Dr. Anne M. Cameron
February 5, 2012
Lake Highlands Presbyterian Church
The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, "Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it." Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side.
The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. "Be careful," Jesus warned them. "Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod."
They discussed this with one another and said, "It is because we have no bread."
Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: "Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don't you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?"
"Twelve," they replied.
"And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?"
They answered, "Seven."
He said to them, "Do you still not understand?"
Think of your school days, maybe early junior high. Before the hormones kicked in full force, but long after you and your classmates had figured out your various roles in the classroom. I know you remember. There was the class clown, the teacher's pet, the brainiac, the bored, the disinterested. And there were the smart alecs and the slow learners. The smart alecs made it their game to "test" the teacher. To trip her up, to make her look stupid in front of the class. They were, for the most part, mean spirited. They did not like school, they hated the teacher, and they were determined to have things their way. Occasionally they would down a teacher because he hadn't applied the rules fairly, or because he had ignored a rule. There were those smart alecs who specialized in being "know-it-alls." They challenged the teacher about some really fine point. Some years you would have a teacher fall prey to the wisecracks. Other times, the teacher would have the upper hand. It all depended on the teacher.
The slow learners were always a part of every classroom, at least before the days of Special Education and tracking students by ability. They needed special attention. They never seemed to "get it" the first, or second, or even third time around. They needed lots of help, endless repetition, and simpler exercises than the rest of the class. They stayed in during recess to get extra help, or after school for extra tutoring.
Lest we get too smug about the slow learners, most of us would have to admit to being slow learners, at least at something. Even the brainiacs had one or two subjects they struggled with mightily. They may have hidden it well, not wanting to admit to an area of weakness. Nearly everyone who has been through school has had to struggle with some subject some time in their school career.
It's helpful to think of the Pharisees as the smart alecs and the Disciples as the slow learners here in this particular place in the gospel of Mark. The Pharisees have moved past simply challenging the Teacher when the Teacher isn't following the rules. They have been talking to each other in the halls. They plot to bring the Rabbi down, and they are serious about it. Picture them. They waltz into the public area around the synagogue; they make a beeline for the Teacher. They are heaven bent on testing him. They are itching for an argument, because they are sure they are going to win. It would please them no end if this particular Teacher simply vanished and no longer walked the halls in Galilee. They were aiming to shut his whole school down, if you want to know the truth, because they wanted school to be the way they'd always enjoyed it: when they were top of the heap, ruling the roost, intimidating everyone.
"Prove to us, O Great Teacher, just how smart you are! Show us just who you are! Show us your stuff, come on!"
Then, from the Teacher, huge sigh, an exasperated sigh, an all-knowing sigh. "Boys, I am not going to play your game. I am about a completely different sort of game, a teaching method that you will never grasp, that you will never believe. I am not going to waste my time here." The Teacher turns on his heels, high tails it away from the synagogue, and gets into the van with his, um, shall we say, slower students.
They are going on a road trip. This might remind you of a church mission trip. Fifteen passenger van, major leader, getting out of town. (Give me some poetic license here, the small boats favored by Jesus in his time held about fifteen people.) They are a captive audience, crowded as they are into a small space. They have a ways to go, so they start talking. All of the sudden Jack says, "Where's the snacks? Who brought the snacks?"
"Uh. . . .I have a bag of tortilla chips, but that's it."
"Oh, man, I cannot believe you forgot the snacks."
Just then the Teacher starts in on a lesson. "Did you see what happened back there with those smart alecs? Beware of people like that, all they want to do is criticize you and bring you down. Don't let them get your goat."
"Do you think he's mad at us because we forgot to bring the snacks?"
“It's not about the snacks! Forget the snacks. That's not important. Have you completely shut yourselves off from me? Are your ears full of wax? Do you have a blindfold on? Don't you remember the lessons we have been going over and over again and again? Where were you when all we had was a little bit of food, and there were thousands of students roaming around, hungry? Don't you remember what happened? How much was left over after everyone stuffed themselves?
"Um, a lot more than we started with."
"Exactly. Do you still not get it?"
Where are we in this story? What's our role in the great classroom of faith? Are we smart alecs or slow learners?
Are we constantly questioning our faith, looking for excuses to let it go, drop out of school, move on to something "better?" That would be the smart alecs----the Pharisees.
In contrast to the smart alecs, being a slow learner doesn't sound nearly so bad after all. Although we may wonder how in the world the disciples could have been slow learners! They had, after all, been there when he stopped the wind and the waves. They were in the boat when he walked past them, on top of the water! They saw him open the ears and mouths and eyes of poor souls who were deaf and dumb and blind, and yet their own obtuseness persists.
Despite all these neon signs pointing to Jesus as Lord, Christ the Messiah, they continue to not "get it." They continue to be deaf and dumb and blind themselves, worrying about how they are going to fill their stomachs, worrying about only having one loaf of bread there in that boat, worrying about the surface things, the practical things, the day to day things. They don't even seem to realize that as they quibble over that one measly little loaf of bread rattling around in the bottom of the boat, that the very Bread of Life is right there in the boat with them!
It is nearly impossible in this world we live in to not be a slow learner when it comes to Christ. We suffer attention deficit disorder! Our attention is continually drawn away from the Source of life, and into the belief that we have to rely on our own resources. We move back and forth between periods of great gratitude and periods of relentless self-reliance. We need to hear His message, again and again and again. We need to hear it many different ways, from many different peoples. We need to practice it, too, more than we know.
We are like schoolchildren. We need to put some extra time and thought into the lessons of life which he continually hands us, lessons which in the end teach us that our veneer of self-reliance is just that---a veneer. Lessons which land us back into humility, maybe even back into the principal's office.
You know that principal though is a very, very good one. A wise one, one who stands behind his star Teacher, one who understands completely where we are coming from and who knows where we are going. One who admonishes us, yes, but who encourages us to come back to school, to set ourselves before our great Teacher, and to learn once again the age old and ever new lessons of love. The love the Teacher has for us will give us everything we need. The generosity the Teacher holds can never be outdone. The patience of this particular Teacher is beyond anything we can ask or think.
In this great story from the great gospel writer Mark we will soon see that the students, the Disciples, will continue to mess up, misunderstand, be filled with anxiety and be prompted to flee. When the going gets tough, they do flee. They abandon ship, they get out of the van, they go running as fast as their puny legs will carry them, to create distance between them and this Teacher who is nothing if not doomed.
And so we sit, rocking in this boat that is church, this boat in which we find ourselves off and on, again and again, slow learners, learning with each other who He is and in the process, who we are.