Monday, August 31, 2015

The Tribal Brain Undone

    This morning we have the second feeding of a multitude found in the book of Mark.  Yes, you heard me correctly, this is the second time Jesus feeds a large group of people.  Mark records two feedings.  If you don’t believe me, you can look in your Bible at Mark chapter six.  That’s the feeding of the 5000.  This is the feeding of the 4000.  Some scholars, while looking at these two accounts think that Mark is simply telling a story twice–a doublet is what they call it.  They discount the historical accuracy of this second event.  Other scholars are quick to say that there are very different circumstances here–circumstances that say this is indeed another historical feeding with a very important point.  What might that point be?  Let’s begin our journey this morning together.

    In the July/August edition of "The Reader’s Digest", Chris Mooney writes an article titled, “Are We Naturally Born Racists?” It is a fascinating read about the nature of the human brain.  The writer, Chris, takes the IAT test, which is a test that seeks to measure your initial reactions to people of color.  Chris considered himself color blind, but the test revealed that he had an innate prejudice.  He was not happy about this.  But he asked numerous questions about this research, and it led him to write the following:

    Humans are tribal creatures, showing strong bias against those we perceive as different from us and favoritism toward those we perceive as similar.  In fact, we humans will divide ourselves into in-groups and out-groups even when the perceived differences between specific groups are completely arbitrary.

    Let that sink in just a moment before hearing the next one.

    In other words, if you give people the slightest push toward behaving tribally, they'll happily comply.  So if race is the basis on which tribes are identified, expect serious problems.

    What kind of problems?

    Lebanese-born French writer Amin Maalouf says this in his 1996 book In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong:

    People often see themselves in terms of whichever one of their allegiances is most under attack. And sometimes, when a person doesn’t have the strength to defend that allegiance, he hides it. Then it remains buried deep down in the dark, awaiting its revenge. But whether he accepts or conceals it, proclaims it discreetly or flaunts it, it is with that allegiance that the person concerned identifies. And then, whether it relates to color, religion, language or class, it invades the person’s whole identity. Other people who share the same allegiance sympathize; they all gather together, join forces, encourage one another, challenge “the other side.” For them, “asserting their identity” inevitably becomes an act of courage, of liberation.
    In the midst of any community that has been wounded agitators naturally arise… The scene is now set and the war can begin. Whatever happens “the others” will have deserved it.

    Think about such things deeply for a moment as you think about the culture that surrounds us.  Think about such things as you reflect on what took place and is taking place just down the road in Waller County surrounding Sara Bland.  Think about such things as you contemplate the shooting of Alison Parker and Adam Ward. Think about this as you ponder the execution of Houston Sheriff's Deputy Darren Goforth.  Think about such matters as you remember the cold blooded killing of nine church people in Charleston, S.C.

    In each of these situations, there is an us/them mentality.  There is the idea that a particular group is persecuted and then justified in its actions.  There is a great divide as tribal lines are drawn around the color of skin.  Ah, but if Mooney and the researchers at Harvard are correct, such tribalism doesn’t just take place around skin color, our brain naturally draws distinctions between male and female, German and Czech, black and white, young and old, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, and so on and so forth.  Lines get drawn, sides get taken, and fights eventually erupt.  And sometimes we scratch our heads in bewilderment wondering why.

    And some of you might be wondering why I am even going down this train of thought when it looks like it has nothing to do with the feeding of the 4000.  Such matters seem to be completely absent from this text from Mark chapter 8.  And you would be right if you just look at this text at face value, but I don’t want to look at it on the surface. I want to dig into it and place it into context.  I also want to compare it to the previous feeding found in chapter 6 because there are some very important differences.

    First off, the location is important.  Mark begins this little segment with the words, “In those days...” which connect this story to the one immediately preceding it–the healing of a deaf, tongue tied, Gentile man.  This is important because Jesus is traveling through Gentile territory.  You might say He was in hostile territory given the Jew’s animosity toward Gentiles.  However, something very strange seems to be going on.  The Gentiles are very receptive to Jesus’ message.  A large crowd has gathered to hear Jesus preach and teach. 

    I pointed out last time with the feeding of the 5000 that you should be thankful that I don’t preach like Jesus.  I will reinforce this once more as I point you toward Jesus’ statement, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for...” how many days?   Yes.  Three days.  How many complaints do you think Jesus got about that sermon? 

    But let’s return more to the point.  I want you to take a moment to turn to the feeding of the 5000 that you find in Mark chapter 6, and I want you to look at something carefully.  I want you to look at the role of the disciples.  Who initiates care and compassion for the crowd in Mark chapter 6? 

    It’s the disciples.  The crowd has been there all day.  The crowd is getting hungry.  The disciples know they need to eat, and, knowing they could not provide for the crowd, they asked Jesus to send them away to get something to eat.  As we look at the feeding of the 4000, the crowd has been with Jesus for three days–three days!!!  How come the disciples didn’t say anything to Jesus about the people getting hungry?  How come the disciples didn’t ask Jesus to send them away to get their own food?  How come the disciples don’t show the same kind of concern?  I think there is a reason.

    Jesus is the one who begins the conversation and who has compassion.  He, again says, “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.”

    Verse 4 reads: His disciples replied, ‘How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?’

    Now, there are a couple of ways of looking at this.  First, we can wonder: are the disciples dense?  Don’t they remember Jesus feeding the 5000?  Don’t they remember His amazing miracle?  Don’t they realize that Jesus could do once again what He did before?  Do they truly lack faith in the one who fed the multitude before, walked on water, cast out demons, and then healed a man who was deaf and tongue tied? 

    I think the answer is no, and I base it on what I read in one of my commentaries.  It was a very intriguing quote, and I would like to share it with you now.  William Lane writes in The New International Commentary on the New Testament, “There is an indirectness in the response of Ch. 8:4 which is different in tone and function.  It serves to refer the question of procuring bread back to Jesus and is tantamount to asking, What do you intend to do?”

    What do YOU intend to do, Jesus?  Not, how can we help.  Not, should we spend a lot of money to provide food.  It’s all up to you Jesus.  Now, this could be seen as a statement of tremendous faith.  It could be seen as a statement of trust in the Lord, but it doesn’t fit the context.  It certainly doesn’t fit what will be happening in the next couple of texts.  In fact–here is a bit of a foreshadowing for you–as we look at the next couple of snippets in the coming weeks, we will see that the disciples don’t get it.  They don’t understand Jesus’ mission.  They are starting to understand that He is the Messiah, but they don’t yet realize, Jesus is here to save, not simply the Jews, but is here to save the WHOLE WORLD.  This means, I think, in the context of what is going on in this segment of the book of Mark, the disciples don’t want to feed this crowd.  They don’t want to have compassion on them.  They don’t like this crowd because this crowd is a Gentile crowd.  This crowd isn’t like them.  The disciples are being tribal.

    But Jesus won’t let them get away with this.  Jesus won’t let them keep those boundaries drawn.  Jesus asks them how much bread they have.  Seven loaves this time.  Jesus takes them and begins breaking them, and He makes the disciples distribute the bread.  Jesus finds that they have a few fish.  He blesses them and starts distributing them through the disciples.  Once again, the entire crowd is satisfied, and when all is said and done, seven baskets are filled.  This time, it’s not seven lunch boxes-the Greek word here connotes large baskets constructed out of rope.  Jesus dismisses the crowd, and everyone gets back into the boat and leaves.

    Again, as we shall see in the next Sunday or so as we continue our journey through Mark, the disciples don’t get what Jesus is doing.  They don’t understand this foray into Gentile territory.  They don’t understand the nature and reality of what it means that Jesus is God incarnate.  They don’t understand fully the nature of what it means that Jesus is the Messiah.  They are still caught up in the idea that Jesus is here for the Jews.  They are still caught up in the idea that this man who is full of power will restore the kingdom of Israel.  The other nations of the world–the Gentiles are to be subjects to rule over. They are outsiders.  They are those people over there.  It is all too easy to look at the world and think such thoughts.  The brain is hard wired to draw distinctions, and we are quick to act tribally.   Do you see now why I started as I did?  Do you see now how this ties to our present reality is a very real way?  Do you see how we still struggle with the same issues the disciples struggled with? 

    And what does Jesus lead us to?  What place does Jesus want us to arrive at?

    Let me read to you a snippet from the book of Ephesians chapter 2:

    3But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. 17So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; 18for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.

    Did you catch that phrase in there?  Did you catch the fact that you were once “far off?”  Did you catch that through the blood of Jesus, a new humanity has now been created?  Did you catch that the world has been reconciled to God through Jesus’ body on the cross?  

    You see, Jesus is showing in the feeding of this Gentile crowd that He is the Messiah for the world.  He is not simply the Messiah for the Jews.  All are far off from God.  The Jews are far off because they do not follow the commands given to them by Moses.  The Gentiles are far off because the Jews have not taken the blessings of God and then sought to be a blessing to others.  All are separated from God. All.

    And we don’t like to hear that.  No.  We don’t like to hear that at all.  We like to think that God and we are like this (hold intertwined fingers up).  We like to think that God and we are on good terms.  We like to think that we have it all figured out and God is walking with us affirming us every step of the way, and the people with all the problems are those people out there.  If those people would just get their acts together then everything will work out.  And I will surround myself with people who think like me and act like me and look like me.  We will affirm each other and make ourselves feel good, and we can look down our collective nose at everyone else.

    But Jesus says, “I don’t think so.  You are not as good as you think you are.  In fact, because of your sin–you are apart from God.  You are out there.  And so is everyone else in the world.”  All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  And there is nothing you can do to make it better.  Your brain won’t allow it.  You will always become tribal.  You will always try to think in terms of us versus them.  That’s how you are wired because of your sin.

    But even though we can’t do anything about this, there is one who can.  There is one who did.  For when Jesus stretched out His arms on the cross, He brought you close to God.  He brought me close to God.  He brought the world close to God.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be save through Him.”

    All who were once far off have been brought near.  All who have sinned receive forgiveness through Jesus Christ.  And even if a person does not follow Jesus, do we see them as less than ourselves?  Do we see them as unworthy of love and compassion and trust?  Of course not.  We see others as God sees them: as precious people who are in need of a Savior.  And how do we bring them to the saving knowledge of Jesus?  Do we do so with hatred, animosity, anger, frustration, and the like?  Of course not.  No.  We lead with the same things Jesus gave to us when we least deserved it: compassion, kindness, grace, and love.  Yes, there are differences.  Yes, there are divisions, but when we place our trust in Christ, we do not lead with blame, or hatred or animosity or drawing lines.  We lead with compassion, love, and reconciliation.  Amen.

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