No Time to Eat
A Meditation on Mark 6: 30 – 34, 53 – 56 and Jeremiah 23: 1 – 6
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church July 22, 2018
I would not have survived childhood without sandwiches. Peanut butter and jelly was a staple. A BLT without the “t” when I was a kid. (I’ve since learned to appreciate the “t” and have discovered the joy of sneaking some avocado into this southern delight.) Grilled cheese, turkey and cheese, pimento cheese. Pretty much anything with cheese makes for an awesome sandwich. Although I still remember a very strange day in junior high when I sat down at the cafeteria table, opened my lunch box and found a pimento cheese sandwich on cinnamon raisin bread. Maybe my mother was just a little ahead of her time; it does sound a bit like something you might get at Panera. I have nothing against cinnamon raisin bread…toasted…with a little butter. But these slices also had icing along one side of them. I couldn’t pay someone to take that sandwich off my hands. Pimento cheese and confectioner’s sugar frosting should not be combined on the same food item.
Sandwiches. The author of Mark’s gospel also loved sandwiches. Every writer has their favorite literary devise. Mark loved sandwiching critical teachings between two slices of pita bread. Here’s an example:
In the second chapter of Mark, there is that wonderful story about the four friends who tear open someone’s roof so that they can bring their friend who is paralyzed to Jesus for healing. Jesus looks at the man and says, “your sins are forgiven!” But, the man does not get up yet. There is a dialogue between Jesus and the religious leaders over whether or not Jesus can forgive sins. Jesus says what he needs to say about that, and turns to the man and once again says, “your sins are forgiven.” A sandwich: Jesus offers healing, Jesus teaches, Jesus offers healing. There are many, many examples of this throughout Mark’s gospel, and they are unique to Mark. Now you know why you sometimes get hungry when you read this gospel!
If you open your Bible and look at today’s reading, we have dropped out what appears to be the sandwich filling. We have only kept the bread. I apologize to all of you who no longer eat bread, because today bread is what you get. It’s metaphorical bread; it won’t hurt you. No gluten. But seriously, if you look at the lectionary passage for today, it’s one of those “things that make you go hmmm.”
Here’s what we did: we read a little narrative about Jesus and his disciples. He offers them some healing, as in taking time for rest for their souls. Next we skipped completely over the feeding of the 5,000, and as if that were not enough, we then vaulted over that little story about Jesus walking-on-the-water! We did stick the landing on the other side of the story, as they say in the gymnastics world. Jesus returns to healing ministry, offering restoration through just the merest touch. But why? Why did those wacky lectionary designers drop out the filling of today’s sandwich? Maybe because, for today, they wanted us to focus on the bread.
People stumble over Jesus for any myriad of reasons.
“Should we invite him to the party?” We ask one another?
“There’s that water to wine thing!” someone points out. Heads nod.
“Yeah…but it’s just so complicated, and he makes some people… uncomfortable.”
People stumble over Jesus all the time. From his conception to his resurrection, and all the innumerable unexplainable events in between, Jesus can make people uncomfortable. So here’s what Marks sandwich allows us to do today: to set aside the drama and look at the man as he was on any ordinary encounter. Not multiplying food. Not strolling across the water as if it were a country lane. Just Jesus, being Jesus.
So much theology is packed into this chapter: Jesus is rejected by his hometown, John the Baptizer is assassinated, Jesus performs two back to back miracle dramas demonstrating his power over the natural order. Who would pause to look at the bookends of all that drama? Today, that is what we do.
We meet Jesus (verse 30) as he is welcoming the disciples back from a mission trip. He had sent them out in pairs to preach for the renewal of hearts and minds, and to offer healing of the body. Now they have returned and they need a bath! They need to do their laundry (which is Jesus’ fault for not letting them take two shirts!). They need a good meal. They need a nap. But most of all, they need to talk! They need to tell Jesus about their encounters, and in the telling they will discover that they received more than they gave. Because that’s what happens when we set out to “help others.” If our hearts are soft enough, we discover how many more blessings we receive than we are able to give.
So Jesus piles these 12 hungry, stinky, and energized disciples in a boat and they head out across the Sea of Galilee. It’s not a big sea. Boats are easy to spot. The ones who watched Jesus leave have spread the word. By the time they arrive in what was going to be a secluded spot for a bit of a wash and a nap, the shore is over run with people.
Mark tells us that Jesus saw them and had compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.
Life without a shepherd drastically shortens a sheep’s life span: no one to move them to fresh meadows when they have eaten the grass down to the dust, no one to guide them to the still water where it is safe to drink, no one to protect them against the predators, no one to go before them through the darkness. There isn’t one of us who doesn’t need a shepherd. He sees these people who have no shepherd, and he steps into that void.
This word, “compassion,” it isn’t just an emotion of the heart. It comes from a root word meaning, “guts.” It is a churning of the stomach. It is a pounding tide of longing and hope and despair. It is an emotion that leads to action. So Jesus begins to teach them. In Mark’s streamlined fashion, he does not tell us about the content of Jesus’ teaching. Perhaps he told them stories about the realm of God…the story of a shepherd who will go in search of one lost sheep. Or the story of the seed of the mustard weed that doesn’t know it isn’t supposed to grow up to be a tree one day. Maybe he told them the story of a banquet at which the seats are briefly empty (foolish wealthy people being too busy to come) until they are filled by the outsiders, the lost, the forgotten.
He teaches them, so that they might be – well, sheep in shepherds’ clothing – so to speak. It is possible, Jesus knows, to be both sheep and shepherd. We all are in need of shepherding, but we are also called to be shepherds. For this reason Jesus teaches them.
He knows that the world is too full of leaders who have no desire to be shepherds. He knows the writing of the prophet Jeremiah, who called judgement upon “the shepherds who scatter and destroy God’s flock.” Throughout the history of the people Israel, the term shepherd is a metaphor for a king. Ironic, isn’t it, since shepherds and kings could not be more dissimilar in rank, in power, in respect. Shepherds are the outsiders; kings the insiders. Kings, the very ones who decide who is in and who is out, who lives and who dies. The analogy would be a critical one for any king, a reminder that their own wellbeing is directly tied to the wellbeing of the people. For what good is a shepherd who scatters and destroys their own flock? How will that shepherd live?
Jeremiah condemns these kings. It is most likely he was speaking out against a series of kings who ruled from 609 to 597 BCE. Their primary concern was their own comfort, their own power. They felt no churning in their guts over the plight of their people. No compassion. Jeremiah blames these kings for the exile of God’s people. He points a finger at their disregard for peace, their abandonment of compassion, their neglect for mercy. Jeremiah looks back to David, who was a good king, and looks forward with hope to the day when God will restore David’s line.
Our God, who is frequently referred to as “king,” became a shepherd and walked among us so that we might understand what it means to live in God’s shalom. Regal language is foreign to our ears…but we know the difference between healthy leadership and damaging leadership. We recognize leaders who are in it for themselves and leaders who are in it for the sake of others. And we know the potential that power can have to corrupt those who hold it. There is a word of warning here to all who lead.
In this funny crust of a Markan sandwich, we witness Jesus being Jesus: Jesus walking among the people as a shepherd: healing their wounds, offering the bread of heaven to eat and living water to drink, showing them the good paths of peace, forgiveness and compassion; inviting them to sit down at the same table with their enemies. He did these simple, ordinary acts of love every day. Walking on water or creating a feast out of an afternoon snack – those things are amazing, but Jesus doesn’t need us to do those things. Jesus doesn’t need miracle workers so much as he needs shepherds. He needs people whose guts ache over injustice. He needs people who will nurture, who will teach, who will guide, who will keep watch. So, relish this Markan sandwich, and let your soul be filled by the bread of compassion, and then go out and tend the sheep in your little patch of the world.
Thanks be to God, for the gift of Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep. Amen.