The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s128g09 Sunday 16 19/7/2009
Jesus 'saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd' Mark 6.34
Recently I have been thoroughly enjoying reading a book by Michael Bernard Kelly, and these words about a Catholic priest seemed to parallel the accounts of Jesus' ministry in our gospel for today: "Without question, (Fr Mychal) Judge (OFM) was passionately committed to pastoral ministry and his generosity and compassion made people flock to him, especially in times of need. It was common for him to return to his room late at night and find 40 messages waiting on his answering machine. He would sit, exhausted, and answer them all. One Franciscan remembers an evening when Judge took him on a long trek across his beloved Brooklyn Bridge, then returned home to news that a fireman's father had died. It was midnight, but Judge drove more than an hour north to be with the man's family. This was typical of him. People also turned to him when the church had failed them. He was always ready to bend the rules, offer a hug and a blessing and show people what the love of God was really like. In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when nurses were frightened to touch people with AIDS and priests were refusing to bury them, Judge would often turn up at a hospital room unannounced. He would quietly turn back the covers on the bed of an AIDS patient and gently massage his feet."
Here was a man who truly had compassion for the great crowd for if you hadn't already realised it, he was a Franciscan priest in New York, and having been there myself in 2002, I can testify that it is a crowded place and there are lots of people for whom to have compassion!
More words from the book: "Judge's commitment to being close to people in their brokenness, and his astonishing tenderness, were forged in a heart weathered by his own struggle to believe he was embraced and blessed by God. Judge, you see, was gay. He was an alcoholic who had been sober since 1978, and he relied upon regular meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous to maintain focus and inner peace." Fr Mychal Judge was killed on September the 11th 2001, ministering to the dying after the terrorist planes hit the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre.
I am blessed to work as a chaplain in two hospitals. As a chaplain I offer pastoral care to one and to all, regardless of faith or lack thereof. Of course I am required to do this by the State, but it is a great joy, because in doing so I reflect this compassion that Jesus had for the crowds. So often the 'church' only has compassion for those in the congregation and even then I'm not so sure. I had been a parish priest for 29 years prior to this position, so I do know what I'm talking about. It seems the first job of the parish minister is to keep the punters happy after all it is their contributions that enable the minister to receive his or her stipend. I remember a senior priest once saying that every parish has 100 parishioners. This was about as many as one minister could satisfy. More than this and there needed to be more on the staff. But lying behind this is the flipside that this keeps the minister on his, or her, toes. There is never any surplus of funds. Fetes have to be held, raffles run, other people have to be cajoled to part with their hard-earned wages all to keep this edifice running. Each and every person in a congregation looks to the minister to fulfil his or her own wishes, or they can threaten to leave. And the minister will be blamed! What an invidious position we put such ministers in! And then there are the parish politics!
My point is that there is no perception of Jesus having compassion for the crowd, for others other than the disciples. Indeed if a minister concern him or herself about the welfare of others refugees or alienated people a few in the parish are likely to get up in arms. The minister is not doing his or her job looking after us. And as far as sermons are concerned, of course they don't refer to the people in the pew they are already loving enough! Sermons are best when they rail against those who aren't there, and who therefore cannot hear the words! This is disingenuous in the extreme.
After a while I came to question why I would invite someone I considered my friend to join such a congregation dominated by a few power-brokers. But of course this is what the power-brokers want for others to invite their friends to join in for it makes them feel as if they are doing the right thing and there won't be any necessity to change anything.
Again, a while back, I reflected that for the whole time I have been in ministry it has been a acknowledged truth that the Anglican Church has to change if it was to survive. And everyone in the Anglican Church agrees with this. Of course - it is everyone else who has to change, not them!
And, while I don't have any difficulty with lay participation, if it only serves to perpetuate the institution in an affordable way, then nothing really has changed.
I want to suggest that if we adopt the same attitude as Jesus and have compassion on the crowds, on others, then we will be an organisation worthy of attracting others into our midst and this will happen. While we are concerned with ourselves and our own survival, then we actually only want others for how we can use them and this is hardly love.
The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori, in its triennial General Convention in California on (the 7th of July) 'emphasised putting essential things first, she warned that underlying all the debates on the needs of the poorest and the inclusion of those who did not have full access to the Church, was "the reality that we do not have the same financial resources to address them that we had three years ago ‹ that is another kind of crisis, both local and global." The overarching connection in the crises facing the Church had to do with "the great Western heresy ‹ that we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God", she warned. "It is caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus. That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in a place that only God can occupy, at the centre of existence, as the ground of all being." ' So she too calls us to have compassion on the crowds. http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/content.asp?id=77798
Of course many people in congregations do reach out to others, but of course they do this during their working week. Doctors, nurses, teachers work all week for the well being and up-building of others. Police have to exercise the second great commandment to love one's neighbour each hour of their working life. People do help refugees, the outcast, the poor and the destitute. They show this compassion of Jesus, not on Sunday mornings, but during the rest of the week. But the church somehow implicitly implies that 'real' Christian ministry is done only on Sunday mornings and only by those with long white robes on. The important thing is not the compassion we show during the week, but what we believe about God, how often we read the Bible, how many times we genuflect during the service, or whatever. This continues to marginalize most of the congregation, who by now are so used to this, they don't give it a second thought. But it is their's that is the sort of lay ministry that is important, not participating leading worship.
What of Sunday worship? Of course it becomes a celebration of what God has done through the week, in us and in others. We invite people to join us, not to make them 'christians' like us but to celebrate and affirm them in the compassion they show for others in their working and social life. We are called to recognise the incarnation in others, not just ourselves. And if we look for it in the multitude of others God puts around us, we will not be disappointed.
I see it in the hospitals where I work, particularly the psychiatric hospital where patients comfort one another. The best consolation comes from someone who knows what one is going through far more than anything I can offer as a chaplain. And we fear people who have mental illness, when generally these only hurt themselves and a few others. It is the power-brokers in the church who we really ought to fear those who marginalise women, alienate gay people, and dismiss as irrelevant those who show the compassion of Jesus throughout the week but who don't measure up to **their** standards in the name of some god or other, with nary a thought for the harm this causes others.
At the end of this piece, the author of these words about Fr Mychal Judge: Michael Kelly (in his book 'Seduced by Grace'*) 'thought of the final words of St Francis of Assisi as he lay dying on the bare earth. "I have done what was mine to do," he said to his friars. "May God show you what is yours."'
*ISBN 978098029832 Published: Clouds of Magellan www.cloudsofmagellan.net
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