Last week at both worship services, just before the dismissal, we commissioned the members of our high school youth group and their adult leaders who are attending the ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit. Due to simple forgetfulness, one key person was left out of that commissioning. A member of our congregation, Dr. Kim Yucha, is also in Detroit with the ELCA Youth Gathering this week. But Dr. Yucha (as I know her, because she is my children’s pediatrician), is not in Detroit as a part of the Epiphany delegation, which is why she slipped my brain. Dr. Yucha is in Detroit as one of two physicians and two other trained medical personnel hired by the ELCA who are on-call the entire week, tending to the medical needs of the 30,000 gathering participants.
That’s right! Dr. Yucha has 30,000 patients this week, all of whom are running around and doing service projects with sharp implements in 90-degree weather on limited sleep. Come to think of it, Dr. Yucha didn’t need to be commissioned last week! She needed to have her head examined!
In all seriousness, if you know Kim, you know her intense love for children and youth and you know her desire to serve the Lord. For her, this week is a special opportunity to unite those two passions, and I don’t know if we’re supposed to feel honored about this or not, but I do: we attend one of only two congregations in the ELCA who has a doctor at the Gathering.
|10,000 ELCA Youth departing for service projects from Hart Plaza in Detroit|
as part of the Rise Up ELCA Youth Gathering in 2015
I called Dr. Yucha yesterday and asked her what it was like. She had just gotten through the afternoon de-briefing. She said her day begins at 7:00am when she reports to the launch sites where 10,000 youth are loaded onto busses for their service project. After several hours there, she reports to the First Aid desk at the Cobo Center where she deals with whatever is presented to her. So far they’ve had to deal with a diabetic seizure for a girl whose blood sugar got too low. She’s had to remove a twig that got jammed a few inches into a youth’s arm just above the elbow. There have been numerous strains and sprains, cases of poison ivy, allergic reactions, panic attacks, nosebleeds, and lots of abdominal pain from being constipated due to dehydration. But the worst thing she said she had to attend to was an adult leader who was walking by a volleyball game and got bonked on the head, fell backwards into a wall and sustained a concussion. “It’s just like a revolving door,” Kim told me, “you send one out and another one comes right in.”
Can’t you imagine that’s what it’s like for Jesus in this gospel lesson from today? A revolving door, in each city, town and farm he comes to. He comes to the marketplace, that open area at the center of each community where the business and commerce of each day occurred, and as soon as he sends one off, here comes another. Just think of all the stories of these nameless, faceless people, begging just to touch the edge of his sleeve or where the tunic trails along the ground. It’s so easy to lump them in all by the thousands, like Mark does as he tells it, perhaps because Mark doesn’t have the time or the stamina to do so or, in fact, he doesn’t know who they are, either. Or, if he did, he’s going to run out of papyrus to put them all down, but each of these people has a story, has suffering.
Here comes a young boy clutching his ear. It’s been throbbing for days, and he can tell he’s already begun to lose his hearing. Ruptured eardrum, maybe.
Just behind him is a woman who is staggering along because her left side has gone numb, including her face. Could it have been a stroke? She’s also staggering along because no one will help her, afraid to touch her because they think she’ll give them whatever it is she’s got.
Jesus reaches out for her, and just when he does, someone else’s arm spins him around from behind. Standing there is what looks like a family, and they’re dragging with them on a mat their aged patriarch—maybe he’s an uncle, or perhaps the grandfather—who just stares blankly into space, gasping for air with congestive heart failure. They honestly think he could go at any minute.
They go on and on like this, one after the other. And as soon as one is healed, it spurs another two or three standing on the sidelines with hope. They push themselves forward, too, to this mysteriously holy figure who doesn’t have any bodyguard of any kind.
Jesus can’t escape it. He had tried to get away with his buddies for a little while to re-charge, to regenerate—a little power-nap, at the very least—but they just keep coming. What has he gotten himself into? What has the Spirit commissioned him for? Perhaps even he begins thinking he needs his head examined.
We are not even half of the way into Mark’s story of Jesus and this is what ministry has become for him. What used to be isolated incidents of healing is now just one mass of humanity crushing in on him. He is no longer anonymous. We can assume everyone knows what he looks like, and even if they don’t, he’s unmistakable because there’s always a crowd with him. Or should we say there’s always a flock with him, for that is how he’s starting to see himself: a shepherd amongst a great sea of sheep who are wandering aimlessly.
What changes Jesus here from a teacher and healer who is here to announce the kingdom of God into a shepherd-leader who begins to gather and lead all the people is compassion. In fact, Jesus’ compassion takes center stage. It is the key tool at his disposal that steadily begins to deal with this revolving door of human pain.
Interestingly enough, for both the Hebrews and the Greeks, the word for “compassion” contains vivid connotations. We don’t have that aspect of the word in English. In fact, the word itself is rather blank of meaning, unless you know Latin. “Com” means “with” and “passion” is the word for “suffering,” so compassion means to suffer with someone, which I suppose is fairly evocative, but nothing like the Hebrew or Greek. In Hebrew it shares the root for uterus, and in Greek compassion shares the root for intestines. In either case, the ancients recognized and described it as a feeling that originates in the very center of your being, that which twists and turns with the very movement of life. Compassion, then, is that panig in the stomach when identifying with someone in their situation, that nervous clinching you get when you see someone in trouble…the deepest part of you reaching out to the deepest part of someone else.
Compassion is what is driving Jesus here, not a desire to be right or to gain fame and fortune. So much of Christian theology talks about a Jesus who suffers on the cross for us, or in place of us, or on account of us, but here we get a powerful glimpse of a God who is suffering with us, alongside of us, who’s very innards are clinching up when he sees us. Here in Galilee we get a preview of a man who is going to shelve his own deep need to rest and relax in order to grasp the hands that keep pulling at him, the kind of hands that will later rise up in frustration and anger to nail him to the cross because compassion is disappointing when you want power, aggression. Compassion is a let-down when you are convinced that the only truly worthwhile change in the world is accomplished by intelligence or cleverness or wealth or violence. But Christlike compassion is what gathers the masses, heals the wounded soul, and eventually opens the tomb to new life.
At the beginning of the month the world saw the death at age 106 of Nicholas Winton, a British man who was rather average in terms of his schooling, career, and background. He never would have received the long list of honors and distinctions that he did, including being knighted by the British Empire if it weren’t for a giant opportunity for compassion that essentially fell in his lap when on vacation in Czechoslovakia. Dozens of starving, shivering children, most of them Jewish, and most of them orphans, began knocking on his hotel door at 6am, hoping he could somehow relocate them to safety before the Nazis would invade and send them to the camps.
Winton, who was a stockbroker by trade, began lining up homes for them in England, working inauspiciously from a desk in the lobby of the Hotel Europa. Over the next few months, just before the start of World War II, he managed to save 669 of them. He never said anything about this act of compassion to anyone until it was discovered fifty years after the fact when a scrapbook about it was unearthed in his attic. As he saw himself, he was born and raised as just one of the masses, had no great career, was no more prone to heroism than anyone else, but one act of compassion propelled him to the highest honors his country could offer and a his own humble monument that will stand forever in the Prague train station where all those kids left from, a simple bronze statue of him standing next to a suitcase, a young boy in one arm over his shoulder and a girl beside him.
Marines are shot dead by a disturbed extremist in Chattanooga. Thousands of children and youth huddle at the border in Texas, willing to risk their ten-year-old lives to escape gang violence in their Central American homes. High numbers of children in Richmond and Henrico County are in need of free and reduced meals at their schools. We don’t need to the experience of Nicholas Winton or Kim Yucha to experience the broken wandering of humanity. The suffering of the world is immense, but the good news is that God has provided the compassion in his Son to combat it.
And, brothers and sisters, each Sunday we are commissioned. We are commissioned by God’s own suffering Son to be a church that is recognizable out there because of its compassion. Weekly we stand or kneel at this altar and are called, sore and wounded though we are, to be apostles who go out into the world and view other people as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “less in light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” We are forgiven and healed, to be people who even set aside our agendas, our stereotypes, our instincts of self-preservation in order to let our very guts speak and show Christ’s compassion—so much so, in fact, that people may wonder from time to time if we need our heads examined.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.