Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Jesus Your Compassionate Shepherd” (Mark 6:30-34)
July 22, 2018
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The collect for today is one of my favorites in the entire Book of Common Prayer because it clearly identifies both the realty of our weakness and the even greater reality of God’s compassion for us in the midst of our weakness.  This collect beautifully describes God as “the fountain of all wisdom (who knows) our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking.”  In other words, we are so weak we do not even know how to pray.  But God, the “fountain of all wisdom,” already knows all that.  And so in this collect we ask God: “Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord” (BCP 231).

Along these lines I am preaching today on Jesus your Compassionate Shepherd.

In today’s gospel passage Mark writes about what happened with Jesus and his apostles during a particularly busy time:

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.  He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place by yourselves and rest awhile.”  For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat (Mark 6:30-31).

Can you relate?  Have you ever been so busy with so much “coming and going” around you that you could not even find time to eat?  For some of you, this may be the rule rather than the exception.  Some of us may occasionally even take pride in this, “I was so slammed today I didn’t even have time to eat!”  I know you and I have never felt that pride—this is all theoretical, right?  And yet Jesus’ response to his overworked and out of breath and hungry disciples is a compassionate one: “Come away to a deserted place by yourselves and rest awhile.”  And as Mark continues, “They went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves” (Mark 6:32).  Introverts love this passage of scripture!

But then Mark continues, “Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.  As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd” (Mark 6:33-34).  In spite of Jesus’ invitation to the apostles to come away to a deserted place and rest, the “coming and going” of many needy people awaited them.  And yet, Jesus showed the crowd the same compassion he had shown the apostles, as Mark tells us, “He had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34).

For the sake of those who “were like sheep without a shepherd” Jesus became a Compassionate Shepherd—and he still is.

In the psalm appointed for today, the classic Psalm 23, David writes of the Lord being his Compassionate Shepherd in a season that must have mirrored that of the weary and hungry apostles: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.  He revives my soul” (BCP 612).  Perhaps you need the Lord to revive your soul today.

And it is the same with you.  When you are tired and stressed and so busy you cannot even find time to eat, when the pressures and the expectations and the needs with which you are inundated pull you in a hundred different directions, when you are not even sure how to pray, when you are faced with the reality that your strength is not enough, not even remotely enough, rather that you are in fact beset with weakness—you do not need a motivational speaker, you need a Compassionate Shepherd, and Jesus Christ is exactly that.

Nearly fifty years ago there was a little music festival called Woodstock, which attracted over 400,000 weak sheep without a shepherd.  One of the acts was a new group from Canada understatedly called The Band, who sang about compassion:

I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling about half past dead
I just need some place where I can lean my head
Hey mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?
He just grinned and shook my hand
“No” was all he said
Take a load off, Fanny, take a load for free
Take a load off, Fanny, and you put the load right on me
(From their 1968 album Music from Big Pink)

This song, “The Weight”, is considered one of the most influential rock songs ever, and was written by guitarist Robbie Robertson who recounted in his 2016 autobiography Testimony:

As a songwriter, “The Weight” was something I had been working up to for years.  I just heard what I was looking for.  The images, the stories I had been putting away in my imagination’s attic, had been brought out into the light (301).

Several years ago I was on a road trip and this song came on the CD player in my truck and I just kept playing it over and over and I could feel the Holy Spirit giving relief to my tired spirit.  If you want to bask in gospel goodness, I encourage you to watch The Band’s performance of this song with The Staples Singers in Martin Scorsese’s iconic 1978 concert film The Last Waltz.  “The Weight” is song that will always resonate because it a song about compassion for the weak.

We all need compassion sometimes, actually more than sometimes.  One of my favorite memories of my father took place when I was sixteen.  It was the summer of 1985, my first summer with a driver’s license, and therefore by definition an epic summer.  I had finished my first day at a summer job at a lawn care company, having worked extra hard, trying to make a good first impression.  After spending the day mowing apartment complexes and riding in the bed of a pickup truck in the heat, I was filthy and bone tired.  On the way home in my old Chevy, complete with a high tech AM-only radio and manual air conditioning (you rolled down the windows), I ran out of gas.  I could not believe it.  This was in the stone ages before cell phones and so I hiked to a gas station and put my last quarter in the pay phone (remember pay phones?) and called home.

When my father arrived I expected a lecture about not noticing the gas gauge or the need to pay better attention and be more responsible.  Instead, I received compassion.  He just grinned at me, “You look like you’ve had a long day.”  He filled his plastic red gas can, drove me to my old Chevy, emptied the gas can into it, led me back to the gas station and filled up my gas tank.  Moreover, that gas station was a 7-Eleven, and so to top it off, he bought me a Slurpee, grinning again, “See you at home.”  When I was out of gas in more ways than one, my father gave me compassion.  I never forgot that.

In what I consider one of the most profound and accessible theological books of the late twentieth century, The Ragamuffin Gospel (1990) the late Brennan Manning describes how the compassion of God, the grace of God, is often incongruent with what we actually experience in the American church.  He wrote:

Put bluntly, the American church today accepts grace in theory but denies it in practice.  We say we believe that the fundamental structure of reality is grace, not works—but our lives refute our faith…Too many Christians are living in the house of fear and not in the house of love.  Our culture has made the word grace impossible to understand.  We resonate with slogans such as: “There’s no free lunch.”  “You get what you deserve.”

Manning continues:

As I listen to sermons with their pointed emphasis on personal effort—no pain, no gain—I get the impression that a do-it-yourself spirituality is the American fashion.  Though the Scriptures insist on God’s initiative in the work of salvation—that by grace we are saved, that the Tremendous Lover has taken to the chase—our spirituality often starts with self, not God (16-17).

The truth is do-it-yourself spirituality falls short.  The truth is we all run out of gas sometimes and need compassion on our weakness.  And that is when the truth of the gospel shows us that Jesus our Compassionate Shepherd does exactly that.

Jesus was and is not only moved with compassion for the crowd of needy people in today’s gospel reading; Jesus was and is moved with compassion for you.  Jesus, “the fountain of all wisdom” indeed knows your necessities before you ask and your ignorance in asking.  Jesus has compassion on your weakness.

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son Jesus paints a vivid picture of what your Compassionate Shepherd is really like.  You probably remember the story.  A wealthy man has two sons, the dutiful firstborn and the entitled younger son.  The entitled younger son demands his part of the inheritance and his father gives it to him, all of it.  The younger son travels far away and squanders everything his father had given him, all of it, “in dissolute living.”  He ends up sick, filthy, broke, and feeding pigs—not exactly congruent with being from a family of privilege.

Jesus tells us that the younger son hit rock bottom—aka, ran out of gas in more ways than one—and only then decided to come home.  Moreover he had prepared a speech for his father, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no more worthy to be called your son.”  But Jesus tells us what unexpectedly happened when the prodigal son neared home: “While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”

The son gave his speech, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”  He may have expected a lecture about how he had disgraced his family, or about how he needed to be more like his dutiful older brother.  But instead, his father started giving orders to throw a party to welcome his prodigal son home—a party to end all parties.  Not only that, his father gave his son a robe that was typically given to the guest of honor, a ring that signified his restored place in the family, and sandals for his filthy blistered feet because he was not a servant, but his beloved son.  The prodigal son had not returned to a house of fear; he had returned to a house of love (Luke 15:11-24).

Recently discovered Greek texts of the New Testament add that even The Band showed up to the party and everyone joined in the chorus, “Take a load of Fanny, take a load for free.  Take a load off Fanny, and put the load right on me.”  And yes, there were Slurpees aplenty for everyone.

The gospel is good news for the weak, good news for those who have run out of gas and down to their last quarter, good news for those who have “pulled into Nazareth, feeling about half past dead.”  Jesus of Nazareth, your Compassionate Shepherd, was moved with compassion so much that on Good Friday as he took the weight of the cross upon his shoulders, he took the weight of the sin of the world upon himself—including your sin, all of it.

And even now Jesus your Compassionate Shepherd mercifully gives you those things which for your unworthiness you dare not and for your blindness cannot ask—including compassion on your weakness.  Even now Jesus your Compassionate Shepherd beckons you, “Take a load off…and you put the load right on me.”