This past week, a delegation of 7 MAPC congregants traveled to Iowa to meet our partner churches. This partnership has formed over the past five years. It has blossomed in ways only God foresaw, as it has grown from two churches to four. This partnership focuses on serving the other in the name of love—love that only comes from God. Deep beneath this idea of mission is the commitment to building and fostering relationship. Relationships that would not otherwise form due to cultural, geographical, or other divisions society prescribes. Beneath the surface of this partnership is the idea of gathering around. Gathering around Jesus and the other. Gathering to fully see the other with compassion.
Throughout our trip we were encouraged to explore how we are uniquely made, while clinging to our oneness in Christ. As we explored this theme, we visited people and places in Iowa and South Dakota. Places where God is at work in new ways. One place we saw God anew was during our visit with our Native American brothers and sisters.
Elder Bobby, a Lakota Indian and Ruling Elder in the PC(USA) shared the story of “The Eagle” with us. “A long, long time ago…,” he started, “there was a very tough winter—very cold and very snowy. The people knew that the winter would pass, but, as it did, the rains began to fall. The land was dampened by the snow and it could not hold any more water. This caused the lakes to rise, in turn, causing The Great Flood, which is a story of recreation for the Lakota tribe. The flood took with it everything in its path, causing a great stretch of death and destruction.”
“During the flood, a small girl began to climb the Black Hills. When she reached the top, she was fatigued by hunger and grief, for she realized that she was the last of her kind. Stopping to rest, she fell asleep. Warmed by the sun for the first time in months, she woke from her slumber. When she woke up, she noticed an eagle perched nearby. She knew the eagle to be a being of great power.
A gentle voice began to speak to her.
‘Are you sad?’ The Eagle asked.
‘Yes, I have sadness,’ the girl replied.
‘Are you hungry?’ inquired The Eagle.
‘Yes, I have hunger,’ a faint voice returned.
The girl felt comforted and was no longer afraid. After a short pause, The Eagle began to fly away. She called out to The Eagle, ‘Are you leaving me?’
The Eagle replied, ‘Only to get you some food.’ Bringing back a big fish for the girl to eat, he sat it beside her.
The girl and The Eagle became friends. As their friendship grew, the girl envied the eagle because she wanted to fly high in the sky like he did. The Eagle invited her to grab onto his legs as he soared above the earth. As the hills grew smaller, the earth grew bigger in the girl’s heart.
The girl grew stronger and began to smile more. But, the eagle still knew she had sadness. He called out to Grandfather: ‘Grandfather, why have you not looked upon her and seen to her needs?’
Grandfather responded, ‘I have, as she has you. You are a fine being with great power.’
The Eagle continued to question, as he did not understand what Grandfather was suggesting. Grandfather continued on to say, ‘You have a fine place, but in order to help her you must give up your place to become a two-legged.’ [Referring to humans].’’
This story reminds us of the story of Jesus. In particular, the narrative reflects the core of Mark’s Gospel. There are three main themes that run the course of this Gospel that are central to our focus today: discipleship, wilderness, and compassion.
A couple of weeks ago we spoke a lot about what it means to be a disciple. It means going, being sent, doing. Yet, with an element of recognition of trusting its sources. It is not us alone doing the work of God—God is a key player.
Today, our passage consists of the disciples first return to Jesus since going to teach. Upon their return, they gather around Jesus to share and tell all that they had done to help others. Jesus invites them away to what we can assume will be a Sabbath moment—a moment centered on resting in God’s presence. They get into a boat and travel to another shore. A shore they hope will bring quietude. The people spot where the boat will land and the crowd traveled by foot to the far shore. As they journeyed, it multiplied in size. Not exactly the rest the disciples had in mind. Their fleeting, quiet moments are met with more noise than the place they previously left.
Before we continue the story, let us pause and reflect on the role of Jesus’ followers and how this has shifted throughout this chapter. Two weeks ago, we began chapter six, as Jesus and his disciples entered his hometown, Nazareth. Here, the word in Greek used for disciple is mathetes, meaning to teach, to instruct, or to make a disciple. By using this verb, Jesus is giving his counterparts a job description of teaching—watch, listen, repeat. In verse 30 this job description changes. The Greek shifts from mathetes to Apostolos, translated for us as apostle. This word suggests a sending forth, as one sent with orders. Now the job, or calling, of the closest followers of Jesus is expanded from simply teaching to “going forth” with an intended purpose.
The Gospel of Mark has a hurried sense. For Mark, everything is happening, and it is happening now. It’s a fleeting comment, but Mark remarks that the disciples, much like the crowd, have no time to even eat because of their busyness. The disciples are busy tending to the needs of the people, and the people are busy running toward Jesus.
This is a lot like our lives today. Our schedules are overstructured, even to the point of changing how we eat. We are rushing about, making sure we have time to fit everything into our lives. We run around and forget at times to stop, pause, and even to eat. Everything competes for our attention, and we neglect to notice what really matters. This is what we are seeing in Mark. The difference is that the busyness consists of people trying to reach Jesus. People are in such a need for Jesus that they are hurried trying to get to him. Perhaps, we are similar to this crowd. They are preoccupied with getting to Jesus so much so that they neglect their daily needs. We are so distracted and occupied by our needs that we have trouble reaching Jesus.
How often do we, in our lives, want Jesus to come to us right where we are?
We sit and wait. And wait. And wait, often wondering, “Where are you, Jesus?”
In Mark’s gospel, there is no time to wait. The disciples do not have time to wait, and the people sure do not have time to sit still, hoping Jesus will find them. If they do, Jesus will surely pass by without a notice. Everything has an immediacy, and that immediacy means that the people must hurry to Jesus.
Since the apostles are busy with everyone coming and going there is not time to get away. They have taught and done as Jesus asked them. Now, they have returned feeling fatigued. They simply want a moment of quiet—of Sabbath rest. So, Jesus invites them into the wilderness. It is here that we pick up the second theme in this section of Mark—wilderness.
This is the same wilderness that opened the Gospel of Mark with Jesus being tempted by the devil. Soon, Mark’s audience will find themselves back in the wilderness on their way to Jerusalem as Jesus’ earthly life seemingly ends. Here in the middle we find Jesus [and us] in the wilderness trying to navigate personal needs alongside the needs of the crowd.
Wilderness, for Mark, represents many things. It is present in the beginning, suggesting its importance for finding oneself. Wilderness has an importance in creation as its chaos creates order. It is present in the end, which offers a time of reflection—time to pray, ask for forgiveness, or give thanks to God. It is present with us today—in the middle—as a place to reconnect. Yet, it is immediately interrupted with crowds begging for their attention. This suggests that it is important to know oneself in the midst of one’s work. Our heart’s intent and actions must line up. One cannot have action without heart; likewise, heart without action is no good. It is here where heart and action meet that we find compassion. Compassion being our third theme this morning.
Compassion is at the heart of the story Elder Bobby shared regarding The Eagle. The Eagle knew he had an important decision to make. A decision between flying high in the sky, or the decision to become a two-legged. Flying was his favorite pastime and all he knew. Becoming a two-legged meant that the girl would not be the last of her kind. He was torn. He took a few days to fly higher than he ever had before as he made his decision.
“There are many of my kind, but she is the last of her people. She cannot be the only one. I must become two-legged,” thought the Eagle.
He became two-legged and the girl recognized his great compassion. To the Lakota people, we are all related, and one person should not bear grief or injury alone. We can all take on some burden for another’s well-being such as The Eagle did for the girl. Jesus has this same regard for the other, as he looked on all with this same sense of compassion.
When the boat landed on the other shore, the apostles began to remind Jesus he, and they, needed time to rest. To their remarks, Jesus insisted that rest would come. However, at the moment the people needed them.
The passage we read this morning skips the familiar story of the feeding of the 5,000. However, it is here, in the midst of this context that light is shed on the depth of Jesus’s compassion. In the midst of fatigue and hunger, Jesus asks for any food they have to feed the crowd. The disciples quickly responded that there was not nearly enough to feed the thousands upon thousands of people. In fact, they were unsure if the food they had was enough to feed themselves. This, an easy answer to give, would allow them to return to the quietude.
God’s work; however, was not yet complete. The people still needed to feed. They were hungry and had traveled to the other shore to meet the boat as it landed. When Jesus saw their need, he had compassion. He fed them. Jesus [the apostles] had little. They had no energy. They had not rested. They had had only a little bit to eat. God’s people were hungry, needing much. It is here that Jesus takes what little they have and multiplies it to be more than satisfactory for all.
It is this ministry of Jesus that people came to know. That people came to hunger for. This sense of true compassion, caring for the others’ burdens, caused the crowds to flock to the shore he walked.
There are so many people in our lives today that are in need. If we are honest, this includes you and me. We go to therapists. We go to doctors. We do yoga. We turn to self-help books. These tools are all good in their own right. However, they fill us up temporarily. We partake in what they have to offer and we leave satisfied only to hunger again. We listen to friends’ stories trying to fill their hunger, but how often do we pause to let them into our lives, pointing to the source that sustains us?
Do we invite these friends to church?
Or, are we afraid by inviting Jesus into our midst we will scare our friends away?
Do we offer words that are beyond the temporal and point to the Eternal One?
Or, are we slow to turn to Jesus ourselves, because we are not sure what he has to offer?
Statistics show that it takes eight times for us to invite a friend to church before they will come through the door. I wonder what has brought us to a time that it takes eight mentions of Jesus and church before our acquaintances give God a chance. I am unsure of why this is the case, but as I look closer at the Gospel of Mark, I yearn for a society that is scrambling [even too busy to eat] to meet Jesus along the shore.
In this wondering, I have to admit that it has to be because we are not fully living into the three characteristics that Mark points toward: discipleship, wilderness, and compassion.
We often focus on one or two [if we are generous towards ourselves] of these central values at a given time. But, it takes all three to fully live into the Kingdom of God.
Discipleship is not at its finest without moments of wilderness to discover who we are as it relates to our actions. Wilderness does not meet its goal without knowing who one is. Compassion is born out of wilderness moments with a sense of being set forth with orders or being an apostle of the one who cares to sympathize. The story of The Eagle and the little girl introduced a new word into the Lakota language: mawashilabi [maw-ash-il-abi]. The word for compassion. A word that means to care and to sympathize, a word, that on a deeper level, suggests the ultimate sacrifice.
Our Lakota brother, Elder Bobby, clarified this point for us during our time together. One relationship, one value, is fed by other values. They are not separate entities. Similarly, Jesus echoes this claim to his followers.
It is important to make sure you know yourself [your calling], to have wilderness moments [where does your call, heart, and action line up], and these together breed compassion.
Fred Rogers was a promenade figure in the world of children’s television and an entrepreneur of his time. His show for children was centered on this idea of breeding compassion. For him, compassion was learning to love your neighbor and love yourself. These two, he stressed, go together. You cannot have one without the other.
This idea was sparked by blending the understanding of the Hebrew concept of re-creation. The Hebrew suggests that it is our duty to “take responsibility for creation.” This is the true meaning of compassion. When we do this, we are living into God’s call of recreation. Jesus did not look on the crowd with pity. The Eagle did not soar with sorrow for the girl. Fred Rogers did not give up when the going got tough. They looked on the other with compassion. A sense of care, a sense of duty to help, a calling to ease the other’s burden. Today, this is the responsibility Jesus is calling us toward. Compassion, thought, is not a one-time action. It is a verb, a continuing sequence of actions.
Our Native American relatives, Fred Rogers, and Jesus all knew what it meant to look at “the crowd” [or lack thereof] with compassion. It is this compassion that calls one to take the little they have and multiply it to feed the multitudes.
Here we have a table set before us. A table that Jesus invites us to gather around, just as he invited the crowd many years ago. The meal set is prepared by our Lord, who truly gave all he is and all he will be for us, in order that we might live eternally. At a glance, it looks small. It seems like there may not be enough for all. However, this table is not set by human hands, but by the Spirit of the Living God. It is set by the one who multiplies our scarcity into plenty. So, come, taste and see that the Lord’s bounty will fill us beyond measure. However, the small piece of bread and the sip of wine is not meant for us to keep. At its heart is compassion for the other that is to be shared. Take this little taste and go forth to multiply it, sharing it with all the world.