Archive for July, 2015

Compassion a Two-way Street

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on July 20, 2015 by timtrue

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Sometimes we miss important details in the scriptures.

For instance, do you recall the story of the exchange of power between King Saul and King David in Israel’s history?  If you don’t, I commend to your reading 1 Samuel 23 and 24.  You won’t be bored!

To remind you. . . .

And so what we remember is that David righteously spared King Saul’s life; that Saul was cut to the heart and repented of his folly; that waiting on God’s providential hand is what people do who desire to live after God’s own heart; and so on.

But we forget a very pertinent detail: God’s hand of providence works in and through even the most earthy of life’s details—even in and through bodily functions!

In today’s Gospel, then, the architects of the Revised Common Lectionary—the people who decided what passages we read today—didn’t want us to miss some details that are often overlooked.

Did you notice?  They left out a good chunk of narrative.  We hear just 9 verses of a much larger section of scripture, a 27-verse passage: after 5 verses we skip 18 then read the final 4.

Now, these middle, omitted verses are extremely significant.  They relate two very important miracles; namely, feeding the 5,000 and walking on water.  And, just so you don’t come away feeling slighted, it’s okay: there are other Sundays when we contemplate each of these two miracles in the Lectionary.

But today we look at the bookends: the narrative that takes place on either side of these miracles.  And I’m convinced this is the case so that we don’t miss them—so that we don’t miss the important details Jesus wants us all to know—because we’re too distracted by the signs and wonders.

So then, what is it Jesus wants us to know?

It starts with v. 34: “As [Jesus] went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

It starts with compassion.

A question then: What’s the difference between compassion and pity?

The Gk. pathos can be translated either way: pity; or compassion.  Jesus had pathos for the crowd.

From pathos we get our English words pathetic, sympathetic, sympathy, empathy, pathological—to name but a few.  And we see something of pity and compassion in each word.

But the chief difference in my thinking is this: pity is removed; whereas compassion is involved.

Pity takes on a sort of distinction.  I feel a type of sorrow for my neighbor because his plight is so pitiable—or sad, or tragic, or whatever.  So, out of the goodness of my heart I decide to do something about it—I buy her a pair of shoes; or offer him a ride; or throw some money her way.  And thank heavens I’m not in his position; for then I don’t know what I’d do!

You see, pity has left me feeling sorry for my neighbor, maybe even sorry enough to do something about it.  But at the end of the day I’m still over here dealing with my life and he’s still over there dealing with his: a distance still remains between me and my neighbor.

But compassion means, literally, suffering with, or suffering alongside.  There’s no “me vs. him” mentality here.  Compassion is involved, not one step removed.  Compassion is thus significantly different than pity.

And this is exactly what Jesus does with the desperate, noisy, dirty, smelly, needy crowd.  He comes alongside them and is moved to passion for them—a kind of suffering with them.

And isn’t this a picture of what he did on a much larger scale?  In the Incarnation, he emptied himself of the Godhead; and he took on humanity.

He comes alongside the whole world—the cosmos—and takes on our passion, our suffering.

And it’s exactly what he calls us to do: to be moved by the hurting, desperate, needy people of our day; and not merely to have pity on them, but compassion—to come alongside them.

We are called to live out the Incarnation.

But (earlier) I said it starts with compassion. What other details can we discern from today’s passage?

A few observations:

  1. As followers of Christ (and as already mentioned), we are called to be the Incarnation of Christ.  We are the Church and thus Christ to the world; even if we are merely the fringes of Christ’s cloak, we possess the divine power to heal a hurting, desperate, and needy world.
  2. As followers of Christ, we are called to live out his compassion for the world.  How?
    • Flexibly, knowing that God may change our plans, just as God changed the plans of Jesus and the disciples.  They were withdrawing to an uncrowded place for renewal; yet the crowd follows them and doesn’t allow this renewal to occur.  So what does Jesus do?  He allows his plans to be changed and has compassion for the crowd.  He loves his neighbor.  He exercises selflessness.
    • Untiringly, with the knowledge that the work here is ongoing, around seemingly every corner.
    • Trustingly, knowing that God will give us the strength to sustain us even when “robbed” of planned times of renewal.
  3. But also—and here’s where I want to focus in our remaining time—we are humanity, the disciples, the crowd; we are not Christ.  Look around: in our world, today, who’s flocking to Jesus on Sundays—to be with him, to be healed by him, to commune with him, to touch him—but us?  It’s not that weekend-warrior neighbor of yours; or that other neighbor who sleeps in every Sunday and finds his spiritual refreshment through his bicycle.  No, these aren’t the picture of a flocking crowd, desperate to see Jesus.  If anyone in our culture fits a description of desperation, it’s us!

Okay, so that’s not quite fair.  I realize it.

We are the ones flocking to Jesus on Sundays, yes.  And the world around us can appear not to care much about Jesus, like they’re fine on their own without a Savior and Lord, thank you very much.  But they are nonetheless needy, hurting, even desperate.  As are we.

Our world often shows its desperation in vastly different ways than it did in the days of Jesus.  All too often, today’s world turns to alcohol and drugs—legal and illegal—out of desperation.  So, yes, it’s not really fair to say that we churchgoers are the only desperate ones in the world.

But we are desperate; and it brings up a fair point for us to consider.

We are Christians, disciples of Christ earnestly trying to bring the good news of Christ to the world around us; through teaching, healing, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked.  This is called outreach.  And it is a very important part of our community life.

And right now, incidentally, (I don’t know if you know this, but) outreach is a kind of fad in churches all over the country (if not the world).  During my job-search process, without exception every single parish profile I looked at placed outreach as one of its top priorities—to the point where I began predicting it; and muttering things to myself like, “Tell me something I don’t know”; and, “Well, that’s original!”

Now, hear me clearly: I’m not downplaying outreach.  It is very important.  As today’s passage demonstrates, the world all around us desperately needs Christ.

But we, the Church, are desperate too.  So, what I want us to ask ourselves is: What about in-reach?

We are just as desperate and needy as the world around us for Christ’s hand of love and selflessness; of joy in all circumstances, whether good or bad; of peace, healing, and reconciliation in our relationships; of patience and large-heartedness; of kindness, giving others the benefit of the doubt; of goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

So, what about in-reach?  Is this a priority for us—as much a priority, anyway, as outreach?

It was for Jesus and his disciples.

We know, as individuals, just how important it is to live balanced lives.  It is important to interact with others, to live in community, in relationship.  And thus it is important to put others first: to practice a form of personal outreach.  We know this!

But, as individuals, we know it is just as important to set aside times for personal rest and refreshment.  Taking time to withdraw for prayer is a practice Jesus himself modeled.  Medical research today touts the values of getting enough sleep and taking regular vacations.  And what of mental health?  We’re learning more and more daily about just how important lifelong learning is.  All these pursuits are simply forms of personal in-reach.

It’s the same with the body of Christ!  As a church, we value outreach immensely.  But let’s not forget in-reach!

In our zeal to be Christ’s hands and feet to the needy world around us, let’s not forget that we are hurting and needy people too; just as desperate in our desires—maybe even more so!—to see Jesus and to experience his compassion.

Tired of Spinning?

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2015 by timtrue

TECshield

Mark 6:1-13

Spin.

That’s what we do to the truth, don’t we?  We spin it.

Next time you’re at a park, just sit back and observe a couple of kids for a while.  Not so long ago I saw two little boys playing on a slide.  It was a parallel slide: two slides running parallel to each other.  And so you’d think that here was the perfect opportunity for a race.  Instead, however, one of the boys was attempting to go down the slide correctly, to slide down from the top to the bottom feet first; but the other boy was standing on the slide, attempting to block the first boy’s way.

A sort of cruel game developed where the boy attempting to go down the slide would pretend to begin a descent; and the second boy would predictably jump over to that slide and block his way.  The first boy would then quickly scurry to the other slide, the parallel one, trying to beat the other boy’s attempts at blocking him.  This pretend-jump-switch-jump dance carried on for a bit until, at last, probably frustrated, the top boy let go for a bona fide descent.  On the way down, as fate would have it, the sliding boy collided with the blocking boy, who, probably off balance, promptly fell flat on his face, connecting his lower lip squarely with the surface of the slide.

Well, I continued watching, feeling a kind of tacit vindication, as the second boy, the one who’d been blocking the slide, rose to his feet, rubbed his lip, saw a spot of his own blood on the back of his hand, began hollering, and then ran straight for his mother—who was on her phone and had witnessed nothing of the event!  Finally, grabbing his mother’s arm and pointing, he cried, “That boy pushed me!”

Spin.

Some people, as a matter of fact, put their spin on things really well—so well that we end up paying them full-time to do so!  We’ve given these people a name.  Media professionals who are really good at doing this—at putting their own spin on the truth (usually to favor one political party over another, by the way)—are called spin doctors.

(Not to be confused with the band formed in 1989!)

Anyway, this is how spin often works.  Someone, or some group of someones, wants to communicate an opinion.  But they don’t start there—with their opinion.  Rather, they start with a truth, a premise; and they build up to their opinion, their conclusion, not through logic but through spin: the manipulation of that truth.

So, spin is the backdrop to what’s going on in today’s Gospel.

Jesus has set out from his home town and begun his ministry.  He’s called his disciples, he’s been teaching, preaching, healing, and casting out demons.  And word about him has spread.

Imagine the excitement some of his hometown friends and family must have felt when word of his successful ministry first reached their ears.

Yes!  One of our own has made a success of himself!  Jesus has put Nazareth on the map!

Nevertheless, by the time today’s story takes place, whatever excitement was once felt has now dissipated.  For spin has taken effect.

How could Jesus, the carpenter, the son of Mary, become a success?  Why, I remember when he was just a little boy, playing hide-and-seek with the other kids at dusk.  He once made a few chairs and a table for me, sure; and they’re good enough quality in their own right.  I still have them in my house in fact.  But he’s a carpenter, for crying out loud!  He’s not a synagogue leader, a teacher, or a miracle worker.  Pshaw!  How could he be?  How could anything good come out of Nazareth?

By this time, spin has taken effect and dissipated whatever excitement a minority of hometown fans may once have felt.  Spin has produced unbelief:

“And he could do no deed of power there . . . And he was amazed at their unbelief.”

We see another example of spin’s negative effects—a much more significant example—in the Gospel of John, a story we’re all familiar with, when Jesus is standing trial before Pontius Pilate:

An angry mob brings Jesus forward.  Their opinion—their spin—is that Jesus is an enemy of the state and thus a threat to Caesar.  So Pilate asks him directly, “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Here Jesus has the opportunity to tell his side of the story—for there are always two sides to any story.  And he says: “My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Then, as if he hasn’t been clear enough, he says, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

And there it is!  Jesus has told Pilate his side of the story.  And it’s nothing at all like the crowd’s spin.  Jesus is not an enemy of the state; he is not a threat to Caesar.

But, sadly, Pilate’s mind is already made up.  He’s already chosen a side—the side of the angry crowd.  He’s a politician, after all, whose goal is not the truth but to get the people to embrace a certain worldview.  Perhaps this is why he answers Jesus with the haunting question, “What is truth?”

Here’s the trouble, then, with spin.  The spinner’s mind is already made up before he ever begins spinning!  Regardless of the initial truth upon which the spin is based—the premise—the spinner knows where he wants his story to go—his conclusion—ahead of time.  This is, simply stated, bias.  Or, another word for it, prejudice: pre-judging; making a judgment ahead of time.

And this is how Pilate picks his side.  He’s biased.  He’s prejudiced.  Despite asking Jesus for his take, Pilate hears only the crowd:

  • The crowd, who is caught up in their own spin;
  • The crowd, who has twisted the truth;
  • The crowd, who refuses to honor justice;
  • The crowd, who lets a condemned criminal, Barabbas, go instead of the innocent man Jesus;
  • The crowd, who shouts, Crucify him! Crucify him!

For Pilate’s mind is already made up ahead of time.  He’s biased.  He’s prejudiced.

Now, the question for us to consider today—with the patriotic sounds of fireworks still ringing in our ears—is, are we too much like Pilate?

And by us I mean you and me as individuals, sure.  But I also mean the St. Paul’s us, this local body; and the Episcopal Church us, the national church body to which we belong; and the broader Christian and American cultures us.  Are all of us too much like Pilate?  Are our minds already made up?

Now, a lot has happened politically and religiously in our country over the last ten days:

The Supreme Court has made historic rulings on healthcare, marriage, and the way we perform executions.

The Episcopal Church’s General Convention has made a significant decision or two as well.

Whatever the issue—whether it be gay marriage, healthcare reform, or issues surrounding human dignity and the sanctity of life—we are hearing a lot of spin right now—more than usual.  We are being persuaded, even challenged, to pick sides.

And with all this buzz clamoring for our loyalties, we should ask ourselves: Are our minds already made up about which way to go?  Like Pilate, is our logical reasoning clouded by an emotional crowd—by partisan loyalties?

Whenever we come to something with our minds already made up—whether a political issue, an individual person, a class of people, whatever; whenever we only give the appearance of listening (and not actually hearing); whenever we embrace an agenda or worldview whose goal is a political ideal; whenever we place loyalties in a political party; whenever we invest in social norms; whenever we believe in our own preferences—we run the risk of a compromised faith—of unbelief—in Christ.

And, as we learned from our Gospel today, unbelief renders Jesus ineffective.

So, again, I ask: Are we too much like Pilate?

And, for the record, I’m asking this question honestly.  In others words, I don’t know the answer.  In the Episcopal Church’s rulings this week, maybe we are being like Pilate, with our minds already made up ahead of time, bent on a certain political agenda.  This is certainly what a lot of conservative Christian groups are saying about the Episcopal Church.

But, on the other hand, maybe we’re not being like Pilate at all but are truly trying to reconcile what a Gospel of love means for our day and age, and how that Gospel should play out.  Maybe it’s actually the groups accusing us of heresy who are being like Pilate here.  Maybe it’s their minds already made up ahead of time.

I don’t know.  This question—are we like Pilate?—is something for us to consider as individuals, as a local church body, as a national church, and as Christians; and as a culture.

But let’s return to the scriptures we looked at today.  Having our minds made up ahead of time stymies the truth and produces unbelief.

The flipside teaches us that not knowing is a good place to be.  Jesus might in fact be calling us to rest in the tension of uncertainty for a while, maybe even a long while.

It also teaches that when we come to a place of surrender, of saying, I don’t know all the answers; I’m not in a position of authority here, but Jesus does and Jesus is—when we come to this point of surrender, our faith is increased.  For here we trust in Jesus—not the spin doctors—to provide a way forward.

Lord, help us rest in the tension of uncertainty.  Amen.