A needy bunch and God’s compassionate reply

A sermon for the Eight Sunday after Trinity
Jeremiah 23.1-6 & Mark 6.30-34, 53-56

crowdsThe passages from Mark’s Gospel chosen by the compilers of the Lectionary this Sunday, frame the account of the feeding of the five thousand. Hence, we notice that this section has something to say about our human need, and Jesus’ response. So that is what I would like to explore a little further.

The needs of the people we encounter in this passage are two-fold. On the one hand there is the need of the disciples, who are tired and looking for rest after all that they have been doing and teaching. And then there is the endless need of the people in the crowd. No matter where Jesus and his disciples go, the crowd keeps following them, demanding more healing and more miracles.

I suspect that it is relatively easy for us to identify with the disciples: most of us will have had times when we have been too busy, when our lives have been so full of tasks and demands, that all we wanted, and all we needed was some time alone. Time to step back, and time to pray.

However, too often I feel that ‘being busy’ or even ‘being too busy’ is seen as a badge of honour. If you say you are very busy, you must be important and in demand. Also in this morning’s reading, the disciples report back to Jesus all that they have done and taught, and so although they admit their limitations, they can still do this with a sense of fulfilment and satisfaction.

Very different it is for the people in the crowd. They seem like a pretty needy bunch. Jesus even refers to them as being like sheep without a shepherd: people who are not very aware of their needs, although they are obvious to others. As we hear about the people in the crowd, the ones who seem to have endless needs, following Jesus wherever he goes, I guess for most of us some people come to mind. But I also suspect that it is much harder for ourselves to identify with them; to see ourselves as one of the crowd, needy and dependent.

I’m not a psychologist at all, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there is scientific evidence that we see ourselves differently from how we see others. For example, it is much easier to see the faults of others than our own. Or to identify the ambitions of others, whereas our own motives can be hidden from ourselves. And so, I would like to suggest, it is much easier to see the needs of others than the needs of ourselves.

Thus, it is much easier to see other being part of the crowd, than to imagine ourselves to be there as well. Yet, I think, more often than not, we may be in that figurative crowd too: more in need of God that we are willing to admit. Of course, in a place like Wiltshire, in a country like the UK, for most of us our needs are not as visible as for example people who live in war and violence, for refugees, for those who have lost everything. But, I suspect that beneath the surface, we are all vulnerable human beings, with our own individual fears and anxieties, and so there is a need for God’s healing touch within each of us.

Admitting to that need is not to be ashamed of. Of course, we don’t have to do this publicly, but if we want to grow in our relationship with God, we have to make ourselves vulnerable before him, and that means admitting our needs to God and to ourselves. That brings us then to Jesus’ response to the needs of the disciples and the needs of the crowd, which is one and the same: Jesus shows them, shows us, compassion.

The word compassion finds its roots in the Latin for ‘cum’ and ‘passio’, and thus means suffering alongside. Jesus himself too, just like the disciples, has the need at times to withdraw and to pray, as we read on a number of occasions in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus knows what it is to be tired, and as we know from the events during Holy Week, he knows what it is like to be vulnerable and in need.

Whereas we have our limitations, God does not. His compassion is endless and always accessible, and far greater than we can imagine. I am sure that we all have had moments when we were suddenly moved by the needs of another person, whether this has been by watching the news, or by seeing people struggling in a certain situation. Think back of what you felt at such a moment, compassion: that is what God feels for us all the time.

Jesus compassion, God’s compassion, is in some ways not dependent on us; it is not dependent on what we have achieved, on how busy we are, on how much we have been able to do: it is there for his disciples and for those in the crowd. However, on the other hand, we can only comforted by it, if we let ourselves. God’s compassion can only have an impact on our lives if we dare to make ourselves vulnerable, and admit that we are in need. Only then, when we let God’s compassion touch us, can we be ‘healed’ so to speak and be made whole.

So therein lies a first challenge for us. Where it was maybe easy for us to identify with the disciples, the more difficult task is to identify ourselves with those in the crowd. And that gives us a second challenge: can we also try to see the world, see others, as God sees them, as God sees us? Can we learn to be more compassionate, and learn to respond to the need of others, of course within the limitations given by who we are?

I guess those two challenges are not at all very different. Because as soon as we’ve admitted we’re one of the crowd, we realise that this other ‘needy’ person is probably much more like us than we thought at first. The more we grow in our relationship with God, the more we grow in our ability to form genuine relationships with others, based not just on respect, but on compassion.

The one cannot go without the other. We cannot claim to grow in a relationship with God if we don’t grow in relationship with others too. In a way, one could say, the test of our faith is how we see others: do we see others with the compassion Jesus modelled? Or do we keep seeing them as the needy crowd, the sheep without a shepherd? And in all this, we can be reassured of God’s compassion and love. From there we will find the courage and the strength to become the people God wants us to be.

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