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Rev. Eric C. Shafer Headshot

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56: Compassion Fatigue

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August 2005. Hurricane Katrina had struck New Orleans and help had not yet arrived for several days. The televised images are nearly seven years old, but they continue to be vivid in my mind. Thousands of people, mostly poor African Americans, were stranded outside of the Louisiana Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center. They were screaming for help, for rescue, for food, for water. Even worse, untended dead bodies were laying there - one in a grocery cart, only some covered up.

Like many across this country and around the world, I watched these images in horror. Where was the federal government, the National Guard? Why hadn't emergency assistance arrived? Seeing these horrible images, I could not help but think of the last time I had seen these same locations personally while at the 1997 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Youth Gathering. I remembered the convention center and superdome in better days, filled with tens of thousands of Lutheran young people; so many that they stopped traffic all over downtown New Orleans. And despite those temporary inconveniences, the people of New Orleans had welcomed our Lutheran youth with open arms and great gratitude for the many hours of service provided to their community.

I remembered this again as I read this week's text from St. Mark's Gospel, partly because Lutheran youth are gathering in New Orleans again this week -- 35,000 strong!

Soon after the disturbing images were broadcast around the world in September 2005, people of faith responded with millions of dollars in donations to their church's disaster relief fund and thousands of hours of volunteer time. Additionally, there were many in-kind donations.

However, like most disasters we experience through the broadcast media, the interest in Hurricane Katrina relief decreased as the months and years stretched on. People's attention moved on to other disasters and causes.

Psychologists have coined a term for what happens as these large natural, and unnatural, disasters fade from our memory: "compassion fatigue." After a while, we can no longer handle the awful images we see on television and our minds move on to other things. Does anyone really want to see another starving child in Africa? Wouldn't you love not to ever again see the film of those planes hitting the World Trade Center?

Do you remember Bill Murray's perhaps best known film, "Groundhog Day"? In this film, Murray plays a local Pittsburgh area TV newsman who repeats the same day over and over -- Groundhog Day, Feb. 1. Gradually, as he repeats this one day's activities in some very amusing ways, Murray's character becomes a better person and realizes what is most important in his life. One of his recurring activities is catching a young boy who is falling out of a tree. Again and again, we see Murray saving this boy so he is not hurt. But we also see Murray's compassion for the boy wearing thin as he repeats his saving act.

Jesus Christ's compassion does not wear thin, even as he must repeat his saving activity for us again and again as we all fall short of his hopes for us. While Jesus walked on this earth, compassion pervaded his life and ministry. Jesus took compassion beyond his teachings; welcoming children, reaching out to prostitutes, hated tax collectors and lepers, and healing many who came to him asking for relief from their illnesses or handicaps.

In Americus, Ga., there is a facility called the Sumter Faith Clinic. The folks at this clinic do not let their compassion wear thin.

WATCH Sumter Faith Clinic: "The Lord Led Us":

Their compassion is like the compassion of Jesus -- divine compassion that heals and feeds and forgives, nurses people back to health, and welcomes home sinners. Jesus does not let his compassion stay with God or in heaven. He commands us also to "be compassionate as your Father is compassionate."

However, Jesus also experienced his own compassion fatigue. And, as Mark reports, in the face of this fatigue, it is difficult for Jesus to find some time away. Everywhere Jesus goes, the crowds seemed to follow. As tired as Jesus must have been, he did not refuse their requests. Jesus "had compassion for them."

Our Gospel text begins with the disciples, now called apostles for the first time, returning from their first missionary journeys. They are full of stories of the wonders they have done in Jesus' name. And they are tired. Jesus tries to get them away from the crowds for some rest and relaxation. The text appears to suggest that Jesus was successful, and, at least initially, was able to get his disciples some private time. However, there is no private time for Jesus who took care of the "great crowd" and healed many who were brought even near him. Jesus may have been tired, but he does not experience compassion fatigue.

I believe there is a two fold lesson for us in this Gospel story: Like the disciples, we too are empowered by Jesus to do ministry in our daily lives, reaching out with God's love to our families and friends and even strangers.

However, the second lesson is that, like the disciples, we are not Jesus. Unlike Jesus, we do experience compassion fatigue. We need a break like those first disciples. And Jesus offers us a break by telling us, as he did his first disciples, that the work of God on earth is not dependent on us alone -- God continues to work with or without us.

The good news, then, is that you and I can take a break at times. Rest, relaxation, vacation, is not only a God-given gift; it is a God-given necessity.

Editor's Note: ON Scripture - The Bible is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.