Sermon #240 St. James the Less #147 7/18/21
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 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. When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
When I first arrived at St. James the Less one of the first things we did was run the Alpha Course. It’s a film series that now a number of our members have gone through over the years. One of the most memorable points for me in the series was when they interviewed a woman named Jackie Pullinger.
Jackie is an incredible woman who has lived a life of love and service to Jesus and the poorest of the poor. When Jackie was 21, she boarded a ship and prayed that she would know when she needed to get off. She finally got off the boat in Hong Kong, it was the late 60s when the Cultural Revolution was happening in China, and a flood of refugees were coming over the border. She knew this was exactly where God wanted her to be.
Many of these refugees ended up living in what was called the Walled City, a densely populated and crime ridden area. Jackie has spent most of her life working with people at the bottom of the social ladder: gang members, sex workers, and addicts of every kind who call this place home.
All those years of daily living with and caring for the needs of the refugees in the Walled City has shaped Jackie’s perspective of ministry. She says, “God wants us to have soft hearts and hard feet. The trouble with so many of us is that we have hard hearts and soft feet.”
She then says that she can’t really explain what a soft heart is, but she thinks that our heart likely must first be broken in order for it to become soft. And having hard feet means to continue to love people, to persevere day after day.
Sheep without a Shepherd
What Jackie saw in the alleys and street corners of the Walled City was the same thing that Jesus saw in our gospel passage today—sheep without a shepherd. People who were wandering in life with no purpose, or people who had purpose but no perspective of God’s larger plan for their life.
If there was ever someone who had a soft heart and hard feet it was Jesus. In our passage this morning we read that Jesus is tired and needs some rest, but the crowds keep finding him as he goes back and forth across the lake.
They may be wanting to get something from him—to use him for their own gain. Maybe they want some inspiration, he is a pretty good speaker. They may want knowledge, he is a really good teacher. And plenty of others want healing, rumor has it that all you have to do is touch the fringe of his cloak.
Once they’ve gotten what they were looking for most head back home. Some strange transaction has been made, and they’re satisfied with what they’ve received from this traveling rabbi.
I wonder if Jesus felt used by these people at all? It appears that many of them were clueless what he’s actually doing—I mean even his own disciples rarely understood the larger implications of Jesus’ ministry.
But instead of getting frustrated with the crowds, telling them to leave him alone, our text says that when he looked at them, he couldn’t help but have compassion. He kept on loving them day by day with a soft heart and hard feet.
That’s what Jesus is like.
Jesus Washing Feet
I was 15 when I went to Israel for the first time, and one of the nights we were in Nazareth I was planning on meeting a family friend who lived in the city. He was an Anglican priest who was born and raised in the same place Jesus grew up.
I was with a church youth group, and I knew the chaperons wouldn’t let me leave with a stranger, so I snuck out of our hotel. I really don’t know what I was thinking, but I was jogging through the streets of Nazareth, the only white boy in sight, until I saw my friend waiting in his car in the town square.
We had a great dinner with he and his sister at his home. At the end of the night, he was showing me three olive wood carvings that local artisans had made for him.
Each depicted a different story of Jesus. There was one with him in the boat calming the storm, another one of him breaking bread at the Last Supper, and one with him bent down next to a bowl washing his disciple’s feet.
These carvings were so intricate. For many Palestinian Christian artisans this is a family tradition that is passed down through the generations. To create some of the detailed features they use tiny dental tools to carve the wood.
I commented how beautiful they were; each of them was a splendid work of art. And then he looked at me with a smile and said, “Which one would you like? I’ve shown you these because I want to give you a parting gift.”
I tried to refuse but he wouldn’t have any of it, he insisted I take one. And so, after looking at each of them, I chose Jesus washing his disciple’s feet.
I had heard plenty of sermons about Jesus washing their feet, and I had seen plenty of paintings depicting the famous scene. But there was something inspiring about seeing a carving of it, being able to hold it in my hands, and looking at it from all angles. It gave this humble action of Jesus new life for me—it made it so real, as if I were there.
It was like an epiphany, I couldn’t help but say to myself, “That’s Jesus, the Son of God, washing his follower’s feet. That’s Jesus, the Lord of lords taking on the form of a slave to show his love.”
When I snuck back to the hotel that night, I made it past some of the chaperones, but in the courtyard some of my friends asked where I got the beautiful carving. I told them an old friend gave it to me, and then quickly went up to my room before they asked anything else. The carving has been precious cargo ever since, close by me every time we’ve moved.
If you’ve ever come to my office over the past three years to simply chat about life, or to talk about something more serious you may have noticed an olive wood carving on my desk. In some ways I doubt you’ve noticed because of the piles of paper scattered all around my desk. But for three years it has sat on my desk and been a constant reminder for me of what ministry is all about.
When I have felt overwhelmed or unsure of our next steps as a church, I have looked at that carving like a compass—hoping that it would recenter me back to the true purpose of ministry—to the model of sacrificial love that Jesus gave us all those years ago.
The building improvements we’ve made are nice, becoming more efficient on vestry, or creating a finance team to help us with our long-term goals are all well and good, but all of ministry, mine and yours, must always come back to having a soft heart and hard feet just like Jesus.
This church has gone through a lot over the past few years. For the longtime members who are here, you know that all too painfully. In four years, you have buried a beloved priest, seen members come and go, experience political and social unrest, all in the midst of a global pandemic…and yet, here you are.
The church is not only standing, but in many ways, it is thriving. When I tell my friends about this place, I call it a resurrection church. You all know what death and darkness looks like, and by God’s grace new life has sprung up and has done so in abundance.
Like a beautiful stained glass window made out of many pieces of broken glass and reassembled into something new and beautiful, God has taken what was broken—in many ways heartbroken—from this parish and made it into what it is today; a church that is healing and helping others to find wholeness in Christ.
As astounding as this is, we really shouldn’t be surprised—God has been doing this from the very beginning. He has not stopped mending our brokenness and breathing new life into our weary souls. He is in the resurrection business.
As we said earlier, God is driven by his compassion for us. He can’t help but care for us. Compassion literally means “to suffer with someone.”
Our Shepherd is One who willingly suffers with is people. He is not detached, hidden away in the Holy of Holies—he is healing the sick, casting out demons, proclaiming the arrival the Kingdom of God, and even washing his disciples’ feet.
This is our Good Shepherd.
Going back to the Jackie Pullinger interview, she said that when your heart has been broken so that it may become soft and your feet have been hardened by living a life of love daily, you then come to the powerful realization that “the Son of God would have died for you if you were the only person in the world.”
Jesus’ love is not only for the collective, but it is deeply personal. He cares for each individual sheep. He would have done it all just for you.
Though Megan and I are leaving—leaving this church that we love, this city that we love, leaving you who we love so very much—I take comfort in the fact that no matter the distance between us, you and I are following the same Shepherd. We are both walking behind him, trying to learn his every move, and attempting to live like him and tell the world about him.
We are family, no matter where our paths take us. You and I are bonded together and forever by our baptism: “One Lord, one faith, one baptism. One God and Father of all.”
The great gift that Jesus gives us through his death and resurrection is that you and I can be a part of his family. We are united in him. Nothing on this earth has the power to take that away from us. It is a gift, one that we could not begin to pay even if we tried.
We can only receive it with a grateful heart, and live out our calling as his faithful followers.
It has been a gift to serve alongside you these three years. You have taught me what it is like to be a member of a Christian community in a whole new way—what it looks like to pray together, to laugh, to cry, and to come to this sacred space week after week and worship the Lord of all.
By God working through each of you, he has softened my heart and hardened my feet for the journey ahead, and for that I am grateful to him and to you.
And so, my dear, dear friends—thank you for showing me the way of Jesus. Thank you for giving me grace and forgiveness even when I did not deserve it. Thank you for loving me and my family with open arms. And thank you for letting me be a part of your modern-day resurrection story.
I hope you know that we really do love you.
8th Sunday after Pentecost. Year B. Proper 11. Mark 6:30-34, 53-56. Pullinger story taken from The Alpha Course. Picture by myself.