July 19, 2009, Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

July 19, 2009
The Rev. Natasha Brubaker Garrison
Year B, Proper 11, Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

I would like us all to take a minute and think about someone who has been a compelling figure in our lives. It can be someone well known or not, a public figure or a personal friend or family member. It doesn’t matter just so long as they are a person that you found compelling, interested in emulating, listening to, being guided by. You may think of more than on person. That’s fine, too. (Pause)

Okay, do have someone in mind? Now, what was it about them that was so or is so compelling to you? Take a minute to reflect on that. (Pause)

When I read the Gospel for today I am struck by how compelling Jesus was. The word itself is an odd one. It derives from Latin and the root means “to drive”, pellere. The verbal forms of this word are rather negative in meaning: constrain, force, invoke, take by force, extort. But the adjectival form, compelling, is much more positive. It refers to something that drives strong feeling, interest or admiration.

Driving people and driving their interest is pretty typical of the Jesus we see in Scripture. Take our story today. Jesus and his disciples are worn out from all their work so they go away to take a break far from the demands of people and their task. Taking with them enough provisions to care for themselves they set off to a place with no inhabitants, no towns, no fast-food joints or truck stops along the way. Seeking isolation to rejuvenate they are thwarted. Jesus’ work has become so exciting to people that they leave everything—fields, jobs, homes—and come by foot and donkey to this place without a lot of planning and forethought. We know this because in the verses we skipped over today, Mark 6:35-52, there is the story of the feeding of the 5,000. After this, they head over across the lake and upon his arrival the people are so ecstatic they rush around the whole area and bring to him those who were sick and unwell. While people may have not been ready en masse to follow his teachings about the kingdom or to recognize him as their spiritual leader, they wanted the things he offered: nourishment and wholeness. By this they began to become part of his movement in their own way. They had recognized something holy at work and responded in quite dramatic fashion. He got their interest and admiration.

Jesus was both compelling and charismatic. Compelling people are often charismatic and vice versa. Charismatic is a word that comes down to us from the Greek word kharis meaning favor or grace. In Christian theology charisma means a divinely conferred power or talent, what we nowadays call spiritual gifts. Charisma is also understood as having that special something that inspires devotion and enthusiasm. Like most everything in life charisma can inspire devotion and enthusiasm in things that are good and things that are evil. Mother Teresa, Rigoberta Menchu, Ghandi, Florence Nightingale, leaders in our various civil rights movements are or were charismatic people. So are Hitler, Pol Pot, white supremist leaders, cult leaders and religious fanatics. The struggle and challenge is to decipher those charismatics worth following and those whose suasive powers and charms are not. Charismatic leaders can be those that shepherd the flock for good or destroy and scatter the sheep of the pasture as Jeremiah says.

As Christians we look to Jesus as our essential point of reference and model. He is the one we follow first and foremost; however, the reality of life is that we are asked to choose and need to choose others to follow in the every day details of life. Jesus’ life and teaching form the basis for how we judge what is worth following and not, no matter how attractive and compelling it sounds. We are given several starting points today. The first is Jesus’ reaction to those that practically hound him. He had compassion on them. Compassion is opening, receptive, expansive. It can take the imaginative leap into another’s reality rather than accepting how society has defined and determined that reality. It may judge, but it is not judgmental. It creates space to gather more in rather than closing the gates. It widens rather than narrows. It breaks down barriers rather than erecting them. It grounds itself in mercy, forgiveness, recognizing one’s own sin and seeking amends, hope, and respect. It is not grounded in fearmongering, hate, self-righteousness, revenge, and the domination and privation of others. Which is not to say that there are simplistic and easy answers to the difficult social and personal realities and events, but rather that those who would lead us through must start from one set of guiding principals rather than the other. Jesus clearly knows where he stands and he lives it, causing scandal and transforming life at one and the same time.

The second clue we see is what he does. He heals the sick and the possessed and those that polite society wanted nothing to do with. It is not hard to translate that into the modern day idiom is it. His message could cut across and through to something more profoundly true. He sought our deepest humanity and that even those that have it most together in society’s terms are also hurting, lost, in need of healing and divine love. It’s true for all of us. There is tremendous freedom to be ourself before Jesus because he never cast out anyone. He may have challenged; he may have called people up short, but he never rejected.

The third clue is the image for this charismatic and compelling man: a shepherd, who is looking after his sheep. Not a warrior, not a boss, not an overlord, not a superhero, but a shepherd. He watches over, guides to good pasture and water, fends off those things that would destroy—this is the role of the shepherd. Not charismatic at all; yet, this is how this compelling man saw himself. A humble role. A servant role. A guiding role so that we might be able to do and learn for ourselves what we need for a good life, that is, a life lived towards God and each other.
In Jesus we see someone who has compassion and care. We see someone who disregards conventions and propriety for something more meaningful—healing and wholeness. He has time for us in a way that no one else does, even when we are at our best. He will be with us in our greatest need and despair without flagging or saying he can’t take any more patients or as I sometimes have to say, I don’t have time today.

For those of us here in this church, we are among those who have found Jesus to be compelling. We have never met the earthly Jesus and never will, but the Jesus we have met in the stories, in worship, in this wonderful and imperfect part of the living Body of Christ on earth has inspired enough interest in us that we are ready to be guided by his life and teaching. Some of us may be firm in our understandings of him and who he is for us. Others of us are still discovering what we think of him. Some of us may come here even though we don’t believe in God or are in serious doubt. Some of us have been that sheep without a shepherd or one of the sick brought on a mat. Whatever our pathway, we are here and we keep coming back because somehow this Jesus speaks to us deeply and in truth.

So there are a couple of invitations to us in this Gospel for this week and really for all our lives. Why is Jesus compelling to me? What is it about him and his life and teachings that keep me engaged? And what does following his charisma invite me to do?

The second invitation is about our church. We come here because we discover again each week something life-giving, something holy, (I hope!) something that has limitless time and space for us. We come because here we encounter the charismatic life of Jesus still pulsing through the world and through us. Who might be the ones we want to bring to share in this gift, this grace? Not through fear of damnation, or browbeating, but through simply saying in this place I have discovered a place where I am loved and known and can muddle my way towards living a compassionate and loving life. I belong here no matter what. I am not alone. That’s pretty darn special. Maybe you’d like to come too. What are you doing next Sunday? The post-Communion latte is on me. It sounds a lot like the dreaded “e” word: evangelism. And it is. Sounds radical I know, but we would only be doing what the first disciples did when they said to their family and friends, come and see, come and see this compelling person I’ve met, simply come and see.