Friday, August 2nd, 2019, 6:00 p.m.
Augustana Chapel, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
Texts: Isaiah 42:5-9 | Romans 12:9-13 | Mark 6:30-44
Preached on the occasion of the ordination of Mathew Berger to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament.
There’s a piece of advice that I have heard on several occasions from pastors who are wiser and more experienced than I. It is a piece of advice that I have resented, and successfully ignored. But then, unfortunately, Mathew invited me to preach on this particular gospel text for his ordination, so now I regrettably have to pay attention to it.
The advice is this: Ministry happens in the interruptions.
I mean, I get it. On a deep level, I know that my meticulously planned schedule and my rigid ideas about what should happen when do not in fact make me an effective minister of the gospel. Most of the time, those things actually hold me back from noticing the good news right in front of me.
And I venture to guess you have experienced holy interruptions too, in all the various Christian vocations that are present here in this room today. When someone comes over to you at work and asks, “Do you have a second to talk?” When an unexpected visitor shows up and plans change. When something sudden happens like a tragedy, or a miracle… These interruptions are like lightning flashes of the real and the holy, striking in the middle of our status quo.
The gospel is in the interruptions, and that is most certainly true in the gospel of Mark. Jesus’s ministry in Mark’s gospel is basically one interruption after another.
The very first thing Jesus does in his ministry is to interrupt Simon and Andrew while they’re fishing: Follow me.
As Jesus goes along, calling disciples and teaching in the temple, someone with an unclean spirit interrupts Jesus because the demon recognizes him, and Jesus rebukes it: “Be silent!” and sends the person on their way, free.
Over and over things like this happen. Jesus is walking along and all of a sudden Simon’s mother-in-law falls ill, and Jesus heals her.
More demons recognize him, and again Jesus does not permit them to speak and casts them out.
A person with leprosy interrupts Jesus, then a person with a withered hand, a paralyzed person lowered on a mat by their friends—interruption after interruption until so many people have heard about the amazing things that Jesus is doing, that crowds and chaos are following them everywhere, and the interruption is constant.
And notice what it is about Jesus that makes these crowds flock to him. It’s not because of his great looks, or sparkling personality.
The people who interrupt Jesus go looking for him because they are hurting and they want to be healed. They have demons. They are sick and dying. They are afraid. (I don’t know about you, but that’s why I’m out here looking for Jesus: because I’m hurting too.) And in Mark’s gospel it is clear that it’s not just by accident or natural chance that these folks are suffering. There is something wrong with the world that they live in. A system of imperial power and domination and scarcity is infecting people right down to their spirits. And still we are possessed.
So when Jesus declares that he is here to bind up the strong man,
and when Jesus restores a hemorrhaging woman to health and community,
and when Jesus casts out a Legion of demons of military trauma,
Jesus is interrupting the patterns of oppression and isolation and fear that are cutting off the life of the people. The gospel is in the interruptions.
The prophet Isaiah spoke this kind of interruption when he wrote: “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare.” God’s way is interrupting the old way! Perception that was blocked is now clear; those who were imprisoned walk free in the daylight. The kingdom of God is near.
And Jesus isn’t just telling the people about God’s interruption, he is showing them: making them well, telling the demons to shut! up! and teaching them all a new way.
Jesus does not do this work alone. Just before the story we heard today, Jesus commissions twelve apostles to help, telling them to bring nothing: no bag or money, just the clothes on their back and each other.
In fact, the twelve just got back to report on what they’ve been up to.
And, turns out: it is exhausting.
Ministry is exhausting. So many interruptions, so many people coming and going, not even any time to eat. And so Jesus creates an opportunity to rest. Let’s go away to a deserted place by ourselves, a wilderness retreat to rest and debrief a little.
But no sooner do Jesus and the disciples arrive to the shore, then waiting there on the shore to meet them are the same people they left back on the other side, plus more! And I would be real annoyed at this point, but not Jesus. Jesus has compassion in the interruption. The greek work for compassion has this literal sense like: his guts were split open.” The gospel is in the interruptions. And Jesus teaches them until it gets very late.
And now comes the heart of the story. The disciples come to Jesus. “It’s very late, and this is an isolated place.” They know people are hungry, and the only way they can imagine solving that problem is to send everyone individually to buy food with their own money in the surrounding towns. Participate in the local economy and all that. But Jesus interrupts their plans and their assumptions with a command:
You give them something to eat.
And the disciples are offended because what Jesus is asking them is absurd. We’re supposed to spend our money to feed all these people? Eight months’ wages it would take.
But no, they missed the point. As a hint for the future, Jesus is almost never asking us to play by the rules of the economic system. With God, there is a new economy. With God, you don’t have to turn in a day’s work for a bit of bread, or good behavior for salvation.
Hear what Jesus says to them:
Go and look at what you have. Look at what you already have.
Now, if this were a nice self-help sermon, instead of a sermon about the gospel, the disciples would find that they already had enough, that the answer was within them all along! But that’s not what they find.
They go looking in their belongings—never mind that they weren’t supposed to have any money or anything at all with them—and what they have is five loaves of bread and two fish.
It is not enough. This grassy hillside is full of thousands of people: poor people, people who are sick and demon possessed. Annoying people. What the disciples have is not enough to feed all of them.
But watch how the abundance of God interrupts the scarcity of that moment:
Jesus saw what little they did have. And Jesus picked it up, and looked up to the sky and blessed it.
And would you believe that with Jesus, it was enough?! And more than enough – five thousand desperate people on a wilderness picnic, bellies full with twelve baskets to spare.
But I’m stuck back on that moment where the disciples come back to Jesus after searching in their bags, hands mostly empty except for five loaves and two fish. I can relate so deeply to that moment. I am a relatively new pastor myself, having been ordained less than a year ago. And let me tell you, in a few short months there have already been plenty of times I have reached into my pastor purse and come up short.
Jesus asks me to look and see what I already have?! Okay, here we go:
I have an M.Div. degree that I barely passed
a couple years experience in Chicago
enough Biblical knowledge to know I don’t know much about the Bible
just enough anti-racism training to know how much internalized racism I still carry
29.5 years of trying to be good enough to meet other people’s expectations
(and let me see down here with the lint and stray earrings)
oh, also a couple crumbs of self-righteousness
It’s not enough. What I have with me, and what you have with you is not enough to do the ministry that we’ve been called into. But here’s what Jesus is about to do. Mathew, here’s what Jesus is about to do in a couple minutes here when we ordain you.
Jesus sees what you do have. All the gifts you bring to ministry. Your tenderness and your curiosity. Your love of people and your willingness to step outside your comfort zone. And all the other stuff, too: Your own experiences of pain and hurt that has you out here following Jesus in the first place. Your failures and self-doubt, and shame.
Jesus takes all those things in his hands and lifts them up. Blesses them. And puts them back in your hands.
You go feed them.
With Jesus, it is enough. You have what you need. You are enough.
Mathew, this occasion of ordination, joyous as it is, is an interruption of your own life. In the months and years to come, you will have new questions to answer, different things to pay attention to, challenges to face.
My prayer for you, and for all of us in whatever our ministries look like, is that the gospel would be a constant interruption in your life. That the good news of Jesus would follow you around each and every day and not leave you alone, even when it’s annoying.
I pray that the one whose guts tore open for the people who ruined his nap, would show you mercy upon mercy and grace upon grace as you lead God’s people in Pontiac.
That the one who silenced the demons of empire and scared powerful King Herod would empower you in your ministry to interrupt evil and oppression in all their forms.
And I pray that every time you sit down to God’s banquet, on the green grass or in the sanctuary of St. Paul, that you would look around at the faces of the people who followed Jesus here. And know that your desire to be made new, that need for holy interruption that draws you back to Jesus again and again, it is enough.
In an abundance of hope, we pray. Amen.