Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Snorting of the War-Horse...

Many thanks this week for the insights of Rev. D. Mark Davis and Rev. Lindy Black.

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he 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.
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Our Gospel reading jumps completely over a couple of very important events – the Feeding of the Five Thousand, and Jesus walking on the water. Now, this is normally the kind of thing that makes me shake my head and grumble at the computer screen, while adding back in the verses that were skipped, but not this time.

This time, I confess, I got hooked on a phrase, fascinated by it: “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd…”

Jesus has been spending the Gospel of Mark running around healing, teaching, doing signs and wonders, raising from the dead, and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Most recently, Jesus has endured the ridicule and disinterest of the people in his own home town, and he has sent the apostles out in pairs to spread the Good News, and, in the meantime, Jesus has learned of his Cousin John’s death at the hands of Herod.

And now the apostles had returned, road-weary but eager to tell Jesus about all that had happened. They sat in a circle, there on the lakeshore, enjoying a meal: passing around a loaf of bread, some olive oil, and perhaps some vegetables, while the apostles filled Jesus in on their adventures.

Or, at least, they tried to enjoy a meal, they tried to have a conversation.

People kept coming up and interrupting. Perhaps they needed something specific, perhaps they just wanted to say hello, perhaps they wanted to get a close-up look at this rabbi and his band of devoted disciples. Whatever the case, Peter would start to say something and someone would interrupt. John would try and take a bite of bread and someone would ask him a question.

I suspect this kind of thing was par for the course for Jesus, who was always sensitive to the needs of others, always keen to find an opportunity to teach a lesson about the Kingdom of God. How many times do we read of Jesus being interrupted, or of stopping to teach a lesson, during a meal? But this would likely have been a new experience to the disciples and, after awhile, you could tell it was wearing on everyone’s nerves.
Make no mistake, the twelve enjoyed being celebrities… but it was getting to the point where they wondered if they’d ever get to finish dinner.

And this would have been a great place for Jesus to say, “Ha! Now you know how I feel!” but instead, he puts his bread down and says, “guys, let’s take a break. Hop in the boat, go find someplace quiet to eat, and take a nap.”

That was the plan, anyway. Just take a few hours, find an empty spot in the wilderness, finish supper and grab a couple hours’ shut-eye.

Besides, it isn’t a stretch to imagine what John’s death signaled for Jesus’ ministry. Herod killed John the Baptist with impunity, no one questioned his actions or challenged his authority to do so, or complained to Rome about it. John had been an irritant to Herod’s wife, had challenged his authority, and had been permanently silenced. How much more would the authorities – civil and religious – work to silence Jesus? Could there be any doubt that the road Jesus traveled would lead to the cross?

Perhaps this would be a good opportunity for Jesus to very quietly, very specifically tell these disciples, still glowing from their success as evangelists, what the future held for them… the terror and the glory which followed, and how it was all worth it for the glory of God and for the now-and-coming Kingdom of Heaven.

But as soon as their boat cast off from shore, word spread that Jesus and his disciples were on the move, and folks began to rush around the lake to meet the boat. It wasn’t that many people at first, but they were walking fast, with purpose, and as they passed by the towns that lined the shore of the lake, folks asked questions, got excited, and joined in the journey. Soon, it was a massive throng of people, moving at almost a dead run, circling the lake to meet Jesus on the other side.

And what a sight they must have been, too, when the disciples pulled the boat up on the shore and Jesus stepped out. Thousands of people, men and women and children, red faced and out of breath, dripping sweat from the exertion… and all eyes locked on the Son of God as he stepped from the tiny fishing vessel.

The Scriptures tell us that Jesus looked at them and he had compassion for them. And while that sounds like a very nice term, “compassion,” all warm and fuzzy and such, there’s more to the story.

The Greek word for “compassion” there – “splagchnizomai,” is derived from a word in the Greek translation of the Old Testament which described the removal of an animal’s innards during ritual sacrifice. Jesus’ reaction to the people is not one of irritation or of resignation. He sees their need, their lost-ness and their hunger for a word and a touch from God, and he is moved in such a deep, visceral way that it is as if his heart is literally torn from his body for them.

Jesus could have told them, “Hey, not right now, I’m on my break.” He could have sent them away, taken a few hours with his companions, and regrouped. No one would have blamed him, after all. That was his plan; that’s why he’d gotten the group on the boat in the first place. These people, they were an imposition, an interruption, and they never knew when to quit.

In classical Greek, “compassion” means the snorting of a war horse. I love that image: compassion chomping at the bit to move, to act, to forever alter the course of someone’s life – compassion is not a passive feeling, but a call to action!
Jesus saw them for what they were – aimless, hungry people, searching for hope and direction, starving for a word from a God they believed in, but barely knew. They lived life as if they were groping around in the dark for a light switch, not even certain if there was a light switch… Jesus saw all of this, and Jesus heard the snorting of the war-horse.

Now, as I said at the beginning, the Gospel records that Jesus fed these people with five loaves of bread and two fish, and we will look more closely at that event next week. But Jesus’ immediate compassionate response – seeing the people for what they were, sheep without a shepherd – wasn’t to merely feed, to just heal, to simply do signs and wonders.

This is not to say that these things are not important. In fact, when the reading picks up, after skipping the feeding of the five thousand and the night where the disciples see Jesus walking on the water, we find that so many people came to Jesus and received healing that if they so much as mimicked the woman with the issue of blood – touching the fringes of his cloak – they were made well.

But I find it fascinating that Jesus’ immediate response, his compassionate action when he looked into their searching, hungry, hopeful eyes, was to speak to their real need – the need for direction, the need for guidance, the need for a shepherd. Jesus immediately began to teach them.

Something else I find intriguing is pretty easy to miss in our reading. Notice how, in the first verses of the reading, Mark refers to Jesus and the disciples as a group – we read the word, “they” and “them.” But when they reach the shore, when Jesus sees the lost sheep, well, from that point on the narrative is singular. “he” and “his.”

I wonder, what happened to these disciples? Could it be that, despite the amazing things they had done and seen, they so easily slipped back into the role of observer? Could it be that the twelve – fresh from the experience of fulfilling their calling as apostles, from experiencing active compassion in the towns they visited with only the clothes on their back and a walking-stick – have now lapsed back into ignorant and fearful followers? They are followers, we have to give them that much credit, but they aren’t participating any longer in the way that they had been called and empowered to participate. The war-horse no longer snorts. They are now more ‘hangers on’ than ‘co-workers.’

There’s a principle we use in sales training: people will take the easiest option you offer them. If your questions or your sales close provide the opportunity to do nothing, then that is what people will most often do. That isn’t a value judgment, it is just human nature.

This seems to be what has happened to the disciples. They could have jumped out of the boat, waded into the crowd, and begun speaking to the individual, immediate needs of the exhausted and bewildered people. They could have told each of them about the Kingdom of God. Or, they could let Jesus do it – fall back into their habit of standing around getting confused at the things Jesus says. They made the easiest choice.

And it’s fun to point out the disciples’ shortcomings, to shake my head and say, “if I had been there, I would have been different! Yet, in reality, how often have I faced the choice between speaking to someone’s deepest need, and turning them away, directing them somewhere else so they can impose on someone else… and have made the easy choice, the most convenient choice? Perhaps I am oversimplifying it when I say that Jesus made the hard choice, but the fact is that, time and again, we see Jesus doing the difficult, inconvenient, unpopular, even dangerous thing – putting people before doctrine, compassion before convenience, and valuing love more than life itself. If our own discipleship involves the imitation of Christ, are we not called to do the same?

It’s been said that church is what’s left after the preacher leaves town and the building burns down. Church is also what happens when we answer the call to action – when we make the hard choice not to redirect or ignore, but to move with compassion as the hands and feet of Christ, teaching and feeding and walking and healing in the name of the One who died for us, rose for us, and lives for us.

May we never be satisfied to be observers, resting on the experiences we once had. May we instead see people for who they are, beloved creations of the Living God, men and women and children for whom Christ died, hear the snorting of the war-horse, and may we be moved to act with the same compassion which compelled that risen Christ.

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