Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Fedderson:
A young father, pushing a baby stroller, seemed to be quite unperturbed by the wails emerging from it. “Easy now, Albert,” he said quietly, “control yourself. Keep calm.” Another howl rang out, and the parent murmured, “Now, Albert, keep your temper.”
A young mother passed and was impressed by all this. She smiled and said, “I must congratulate you. You know just how to talk to babies–calmly and gently.” Then, patting the youngster on the head, she cooed, “Aw, what’samatter there, little Albert?” “No, no,” said the father, “his name is Harold. I’m Albert.”
As I read this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, I had a picture in my mind of Jesus talking to Himself, much like this young father: “Easy now, Jesus, control yourself … Keep calm.” I also thought about the many times, when I was a parish pastor, that I tried to take a break and get away from it all, only to have the phone ring, or to have someone come out on the river or wherever else to find me.
When His disciples returned from their first missionary journey, Jesus invited them to come with Him to a lonely place where they could rest quietly. The 13 of them set off by boat for the “lonely place.” Their departure was witnessed, however, and the witnesses guessed their arrival point from the direction that they were heading. These people told others as they traveled on foot, and soon a large crowd had transformed the lonely place into something more like a tourist attraction.
Now believe me, this is the kind of situation that prompted the invention of the old saying, “It’s enough to make a preacher cuss!” In addition to being the best of preachers and teachers, Jesus was also the best of persons who preach and teach, so He did not cuss. Quite the contrary, the Scripture says, “He had compassion on them [His heart went out to them], because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.”
Referring to the way people had flocked to see John the Baptizer, Jesus once asked, “What did you go out to see?” What do you suppose this flock expected? Next Sunday’s Gospel lesson will tell us that, out of the 5,000 who gathered there, those who wanted to see a sign or miracle would certainly get their wish. Some of them may have hoped to be healed or to see healings. Some may have expected great preaching and excellent storytelling. Others may have wanted to hear His “new teaching,” a whole new way of looking at themselves and God and the kingdom. Jesus’ observation makes me think that the majority were primarily curious. They were looking for a way to pass the time–an afternoon’s entertainment. They really didn’t know where they were going, or to whom, or why. Like shepherdless sheep, they were just flocking together, perhaps assuming that someone in front knew what he or she was doing.
Those who came with any kind of anticipation at all probably got far more than they expected. All of them received the best of teaching, and everyone got dinner. Few, if any of them, however, were in a position to catch the true marvel of the moment. For instance, the very fact that Jesus and His disciples did not run them off for being a nuisance was probably not noticed by anyone. People can be so rude and so ignorant of others’ needs for privacy that it boggles my imagination.
Recently, the thought crossed my mind that there are more cameras at political conventions than at the Super Bowl, where I think they can show about 150 different angles on any given play. I half expected some languid voice to intone: “This is the scene from the candidate’s bathroom where we see him gathering his thoughts, preparing….” How many times have we sat in our living rooms and watched some insensitive dolt at a disaster poke a microphone at the sobbing mouth of a totally distraught mother only to ask something as bright as how she feels?
As you and I read Sunday’s Gospel, we are in a far better position to see and understand what was happening than was that crowd. Mark has told us that the One and His 12 wanted to be in a crowd of 13 and only 13. Those other folks didn’t know that. Even those who might have guessed it could probably also have come up with a dozen reasons for Jesus to accept their pushy behavior rather than yell at them. One of the seemingly obvious reasons for a preacher to respond favorably is that public people often crave publicity. There may be a preacher somewhere who would turn down the opportunity to preach to 5,000 people. Of this you can be sure, if there is such a person, it is not the one who writes the “Edit-O-Earl.”
I would dearly love to preach on national television or the Lutheran Hour. I have to admit that I’d like a little more time to prepare than the time between the first sight of shore and the moment I stepped from the boat, but I think I’d take the opportunity however it came. I can honestly say that sometimes God’s Word boils about in me, anxious to get out. I cannot honestly say that my vanity would have nothing to do with my willingness to leave the boat and teach the 5,000. What am I saying–I’d jump ship and swim to shore if 5,000 came to hear me!
You see, what those people didn’t know yet, and what you and I all too easily forget, is that God Almighty, wrapped in flesh and blood, was sitting in that boat–and without a vain bone in His body. Their insolence at ignoring His and His disciples’ very real physical need for rest and solitude was not simply overlooked, it was forgiven in a totally silent wash of love and compassion beyond their wildest expectations or even dreams. Some time later, a similar crowd would yell, “Hosanna to the son of David!” on Sunday, and “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” on Friday. Even then, He compassionately saw them as sheep without a shepherd. Later yet, He would listen to their lies, insults and jeers, feel their slaps, whips and thorns, agonize from their piercing nails and pounding hammers, and once more cry out for compassion and their forgiveness because they still won’t know what they are doing. Even after He rose from the dead, some of them would fail to recognize that all the fullness of God had been in their midst as a human being. With the marvelous opportunity of becoming sheep of the Good Shepherd right at their fingertips, some will still wander off, following some piece of fluff.
I said earlier that you and I who know the Shepherd may sometimes forget just who He is. Some people prefer to explain away His incarnation and His mercy and His love and thus make Jesus a comfortable at-home piece of furniture. The people on that shoreline almost two thousand years ago were unaware that they were pushing their way into the presence of their Creator. How many times do we walk into a house of worship equally ignorant of, or at least totally ignoring, the same truth?
FEDDERSEN’S FABLES has the story of a little boy who avoided being in trouble at school all day long, only because Kindergarten is a half-day program! At the end of the year, the teacher told his parents that he might benefit from the more rigorous discipline and helpful moral training at the Lutheran school in town. He had never gone to church or received any kind of Christian instruction, so his first chapel session and “religion” class the next year were quite an experience. A sudden fear went through him that morning, and he whispered to a classmate, “Hey, Tommy, where does God live?” “Up in heaven, above the clouds,” said Tommy. “Boy, am I glad to hear that,” said the first grader, “I was afraid maybe He’d seen me pull Julie’s hair before recess!”
How do we help kids or adults, today’s 5,000 shore-walkers, realize the wonder of God’s grace–His forgiveness of our insolence, rudeness and even most evil ways? How do we help them discover the joy of expectantly entering into the House of God and into the very presence of their Creator? How do we all come to realize that every place in our lives is the dwelling place of God?
I do not know the answers to those questions, but I’m working on it. As a matter of fact, in all the world I probably only know one thing for sure. I can sing it to you: “Jesus is my Shepherd, and I’m His little lamb.”