Foundry United Methodist Church

Summer in the City 2009

Outstanding Preacher Series

Rev. Dr. Leslie John Griffiths


Sheep without a Shepherd

Sunday, July 19, 2009
9:30 a.m.



Mark 6: 30-34, 53-56


 Rev. Griffiths

Rev. Dr. Griffiths


I’m the minister of Wesley’s Chapel, which stands just outside the Roman city walls of London and which was built on land that once served as a dumping ground for discarded rubbish unwanted in the building of Christopher Wren’s masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral.


A garbage dump outside the city wall – an ideal place to do theology! (See Hebrews 13: 12.)  John Wesley built this fine place of worship in1778.  He preached from its pulpit, administered communion from its table, lived in a little apartment in an adjoining house for the last twelve winters of his long life.   This is where he died.  This is where he lies buried. 


We have a museum – the Museum of Methodism – on site, and it contains a rich collection of artifacts. But few are as moving or as meaningful (at least to me) as the “Honour Boards” which came from our first seminary when it closed in the mid 1970s.  These simple boards record the departure dates of young missionaries who set out for distant continents in the early 19th century.  So often, they died within months of their arrival. Yet others queued up to replace them.


I’ve stood in the pulpit at Wesley Church in Cape Coast, Ghana. Four of the missionaries whose names are on our boards, all in their early 20s, are buried there directly under the pulpit. Imagine preaching there!  Who could fail to be moved?


Being moved is what I want to preach about this morning.  In this morning’s gospel passage, we read that Jesus, dogged by large crowds of people, looked out at them – so full of hope and trust, yearning and longing – that “he had compassion on them.”  In other translations we might read “he was filled with pity for them” or “he was deeply moved.”


All these phrases are so bloodless.  They don’t begin to convey what might have been happening, the real feelings of Jesus as he contemplated their plight.  And to get closer to his original meaning we have to do some Greek!


It’s the word splangizomai that’s being used.  It only appears a dozen or so times, always in the Synoptic gospels, and invariably in reference to Jesus.  He sees a crowd, a blind man, someone suffering, and his heart goes out to them.  I said the use of this word is invariably used in reference to Jesus.  This is not strictly true.  It also appears in the two best known parables of Jesus.  The Good Samaritan, when he came across the traveler who’s been beaten and left for dead, “was moved with pity” (Luke10:33).  And the father of the Prodigal Son, when he sees the boy coming home, far from being filled with reproach, was “filled with compassion” (Luke 15:20)}.  The two Jesus-type characters in these familiar stories display Jesus-type pity, compassion, fellow-feeling. 


So why am I kicking up a fuss about all this?  I’ll tell you exactly why.  The verb splangizomai comes from the noun splankus, which has much more colours to it than the wishy-washy translations I’ve quoted.  It’s very bodily, and relates to bits of the anatomy we usually prefer not to think about: innards, guts, bowels, and all that tangled and indistinguishable stuff that confuses organs with offal, intestines with arteries.


Yes, this is the core concept at the very centre/root of the word used to describe Jesus’ response to the needs of people he meets. “Filled with compassion,” my foot; “moved with pity,” what nonsense.  He saw these poor people and it was as if someone had punched him in the gut, kicked him in the stomach.  Somehow, we must imagine the plight of those he came across day by day, people in need, people marginalized from the mainstream, having a very physical effect on him.  It’s as if he felt their pain.


This is such an integral attribute of Jesus that we have to pause to take it in.  We’re not talking about the fashionable tear in someone’s eye, the catch in their voice, as they speak of (or witness) someone’s sorry situation.  It’s far more primitive than that.  “Who is offended and I burn not?” St. Paul thunders in one of his Corinthian letters.  How can I be aware of suffering, or injustice, or deprivation, without burning with rage?


And here we come to a key element in the make-up of the Christlike character.  It has to do with our capacity to transcend ourselves, to break out of the prison of our obsession with self, our hypochondria and inward-lookingness.


Our biology, our genetic make-up, focuses us on our need to survive.  Evolution is about the survival of the fittest.  It’s the strongest who make out.  So our instincts are conditioned by selfishness (Richard Dawkins wrote a book called “The Selfish Gene”).


Our culture predisposes us towards keeping comparing with those who will make the fewest demands on us – people of our class, race, or social type.   And it will also avert our eyes from the beggars, the down-and-outs, the down cast and the drop-outs.  We’d prefer not to be too aware of them.  When they do cross into our consciousness we find ourselves either blaming them – “they’ve brought it all on themselves” – or else sending a check to a charity or dropping a coin into a box – both of these being avoidance tactics.


But Jesus saw pain in others and felt some of their hurt himself.  His heart went out to them.  He ached for them.  No compassion (“suffering with”) fatigue for him.


And those who say they look towards Jesus as they live their Christian lives, i.e. you and me, must surely check ourselves out on the this point: Do the needs of others hit us in the pit of the stomach?  Or have we grown a defensive wall around ourselves?  Are we desensitized, are our responses dulled, do we walk by on the other side of the street?


A few days ago, CNN showed some splendid footage of President Obama’s recent visit to Ghana.  Reporter Anderson Cooper accompanied the Presidential party (which included his two little girls) to Cape Coast Castle where they undertook a tour of those parts of the building that had seen so many thousands of African men and women begin there journey into slavery in the so-called New World.   We saw the dark dungeons where those captured were manacled to each other and to the walls.  And there was “the door of no return.”  Only one person at a time can be squeezed through as he/she is directed towards the hold of the waiting slave vessel.  No wonder someone had, at one stage or another, painted the words of Dante above this gruesome portal: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”


Jesus would surely have witnessed the plight of these poor people “with compassion,” his heart “filled with pity.”  But this response would have been angry, hurt, and visceral.  Can human beings really do this the each other?  For God’s sake, stop it. Now!


The text I’ve taken reads: “He saw a great crowd; and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”  In the dungeons of Cape Coast Castle, you’ll imagine that the shackled prisoners were, perhaps, like sheep without a shepherd.  Perhaps they were.


But my favorite for this description would be found elsewhere in that Castle.  Those responsible for the trade – soldiers, mercenaries, warders, merchants – would often repair to church.  There is a pretty little church within the Castle grounds.  It has thick walls and the interior is cool – even on the hottest day.  There are stained glass windows, engraved memorial plaques, altar, pulpit and pews.  This chapel stands immediately above the dungeons where the slaves were herded.  Can you imagine those people singing hymns, saying amen to the prayers being offered, taking bread and wine, listening to sermons and the scriptures?  Can you imagine it?  Who exactly are the sheep without a shepherd in that situation?


If the suffering of the captured Africans could, even all these years after the ending of the slave trade, can hit us for six, stab our conscience awake like a dagger in the gut, so too ought the bestiality of the traders, their capacity to worship the God who gave us Jesus.  What a total lack of self knowledge and understanding.  Sheep gone astray. They may have made money on it all, but they’ve cut themselves off from their own humanity.  Sheep without a shepherd indeed.