Preached July 22, 2012
St. Mark 8:1–9
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Were you listening a little earlier when the Collect for the Day was read? This Collect is based on St. John’s Gospel, 15:1-2, 5-6: I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine dresser. 2 Every branch in me that bears not fruit he takes away: and every branch that bears fruit, he prunes it, that it may bring forth more fruit. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches: He that abides in me, and I in him, the same brings forth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing. 6 If a man abides not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned. The words of the Collect use the image of the vine dresser, speaking of nourishing, grafting, and seeking an increase. They point to the theme for the day, the development of a holy life, a life filled with the power of God
This theme is picked up in the Epistle lesson where St. Paul asks, Romans 6:21-23 What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death. But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Again, we see our lives as the fruit of our relationship to God, and the increase thereof being our salvation to life eternal. This does not happen when we do those things which make us ashamed before God, in which case, as St. John said, we become as the withered branches, to be gathered, cast into the fire and burned. No, rather it comes about when we are the true servants of God which St. John describes as being productive branches on the true vine. But how do we attain this unification with God?
Consider the Gospel reading for the day. The people have been with our Lord in the field for three days straight, without anything to eat. Many have far to go before they can reach their homes. Jesus comments on this fact, and as we read in Mark 8:4 And his disciples answered him, From where can a man satisfy these men with bread here in the desert?
Now the disciples think of this only as a problem due to the fact that they are all out in the field. They imagine that if they were in a town, or perhaps in a farmer’s field, then the problem would be fairly easily solved; it is just a matter of their being out here on this barren hillside with nothing edible anywhere around. Jesus knows that this is not the problem at all, but rather that it is the problem that exists wherever we find ourselves on the face of the earth. It is the problem of which Isaiah spoke when he said, Isaiah 55:2a Why do you spend money for that which is not bread? and your labor for that which satisfies not? Do you recall the command of Christ in John 6:27 Labor not for the food which perishes, but for that food which endures unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for on him has God the Father set his seal?
All the treasures of this world are never enough. Having things, possessing them, does not make any man happy or blessed. Having “things” tends to leave the heart of man empty and cold, searching for more “things.”
About three years ago, I spoke with a young woman whom I know who is engaged to be married “someday.” I asked her when they would get married, and her reply was, “He knows I’m ready, but he is still in his toy stage.” Think about that for a minute. Here is a young couple, in their late 20s, delaying marriage and a family, because he is still in his “toy stage.” She told me that this meant motorcycles, a boat, and similar things. Strictly the things of this world – in the most literal sense – in no way related to the things eternal, and for this they delay. They are still waiting yet today. There is a very serious problem here, one that I am not at all sure will ever be properly corrected.
Not having some things may make a man uncomfortable, but not having them does not ever make any man truly suffer the ultimate misery, because the true life of a man consists in finding and knowing God the Father and His Son, our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Having all the physical possessions imaginable will not make up for failing to know God, and not having various physical possessions is a small matter to those who truly know God. In point of fact, it often seems to be the case, that having great possessions becomes an obstacle to knowing God, a stumbling block to true happiness.
Jesus then asks the disciples what food they have, and they reply that they have seven loaves and a few small fishes. Consider for a moment that, ever since the creation of the world, it has pleased the Creator to work with what we have to offer, rather than to solve our problems by creating the solution as something new, from nothing. In this way, God involves mankind in His miracles, not because He has to do so, but because He chooses to do so.
Think about Abraham and Sarah. They were old and they were childless. How could they hope to see their posterity inherit the land that God had given to Abraham? And when the angel tells Abraham that he is to have a son in his old age, Abraham laughs, and Sarah, listening secretly, also laughs. This is ridiculous, and these two old folks think it is pretty funny! But what did they bring to God, besides a sense of humor? They brought faith in God. And in a year’s time, they had their son, Isaac. It was their faith that God used to work His miracle to create the Hebrews.
Think again about the angel Gabriel coming to the Virgin Mary to tell her that she was to be the mother of the Saviour. This certainly was not anything she had asked for. This did not fit neatly into her plans. She might have been inclined to say, “Well, I think not, thank you very much.” But she did not. She said, ”Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me as you have said.” God took her humble obedience and from that brought forth the Saviour of mankind, but it was Mary who said “yes” to God and thereby made her contribution to the miracle of the Incarnation.
God chooses to take some little bit from humankind, and use it to work His astounding miracles. This is His way. Its not that He has to do it this way; it is that He chooses to do it this way. He chooses to involve man in His miracles, even if it is in ever such a small way. He takes our “little bit” and makes it into something wonderful, something simply amazing. But he chooses to always start with what we have. And so it was that day on the hillside where Jesus fed the 4000. He took the seven loaves, and a few fishes, and turned them into enough to feed the 4000 with much left over.
But He did not just say to His disciples, “Go ahead and distribute all the food.” No, after he had commanded the people to sit down, he blessed the food. Jesus never begins any action without first invoking God. He gave thanks for the food and asked a blessing upon it. Had God not been invoked, all of the food would have been quickly consumed by the first few people to get their hands upon it, because there would have been no multiplication of the loaves and fishes. You see, it is only when God is brought into this event that extraordinary things happen. Leave out God, and you might as well not bother to make the effort because it will fail entirely. It is only in asking for God’s blessing and thanking Him for this food that we can expect to see His extraordinary abundance of provision come to pass.
After He asked the blessing, Jesus instructed his disciples distribute the food to the assembled people sitting on the ground. This distribution goes on yet today; Jesus’ Church distributes His food to those assembled here at the Communion Table. He takes the Bread and Wine that we bring in offering to Him and transforms them into His own amazing Body and Blood in the Mass. And then, His disciples, the Bishops and Priests, distribute it to those who have come in faith to receive it. This is how we receive the true meat and drink that satisfies our hunger. It is only here that we are able to continue as branches of the true vine, so that we may be fruitful and not wither. The feeding of the thousands on the hillside 2000 years ago continues yet today in the Eucharist and so it will continue until the end of the time..
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.
Therefore let us keep the feast. Alleluia.
Let us repeat the Collect for the Day:
Lord of all power and might, who art the author and giver of all good things; Graft into our hearts the love of thy Name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of thy great mercy keep us in the same, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.