Sunday, July 26, 2009
On the Green Grass: Sermon on Mark 6:3-44
Yes, it is true: this is not the passage that was appointed by the lectionary. They offered John's account of the loaves and fishes. I decided to use Mark's.
Sometimes all it takes is the tiniest detail to change a story, to make it something it never was before. Like the story we are reading today: I wonder how many times each one of us has read this passage, or heard it. Some version of it is repeated no fewer than 6 times in the New Testament, twice in the gospel of Mark alone—the story of how Jesus takes a few loaves of bread and fishes and stretches them to feed, not just a dozen, not just a hundred, but thousands of people. It is safe to say, this is one of the central stories of the Christian story, one of the scenes that is recognizably “us.” It’s one of those stories that, if we have been members of the church for any time at all—or even, if we have been paying attention to Monty Python movies—it is one of those stories we know. It’s our story.
And yet… each time the story is told and re-told, by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, there are details that are included or left out that can change how we understand the story. Today, we will be paying attention to certain details Mark feels compelled to include. Today, we will be noticing his particular version, found in chapter 6.
The first detail I want us to notice has to do with the context of the story. What has been happening, just prior to this episode? Mark tells us, “The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught” (6:30). Jesus’ disciples have just returned from their first foray out into the world without Jesus. He has sent them off, for all intents and purposes, without their training wheels. They’ve gone out with some pretty strict instructions… they were to go two by two, and they were to take virtually nothing with them in the way of provisions. They were to rely on the kindness of strangers, staying with hospitable people. And they were to preach the good news and do their best with the healings and the exorcisms. And, apparently, their foray without training wheels has gone pretty darned well: Mark tells us, “…they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (6:12-13). Nice job! And now they’re back again. And Jesus does something pretty pastoral, and pretty smart. He invites them to take a rest. “He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves” (6:31-32).
That just makes sense: down time. About fifteen years ago I was with a bunch of college friends who had gathered for an informal summer reunion at the beach in Maine. This is that group I’ve mentioned to some of you; out of eight of us who hung around together in college, one is a priest, one is a minister and one is a rabbi. We are our own punch line. We usually attempt to walk into a bar together, at least once. At the point of this reunion, we were all at pretty disparate stages of life—some were already settled in careers, others were still searching, some were married, some were single, one or two had children. One friend, G., was in the midst of an internship in Internal Medicine and Family Practice at a hospital in Massachusetts. The coupled ones started to press him about his single status. “Come on, G.,” we chided him. Still not dating anyone? Aren’t you ready to settle down yet?” G. shook his head emphatically, and spoke of his work as a doctor. “All I do is talk to people, and touch people,” he said, “for stretches of forty-eight-hours at a time or longer. When I get home all I want to do is be by myself. The last thing I want to do is to be with someone, or to touch someone. The last thing I want is to date someone.” We backed right off. Clearly, for G., at least, the work he was doing as a healer was absolutely draining him dry. The time for dating was some other time. He needed his down time badly.
Now imagine Jesus’ disciples. An intense speaking tour combined with the work of healing and casting out demons sounds like pretty exhausting work. Of course they’d need down time. And so Jesus wisely tries to arrange it. They pile into a boat and head off away from the crowds. That’s the first detail that makes this come alive for me: how drained and exhausted Jesus and the disciples were. How badly they needed a rest.
Of course, the crowds simply keep coming, and a rest would not seem to be in the cards for anyone this day. So, as Jesus is disembarking from the boat, he sees again an enormous crowd, and he is moved to compassion for them, “because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things” (6:34b). Here’s another one of those details that jumps out as new to me: “they were like sheep without a shepherd.” What about that crowd struck Jesus that way? Did they have a particularly lost look about them? Were they wandering around, looking unsettled and confused? Or did they look as if they were afraid?
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to glean that the life of a first century Palestinian Jew might have been a fear-filled life. There was the matter of being occupied by the awe-inspiring and brutal Roman Empire. There was the matter of disease and, apparently fairly prevalent demon-possession. There was the social stratification that placed the vast majority of Jesus’ audience either at the bottom of the pecking order or off the chart entirely. Life was nasty, brutish and short, and fear was a daily condition of life. Like sheep without a shepherd, the people were living in fear.
Our fear is not something most of us like to talk about. Much of the time, it is there beneath the surface, a kind of low-level, nagging sensation that we try not to pay too much attention to. But it is very real. And we have many of the same things to fear as people in the ancient world: disease. Violence. Uncertain economic times. The possibility of job loss, the possibility of not finding another job after the loss. The general fear of being rejected—either personally, or professionally. Our children’s safety, and our own. Aging, death. The list goes on, and each of us can add to it, tweak it so that it reflects a perfect little map of our psyches. Like sheep without a shepherd, we can live in fear.
Only, there is a shepherd. Here’s the detail that changes this whole reading for me: after noticing that the hour is late, and after finding out exactly how much in the way of provisions the disciples have to feed the crowd (not much; remember Jesus’ instructions on going out. These folks were traveling light)… after all that, Mark offers us this detail: “Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass” (6:39). If there existed any doubt in our mind as to what this story is trying to tell us, I believe this single, lovely detail can help us to turn our attention in the right direction.
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long. ~Psalm 23
Jesus is tired, and all his friends and followers are tired, and he has encountered this crowd on whom he has compassion, because they are like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus and his friends move beyond their tiredness and demonstrate, in as vividly as possible, how Jesus is the shepherd these tired and frightened sheep have been looking for. He makes them recline in green pastures. He restores their soul. In his presence, all those things that haunt their sleep—all the fears in which they live—vanish. He prepares a table for them. Even at his most depleted, he offers hospitality. He is the shepherd they have been looking for.
And the bread and fish are abundant. Out of a few loaves and fishes a dozen baskets full of leftovers emerge, and let’s not overlook that detail either. How many disciples do we traditionally think of? A dozen.
The lives of disciples can be pretty exhausting and overwhelming, then and now. I know that the mountains of details that need to be seen to can make this work feel overwhelming at times, and I know I’m not the only one who feels that way. The details of our lives—and remember, we are the church, wherever we go and whatever we do—can be overwhelming, and sometimes we need a break, a time out, a time away, like Jesus and his disciples were striving for. But I also know that sometimes the work must come first. Sometimes the needs are so pressing, we need to press on as well, in order to respond to those needs. The truck full of tools that has to be taken to the Gulf Coast. The funeral luncheon that must happen. The person who needs a ride to the doctor. The friend who needs a listening ear, and a word of encouragement. Sometimes we need to press on, even when we think we are so tired we just can’t do it.
And this gospel story is telling us, in the same breath: do take the time to rest. You need it. You deserve it. And when rest is impossible, when you need to press on, know that you too will be provided for. A dozen baskets of food for a dozen disciples: it’s no accident. This our good shepherd too, one who is ready to provide for us as well. I think that’s one reason why this is our story. This story still applies to us, this central story of the Christian life with its lessons of rest, and comfort from our fears, and hidden abundance. This is our story, and the angels are in the details: the acknowledgment that life is hard and tiring. The encouragement to take our place on the green grass for a time of refreshment. The assurance that we will be cared for and fed, even as we are encouraged to care and to feed. Thanks be to God. Amen.