Small Talk, Big Ideas
by Patrick Nafziger
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
How good are you at small talk? Do you enjoy it? Do you look forward to it?
I have to confess this morning, that throughout my time in high school, the most agonizing 10 minutes of my week were on Sunday morning, between church and Sunday school.
These were the 10 minutes that I had nowhere to go and nothing to do but to engage in the chatter of adulthood–to learn about and participate in this thing called small talk. And I hated it.
I didn’t know people in my church like my friends did, and so I’d get stuck talking to someone years older than me that I didn’t really know, trying to convince them that I could have an intelligent conversation, trying to convince them that I knew and cared about them and their family and what they did for a living even though I didn’t really have a clue.
It was awkward, it was grueling, and it was something I tried week after week to avoid with different tactics.
Sometimes I’d just walk from point to point around the church pretending like I really had somewhere to be, all in an effort to avoid getting pulled aside by someone who wanted to make the dreaded small talk.
Other times I would try to find friends or someone familiar, someone with whom I really could talk and enjoy the conversation.
Now and then I’d pretend like I left something in my car, so I’d go out to the car for a few minutes and then come back just in time for Sunday school. (We had church first and then Sunday school).
But for the most part, I had to just grin and bear it, like countless teenagers before me had to do, and no doubt like countless after me will have to do.
You might think I was just a socially maladjusted teenager or you might think I was just an unusually awkward young man; and both of those things might be true.
But as I looked at the scriptures for this morning, and as I prepared this sermon, I started to understand that something important happened during those 10 awkward minutes week in and week out, month after month as I entered adulthood.
Those 10 minutes of small talk on Sunday mornings taught me some important lessons about life, about relationships, and about God.
I learned it’s impossible to surround yourself with people you know well and like all the time.
I learned that people who were strangers to me were still interested in my choices, they still wanted me to succeed, they still cared about me and my family;
I learned that even though I didn’t know these people, they knew me.
I learned that church is a place that can be uncomfortable.
I learned that Christian people need to know how to interact with strangers and build relationships, even if you only see the people once a week.
I learned to ask questions and to seek out other people that looked as uncomfortable as I felt.
These are important lessons to learn. And as I thought about it this week, I realized that making small talk is much more than just a way of passing the time.
It’s more of a ritual that gives us a starting point; it’s like an entryway into a relationship.
We begin a conversation by talking about the weather, or asking about each other’s families or work.
And those who have developed the skill of small talk know how to steer the conversation gently but firmly in a direction that they need to go with it—whether they need to make a request or a statement to their conversation partner.
And it’s pretty amazing how we make all kinds of judgments about a person’s character—whether they’re arrogant or humble, whether they’re a talker or a listener, whether they’re strong willed or more passive…we judge what kind of mood someone is in, their general health,… we make all those judgments through performing this social ritual at the beginning of any relationship, and really at the beginning of any conversation no matter how well or how little we know the person we’re talking to.
We have learned to pay attention to signs that someone is tired, or hungry, or ready to go.
And for the most part, I’m guessing that most of us are pretty comfortable interacting socially in that way—most of us can usually pick up on the social cues that tip us off as to which questions to ask and which questions to avoid in order to be polite.
But now and then something happens, or someone comes along who doesn’t seem to get it, you know? It might be a house guest who stays far too late into the night, mindless of your repeated suggestions that it’s getting late, and mindless of your continued statements about how early you have to get up in the morning.
Or maybe it’s a neighbor who just won’t stop talking, a boss who abuses your time…
Sometimes we don’t mind…other times we do. Sometimes we give our time, other times it’s rudely taken.
But somewhere in all of our coming and going, we hear about this guy named Jesus.
And we know he’s a really busy guy, we know he’s got limited time because he gives it all away and people take it from him, but we hear about this guy and we just have to see him for ourselves, we feel like we just need to hear him say something…we need him to have that small talk session with us, so we can judge for ourselves if he’s all that we’ve heard he is.
And so maybe, like the crowds in the first section we’re looking at today, maybe we press in and see where he’s going and we just hope that out there in that deserted place, in that god-forsaken, desolate place, maybe there we’ll get a chance to talk to Jesus and see what he’s like, right?
And so we rush out there, thinking that if we just get there before his boat does, we’ll get a chance to bump into him, to have some small talk. Maybe we’ll be able to make a few judgments of our own about this guy rather than just hearing all of the hype from other people.
So we rush out…only to see that 4,000 other people had the same idea.
Can you imagine the disappointment? It says this crowd of people were like sheep without a shepherd. I’m thinking they didn’t really know what they were there for. They had just acted on an impulse, maybe hoping to get close enough to this Jesus to form their own opinion.
And so I can imagine the mood of this crowd as all these people might have similar things going on in their head; and the disappointment they might feel when they see that they aren’t going to get their chance, that instead of it just being a handful of people willing to run out into the desolation to meet this Jesus face to face, instead there are thousands of others pressing in to see him, to hear him, to get that chance, you know?
So it’s revealing to me, that instead of staying in the boat, (like I would have done) instead of continuing to look for another desolate place where they could escape the crowd (like I would have done), instead of just heading out into the middle of the water where nobody could reach them (like I would have done)…Jesus heads straight to them, has compassion on the crowd, mingles with them, and begins to teach them.
And we could say that that was just who Jesus was—that he could do that because he was the Son of God, he was special, he had special divine gifts that allowed him to push on through the exhaustion and give even more of himself to these people to demonstrate the Love of God to them.
But if you read on, you read about what happens when the disciples try to get the crowd to go home—to leave them alone at last, to give everyone a chance to eat.
Jesus tells the disciples to feed the people.
These disciples had just come back from an exhausting schedule of ministry—they had gone into towns far and near, wearing out their sandals, staying with strangers, knocking dust off their feet, spreading a message and a healing that were bigger than they were…and now they had just come back to be with their teacher, to talk to him, to get some rest. They hadn’t had time even to eat.
And Jesus is telling them to go and look after the physical needs of these 4,000 people.
I just can’t understand that.
Jesus making the superhuman effort to teach the crowd and show compassion—Jesus doing it is one thing—but what he’s asking of his disciples is another thing completely. After all, his disciples are only human, right?
–We are only human, right?—
Jesus might not need much rest or time to himself, but I can tell you, I do.
So I’m not real comfortable with Jesus expecting his disciples to feed this crowd when they hadn’t even had time to eat yet themselves!
What’s the big idea?
Obviously Jesus knew the disciples were tired and hungry—it was his idea to get away!
It’s almost like Jesus really does expect his followers to always put other people’s needs before their own, no matter how exhausted they are or how much they need a break!
That’s a pretty big idea, isn’t it? It’s a pretty heavy concept when it gets right down to it. But as the story goes on to teach us, it’s not really the disciples doing the feeding—it’s the power of God working through what they offer.
I did want to look briefly at the second part of the scripture for this morning. After the disciples feed the people who had beaten Jesus where he was going, they take the boat back out. Jesus hangs back but eventually goes back out to join them, walking on the water to do it. He scares them pretty good by doing that, and then we read that
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was.
This is a different kind of picture, isn’t it?
Rather than crowding in to see for themselves, the crowds rush around the whole region! They can’t wait to bring the sick and the lame to wherever Jesusj is!
The crowd had moved from seeking the small talk to catching the Big Idea!
If the first crowd were like sheep without a shepherd, then the second crowd were more like moths to a flame!
And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
I want to suggest this morning, that the purpose of church today is to repeat the actions of these two crowds.
First we try desperately to meet Jesus where he’s going, and after that we bring others to him.
In between those two actions, miracles happen and we might get scared going through some choppy waters, but in the end it’s all part of the Big Idea!
This Big Idea: that God’s people are transformed by their encounter with Christ, to the point that they offer all they have even though it’s never enough unless it’s given up. To the point that they can pick out Jesus even in the midst of a storm on the sea.
God’s people are transformed by Christ, and as a result they go throughout all the region, spreading the good news that the healer has come!
It’s not just small talk this morning…it’s a really big idea!