So when’s the last time you were in a crowd of seventy people? It’s probably been a while, maybe eight months or so. Jesus was speaking to a crowd of seventy disciples in today’s Gospel. Seventy people is not a huge crowd, it’s about half the capacity of our chapel, but it’s no small get together either. These disciples were early Christians ready to go out on mission ahead of Christ to prepare his way. These disciples were not a casual crew, they were ready to die for the cause, and some of them would. Starting a speech to such a crowd demands a solid opening line.
“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few” In other words, roll up your sleeves and get ready to work. Jesus knew he was short staffed and the work was going to pile up. There was no time for self-pity. There was no room for laziness. This was going to be tough work.
O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before. —Collect for the Seventh Sunday of Easter
One of the graces of this season spent in quarantine has been the lectionary’s course of readings through St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. The narrative is at once dense and frenetic, while also a source of great comfort. We read of disciples not so different from you and me. People who faced gargantuan challenges and struggled with the solid weight of human poverty, weakness, and finitude—of going to bed each night completely and helplessly ignorant of any of the possibilities that God might give with the sun’s rise. I can only fantasize about the tenor of the prayers that Jesus’ little community must have prayed in the days between Ascension and Pentecost.
We know the rest of the story, and perhaps that can tempt us to presumption. It is easy for us to overlook the yawning jaws of despair that likely followed at the heels of Jesus’ followers after his ascension, hungry for their fear. Tempting them to rely on themselves. Begging them to deny God’s faithfulness. Yes, we know the rest of the story, but even the gift of hindsight is just that, a gift. Yes, we know that in a week’s time God’s faithfulness—however providentially awkward—will be attested by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. A faithfulness, which will change the course of history. Yet I cannot help but wonder what the followers of Jesus must have made of God’s faithfulness during that strange, silent hinge between Ascension and Pentecost.
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?
1 John 4:7 – 12
Psalm 72: 1 – 8
Mark 6: 30 – 44
Those of you who have heard me preach before know that when reading Scripture, my attention is often caught, not by the soaring passages, or the amazing miracles, but the details that often creep in around the edge. Yes, the majesty of the Prologue of John, or the poignancy of the Foot Washing at the Last Supper, or the beauty of the Psalms are not to be missed. However, there is more to Scripture than majesty, poignancy and beauty. There is also the ordinary routine of daily living. It is there, in the ordinary routine of daily living, that God can be found as well. And that is why I am drawn, not to the miracle of the loaves and the fish, but to what comes before.
Chapter Six in the Gospel according to Mark is one of those breathless sections of Mark. A lot happens, and I mean a lot. It begins with Jesus’ rejection by his hometown and carries on to the sending out of the Twelve on their mission, the dance of Herodias and the death of John the Baptist, the return of the Twelve from their mission, the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the calming of the sea, and there arrival at Gennesaret. As I mentioned, in 56 breathless verses, Mark crams in an awful lot of action, so much so, that if it were read all at once, our heads would be spinning!
As you may know, this kind of concentrated action is typical of Mark’s Gospel. It reminds me of an excited child coming home from a great adventure trying to condense a whole day’s activity into a few sentences: and then we did this! Then we did that! Then this other thing happened! Then, guess what happened???!!!
Who is in the family? Who belongs to us? Devastation by disaster is prompting some politicians to reconsider the good of government aid. If for a hurricane, Garrison Keillor asked last week, why not for cancer?[i] Should not disaster relief and health care be provided for everyone? Should we not expect each to be costly and worth it since we’re all in this together? Hurricanes and health care are just two of many ways our country is divided about who belongs and how we take care of each other.
In our gospel story this evening, Jesus called those who were following him together, and he named twelve of them apostles. These were set apart to be Jesus’ close friends, to receive his further instruction, to be powerfully sent out teaching and healing on his behalf.
Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishermen. While washing their nets lakeside, Jesus had come along with a crowd. He asked for a boat from which to speak. Then Jesus said: “Put out into deep water and let out your nets.” Simon said: We’ve been out all night and caught nothing! Yet if you say so, I’ll try. Suddenly there were so many fish, Simon had to yell for other boats to help. The boats began to sink because of the fish. Seeing this, Simon Peter fell at Jesus’ knees and said: “Go away, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Jesus said: “Don’t be afraid. From now on, you’ll be catching people.” Simon, Andrew, James, and John then left everything and followed Jesus.[ii]
Last week I had been thinking ahead about today’s sermon. One night I dreamed that I was working on this sermon. In that dream I was told that I would find the message that I should preach at the end of the Gospel reading, and that it would be about light, or enlightenment. The next day I read through the Gospel for today and found that the last verse of today’s Gospel could be seen as an example of the enlightening of the 3 Disciples with Jesus, Peter, James, and John.
I am impressed by many who cry out to Jesus for help. People in the Bible including blind Bartimaeus who shouts louder and louder when he hears Jesus is nearby; the woman who works her way through the crowd and reaches out to touch Jesus’ clothes; the small group who climb up on a roof to lower their friend in front of Jesus, and the centurion who says: “If you just say the word, my servant will be healed.” Jesus healed them and commended them for their faith. 1
In contrast, Jesus’ own disciples are embarrassing and uncomfortably familiar. They spend lots of time with Jesus, see the miracles, witness healing. Yet when a storm rises up, when life gets rough and tough, the disciples freeze in fear. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”