Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Character of Christ: Compassion for the Crowd (Matthew 9:35-38)

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35 Jesus traveled among all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, announcing the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. 36 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. 38 Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest.”

If you’re just joining us today, we are in the middle of a series of messages on “The Character of Christ,” and we’re looking at various character traits of Jesus Christ – who is he, what is he about, and what does that mean for us?  Our goal in this series is for all of us – whether we’ve known Jesus for a long time or are still making up our minds about him – to get to know Jesus a bit better, so we can follow him a little closer.  This week’s character trait is “Compassion for the Crowd.”  Jesus was filled with compassion for the crowd, and we who follow him are called to the same.  May we pray.

So the big news story this week, especially here in the South, was winter weather.  As someone who grew up in Buffalo, I am no stranger to winter weather, and by the age of 17, had mastered the art of “slide turns,” intentionally putting my Dad’s Ford LTD into a fishtail slide going around corners so as to have enough momentum to bust through the snowbanks without getting stuck.

Of course, I call North Carolina home now, and have been here for over 11 years, at this point, where the perspective on winter weather is, shall we say, different.  I wrote a blog piece this week about how the southern panic around snow used to make me laugh, but how I have gradually come to understand it, and even embrace it.  Every time it snows down here, I find myself on the precarious bridge of interpretation to my Yankee friends and family, trying to help them understand why 2 inches of snow here is a bigger deal than 2 feet back home, including things like how the snow here usually has at least some component of ice mixed in, and how we don’t have the fleet of equipment here to deal with it, etc. etc.  You can go to my blog and read it for yourself, if you want.

By now, we all know what happened in Atlanta – how the entire city turned into an icy parking lot when the snow hit, a snowpocalypse, if you will, and thousands of people, like the city itself, ended up frozen in place wherever they happened to be at the time.

To me, the real story are the strangers who went out of their way to help the folks who were stranded – opening their homes and businesses for people to have a warm place to sleep overnight, people who packed food and hot drinks and supplies and just wandered out to the highway and began passing them out.  In a matter of hours, 46,000 people joined a Facebook group called “Snowed Out Atlanta,” in an effort to communicate where there were needs, where there were resources, and how to get those two things together.

Strangers helping strangers, folks looking out upon the crowd of people right around them and being filled with compassion – sorta reminds me of Jesus.

In today’s Scripture from the 9th Chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is a on a multi-city preaching tour, announcing the good news of God’s kingdom, healing and teaching, and as he does, the crowds continue to grow, and Jesus had compassion for the crowds.

That got me thinking about how much time we spend among the crowds – out in stores and restaurants, on highways and in airports – how much of our time is spent among that mass of humanity whose names and faces and stories we do not know, and neither do they know ours.

Early in my time at Duke, I was walking across campus with a friend from a small town in Mississippi, and he did, what I thought, was the strangest thing – he made eye contact with and said “Hello” to the people we passed.  I explained to him that I was used to walking along, aware of my surroundings, but never making direct eye contact with people walking past or otherwise acknowledging their presence, and he said, “What do you boys call that up there?” and I said, “We call it minding our own business.”  He said, “Where I’m from, we just call that ‘rude.’”  I explained to him that where I was from, what HE was doing would have been completely unnerving to people.

How often do we take notice of the people in the crowds?  My guess is, “Not very often,” or when we do, it’s in terms of our annoyance with how these strangers are getting in our way and interfering with what we plan to do.  “Why are all these people in line at the grocery store – I have places to be and things to do,” perhaps not realizing that the people in line behind us might just be thinking the same thing about us.  Or, “why am I the only one who knows how to drive – if you slow pokes would just move over to the right like you’re supposed to and let me by”. . . my wife pointed out to me that I’ve said that one pretty much verbatim on more than one occasion.

What if we were to respond to the crowds more like Jesus does?  Not with hostility or annoyance, not with “stranger danger” or blind indifference, no – “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).

Jesus doesn’t blame them for their situation, he simply recognizes that, like sheep without a shepherd, they are prone to wander and stray and find their own path, because no one is there to guide them.  Jesus is not annoyed that the crowds are lost and troubled and helpless, nor is he indifferent to their plight.   Jesus shows compassion.

Compassion is like a deep feeling of empathy, it’s that emotion we feel in response to the sufferings of others that motivates us to help.  It’s a gut feeling – you know how sometimes you feel something down in your gut – down deep in the very center of who you are – that’s how compassion is.  Now, as the Bible talks about having compassion, it’s actually quite a graphic concept.  Let me see if I can get the point across and still keep it polite.  The idea in the original Greek is that Jesus was moved with compassion in the same churning way your bowels might move when whatever is in them is headed either north or south.

Jesus sees the crowd – that nameless, faceless, mass of humanity, each scattering off in their own unshepherded direction – Jesus sees the crowd and his gut churns with compassion – with deep, abiding love for them, and for you, and for me.

Perhaps Rev. Lovejoy from The Simpsons said it best, that, “There is more to being a minister than not caring about people!”  Though he said it sarcastically, being a minister, whether clergy or a layperson, indeed being a Christian means that we are called to care so much for others that we are literally sick to our stomach at the needs around us.  Would it come to pass that we might have that same, intense compassion for the crowd that Jesus himself has – that we would learn the names of the nameless, the faces of the faceless, become friends to the friendless – that we might look upon “the crowds” around us, and feel their needs as acutely as our own.

For Jesus, compassion isn’t simply a feeling – it necessarily leads to action.  It is not enough to simply feel: Jesus calls us to respond and do something about it.  In the Scripture, just as soon as it tells us how Jesus was filled with compassion, in the very next sentence he is telling his disciples about the work they will have to do in order to bring in a harvest.  For Jesus, these are not two different topics, but one-in-the-same, for the harvest of which he speaks is none other than humanity itself.  The harvest is great – a harvest of wandering sheep who need to hear the voice of The Shepherd and be embraced in his loving arms.

Yet Jesus says that the laborers are few.  He needs more help.  He is calling you and me to join him in his efforts to reach the world.  He still wants people to hear the good news that God loves and cares for them and wants them to experience his love and the love of a caring fellowship, but they will never hear unless others tell them.  Jesus Christ wants a child taught, but that child will never learn unless a teacher emerges to teach.

How many churches do you know that express a desire to grow – more people, more members, more souls reached for Jesus.  They may even be praying for growth, yet I wonder how often God’s response is, “I have already prepared the harvest, but I need you to go out and get it!”  I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know much when it comes to agriculture, but I am pretty sure that the harvest doesn’t just walk in and plop itself down on our plates!  You’ve got to go out there and get it!  Otherwise, it’s like going fishing and expecting the fish to jump right into the boat without having to haul in the nets.

We have good news to share – new life in Christ which is good news to all people.  The world is full of people – a crowd, if you will, for whom Jesus has such compassion that he went to extraordinary lengths to show them his love, even giving his own life for them.  It is not enough for us to simply open the door and hope or even pray that some of the crowd might wander in.  It is not enough for us to set up the banquet table and hope that some of the harvest blows in.

Friends, God has prepared the harvest, but we’ve got to do some of the legwork. There is at least one someone whom each of us could – and must – bring safely to the love of God.

I guarantee you we can never reach the crowd until we first have compassion for them, until something within us moves and stirs to feel and care about the weight of human need all around us.  I remember talking to one man – sort of a grumpy Gus – about why more people didn’t come to church.  He was angry, hostile even, saying, “Why don’t these people know they’re supposed to get up and come to church?  We see them every Sunday on our way in – running, walking the dog, hanging out at the park, in coffee shops, and restaurants.  What’s the matter with these people that they don’t come to church?”

It took everything within me to not say, “Good question, angry, judgmental man with the scary vein popping out on your forehead: I wonder, as you do, what’s the matter with them, that they don’t want to come and  hang out with you on a Sunday morning?”

What that angry man needed was a gut check.  Sometimes we all do.  Jesus had compassion for the crowd, for they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  The thing about lost sheep, is that they often act like lost sheep.  You can’t get mad at them about that!

Christians have compassionate attitudes to such people rather than carping criticism or petty faultfinding against others. Compassionate people do not threaten others with hell and damnation, they simply respond with gut-busting love to the needs around them.  Mother Theresa said, “If you love people, you don’t have time to judge them.”

If they don’t know, it’s because we haven’t told them.  That’s not on them, it’s on us.  If they’re not here, it’s because we haven’t invited them.  If they have stayed away because of fear of judgment or condemnation, it’s because someone, somewhere, fell down on the job of showing them compassion, and so we need to pick up the slack.

Jesus said, “The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest.”

Friends, let this be your gut check: Have some compassion.  And then get to work.

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