Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Getting It, or Not

A meditation on Mark 8:1-21...offered in worship 2/5/12.


“Do you still not get it?”  Here Jesus is both teacher and provocateur.  He stares down his friends, waits on their response, ogles those twelve anxious disciples.  “Do you still not get it?”

They’re anxious, remember, rattled; they’re bickering because they’ve gone off on retreat without enough to eat.  Twelve of them, let’s say, and a single stale loaf of bread.  Probably been sitting in their little rickety boat for days.  A single stale loaf.  Hardly seems enough for their extended retreat.  So one blames another, eyes are rolling, fingers wagging, others gossip on the side: clearly someone blew an assignment, someone’s got to be responsible.  That’s the vibe in their little circle.  That’s how it is when resources seem scarce, budgets stretched thin.  The community perceiving scarcity is so often overcome by anxiety.  And instead of imagining new ways to feed thousands, instead of envisioning new opportunities to serve, Jesus’ disciples are finding fault with one another.  Blaming one another.  The community perceiving scarcity—so often overcome by anxiety.    

And Jesus, well, frankly Jesus sounds kind of disappointed here, exasperated: “Don’t you see the point of all this?” he asks.  “Remember the five loaves I broke for the five thousand?  How many baskets of leftovers did you pick up that day?”  And the disciples look around the circle, then back into their own little laps.  “Twelve,” says one of them.  “And just now,” Jesus says.  “When we had seven loaves for the four thousand—how many bags full of leftovers did you get?”  Again, a pause, a sheepish, reluctant pause.  “Seven,” says another.  Jesus lets the words settle, words and memories, baskets of leftovers, bags of broken bread.  “Then what’s with all the fussing?” he asks.  “Do you still not get it?”

So often we read this story—this feeding of the hungry thousands—as mere miracle, as divine intervention, right, Jesus against the odds, Jesus against the grain.  Jesus being Jesus, and that kind of thing.  There’s not much for us to do, really, except bow to a wonder-worker and beg him for another miracle now and then.  And God knows we can all use a miracle now and then. 

But Mark has something else in mind, something else entirely.  Parenthetically, this is why it’s so important for us to know the Bible and study the Bible.  Because you read Mark’s whole narrative, these twenty-one verses, and you get a very different message.  In the end, this is not a fantasy about divine intervention, but a teaching about abundance and discipleship.  In the end, this is a teaching about our temptation to turn Jesus into a wonder-worker; about how often we miss the deeply personal and profoundly ethical content of Jesus’ ministry.  Abundance and discipleship!

This is a story about getting it, or not; about following Jesus into the lives of the hungry, or not; about choosing to share generously and trust abundantly, or not.  “Don’t go chasing after guarantees, miracles, holy rollers,” Jesus says.  “Remember what happened out there—with just those seven loaves.”  There’s enough love.  There’s enough compassion.   And there’s enough bread.  If you bless it.  If you share it.  If you bless it by sharing it.  Remember what happened out there.  That’s what this is all about.   

So there’s some economics going on here.  In Jesus’ ministry.  In Jesus’ teaching.  And I want to remind you of the meaning of that word, the roots of the word ‘economics.’  It derives from two Greek words, biblical words: ‘oikos’ meaning household, and ‘nomos’ meaning order or organization.  Oiko-nomics—‘economics’—has to do with the ordering or the organizing of a household.  And Jesus is very interested in how the human household, the human community is organized.  Who’s included, who’s excluded and why.  Who’s deprived of resources, food, shelter, and why.  How are the good gifts of a gracious God shared and blessed, managed and enjoyed.  Life should be a sacrament, an embodied mystery, a feast for all.  And Jesus is very interested in how that works.  Oiko-nomics.  Economics. 


I want to say a little more about that and how it bears on our discipleship.  But first a little detour, a detour that relates, I think.

When our interfaith delegation was traveling in Israel and Palestine last fall, we arrived in Bethlehem in the West Bank about lunchtime on a Monday.  Just about the midpoint of our trip.  Halfway through.  After lunch, we hiked several flights of stairs to a Palestinian Youth Center.  Where we were to meet with a group of Palestinian teens and young adults.

Now, I don’t know what other delegates were expecting, but I was kind of subdued that afternoon.  Bethlehem is occupied territory, after all, and it felt that way to me.  Occupied.  We’d passed through the towering cement security wall to get in.  Young Israeli guards with huge machine guns had boarded the bus to check us out.  The youth center itself was plastered with graffiti on a noisy city street.  And just a block away—one of Palestine’s largest and oldest refugee camps—one I’d visited three years before—a labyrinth of busted buildings and broken glass and bullet holes. 

So I climbed to the top floor of that unremarkable building in a pretty unremarkable part of town—with low expectations.  It just seemed depressing to me.  A world of broken glass, deferred dreams and unending despair.  I expected sad people in a sad place.

And then!  And then, those twelve young Palestinians started to dance.  And they danced for us.  And there was energy and fire.  And there was rhythm and passion.  And arms and legs and elbows.  Young men and young women moving confidently, keeping time gladly.  Their faces alive with sweat and joy and all kinds of hope for their future.  Behind them, a huge Palestinian flag: red, black and green, hanging proudly from one end of the room to the other.

The whole thing had kind of a ‘RIVERDANCE’ feel to it, but something else too.  There was something sacramental about the way they danced, something tender and defiant at the same time.  ‘We know who we are,’ they seemed to say, every step, every move, every beat.  ‘We are the living.  We are the future.  We are—children of God.’  Rhythm and passion, arms and legs and elbows.  It was an extraordinary afternoon. 

I’m watching these kids dance, I’m watching them honor their bodies and their gifts and their spirits that way.  And my jaw is just hanging all the way to the floor and back.  It was like a great feast, a holy communion, abundance beyond imagining, abundance and reverence and grace!  What twelve kids can do with their bodies!  What twelve kids can do with gratitude!  What twelve kids can do in an occupied land, with all kind of reasons to give up, in the long shadows of so many walls.  When it was over, when they had danced for us and we had sung for them, we asked about their futures, what was ahead.  And one young woman, I’ll never forget her, one young woman said, calmly and decisively: “Whatever happens, I will be a leader here.  I will be a leader for my people.” 

I think about that afternoon all the time.  I think about that young woman, living in Bethlehem, dancing in occupied Palestine, dancing with her friends.  And I’m reminded:  There’s enough love.  There’s enough compassion.   There’s enough bread, enough energy, enough power.  If only we bless it.  All of it.  If only we share it.  All of it.    That’s what that dance, that’s what that youth group was all about.  And they made a believer out of me. 

And I have to believe that’s what today’s story, that’s what discipleship is all about.  “Do you still not get it?” Jesus asks.  “Do you still not get it?”


It’s worth noticing how this whole story begins.  The first couple of verses in chapter eight.  Jesus again finds himself in a hungry crowd—it’s where Jesus so often is, where Jesus chooses to be.  He takes the disciples with him, and he calls them together, and he says to them: “This crowd is breaking my heart.”  This crowd is breaking my heart.

He does not say, ‘I’m tired of this crowd and their neediness.  Let’s get out of here.’  He does not say, ‘I’m overwhelmed by systemic poverty, all these hungry children, how powerless we are to fix it.  Let’s get out of here.’  What Jesus says out there, in the wilderness, finding himself in another hungry crowd is just: “This crowd is breaking my heart.”

Everything that follows—Jesus taking seven loaves and giving thanks for them, Jesus blessing the couple of fish they have and handing them out in pieces, this economic vision of enough for all—everything that follows follows from compassion.  Jesus is the Son of God because his heart breaks in a hungry crowd.  Jesus is the Son of God because his heart knows there’s a better way.  Jesus is the Son of God because blessing means sharing and Jesus does both.  There’s enough love.  There’s enough compassion.  There’s enough bread.  Jesus says bring it on.  And please, please, please, pay attention.  Don’t miss how important this is.


This hits home for me, just this week, in a couple of ways.  First, we have our seven loaves of bread, our opportunities to bless the poor and cultivate compassion right here at FCC.  We can throw up our hands in despair, as the disciples are tempted to do, or we can share what we have, go ‘all in’ with gratitude.  But we have our seven loaves. 

Just this week, we were again approached about joining six other churches in reconstituting a rotating shelter for ten homeless women and their children.  And we can do that.  We can step forward as partners with these other congregations and as neighbors to ten hungry families.  Is there any doubt that we have the hearts, the hands, the compassion to do just that?  We are so blessed, so richly blessed. 

Now some might wonder if helping just ten women, one night a week, is really going to make a difference; and I’ll suggest it’ll make a difference to them, to their children.  Every night they’re here.  Every meal they eat with us.  And who knows where the ripples of generosity end?  We just begin with our seven loaves.  We just begin with the choices available to us.  We just begin by giving thanks to God for the gifts available in a church like this one.  Isn’t that the kind of church we all want?   The kind of church that goes ‘all in’ with gratitude.  The kind of church that turns seven loaves into a feast for thousands.

And there’s just another thing on my mind this morning.  And that’s the ordination we’re hosting next Sunday for our friend Yael Lachman.  Yael first sat down in one of our old pews, maybe six years ago.  Her heart was alive, open, even breaking in places.  Breaking in love.  Breaking in hope.  She wanted to believe there was a church, a community of Christ, somewhere for her.  So she sat down in a pew and listened.  And she reached out to share peace and receive it.  And she found, among you, a God of tenderness and grace, a God of passion and fearlessness.  I’ll never forget Yael’s baptism in this very place.  Many of you gathered round. 

And because she found grace here, because she believed you when you told her you loved her, Yael knew she could pursue a dream, her dream of ministry, a dream she’d first dreamed as a very young person.  Her time had come.  So she went to seminary, in Berkeley; she prepared for the call she knew was coming; and then she listened, listened to congregations near and far; shared her dream with them and listened some more.  And yes, just last week, Yael Lachman—our friend—accepted a call to be the Senior Minister at First Congregational Church in Bridgton, Maine.  How about that?  When a community of disciples share everything they have, when a church of believers turns it all loose in love, when Jesus’ friends bring forth those seven loaves of bread, all kinds of things are possible.  In every imaginable way, Yael Lachman is a living sign of that.  A living sign of grace.

So this morning, this very morning, in our hearing, in our hearts, Jesus says to us, to all of us at First Congregational Church in Santa Cruz: “Do you still not get it?”  Sure, he’s a little exasperated, but mostly he’s egging us on.  Mostly, he’s urging us to believe in the power of love.  Mostly, he’s inviting us to see the opportunities, the amazing opportunities before us.  God’s economy! Jesus says.  The economy of grace.  The economy of creation.  The sacramental economy of abundance and justice for all.  “Don’t you see the point of all this?”  Always a teacher, always a provocateur, always coming at us with a question.  “Don’t you see the point of all this?” 

‘Remember the five loaves I broke for the five thousand.  Remember the seven loaves we shared with the four thousand.  Live abundantly.  Believe generously.   Share everything.  Because there is enough love.  And there is enough compassion.  And there is enough bread.  If only we bless it.  If only we share it.  If only we bless it by sharing it.’