Sunday, July 26, 2009
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Jesus and his disciples just can’t get a break from the crowds that follow them. Here are they are, the disciples just back from their first mission trip, bursting with stories to tell Jesus of who they healed, the good news they shared, the demons they cast out, but the crowds! They just couldn’t get away. The people kept coming, getting in the way, NEEDING something, interrupting the reunion between Jesus and his faithful followers. This fast paced series of life interrupted gives us an interesting glimpse into what it means to love with the heart of Jesus.
The high school mission team caused a little interruption for another traveler this week. The bus and van with our leaders and high schoolers left for Montana for a week of mission work on a Habitat for Humanity house and then a week of backpacking in the mountains nearby. A few of us here were there to see them off way earlier than any of us would have wished for. Everything looked smooth to me. The trailer with all their gear had been loaded the night before. They gathered, we took the obligatory before-trip picture, I prayed for their safe travels, and they were on their way.
But apparently the first phone call home came earlier than planned. I didn’t get it, which is great because I never would have thought of the solution the other pastor did! Well, it turns out that while they had been very careful to include everyone’s luggage and all the camping gear, they had forgotten one little thing - - ALL the food they had purchased to feed them on the trip! They didn’t want or really have the money to buy replacements for what was left behind, but they were also too far to come back or send someone out to meet them.
But Pastor R had an idea. He got on the phone to another minister in town, who has a unique ministry in that he doesn't have a usual congregation. He is the chaplain at the truck stop. Did you even know there was a chaplain at the truck stop? Well, there is, and for that we and our mission trippers truly grateful. Pastor R called the chaplain, and the chaplain went to work in the truck stop parking lot looking for some compassionate soul heading west.
None of those truck drivers were expecting a knock from the chaplain like the one they got. Usually when it comes to ministry there, I imagine it's the chaplain sharing it, and drivers receiving it. I know he talks to a lot of drivers about strained relationships or struggles with money that is tight. I know he works with transients who come through town, but I doubt he regularly gets to go looking for someone to minister to others. I doubt he regularly walks around the parking lot, interrupting the plans and lives of the drivers, hoping they’ll open their hearts by serving some youth from Hudson.
But that’s just what happened. He found a driver, interrupted his rest, and asked for his help. The man agreed, arranged to pick up the mission trip food, and drove it out to Montana when he left town. What a blessing! What a compassionate man!
Compassion is the English word that is used in this passage to describe how Jesus looked at the crowds that gathered. His travels were halted, his plans interrupted. He could have looked at them with annoyance or maybe with disgust at their poor timing, but he looked at them with compassion - -seeing their need before he let his own plans take precedence.
Compassion is the word we read, but it’s not nearly as fun as the Greek word.
I have been duly warned by professors and colleagues about referring to the original New Testament Greek in sermons. I have been told, and I believe, that when a preacher starts a sentence “Now in the Greek this word is…” the congregation’s eyes glaze over and attention turns to just what will the snack be during fellowship time? All that said I’m going to do it. I’m going to do it with the full disclosure that I did NOT translate this passage from the Greek. However, this word that I learned this week is too good not to share! In English it shows up there in verse 34 “compassion.” Nice word, gives us warm fuzzy feelings, maybe even fond and grace-filled memories of the compassion we have felt at the hands of friends, strangers, or God. But the Greek word - - now THIS is a word!
The word is splagchnizomai. Isn’t that great? They just don’t make words like that in English. This word meaning “compassion” here in Mark’s gospel and throughout the New Testament comes from the Greek word for entrails, the inner vital organs of a person – the stomach, heart, lungs, spleen, liver, and kidneys. Compassion is what happens in the deepest center of our physical bodies. To say Jesus had compassion for the endless masses of people before him, the people who just kept coming and coming, the people who interrupted him in the middle of important ministry with his followers, to say Jesus had compassion for them is really to say that he had a feeling deep in his gut, the deepest of all human emotions, that kind of feeling that is physical as much as intellectual. Jesus felt so deeply connected to these people, and he felt so deeply disturbed by where they were being led, or where they were wandering aimlessly, that he HAD to do something. He knew it in gut, and he was open to that gut feeling.
The closest we come in our colloquial language might be to know something in our heart. We talk about heart strings, although that sounds almost more sentimental than compassionate. We talk about hearts that ache for others and for change. But I think the best phrase we have for the way Jesus showed compassion is to say he had an open heart.
He wasn’t closed off to the possibility that his plans might need to change. He didn’t ignore the needs of the masses because they were interrupting his previously scheduled meeting. He didn’t turn away the men, women, and children who barged in when he was looking for a place of solitude, a place of rest, a place to nurture those who ministered in his name. Instead with attentiveness to the lives and spirits of those who were with him as well as those who interrupted him, he ministered with his open heart of compassion and mercy.
Ministry doesn’t always, maybe does it even rarely, take place according to a well laid-out timetable. Jesus’ hopes to get away with his disciples weren’t quite realized, because the needs of others were more pressing, more pronounced, and, for that reason, to him unavoidable. The chance for us to minister to friend, neighbor, or co-worker comes regularly in opportunities around us like filling backpacks with food for school children, bringing items for the food shelf for the community, giving to special offerings here at the church and around the community. But sometimes, OFTENtimes, the chance to minister to a friend or stranger will come when we can’t plan for it.
It came to a truck driver a week ago, when he answered the knock of the chaplain. He could have given any number of reasons that would have been acceptable ways to say “no” to the request - - I’m on a schedule. I can’t make the extra stop. I don’t have room in my cab for extra cargo. I just don’t feel comfortable carrying other people’s packages. He didn’t plan to haul food to a bunch of high schoolers in Montana, but he didn’t let his previously laid plans or assumptions about how the day was supposed to go close his heart to the chance to minister to others.
Having an open heart, having a heart of compassion, means being open to interruptions. Ministry that is REALLY necessary, ministry that is going to reach out to the people who most need to feel God’s love or hear God’s grace probably isn’t going to happen in the things we plan for. This kind of ministry happens in the interruptions. It happens when we allow our walks down busy streets be slowed by conversation with a homeless man on the corner. It happens when we allow the person on the airplane talk our ears off about the pain in her life, the grief in her family. It happens when we set aside our date night or night in front of the television to serve and sit down at table with folks who are friendless, homeless, and maybe even feeling hopeless about the life before them. Compassionate ministry in the name and way of Jesus happens when we are attentive to what is going on around us, and are able to look with hearts open to the Spirit’s leading. Compassionate ministry happens when we are willing to let our lives be interrupted so that we can love the loveless, guide the aimless, and bring peaceful comfort to those who are afflicted.
I have a challenge for you that comes out of a conversation I’ve had in several different places recently. It’s about something as simple as lunch. I want you to take a week in which you do NOT make lunch plans ahead of time. I know for some of you that means you might have to take this challenge in 2 or 3 weeks because you already HAVE lunch plans until then. That’s OK. Take the challenge later. Or if lunch isn’t your “scheduled” unscheduled time, maybe it’s a coffee break or afternoon walk. Whatever it is, whatever time you are used to filling without fail, don’t schedule it for one week. Just see what happens, see where you can best minister in God’s name in that time.
Instead of making plans with a friend days or weeks in advance, be attentive one morning to all the people around you. Wait to see if someone interrupts your day. Wait to see if God puts someone or something on your heart, something deep in your gut, that you just can’t ignore. Wait and see if someone asks you to eat, or wait and see if you notice someone who needs an invitation. If you don’t feel your heart being led in one direction, if splagchnizomai doesn’t just point you in one direction, head for the cafeteria, breakroom, or restaurant alone, but don’t waste that time. Let your life be interrupted by what you see and hear. Look at the people around you. Notice their faces. Imagine their worries. Minister to them through prayer right then and there.
Without a doubt many of our plans may be well-intended, even as pure in motice as Jesus being with his disciples. But if our intention is to share the love of Jesus, to look with his compassion on the world, and serve others in his name, we can’t be bound by our well-planned lives. We have to be open the Spirit, open others in need, open to the interruptions that may bring our next opportunity to share the love of God in Christ Jesus. Be ready to change your plans. Ministry happens in the interruptions.