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Br. Keith Nelson

James 1:12-18
Mark 8:14-21

In my mid-twenties I worked for a non-profit agency in Boston’s Chinatown. The mission of the organization was to offer educational and social services to new Chinese immigrants and their families. Though generously supported by a base of donors, largely Chinese-American Christians, our budget was always tight. As the director of the organization’s English for Speakers of Other Languages program, I had just finished the long process of completing and submitting a complicated grant application that would give us access to some state funding. We did not receive the grant, and I was crest-fallen as I went into my regularly scheduled performance review with our executive director and founder – a charismatic, successful pillar of the community who had emigrated forty years ago. She worked her way through a long list of things she felt I could be doing differently. With each item, I began to feel a gathering energy of discouragement, like yeast molecules feeding on sugars of self-doubt and inadequacy. When she finally paused, I took a deep breath and asked – Was there anything she felt I was doing well? She let out an astonished laugh. “Everything! Your work is excellent!” I saw her face shift and her eyebrows furrow as she reasoned aloud that this must be a cultural difference. She took for granted that I knew what I was doing well. She had seen plenty of grant opportunities come and go, and had intended her feedback only to leaven my sense of resolve for the future by pinpointing areas for growth. After losing the grant, for which I felt personally responsible, I had needed a different kind of yeast: a balanced assessment that included reminders of my strengths, and her confidence in me, in order to make my dough rise. 

Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?

Those who spend themselves in service of others are prone to hear Jesus holding them to extremely high standards. If you identify with the disciples in today’s passage you may hear in Jesus’ words a very harsh performance review. To be realistic, Jesus has some right to his astonished perplexity at the disciples’ failure to put the pieces together. This pair of encounters – with the Pharisees, and then with one another in the boat – are the poignant capstone in a series of events. Jesus has multiplied five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand. After several more healings, Jesus has multiplied seven loaves for four thousand. After such abundant and repeated display of God’s prodigal generosity at work through him, Jesus experiences some natural disbelief at the small-mindedness of their concerns. But Jesus shares their humanity, and ours. His loving solidarity with them in the midst of their bumbling and incomprehension, and his refusal to abandon them, must be considered alongside the so-called “stupid disciple” motif that pervades Mark’s gospel. Seeing, understanding, and remembering the human vulnerability of Jesus is essential for us as listeners if we are to find in this passage a word of life. The yeast of the kingdom needs this particular sugar to do its leavening work. 

The significance of this interaction between Jesus and the disciples is underscored numerically: this is the third in a series of three boat journeys interspersed between these miraculous healings and feedings. In the first, Jesus calms a storm that threatens to swamp the boat. In the second, he catches up with the disciples by walking on water. As listeners, we are primed for a further demonstration of Jesus’s power. But Mark introduces a poignant twist by placing this adversarial skirmish between Jesus and the Pharisees just beforehand. The tempting or testing of the Pharisees, their defiant request for a sign from heaven, Jesus’ tortured groan (a deep sigh is a little too mild), and his clear refusal all seem to allude strongly to the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness by Satan. With all this, Mark has taken a moment to remind us forcefully of Jesus’ very human struggle at a point when we would most logically expect further illustration of his divine power. 

But nothing momentous happens in the boat this time, other than a seeming non-sequitur from Jesus: “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod!” The disciples may have been disturbed or distracted by the on-shore confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees. Maybe they missed their opportunity to acquire bread because they were drawn into this tense encounter, and when they realized their mistake, they felt even worse. Unsettled and hungry, they exchange words with one another. It’s difficult to imagine any constructive conversation in this particular context; the Greek word for “discuss” used here carries connotations of spinning mental wheels without sufficient guidance. Were they attempting to hide their mistake? Or blaming one another? Or deflecting their responsibility? Or bemoaning their feelings of stupidity? Were they trying to decide who would have to tell Jesus? Or were they wrangling over who would get to eat that evening, and who wouldn’t? When they say to one another, “It is because we have no bread,” the irony is deafening. One loaf of bread is not the same as no bread. One loaf among thirteen people is the makings of a feast compared with five among five thousand. But most to the point: this is not about bread. The object of the disciple’s fixation and fretting is literal. Jesus is concerned with their lack of trust in the new reality he is spending himself to inaugurate. 

But however wide the chasm of perception between Jesus and his nearest followers in that moment in the boat, I do not hear Jesus marshalling shame or blame. Instead, I see a group of men trapped in their own hapless, helpless ignorance and Jesus straining to find a way in – to become himself the yeast that will leaven the dough of their lives until all is gloriously risen. Viewing the conversation through the lens of Jesus’ human vulnerability, perhaps Jesus himself is equally perplexed about what more he might do, or do differently, to help them perceive, understand, and remember that the kingdom has come near. Rather than righteously indignant, perhaps he is simply tired and a little sad, yearning for their calcified hearts to crack open in pliable surrender. Rather than accusing them of failing to see what’s in front of them, perhaps his voice even breaks with tears of compassion as he says, Do you not yet understand?

The Pharisees and the disciples are ultimately caught up in, or infiltrated by, the same basic form of self-perpetuating energy. It is a rapidly spreading, horizontal contagion that begins with temptation and leads to death (as we heard from the Letter of James). To be tempted or tested is neither positive nor negative. Like yeast, its presence brings nourishment or decay depending on how skillfully and faithfully we interact with it or discard it. Entrusting ourselves to the mercy of God when our inner Pharisees demand signs from heaven is to choose the yeast of the kingdom. God in the person of Jesus introduces a vertical energy as clear and clean as a beam of light, exposing our argumentative testing and anxious self-reasoning. The yeast of the Pharisees is often identified, as in Luke’s gospel, with hypocrisy. To be a hyprocite is to fail and fall short of one’s stated beliefs but pretend that no such failing or falling has taken place. The hypocrite has been seduced and deceived into believing that persecuting the failing and falling of others is virtuous. Perhaps Jesus believes that the disciples are in danger of exposure to this yeast by their lack of trust in God’s abundance. To follow Jesus everywhere is to profess with their actions a radical trust in God’s provision. If the fear of scarcity seizes them the moment they are at sea with only one loaf of bread, this is a moment of looming hypocrisy. 

Do you not yet understand? The question is left hanging in the air, and the remainder of the boat ride before they reach the shore in Bethsaida is left to our praying imaginations. I see Jesus wordlessly take that single loaf of bread in his hands, and bow in silence for a long time, before straightening up and breaking it in half, and then into thirteen pieces. Distributing one to each of them, nothing has been mysteriously multiplied. But as he hands a piece to each, I hear him say, “Do you not yet understand my love for you?” Perhaps it is this they would indeed remember on that Passover night shortly to come, when he broke an unleavened loaf among them and offered himself. 

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