Communion at Christchurch, Felixstowe
10am – 21 July 2018
Bible Reading: Mark 6:30-44 (NRSVA)
The Gospel of Mark is a frustrating Gospel.
The shortest of all Gospels it seems to be full of missing bits and pieces.
When Jesu heals people He tells them to keep quiet about it.
When Jesus tells parables listeners are left with only the small beer of the Parable of the Sower and the story of the Mustard Tree and leaving us hungry for more.
And at the end of the Gospel we are even cheated out of the Resurrection and are left only with frightened women running away from an empty tomb.
But perhaps the worst ting about Mark’s gospel for expository preaching is that it contains no explicit teaching by Jesus!
John has the long High Priestly Prayer of Jesus in the Upper Room.
Matthew has the magnificent Sermon on the Mount in Chapters 5-7, where Jesus lays out 8 Beatitudes to fulfil the 10 Commandments.
Even Luke has the shorter ‘Sermon on the Plain’ where Jesus matches ‘Blessings’ with ‘Woe to yous’.
Mark has no single record of Jesus’ actual teachings about how to live the life of faith.
Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of moments where Jesus is shown to be a teacher, and a tireless one at that.
Look at our reading today, Jesus and his disciples have crossed over the lake for a little R&R, some prayer time, and chance to grab a bite to eat. The people still follow him so he ‘begins to teach them many things’.
What does He teach them? We have no idea! We are simply told that he taught them until it grew late.
All we know about this teaching of Jesus on the other side of the lake is that it took all day and the hungry and tired disciples and listeners were even more hungrier and ‘tireder’ than they were at the beginning of the day.
You know John Mark you could have made a preacher’s job just a tad easier by putting one or two hints about what Jesus actually said! But no, he shows us a Jesus who teaches us by using emptiness.
In Mark’s gospel Jesus seems to run on emptiness.
Jesus sends his disciples out to tell the good news with nothing to their name – which may be why your Rural Dean ‘wears only sandals’.
When they and He are empty He carries on teaching people who ‘like sheep without a shepherd’ have empty hearts.
And then, seeing that the crowd is hungry he turns to his tired out and empty disciples and says, ‘you give them something to eat’.
Yet more emptiness, but this time it gets serious because he is calling them to fill others up while they are empty and hungry themselves.
The excuses come thick and fast;
‘Send them away’ echoing the same words they use when mummies bring their babies to Jesus.
‘We haven’t got (or perhaps won’t spend?) 200 Denarii to rub together’
‘We’ve only got this small bag meal, five loaves and two fish… which we had hoped to eat quietly amongst ourselves’
‘You give them something to eat.’
So they hand over the little that they have, find themselves empty again, and, Lo, 5 000 are fed and there is enough bread and fishes left over to open a bakery and a fishmonger.
Have you ever noticed that miracles seem to happen most often amongst people who have given all and have come to the end of their resources?
How do you respond to God’s call when you are empty and tired out?
Please don’t tell the archdeacon but there have been times when this vicar has been that tired and empty that my response has been to hide in my study leaving my beloved wife to answer the doorbell, rung
persistently and annoyingly by one of our regular wayfarers.
Mind you, the last time I did that, not only had she invited him in to the vicarage, but when I peaked out of the study I found him eating my Sunday lunch and at the same time complaining to me about how vicars earn far too much money.
Lessons in humility are never easy!
In a church that is in vacancy, having to find crumbs to nourish you Sunday by Sunday from any passing minister, perhaps you may, like the crowd on the other side of the lake feel, ‘like sheep without a shepherd’.
Wondering how you will cope with a 200 denarii task when you’ve only got five loaves and two fish between you?
Anxious to keep everything going for the glory of God and the furthering of the gospel but uncertain how to make ends meet.
The willing horses are perhaps preparing for another flogging. Some faithful servants, having had their hearts seered previously, may be thinking about setting necessary boundaries as to how much extra help
they can offer. Others will be, literally, like sheep without a shepherd and do what shepherdless sheep the world over do. Which is to wander away…
What can we do differently to turn this ‘empty time’ into a home for miracles?
Let’s look again at what Jesus did.
Firstly, Know the need for prayer and rest.
Jesus, after his disciples had worn themselves out emptying themselves told them, ‘Come Ye Apart and Rest Awhile’.
When we were in South Africa standing up to Apartheid was hard wearing work and to recover both of us used to spend an occasional weekend at a place called
CYARA (Come Ye Apart and Rest Awhile) on the banks of the Hartebeespoort Dam. If we didn’t we would have become withered and dry in the Lord’s service and need ministry instead of being able to minister.
If Jesus needed down time, so do we.
Whatever you do during this time of vacancy make sure you do more prayer and more reflection.
Secondly, Remember that you are not ‘the’ shepherd, and even when another minister does arrive, they will not be the shepherd either.
Jesus is the Shepherd and if we want to keep the sheep well fed and together in one flock during this ‘empty’ time everyone, like a faithful sheepdog, will need to diligently keep their eyes fixed firmly on the Good Shepherd.
May I strongly recommend, (and this be good fuel for home groups, bible study or even an away day) the reading of Philip Keller’s excellent little book, ‘Lessons from a Sheepdog’?
It is good for anyone to read to help them on the journey of faith but I would say it is essential reading for any who minister to other members of the Body of Christ, be you
coffee server or worship leader, preacher or administrator.
Thirdly (and almost finally), don’t be frightened of letting go of what you’ve been holding on to.
Jesus may not be expecting you to offer the whole 200 denarii (though when Adey Wolton comes to visit you, you
will be able to see what God does with someone who does give everything away for God) but God will look at our small bag meals of loaves and fish and nudge us with the words ‘you give them something to eat.’
When we first retuned to England the parishes I served in had a longing for youth work but no plan for it nor any budget for it. Another member of the team and I decided to run regular summer holiday clubs. We were told outright that we couldn’t because the Team Council would not pay for them. We went ahead and ran them anyway paying
fairly larger amounts out of our own pockets.
You can guess what happened can’t you? Because we were generous those receiving the ministry – the parents of the children and young people where generous in return and not only were we repaid in full but every time we ran a holiday club we made a profit which went to prime the pump for the next event!
The two of us developed a simple motto to describe
how to budget for youth work, ‘If you give what you’ve got you’ll receive what you need.’
If you give what you’ve got you’ll receive what you need.’ Works for more than just managing money. In many churches a time of vacancy is often a time of growth simply because, as the South Africans say, people
‘pull together’. Learn to ‘Let go and let God’.
Remember it is amongst those who stand before God with empty hands that miracles happen most often.
And finally, two quotes from spiritual authors.
Theresa of Avila, a Spanish nun in the mid 15th Century, had this to say about uncertain futures and times of emptiness. ‘The darkness is the only safe place, for it is only when we cannot see the way ahead that we
will allow ourselves to be led into the light, if we think we can see the way we will be tempted to follow our own path’.
Learn to be comfortable with feelings of emptiness and uncertainty, after all God can only fill hands that are open and empty not those that are full and clenched.
The second quote is from Vicky Beeching’s newly published autobiography Undivided.
Out of much personal pain and uncertainty she writes,
‘Honest faith begins with surrender and matures into wonder’.
When, as a church you find yourselves out of energy and exhausted, (and in most vacancies that is a certainty) then is a good time to surrender.
A picture of Wiley Coyote describes a little how I have
come to see faith.
I used to think faith was about filling myself up with knowledge, learning bible verses by heart, being able to argue theological points and having an answer for everything. All of this I did so that I would have more
faith, a greater faith, a perfect faith.
Faith was something that I had to hold onto tightly and never let go in case I fell and was lost.
Wonderfully, over the last 15 years or so I have come to see that faith is not so much about struggling to hold on but to realise that it is about being held in the arms of my beloved Maker.
Like Wiley Coyote when the ground is missing from under me, I find myself falling. However instead of finding myself spread-eagled on the tarmac at the bottom of the canyon (with a Road Runner beeping in my ear) I find I am held,
healed, fed, restored, and enabled to try again for God.
Beloved, the time ahead will not always be easy, but then miracles are not two a penny and do not come without someone giving up the five loaves and two fish they are clinging onto. But just because it will not be a joyride does not mean that you will not, as you open your hands and
empty your hearts for love of the One who loves us Best, that you will not find joy, and that an exceeding great joy.
God give you peace my sisters, my brothers. Amen.
© Andrew Dotchin 2018