Because of some wonderful happenings in the lives of our Associate Pastor and her partner, I was the substitute preacher today. Those of you who read the blog regularly will see a few references to some recent posts, though they are in a new context. The passage was Mark 6:30-52. Thanks, as always for reading.
I’ve been trying to imagine what it must have been like to be a part of the crowd that day. Ginger and I stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee and saw the gentle slopes of land that come down to the water. The little lake is just not that big, though the geography around it makes for some formidable storms. I imagine the crowd being about like a good turnout for a Bulls game, so I have a hard time picturing a crowd that big gathered along the shore of a sea that small. I know what it feels like to be as hot, as I imagine the people in the crowd were after having hiked around the lake to keep up with Jesus. And I know what it feels like to get hungry, and then to get frustrated, annoyed – well – surly.
And there are other things. Jesus was speaking to a crowd of thousands without the benefit of any amplification. He knew how to use the natural slope of the hillside by getting the people to sit on the hill while he stood at the water’s edge and let the wind off the water carry his voice farther than he could throw it on his own, but I keep thinking about the scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian where the folks in the back of the crowd while Jesus was delivering the Beatitudes say to each other, “What did he say? Blessed are the Cheese makers?”
Palestine, in those days as now, was a land of incredible need and crippling poverty. The people in the crowd, by and large, were not rich; they did not spend many days feeling as though all the bills were paid, all the kids were fed, and everything was going to be OK. Jesus used metaphors of bread and water often because he was talking to people who lived hungry, thirsty lives. Though they had grown up hearing stories about manna from heaven, yet they had not seen it happen in their lifetimes.
I wonder if the crowd that day was getting restless and Jesus knew he needed to feed them if he wanted them to listen. I wonder what it felt like to be at the back of the crowd, away from any awareness of the conversation between Jesus and his disciples about how to feed everyone. Mark gives us some sense of the frustration of the disciples and of Jesus’ insistence that they come up with something other than Reasons Why This Won’t Work. I wonder how the story about what happened was passed through the crowd after everyone had had enough to eat. I wonder if the folks in the back ever knew there was a miracle, or they just thought Jesus and the disciples were gracious hosts. What began as an exercise in frustration and desperation ended with twelve basketfuls of leftovers. And a crowd that still wanted more.
But the story doesn’t stop with supper. The meal caused so much of a stir that Jesus had to flee into the hills to get away. The disciples did what they most often did: they got in a boat – and we’re not talking a yacht here, but a tiny little boat. Here, again, is the account of what happened as translated in The Message:
As soon as the meal was finished, Jesus insisted that the disciples get in the boat and go on ahead across to Bethsaida while he dismissed the congregation. After sending them off, he climbed a mountain to pray.
Late at night, the boat was far out at sea; Jesus was still by himself on land. He could see his men struggling with the oars, the wind having come up against them. At about four o’clock in the morning, Jesus came toward them, walking on the sea. He intended to go right by them. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and screamed, scared out of their wits.
Jesus was quick to comfort them: “Courage! It’s me. Don’t be afraid.” As soon as he climbed into the boat, the wind died down. They were stunned, shaking their heads, wondering what was going on. They didn’t understand what he had done at the supper. None of this had yet penetrated their hearts. (Mark 6:47-52)
None of this had yet penetrated their hearts.
How can that be? They had been with him when he healed a woman who reached out in faith to touch the hem of his coat. They had seen him raise Jarius’ daughter from the dead. They had heard his parables and watched as he gave healing and hope to one after another. Now, even after watching him feed the crowd with a plate full of food, they still didn’t understand who he was.
None of this had yet penetrated their hearts.
I wonder, sometimes, if we aren’t in the same boat. We need help and we don’t always know what to do with the love of Christ when it finds us in need.
During my vacation last week, I reread one of my favorite novels, Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop that tells the story of two priests, Joseph Valliant and Jean Marie Latour, who are sent to New Mexico to lead the Catholic diocese in the new American West that had once been part of Mexico. Early in the book, Father Valliant says, “Where there is great love, there are great miracles.”
In Cather’s book, the Bishop’s words are prologue, rather than summary: he says the words as they are beginning their ministry together and then, as the story unfolds, nothing dramatic happens other than they spend their lives loving God, loving one another, and loving the people around them. Lives were transformed. People were saved from what they saw as the apparent inevitability of their lives because of the love of these two men in Jesus’ name.
Paul, who traveled the Mediterranean much like those two priests wandered through New Mexico and Arizona, prayed for the folks at Ephesus to come to their own deeper understanding of the deep, deep love of Jesus:
My response is to get down on my knees before our Creator, this magnificent God who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask God to strengthen you by the Holy Spirit—not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength—that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask God that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-21)
And here is a glimpse into the fullness of God. A couple of Sundays ago, Brian Lord told me scientists have made a new discovery about our galaxy. They are expanding our vision of the universe by searching for amino acids in far away places, which would mean the possibility of life emerging on other planets. They found a molecule called ethyl formate in a gas cloud in the middle of the Milky Way. It is the molecule that gives raspberries their flavor; and it also smells of rum. The Milky Way is actually a raspberry daquiri.
The same creative imagination that put raspberries in space is the one who became incarnate in Jesus, who found a way to feed thousands with five loaves and two fishes, and who brings us together here to remember again that where there is great love there are great miracles.
When we look up and out and around, what do we see? Do we see beyond the daily needs and hungers of our lives? Are we blinded by the storms that trouble us? Or do we see food to share? Do we smell raspberries in the stars?
Do we see ourselves as people who are held by Great Love, who share Great Love, and who, then, will also be people of great miracles? Oh, I hope so – because that is who we are. We are people created in Love, who live in Love (even when we lose sight of it), who are called to Love as extravagantly as the Jesus we follow, and who, ultimately, will return to Love.
A friend wrote a song years ago that says it this way:
the depth of God’s love reaches down, down, down
to where we are until we’re found, found, found
a quiet word or none at all
pursues the heart behind the wall
and for those who wait with darkness all around
the depth of God’s love reaches down