Many years ago I decided I was going to learn to bake bread. I had fond memories of watching my mother bake fresh yeast rolls and beautiful tiered wedding cakes. It always seemed so easy to transform the basic ingredients into the yeasty goodness that I adored. A quick search on the internet yielded a recipe for a basic loaf of rustic, crunchy bread. I dashed to the store to gather the ingredients I would need, already picturing a slice of still steaming bread slavered in butter. I couldn’t wait to bake my first loaf.
I measured the ingredients carefully and kneaded them diligently for the time prescribed. Knowing that baking is as much science as it is art, I wanted to leave nothing to chance. The dough looked just as I remembered and after letting it rise, punching it down, and rising it again, I was beginning to get very excited. The hardest part was waiting for the loaf to come out of the oven. The smell was filling the house with that fresh baked bread scent and I didn’t want to eat something else! So I waited as patiently as a man who likes to eat can wait. Finally the timer went off and I opened the oven and pulled out the first loaf of bread I had ever made.
It was a strange looking Frankenstein of a creation. Lumps and bumps covered its surface. Well, I imagined to myself, I bet it still tastes good. I was wrong there too. It was a strange texture and yeasty beyond imagine. I must have done something wrong. I ate some of it and then throwing it in the trash went back to the recipe. After several more runs, several more failed loaves, and even a digital kitchen scale in hopes that it was simply a matter of accuracy, I called in the calvary. It only took a few minutes on the phone with mom to find out that I didn’t need to add all those ingredients to self rising flour.. It already had the leaven in it. I needed plain flour or bread flour. Simply getting the recipe right made all the difference and it wasn’t long before I was making crusty breads, yeasty rolls, and buttery biscuits.
In today’s Gospel that is the message that Jesus is trying to convey to his disciples. Mark is always hard on them. In his writings they are always dense and obtuse, they never get it. They just don’t understand. He’s trying to teach them about the ways of the world in contrast to the ways of God. So he gives them two extremes. The Pharisees and Herod. They then think he’s angry because they didn’t bring bread.
The funny part is of the three primary sects of Judaism of first century Palestine, the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes, Jesus has more in common with the Pharisees belief wise. Their religion is filled with all the laws of Moses. They believe in life after death. They tithe and teach others what it means to be in relationship with God. Jesus continually points out that they have lost the part that matters most, love. Their religion has become hollow, empty. It’s all the on the surface and never actually changes a man.
Then you have Herod, the king. Herod was a hedonist who loved pleasure. Though he was the king by title, he wasn’t setting the example of what old testament kings were supposed to be. They were supposed to be pillars of strength and leaders of the religious community. Sure, they made mistakes and were sinners just like the rest of us.. But Herod, he just did what felt good. He did whatever he enjoyed, even if it meant going completely against what God had given us in the Scriptures.
Jesus taught us a path that is more in the middle. He did not condemn religion, but rather told people to do what those on the chair of Moses said, but not to act as they did. He reminded us that our hearts had to be in it. That it wasn’t enough to hit the bare minimum but to go further, beyond. That our religious rules were there to guide us to a relationship with God. “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” God gave the Israelite people six hundred and thirteen rules to help show the world that they were different. If you want to be in relationship with me, here is what I will do for you and here is how you will behave to show the world. Above all though, was the need for love.
A little yeast goes a long way. It’s tempting to go with the flow. To do those things which feel good. To lump in with society. In the current political realm we no longer argue on facts but we simply go with emotions. “This feels good.” “This makes me happy.” Love is more than that. Love does have emotions with it, but it’s also an action.. A choice. Love does not give someone something just to make them feel good, it gives them what they need to be good. We can’t allow our religion to interfere with the good we can do, and at the same time we can’t simply flow along with our emotions and do whatever we want. We have to live our religion out in love.
Saint Valentine knew this. He lived it. When he was imprisoned for converting people to Christianity, he could simply have gone along with the rest of society and things would have been fine. He even formed a relationship with the emperor and became friends. Shortly after he tried to convert the emperor. The emperor was enraged and sentenced him to death. The emperor demanded Valentine renounce his faith and Valentine refused, ending his life. That’s what it means to live out our faith. It would be easy to simply become lumpy, to take on all the things that feel good, that reward us emotionally. It is also easy to go along in a rut, to do things so often that we stumble through our prayers not really paying attention to them. Both will do us great harm.
The only way that we can become what God intended us to be, to be fully Human, is to let God do the baking. To allow our faith, our religion, to show us the way to live in relationship with Him. That means being in relationship with each other as well. Our rules are there to guide us through the process, the Church shows us the right ingredients to make the perfect dough, and a life of love gives us the perfect temperature and environment to rise and perfect us. The Holy Spirit, the flame of love, does the baking. If we just trust, follow, and obey; oh what an amazing offering of bread God can turn us into.
His servant and yours,
“He must increase, I must decrease.”
A reflection on the readings for February 14, 2017: Valentine’s Day.