A Great Distance

May 22, 2022

Series: May 2022

Speaker: Rob McClellan


Today's Sermon


"A Great Distance"


Mark 8:1-10

           8In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, he called his disciples and said to them, 2‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. 3If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way—and some of them have come from a great distance.’ 4His disciples replied, ‘How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?’ 5He asked them, ‘How many loaves do you have?’ They said, ‘Seven.’ 6Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. 7They had also a few small fish; and after blessing them, he ordered that these too should be distributed. 8They ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 9Now there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. 10And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD. 

A Great Distance

            I have to admit, during my planning when I arrived at this passage, I ran into the proverbial wall.  I made the note: “How many times have we heard feeding of the multitudes?”  We focus on various aspects:  the miracle, the interpretation that maybe it’s radical sharing—the notion that perhaps the women carried their own bread in their tunics, the overtones of communion, a theology of abundance—that in God’s economy there is enough.  All good messages, but they felt tired to me.  Maybe I was just tired.  Then one line, half a line really, caught my attention.  This, incidentally, is why it’s good to keep coming back to the Scriptures.  The Spirit seems always to have something new for us.  Return to it, especially with groups.  It can be a tough solo read, but with conversation partners it opens.

            The line - “…some of them have come from a great distance” (Mk 8:3).  Jesus is ready to send the crowds away, but they’ve been with him three days.  They have nothing to eat, and “some of them have come from a great distance.”  There were no flights.  They walked from other towns.  This was a sacrifice.

            A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine competed in the ironman world championships in Utah, the event having been moved from Hawaii.  The training he did was incredible.  If you’re not familiar, the ironman is comprised of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike with an almost 7,400 foot climb in elevation, and then a full marathon with a little over a 1,400 foot climb.  At the half-ironman he did there last year, someone died.  Over 90% of the people who were in this year’s race had to qualify at a similar race, and 1 in 5 still did not finish, including a guy who had done 37 such races.  Several were taken away by ambulance.  Why would someone do this?  Apparently they have a great buffet at the end.  All kinds of food just laid out.  Tempting, I think, as I weigh what orthopedic shoes to get to ease  my tendonitis.

              As extraordinary as that feat is, if you think about it, we work hard for less glorious things all the time, putting in long repetitive hours.  Those of you who have raised children, how many lunches have you packed in your life?  How many loads of laundry?  How many hours in the car shuttling your chattel…cattle…children around?  Why?  Because you care about them.  It matters to you.  We have a number of attorneys here, how many hours did you spend getting ready for the bar (to take the bar not go to the bar), and in law school before?  Those who worked their way up in whatever their field, scraping, or just grinding through a day.  How many hours?  Think of whatever you do for recreation.  You don’t get good at things without practice.  Nobody skis a black diamond the first time out unless you don’t know what the sign means.  Do you think Glenn Burke or Michael Hatfield came out of the womb playing guitar like that, Patti the organ?  No, they put in the hours, some joyful, but some quite tedious, I’m sure.  We sacrifice for what matters to us.  We will travel great distances to see what we really want to see.  Last summer we drove cross country to see my family since we hadn’t seen them since the start of the pandemic, because of course.  This sacrifice doesn’t even compare to those who must travel for such distances in great danger in order to protect or provide for their families, leaving loved ones behind.

            If we intuitively recognize that sacrifice is required for anything worthwhile, why would we think faith would be any different?  Sometimes people wonder why they don’t connect spiritually when they’re fitting it in around the edges at best, I’m not just talking about church attendance. I’m talking about working the faith. I’m not talking about those who really try, who really prioritize it.  Maybe they’re trying too hard.  You can’t manufacture a faith (it’s a paradox).  I’m here to help you with that not make you feel badly. 

            The reality is the spiritual path, while rewarding, is rigorous, and it will test you.  It’s better we just tell the truth about that.  Churches are so scared of decline they go out of their way to make everything as easy as possible.  On one hand I understand it; life is tough enough.  On the other, it’s and dishonest and counterproductive; it won’t take.  There are moments of surprising grace to be sure, but cultivating the soul is no less rigorous than cultivating soil, particularly if the soil is tough and dried out, maybe with a few stones.  Training the mind is no less intense than the body. Building a home and community of values requires only a different kind of output than building literal buildings.

           This might be a relief to hear.  There are some great clips of professional basketball coach Gregg Popovich, a mentor of the Warriors’ own Steve Kerr.  Pop, as he’s called, has his team huddled around him during a timeout, crowd noise causing him to raise his voice.  “It’s not supposed to be easy”[1]he says in one, and in another during the finals, he just says it, “It’s supposed to be hard.”[2]It’s supposed to be hard.  To me that recognition shifts everything.  Oh, it’s supposed to be hard.  I’m not failing.  It’s supposed to be hard.  Nothing’s wrong with me. It’s supposed to be hard.  This isn’t an aberration.  It’s supposed to be hard. 

           Gandhi said seven things would destroy us, his own “seven deadly sins” – wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, politics without principle—now those six could occupy a sermon series of their own—and the seven, religion without sacrifice.[3]     

             It’s a wonder Christianity ever took off in the first place.  Jesus didn’t lay out an easy path.  Yes, he said come to me you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens on your journey, and I’ll give you rest (Mt. 11:28), but the road he took led right to his betrayers and a cross.  This is not the stuff of great marketing campaign.  Come with me, get killed, but first be humilated.  He said anyone who wants to follow has to put not their own life first but be willing to lose their life for the sake of the gospel.  Only then will they find true life (another paradox) (Mt. 16:24-26).  The fact that it ever was a cultural expectation that someone be Christian or a person of any faith—for they are all demanding—is astonishing because the reality is many people are perfectly happy pursuing only their own interests. 

            Those who do choose the way, will find it, though. Did you catch that?  They will find life.  They will find liberation from the old life and freedom in the new. This goes for both those who are pushed down by this world and those who do the pushing, and so of course some would walk great distances to find that release.  Many of you know of my interest in pilgrimage, a practice that exists across many spiritual traditions, people walking hundreds of miles from the ancient world up to now for some taste of this. 

           We need to do hard things because we know they pay off.  I picked up White Fragilityagain this week.  I don’t mean I picked up the trait of white fragility—though I’m sure there’s some of that—but the book White Fragilityabout why whites are often so defensive when it comes to conversations about race.  I had resisted the book for some time not because of the topic, but because I had wanted to read authors of color on the matter.  Yet, there is some value in a white person talking about a particularly white problem.  It’s not a pleasant-sit-outside-and-watch-the-ocean kind of read.  It’s a sit-in-front-of-the-mirror kind of read, which is hard, but it’s supposed to be hard. 

            How many people who came to see Jesus do you think left?  When they heard what his teaching required, how many do you suppose their lives were just fine? According to the story a crowd desired it enough to stick around.  Something captivated them about this one and this way.  With seemingly no plan for exactly how they were going to even eat, they stayed, wanting to be close.  It was a concern enough to Jesus, all of them gathered there in the desert, that he worried aloud about sending them away without some physical nourishment, noting they might pass out.  His disciples wonder, in turn, how they are going to feed so many, to which Jesus responds, “How many loaves do you have?” (Mk. 8:5) and then proceeds to feed the crowds with seven loaves, the number of completion, and a few fish. 

            My friend said when he finished the race—and he did finish and finish well even though that was his first full triathlon—a handler takes you into this giant tent.  Ostensibly, they’re there to get you what you need, but they’re also watching you to see if there are more significant medical issues going on.  Once they see you’re doing okay, they lead you to the back of the tent for the moment you’ve been waiting for, not the medal…the buffet. He described this buffet to me in great detail—different kinds of foods, ethnic foods, anything you could want.  You’re not worried about calories at that point, so it’s game on.  Only, with my friend the race had been so hard on him that his stomach essentially stopped digesting anything including liquids at about the 15-mile mark of the marathon, so he didn’t eat a thing.  That would have been my moment.  I don’t know if I could have finished that race, but I believe I could have won that buffet.

            Jesus invites us on a difficult journey.  On it there are times when it looks like there will be nothing to sustain you, times when you wonder if the work was worth it, other times when you can only describe what you experience with the language of miracles.  The difference is, struggle or ease, in this difficult journey Christ will always meet you with a table, a full spread, and while you may not always understand it, if you come that far you will be able to digest it.  I assure you.