“… and he had compassion, because they were like sheep without a shepherd …” (Mark 6:34).
For many years, Dr. Harold Park taught at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. He peppered his classroom presentations with true stories of actual congregational situations, always disguising the identity of the folk involved by introducing his stories with the words, “There was a congregation not a thousand miles from here … .”
In the spirit of Dr. Park, let me tell you a story. There was a congregation not a thousand miles from here, that not a hundred years ago was barely getting by. Their church building was tiny, just the worship space and two little rooms behind the altar. When they had a congregational dinner, they pushed the pews up against the wall and made a table down the center aisle with sawhorses and plywood. The lay pastor was a teacher from a town 50 miles away. She drove out on Sunday mornings for service, ate a bag lunch in her car, visited the sick, and then headed home by late afternoon. This went on for many years.
There was a man in the congregation who grew worried about the health of the church’s nearest neighbors. Most of the members no longer lived close by. They had grown up there but had moved because of jobs, or marriage or just because. Many of the folk who lived near the church were elderly, or poor or both. The man talked to a nurse about his concern, and they came up with the idea of a once-a-month health clinic—simple stuff like blood pressure screening, etc. They were stunned by the size of the turnout. One of the things they realized was that many of the folk were food deprived and fell through the cracks of the state’s assistance program.
After church one Sunday, they had a council meeting, which meant they had a congregational meeting, because they were so small everybody was on the council. It didn’t happen overnight, but they turned one of those backrooms into a kitchen and the other into a food pantry. They served several meals a week on that plywood table in the center aisle, and they gave away bags of food to anyone who asked. And they did it all without any sermons or testimonies or asking folk to come to church. And eventually, they looked around and realized there were more people in church on Sundays.
“Imagine that,” they thought, “I wonder how that happened?” They wondered because they had done all that they had done with the purest of motives. They were “Israelite(s) in whom there was no guile.” They didn’t think, “If we do nice stuff for the people in the neighborhood, maybe they’ll start coming to church.” No, they thought, “These people are in need, maybe we can help.” That was pretty much it. Like Jesus, they “had compassion.”
To understand what is happening in today’s Gospel lesson, you have to know what took place earlier. Jesus had sent the twelve out two by two on a mission of mercy. “He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. … They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (Mark 6:7,13).
As our text begins, Jesus welcomes them back and hears their stories. Apparently, their acts of kindness and healing have created quite a stir—while they’re talking, a crowd gathers—such a large and active crowd that they don’t even have room or time to eat. Jesus suggests they all go on a little retreat to recharge their batteries. But, it was not to be—people spotted where they were headed and got there ahead of them, still seeking attention and healing. Jesus got out of the boat and looked at them and said, “Do you people have an appointment? Don’t you know this is our day off? or “For crying out loud people, can’t we get a FEW minutes to ourselves. What’s wrong with y’all!” No! That’s not what he said! It may have been what he felt, but it’s not what he said, and turning the people away was not what he did. Instead, “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd …” (Mark 6:34).
Rodney Stark is the codirector of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. His book The Triumph of Christianity (HarperOne, 2011) has a chapter called “Misery and Mercy” in which he makes the case that “in the pagan world, and especially among philosophers, mercy was regarded as a character defect and pity as a pathological emotion; because mercy involves providing unearned help or relief, it is contrary to justice. … This was the moral climate in which Christianity taught that mercy is one of the primary virtues—that a merciful God requires humans to be merciful … the truly revolutionary principle was that Christian love and charity must extend beyond the boundaries of family and even those of faith, to all in need” (pp. 112-113). It is Stark’s well-documented thesis that, “in the midst of the squalor, misery, illness, and anonymity of ancient cities, Christianity provided an island of mercy and security” (p.112).
“The truly revolutionary principle was that Christian love and charity must extend beyond the boundaries of family and even those of faith, to all in need.”
Our Gospel reading then skips over a very important thing—the feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6:35-44). This is more than a simple miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fishes. It shows Jesus the Christ, God incarnate, having compassion for hungry people. It has echoes of the Upper Room, where he distributes food: “this is my body,” “this is my blood;” of the cross where his body is broken, and his blood is shed; and of the eternal feast in heaven, where all people are gathered, all hunger is filled, all tears are dried, and all pain ceases. Yes, “he had compassion,” indeed! It is in compassion, in caring, in self-giving for others that Jesus is most clearly shown forth as the Christ, and we are most clearly shown forth as the church.
Oh, and that little church not a thousand miles from here? Well it never became a mega-church, or even a regular-size church. It got a little bigger and did a few more things in response to needs in the neighborhood, but, as one of the members told me, “Young man, I have lived long enough that I have stopped hiding my age and started bragging about it. At my age, the most important things are loving others and feeling useful. That’s all we’re trying to do.” And they had compassion. And it was enough.
Amen and amen.