisconsin that would avoid all major highways and as much traffic as possible. Traveling two-lane roads meant that we had to pull onto the shoulder frequently, to let cars get around us. It also meant that we got to see parts of Wisconsin that aren’t visible from the interstate. Instead of following the map app on a smart phone, we pulled out the road atlas and looked for routes the phone app would have ignored.

Knowing that we had a long trip ahead of us, we settled into a new rhythm of travel. We had left early, so we could get through the Twin Cities before rush hour. Now we found ourselves plotting a course that would skirt around the Cities altogether, and if we were lucky, we’d be home by midnight.

The stress of knowing something was wrong with our car had relaxed after we’d talked with the mechanic. Now, instead of looking for major interchanges, we celebrated little landmarks that were 5 or 6 miles apart. We stopped for ice cream. It felt like we had been given a gift of time, as our road trip that usually took about 7 hours stretched into a 15-hour journey. When we finally pulled into our driveway, we were road weary, but glad to be home.

Jesus had sent his disciples out two by two, preaching repentance and casting out demons, healing as many as they could. As the disciples returned from their preaching expedition through Galilee, they were also a little road weary, but glad to be home.

30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.31 He 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. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 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.

53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat.54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they 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 6:30-34, 53-56)

First, you need to know that the verses we skipped today are stories we will hear next week, so if you were following along in your Bible and realized we jumped right over the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on water, don’t worry – we will give those stories our full attention next Sunday.

Verse 34 stands out in the middle of the story we just heard: “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.” Three things intrigue me about this verse.

First, it’s that word, “compassion.” Jesus has a lot of compassion in Mark, but I think sometimes that our understanding of that word is significantly different from Mark’s understanding. More on that in a minute.

Second, I’m intrigued by these people who run ahead of Jesus, in order to meet him when his boat comes to shore. Jesus calls them sheep without a shepherd.

Third, I’m amazed at the way Jesus shows compassion for these sheep.

So let’s start with compassion. We may think of this word as a synonym for pity, or even empathy. But pity is something you can feel without getting involved personally. And pity almost always carries with it the assumption that whatever receives our pity is somehow less significant, less important than we are. There’s an air of condescension in pitying someone else. We see ourselves as better than those who deserve our pity.

Even when we define compassion as empathy more than just pity, there is still that feeling that we are somehow above or separate from the one with whom we empathize. When we talk about walking a mile in another’s shoes, we assume that those shoes are not as comfortable or attractive or as sturdy as our own shoes. Even when we try to feel what another feels through empathy, it is clear that these are not our feelings. We only experience them temporarily. They still belong to the other.

But compassion really means suffering with the one who suffers. The Greek word for compassion includes the root word for intestines. Compassion is something that you feel in your gut. You internalize the pain of another, and suffer that pain yourself, in the very core of your being.

When Jesus looked on these crowds of people who had chased him around the lake, he saw people who were like sheep without a shepherd, and he felt their pain, their confusion, their deep desire to know God in a way their scribes and teachers had never shown them. He felt their hunger, not only for bread, but for love. He suffered as they suffered, in the very core of his being.

When Jesus looks at you and me, he has compassion for us, too. He feels our pain, our sorrow, our frustration, and our worry. He suffers with us in our broken relationships, our need to make ends meet, and our deep desire to be right with God. He sees us running around like sheep without a shepherd, and he calls to us to walk with him, as he walks with us.

Let’s look at those sheep without a shepherd. I have to confess I was always puzzled by this business of people running along the lakeshore, beating Jesus to the beach. That is, until I saw the Sea of Galilee, and realized just how small it really is. We have four lakes bigger than the “sea” of Galilee here in Minnesota! In fact, Lake Gennesaret, or the Sea of Galilee, is about the same size as Lake Vermillion, up in the Superior National Forest. It’s only about one third the size of Leech Lake.

When you think about the Sea of Galilee as a decent-sized lake, surrounded by steep hills, you begin to realize that there is no place on the water that cannot be seen from land. No matter where the disciples rowed or sailed, their boat would always be visible from the shore. Jesus was always in sight. It would have been easy to figure out where the boat was headed, in order to get there before the boat did.

But there is a big difference between being in the boat with Jesus, and running along the shore to catch him the moment he arrives on the beach. Taking the boat across the water may not have been intended as a shortcut to the peace and quiet of some wilderness retreat. Maybe being in the boat was the retreat. It was the only place Jesus could be alone with his disciples without crowds pressing in on them. The time it took to sail to the hillside below Tabgha was all the time Jesus could give his disciples to be themselves, to rest from their ministry, to be with him alone.

And meanwhile, the people ran ahead to meet Jesus. They raced along the shore to get to his destination before he did. They were like sheep without a shepherd, running ahead of the one they should have been following.

How often I have tried to second-guess Jesus, running ahead to where I think he will land, instead of staying with him in the boat! How often I have been dead wrong about the destination he had in mind for me! Yet Jesus has compassion, even for a sheep like me. He suffers with me in my hard-headedness and my foolishness. He internalizes my struggle, and reaches out to teach me his way.

And this is the third thing that catches my attention in verse 34: the way Jesus shows compassion is to teach. He teaches us how to follow him, how to be his disciples, how to build the Kingdom of God. When Jesus sent out his followers to preach repentance and offer healing and wholeness, he was inviting those apostles to participate in the Kingdom of God by doing the things he did, and teaching the things he taught.

He offers us that same invitation. We are called to share good news with people we know, to offer healing and redemption to those whose pain we feel in our own guts. This is what it means to be part of the Kingdom Jesus came to establish. The disciples didn’t always get it. But when they did what Jesus did, and taught what Jesus taught, amazing, miraculous things happened. And the Kingdom of God grew.

It’s still growing, and we can be a part of it. But we can’t be in the boat with Jesus at the same time we are running along the shore, trying to get where he’s going before he does. Many times, it’s our assumptions about what we should be doing that keep us from being what Jesus asks us to be – his compassionate followers.

Jesus will go on to multiply bread and fish. He will walk on water in the middle of the night. He will keep teaching his followers how to be part of the Kingdom of God by doing what he does and teaching what he teaches, so that lives can be changed. In the last few verses of today’s reading, we see Jesus and his disciples climb back into the boat, still hungry themselves after feeding and cleaning up after 5000 people. Just as before, they head out across the lake, this time to nearby Gennesaret.

When the boat arrives at Gennesaret, there’s one more little detail that deserves our attention. Verse 53 tells us that the disciples moored the boat. They anchored it, instead of dragging it up onto the rocky shore. This is the only place in the entire New Testament where we find this word, “anchored.” It reminds me of an old spiritual, “My soul’s been anchored in the Lord.” Are you anchored in Christ? Is he what grounds you and keeps you connected to your place in his Kingdom?

When the disciples land the boat, more people are waiting for Jesus, eager to be healed by touching the fringe of his cloak. Karen Yust writes that our job is to be “the fringe of Christ’s cloak” to the world.[1] We may think that means scurrying around, trying to meet every single need that comes to our attention, but that kind of activity doesn’t really offer compassion to anyone.

It looks more like sheep without a shepherd, who race ahead of Jesus, instead of following him. That kind of activity keeps us from having real compassion for those who Christ calls us to reach. And it keeps us from staying connected to Jesus himself. To be the fringe of Christ’s cloak, we have to be touching Jesus ourselves. To be a follower of Jesus, a true disciple, we need to stay in the boat with him, walk with him, do what he does, and say what he says.

The thing is, Jesus doesn’t stay in the boat forever. He gets out, and walks among the sheep, having compassion for them. He calls us to follow him, keeping ourselves anchored in the Lord. Whether we are in the boat with Jesus, away from the crowd, or walking with him to show compassion for those he came to save, our job is to stay connected to Christ, as the fringe of his cloak. Only then can we offer this hurting world what it needs most: a compassionate Savior. Only then can we fully participate with Jesus in building the Kingdom of God. Amen.

[1] Karen Marie Yust, Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 3, 264.

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