August 6, 2017

Loaves Abound

A miracle.  A surprising and welcome act not explainable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a Divine Agency.  The 1980 Olympics is said to have born witness to a miracle, when a team of Amateur Hockey players from the United States beat a team of Professional players from the Soviet Union for the first time in seven Olympics.  A miracle was said to have occurred when a man named Donnie Register was held at gunpoint during a robbery.  The gun went off.  He held up his hand, a simple reflex, but found that bullet was deflected by nothing more than the metal of his wedding ring.  A miracle was said to have occurred in March of 2015, when first responders arrived at the scene of an over turned car in a Utah River.  Despite being there for at least twelve hours many of the responders claimed that they had heard the voice of a grown woman calling for help.  They felt compelled to lift the car where it lay and found a twelve month baby girl in the backseat of the suspended over freezing water.  Though her mother had died hours earlier, the girl lived.

A miracle is said to have occurred thousands of years ago.  Many miracles in fact. Water was said to have turned to wine at a wedding.  A little girl who was believed to be dead woke up as if she had only been asleep.  A man who had never been able to walk in his life had to be lowered through a roof on a mat but walked out of the house on two legs, carrying his bed.  Miracles.  All of them.  But what makes these miracles so odd is that they can all be traced to the presence of a single man.  Many of us go our entire lives hoping to witness just one miracle.  The fact that this man would be at the center of so many was intriguing to say the least.

This man made some extraordinary claims in his life, including one in his hometown of Nazareth.  He claimed that the prophecies had been fulfilled, the scriptures that wrote about a Savior were true and that person was none other than him.  The Son of God.  Heavy claims, to say the least.  It was after he made this extraordinary claim that he found many were not ready to receive it.  He was run out of Nazareth and not long after learned the news that a relative of his, a man he respected and loved, a man who had baptized him, was dead.  Murdered, by none other than King Herod.  It was as he sought a place to mourn and think in a desolate place with his disciples that he realized he was being followed at a distance by people.  Many people.  People who had heard of the death of their prophet, people who had hoped that man and not this one might have been the Savior, people who were looking for a miracle.  And he delivered.  He healed the sick, comforted the grieving, blessed the children.  And when the time came and all were hungry but far too spiritually hungry to notice feeling in the pit of their stomachs, he fed them with five loaves of bread and two fish.  Five thousand people.  A miracle, they say.

Jesus made extreme claims and did miraculous deeds, there is no doubt.  And he gained followers and supporters even years after he ceased to walk the earth people still flocked to him and to the stories that were told about him whether they believed in what he claimed he was or not.  So many miracles…but did you know that in all of the writings and tales and witness reports that became gospel, there is only one miracle that occurs in all four.  The Feeding of the Five Thousand.

I must admit that I found myself stumped by it this week.  How do you preach on the Feeding of the Five Thousand?  A story I feel confident in saying without research and only experience children and youth will study at least a dozen times before they are eighteen in Sunday School, Youth Group, and private devotionals.  Everyone knows the tale.  What is there left to discover about it?

Alone in my office on Friday morning I found myself doing one of the things I like to do when I’m desperate, or when I feel an itch to be creative.  I rewrote the story.  I didn’t change it, of course, changing the words we find the Bible would be a sermon of an entirely different topic!  No, I just… reexamined it.  When all else fails and the tale seems old and stale and done too many times I like to look a story from a point of view I never have before.  Prior to Friday when I thought of the Feeding of the Five Thousand I was always an invisible third person examiner, watching from a distance as Jesus taught and performed miracles of healing.  But this time I chose to be someone else in the tale.  I didn’t want to be the invisible third person, watching from a distance, I wasn’t even content to be one of the people in the crowd receiving bread and fish, wanted to be in the thick of it.  I wanted to look over someone’s shoulder and see it the way they might have.  Not as Jesus, no offense to him but I have a bit of an aversion to writing from his point of view.  But one of the Disciples I thought…Thomas, who can’t relate to Doubting Thomas?  What was it like through his eyes, I wondered?  What would he have seen?  What would he have experienced?

It is true that sometimes you do get to hear the result of these little creative writing sessions as they tend to end up in the sermon at least in part.  But this particular short story quickly grew into a three-page monster and somehow at the end chopping it up so that it could be used in a sermon just seemed too much of a crime.  It would be all or nothing.  You’ll be pleased to learn that this morning I am opting for “nothing”, as the time it would take to read it would mean an extra half hour of worship which would require a delay in getting to the food afterward and I just don’t see myself making friends if I delay us getting to the food that much.

But it’s okay, because in the end it wasn’t the story that I found was important, but rather the lesson I learned in reexamining it.

Do you know what I found in my little experiment?  What I learned in shifting my view point?  Jesus does very little of the work in this miracle.  After he greets the people, heals the sick, comforts the grieving…but it is the disciples that suggest he release them for food.  It is the disciples that bring forward loaves of bread and fish for Jesus to bless, at Jesus suggestion, admittedly.  And it is the disciples that serve the people and take up their scraps.  This is often called a miracle of Jesus and I’m not about to doubt that.  There is no doubt in my mind that what happened in that field was exactly what Jesus intended, it cannot be explained by natural or scientific law and is therefore a miracle by definition!  But Jesus…it may have been his will, but the action was carried out largely in part by the Disciples.

Fredrick Beuchner said “Faith in God is less apt to proceed from miracles, than miracles to proceed from faith in God.” In other words, did the miracle worked on the plain that day produce faith in God, or was it the disciples unwavering belief that when Jesus took those loaves and fish that something was about to happen, something extraordinary, that gave rise to the miracle.  I can’t answer that.  To answer it would be to come up with a natural law and that breaks the very definition of a miracle, but I can’t really see the disciples taking five loaves of bread and two fish to a crowd of 5000 without believing they were about to witness something special for the followers of a John the Baptist who were looking for a new shepherd.

It is perhaps the fault of Justin Chase for choosing the hymns or perhaps the lovely and talented Dana Irwin for practicing them so wonderfully this week that I’ve been able to hear them from my office, but I have had “Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ” stuck in my head since Thursday.  It’s our final hymn for today and in the past few years it’s become one of my favorites.  I don’t think I really ever noticed it much as a kid, it’s only as an adult that I have to maintain a high level of self-control not to break into dance, especially when Justin adds the drum or maracas.  “Let us talents and tongues employ reaching out with a shout of joy! Bread is broken the wine is poured Christ is spoken and seen and heard.”

1000 years after Jesus walked the Earth he is still spoken and seen and heard.  Miracles still happen today, we may not hear about them on the news but you have only to google “miracle” and you’ll find them.  You’ll find the team of doctors who performed CPR on a boy for over one hundred minutes and brought him back to life because they believed there was still hope.  You’ll find an orphan unable to run or walk who now runs marathons because her adoptive mother believed she could do anything.  And you’ll find a hockey coach, who believed that the right team with the right training and stamina could take home a gold medal.  God ordains miracles; he still wills them into being.  But it takes people like you and me to believe in them, to believe that we can be the feet and hands, to trust our calling and our commissioning and allow miracles to happen.  So I beg of you when we leave here today let our talents and tongues employ! Let us reach out with a shout of joy!  For after bread is broken and wine is poured, we will see Christ spoken and seen and heard.  Pass the world around.  Loaves, and miracles, still abound.