Sunday, August 30, 2015

Gathering Up the Crumbs of God's Grace

How do we gather the resources we need to live lives of of grace, lives that are shaped by God’s love and forgiveness, lives that are animated by the Spirit of God’s mercy and compassion?

A Sermon on Mark 8:11–21
I have a confession to make. I love doggy bags. It’s true. I love eating out at restaurants, and putting the leftovers into doggy bags, and then taking them home for later. The bigger the bag, the better. So for me, the best restaurants are those that offer an unlimited supply of chips or bread.
     When Rebekah and I were dating, we attended church here at St. John’s. On Sundays after worship, we would often head over to the Spaghetti Warehouse. I loved that place. When you sat down, they would bring out miniature loaves of free bread; one loaf after another throughout the meal, as many as you wanted. Now I didn’t exactly stuff myself with bread, but let’s just say that by the time my shrimp alfredo arrived, I only needed a small portion to feel satisfied. That meant that more went into the doggy bag. I think Rebekah was a bit embarrassed when the servers saw how much of my fettuccini went into the bag (in fact, she is a bit embarrassed even hearing the story today), but not me. It was like getting two meals for the price of one, which satisfied me to no end.


Now I begin my sermon with this talk of loaves and leftovers, because that’s what Jesus and his disciples are talking about in today’s gospel lesson. Of course, if you’ve been here at all during the past several weeks, you shouldn’t be surprised by this. We have been reading through Mark’s Gospel, and we have discovered something interesting. In five out of the last six readings, some mention of bread or loaves or crumbs has been made. In other words, Mark has left us a trail of breadcrumbs, a series of clues that hold the key to unlocking the mystery of the kingdom of God. So for six weeks now, we have been following the breadcrumbs, trying to solve the mystery of the loaves. Well, today is the day; today we arrive at the end of the breadcrumb trail, and all will be revealed. But before we get to today’s reading, let’s retrace some of our steps.
     The trail of breadcrumbs began back in chapter six when Jesus fed five thousand people with just five loaves of bread. Immediately, after the feeding, Jesus put his disciples into a boat and sent them to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which was Gentile territory. Or at least, that was the plan. But the disciples never made it; their hearts just weren’t in it. All night long, they struggled to make headway against an adverse wind, but to no avail. So in the predawn hours, Jesus came to them walking upon the sea. He had hoped to inspire them by revealing to them his divine identity, but they failed to recognize him. Then when he got into boat and everything became calm, the disciples were beside themselves with astonishment. According to Mark, all of the disciples’ failures on this trip were due to the fact that “they did not understand about the loaves but their hearts were hardened” (6:52). It’s a very cryptic explanation. What was it that the disciples didn’t understand? And what’s all this business about the loaves?

Well, the loaves in question, specifically refer to the leftover fragments following the feeding of the five thousand. After all the people had eaten their fill, the disciples gathered up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread. Now, we normally think the baskets of leftovers are mentioned to illustrate just how miraculous the feeding really was, and it does do that. But the baskets of loaves signify something more. The five thousand who were fed were all Jews, and the leftovers were intended for Gentiles. That’s why Jesus compelled his disciples to cross over into Gentile territory as soon as the leftovers had been collected. The disciples had just returned from a successful Jewish mission; so Jesus was sending them on a Gentile mission. But the disciples resisted. They didn’t understand about the loaves. They didn’t understand that the blessings of the kingdom were meant for Jews and Gentiles. Instead, they were fundamentally opposed to Gentile mission, and their participation in it. They had hardened their hearts to what God was doing in their midst.  
Evidence for the disciples’ resistance to Gentile mission litters trail of breadcrumbs. In last week’s gospel, Jesus was once again playing host to a crowd of thousands. But on this occasion, it wasn’t a crowd of Jews, but of Gentiles. “I have compassion for the crowd,” Jesus said to his disciples,” because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way” (8:2–3a). Yet the disciples show no compassion, “How can anyone feed these people with bread here in the desert?” (8:4). At first blush, it sounds like the disciples have forgotten about the previous feeding. But they remember; they haven’t forgotten. They simply don’t like the idea of feeding Gentiles. “How can anyone give these people—these Gentiles—the blessings of the kingdom that rightfully belong to God’s chosen people?”
     Yet, despite their resistance, Jesus involves his disciples in the Gentile feeding. After blessing seven loaves of bread, Jesus instructs the disciples to distribute them to the people. And afterwards, the disciples pick up seven basketfuls of leftovers, once again far more than what they began with. Yet, despite their participation in this Gentile feeding, the disciples’ resistance to Gentile mission remains in place. It does not decrease; in fact, it intensifies.

This brings us to today’s reading, which is the climactic episode. Jesus and the disciples are back in the boat, and they are heading back across the Sea of Galilee to Gentile territory. Bu Mark points out that the disciples have forgotten to take any bread; they have no bread with them, except for a single loaf. This leads Jesus to issue them a warning: “Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.”
     Now I have to tell you, this is a serious warning. Jesus isn’t playing around. Earlier in the gospel, Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath. And it so infuriated the Pharisees that they immediately went out and began to conspire with the Herodians about how to destroy Jesus (3:6). But why would Jesus issue such a warning simply because the disciples had forgotten to pack some loaves of bread? Well, it’s because they didn’t forget; it’s because they neglected to bring extra loaves. You see, they are headed back into Gentile territory, and they don’t want a repeat performance of the feeding of the four thousand. And so, they didn’t absent-mindedly forget to bring extra loaves, they intentionally neglected to bring extra loaves. By refusing to take extra loaves, they are hoping to prevent another Gentile feeding. But they have crossed the line; they have moved from passive resistance to Gentile mission to active opposition to Jesus. Jesus’ disciples have been infected with the same hardness of heart exhibited by Jesus’ opponents. That’s why he warns them about the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod. And that’s why he interrogates them using such harsh language:
Why are you talking about having no bread?
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? ­
The disciples still don’t understand about the loaves. They still don’t understand the meaning and significance of the basketfuls of leftovers. If they weren’t so recalcitrant, so resistant to Gentile mission, they might have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. But they are afraid. The Jewish people have been under foreign occupation for the better part of six hundred years. They have been waiting for the Messiah, waiting for the arrival of God’s kingdom. And then it happens. Jesus comes, and the people of God began to experience the freedom and blessings of the kingdom.
      But the Gentiles show up and jump in line. “It’s not fair,” say the disciples. “Jesus, let the children be fed first; it isn’t right to take the children’s bread away from them and give it to the Gentile dogs.” They just don’t understand, so they resist Gentile mission. So in a last-ditch effort to break through their hardness of heart, Jesus focuses his disciples attention on the baskets of leftover loaves they gathered after each feeding.
Do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.” Then he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?” (Mark 8:17–21).
Well, truth be told, we don’t understand either; we are in the same boat with the disciples on this. But here’s what Jesus is trying to get his disciples and us to understand. Both feedings produced an abundance of leftovers. And as we have already seen, the twelve baskets of leftovers following the Jewish feeding are for Gentiles. It follows, then, that the seven baskets of leftovers following the Gentile feeding are for Jews, specifically those Jews who have not yet heard or bought into the good news of the kingdom. If the disciples are concerned that fellow Jews—who have suffered so much at the hand of Gentiles—are going to miss out on the blessings of the kingdom because those Gentile dogs have cut in line ahead of them, they need not worry. The blessings of God are for Jew and Gentile alike, and there is more than enough to go around, regardless of what order the blessings occur in.

But there is a bit more that Jesus wants us to see and hear, namely this: leftovers imply ministry. After the feedings, the disciples gathered up the broken pieces of bread so that nothing would be lost (cf. John 6:12). Those baskets of leftovers—those doggy bags—were meant to be consumed, not by the disciples, but by those who had not yet tasted the good news of the kingdom. In Jesus, God pours out his grace, love, and forgiveness without measure. In Christian baptism, we are filled with these blessings to overflowing. And so, in baptism, we not only enter into the kingdom of God, we are also called into ministry because leftovers imply ministry. When God loves us, there are always leftovers. When God forgives us, there is always extra, because the grace God gives is always more than we need. And so, we gather up the leftovers of God’s love and forgiveness, and we share it with others, and that is ministry because ministry is what happens to the leftovers. As Henri Nouwen writes: “Ministry is when two people toast their glasses of wine and something splashes over. Ministry is the extra.”[1]
     That is such an important truth because, like the disciples, there are times when we find it hard to love and forgive, when we find ourselves resistant to extending the grace of God to others. Sometimes, for example, we find it hard to forgive someone who has hurt us, perhaps because they have hurt us before and we are afraid of simply opening ourselves to more pain and suffering. But we know that God calls us to forgive, after all, in the Lord’s prayer, we pray “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And so, we try to manufacture forgiveness, but it doesn’t work because our own resources for forgiveness are so miniscule. Forgiving someone who has hurt us—be it friend or foe—is like trying to feed thousands of hungry people with just a few loaves and fish.


But the truth is, we cannot manufacture forgiveness; we simply don’t have the resources. But the good news is that we are not in the manufacturing business; we are in the distribution business. When we forgive someone, it is not our own forgiveness that we are offering; rather, we are extending the forgiveness that God has blessed us with in Christ. God calls us to forgive others, but God does not expect us to generate our own forgiveness out of our own resources. Rather, God is expecting us to gather up the crumbs of his grace—the leftovers from those times when we ourselves have experienced God’s forgiveness—and then to offer those leftovers to the one who has hurt us. That is ministry because ministry is what happens to the leftovers of God’s grace, ministry is the extra.
     Now this does not make forgiveness automatic or easy, but it does make it possible. And so, when you find it hard to forgive, when the thought of forgiving someone triggers resistance in you, consider this. Consider taking some time to remember specific occasions in your life when you experienced God’s forgiveness, especially those occasions when God’s forgiveness came through another human being. Reflect on those times and give thanks, write them down or tell another person, for these are the ways in which we gather up the leftovers of God’s grace. These are the ways in which we gather the resources we need to live lives of grace, lives that are shaped by God’s love and forgiveness, lives that are animated by the Spirit of God’s mercy and compassion.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Nouwen with Christiansen and Laird, Spiritual Direction, 131.

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