Sermon Archives

Sunday, July 25, 2021
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 12 (Year B)
The Reverend Canon Ronald Spann
Looking for Disciples

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We're in a liturgical year where the gospel of Mark is our gospel throughout the Sundays, and we're in his sixth chapter, and Mark, who's the shortest of all the four gospels, is the one who takes the most time to tell about this event of Jesus feeding the multitudes. And wouldn't you know it, the people who designed the lectionary swapped out on this Sunday to take us out of the sixth chapter of Mark, put us into the sixth chapter of John, and go with John's version of the feeding of the 5,000.

As it turns out, this is a hugely important story in the gospels, and we know that for a few reasons. One of the reasons is that this is the only moment where an incident related to a miracle of Jesus is reported by all four evangelists, not only Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but even John gets in on the act. We know this also that it's special because of the timing. Mark makes sure to put this in the background of Jesus having trained the 12 to go out two by two followed by the way that Jesus' profile is beginning to increase significantly, such to the point that it's come to the attention of Herod, and that Herod now has Jesus in his bead.

We also know it's special because the scale of the event. Something unprecedented happened on this occasion simply in terms of sheer numbers that Jesus and his disciples had never experienced to that point. And then finally we know it's special because Mark and all the evangelists make sure that we kind of get the point that somehow this sounds awfully familiar, like maybe Moses in the wilderness and the Exodus manna from heaven. So many things point us to the importance of this moment and I want to invite us to explore the importance of this time. We began this morning with John telling us that Jesus was with the disciples and they go up on the mountain. Last week, Mark, along with Matthew and Luke said that, no, it actually began when Jesus is going on retreat with the 12 disciples who had been sent out two by two, and it was now time after debriefing with Jesus to go get some rest, to process what they had lived together, and to do whatever else you do during a retreat with Jesus.

I imagine they were on the boat, high-fiving with each other, telling wonderful stories of how they cast out demons and what some of the people like who gave them hospitality, and they're looking forward to this time with Jesus, as they've been so busy they didn't even have time to eat and now they were going to get some good RNR with Jesus. They hit the shore and another 5,000 people show up for the retreat. The retreat evaporates, no more retreat, and to the dismay of the disciples, Jesus makes this amazing shift, as if he never even remembered they were going to have to retreat, and Jesus is in the thick of the people. As Mark puts it, as he went ashore, he saw a great crowd and he had compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. He began to teach them many things. He just couldn't stop connecting and teaching and giving them a word for their lives and for their hearts, for their hungry hearts. Luke and Matthew says he also healed them. And Luke simply puts it, you know what? He had compassion. He welcomed them. He welcomed this flash mob of 5,000 plus people.

So now it has taken a very different turn, and Jesus has pushed this thing into the evening and now time is running out. It's getting dark. Where do people in that big a flash mob go at that time of day? The disciples are really feeling the crush. They don't want to come to Herod's attention of what's going on out there in the wilderness. They don't want to have 5,000 plus people to feed. And they say, "Jesus, make them go home. They're hungry." And Jesus says, "No, I want you to let them stay, and I want you to feed them." And so he does. And John says, Jesus kind of teased him. He was messing with Philip. He says Philip, what are we going to do about all these people? When the whole time he knew he was going to ask the disciples to feed them indeed.

So this crowd, this compassionate crowd...Visible to the rulers and to the wealthy and to the privileged of their generation. To them, they were invisible. To Jesus, they were all he could see. They were all he could see, and he opened his heart to them.

That is another clue to the things that will follow, but it's very important for us to grasp that the poor, making a connection with the poor, is the necessary focus of all Christian disciples. It's the vision of the kingdom. The poor shall eat to be satisfied, as it says in Psalm 22. This element of Jesus connecting with the poor and setting a threshold, it's not enough to aim for the middle class, to be sure that the middle-class is well off. No, Jesus says until you get to the most oppressed, the most destitute, and begin to raise the quality of their life and spirit, to touch the profile of the poor. They were wracked with disease, they were wracked with suffering. The profile of the poor is that not only are they suffering physically, but they suffer emotionally and mentally out of proportion to how the rest of us deal with life.

The profile of the poor, there are people, Jesus says, who it's not just a destitution of money or of wealth. I mean, if you don't have few pennies here and there, and a few bucks there you'll get by, but no, Jesus and Matthew says in the beatitudes, blessed are the poor in spirit. Spirit is life. Spirit is breath. The destitution of breath among the poor is when the poor begin to say, I can't breathe. I can't breathe. And Jesus is there to be sure to give them breath, that indeed they can breathe. That is what the poor live day in and day out. We will not get to the kingdom apart from their going with all the rest of us. And Jesus is putting it out there to all who are disciples, to all who would be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, this is your task. To find a way, in your time and in your generation, to touch the poor and let them touch your life.

This past Tuesday, my day began in an online prayer group, where a person, one of the regulars who lives in Rwanda in East Africa, asks us to pray for the children's hospital in her area because they couldn't accommodate any more of the children who are coming ill with COVID-19, with the virus. And then she said, in fact, in the entire nation of Rwanda, they have no doses of vaccine available to heal their people. Nothing. And then Tuesday afternoon, I turned the news back on and it's Jeff Bezos coming from a, how many million dollar, 10 minute joy ride in suborbital space, coming down, talking about, my God, what a wonderful time I had and talking about, oh, I need to thank all of you who made that possible, like my employees, like the public who spends all their money at my business. And that was a hard thing for me to put together that day. The tenderness that moved me to tears when I heard Jody ask for our prayers and then the indignation that I felt when I heard this irresponsible, pointless use of wealth on the part of the world's wealthiest man. I know it's important I think that I experienced those extremes because when you put them together, that is what becomes the energy of compassion.

Compassion is our capacity to suffer with another. Compassion. Passion means suffering. That's the root meaning of the word. The passion of Jesus is his suffering. And so compassion involves the tenderness of sharing another suffering, but it also shares the energy of anger, to be angry at the things that caused that suffering. Those energies have to work together, and we see that in Jesus. It's not only that he feels compassion for them in the sense of a tenderness, Jesus is also very angry about the things that make the poor, poor. And he knows especially that one of the causes of that is the disproportionate arrangement of wealth between the very rich and the very powerful and the multitudes and masses of people who are destitute of such possibilities. That should make us angry as it makes Jesus angry. And then the wonderful event of the feeding itself, when it happens, Jesus gets the disciples together, says, you know what, we're going to do this.

We're going to have to do a little community organizing right now because we got a whole lot of people to deal with. Get them to sit down in small groups. So John, interestingly, his words for talking about this in his passage, he says, "Jesus spoke to the people." Well, actually the Greek word there is anthropos, which is one of the words as an anthropology, as in philanthropy, as in misanthrope, anthropos is a Greek word that means man, but in the sense of humanity. When John frames it that way, it's a nice way to help us see things as Jesus. He sees the humanity of the people. He says, get the people, not the thugs, not the poor, not the... Get the people, get this human family together and get them to sit down, Mark says, in groups of 50 and a hundred. That's how you chunk it down.

I can't fight off 5,000 people at a time, but once they got him down, they saw how many they had. And when Mark talks about that, he uses two delightful words. He says, "Jesus told the disciples to set them in groups", and when he says groups that time he uses a Greek word that means something like a raised flowerbed. And when I was telling Jackie about this at our table at home, she says, "Oh, that would be neat. That would look like a tessellation." I said, "What's a tessellation?" She said, "A tessellation is when you put a bunch of tiles together in a geometric pattern and they all compliment it and they all fit." And that's what her imagination was of seeing the fifties and a hundred groups and then allowed them to get a count. That's how come they knew they had 5,000. And then in the very next sentence Mark says, "And so the people set together in groups", and he switches to another word.

He switches to the word symposium. Have you ever heard of Plato's Symposiums? A symposium in Greek is a word for a drinking club. It's when the guys like Plato and Socrates and all their disciples get together, kick back, have some wine and talk deep stuff together and have a really good time. And in the middle of the wilderness, with 5,000 frantic poor people, Jesus had them sit down in a symposium. Folks, we are going to party down out here in the wilderness. What a lovely image of what is happening, that. And then they all eat. The poor shall eat and be satisfied. I don't know if that involved literally a miracle of the multiplication of material things, the bread and the wine and the fish that were there. I do think, however, that there's a strong case for saying that wasn't the miracle. You know, if a little child can show up with five barley loaves and two fish, surely 5,000 adults could have thought, oh yes, we're going out, why don't I take something to eat?

Now, it doesn't mean that what I take with me, I'm going to share with you, but I am going to take me something because I want to see Jesus. And Jesus gets them together in the wilderness and they sit down and they break out with enough food. I think in those groups of 50 and a hundred, they were rearranged, maybe not people from the same village, but they were all there together and when they see Jesus and the word gets out that Jesus has taken what the disciple group had between themselves and are now breaking up and redistributing it, the people got the message, oh, we can redistribute what we have. A disciple is someone who understands redistribution. We take whatever it is we have, whatever it is that we are, and you are welcome to redistribute it.

The wealth that I want to amass just for myself and for my family, can I, as a disciple of Jesus, come to terms with Jesus' invitation to me to sell my possessions and to give it to the poor and then go and follow him? How far am I in my faith to allow the redistribution of who I am and what I have? Jesus isn't looking for benevolence. There were no underwriters that day to get their names on a program to show that they were benefactors of the feeding of the 5,000. No, the redistribution came from their substance, from Jesus and the disciples and from the people themselves and their substance. That's a miracle, when people can be compelled by the power of love and attraction to redistribute their lives and their energies, to let down their guard.

When they got that count, John says, another word he says, then the people sat down, there were about 5,000. Well, he doesn't say people. He uses the word an here, which is the Greek word for male, as in androgen. So he was very specific and making the point, there were 5,000 males. That is too much testosterone in one place. And it's good, it's inflammatory, it is something that could go terribly wrong in a spark. And Jesus somehow captures all that testosterone and redirects it into this moment of peace, of symposium, of fellowship, something that those multitudes had never experienced in anyone's presence before.

You know, because people are poor doesn't mean they're stupid. And what that means is they saw this has got other possibilities and John is right there with Mark. He understands. John says, Jesus all of a sudden realizes, whoa, they are about to co-opt me, forcibly if they have to, to make me their king. They are tired of Herod. They are tired of the rich. They're tired of everything that has degraded their lives. They've tasted something new and they want to think better. They're not stupid.

But Jesus redirects it because, as he says about John the Baptist, you know ever since John the Baptist, everyone's trying to get in the kingdom and some of them are trying to do it by force. Take it by force. That's not the way of the cross. That is not the way of the kingdom of which Jesus is the head. And so this transformative moment, a male, angry males... I'm a black male. I am part of a population, as is my son, who is the most feared figure in the American scene, along with the Latino male and a few others. Jesus says there is no one who is incapable of responding to my presence and to my love. Don't push them away, bring them close. Don't pull back, you be willing to approach, and let yourself be approached by them. Such is the power and the authenticity.

As Paul says in the beginning of Romans, I'm not ashamed of the gospel because it is God's power of salvation for the Jews first and for the Greeks. Jesus saves, folks. And so the day unfolds and at the end of it, Jesus retreats into the Hills, John says, and all the other evangelists are with him on that one. Jesus makes sure that this thing does not explode. He gets people where they need to be, gets the disciples out of reach in case somebody like Herod shows up and takes him. And Jesus himself needs to come to terms. He needs to pray this one out. What just happened? To go before the father and integrate that experience, and he does.

And then what does he do? Mark and John and all of them, in their versions of Jesus walking on water, don't bat an eyelash. They just say it like it just happened. He was walking out on the water. And in Mark's version, he says that the disciples were ecstatic, using the Greek word, which literally means beside themselves. They were like, what is this coming at us? For heaven sakes, don't let it in the boat, whatever it is. And then it turns out, as John says, they hear the voice of Jesus and they know it's him, and only then do they get in the boat. And then John says it was a nice trip. Mark doesn't end that way. Mark says Jesus got in the boat and says that the disciples were silent because they didn't understand about the loaves.

That is the disciples are saying, Jesus, all right, so you get in the boat, but don't even think of saying a word. They were just too through with Jesus for what they had just been put through, because this was something they too had yet to integrate and let it transform their lives. To come to terms with a redistribution of their life and energy and all that they could offer to God that had otherwise been in their own control.

That's the story, and I hope we can hear ourselves and see things in us to take away for what it means in our age, as people who Jesus calls the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Jesus loves us, and so he says lovingly a truth that we have to come to terms with. It is harder for one who was wealthy to get into heaven than it is for a camel to get through the eye of a needle. Jesus isn't being cutesy, that's real. That's real folks. We live in America whose entire dream is the dream of wealth. And Jesus says, you cannot serve wealth and God. The word that he uses, mammon. You cannot serve God in mammon. Either you will love the one and hate the other, or you will hate the other, and love the one. You cannot serve both.

And yet that is the very heart of the American dream. To love mammon and to muster the energies of greed to do that. And so even those of us who don't want to be greedy, we have no idea of how we have imprinted. I don't even come close to the wealth of a Jeff Bezos or anyone halfway between me and Jeff Bezos, but in the eyes of history and of the world, I am in fact a quite wealthy, well-off person. What, how did I get there? What does that do to my sensibilities, to my awareness? This is a conversion that we have got to go through folks, that we can trust that indeed God will use us, however limited our faith, God will take what we can give him. If we start in benevolence, that's fine. But Jesus wants us to get beyond being benefactors of benevolence.

Jesus is looking for disciples. Well, let's do what we can. Let's do what we can. God will honor that faith. When Blair Osborn got in the car a few years ago with Rev’d Areeta Bridgemohan, she was taking him off to an intensive training in Flint, Michigan about the Flint water crisis that was being conducted by a bunch of evangelical leaders. And Blair told her, he didn't know about hanging around with these conservative evangelical people. And when Blair went, he came back and his mind was blown, and ever since then, through him, all of a sudden we are now in Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood, we are involved with building together. We are involved with Carson's elementary because he saw something, he got a foretaste of something that opened a place in his life that has opened up a place in Harlem.

I have to close with an image of previews. What Jesus got to see that day was the one time, other than I guess there was another one on the other side of the sea, when he would see at the scale that he saw what his mission was all about. The kingdom that was coming, it wasn't fully here, but it was coming and he had a preview of it that day.

I love going to the movies and the thing I like most about the movies is the previews. Don't take me with you if you don't plan to get there in time for the previews. I'm want to see what's coming. I get excited about the next sequel or prequel. I get excited about something coming down the pipe I didn't even know was out there. I love the previews. That moment in the wilderness was a preview, a preview of things to come. It's a foretaste. It's a foretaste that we are meant to have of heaven, to taste a little bit of heaven as we come together as the body of Christ. Church, I invite us today to let those words sink deep in our hearts, to help us in our journey of conversion that with Jesus, we can be the demonstration of the preview, a foretaste in the world of the heaven and of the kingdom that is coming, and even now, is. Amen.