Sermon for July 29th, 2012

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Mark 6:34-52

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.

Hard Hearts Can't Loave

Despite the raised eyebrows and dubious looks I got from Patty Herrera, our Office Administrator, and Everett King, our Facilities Manager, who both work very hard to make sure nothing in the bulletin or the marquee outside is mispelled...there is no typographical error in today's sermon title, "Hard Hearts Can't Loave" -- just a really bad pun. I'll come back around to that eventually.

For the past few weeks we've been following Jesus and his disciples through the Gospel of Mark, chapter 6. We've read how Jesus sent his disciples out into the villages and towns around Nazareth, and how after their hard work and near exhaustion, Jesus called the disciples away to a quiet place for some rest. However, in my desire to impress upon you how important rest is (and believe me, it is important to Jesus, the disciples, and all of us), I may have omitted one little detail. This detail might even come as a comfort to those of you who, like me, tried really hard to put last week's sermon into practice and failed miserably. Here it is: Jesus and the disciples weren't quite so successful (this time) in their efforts to get some rest, either. In fact, they failed pretty miserably, too.

Our gospel text today actually overlaps a little with last week's text, so we read again Mark 6:34, which begins with the words "As he went ashore..." Where is Jesus coming ashore to? Well, it's supposed to be his "man cave," that quiet, deserted place of rest. But let's finish the sentence: As he went ashore...he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them...and he began to teach them many things." Vacation over. Back to work. The disciples even try to remind him in verse 35, when they come to him and say "This is a deserted place, and the our is now very late; send them away...because it's kind of hard to have quiet time with several thousand hungry people, Jesus!"

But Jesus had compassion for them, and the rest is miraculous history. We know this story pretty well -- two fish, five loaves, and over 5,000 people are fed. A great miracle--the only one recorded in all four gospels! And just a few sentences later, it's followed by another famous miracle: Jesus walking on water. While this may not be the greatest miracle of Jesus (it's only found in 3 of the 4 gospels), it might be the one that we most often associate with Jesus.

Two great miracles, back to back, and apparently connected. This is the mystery I spent hours last week trying to figure out: After the disciples witness Jesus walking on the water, we are told that they are "utterly astounded." No surprise there -- I would be pretty astounded, too. But then we get the reason why they're astounded. It's in verse 52: "They were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. Whoah, wait a minute! The loaves? That was like, soooo seven whole verses ago! Why are we still talking about the loaves? What do the loaves have to do with walking on water? The disciples were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

By Tuesday morning (which, not incidentally, is Patty's deadline for putting a sermon title out on the marquee) I still hadn't quite figured out a connection. No connection, no sermon. No sermon, no sermon title. No sermon title, Patty's not happy, and you know what they say...if Patty ain't happy, ain't nobody happy. So Tuesday morning I was driving to the church, praying that inspiration would come quickly (my drive is only 12 minutes -- work fast, Holy Spirit!) when I saw...a rainbow. It was gently bending out of the clouds and coming to rest right at the top of Mount Cristo Rey. And I thought to myself, "Wow, what a miracle." But then I thought, wait a it's not. It's a rainbow. I actually see them all the time (especially in Monsoon season), and if I keep driving down the road a little bit, and go around this turn, the rainbow isn't coming to rest on the top of Cristo Rey; now it's coming right down the chimney of the Asarco tower. Definitely not a miracle.

And that's when the connection hit me. It's the miracles. We have a love/hate relationship with miracles. On one end of the spectrum, we're fascinated by them, Biblical miracles like feeding 5,000 people with two fish and five loaves, and walking on water, as well as perceived "modern day mircales" like seeing the image of Jesus in a piece of toast, or stories about people who have near-death experiences where they almost "walk into the light" before someone tells them to go back, or just about anything that has anything to do with angels, for that matter. We are obsessed with the supernatural, and we desperately want to believe.

On the other end of the spectrum, we are skeptical and cynical about miracles. We have to explain them away. Really, Jesus used the loaves and fishes to guilt people into sharing food they had stashed away somewhere inside their clothes, and that's how everyone was fed. Or, really Jesus wasn't walking on the water, he was walking by the water, because the Greek word for on and by is actually the same word, "epi." And besides, I know there's no such thing as the supernatural, because I grew up watching Scooby-Doo, and at the end of each episode, they always caught the criminals, solved the mystery, and explained how the ghost or the monster or the alien actually worked (it was usually some combination of masks, lights, radio transmitters, and lots of duct tape). There are no miracles. At least, that's a point of view many of us take at the opposite end of the spectrum from our believe-anything miracle obsessed counterparts. And there seems to be no middle ground.

But I learned something else from Scooby-Doo cartoons, and from reading Agatha Christie mystery novels in high school: I learned about "red herrings." In a mystery story, a red herring is something that jumps out and catches your attention, something that looks so obviously like a clue that you can't help focusing on it...but it's really just a distraction, and all the while the real clue goes quietly unnoticed, blending into the background of the story.

I think that the miracle debate is a red herring. Did they happen? Did they not happen? Meanwhile the real point is slipping away. The disciples are utterly astounded at Jesus walking on the water because they are utterly astounded by miraculous things. They were probably pretty impressed by the loaves and fish miracle too. Another red herring. They were utterly astounded for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. Their hearts were so focused on the miracles that they were hardened to what Jesus was really about.

And here's where my bad pun comes in: Because while Jesus did miracles, they aren't the main thrust of his mission or his ministry. If the main thing Jesus did had been miracles, he would have been a magician, an impressive sideshow act. But rather God so LOVED the world that he gave his only son . . . No greater LOVE has anyone than this, that he lays down his life for his friend. . . LOVE the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and LOVE your neighbor as yourself. Peter do you LOVE me? Yes, Lord I LOVE you. Peter if you LOVE me...then feed my sheep. You see, it's not about the LOAVES. It's about the LOVE. It's about LOVING 5,000 people enough to drop everything and talk to them, and then not to send them away when it gets dark. It's LOVING the the disciples enough to come to them when they are struggling against the waves. The disciples were focused on the LOAVES...and they missed the LOVE their savior had for them, and for the world.

We are no different. When we know what we should do, but then get all wrapped up in how it can't be done, how it just isn't possible, or how we just don't have enough to do it...we are focusing too much on LOAVING and not enough on LOVING. Conversely, when we sit around hoping, waiting, praying for some sort of amazing miracle and that God will just somehow solve all our problems for us because we have such great faith in miracles...then, too, we are focusing too much on LOAVING and not enough on LOVING. Yes, I did just make up a word: LOAVING is the miraculous multiplying of loaves. It's a process sort of thing, and we are pretty fascinated with processes. But LOVING is a process too, and here's the difference between them: Whether or not you believe in LOAVING, in miracles, it's a process that is in God's hands. LOVING is in your hands, and mine. It's in the words and the actions we exchange with each other and with strangers every day.

So while it's probably true that hard hearts can't LOAVE, it's definitely true that hard hearts can't LOVE.

Probably not many of you remember an old Christian Rock band from the 1980s called "Petra" but I saw them in concert here in El Paso when I was about 16 years old, and I close today with the words to one of their songs:

Don't let your heart be hardened, don't let your love grow cold.
May it always stay so childlike, may it never grow too old.
Don't let your heart be hardened, may you always know the cure:
Keep it broken before Jesus, keep it thankful, meek, and pure.