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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

July 22, 2018

 What Lasts and What Doesn’t

2 Samuel 7:1-14; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

            I read it a moment ago, I will read it again: “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.”  Is that not a succinct and apt description of the lives that so many live today?  We are available online, all the time, to the people who depend on us, the people we work with and our social networks.  Digital communication and social media have totally transformed the lives we live.  In many ways they have enriched those lives and been blessings, and in many other ways these revolutionary communication changes have made life very difficult, and very different from what our parents faced.  Some of these changes are positive, some are not. 

            Signs of the stress of this age, of simply living in this digital age, are not hard to find.  The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline saw calls double from the year 2014 to the year 2017.  One million callers called in crisis seeking help or comfort in the year 2014.  In the year 2017, over two million placed these calls.  The use of these services to reach out, and to be available to people in crisis, is a good and a blessed thing.  But suicides in our nation rose from 1999 to 2016 by 25 percent, and that is a heartbreaking and tragic statistic by any measure.

            In our text, in Mark’s Gospel this morning, Jesus and His disciples, we are told, are exhausted from the crowds they are serving, and they seek to get into a boat to “go to a lonely and deserted place,” by themselves.  People see them go, and follow them along the shore of the Sea of Galilee until Jesus lands there with His disciples.  We are told by Mark, “As He went ashore, Jesus saw a great crowd, and He had compassion upon them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

            What is God like?  I think this is a question that any thinking person ought to ask, whether you are a believer or not.  Is there a God?  And if there is a God, what is God like?  This is one of the central concerns of the Bible.  Mark tells us here, not inconsequentially, that Jesus had “compassion on the people” who “were like sheep without a shepherd.”  This is one of eight different times in the Gospels where we are told that Jesus’ attitude toward the human family was one of “compassion.”  The word compassion itself comes from two simple Latin words that mean to “suffer with.”  To have compassion is to “suffer with” another human being, to make their suffering a concern of yours as well, which is to say that God is a God in Jesus Christ who suffers with us, who enters into our suffering with us.  Remember how we sing it in the hymn, What a Friend We Have in Jesus?  “Jesus knows our every weakness; take it to the Lord in prayer.”

            Some religions view God as remote, high up on Mount Olympus for the Greeks, or inaccessible, or ominous, or even full of wrath and vengeance.  Surely not the Gospels, though, all of which were written to say to us: “If you want to see what God is like, look at Jesus.”  Consider who Jesus is in constructing your own picture, your own image, of God.

            Abraham Joshua Heschel was a remarkable Jewish theologian of the twentieth century.  In his two-volume classic, The Prophets, he says that the true prophets of God could be identified by this characteristic: they possess what he called “the Divine pathos.”  That is, they had something of God’s capacity to know what other people are feeling and experiencing.  Listen to what this great Rabbi said about God: “God does not reveal Himself in an abstract absoluteness, but in a personal and intimate relationship to the world.  God does not simply command and expect obedience, God is moved and affected by what happens in the world.  God is concerned about the world, and God shares in its fate.”  Heschel says, “Indeed, this is the essence of God’s moral nature.”  God is moved by the suffering of this world.  God is filled with compassion.  This is supremely why we are told in the Bible that God sent Jesus into the world.  Every genuine act of caring involves the effort to identify with or to understand those for whom you care and love.  And the Incarnation, God becoming human, God becoming one of us, is the essence of this identification.

            We are told in this passage that Jesus “had compassion.”  Secondly, we are told that He “began to teach these crowds many things.”  More than simply being a God who cares or sympathizes with you, we need to know as well that Jesus came and is present with us still in order to be our teacher.  Remember the old poster that some had when we were college students?  “Give me a fish, and I fish for a day.  Teach me to fish, and I fish for a lifetime.”  Jesus is called elsewhere in the New Testament, “the wisdom of God.”  It is one of the best things about knowing Jesus!  Throughout the Gospels the only access we have to Jesus, comes through His teaching, where Jesus not only embodies the wisdom of God, but teaches us the wisdom of God, imparts to us truth, and engages us in learning what it means to be human.

            Think of all the things that Jesus said!  Could any be better than this?  “Be wise as serpents, be harmless as doves.”  Or what about this?  “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”  “Blessed are the poor in spirit….  Blessed are those which do hunger and thirst after righteousness….  Blessed are the merciful….  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”  Jesus said, “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me.”  Jesus invites us all to be learners.  The word for “disciple” is a word that means “student.”  If we understand Jesus correctly, He becomes our teacher, our mentor, our model, our source of wisdom and strength.  I say this to say that Christianity at its best is a religion that believes that human beings can learn, that people can be taught.  And best of all, Jesus believed that folks can grow all of their lives.  There is nothing anti-intellectual or narrow that is in Jesus or in Christian faith, rightly understood.

            A few weeks ago my grandson Keller was trying out his new aluminum baseball bat.  He had a ball put on a tee, and unbeknownst to him, his sister Mary Griffith was walking up to him as he was practicing his swing.  He followed through right on her nose.  Sarah rushed Mary Griffith to the hospital.  The doctor said, “There is no concussion, and thankfully, it might be just a little bit broken, but I think it’s going to be fine.”  Of course, by this point it was swollen, and as the swelling went down Sarah and Kevin could see that it was not going to be fine.  She met this wonderful ENT at Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt who said, “I think we can do outpatient surgery and fix this rather quickly.”  So Keller and Eva Kate, her older brother and younger sister, stayed with us overnight.  We had a ball with them!  Sarah came after the surgery, which was very successful, picked up the kids – we actually ate dinner with her at the pool, and they got in the car to go home.  Out of the backseat Keller said to Sarah, “Mom, if Pops and CeCe were going to have a child, they’d have to adopt, wouldn’t they?”  Surprised, Sarah said, “Pops and CeCe are not going to have a child!”  He said, “I know, I know, but if Pops and CeCe were going to have a baby, they’d have to adopt, wouldn’t they?”  She said, “Pops and CeCe are not going to have a baby.”  He said, “Oh, I know, but if they were...”  Keller was thinking, because healthy human beings are always thinking, not just experiencing things, but reflecting on their experience, and asking questions – that is how we learn and grow.  And the best kind of Christian faith has always been an intellectually rigorous faith, one that remains open to learning and growth all of our days, one that is never afraid of asking questions.

            I love Saint Anselm’s definition of theology!  “Theology is faith seeking understanding.”  It is something all of us ought to be engaged in every day of our lives.  Do you remember the great French physicist and philosopher, Camille Pascal?  He posited what we call “Pascal’s Wager.”  Here is his wager: If the Christian faith is true, and you fail to follow it, you will have lost everything, for all eternity.  But if the Christian faith is false, and you have decided to live according to that faith, you have selected the best possible way for a human being, so what have you lost?”  Pascal was suggesting that we, all of us, have questions, we have doubts, we also have faith.  Pascal said that there was within every human being what he called “a God-shaped vacuum.”  He said we try to fill it with all kinds of things, but only God can fill that vacuum.

            Notice third in our passage, if you look at the end of it, Jesus engages in healing those who were sick.  Indeed, we are told, even those who “touched the fringe of His garment were healed.”  No wonder from the earliest of times the Church understood itself to be not just a community concerned with faith, but also always one concerned with healing and with health.  It is why, until recently, we had in Nashville a hospital called Baptist Hospital, that merged very appropriately with the Roman Catholic hospital system called Saint Thomas.  I grew up in Pennsylvania where both great research Universities, Pitt and Penn, have medical center hospitals called Presbyterian University Hospital.  So does Columbia University in New York City.  This is because from the earliest of times, it was the most natural thing in the world for churches to be concerned about healthcare and healing, to be concerned about what is called by Paul, “the common good.”

            The greatest research and teaching hospital in the world is Johns Hopkins Medical School Hospital, connected with Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.  It used to be when you walked through the front door of Johns Hopkins Hospital, you were met with a statue of Jesus carved in white marble, with His arms extended, saying, “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  You know how it is with hospitals now, they build on, and then build on some more!  It takes a lot more buildings to make us well than it used to take.  In the course of all those additions, Jesus got moved from the front door to the side door of Johns Hopkins Medical Center.  I would suggest to you that it is a metaphor of what has happened to healthcare in America.  There is so much money involved that we cannot entrust it to the church, or consider it a ministry, can we?

            The point is this: We are called as a church to carry on the healing, comforting ministry of Jesus Christ.  In our Old Testament lesson this morning, we are told that God established David and his house to be His people “forever.”  It is the first time that word “forever” is used in relationship with a covenant that God establishes with His people.  Walter Brueggemann says, “I judge this oracle with its unconditional promise to David to be the most crucial theological statement in the Old Testament.”  The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus came “from the house and the lineage of David,” whose house and family God promised to bless forever.

            Invest in Jesus!  Walk with Jesus as the One who embodies the compassion of God, Jesus as the One who is the wisdom of God, Jesus who is the great healer and the hope of us all.

                                                                                    Amen.

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