By Rev. Matt Ashley, South District Missional Strategist and Superintendent
“As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” ~Mark 6:34~
Marine Sergeant Nicole Gee, age 23, died in an August 26th airport attack in Afghanistan, along with at least 12 other U.S. soldiers and at least 90 Afghans. A few days before, Sergeant Gee posted a photo of herself assisting Afghani refugees boarding a plane, desperate to escape the violence in their country. A week prior to the attack, Sergeant Gee posted a photo of herself holding an Afghani baby. “I love my job,” Sergeant Gee wrote under the photo.
Whether or not the United States should’ve left Afghanistan, and whether or not the Americans should’ve been there in the first place, one thing is certain: Sergeant Gee died a hero. Her compassion for the Afghan people she was trying to help in the photos was evident in her face.
In Mark 6, Jesus and the disciples take a fishing boat to a deserted place for a spiritual retreat of sorts, but they change their plans when they see a crowd has gathered on the shore awaiting their arrival. Jesus has compassion for the crowd because they are like “sheep without a shepherd” and starts to teach them.
The woman at the well? Jesus had compassion for her. The leper howling on the roadside? Jesus had compassion for him. The little children? Jesus had compassion for them.
In Mark 6, the Greek word for ‘compassion’ is related to the Greek word for intestines, bowels, guts. Compassion is empathy you feel deep in your gut for someone who is suffering – empathy that leads to action. For Jesus, compassion always leads to action. For Sergeant Gee, compassion led to action.
Someone once suggested to me that we shouldn’t mourn the dead because of the words Jesus speaks in John 11:23, when Martha tells him that her brother Lazarus is dead. “Your brother will rise again,” Jesus says. But a few verses later, Jesus himself weeps with compassion when he sees Martha’s sister Mary and her friends and neighbors grieving together. He is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (John 11:33). Theological concepts like resurrection are important, but they are not substitute for compassion when someone is grieving.
It has been a troubling season in our country and the world. Maybe a troubling period would be more appropriate, because in a way the fires and destruction of 9/11 are still burning. (Some of the fires have been burning for far longer than that.)
Over the last twenty years we have seen war, we have seen conflict, we have seen violence, we have seen a resurgence of racism, we have seen protests in the city streets and at the border and in the U.S. Capitol. We have seen that when there is not justice, there is not peace. And Jesus weeps with us and for us.
Compassion is often missing in these conflicts. We are so convinced that we are right that we are hard-hearted towards our neighbors. I think Jesus weeps at that too.
I wish the church was different from the world, and in many ways it is, but in others it is not. Sometimes the harshest and cruelest words are spoken in the church. Sometimes we are so convinced that we need to be right that we do not remember to love. Sometimes the theological concepts in our heads crowd out the empathy in our hearts. And Jesus weeps.
Jesus has compassion for the crowd because they are like sheep without a shepherd, and he starts to teach them. And then what do the disciples do? It’s getting late, and the crowd is getting hungry, and rather than having compassion and figuring out a way to feed them, the disciples just want to send the crowd away on an empty stomach. If Jesus hadn’t intervened, they would not have broken bread together.
We have twenty-nine churches in the South District, all with sparks of vitality, all with wonderful people, and the love of Christ is ready to shine within us so that we are shining like stars in the world.
I hope that we will be twenty-nine compassionate churches. Churches that are greatly troubled in spirit and deeply moved when people are hurting. Congregations that are ready to set aside politics and agree that putting children in cages at the border is just wrong, no matter who does it. Congregations so moved by compassion that they will not send people away on an empty stomach. Congregations that are moved to learn and to act when they see the suffering caused by racism. Congregations full of people who are committed to not using our words as weapons but to instead work at having grace-filled conversation around disagreements. Congregations filled with people who know we are not meant to harm our neighbors but to love them.
We are meant to be a compassionate people. They will either know we are Christians by our love, or they will not know we are Christians. When someone visits your church, do they experience Compassion?
Thanks for listening –