First Congregational United Church of Christ
July 19, 2015
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 “Harried and Hassled”
Rev. Diane K. Hooge
Every once in a while we have a lectionary text that is patched together in such a way that there are holes and one wonders “what were they thinking?”
We need to back up and review what has taken place prior to today’s Gospel lesson.
In the first verses of chapter 6, Jesus has sent the disciples out two by two on their own to teach and to seek to serve the needs of those they encounter. It seems to me that it could be understood as an internship. They have returned filled with stories around their experiences and I’m sure they were anxious to debrief it with one another and with their teacher.
And, in the midst of their sharing, they are all lamenting the death of John the Baptist, who had been beheaded in the palace. Along with arriving back together tired and weary they are also feeling the weight of the kind of compounded grief that comes with the violent death of a beloved friend, I suspect it was difficult to put one foot in front of the other. It had to have been challenging to tend to all the burial issues while in the midst of the muck that grief brings. Jesus recognized their mutual pain and fatigue and invites them to go to a place where they can relax and renew themselves.
However, it didn’t take long before their retreat site was discovered. The people poured in bringing their various hungers in life with them. Jesus saw this time as an opportunity to bring teaching and healing to the crowd’s weary lives. The disciples weren’t holding the same vision—they had just lost the safety of their intimate friendship circle. Their dinner plans were interrupted when Jesus decided to extend hospitality to those who had gathered. They had no interest in putting on a dinner. But Jesus was tuned into the needs of the people who he defined as sheep without a shepherd. The story that is referred to but left out in today’s scripture text is the story of the feeding of the 5,000. This story is told with various differences in all four Gospels. However, it begins in Mark’s Gospel with the disciples wanting to have Jesus send the throngs off to the nearby towns to get something to eat. But Jesus disagrees with their plan and insists that the disciples feed the people. He set up the structure of having the disciples set those gathered in manageable groupings on the hillside. Who knows if that was really important, or if Jesus’ plan was to keep the disciples focused on the people rather than on their frustrations, disappointment and weariness? It’s not easy to figure out what happened. In spite of this great miracle story that has been told to every generation following the event, something had gone awry, and it is only in Mark’s gospel that it is told. It’s awkward. It’s hard to know what to do with it. We discover that in spite of how well the fish and bread buffet had gone, it appears that the disciples were serving out of “oughtness” rather than hospitality. The text tells us that their “hearts were hardened.” If we try taking the story apart, whose idea was it to collect the 12 baskets of leftovers? Was it Jesus or the disciples? Doesn’t it seem out of character for Jesus? Wouldn’t he have wanted the folks to take home the leftovers and enjoy them as a reminder of the abundance of the day? In the humanness of this story, I get why the disciples may have been more concerned about just checking off the duties in order to get the people fed and back on the road to their homes, rather than treating the event as a place to offer compassion.
Whatever had gone wrong, it was clear that Jesus took the responsibility for bringing closure to the day with the crowd, and then he headed off to pray. He needed some recovery time. It may well have been the disciples who sapped his strength more than the needs of the crowd.
Several weeks ago, we focused on the stilling of the storm from chapter four, and now we’re dealing with another storm in chapter six. How do we make sense of these texts? So, who is Mark, and what’s the intent of his writing?
The Gospel of Mark is the earliest writer of the Gospels. There are some scholars who believe that Mark was the son of a well-to-do woman whose name was Mary. Her home was the meeting place of many within the early church. If this is accurate, he would have been brought up in the midst of the Christian community. He would have heard the stories of the personal journeys of people seeking to be followers of Jesus.
Mark does not focus on either the birth of Jesus, or his resurrection. His whole focus in on leadership—leadership that emerges out of service and authentic power that emerges out of suffering. .
So, what does this text tell us about this group of interns known as “the disciples”? Chapter six informs us that in spite of witnessing an incredible display of abundance during the feeding of the masses, their hearts “were hardened.” Even if they were touched by the wonder at what happened over the abundance of dinner, they managed to move on and not fully take it in. It had not moved their souls. Mark gives us the history of the disciples. They certainly hadn’t hesitated to leave their boats, property and families behind when Jesus called them to be disciples. They have successfully completed certain missions. However, this is also a group who yearn for positions of honor rather than service. They interrupted Jesus when we he withdrew for prayer and solitude, Judas betrays Jesus, they all move into fear whenever they are in a storm, and they chide Jesus when he seeks to find out who has touched him in a crowd of people who are seeking healing.
So, was Mark seeking to educate his community? Did he want them to see that becoming a follower is a life-long commitment that demands a perpetual faith journey? Was that community any different from us? We can certainly identify with the disciples. We know what it’s like to juggle our personal lives and also take on service in some capacity. We know what it’s like to struggle with feeling like we’re in over our heads and yet feel the pressure to “do something to make a difference.”
One of my favorite Henri Nouwen books is titled Reaching Out: The three Movements of the Spiritual Life, Nouwen names the blockages to a compassionate heart. The second section of the book is titled “From Hostility to Hospitality.” Nouwen writes about how important it is that we create “space where the stranger can enter and become a friend not an enemy.”
While pondering Jesus’ behavior, I thought about a time when I was in the hospital waiting for a surgery to be performed on my right arm following a serious accident. I was facing a big unknown as to what kind of mobility I would have following surgery. I remember a hospital chaplain coming by and offering me a little booklet to read. I felt no sense of connection. However, I do remember a night nurse who stayed with me in the early morning hours listening to my fears. I did not relate to the booklet, but I was deeply grateful for the presence of someone who took the time to listen. In her compassionate action, she created space for the stranger.
It takes energy to foster engagement in another’s life. Like the disciples, we often fear becoming known. We fear disturbing our routines. We often fear getting involved and what it will entail when it seems to take everything we have to deal with what we already have on or daily agendas. We fear change. I wonder if it wasn’t the disciple’s idea to gather up the scraps following dinner. Sometimes we’re far more comfortable collecting the scraps because it doesn’t demand extending ourselves to others. It doesn’t demand the risks that are involved in even hearing about another’s life. But, sometimes engagement happens in a surprising way. A discussion takes a turn at the office, and someone takes a risk and the conversation goes deeper. A movie triggers a past memory, and one dares to share some long pent up piece of one’s history. We often learn that it takes more energy to hide behind a wall of safekeeping than it does to share authentically. It often takes more energy to keep pieces of life tamped down than it does to risk revealing parts of our own story. Engagement does take energy. It does mean risk-taking, and it also invites a deepening of relationship that can be life giving. It is often the ultimate in extending loving hospitality. But all of this is fraught with fears that come with risk taking. And, the truth is, we cannot do this on our own power. We need God, and we need each other.
The tricky part of being an inclusive congregation is that we don’t sign a creed or agree to one set of beliefs. What we have agreed to is honoring our differences. It’s about accepting each other as we collectively seek to follow our faith journey. Our differences are designed to enable us to serve a broad spectrum of needs. It is within the whole community of faith that we are invited to open our hearts to one another. It is this very action that invites God’s transforming touch upon our hearts.
I think our community does a great job of reaching out to the greater community. However, I’m in the process of gathering information and models to learn how other churches handle pastoral care for their own membership. Tomorrow I’ll be meeting with a member of Trinity Episcopal Church because they have a variety of structures that are designed to help support the members of their congregation. As I walk with you throughout this transitional season in the life of this church, this feels like the next piece that needs some tending. With the growth of this community, we need to catch up with how to help integrate new people, and how to help folks find places of support and belonging within the ongoing challenges of their lives. I believe that as a community the Spirit is inviting us to look at our structure and to form new ways to reach out to one another.
Without a variety of care structure options, it is easy for folks to fall through the cracks. Like the focus of our text, this is a leadership issue.
The disciples were still being mentored…yes, they had been living out an internship, and they came back to meet with Jesus to debrief their experience. And like us, they learned that they had more work to do in order to learn to serve on a deeper level. Just like the disciples, we have to be reminded over and over that caring for one another is messy work. We cannot depend on our own strength…we need to depend on God’s power to enable us to do the work to which we’ve been called. We catch glimpses of those times when it all seems to come together, but most of the time it’s hard work, and it demands that we rely on Divine strength in order to live into the work. The work demands that we love each other more than we love our ideas.
There is so little grace in our public discourse. So, we are invited as the people of God to see our church as a laboratory of hope, freedom, Justice making and compassionate caring. It behooves us to continually seek out what God is inviting us as an entire community to make a priority.
Just as the disciples in the boat discovered, whatever fears we hold are met with the love of the Christ who comes to us in our risk taking and vulnerability –especially at times when we feel like we are rowing into the wind with all the power we can muster. It is in the surrender that we often find that our hearts become softened.
The living Christ seldom comes in the ways in which we expect, nor on our timetable. However. Like the disciples, we too are offered the words,
“Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid.” Amen.
“To be creative means to consider the whole process of life as a process of birth and not to take any stage of life as a final stage.”