It’s been a challenging week, answering these questions, and we are right to be exhausted. This may seem like a perverse sort of torture, sitting at a desk for hours on end, writing essays in response to questions that make us scratch our heads. What are they really asking? What are they really looking for? It’s a puzzlement. But these questions may, in fact, be the most apt kind of training. After all, a large part of the work that we will do after ordination will be the answering of questions, all sorts of questions. And the frustration we may have felt in the answering of questions this week will be the same sort of frustration we will hear from our parishioners: why isn’t there a clear answer? Why can’t you explain it to me?
How is it that my sister, who was such a good person, has died of lung cancer, and my father, who was a miserable human being, is still around , being nasty to everyone?
Why is God always killing people in the Old Testament, and then why does Jesus teach us to turn the other cheek?
In Matthew’s story of Palm Sunday, how can Jesus ride on a donkey AND a colt?
The fact is, not all questions can be answered satisfactorily, whether it is in GOEs or in the parish, and we’d best get used to that fact. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
So here’s a question: there’s an odd thing in this evening’s gospel reading. This story of the feeding of the 5000 in the Gospel of Mark is different from its parallels in the other three gospels. In all four stories, when Jesus sees the crowd coming to him, he is moved by their need and comes back to minister to them. In Mark’s gospel, though, and only in Mark’s gospel, the way that he ministers to them is different. He sees them as sheep in need of a shepherd, and in response to their need, he teaches.
He doesn’t heal.
He responds to their need by answering their questions, much as we will be called upon to do when we are working in a parish.
Questions: they’re part of the human condition aren’t they? We think when we answer these seven questions this week, we’ll be done. But no, it’s just the beginning. And that gets me thinking of the disciples’ questions of Jesus in this story. Do you want us to send these people back into town to get some food? No? Well, do you want us to go get two hundred denarii of bread to feed them? The disciples sound aggravated, don’t they, just as we have felt aggravated in some ways by the questions we’ve been asked this week. And Jesus sounds pretty annoyed with them as well: You yourselves give them something to eat! Emphatic statement. Imperative verb. There’s an answer that’s a kick in the pants!
As we often hear in the Gospel of Mark, the disciples need some prodding and remedial instruction to figure out their role, and this passage is no exception. The disciples are whining and asking what they’re supposed to do, and Jesus edgily says, “It’s time for you to do some heavy lifting here. It’s time for you to actually take care of these people.” It’s funny, isn’t it, though, that he asks them to take care of the feeding part, not the answering of questions. I guess he figures they’re not quite ready for that, and he’s right!
But getting back to the feeding part, they still don’t understand, because what he is suggesting seems to make no sense - all they have amongst them is a few loaves of bread and some dried fish…not even canned tuna fish, but the nasty dried stuff.
Still, a remarkable thing happens, despite the disciples’ tone of voice, despite Jesus’ frustration with them. Jesus takes what they have, these meager offerings, and gives thanks for them. He gives the food to the disciples, these men with such limited understanding, who struggle to conceive of what is happening with this strange and marvelous teacher. The disciples distribute the five loaves of bread and the two dried fish…and there is enough for everyone. More than enough, actually. Leftovers.
Jesus uses the quotidian materials around him – stale bread, dried fish, even confused assistants, with more questions than answers – and turns all of them, food, men…all of them into something more than they once were. The whole of the event is so much more than the sum of its parts. There is a transformation that teaches everyone present as much, or maybe more, than Jesus’ words of teaching to the crowd. With this teacher, miracles are possible. With this teacher, we are changed in a fundamental way, we are given the answers to questions we didn’t even know to ask.
And that’s the thing that is happening here, now, with these seven questions that so exhaust us. We, too, are transformed by this week in ways that we cannot understand. We may rail against this test, and wonder what it has to do with ministry. But the fact is, this is not simply a rite of passage, it is an enactment of the work we will be doing, God willing, in the years to come. Our gifts may be meager, at least in our own eyes, in the darkness of a cold damp Thursday evening. But Jesus will give thanks for us, and use our gifts and transform them and us into the ones who can face the questions, not with all the answers, but with the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide and aid us in this work that we are called to do. The questions, too, will be transformed from solitary moments, to a rich tapestry of how our lives in Christ are woven by lived experience, by the many voices of scripture, by all those theologians and doctors of the church we may have referenced this week. Our understanding of life as God’s people has been transformed by our studying, by our writing, by the events of our own lives, and all of these things will be the tools by which we take the questions we are asked and, with God’s help, turn them into food that feed the soul.
God is with us. As the disciples were guided in the work of feeding a hillside of people by their teacher, we too are guided. We are not alone, at our desks or in our offices, or at coffee hour. We, like the questions, are transformed by God’s grace, and that’s the answer we seek.