Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, A.R., on July 19 2009.
Jeremiah 23:1-6; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
They didn’t even have the opportunity to eat, they were so busy with the demands of the people. Jesus and his disciples are at the highest peak of their popularity, and because of it they don’t even have time to stop and eat. We can relate, can’t we? Not to the fame, necessarily, but certainly to the busyness. This is the way one commentator describes it:
Too busy to pause for a real lunch, young professionals munch on vending-machine fare while working at their desks. Teens grab a bagel for breakfast on the way out the door to school. Parents and children drive through a succession of fast-food restaurants between after-school lessons and sports practices. Commuters sip double lattes on the early morning drive, gnaw on baby carrots between meetings, and pick up takeout on the way home. Toddlers graze on cereal pieces and other portable finger foods so that meal schedules need not control the timing of family shopping trips. We are a people besieged by activities and responsibilities that reshape even basic functions of life such as eating.1
You know how I can tell when life is getting just a bit too hectic, and I need to slow down a bit and focus more on pacing myself? It’s when I wake up in the morning with my daily schedule rattling around in my brain, finding myself going over and over what I have to accomplish that day. The chances are, if I wake up thinking about such things, I went to bed the night before doing the same. That’s when I need to stop and take a little inventory.
Has that ever been your experience? Please say yes; I’d like a little company here.
The problem is, we’ve kind of gotten used to it, living at a frenetic pace, what with our fast-food, on-the-go, fill-up-as-much-time-with-activities way of life. We’re used to it. We’re often exhausted because of it, but we’re pretty much used to it.
However, in Jesus’ day this was a rather new and fresh phenomenon.
Just like everybody else, Jesus and his disciples enjoyed those times when they could stop and have a meal together, when they could pause to talk about the events of the day, discuss the ramifications of what they were doing, and dissect it in their minds so they would know whether their ministry was as effective as they wanted it to be. But not now, not these days. Their fame, in their native land of Galilee, was becoming so widespread they didn’t even have time to stop and eat. It wasn’t by choice that they were skipping meals, it was by demand. Everywhere they turned they ran into desperate people who wanted what only Jesus could give.
Do you ever feel as if we are living in desperate times? I do, especially when it comes to living out our faith in church, the church as we know it. Our culture is changing at such a rapid pace the church is finding it hard to keep up. What people, especially the younger generations, seem to be looking for out of their church experience is not like it used to be. And most ministers of my generation were brought up and trained on what used to be, not on what is. If the church – not just this church, but any church – is to survive, it has to be light on its feet and attuned to the latest challenges.
Don’t know about you – well, yes I do – but my feeling is that the church is just about the least adaptable institution around. I think, when it comes to faith and ministry and being the church, we are living in rather desperate times, if for no other reason than we simply can’t keep up with all the latest changes. To prove my point, how many of you a year ago knew what Facebook was? Any of you “tweeted” on Twitter lately? That’s what a I thought.
We can look around and see other congregations that are being more “successful,” and we wonder why we can’t do the same. Maybe it’s just because we’re not keeping up.
There’s been a lot of research on this of late, and it says that one reason people have given up on the church is that it is too predictable and too resistant to change. And guess what? The age group that’s leading the parade is not Generation X, the young folks, it’s the Boomers, people of my age group. Look around you and I think you’ll find this to be true in our own congregation. We are also told that those who do commit themselves to church don’t care what denominational brand it is either.
What people are searching for is meaning, not Baptist, purpose, not Presbyterian, focus, not tradition. They have a deep spiritual longing, not necessarily an overriding desire to renew a particular denominational brand.
As far as that’s concerned, some things never change.
When the people of Galilee clamored to be with Jesus, it wasn’t because he represented what they already knew and had come to experience, or that he led singing from the old, familiar Broadman Hymnal. It was because he embodied something they had never witnessed before. Jesus was authentic, in a fresh new way they had never before known. He spoke of a kingdom never revealed to them, certainly by the religious establishment. He did things they never thought possible, he represented God as they had never known God. And even when they came to him in desperation, their faith was met with compassion and their expectations were introduced to real and meaningful hope.
Faith as desperation is a continuing theme in Mark’s gospel. And anywhere you find desperation, you find what? Not what, but whom. You guessed it. You find Jesus. These people who headed him off at the pass were no doubt attracted to Jesus, mesmerized by his winsome personality, entranced by his giftedness and desiring to receive from him what only he uniquely could provide. But like the woman who earlier had reached out to touch the hem of his garment, and in the process received power and healing from him, these people were also driven to Jesus by their desperation. And whenever you find Jesus being confronted by desperate people – whether they want what he has to offer them or they want to take his life from him – you find Jesus responding with compassion.
Even when desperate people interrupt his vacation.
Have you ever had a vacation interrupted? A few years ago we were in Florida with two other couples on a golf trip. I had made arrangements for us to play at the TPC Course at Sawgrass, one of the most famous golf courses in the world. It’s where the PGA puts on its annual Players Championship, the one with the famous island green on the seventeenth hole. It cost quite a bit just to get on the course, but the anticipation of doing so was worth it to the four of us who were going to play. We considered it one of those “bucket list” items, the kind you want to accomplish before you die.
The day before, my friend Gerry Claybrook gets a call. His wife’s aunt, Julie’s mother’s sister (and as I recall perhaps the last surviving sibling in the family) had died in Alabama. They called Gerry on his cell phone so he could tell Julie the sad news. A couple of hours later, he received another call. The service had been scheduled. Would he help officiate?
Now, allow me to let you in on a trade secret. When a death occurs, any minister worth his salt is happy to oblige the grieving family in any way possible. It is what we do, and we do it, not because it is our job but because we have chosen this as our way of life and calling. But, if you ask a minister about what aggravates him most, on the list will be those who schedule such services and then notify the minister. The minister appreciates it very much when the family consults with him first, to see if setting the time for the service fits within his schedule. Even if it isn’t necessarily convenient, the minister will do every thing he can to accommodate the family. Again, it is simply what we do, and we do it gladly. But it is a nice courtesy when the family takes the minister’s schedule into account, and such a courtesy is always greatly appreciated.
Since Mark is fond of telling a story within a story (i.e., starting a story, interrupting it with another story, and then returning to the original one), I think I’ll do the same. I remember the time when I was still a young pup in the ministry, serving as associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Bristol, Virginia. One day, Bill Tuck, the pastor of the church, received a phone call from the local funeral director who was also a member of the church. “Bill,” the funeral director told him, “we’ve scheduled the funeral for Mrs. So-and-So. It will be Saturday, 2:00, at the church.”
Dr. Tuck informed the funeral director that, no, the service would not be Saturday, 2:00, at the church. “But it has to be,” the director insisted. “We’ve already sent out the obituary notice to the paper.” “Well, you’ll just have to ask them to print a retraction,” Bill told him. “The service will not be Saturday, 2:00, at the church.” “Why not?!” the exasperated funeral director demanded to know. “Because we have a wedding scheduled Saturday, 2:00, at the church.”
You see what I mean?
Gerry was not able to play the TPC Course at Sawgrass with us the following day because of his sense of obligation to his wife’s family. And while a round of golf, compared to such a thing as a death in the family, is not very important (I knew you were thinking that so decided I better acknowledge it right off the bat), it still would have been nice if the family had taken his personal needs, his schedule, into consideration.
Just as it would have been nice if the crowds that anticipated where Jesus and his disciples were going had been thoughtful of Jesus’ needs. Couldn’t they see his disciples were tired from their missionary efforts? They needed to get away by themselves to a quiet place where they could recover from their exertions.
Well, desperate people aren’t concerned about what other people need, they’re only interested in what they need. There’s a very thin line, if there’s a line at all, between desperation and selfishness. So, you’d think Jesus would have been aggravated by this inconvenience, the selfishness of these people who won’t leave him alone. But no, Mark tells us he had compassion for them. Compassion, not aggravation.
It comes with the fame, I suppose. Movie stars have to put up with all the paparazzi, famous sports figures are watched even when they’re not performing on the field (not to mention having to undergo the random drug tests), political leaders have their every move analyzed and criticized, and, as we’ve seen this week, things said fifteen years ago brought back out into the open to be scrutinized all over again. It just comes with the territory, but that doesn’t make it any less aggravating, I’m sure.
Jesus, who has become famous in his home country of Galilee, is standing at a busy intersection of life where forces tend to collide. Because of his fame, people come at him with their desperation, and it is manifested at the most inopportune times. Just when he needs his rest, just when he could use a retreat from the demands of ministry, just when he requires a bit of “me time,” he is confronted by those who are desperate for what only he can provide. But instead of responding with aggravation, he does so with compassion. He sees them as sheep without a shepherd.
When you leave this place today, especially when you find yourself in the workplace or where people gather, when you encounter others who are marking time just as you are and maybe even are searching for meaning in their hectic, on-the-fly, fast-food schedules, the chances are you’re going to witness sheep who have no shepherd.
Here we are two millennia removed from this story in Mark’s gospel, and while our culture has changed dramatically, basic human need has not changed at all, and never will. And while the church needs to be quicker on its feet in responding to cultural changes – only because these cultural changes impact the way people look at life – we place ourselves in the hands of One whose spirit has not changed, and never will.
Whenever Jesus – then or now – sees others, he looks upon them with a spirit of compassion. The only difference is that now he depends on you and me to be his eyes, his hands and feet, to reflect his presence, and to show his sheep a better way of life and where the Shepherd is. To do so, we’ve got to be willing to put up with the inconveniences. Even more, we have to be passionate about being compassionate. After all, it goes with the fame.
When we see others, O Lord, may we not look just with our own eyes, but with yours. And may we look upon others with the same compassionate spirit as you. In Jesus’ name we ask it, Amen.