God’s Hands

“As a community of faith, part of what we do is look after people’s needs. We get down in the mud, where people are at their lowest, and in compassion, we get ourselves dirty right alongside them, accompanying them, until their needs are met. We don’t do it from afar, but hand in hand.”

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Eighth Sunday after Pentecost B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

There was a time when I used to keep a big long task list on a piece of paper that listed everything, big or small, that I had to do. I had it categorized into two columns: needs immediate attention, and long-term. The needs immediate attention column was for those things that I needed to do right now, within the next day or two. The long-term column was for things that could wait a few days.

It took all of about four days before I ran out of room on the sheet, even though I crossed things off. Every day there were more and more things added to the list. It got to the point where I’d be sitting at home at the end of the day, when I should be winding down, and instead of relaxing, I was fretting about all the things on the needs immediate attention list that I didn’t get to that day: emails that needed to be sent, phone calls that needed to be made, articles that needed to be written, sermon work that needed to be done.

It seemed no matter how many items I crossed off the list, there was never a time when there would be nothing on it. There was always something more to do.

It seems that there is very little time to rest these days. It doesn’t help that we live in a culture that says downtime is wasted time—if we aren’t doing something, then we’re being lazy. Think about it: how many commercials do we see advertising that this product will free up all sorts of time in our day so we can relax and do fun things with our families? What do we do when we get them? We use the free time to do MORE things, because having free time is a no-no. There is always more to do.

Unfortunately, that sounds so bad because it is true. No matter how much we get done in a day, there is always more do to. There are always more needs to be met; some greater than others, but needs nonetheless. How can we rest when there are so many things to do?

This is exactly the problem that Jesus and his disciples face in our story this morning. Think about all of the things they’ve recently gone through: in just this chapter alone, Jesus has preached in and been thrown out of his hometown. He then sends out his disciples, who get out in the villages and towns, cure the sick, and cast out demons. Then we hear about King Herod beheading John the Baptizer, Jesus’s cousin, an event that surely demoralizes and breaks Jesus’s and his disciples’ hearts. A lot has happened in just this slice of the story. I can understand why the disciples are tired, and why Jesus offers to take them somewhere quiet, where they can rest and eat—that’s right, they haven’t even had time to eat.

But things never go according to plan. They may have finished their work among the villages and towns and earned some rest, but they aren’t going to get it. Even as they leave to go somewhere else, they are watched and followed, so that when they arrive, they find the crowd waiting for them.

If it were me, I’d probably be a little frustrated. As Jesus says later, “You always have the poor with you,” which in this instance, could be applied to the crowd. They come to him seeking healing, and there will always be people who need healing. What difference will it make if they rest for a day? It’s not just that the disciples and Jesus have earned a day to rest and eat; they need a day if they are to keep going.

Jesus instead takes a different path. Forgoing his own need for rest and the disciples’ need to get away, he sees the people out there, “like sheep without a shepherd”, and has such compassion for them that he not only heals them, he feeds them: that break between the two parts of our Gospel reading? That’s the feeding of the five thousand.

I don’t know much about sheep. I know that they aren’t the smartest of animals. I know that they are stubborn, and can easily grate the nerves of the shepherd. But I also know that they’re somewhat of a helpless animal—they can’t really protect themselves or truly take care of their own needs in a productive way. In this, they are totally reliant on the care of others, their shepherds. They simply can’t live without that care, unless they want to risk it out in the wilderness, where they will certainly be a tasty meal for a predator.

This is what Jesus sees when he sees the crowd gathered around him: he sees sheep in need of someone to care for them. He sees people who cannot heal themselves, who cannot cast out their own demons, who cannot feed themselves, people who, frankly are not living in the life God intended for them. And in seeing them like this, he is moved by compassion for them; and though he and his disciples are weary and tired, he gets right to work healing them, feeding them, and teaching them.

There’s an important distinction to be made here that needs to be addressed. When Jesus sees the crowds, he is moved by compassion, not pity. He’d certainly be justified  in pitying them—they are in desperate need, and he can help them. That’s what pity is: seeing someone suffering, and doing something to help them. It’s what happens when we see an ASPCA commercial and sign up to help support animal shelters. It’s what happens when we hold our fish fries in the spring and fall, raising money for charity. These are all good things—I have repeatedly told people that I have been keeping a list of all the different ways in which we, as a community of faith, step up together to give aid and help to those who are in pain, and who are in need. It’s an impressive list. Taking pity, acting to relieve suffering, is truly a great thing.

Jesus doesn’t take pity on the crowd, though. He shows them compassion.

It may not seem like there’s not much of a difference. But for Jesus, pitying the people isn’t enough. It’s not what he came to do. Anyone could pity them and help them. Instead, Jesus came to give entirely of himself. He’s tired—exhausted, even. By all rights, he should be able to get away and rest, to pray, to recharge. But when he sees these people, these people who need him—and they do, truly need him—he gathers up his strength and gets to work.

And he doesn’t do it from afar, no. Jesus is right there, in the very midst of the crowd, touching them, healing them, because no one else will. So moved is he by their condition, by whatever makes them suffer, that he shares in their sufferings, so that he can bring them healing and wholeness.

Truthfully, this Jesus worries me. I know I’m not the best at taking care of myself, and I suspect many of us are the same way. Jesus isn’t doing a good job of modeling self-care. Instead of taking the rest he needs, he throws himself right back into the action. I’m not sure this is a model we should necessarily emulate. We get worn out—we burn out. It is a good thing, a very good thing, to rest.

Instead, I see in this story of Jesus hounded by those in need and having compassion on them a glimpse into the mind of God, and a glimpse into the human condition.

We all have needs. Very often we confuse them with our wants, but I invite you to consider those things you truly need. For some, our needs may be like the crowds that followed Jesus. We need food. We need healing. Some may need adequate shelter, or the mending of broken families. Some may need to be loved.

As a community of faith, part of what we do is look after people’s needs. We get down in the mud, where people are at their lowest, and in compassion, we get ourselves dirty right alongside them, accompanying them, until their needs are met. We don’t do it from afar, but hand in hand.

This week, at this very moment, 33,000 high school kids are gathered for worship, the closing worship of the ELCA National Youth Gathering in Detroit, MI. Each of them has participated in a day of service. They’ve cleaned up neighborhoods, they’ve helped pack food, they’ve boarded up homes. When I went to the youth gathering in 2012, I was part of a group that was deconstructing houses so the materials could be used in other houses. The difference that they are making in Detroit, getting right in there with their hands and with their feet, down in the dirt and the mud, is astonishing. But even they can’t heal the whole city.

At the end of the day, we can only do so much. I take great comfort in knowing that God’s compassion is greater, and more far-reaching, than mine. That God can does go places I’ve never even heard of, to people so down in the mud that they don’t even register as people. That God looks down at humanity, sees that our shepherds have abandoned their duty, and God steps in saying, “Then I shall be their shepherd. I will feed them, and protect them, and watch over them. I will take the thankless job of guarding them at night and herding them in the day.”

The rest? The rest is in God’s hands. And I’m totally okay with that.

Author: Pastor Ken

Ken Ranos serves as the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

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