Sunday, July 22, 2012

Divine Pathos

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

        The text this morning would be a lot more fun if it were Mark 6:35-52.   That text contains the story of the feeding of the 5,000.  It is one of those great stories shared in each of the Gospels, which in and of itself is quite remarkable.  Only two of the Gospels have birth narratives and while all four gospels record the Passion of Christ, each gospel differs with the others in the details.  This is not the case with this miracle.  Each gospel agrees there were 5,000 men; each gospel agrees Jesus started with five loaves of bread and two fish; each gospel agrees everyone got enough to eat.  We could do some amazing stuff with that story and maybe one day we will, but not this morning.  We are stuck with the book-ends, the scriptures just before and just after the great miracle.  What we have are the texts that hold that great story in place.  While they are not nearly as exciting as the feeding of the 5,000, I do believe they impart some critical insights about God and perhaps about us.
        Jesus and the disciples had put in more than a few days of hard work. Jesus had been preaching and healing to the point of exhaustion.  The work has been productive but some well earned relaxation was needed.  Jesus turned to the disciples and said, “Let’s get in the boat, find a deserted place away from the crowds and take a break.”   No one objected.
        But a respite was not what they received.  Some folks recognized Jesus as soon as he came on shore and immediately a crowd began to gather.  Despite the disciples exhaustion you know what happened.  The writer of Mark wrote, “Jesus had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”  Once again, they were back at work.
        Douglas John Hall, a fine biblical scholar from Canada claims two fundamental questions are emerging out of our global religious experience.  The first is, “How does your God view the world?”  The second is “How does your God ask you to view the world?”  Probing Hall’s first question, how would we rate our God’s view of the world?  We need go any further than verse 34 of Mark 6.  “Jesus had compassion on them.”  This one word, this intriguing emotion, seems to have played a major role in all of the ministry of Jesus.  I did my homework.  In the Gospel of Mark alone Jesus stopped what he was doing eight different times and moved in a different direction because and I quote, “Jesus had compassion on them.”  I suspect if I had continued my research I would have found the other gospels excessively report this quality in Jesus.
        I don’t think this is any great revelation.  Few would suggest that the ministry of Jesus suffered from lack of compassion.  But if we compare this “trait” with some of the other “gods” allegedly active during the time of Jesus, our savior’s response is nothing short of amazing.  Was Zeus compassionate?   How about Jupiter, or Adramelech or Ra?  In Greek, Roman, Persian and Egyptian literature each of these gods was depicted as wrathful, vengeful, angry and vindictive.  Some folks who haven’t spent a great deal of time reading the whole Old Testament might even suggest Yahweh lacked compassion.  Let me suggest something that might shock you.  Who do you think taught Jesus the very essence of compassion?
        Abraham Heschel, my favorite Jewish Biblical scholar wrote, “God is not revealed in abstract absolutes, but in a personal and intimate relation to the world.  God does not simply command and expect obedience; God is concerned about the world and shares its fate.  Indeed this is the very moral essence of God. God is willing to be intimately involved in the history of humanity because God is filled with divine pathos.”
        I like the idea of linking compassion with pathos.  My compassion for someone could easily be misunderstood as pity.  Let’s say I am walking in downtown Charlottesville and a homeless person is sitting on the sidewalk.  A sign resting on his knee informs me that his family is suffering greatly because he has been out of work.  I look at the man and see no evidence of inebriation.  I imagine that he has a wife looking after one or more children.  I am taken with his plight and out of pity I reach into my wallet and slip a couple of dollars into his can.  It is not the first or last time I will perform such a deed.  Anyway, it only took a second and now I can be on my way to enjoy a guilt free bagel sandwich at Bodo’s.
        Imagine if God were satisfied by just slipping a couple of bucks our way. The very thought makes me incredible nervous.  Thankfully God’s track record points in another direction.  To borrow the term introduced by Heschel, the compassion of God is instigated by God’s pathos or to be more exact, God’s willingness to suffer with us.  Heschel believed God’s precondition for compassion is unconditional solidarity with those upon whom you have compassion.  That is a radical thought that raises all kinds of discussions on how we treat the poor, how treat our neighbors and how we respond to folks we don’t particularly like.  It also brings us full circle to Hall’s question, “How does your God ask you to view the world?”
        While I enjoy living here in Nelson County, perhaps one of my favorite places to visit is Washington DC.  I have been to all the major attractions and walked through Arlington during the day and Georgetown at night more times than I can remember.  But I think my favorite spot is located northeast of DuPont Circle.  It is a very eclectic area where the east, west, north and south of the world seems to converge.  For decades well meaning groups have gathered here to deal with the poverty that seems have taken root in this area of our capital.  I have taken many a youth group to this community that you might know as Columbia Heights.  There was one housing project there that seemed to always need work.  It had been an old hotel which a group of well meaning folks had bought and turned into low rent apartments.  People would move in and out, always leaving the place worse than they found it.   I would bring young folks and for a week we would patch walls, clean floors and do all those things that are a part of inner city ministries.  It was quite discouraging because each time I visited, the condition of the hotel, as well as the spirits of the owners, seemed to be in an endless downward spiral.  Then one summer, as I was setting up a trip to DC, I called my friends in Columbia Heights and asked if they had some work we could do.  As usual they were most gracious and mentioned a number of places that could use a helping hand.  The hotel was not mentioned.  It made me believe the project had proved too costly and the folks given up.  On arriving at one of the work sites, I carefully inquired about the hotel.  The man smiled and said, “It is going great.  Last year we decided to take a new approach.  Instead of running the hotel, we moved into the hotel.  Fifteen families from our church are living there permanently.  Together we are working with our new neighbors to create a new life.”
        Some would call those folks crazy; some would suggest there actions a bit drastic; and a few might suggest they are living in unconditional solidarity with those upon whom they have shown compassion.  I believe they comprehend the radical pathos of God and responded in a way that perhaps only a handful of folks can fully understand.
        Jesus was certainly among that handful. Jesus saw physical and spiritually hungry people and had compassion on them.  Seeing that they were starved for some good news Jesus sat down among them. Taking two fish and five loaves of bread, he fed them.  That is an incredible miracle, but so is the miracle of Columbia Heights.  Both Jesus and the members of The Church of the Savior base their lives on the good news that God is a compassionate God.  Jesus the obedient servant did not cling to his divinity but emptied himself for the sake of all humankind.  Likewise we, God’s obedient servants, can live as a manifestation of God’s compassion by emptying our lives for the sake of another.  This compassion will become the foundation of our faith, the basis of our hope and the source of our love.  Through our grateful actions, those around us will see a glimpse of God’s new heaven and new earth.  We will give them a taste of living bread. We will give them a vision that will last longer than a meal.
                        To God be the Glory,   Amen.

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