Gut-wrenching Compassion

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.  Living like Jesus is 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.

Today’s lectionary text jumps right over 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 I think best sums up most of Jesus’ ministry: compassion.

Verse 34 stands out in the middle of the story we just heard: “As Jesus 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 compassion really means suffering with the one who suffers.  Compassion is something that 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.
  • Compassion is the pain of watching a friend go through a messy divorce when you’ve been in that position.
  • 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 the crowd of people who had chased him around the lake, he felt their pain, their confusion, their deep desire to know God in a way they had never known before.  Jesus 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 to 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 a picture of the Sea of Galilee and realized just how small it is.  The Sea of Galilee is 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 for the ride in the boat to be a shortcut.  I think being in the boat was the retreat.  Being in the boat with Jesus was the place of rest.

When Jesus says, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest for a while. (v. 31)” I think Jesus meant the middle of the lake as the most deserted place around.  The middle of the lake in that boat 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 on the other side of the lake was the time Jesus gave his disciples time to rest from their ministry, to be alone with him in the boat.

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

In the last few verses of today’s reading, 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.”  This word gives us the opportunity to ask ourselves “How are we anchored in Christ?  How do we 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.  The job of our church is literally to be “the fringe of Christ’s cloak” to the world. 

To be the fringe of Christ’s cloak, we have to be touching Jesus ourselves.  To offer healing to others, we have to [also] allow them to touch us.

This is what gut-wrenching compassion means.

Gut-wrenching compassion means letting ourselves be touched by other people, often hurting people, so that we can be Christ’s healing touch in the world. 

May today’s Gospel reading be for us an opportunity to remember and give thanks for all those who have been compassionate to us; and, in turn, be a challenge for us to remember to be compassionate to all we meet.

You’re in my prayers; thank you for keeping me in yours.

Peace, chuck.

Spirituality The Episcopal Church

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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

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