This summer I have loved spending time in the Gospel of Mark with its straightforward, sometimes terse, style that uses so many agrarian images and parables that are ever so vivid and meaningful now that Sherod and I live out in the country. I am also moved by the ordinariness of what he does. Some guys need to cross on a boat and a storm comes up so the waves are crashing and the wind howling? His is not the response of Aladin or the fairy godmother. Jesus does not turn their rickety boat into an intergalactic extravaganza like the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space) from the Dr. Who series—he doesn’t even fix the boat. He simply offers them safe passage. The work of redemption is always about that which is most human about us.
Starting today, and for 5 weeks, we turn to John, and more specifically the 6th Chapter of John, where we will hear the first of the seven great “I am’s” statements that invite us deep into the mystery of Christ’s divinity. But I am glad that to start with, this chapter continues to place the story squarely in the midst of the human condition.
I can imagine Jesus and his friends realizing a large crowd of people is coming in their direction. A few years ago, a parishioner back in my previous church convinced me I should watch the TV series called The Walking Dead. After gritting my teeth the first few times I watched it, I learned to appreciate how much it had to say about the human condition. What struck me about the scenes where you see a swarm of zombies approaching was the absolute, insatiable need—that is all there is, it is the beginning and the end. What’s worse, no matter how much that need is fed, it is never enough so we see humankind become worse than a black hole in space that turns something into nothing.
Now, I don’t want to suggest that the crowd that came in search of Jesus was a hoard of zombies. But I can imagine the sense of overwhelming, desperate responsibility that must have washed over Jesus’ friends as they saw “need made flesh”. When we perceive enormous need we tend to think it calls for enormous response and we quickly collapse under the burden of it—or justify our much pettier excuses for not even trying.
The thing is, I believe that a lot of what we are invited to consider in the Good News of Jesus, and he the Christ, is that the mighty acts of redemption are not necessarily mammoth in scale. I am often struck by how little it takes to stay on this side of the divide between life and death—how little can make life possible. Think of what people who unexpectedly find themselves having to survive in the wilderness can make due with.
If we consider the smallness of scale with which we can be sustained in life, it is also illuminating and important to consider smallness of scale on the flip side. There was a piece in the New Yorker recently that had a simply magnificent line: describing the fallen condition of Adam and Eve, the author talked about “a canyon of tiny distances”[i]. Each of us, day in and day out makes miniscule decisions that end up having cosmic implications. I’m driving, and as I approach a light I see a panhandler right in front of me. I know the light changes fast and if I lean over and get my phone to pretend to make I call, I’ll get to look away. The light will change and allow me to drive away never having acknowledged her humanity. Over the course of a day, a hundred others like me, with perfectly good reasons not to, will probably also avoid looking at her, and by day’s end, there is a canyon of tiny distances between her and the rest of humankind, a canyon of tiny distances that makes the difference between life and hellish desolation.
It isn’t the fact that none of us gave her a buck or some change we could easily spare—we can and should have a conversations about the ways in which generosity can be most helpful—that’s not what I am talking about. What I am talking about is what happens to us and “that woman” when you and I decide it is too difficult to acknowledge a person not just as a person but as a human being deserving of dignity and respect.
In today’s story, there are people who are hungry, people with a very real need, who are looking for answers from that ragtag bunch of friends who Jesus has brought together. Again, even with a large crowd, it helps to think of scale. The space between hunger and satisfaction is not as great as we would believe, we who live in the world of supersize fries and mega-jumbo slushies. A piece of bread, a small part of a fish—that is enough.
The exchange between Jesus, Philip and Andrew also tells us something about distances and spaces. Philip looks at the enormity of the need. That’s his starting point. Andrew, however briefly, doesn’t see such a huge difference between what’s needed and what’s available—“look, here’s this: 5 loaves and 2 fish, I bet we can make this work, can’t we?” Jesus sees the need and is not afraid. In fact, he sees people in need of hospitality and he sees abundance, the abundance of a field of green grass large enough for all of them. The story doesn’t say this, but I can imagine him saying, “You are here. Welcome. Sit down—the grass is soft and cool, the road was long and hot, you must be tired. Rest. “ Like a shepherd bringing his sheep to the green pastures and living waters, he closes the distance between himself and “those people”.
My modern—or perhaps my post-modern mind—has a hard time considering the exact nature of the miracle. Was it that he transgressed and disrupted what we call the laws of nature, or did he soften 5000 hearts so, even though no one could have gotten very much, when generously shared, those 5 loaves and 2 fish sufficed to blunt the sharp edge of hunger? In some ways, that’s beside the point.
I know this for sure: whatever happened turned the ordinary into something absolutely extraordinary and life changing for those who were there. A gap, another one of those tiny distances between need and fulfillment, did not get added into an endless string of other disappointments, that ended up being an enormous canyon of separation—between us and them, between hopes and reality, between what was needed and what was given.
One of my brothers lives in the UK and many years ago, I went to visit him and his family. He lives in Bristol and towards the end of my visit we spent a couple of days in London and got around in the tube—the subway system. At every stop, a voice would come over the loudspeaker to repeat again and again “Mind the gap. Mind the gap. Mind the gap.” That, I think, is one of the things today’s Gospel is about.
Our work as disciples, as people of faith is to mind the gap. To mind the gap means we have to notice it first of all. We must also acknowledge that often (though not always) it is our brokenness, the ways in which we fall short of what we are capable of, that has caused it. Philip was awfully quick to see a gap as a canyon of distance and moved from recognition to despair. Andrew briefly, very briefly, recognized a fragile, risky, improbable possibility that might close the gap. Jesus? Jesus offers himself—all he is, all he is capable of being and doing, so that very fragile, risky, improbable possibility which always resides within the human condition, the part that says, “it’s not much but maybe it will suffice…” can work on behalf of the one who has becomes separated, who trips and falls, who might altogether be lost through the gap.
As I continue to get to know and work with you here at the Ascension, I wonder; what are the gaps we can mind? Where are the gaps in our community where our witness to a God of endless love and new beginnings can allow grace to pour forth so a gap becomes part of the path to newness and abundance of life? This week may we all be aware. May we be willing to look at what we would prefer to ignore, may we be willing to listen. May we allow ourselves to acknowledge that we are called to be connected to every human being, even the most unlovely.
Mind the gap.