Hespeler, 19 November, 2017 © Scott McAndless
Deuteronomy 8:1-3, Psalm 37:18-29, Mark 8:13-21
hen Mark wrote his Gospel – which most scholars agree was written sometime around the year 70 CE – he had two main purposes for doing so. The first one is kind of obvious. It had been about 40 years since Jesus had been crucified which meant that the people who had been there and seen Jesus and known him in the flesh were pretty much all gone or going soon. There was a need to set down the words of Jesus and the stories of what he had done in a way that would endure.
      But there was a second agenda to the writing of the gospel that isn’t quite so obvious to us, but that actually may have been even more important to its writer. Mark was writing the story down for the people in his church – a church that was living through some very difficult times. He wanted to show them how to be the church in those times – to be a church that would be faithful to the vision and calling of Jesus.
      And for me, that is one thing that makes this gospel so helpful to us today because, honestly almost two thousand years later, we are still trying to figure out the same thing. Of course, Mark can’t lay out too many of his lessons to the church explicitly because he is telling stories about things that happened over a generation ago. A lot of his messages come through in the way that he chooses to tell the story.
      For example, there is a long stretch of narrative in the middle of the Gospel where Jesus and the disciples seem to criss-cross the Sea of Galilee. They travel in a boat and, whenever they land in some place or another, there is always some crowd of people that Jesus needs to minister to or some problem he needs to take care of – someone to heal, a demon to cast out or whatever it may be.
      Now, of course, there is history behind that. Jesus clearly did travel all over Galilee and the Sea of Galilee was indeed one of the most convenient ways to travel long distances. But the way that Mark tells the story has a certain  pattern to it. Every time the disciples leave the boat, they are met with an urgent need. Even when (as in the passage we read last week) the disciples intentionally set off to a private place along the shoreline so that they can have an opportunity to rest and relax, they are followed there by huge crowds of people and Jesus ends up having to feed them.
      So the stops along the shore clearly represent something for the ongoing life of the church. They represent the mission of the church – how we are sent out into the world to heal the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked and help the afflicted.
      Throughout this section of the Gospel, the only time when the disciples are alone with Jesus and he is able to give them his undivided attention is when they are in a boat, on the lake, heading to their next destination on the shoreline. There Jesus takes time to teach, correct and demonstrate the gospel to the disciples. Some amazing things happen on those crossings – the stormy winds are stilled, Jesus goes walking on the water – but it is all just for the sake and the edification of the disciples.
      So if the stops along the shoreline represent the external ministry of the church, the crossings represent the internal Christian life of the church. It represents what happens when the church withdraws from the world for a little while to learn and grow together. In modern terms, it represents what happens for us in the church today when we gather on Sunday mornings to worship, pray and support each other. This is something that has been recognized for a long time. It is one reason why this part of the church – the main part where the people sit – is often called the “nave,” which comes from the Latin word for a boat. That idea is taken from that notion that Jesus and the disciples in a boat on the Sea of Galilee is a picture of what the church is supposed to be.
      And that means that when Mark wrote this, he wanted the churches he was writing for to pay special attention to what happened and what was said on those Galilean lake crossings – to expect to find a message for how the church ought to be together. And if they were supposed to find a message there, maybe there is a message that would apply to us as well.
      For example, on one of these many crossing Jesus apparently just spoke up out of the blue and said, Watch out – beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” And it was, to be fair, an odd thing for someone to say for no apparent reason, so it certainly is understandable that this left the disciples kind of bewildered and wondering what sort of beverages made with the aid of yeast Jesus might have been imbibing.
      I have thought a fair bit about what Jesus might have meant by that odd saying. I have decided that what he actually meant wasn’t all that hard to understand. You see Jews, from ancient times, had a certain taboo against yeast. Yes, yeast was very useful for making things like bread and wine, but it was also something that, in that climate, could get into all kinds of things and be very destructive. So Jews generally saw it as an unclean thing and that was one reason why, during Passover time, they ate bread made without yeast. So when Jesus talks about dangerous yeast, he is clearly talking about something that might infiltrate the church and take it away from what it needed to be.
      The threats that Jesus identifies as possibly infiltrating and leading the church astray are “the Pharisees” and “Herod.” These represent two key worldly powers in Jesus’ world. Herod, the king, represents secular power and the Pharisees represent religious power and authority. The threat, clearly, is that the church might get sucked into the agenda of the power systems in this world – that we begin to forget what our mission is in a quest to just keep on the right side of this world’s powers.
      If that is what Jesus is warning against, then it is certainly a prescient warning because, as I reflect on the history of the church, this is a problem that we have run into again and again down through the years. When, three centuries after the time of Jesus, the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, the church suddenly had access to secular power that it could previously only dream of.
      There were benefits to this power, of course. The church could build magnificent buildings, commission great music and artwork and hopefully influence society into better directions. So the church gained power but it also lost, at that point, so much that had made the church what it was. The lessons of that age alone show us that Jesus was certainly right to warn us that any alliance with earthly power can lead the church in directions that may not fit the original vision of what was supposed to be. At the very least, some caution is needed.
      And if that is just too much ancient history for you, let’s consider a modern example. Our own church, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, several decades ago, entered into an alliance with the Canadian government to do something that both the church and the government felt was a good thing at the time. It was supposed to be about education and about “saving” Canada’s Aboriginal peoples. But I would argue that the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod insidiously infiltrated any good intentions that there were in that project and, as a result, so much evil was committed against Canada’s indigenous families that it has proved nearly impossible to even document. So, there again, would it not have been wise to pay some heed to Jesus’ warning about yeast?
      But there is an even more contemporary example than that. This morning a letter from a number of church leaders in Alabama was published. They were voicing their support for Roy Moore – a man who it is very hard to deny by now is a serial sexual assaulter and molester of underage women – in the upcoming Senate election. There is great evil in such an endorsement. It will do a great deal of harm, in particular, in the victims who sit in the pews of those church leaders. So why did they do this detestable thing? Once again, I see the influence of the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod at work. These leaders were seduced by the lure of earthly power to do something that betrays so much of what the church should stand for. Once again, Jesus was right to warn us to be wary! the Presbyterian Church i  ancient history for you, let’
      So Jesus is definitely making an important point that might impact the future of the church, but the thing that really strikes me about this passage that we read this morning is the reaction of the disciples. I can’t find any better way to describe it other than to call it stupid. Here Jesus has offered a worthwhile and fairly clear lesson about something that might threaten the mission of the church, and the disciples totally miss it.
      Now, Mark’s Gospel actually contains a lot of stories about stupid disciples so that, in itself, is not surprising. What is special about this story is the reason why the disciples don’t get it. They don’t get it because they are distracted and they are distracted because they are worried that they don’t have enough bread with them. In other words, they are so obsessed with the question of their own survival and the basic needs of life that they are not open to even hear what Jesus is trying to tell them.
      And let me tell you, that feels very familiar to me as someone who has been working in the Christian church for over a quarter century. Every church I have worked with and that I have had connections with has had a certain level of anxiety about its survival. Every one of them felt the struggle (especially at this time of year) to meet the budget. It is a natural thing to feel when you are living in times of great change and we are certainly living in such a time. But this passage in Mark is there to teach us how dangerous such anxiety is. Our obsession with bread can make us miss the lesson about yeast. Our worries about survival can mean that we spend all of our time on that instead of genuinely listening to what Jesus is saying to us in this time and place.
      Of course, Jesus doesn’t just leave us there. In this story, we see him reaching out to his disciples to help them break out of their survival fixation. So he starts asking them a series of question that is oddly specific. “When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” he asks them. “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They are all questions from their recent experiences with him – questions that have very objective and quantifiable answers: “Twelve” and “Seven” to be specific.
      What he is doing, of course, is reminding them of how God has provided for them in the past. If they can remember that God has been there for them before, the idea seems to be that it will be all the easier for them to expect it of God in the future. But I think that it is telling that Jesus wants them to remember with such precision. He invites them to dwell, not on what they felt or what it looked like but on the specific numbers that represent God’s provision.
      He does that because he understands us – he understands that our human nature often makes us forget the triumphs and the victories that God has given us and focus instead on the parts that didn’t go so well. The negative (even when there is a lot less of it) easily outweighs the positive and so we need to remember specific facts and numbers from the times when we knew that God was there for us.
      What would Jesus say, I wonder, if he were in the boat crossing the Sea of Galilee with us today? Would he be somewhat exasperated with us that we are obsessing over bread when there are some real yeasty concerns in our world that we ought to be worrying about? I suspect that he might. But he would also understand our concerns about bread. That is why he might ask us questions like, “That time when your church had to replace the entire heating system and the quote was so high that it scared you, how many months did it take for the money to be raised?” He might ask, “How many years now has Hope Clothing been running with no stable funding whatsoever and yet you have somehow always kept it going as a church?” He might ask us, “How many people ate at the Thursday Night Supper and Social last week and the week before, and where exactly did the food come from again?”

      Now that I come to think of it, there are lots of stories that Jesus could ask us about with answers no less amazing than the disciples’ answer in the boat. And if you don’t know the answers to those questions, maybe you should – maybe if we all did we would worry less about bread and more about yeast. Maybe then we would understand.

Sermon video: