Gut-wrenching Compassion – Sermon on Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

July 18, 2021

We’re working our way through the sixth chapter of Mark’s gospel this month, taking a deep look at what it means to live like Jesus. It’s more than just doing what Jesus does, and saying what Jesus says. Living like Jesus means having the same purpose and identifying ourselves completely with Christ. This is an act of continual surrender.

So far, we’ve learned that we need to pay attention to interruptions, because that’s where God often shows up. But sometimes we have to really look for God in order to see God at work. And we have also been reminded to depend completely on God’s provision for us, if we want our lives to be fruitful. Last week, we learned that when evil seems to be winning the battle inside us and in the world around us, the only thing that can save us is finding our identity in Jesus Christ.

Mark likes to insert one story into another, and the story of John the Baptist’s execution last week was one of those insertions. Now Mark brings us back to Galilee, as the disciples return from their preaching expedition. It’s been a good trip, and they are eager to tell Jesus all about it, but they are also really tired.

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

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 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)

Those verses we skipped over tell us of the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on water, but don’t worry – we will give those stories our full attention next Sunday. Today, we are going to look at what happens before and after those miracles in order to focus in on the one word that sums up most of Jesus’ ministry: compassion.

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.”

Jesus shows a lot of compassion throughout Mark, but I think our understanding of that word “compassion” might be significantly different from Mark’s understanding. 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 a person who receives our pity is somehow less significant, less important than we are. We see ourselves as better than those we see as pitiful.

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. When we empathize with someone else, it is clear that these are not our feelings. We only experience them temporarily. They still belong to the other person.

But compassion really means suffering with the one who suffers. The Greek verb for compassion – splagchnitzomai – includes the root word for intestines. Compassion is something you feel in your gut. Compassion is what bubbles up in us when we see someone else experiencing a pain we have experienced and know all too well. We internalize that pain in the very core of our being.

  • This is the kind of compassion a parent feels the first time a child rides a bike without training wheels, especially if that ride ends up with a scraped knee.
  • Compassion is what someone who has been the victim of bullying feels when they see someone else being bullied.
  • It’s like the pain of watching someone count out pennies at the grocery store cash register, hoping they won’t have to put some item back they can’t afford, when you can remember what it was like to feel embarrassment creep up your neck while someone waited in line for you to count out your pennies.
  • Compassion is the pain of watching a friend go through a messy divorce when you’ve been there and done that.
  • It’s the pain of seeing a highly qualified job seeker make it all the way through multiple interviews, always to end up as the second choice for every job application.
  • It’s the pain of watching a parent diminish with age, as you become the caregiver for the person who always took care of you.

When Jesus looked on these crowds of people who had chased him around the lake, 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 need to know God’s love for them. 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 us to walk with him, as he walks with us.

And that brings us to another detail in this story that I find intriguing. It’s these people who run ahead of Jesus, in order to meet him when his boat comes to shore. 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 is. It’s really just a decent sized 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, 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 running along the shore to catch Jesus the moment he arrives on the beach, and being in the boat with him. And this is where my assumptions made it hard for me to understand this detail. See, I had it in my head that this boat ride was supposed to be a shortcut to the peace and quiet of some wilderness retreat. But now I think Jesus didn’t intend it as a shortcut. I think being in the boat was the retreat.

When Jesus says, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while (v. 31)” I think he meant the middle of the lake as the most deserted place around. It was the only place Jesus could be alone with his disciples without crowds pressing in on them. The time it took to row to the hillside below Tabgha was the time Jesus gave his disciples to rest from their ministry, to be alone with him in the boat.

When you look at the architecture of this sanctuary, you can see that the arch above the chancel is shaped like a … boat. It isn’t an accident. This space is a visible reminder to stay in the boat with Jesus, where we can find rest for our souls. This is a place where we can come away to rest awhile, and know that Jesus is here with us.

Meanwhile, the people on shore ran ahead to meet Jesus. They raced to get to the spot where they thought he would land. 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 suffers with me in my hard-headedness and my foolishness. He internalizes my struggle, and patiently meets me where I am. He shows me gut-wrenching compassion.

But look at the way Jesus shows compassion to all us sheep, as we try to anticipate where Jesus is going. He doesn’t give us a little token handout. He doesn’t put a little bandage on our brokenness and send us on our way. He doesn’t accommodate our wrong-headedness. The method Jesus uses to show compassion is to teach.

He teaches us how to be his disciples, how to build the Kingdom of God, by inviting us to participate in that Kingdom. Jesus invests in our lives by inviting us into his life. When Jesus taught his followers to preach repentance and offer healing and wholeness, he was inviting those apostles into partnership with him, so that his ministry could expand.

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 arouses gut-wrenching compassion in us. Jesus invites us to invest in their lives by inviting them into our own, so we can teach them what Jesus taught. When we accept this invitation to discipleship, amazing, miraculous things happen. And the Kingdom of God grows.

But we can’t be partners in the boat with Jesus if we keep running along the shore, trying to get where he’s going before he does. Sometimes it’s what we assume we should be doing that keep us from actually being what Jesus asks us to be –compassionate followers that he sends into the world to expand his ministry.

In the last few verses of today’s reading, we see Jesus and his disciples back in the boat, heading 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.” How are you anchored in Christ? How do you stay firmly connected to Jesus?

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 as the church 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 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 offer healing to others, we have to allow them to touch us.

This is what gut-wrenching compassion means. It isn’t pity that says, “Gee, that’s too bad, wish I could help but I can’t be bothered right now.” It isn’t even empathy that says, “Here’s a handout that I know won’t solve your problem, but it will help me feel better about myself.”

Gut-wrenching compassion means letting ourselves be touched, so that we can be Christ’s healing touch in the world, even if it only means being the fringe of Christ’s cloak.

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

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