Week of Sunday 19 July- Pentecost 8
Gospel: Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
35When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; 36send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.’ 37But he answered them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They said to him, ‘Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?’ 38And he said to them, ‘How many loaves have you? Go and see.’ When they had found out, they said, ‘Five, and two fish.’ 39Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. 41Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all.42And all ate and were filled; 43and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.
45 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.
47 When evening came, the boat was out on the lake, and he was alone on the land. 48When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the lake. He intended to pass them by. 49But when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; 50for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ 51Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 52for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
The story after Herod's Feast is almost total contrast.
Jesus' feast is in a deserted place, not a palace. It is given for the great crowd of us, not the elite. It is given for all Israel—the numbers five and twelve are everywhere. (It will be retold with Gentile numbers in Chapter 8.)1
The lectionary does a violence to the text at this point2. It tells us the beginnings of the feast but removing the heart of the story of Jesus' feast (and his walking on the water) by jumping3 to the summary verses of healings at the end. It is rather like giving us the story of his healing Jairus' daughter but leaving out the story of the bleeding woman. Essentially, the lectionary gives us a Markan sandwich without the meat; it's a shell of a story, a pie crust with no pie.
After Herod's feast we see people taking John's body to a tomb. Herod's feast leads to death. With one more dead prophet, the crowd is left again like a sheep without a shepherd. God's voice to them has been silenced once more.
But in Jesus they sense a great hope, and gather round him, running ahead round the lake to get there before him. They "recognised him." It's important to understand the story in terms of its symbols, rather than see the literal impossibilities here— without phones and internet, how can the surrounding towns even know he is crossing the lake? Without cars, how can they take the longer path and get there first?
In the world of symbol, which we have so often forgotten, the story tells us the people know a sailor of the lake has come among them. They sense that he is someone who is able to chart the dangerous waters of spirit. They know that this place is desert for them— a deserted place— a strange country where they are like sheep without a shepherd, and a people without food. And by the time of Mark, they know that Jesus is calling them into the boat with him; this is the journey of the church. (Mark means us to remember the storm at 4:35) Being in the boat with Jesus is the defining journey that the church is called to undertake; like the Jesus Mark so carefully draws for us, we are called to live on and around the lake.
The lake is the life of spirit. The lake is the symbol of our interior relationship with God. It is our connection with the wider reality of existence beyond the mere material. If we do not live around the lake, if we do not cross over it, and even sometimes at night, then our lives will be desert indeed. If our friends and neighbours cannot smell the lake and its fish upon us, they will know there is nothing different about us, but that we also are simply sheep without a shepherd, despite whatever we say.
When we contrast Chapter Six with the story of Herod's feast, we find that instead of being a tale of injustice and murder, this story is about healing, compassion, teaching the way of life, and feeding. But without the lake, it would be an empty story. If we do not venture onto the lake, if we do not go back to Galilee, as Mark puts it at the end of his gospel, not only will we end up with no seeing of Jesus, (16:7) we will end up with an empty shell, or a sandwich without meat.
We still sometimes use the phrase "as cold as charity." Brian Dickey's book is called No Charity There: a short history of social welfare in Australia. Do these words tell us something about church? Do they tell us a story of good works sometimes empty of compassion, and therefore powerless, because they are works in some way empty of spirit? Is this why, in an age of spiritual seeking, people so often do not see the churches as a place of spirit? Are we far from the lake?
Jesus' feast accepts everybody: the great crowd comes. They are all fed. There is food left over. And with and around the feeding, they are taught. You can almost hear the priest saying, as she brings the broken bread, "Remember what we are doing here. Remember what this is, what it means."
Mark tells us "what this is" in the story: five loaves and two fish. Five— the bread— is the number for Torah. We are to be fed in the traditions of God from which we have grown. And fish. Fish is food from the lake.
I remember venturing alone into lucid dreaming seeking, I now realise, to provoke images of spirit, wanting to control how I would enter the world of spirit. A still wet fish was slapped onto a wooden board before me with a reality that smacked me out of my naivety. "Do you think you can eat fish without bread?" Those words were unspoken, but the message was clear. This was no place to venture unprepared and alone, without bread.
In 2 Baruch 29:3-6 we see the two fish:
And it shall come to pass when all is accomplished that was to come to pass in those parts, that the Messiah shall then begin to be revealed. And Behemoth shall be revealed from his place and Leviathan shall ascend from the sea, those two great monsters which I created on the fifth day of creation, and shall have kept until that time; and then they shall be for food for all that are left. The earth also shall yield its fruit ten-thousandfold and on each (?) vine there shall be a thousand branches, and each branch shall produce a thousand clusters, and each cluster produce a thousand grapes, and each grape produce a cor of wine. And those who have hungered shall rejoice: moreover, also, they shall behold marvels every day.
In Psalm 74:14 the NRSV notes a variant reading of the Hebrew:
4 You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you gave him as food for the people of the wilderness. (Quoted also here)
We shall even eat Leviathan, but only when we eat the bread of Jesus. Without the bread, Leviathan may eat us.
The feast is described in the language of the great feast expected when Messiah comes:
39Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. (6:39-40)
It's the green grass where the shepherd leads us beside still waters. (Psalm 23) Sitting in hundreds and fifties is the language of the Exodus people as they travel the wilderness (Exodus 18:25). There we will be fed. Bread and fish. And in the wilderness— in the presence of mine enemies, the old translations said. This is not a feast for palaces. It does not happen there.
Could we say bread without fish is only half the feast? That food without spirit is empty, leading to something as cold as charity?
At the end of the story we also see that Mark has also described the communion feast, "not just bread, not just wine, but your very self…." (The Iona Liturgy)
The hungry people who came seeking are taught and fed. "And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed." (6:56)
The power has come because he gave of himself; he had compassion for them. (6:34) Compassion demands we give of ourselves, otherwise we do only cold charity, which is powerless.
And the power came because he was on the lake. Remember the story of the storm in chapter 4. Jesus has taught the crowd on the edges of the lake. When he crosses over, the dark forces of reality which live in the lake rise up against him, and are quelled. His teaching is a teaching which has power. And when a whole legion of evil rise up against him in the place of the dead, he drives it back into the lake. (The pigs.)
Now, in Chapter Six, after this giving of himself to feed the crowd, he demonstrates just how great the power of compassion can be. He walks on the lake— as we might say today, he owns it. What more could you do!? Rise from the dead, perhaps?
Yet even he gets back into the boat.
What are we to make of all this, we modern folk so run aground that the material world sometimes seems our only reality? How can we enter spirit? How can all this talk of symbols be anything other than a fantasy? Is it even real?
We place lake life at our centre.
In my congregation we stand around the communion table. We are old. Some of us must sit in the front pew, or lean against walkers. Even the young among us carry old pain. We are incredibly damaged. I wonder how some of us have survived. Some of us weep. Grief and pain is plain to see. The stories I hear almost overwhelm me.
We eat and drink together, we who long to be held, can't bear to be touched, and who sometimes smell terrible. We act out that story of the feeding. We eat in the wilderness and the desert place. We rehearse the giving of ourselves to each other so that we can then give to others. We are humbled by our limitations; being so close to each other shows us plainly how little we are able to love. As the preacher, I am humiliated to have used such large words and yet have such little faith in living them out.
But something in us is fed. David Tacey says of meeting spirit that "the old language is dead, but the new language, as yet, lacks conviction." (The Darkening Spirit Chapter 1) I think we are gaining conviction. When we live out the Eucharist, the feast of Jesus, the lake becomes real. The symbols convince us because we are finding they have content, and perhaps more than we dared hope. Our being together and daring to care for each other shows us just how much we are in the wilderness, but at the same time it feeds us.
Jesus feast is leading us to life.
This is a grounding of the symbols of spirit not so much in liturgical practice as in actual caring. Bluntly put: you have to care to stand that close together. The liturgy is a real doing, more than the saying of words. And by so doing, the liturgy and its symbols become meaning-full. The language gains conviction. Spirit becomes real, transcending ego and the merely material. The heart is drawn into something deeper, something which although not definable, is real.
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