Psalm 23, Jeremiah 23:1–6, Ephesians 2:11-end, Mark 6:30-34; 53-end
In today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel, we get a strong sense of the enormous pressure Jesus and the disciples were under at this point in Jesus’ ministry. “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat”… I don’t know about you, but I think many of us can probably relate to this feeling – of life’s pressures making us feel we can’t stop, even to eat. For some of us, lockdown forced us to slow down and step off the fast track of our lives. As we begin to emerge from the pandemic and life’s pressures to be here there and everywhere increase, perhaps we will feel the absence of that kind of space and time even more acutely.
The disciples had just finished an important mission. Jesus wanted them to rest, to regroup, to refresh themselves before they moved on. But his plans are foiled by the crowds that follow them. The opening of this Gospel would be an excellent text for arguing the importance of Sabbath rest were it not for the turn of events in verse 33. When Jesus and the disciples try to retreat, instead of an out-of-the-way place for a quiet meal and communal rest, they find still more people in need of ministry.
People are everywhere – it feels almost claustrophobic - they are coming and going – and they are not just following Jesus; they proactively anticipate where he is headed and hurry ahead of him. As Jesus and his disciples arrive at the place where they are finally going to rest and eat and regroup, there is a great crowd of people waiting for them. Later in Gennesaret, the same thing happens again, people rushing to see Jesus, bringing with them the sick, ‘that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak’ to be healed.
The overall message of the passage is sort of ambiguous – take time for rest and recuperation, but at the same time, set those needs aside when people need you. How do we honour both those things?
We know ourselves that for every area of outreach which we as a church focus on, there are other pressing needs we could be giving our energy to. There is a danger that we can get so caught up in the doing rather than being that we might begin to struggle to be useful as Christ’s hands. For Priests we are told this very clearly in our training and in our ordination vows – it is vital to find quiet time to pray and reflect and study. If not, we can become so caught up in the busyness of ministry that we forget to spend time with the One who directs our preaching, teaching, healing, and justice-seeking ministry.
The eighteenth century spiritual director Jean-Pierre de Caussade taught that we must trust God to provide for our needs. He wrote “Everything turns to bread to nourish me, soap to wash me, fire to purify me, and the chisel to fashion me in the image of God. Grace supplies all my needs.” This isn’t saying that we turn aside our Sabbath rest and run ourselves into the ground trying to juggle life pressures and our calling to be disciples of Christ. What it is saying, I think, is that God will open doors and make opportunities in our lives that will sustains us. As the beautiful words of Psalm 23 say… “He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. He shall refresh my soul and guide me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” We remind ourselves of the promise that God will provide for us, support us, and refresh us.
It's also important to look more closely at Christ’s reaction to the crowd’s that follow him. Here Mark suggests it is how we see the needs of others that is important.
‘He saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd’. Compassion is at the heart of what it is to be a Good Shepherd. The word compassion is explicitly used to describe Jesus’ attitude toward human beings in at least eight Gospel references, and it is implicit in the entire witness to his life, including his healing ministry that is so prominent in this passage. Jesus’ compassion for the crowd, who are the sheep without a shepherd, is not condescension. It is a key element in how he responds to us. It is not just a statement about a good, generous and loving human being, Jesus of Nazareth. It is a statement about God. Since for us as Christians, Jesus is revelatory of God and is God’s unique representative in history, compassion must surely be of the essence of the God who created us.
It’s good to focus for a moment on what compassion truly means. Sometimes I think it is too easily confused with pity. But pity is a very different thing to compassion - something you can manage from afar. In German, the word for compassion is ‘Mitleid’ – quite literally “with suffering”. It suggests that you don’t really have compassion unless you truly walk alongside the person you feel compassion for, putting yourself in their shoes and journeying with them in unconditional solidarity.
If we follow Jesus’ example in this passage, we must put compassion first in response to those in need. But they also suggest that we should seek each other as support as we do this, in a way that will sustain us. It is Jesus and the disciples who travel together and help these people. They live out their ministry as a community. We do not bear the weight of our calling as Christians individually, we carry it together.
These verses encourage us as faith communities to recognize the extent to which the world is suffering and in need of healing. Now, more than ever as we emerge from the trauma of Covid, we have a calling to be recognized places of healing within our communities. Whether that’s a place of worship, or quiet prayer, a place of lighting a candle and mourning the loss of loved ones, or a place to foster community events when and where it is safe to do so, to bring us all together again. The church can be a relevant and revelatory place of healing and compassion in our context today. But to do this we must work together as a community, just as Jesus and the disciples did.
Both segments of this passage suggest that the church belongs in the world rather than in buildings set apart from the hustle and bustle of daily living. Jesus and the disciples encounter people in need as part of their movement from place to place, not by establishing a central location and waiting for people to make their way to them. Healing takes place when faith communities reach out to those in need. In a sense this is a mutual need. Just as people come to the church in need of God’s grace, the faith community engages in ministry because it needs to live as Christ has taught us, as the body of Christ sent into the world to help God repair its brokenness with compassion. By embracing our role at fringe of Christ’s cloak, we can hope to have a healing effect on all who reach out to our community with the desire to be made whole.
Amen Rev Melanie Harrington