Text: Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Theme Verse: "As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because theywere like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” (Mark 6:34)
When you go about your day, do you look at the people you encounter as competitors or companions? It seems a different attitude is needed for whichever viewpoint you prefer. Jesus wasn’t one short on companions (or competitors for that matter). His compassion for others often trumped his competitiveness, however. The result? Everybody found a place. Nobody was alone. Every time we are moved to act like Jesus in this regard, chalk up a small victory for the kingdom of God.
reader : Todd Maxwell
preaching : Rev Mark Briley
**NOTE** : Following the sermon is special music, one from each service this morning:
@ 24:11 The Rising Band - 'Where The Light Shines Through' (Switchfoot)
@ 28:17 Men's Ensemble - 'My Heart's Desire' (Joseph Linn)
Small Victories. Going to Target with one item on your shopping list and leaving Target purchasing exactly that one item… small victory! Grabbing the exact number of hangers from the closet to hang the laundry… small victory! Opening the car window to shoo a fly out and it works… small victory! Bought new laundry detergent and the scoop was on the top… small victory! Ordered a ten piece chicken nugget, got eleven… [and the people of God said…] small victory! And doesn’t it just feel good! Small victories – we have them everyday though we tend to over look them. This kid became the face of the small victory in 2007. Cute kid. His name is Sammy Griner and he was eleven months old in this picture. He was just having fun with his family on the beach, grabbed a handful of sand and was determined to eat it. Before he got a mouth full, his mother snapped this picture and posted it to social media for her family and friends to enjoy with the caption: “I hate sandcastles.” Little did she know that the likeness of her son would go global. Small Victory Memes began popping up all over the place : Had corn on the cob – didn’t get any stuck in my teeth. CNN dubbed him the internet’s most famous baby. His image began to pop up in advertisements for Vitamin Water and Virgin Mobile. Sammy’s mug was literally put all over mugs. Hot Topic put it on t-shirts and Radio Shack used it around their corporate office as motivation for its employees (did it work? Does Radio Shack still exist?). Even the White House used Sammy’s image to roll out some new reform campaigns in 2013. Who knew? You keep eating that sand, Sammy.
We’re diving into a series on Small Victories this morning. I was driven this direction, in part, because I’ve come down from the high of the Olympic season in Rio and finding that life’s not all Gold-medals, you know? I loved the Olympics. I loved the distinguished and dedicated competition but I loved the back stories all the more. The human spirit is capable of marvelous things and besides a bathroom poster incident; the stories of overcoming and pure determination were so inspiring… Huge, unbelievable, victories of a lifetime! But that’s over and turns out there is not, in fact, a spot for me on the U.S. Olympic team. So I’m wondering, “What kind of victory am I experiencing in my own life?” And then I get a phone call, “Mark, things are hard right now, but God is good and I’m sober another day.” And I think, “Okay… this is victory in the trenches.” It may not make the news and you may or may not get a medal for your small victories, but this is where faith is won… one small victory at a time.
And every person you see in this place today… and every single person you pass by in a given day is fighting a battle of some kind… maybe hanging on to life one small victory at a time. But we quickly lose sight of this. It seems instead of seeing each other with compassion knowing we’re all carrying something, we fall to the trap of seeing them as competitors. It’s a scarcity mentality. Is there enough for me? Is there enough money? Is there enough happiness? Is there enough security? Is there enough love? If we feel we are lacking in any of those ways, we can see others as the competition for enough. You may say, “Well – maybe – but I’m not overtly challenging every person I see, competing for the same money or the same health or the same love.” That’s fair. But maybe it’s more comparative scarcity; the “I wish” mentality. “I wish I had their job or their house or their spouse or their personality.” This mentality does something to our spirits on the inside. When we are comparatively competing, we dig a hole deeper and deeper in our spirits that we then try to fill with things that will make the scarcity seem less. But the voids in our spirit aren’t filled with any of those things. Seeing the same countless people we encounter everyday as companions, however, somehow begins to heal that sense of scarcity. We’ll call that small victory this morning, compassion.
Jesus was good at compassion – not like compassion’s a sport or anything – but he was good at it. I’m not sure if that came naturally to him; I mean did Jesus have to learn skills? Was he born knowing exactly how to whittle a coffee table out of a fallen tree? Did he ever have to measure twice or did he always cut it right the first time? I have questions. Jesus, fully divine indeed, yet fully human too? I’ll figure that out about the time I solve the triangle peg board game at Cracker Barrel. Anyway – Jesus was good at compassion but it must have come through some of his own difficult experiences. In our text from Mark’s gospel today, Jesus has just come through some tough times. At the beginning of the sixth chapter, Mark writes that Jesus was getting the “Just a carpenter” speech from his hometown people. He was teaching them and serving those in need there but they would scoff and say, “This is just Mary’s kid, right? The carpenter? The carpenter who’s three-legged stools always wobble? And now he’s acting like he’s God? Who does he think he is?” Jesus was run out of town by his own neighbors, childhood friends, and teammates. That had to hurt. Then he sends out the disciples in pairs to share the Good news and they encounter success and set backs. The successes worried King Herod and he decides to take out his frustrations with the Jesus movement on John the Baptist for he knows John and Jesus are tight. So Herod has John beheaded and the crew must be mourning – Jesus had to carry that news harder than anyone. And so, immediately following this new reality, Jesus says to his inner circle, “Hey guys – let’s go find some beach some where, drop a line and clear our heads for a while.” So they set off via boat but word got out and the crowds followed. By the time their boat could see the shoreline, thousands had gathered waiting for Jesus.
Nobody would blame Jesus for being tired, grieving his home town rejection and his cousin’s death and needing some space. Jesus may have had some competitive thoughts in his head about these people who are all over his life trying to take and take and take from him. But, as the text says, Jesus does not. In fact, it says, “Jesus had compassion for them.” In the original language, ‘compassion’ was a feeling from the gut – it was empathy that made your stomach churn. Some say a closer translation was that upon seeing these people in need, Jesus was moved in his bowels; the gut. By the time our hymnody was coming into play, we were singing about “having a heart” and that the heart holds our sense of compassionate feeling. “Near to the heart of God” sings much better than “Near to the guts of God.” Jesus didn’t see these people as competitors, however, vying for his resources but companions on the Way… and so he was moved to be with them, to cherish the human experience and to teach them the hope of what could be in the kingdom he was creating. It’s a kingdom that has room for every struggling companion in the crowd. The word, companion, in the Latin means “with bread” — literally referring to “people you break bread with” – such a rich image for we people of the Table. Compassion has similar roots and means “the people you suffer with.” Maybe, for today, we can think about our compassionate companions as those who celebrate the small victories with us. Just as these crowds seeking Jesus were hungry for just a little something… a small victory… just a little edge over their hurts, hang ups, and heartaches… may we see each other as teammates in the quest for small victories.
Lord knows we are like those crowds of people, wrestling with the realities of rebirth promised by Christ and the responsibilities that come with claiming to be among the born again. Nicodemus couldn’t figure out the biology of the whole thing so let’s not get too down on ourselves for our own struggles of figuring it out day after day. But we do it. We wake up and, if we’re intentional, we claim the faith again – “Lord, I’m in again today.” And when we all wake up with that same game plan, then we need to hold each other as companions along the way; not competitors. We’re not all that different, you know. Reporter Kevin O’Keefe, crunched numbers for two years to write an article about the average person in America. He was determined to find the most average person in America based on the statistics he compiled. Kevin found him. His name is Robert Burns – determined to embody 140 of the average American statistics. Robert is a maintenance worker living in the Burbs of Hartford, Connecticut. He is thirty-six years old, 5’8” tall, 185 pounds and has nine friends. He drinks the milk in the bowl after the cereal is finished, and recycles stuff occasionally. Robert usually goes to bed before midnight, isn’t famous and doesn’t necessarily want to be. He believes in God, goes to church at least once a month and can name the Three Stooges. Robert prefers smooth peanut butter over chunky and he’s living day to day for the small victories. Robert was among the thousands in the crowd awaiting Jesus at the shore for whom Jesus had compassion – not literally – but he was there. And he’s here today. And he’s like you and I just hoping someone will notice that he’s a real person, has real issues, is hoping for the small victories to amount to something and wants to know the real God in Christ we seem to be searching for together. What would it take for us to choose each other as companions and not competitors? You know what I’ve found? Extending compassionate companionship from the gut heals both of us. I’m healed when you offer that to me and you’re healed in the offering of it… and vice versa. It turns out that welcome is solidarity – or so Anne Lamott says. She says, [You know that] “we’re glad you’re here and we’re with you stuff? This whole project called you being alive, you finding joy? Well, we’re in on that.” Isn’t that great? And Jesus modeled it for us.
The gospel text says, and I’m paraphrasing a little: “Jesus went all over the place – into the inner city and the suburbs… into QuikTrips and Chipotles… into St. John’s and Emergency Infant Services. He went to concerts and AA meetings and accepted invitations into birthday barbeques at LaFortune park as he was jogging the loop. He listened to people and healed them. He taught and laughed and sang Kelly Clarkson’s “Since You’ve Been Gone” on karaoke nights.” Jesus did so much – and there were a ton of intense moments – execution-sort of intense moments. He flipped tables and started revolutions – huge stuff. But in this passage, let’s live in the small victory of accepting his compassion for the average way-seeker, realizing that in an average moment like 3:47 PM on a Tuesday afternoon, Jesus understands, feels our feels in his gut, and is holding our hope for even the smallest of victories to carry us in the moment. He’s moved by the hurt you feel when the work just isn’t there. He’s moved by the anxiety of teenager who’s questioning her identity. He’s wracked by the pain of the one whose life partner has gone heavenward and the quiet spaces are nothing short of agonizing. But Jesus is also grinning about the small victories we recognize and celebrate; about glimpses of light in the darkness; about car rides with fathers and sons who can find the joy in sharing a song.
Simon McDermott said, “Dad worked in a factory when he got married to mom but his passion was singing and he loved doing that on the side when he could. People called him The Song-a-minute Man because of how many songs he knows.” Ted’s struggle of the last few years has been tough on him and the family. Disease has taken much of his memory which has caused great challenge and distress and sadness as things are forgotten… including the recognition of his family. However, his gift for remembering songs mostly remains. Simon has found a great joy in singing with his dad for when they drive and sing, they are alive again together; companions, sharing the suffering, sharing the blessing. Take a look at one of their rides together.
Doesn’t that just evoke joy? It doesn’t erase the pain that we know exists but it’s a small victory that is full of the grace of God. Can we find those in our own lives? Cherish and celebrate those time-stands-still perspective moments? Simon’s raising money through these videos to support the Alzheimer’s Society that offered compassionate help for his family as they walk this journey with his dad. He’s hoping that the gift of small victories they experience just might grow into a huge victory for all who face these realities with their loved ones. And that happens, you know.
Remember little Sammy Griner of Success Kid Meme fame? For years, Sammy’s dad Justin suffered from kidney failure, spending hours a day on dialysis. Justin became in desperate need of a transplant. His wife decided to launch a GoFundMe campaign to help raise the $75,000 needed to support the medical care and transplant. She hesitated to use her son’s “Success Kid” meme wishing to focus on her husband’s medical need. Friends convinced her to use the image, however, and after doing so she raised over $100,000 from over 4,800 donors in just a few days. Justin successfully received a transplant last year. One day, you’re eating sand – and years down the road, that moment creates small victories that then lead to moments like this. Small victories? When it comes to genuine, Jesus-loving, faith-filled compassion – I’m not sure any victory is all that small. But when we can’t see the finished picture and wonder if anything beautiful is ahead of us, let’s find strength in the small victories – for today’s small victory is tomorrow’s healing.
 Joseph, Nicole. “Here’s Joe American.” Newsweek, October 31, 2005, 8.
 Small Victories. Anne Lamott. Riverhead Books. New York. 2014.
 Lots of stories about this online. Here is one: http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/15/living/success-kid-dad-needs-help/