The Middle Part

7/19/09
Mk. 6:30-34,53-56

“I was born about ten thousand years ago. And there is very, very little I don’t know. I saw Peter, Paul and Moses playing ring around the roses, and I’ll bop the guy who says it isn’t so.

I saw Adam and Eve go through the garden door. I was Adam and Eve and a whole lot more. Through the bushes I was peak’n at the apple they was eat’n, and I’ll swear that I’m the guy that ate the core.” (Source unknown) This week another Bible story.

Two weeks ago we had a passage in which Jesus’ disciples are charged to go through the villages and to preach and heal. They are to expect resistance. Jesus tells them that although a prophet is without honor in his own country, they are to keep “moving on.” The mission of the Church, I said was to prepare people to “move on,” to go somewhere else, be it college, retirement, old age home, or heaven. Last week we had the story of the beheading of John the Baptist. There we looked at the context in which we live, the two worlds of the sacred and the profane, the secular and the holy. You and I are challenged to speak truth to power, which is difficult to do and which carries with it many ambiguities and paradoxes.

This week we are asked to look at the healing power of Jesus Christ, the promise that He brings healing (not necessarily a cure) to our fallen and sinful world and  to our fallen and often desperate lives (perhaps as a result of Adam, Eve and the apple). The lectionary Gospel readings for today are the passages 30-34 and 53-56 in the sixth chapter of Mark.

I am going to make some observations about Biblical interpretation, and then I am going to tell a story and make some theological comments. To begin with the matters of interpretation, I am not a Biblical literalist nor do I think the Bible was handed down directly from God. It has to be read with a critical eye, with historical knowledge and with the realization that the Gospels are compilations of material that was handed down from initial oral tradition. I think that you have to read the material as it is given to you. You have to look at how the various passages play off against one another and what kind of language is used, whether this is wisdom literature, analogy, allegory, etc. What we have in today’s reading are the passages before and after the story of the feeding of the five thousand. The lectionary gives us the prologue and the coda, or postlude, to the story of the feeding of the five thousand. In both the prelude and the postlude we are told that Jesus taught and healed and that the disciples shared that ministry. Jesus is not only a prophet, preacher and teacher, he is also a healer. The lectionary scholars recognize that the material in the prelude and postlude are similar in theme and in style. By dropping out the middle part, the feeding of the five thousand, a miracle story is eliminated. But just as the story of the beheading of John the Baptist dramatically illustrated that a prophet is without honor in his own country and foreshadowed Jesus’ execution, so too the story of the feeding of the five thousand illustrates that healing is a miracle, that healing is a matter of feeding a hunger (for God), that healing is not just something “spiritual” (sacred) but that it is part of the material (profane) world, and that it foreshadows the Last Supper and the Eucharist. In the feeding of the five thousand, the disciples play an important role in distributing the elements, just as they will in the communion meal following Christ’s crucifixion. Since there is almost no food at the beginning of the feeding, there is a sharing and a sacrifice of sharing and giving to others that which Jesus has blessed. The whole story, prelude, the feeding and the postlude, leads us to and infers the sacrifice on the cross and the presence of Christ in the body and blood, the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Healing is part of the grace and gift of Christ. It needs to be presented in physical terms in order to see it in its fullest and as affecting our physical/spiritual lives.

Now for my story. Each summer my wife, Faye, and I spend a week at Booth Bay Harbor in Maine. Our motel room looks directly out on the harbor. Boats glide in and out, are silhouetted against the sky, and the water is clear and chuckles against the pilings. We take our meals on verandahs and never tire of watching the water and the sky. Occasionally we explore roads or walk around what there is of the town, which is up the hill behind our inn.  It took me some time for me to figure out that we were at the end of the bay and that it was possible to cross to the other side by means of a footbridge.  Since there were a number of inns and docks on the other side, one afternoon I suggested to Faye that we walk over and look around. We sauntered over only to discover that there was nowhere near the amount of activity at these inns as there was on the side from whence we had come. So we sat on the verandah of one of the inns and watched the comings and goings out on the water.

At the end of our dock was a very large sailboat, which was for hire. It was skippered by a woman in her mid forties, who was muscular, overweight, and sort of a modern day Tug Boat Annie. I was fascinated watching her raise and lower sails, haul on ropes, and shove around the cargo. Obviously she was rugged, independent and self-reliant.

After a while, a family came down the walk toward the verandah and dock. There was a grandmother, a mother, father, young boy about fifteen, and a boy in a stroller who was perhaps twelve. He was severely physically handicapped (cerebral palsy?) and perhaps mentally retarded. He could barely speak. His head lolled to one side, and his legs were about as big around as my wrist. After the father wrote out a check to the skipper, the mother, son and grandmother climbed on board the boat. The father reached down and lifted his younger son out of the stroller and held him up to the skipper. She reached down and with one motion lifted up the broken child, cradling him in her arms, and turned and paused for a moment looking tenderly at his face. All of this was done in one gracious and graceful movement. There she was, a tough, homely sailor, balanced on the deck with her back to the sun, holding a young boy. I have never seen anything more beautiful in my life. Tears were rolling down my face as I turned to Faye and we both said, “It’s Michelangelo’s <I>Pieta</i>.” With utter ease and the gentlest of motions, this contemporary Madonna seated the child.

Faye and I watched the sailboat glide out into the bay and disappear. Neither of us spoke for a long time. We were overwhelmed by the image of the woman holding the child and the metaphor therein implied. In Michelangelo’s sculpture of Mary holding the broken Jesus in her arms, the <I>Pieta</i>, the artist caught the agony of the crucifixion. In his physical depiction he conveyed the spiritual agony of divine suffering in the material world of our blood and bones and earthly home. The compassion of Mary is more than a mother’s sorrow; it is divine sorrow.

You and I err, I think, and scholars do too, when the abstract is set free from the concrete, when the spiritual is distanced from the material. In the boys’ broken state he represented graphically our broken human condition. In Tug Boat Annie’s graceful graciousness and compassion, she hinted at the divine grace and compassion that has been implanted in the human race since the time of the Garden of Eden.

To read of the teaching and healing that Jesus and the disciples did, and to leave out the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, is to leave us spiritually poorer. When taken as a whole, the prelude, the material feeding and the postlude, we have a passage that is loaded with connotations, inferences, echoes of the past and fore shadowings of the future. To present Jesus as simply a teacher, prophet and healer is to give us just another holy man. It is to separate the sacred and the profane, the physical and the spiritual. For it is in the material of Christ’s body, His physical sacrifice, that you and I receive the compassionate and graceful healing of God. That is why we have the Eucharist. It is to receive the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, which is given for you and me. It is to receive His sacrifice as He takes upon Himself our pain and our brokenness. In Christ’s receiving our pain and sorrow, you and I are given in return the assurance of His compassion, grace, forgiveness and power to carry on and to be His life on earth, His physical and spiritual body, the Church.

You and I live in a community of grace in which our brokenness is held in God’s embrace. Like the child in Tug Boat Annie’s arms, like the crucified Jesus in the arms of Mary, so are you and I cradled and carried in the arms of our gracious God, upon whom we ultimately place our trust. Amen.