The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On May 13, 2018, we considered the reunion that Jesus had with his disciples after their “mission trips”, the feeding of the 5,000, and the power of one individual to make a difference. Our texts were Mark 6:30-44 and Colossians 4:2-6.
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Those who listen to the sermon will hear a special introduction about standing on tiptoe whilst reading scripture.
As we begin the next installment of our walk through the Gospel of Mark this morning, let me tell you about two men of whom you’ve probably never heard. Each is an amazing testament to the power of the individual to accomplish that which we might think to be impossible.
Dean Karnazes is a 55 year old man from California who likes to run. A lot. I know that many of you in the congregation this morning took part in some part of last week’s Pittsburgh Marathon, and so you might be impressed if I told you that in 2006, Mr. Karnazes ran 50 complete marathons. You might be more impressed if I told you that he ran those 50 marathons on 50 consecutive days, and each was in a different state. And yet what cements this man in my Hall of Fame for individual achievements is the fact that on Wednesday morning, October 12, 2005, he dropped his kids off at school in San Francisco and started running. He ran and ran and ran – for 80 hours and 44 minutes, without sleeping, weaving his way through Northern California, until he arrived at Stanford University in Palo Alto, having covered 350 miles.
On the other side of the world, a gentleman named Dashrath Manjhi tells us a different story of individual achievement. In 1959, this landless peasant farmer’s wife, Falguni Devi, died because she was unable to obtain medical care. People in her village had to follow a path that wound for 70 kilometers (43 ½ miles) to get to the clinic. In 1960, Mr. Manji took a hammer and a chisel and started to attack the rock hillside that separated the village from the clinic. He worked by himself until 1982 to carve a path through the Gehlour hills. When he was finished, he’d reduced the distance from 70 kilometers to one – just over half a mile.
At this point, I’m going to interrupt this sermon for a geography lesson, because understanding the whereof today’s Gospel is crucial to our ability to process the whatand the how.
If you’ve ever traveled, you’ve probably had a conversation with someone that goes something like this: “Oh, you’re from Pennsylvania? My cousin lives in Pennsylvania. His name is James… Maybe you know him?”
When this happens, we roll our eyes and quietly judge that person for being a complete moron, and then three days later we meet someone from Malawi and say, “Oh, Malawi? Yeah, I’ve got friends there, and my pastor goes there all the time. Do you know a guy named Fletcher?”
Here’s a quick review of the geography of Mark’s gospel. Jesus began his ministry in that part of Palestine known as the Galilee. This was a strongly Jewish-influenced area that was north of the capital, Jerusalem, and west of the Jordan river. Nearly all of the significant action in the first three years of Jesus’ ministry takes place in Galilean communities like Nazareth, Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Cana.
Even though it was removed from the center of Jewish life in Jerusalem, Galilee was a stronghold of the faith. It was surrounded by non-Jewish areas like Samaria, Phoenicia, and the region of the Decapolis. These names don’t sound much different to you and to me than the towns where Jesus worked, but I’m here to tell you that if I was a good little Jewish boy driving through the Decapolis at that time, my mother would tell me to lock the doors and avoid eye contact. Good and faithful Galileans did everything they could to stay in Galilee, and when they had to go to Jerusalem to worship, they stayed close to the Jordan River and went that way.
Most of Jesus’ ministry, in terms of time and area, took place in and around the Galilee. The deepest parts of Jesus’ ministry, including his crucifixion and resurrection, happened in Jerusalem. And yet some of the most amazing testimony to the power of Jesus’ comes to us from the detours he made to “the other side” – those regions outside of either Galilee or Jerusalem.
Today’s reading picks up a narrative that was left off earlier in Chapter six. Jesus is hard at work in his ministry with the disciples in the Galilee. You might remember that he’d just finished a visit to his own hometown in Nazareth when he sent the twelve disciples out to visit the other communities in that region. There’s an interlude during which Jesus reflects on the suffering and death of John the Baptist, and then the twelve return to him, eager to report on what they’d seen and done.
He sees their enthusiasm, and suggests that they all go on a retreat. Various translations tell us that they’re looking for a quiet, or a solitary, or a deserted place. They get into the boat and sail across the Sea of Galilee into the Decapolis.
So far as we know from Mark, the team had been there at least once before. You might remember that back in Chapter 5 they went and visited the graveyard and met the man who was beset by demons. Jesus healed the man, but in the process wound up sending a couple of thousand pigs off the side of a cliff and the local authorities came out and asked him to take his religion back to his side of the sea. The only man there who actually wanted to be with Jesus at that point was the man who had been healed, and Jesus didn’t allow him to join the mission; instead, he told the man to “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”
So it might seem to the disciples that this was a fair presumption – if they were looking for a little “down” time with Jesus, if there is anyplace that they could go to be alone, well, it’s there. The people in that part of the world hated Jesus last time he was here.
Except that’s not exactly how it works out, is it? We read in verse 32 that as they were arriving in this “deserted” and “solitary” place, they were recognized. In fact, Mark tells us that “a large crowd” gathered there. The disciples, who were irritated and hungry to begin with, take this as long as they can, but finally interrupt Jesus and say, “Send these people away.”
Jesus responds, as you’ve heard, by saying, “We’ll do no such thing. In fact, why don’t you go ahead and feed them.”
The Twelve are incredulous at this point. “Us? Here? How? It’s not likely – no, it’s not possible, Jesus.”
I’m here to point out that this miraculous feeding of the nearly-uncountable throng was all made possible because one person did what Jesus had asked him to do. It was not, apparently, what the person had wantedto do; we’ve already acknowledged that the man who seemingly told everyone he knew about what Jesus had done for him would have preferred to become the 13thdisciple. Yet when Jesus told him to stay put and offer testimony to the work of the Holy One in his life, well, that’s what he did.
I don’t want the significance of this event to be lost on us. I mean, we don’t even know this person’s name – but somehow, his presence in that region allowed for a transition from “Jesus! Will you please get out of there now, and take your disciples with you!” to “Oh, wow! Thank God! You’re here. Jesus is here. He’s really here!”
What is the vehicle for that transition? What allowed that to happen? Go back and scrutinize the events that took place between Mark 5:19 and Mark 6:30, and you’ll see that Jesus’ ministry of teaching and miracle-working was essentially unchanged. He didn’t do anything after 5:19 that he hadn’t already been doing.
But the behavior of those who followed him hadchanged. The one man who had been healed had gone “to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him…and all the people were amazed…” The twelve whom Jesus had kept with him had walked through their fear in order to bear witness to the power of the Christ in their own homes and communities.
Do you see what’s happening here? In this section of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is talking about crossing boundaries and is calling his followers to do so; once they are on “the other side”, he simply urges them to “tell… how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you…”
The one man in the region who had been healed had quite a story to tell.
So do you.
In what ways has the life, death, resurrection, love, and presence of Jesus of Nazareth touched your life?
I know that some of you have had some really splashy healings from addiction, or depression, or abuse, or other form of brokenness.
And I know that others in this room have experienced significant shifts of the heart as the power and presence of the Lord has grown in your own lives.
In any case, the core narrative of the follower of Jesus who has experienced any growth in her or his own life is pretty much the same: at the end of the day, we can look in the mirror and say, “You know, I used to be that way…but now it’s more like this…”
To put it another way, each of us has a narrative that could be expressed by filling in these blanks: “I once was _____, but now I’m ______.”
If you were asked what words you’d use in that phrase, which would you choose? In what ways has God positioned you to speak of your experience in the places where you’ve been?
And you say, “Yeah, about that, Pastor Dave. Look, I’m not really much of a speaker. And I’m not one of those zealots, fundies, or born-agains. I hate to speak in public… I just don’t think I can tell a story like that.”
Listen: bearing witness to the ways that you have grown and changed is not a super-human feat of individual strength and perseverance akin to running 350 miles without a nap or building a road through the mountain with a hammer. You don’t need special training. More importantly, you are never, ever alone.
The charge for today is for you to consider how you have experienced the power of the risen Christ. You, in the midst of your community, surrounded by others who have stories that are similar to, yet not the same as, yours – have had the opportunity to grow in faith. This week, will you take an hour or so to contemplate the ways that your experience of this life is richer, deeper, better, or has more integrity because of the presence of Jesus in that life?
And then, will you find a way to bear witness to that enriching, deepening, improving, or empowering in your daily life? Can you do as Jesus asked that man in the Decapolis two thousand years ago: can you “tell… how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you…”? Share your reflections with someone who is close to you. Be present in the life and worship of this and other communities. Look for ways in which you can take part in new ministries in ways that shape and stretch you.
My sense is that when we are able to do this, we will find that we, no less than the bread that Jesus broke on that hillside, will be far more nourishing and effective than any one of us might have predicted.
What is your story? And who have you told?