Sunday, July 18, 2021

God of Compassion: A Sermon at St. Thomas, Thomasville, GA

Proper 11,

Texts Jeremiah 23:1-6; Mark 6:30-34; 53-56


(Note: the AC had gone out in the sanctuary this morning, necessitating a slightly different start to the sermon in the video!)

Good morning!

And isn’t it a fine morning to talk about “woe”?! The prophet Jeremiah is all about the “woe” isn’t he? He has good reason to be woeful.

Imagine the images of a war-torn region with homes destroyed, buildings burning, ash covering the streets and smoke rising up into the sky. That’s the dust heap of Jerusalem where we find the prophet.

This text is drawn from a very long series of woes and laments the prophet speaks on behalf of God to the kings who have utterly failed the people. Some have noted this is pretty much a funeral for Judah.

Remember the American Express ads with the tag line, “Membership has its privileges?” In this case, the word from God is that “leadership…being the shepherd…has its privileges.”

And these shepherds have not only squandered that privilege and failed to lead their people, but there’s also almost a sluggishness to their leadership, a failure to act rightly or even care to do the right or just thing.

This leadership “meltdown” allows for the destruction of the temple and ransacking of Jerusalem. The shepherds are killed or exiled, and the sheep get scattered as Babylon raids their city.

But imbedded in this passage of woe, there is hope. Even in the midst of this great lament over the disastrous leadership that has botched things up so badly for the people, the God of Israel pledges that God’s self will take care of this mess.

God will seek out and find the lost and scattered sheep.

God will raise up new leadership for Israel, a righteous branch of David.

God ultimately will be the grounding for the people, the center of their righteousness.

God, not a king or prophet, will do this.

This is not a God who is remaining aloof.

This is a vision of God who is in deep with the people in their grief for what has happened to Israel and will not leave the people comfortless in their time of woe and despair. God’s answer to this calamity is not with warfare.

Instead, God creates a new reality out of this catastrophe, scraps what has been, and announces there’s going to be a new foundation.  

Theologian Walter Brueggemann says that the consciousness of the shepherds, the kings, of Judah and Israel had become so dull that they refused to see the coming danger of the exile.

Their only vision was for things which would benefit the few at the ultimate cost of the many.

They weren’t able to extend hope because they couldn’t even imagine a future. And what type of leadership is it that cannot and will not have hope for a future?

We have in Jeremiah a God who is imagining something different that moves away from the patterns of the failed rulers. Because those patterns clearly don’t work and have led not only to defeat but defeatism.

For God a new thing is going to happen.

As Christians, we hear in the Jeremiah passage that the hope for a future…the new thing…is the coming of Jesus Christ, Son of God, Son of David, the righteous Branch. One of my favorite Christmas hymns even speaks to this:

“I know a rose tree springing forth from an ancient root as men of old were singing from Jesse came the shoot that bore a blossom bright…amid the cold of winter when half-spent was the night.”

At Christmas, we celebrate God’s inbreaking into our reality, the incarnation of God living among us and coming to be that long sought-after shepherd.

In Jesus, we can see how God envisions the type of leadership for God’s people when we look at the verse in our Gospel reading: “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.” (Mark 6:34).

Jesus has compassion for them…because they were like sheep without a shepherd. We’re back to the lamentation of Jeremiah, that sense of people who have been failed by every system imaginable…and they are rushing to the shore to seek out this one rabbi they’ve heard about who cures the sick and casts out demons. Mark names the response to the needy crowd.

Jesus has compassion. God has compassion.

We might hear this word “compassion” and think, “Oh those poor people. I’m so sorry for them.”

But that’s not what compassion means.

What the word compassion means is “suffering with.” Just as God in Jeremiah is as despairing of the fate of Judah as the prophet himself…Jesus is not separating himself from this crowd. Remember, he and his disciples were attempting to find a quiet place and get away and get something to eat, but the crowds caught wind of their travels and insisted on getting attention, NOW. And Jesus’ response to this crowd of hassled and hungry people…to put it in our current lingo:

“You’re weary and hungry? Yeah. I know, right!”  He’s at one with them in that suffering place.

He begins to teach them. And we can imagine some of what it is that he teaches. How to live into a new reality, not wait around for the human shepherds to do what is right, but for them to be and do the righteousness of God. He wants them to know about God’s steadfast love for those who have been failed…a God who will not them languish forever.

We didn’t read it today in our Gospel lesson, but the next verses contain probably the chief lesson Jesus shares with the crowd…the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand (spoiler alert: this is next week’s Gospel only you’ll be hearing it from the perspective of John). We know this tale well enough and how it illustrates the power and abundance of God’s love through sharing gifts of loaves and fishes. This was Jesus’ compassionate response.  

I think one of the big questions for us is do we trust and believe in a God that is compassionate?

Do we believe that Love will win?

And if the answer is Yes, then do we understand the lesson that is getting passed down to us through these scriptures of our prophetic ancestor Jeremiah and the response of Jesus to the crowds? It’s more than just waiting on God to act. Certainly, God will. But we must observe how God acts and then participate in doing those same actions.

Those who have responsibility to lead…the charge to be shepherds…must not separate themselves from the people but lead from that place of compassion. And from compassion flows justice, mercy, and righteousness.

When systems fail to serve the people, when leaders don’t lead and insist on perpetuating a nihilistic vision of hopelessness and despair, when we realize that things that we were told were “normal” are not really “normal,” that is the time for us to visualize a new reality with God’s compassion and help.

What Jesus teaches us is that even when we are feeling the weight of the world’s woes, our job is to trust that there is a power that comes from a perfect love that casts out fear of doing a new thing, and not stay stuck in old patterns. That power and courage to change has been placed in and through us in our baptism. We are to look out for the needs in our community and respond with that “I’m with you in this moment” way to the person who is hurting. Sometimes, it can be marching alongside those who are speaking up for justice. Or it can be sitting still and listening without attempting to “fix” or solve someone else’s problems. Often, the children of God who represent today’s crowds are looking for someone who will hear their lament without judgment or a counter argument. To do this type of present and compassionate listening…this is what it means when we say go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us and prosper the work of our hands (Ps.90:17).