Scripture: Mark 8:13-21
A police officer pulls a guy over and the guy has two penguins in the backseat. The officer says, “You can’t drive around with endangered penguins. You need to take them to the zoo.” The guy says he will, and the officer lets him go. The next day, the officer pulls the same guy over and the penguins are in the backseat again, only today they’re wearing Hawaiian shirts and sunglasses. The officer says, “Hey! I told you to take those penguins to the zoo!” The guy says, “I did that yesterday. Today we’re going to the beach!”
OK, I am not going to give up my day job, but I did just break my own rule of never starting a sermon with a cheesy internet joke, so humor me here. It’s funny, right, because the guy in the joke completely missed the point.
Around this time of year I am sometimes reminded of a scene from the movie Miss Congeniality, in which an undercover FBI agent played by Sandra Bullock poses as a beauty pageant contestant in order to deter a bomb threat at the pageant. During the question-and-answer portion of the pageant, the stereotypically ditzy Miss Rhode Island is asked to describe her perfect date. “Hmmm,” she says. “That’s a tough one. I’d have to say April 25, because it’s not too hot, not too cold; all you need is a light jacket.”
A lot of humor is based on the premise of missing the point, and if we look at things that way, we might begin to appreciate the Gospel of Mark for its comedic value, with the disciples as its slapstick stars. Poor Jesus is making a serious effort to teach them what it means to live as part of the Kingdom of God and everything pretty much just goes right over their heads.
If you haven’t been with us in the past couple weeks, we are spending this season of Easter with the twelve disciples as depicted in the Gospel of Mark, in all of their flawed and imperfect glory. The disciples do, to their credit, leave everything to follow Jesus, and they do do some of God’s work along the way – they just also spend plenty of time quaking in their boots when they’re supposed to be trusting Jesus, missing the point of everything Jesus says, and failing spectacularly at the tasks they are supposed to do. My hope is that for those of us who might not always feel like we are worthy of the title of disciple, there may be some comfort in realizing that the original twelve disciples definitely didn’t have it all together either.
In today’s passage, Jesus and the disciples have just fed a crowd of four thousand people with seven loaves of bread and a few small fishes, and ended up with seven baskets of bread fragments left over. If you’re confused about the fact that I said “four thousand,” you should know that this is a couple chapters after the feeding of the five thousand. The disciples have now experienced this miracle of provision and abundance not once but twice.
After the feast Jesus and his disciples get into a boat and cross over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, where they are met by some Pharisees, always ready to complain about something. This time the Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign from heaven, and Jesus rolls his eyes and says something about this generation always looking for a sign, and he tells his disciples to get back in the boat. So they cross back over to the other side again, and you can imagine that Jesus is maybe already not in the best mood.
Once they are in the boat the disciples realize they only have one loaf of bread among them, definitely not enough for lunch for thirteen people. But Jesus is still caught up in his own thoughts when he tells them, “Beware the yeast of the Pharisees.”
He is, of course, not referring to literal yeast.
But the disciples are both hungry and characteristically dense and they begin to mutter to each other, “It was your turn to bring the bread, I told you to bring the bread. Great, now he’s mad that we don’t have lunch. Good work.”
Jesus finally picks up on what the disciples are muttering about, and he looks at them and says in frustration, “Gaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!”
“Forget the bread!” he tells them. “Can’t you think of anything but lunch? Is it really this hard?? What’s wrong with you???”
The disciple sit there silent and wide-eyed while Jesus continues:
“Remember when we fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread? How much was left over??”
“Twelve baskets?” they say meekly.
“And when we fed four thousand people with seven loaves of bread? How many baskets were left over??”
“Seven?” they whisper.
And he looks at them expectantly, and they look back at him expectantly, so finally Jesus just goes, “Gahhhhhhhh!! Do you still not understand??”
What I love and hate about this story is that I feel like I’m kind of tracking with Jesus, you know, it’s not about the bread, got it, haha, silly disciples! But then he asks, how many baskets of bread fragments were left over? Twelve. And the second time? Seven. And Jesus is like, “Well??”
And I, reading the story, am left saying, “Well???”
And I realize: I don’t get it either.
As I’ve said before, Mark’s Gospel is an invitation for us to see ourselves in those first disciples. We laugh at them until we realize the truth: we are them. Missing the point, messing up, running away, once in a while getting it right: as it turns out, disciples have not changed that much in the past 2000 years.
There are those who see in those numbers, 12 and 7, a certain symbolism: twelve for the tribes of Israel, seven a number representing wholeness. And while that may be, I’m not sure it’s about the numbers themselves. It’s more about finding ourselves caught in a riddle along with those first disciples, which let’s face it, the Kingdom of God sometimes feels like.
It’s like a camel going through the eye of a needle. It’s losing your life in order to find it. It’s “Blessed are the poor and the grieving and the persecuted.” It’s something we can almost grasp but just not quite. What is the Kingdom of God, anyway? It’s already and not yet, it’s somewhere else and it’s here on earth, it’s in us and among us and yet not of us. No wonder we don’t get it: are we even supposed to?
Maybe the part that unsettles me the most is not that the disciples don’t get it, but that Jesus seems so upset about it. Doesn’t he know we’re only human, that all this stuff is inherently beyond us?
Let’s face it, when it comes to understanding things about God and faith and eternal life, there is always going to be plenty we don’t get. I remember in seminary learning about some of the things early Christians fought about: what does it mean to call Jesus both human and divine? Does it mean he is God dressed up in human form like a Halloween costume? Does it mean he is human with some sort of special relationship to God? Is he half and half, these two separate aspects swirled together inside him like a candy cane? (All of these, by the way, are classic heresies about the divine and human nature of Christ.)
In the past couple weeks in Bible study we’ve been studying the question of what happens after we die. Does our soul immediately depart from our body and go off to some other realm? Will we be given angels wings and all learn to play the harp? Or will we wait, sleeping, for Jesus to come back and to be raised bodily as he was? If any one thing is clear, it’s how fuzzy we really are on the details of all of it.
In this life of faith, there is always plenty that we won’t understand on this side of the resurrection. But I don’t think Jesus is mad about that.
Back in chapter 6, Mark tells us a story about the disciples caught on the lake in a storm. It’s not the one Kelvin preached about a few weeks ago, from chapter 4, where Jesus is asleep and the disciples are afraid they are perishing. This one comes just after the first loaves and fishes story, the feeding of the five thousand, and Jesus has gone off to pray and the disciples are on the water, and when Jesus sees that they are struggling against the wind, he comes to them walking on the water. But they think he’s a ghost, and when he says, “Hey guys, it’s me,” they are speechless, and Mark writes, “For they did not understand about the loaves, for their hearts were hardened.”
It seems like a bit of an odd connection to make, from loaves and fishes to not recognizing Jesus when he’s walking toward you, but I think Jesus’ frustration has a lot less to do with dense brains and a lot more with hardened hearts. It’s less about not understanding information, as if the Kingdom of God were only available to the Mensa-eligible, and more about …just…not getting it.
Seven baskets of bread, twelve baskets, it doesn’t really matter; what matters is that the disciples should know, by now, that they aren’t limited by how many loaves of bread they are holding in their hands. They should understand, by now, that God’s abundance is enough for them.
That’s what they should get but don’t: that God will find a way to feed them, that God can do things they can’t on their own, with their own limited resources.
And that’s why Jesus is mad, because if they don’t get that, what do they get, really?
The truth is I can see myself as a disciple in that story, too.
Can you? How many times have we taken stock of our resources, doubting that God can work with what we have to offer? How many times have we doubted that God’s grace and provision are enough?
A few chapters later in Mark, Jesus and the disciples are walking along and Jesus realizes the disciples are having an argument. They’re arguing about who is the greatest. After everything Jesus has taught them about hospitality and service and humility and self-sacrifice, they are still fighting about who will get the biggest trophy in heaven.
This time Jesus doesn’t blow up. Instead, he uses it as a teaching moment. “Whoever wants to be the greatest among you must be the servant of all,” he said, and then he finds a child, and he says, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me.” But even though Jesus doesn’t get outwardly mad, I actually think this is a much deeper misunderstanding on the disciples’ part. The time for Jesus to suffer and die is almost here, and still, the disciples prove, they have completely missed the point.
How many times, I wonder, have we convinced ourselves that something we want is – like wealth, or success, or recognition – is actually what God wants for us, simply because our hearts are hardened?
How many times have we missed Jesus’ point entirely? How many times have we used religion as an excuse to label people as sinful rather than intentionally welcoming those who are labeled by others as sinful? How many times have we become the judges of who is in and who is out of the Kingdom of God, forgetting that it is only by God’s grace that we are invited in ourselves? How many times have we made excuses for not extending that grace we have received to others – or, perhaps, even denying it for ourselves?
I think of the story of John Wesley, the 18th century founder of the Methodist movement. As a young man and newly ordained Anglican priest, Wesley was intently focused on living a holy life. He and he his friends at Oxford met regularly to do all the things they were supposed to do: read the Bible, pray together, sing hymns, take communion, care for the poor, visit prisoners. Then he went to the American colonies as a missionary and failed spectacularly, not just at converting the natives but also in his personal life with a woman he was maybe going to marry but didn’t. And he ended up on a boat back to England in disgrace, realizing that for all his efforts to be holy and righteous, it hadn’t been enough.
And then one day back in London he listened to someone preach on Romans at a meeting on Aldersgate Street, and as he felt his heart “strangely warmed” by the words he heard, he realized that he had missed the point entirely: that God’s grace did not depend on all his own efforts to be the perfect Christian.
How many times have we tried to save ourselves, forgetting that God’s grace is sufficient for us?
Don’t get me wrong, Wesley still believed that Christians were called to live holy and loving lives and to continuously grow in grace. And in fact the movement he built was all about helping people do that. Another way we could colossally miss the point, he knew, was to profess a cheap grace that didn’t actually change us. Have you ever done that – used God’s grace as an excuse to think that nothing was demanded of you? But Wesley realized that it was God’s grace working through us that had the power to make us more holy and more loving – not the power he had to do it on his own.
So what do you think: if we do happen to recognize ourselves in those hard-hearted disciples who so often miss the point, is there any hope for us?
I think so. Because the disciples, you know, didn’t get it – until they did. Until they met the risen Christ and realized that all those things he had been talking about the whole time were actually true, that God’s love really was bigger than all our doubt and fear and denseness and frailty; that life really was meant to be lived in hospitality and love and grace and service.
Oh, I doubt they got it all at once, even then.
I bet they still forgot sometimes. I bet they got caught back up in fear and anxiety and doubt and selfishness. And somehow Jesus would show up to them again, or they would help remind each other.
And somehow here we are, part of this beautiful, holy, imperfect church that they started.
God’s grace really is big enough – big enough even to get through our thick heads, big enough to soften our hardened hearts, big enough to use us in all our imperfect, unworthy glory to invite others to join us as we live and love in the Kingdom of God.