Archive for compassion

Agenda Interrupted

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on July 22, 2018 by timtrue


Mark 6:30-34, 53-56


Today we find Jesus and his disciples on their way to a well-deserved retreat.

They’ve been traveling together around the region of Galilee, teaching, preaching, healing, and casting out demons.

Jesus recently returned to his home town, where his reception was less than favorable.

Soon after that he sent the disciples out—apostles, he called them: “sent out ones”—to expand his mission. The apostles carried with them the power to heal people and cast out demons.

We infer from some of Jesus’ statements, however, that they did not meet with one-hundred-percent success. In fact, it may have been rather more difficult than not. They may have gone without a meal for a day or more. They may have met with hostile responses. They may even have had to shake the dust off their feet a time or two.

And while they were off expanding Jesus’ mission, we learn that John the Baptist was murdered for his ministry and mission!

The implication, now that they’ve come back together, is that Gospel work isn’t easy! Jesus and his disciples are tired. They’ve been selflessly giving of their time, talents, and treasure for the betterment of others. Their schedule has been so busy that they haven’t even had time to sit down for a leisurely meal!

Can you relate?

So, it’s time to get away, Jesus decides. He says to them, “The boat’s packed. Grab your pillows, toothbrushes, water bottles, and a snack. I’ve made reservations for us at a retreat center, so we can rest a while and center ourselves.”

Doesn’t that sound nice?

Perhaps you’ve experienced a break in your life’s frenetic routine at just the right time. If so, you know just how refreshing—and timely—a retreat like this can be: how restorative; how much of a spiritual boost; how centering it can be for the soul.

But, as they arrive at the other side of the lake it is not the deserted place Jesus imagined. He and the disciples are most definitely not by themselves!

Now, at this point, Jesus has a few options. He can try to escape with his disciples—though it’s very likely the crowd will see where they are headed and beat them there. He can tell the crowd to go away—which it may or may not do. Or, he can minister to the needy crowd now and postpone his agenda.

What does he decide? The Gospel says it this way: “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

Jesus decides compassion!


Pathos is the Greek word here. Jesus had pathos for the crowd, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.

From pathos we get our English words pathetic, sympathetic, sympathy, empathy, pathological—to name but a few.

There’s something of pity and compassion in each word. Either of these is an acceptable translation into English: pity or compassion.

But their meanings are quite different, aren’t they? “Jesus had pity on the crowd” means something quite distinct from “Jesus had compassion on the crowd.”

The translators of our version of the Bible, the NRSV, went with compassion. And I’m glad they did, for I think compassion captures the reality of Jesus here much better than pity.

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

Pity suggests a sort of distance. I feel a type of sorrow for my neighbor because my neighbor’s plight is so pitiable. So, out of the goodness of my heart I decide to do something about it—I buy her a pair of shoes; I offer him a ride; I throw some money her way. And I go on with my life.

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 she’s still over there dealing with hers: a distance still remains between us.

But compassion is up close and personal, involved.

The word itself means, literally, suffering with, or suffering alongside. There’s no “us vs. them” here. Compassion comes alongside the neighbor and, like the Samaritan who helped the man in the ditch, gets wrapped up in the dirty details.

And today compassion, not pity, wins out.

Jesus cancels the retreat forthwith. He sets aside his agenda and instead comes alongside the desperate, noisy, dirty, smelly, needy crowd; and suffers with them.

It’s exactly what he did on a much larger scale: In the Incarnation, the Christ emptied himself of the Godhead; and took on humanity. He came alongside the whole world—the cosmos—and took on its 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 and suffer with them.

We are called to live out the Incarnation. We are called to compassion.


The key word here is we.

Compassion is not something only for Jesus; or only for the priest.

I don’t know why—maybe the terminology has something to do with it—but whenever someone in the congregation gets sick or is experiencing grief or desires wise counsel, why, the thinking often goes, it’s the pastor’s job. After all, we call it pastoral care.

But this is not the model Jesus left for us.

Jesus has compassion on the crowds. And the first thing he does is cancel his planned retreat with the disciples!

He doesn’t pull Peter aside and say, “Okay, look. This crowd of people needs pastoral care. So why don’t you take the disciples and go on to the retreat center without me? Here’s the address. When you get there, look up the program director and tell her I won’t be coming and that you’re the main point of contact. Be well; and enjoy this time of renewal with the others! I’ll meet you at the Starbucks in Capernaum in three days.”

No! He cancels the retreat—forthwith!—and the disciples stay with him, helping him minister to all who are sick.

Pastoral care is not a solo act, but a team effort.

So, now, for kicks, let’s just think through logically this concept of pastoral care. And, for the record, I’m not whining here—just trying to give you a window into what priests do.

There are about 375 names on our rolls here at St. Thomas; and one priest.

This priest, me, has more than 50 emails and a handful of phone calls to deal with every day; and two sermons to write each week, which must include several hours of study and preparation in order to make them worthwhile; and preparations to make for the adult forum or confirmation class or whatever other program might be going on.

Then there’s the monthly finance meeting, the Bishop’s Committee meeting (to plan and lead), and any number of diocesan meetings and reports to navigate.

And we mustn’t leave out the occasional weddings, funerals, and baptisms to plan and officiate; and participation in diocesan ministries, like serving as Chaplain at Camp Stevens.

Then there are the myriad other meetings and community gatherings to attend, happening seemingly all the time; and staff to oversee, preschool appearances to make, and newsletter articles to write.

And somehow in the midst of it all—I am supposedly a spiritual leader, after all—I’ve got to maintain some semblance of a prayer life, keep up with church leadership trends, stay current in my studies, and find time to be a dad and husband.

Sound frenetic enough? And I haven’t even mentioned pastoral care yet!

Even Jesus could heal only one person at a time!

Here’s the thing: it wasn’t just Jesus doing the work, but Jesus and the disciples. It’s not just the pastor who is called to do pastoral care, but all of us: the priest and the parishioners.

Look around for just a moment. You are a part of a community. Some of you know each other very well; some of you have known each other for years and years.

You are in a unique and privileged place, able to show compassion to each other, able to be Jesus to each other!

And, frankly, some of you are way better at pastoral care than I am; and much more available to offer it than I am.

Jesus calls us to compassion.


That said, I want to end today’s message with a plug. Two ministries in particular here at St. Thomas are all about compassion: LEVs and Stephen Ministries.

LEVs stands for Lay Eucharistic Visitors. These are, as the name indicates, laypersons who take the Eucharist out to those who for whatever reason are unable to attend church.

It’s a very important and vital ministry, allowing those who are shut in the opportunity to commune with Christ and his church—the opportunity to be included in the community.

And right now we have only two active LEVs!

Would you like to show compassion as Jesus showed compassion? Here is a ready-made way. Join the LEV team. If interested, please let me know!

And, second, Stephen Ministries provides the opportunity to cultivate ongoing relationships with those in need, showing compassion through prayer and fellowship.

The training for Stephen Ministers is quite extensive, requiring some fifty hours before being sent out. But, for those who’ve done it, the opportunities to show compassion and the sense of reward are immense.

By the way, several people in our church will complete this required training in the next month. Soon after, we will have our very own commissioning ceremony for the St. Thomas Stephen Ministries team. Stay tuned!

And, again, if you’d like to learn more, please let me know.


Anyway, I hope you can see, opportunities to show the compassion Jesus calls us to are all around us. Today I focused really only on congregational needs; we didn’t even touch on outreach. But don’t worry: outreach opportunities will be the focus of future sermons, I promise.

In the meantime, as you witness these pastoral care efforts in our midst, consider ways in which you might show more compassion to those in your life, ways in which your agenda might need to be interrupted, just as Jesus showed compassion to the crowd, just as Jesus shows compassion to us.

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.

From Nazareth to a Deserted Place

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , on August 3, 2014 by timtrue

Matthew 14:13-21

Maybe it was the fact that John the Baptist had recently been beheaded.

John!  His own cousin!  The one who had gone before him preaching repentance and proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom.  The one whom Herod the Tetrarch had locked in prison on account of a personal vendetta.

Ha!  Herod the Tetrarch—that fox!  More like Herod the Puppet!  Caught between a rock and a couple hard places—between a strong desire to satisfy his personal agenda, the Roman political hierarchy, and the pressures of the masses!  Oh, how Herod feared the masses!

So maybe it was out of grief for his cousin.

Or maybe it was the fact the he had recently been rejected by his home town.

He had come to them, the people of his home town, as a prophet, full of wisdom and power.  But who was he to them?  Simply a carpenter’s son.  To them, he had overstepped his social boundaries.  To them, he was an upstart, a know-it-all, too big for his own britches.

Having come to them as a prophet, then, and having been rejected as many prophets before him had been, wasn’t it the prophet’s natural course to retreat, to withdraw to a deserted place for a time during which he would commune with God the Father?

Maybe so: maybe he was acting as a prophet.

Or maybe he was simply an introvert and needed some time to himself to recharge.

Or maybe it was a combination of all these things.

Whatever the case, we read that Jesus withdraws from Nazareth to a deserted place.

This contrast—from Nazareth to a deserted place—is an important one to get into our minds; for it sets the stage for more contrasts that follow, significant contrasts, from which we can learn a great deal.

So what is so important about this contrast?  It’s just the same old story of town mouse and country mouse, right?  Jesus spends some time in the town, in Nazareth, and runs into some difficulty there; so he moves out to the country, where folks understand him better, where folks “get” him.

Well, yes and no.  Yes, he did run into some difficulty in Nazareth; and yes, the folks in the country did “get” him.  But no, it’s not so simple as that.

In Nazareth there was an established social order.  This is why Jesus’s home town rejected him in the first place: because he was bucking the established social order.  And if we were to trace this social order up, we would see that it doesn’t stop at the borders of Nazareth.  It continues beyond these borders, up through Galilee, up through Judea and all Samaria, up through Herod’s Tetrarchy, and so on up through the Roman Empire.

But when Jesus withdraws to a deserted place he is effectively withdrawing to an alternative social order.  He expects to be alone; but the fact that crowds follow him is the same thing as saying these crowds of people are seeking an alternative social order too, the social order of a new kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven.

But this alternative social order—Jesus’s social order—is not based on status and imperial brutality.  Jesus’s social order is based on compassion.

Here’s a fun Bible fact—something to arm yourselves with the next time you play a game of Bible trivia: this story, the feeding of the 5,000, is the only miracle to show up in all four Gospels.

But, I ask, is this just trivia?  At the very least, this factoid suggests that this story was highly important to the early church.  Jesus has just left his home town and is grieving the death of his cousin John.  He’s looking for time alone.  But, instead, he finds a crowd waiting for him; and he puts the crowd ahead of himself.  He pours out love on them in a very tangible way.

Jesus loves the multitudes, the commoners, the crowd, the plebs, the socially disadvantaged, the less-than-desirables, the untouchables—whatever you want to call them—Jesus loves the people who are otherwise relatively insignificant on the world’s stage—the people who are at the bottom of the social pecking order.  Jesus loves and cares for them!  Jesus loves and cares for us!

This message of love was extremely important to the writers of the Gospels; this message of love is extremely important to our world today.

So I mentioned that this contrast is important because it sets the stage for other contrasts that follow.  I don’t just mean the other contrasts in the text either, though there are many.  I mean these and the many contrasts we face in our twenty-first-century lives from day to day.

Consider this contrast: Jesus goes out to a place to be alone; but finds a multitude.

You can imagine this scenario pretty easily, can’t you?  You’ve been working hard all day and things haven’t been going particularly well.  You’ve been criticized today by your boss, questioned, perhaps even insulted.  And if that weren’t already frustrating enough, you then get a phone call telling you some bad news, some news that in fact brings you grief.

In this state of mind and heart you end your day; you drive home looking forward to some peace and quiet, some time to be alone with your own thoughts and loved ones, some time to recharge.  But as you pull into your driveway you get another phone call: some old friends happen to be passing through town and are in fact just a few minutes away—imagine that!—and what are you doing for dinner?

What do you do?  I’ll tell you what Jesus did: Jesus, who was seeking a quiet place, where he could enjoy a time of inaction, a time of passivity.  Instead—despite the disciples’ suggestion to send the crowds away—we read all sorts of action words: Jesus saw, had compassion, cured, ordered, took, looked, blessed, broke, and gave.  Instead of recharging through a time of passive inactivity, Jesus acted.  Would you do the same?  Could you do the same?

Another contrast for us to consider: the disciples and the crowd looked around and saw scarcity.  Only five loaves and two fish?  What can anyone do with so little?  Yet after Jesus blessed, broke, and gave, the disciples and the crowd ate until they were filled, with a great abundance left over.

Now I’m not suggesting here that the disciples did anything wrong.  They looked around at their situation and saw what you and I would see and were perfectly reasonable about it: There are only five loaves and two fish; there’s no way in the world this small amount could feed more than a few people.  That’s a perfectly rational assessment.

But this passage begins with a sort of ho-hum feel, that this is just another day in the life of Jesus, just Jesus doing what he does, his routine; but it ends with a sense of wonder coming upon everyone.  Five loaves and two fish feed five thousand men—not to mention the women and children?  How can this be?

Here’s a lesson from this contrast: we need to live our routine lives—our lives that can tend to feel ho-hum—looking for wonder.  Where is God at work when you have those terrible days, when work or school is a bear, when you receive a grief-generating phone call, or when unexpected guests arrive at an inconvenient time?  God is there.  God is everywhere.  Look for him.  You just might find him—and be wonderstruck!

Well, there are several other contrasts worthy of consideration in this passage. But I will end my consideration here.  Yours doesn’t have to though.  Why not go home tonight and contemplate this story some more?  Or tomorrow?  Contemplating the scriptures doesn’t have to take place only during worship.

But now I want to bring it all together.  Tonight we’ve heard again this familiar story of Jesus feeding the five thousand.  And we’ve contemplated it through a frame of contrasts.  What take-home lesson is there for us?

Just this: Jesus’s Kingdom presents a dramatic contrast to the kingdom of our world.  His is a Kingdom of equality and peace.  In it there is no social pecking order; no compulsion by force or threat of violence.

You who call yourselves Christians, then, are in something of a difficult place; for you have dual citizenship: in Christ’s Kingdom and in the world.  It’s when the values of these two kingdoms clash that you must make difficult decisions: to follow the way of Christ or the way of the world.

Here it is then, our take-home lesson: when these clashes come, always, always, always, choose Christ.  Choose the way of the desert.  Go there expecting to meet with God, expecting to recharge spiritually.  But go there, too, expecting to be wonderstruck by what God will do.