Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Managing Miracles

First off: a plug for a book. I don’t think I’ve ever used four sources from a single book before for a sermon! ALL my sources came from Feasting On the Word Year B, Vol. 3, edited by David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor. Four “perspectives” on each lesson of the Revised Common Lectionary: theological, pastoral, exegetical & homiletical. Do yourself (and your local independent bookstore) a favor by going and ordering it today. If you don’t have a bookstore nearby, try my old one in Cleveland (Sacred Path Books & Art) or my new one in Littleton, NH (Village Book Store).

OK! To the sermon:

“When he looked up, and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Phillip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.” (John 6:5)

Imagine that Jesus has posed his test in a contemporary congregation, like this one. One might expect the Vestry and Finance Committee to echo Philip’s money-management concern pointing out that the congregation does not take in enough revenue to support such a project. (I should say that the rector would likely take this position as well.) The outreach committee might reinforce Andrew’s position, stating that the congregation has earmarked only a small percentage of its income for mission giving, and the proposed project’s needs far exceed the allocated amount. The groups responsible for discipleship and worship may not even offer an opinion, as they are busy preparing for a fast approaching religious festival. The building and grounds committee would be frantically searching for places for people to sit, praying that the Fire Marshall doesn’t show up, and wondering what toll this event would take on the building. (I adapted Yust’s words to fit what might happen at All Saints...see source below)

Karen Marie Yust, of Union Seminary in Richmond, Virginia came up with the basis of this scenario. She suggests that at most places, “…none of the congregation’s leadership or committees would expect to participate in a miracle, as that is not what they signed on for. They would serve out of a sense of duty, or because they enjoy the work, or to contribute to a cause larger than themselves. They identify a few reasonable goals, set some workable plans in motion, and carry out their endeavors with the resources at hand.” It would be a frantic mess, and the best to hope for would be surviving the event.

Yust asks, “How would a congregation’s work together be different if its members deliberately shared in Jesus’ goal of revealing God’s power through each act of ministry? Would members construct their worship and outreach activities differently if pointing to Christ’s abundance in response to human hungers was their ongoing mission?” (Feasting On the Word Year B, Vol. 3, from now on simply “FOW”)

These are good questions to ask ourselves, in response to this morning’s Gospel reading.

The usual question on most modern minds, however, is the nature of the miracle itself. The story was simpler to understand in pre-Enlightenment days, where the pre-modern mind would be impressed by the miracles, and not question whether or not they could actually happen.

In recent times, the Biblical miracles often act barriers to the Gospel. The presence of miracles confuses and frustrates modern minds filled with scientific and practical knowledge. The miracle stories lose their power when approached outside of their ancient context: causing some to stubbornly insist that Jesus broke the laws of science, and others to wave off the story entirely as gratuitous fiction.

Personally, I have a real problem with this particular miracle as fact, beyond the breaking of science. What would be more cruel, and unworthy of our love and honor, if God could, with the snapping of fingers, multiply fish and loaves...and yet simply chooses not to, despite there being so many people currently suffering and dying without enough to eat? If the means are magical and outside of the natural world, the suggestion that God chooses to help some, and not others, is abhorrent. That is not the God that I have followed throughout my lifetime.

Explaining away the miracle, however, trying to demystify the account to determine “what really happened,” isn’t particularly helpful. The classic modern interpretation is that once the young boy pulls out what he has...his loaves and fish...for everyone to share, that others do the same...moved by guilt or realization that there is enough to go around. That may be, in fact, what actually happened, but our focus on explaining the miracle takes us away from the point of the account. Yust writes that the danger in this explanation is reducing God to “...a divine therapist counseling charity among a greedy people who already know better. Can God not be much more in our lives than an omnipresent social worker reminding us of our duties?” “FOW

It is so easy to get stuck in the miracle question, but we do so not only to our own peril, but also against the actual point of the text.

Douglass John Hall writes that what is truly wonderful in biblical terms is not that Jesus could multiply loaves and fishes in so astounding a matter, but that Jesus could represent, by his words and deeds, such a sign of hope and healing that hundreds of needy people would follow him about, and feel that their hunger for “the bread of life” had been met. “What is truly awe-inspiring is not that someone could walk on the surface of the water without sinking, but that his presence among ordinary, insecure, and timid persons could clam their anxieties and cause them to walk where they feared to walk before. What is genuinely miraculous is not that a dead body should come to life again, but that through the journey with the crucified one, the disciple community was enabled to find hope on the far side of despair, faith that could live with doubt, and the courage to live beyond the sting of death. In other words, when the miraculous is identified too exclusively with those literally incredible things, the wonder of divine grace that permeates the whole of life is deprived of a witness.” “FOW"

So, this morning, Jesus asks the critical question: “What do we have?” After uncovering only the five loaves and two fishes, Andrew makes the critical observation: “What are they among so many?” Or to put it another way, “How can the tremendous need be met by so small an offering?”

Robert Bryant writes that it is not clear by the text “whether the miracle is a supernatural multiplication of the food or the unleashing of compassion and generosity among the people. The text is explicit, however, that Jesus causes everyone’s hunger to be satisfied and twelve baskets of leftovers are collected, indicating the character of this new community: where “leftovers”---both food and people---are neither insignificant nor abandoned.” “FOW

Ministry is about multiplying resources so that what might have been a social handout becomes a revelation of amazing grace. Ministry should leave people exclaiming that prophets of transformation are active in the world, bringing hope to souls weary of oppressive social systems and values.” (Yust in “FOW)

Cheryl Bridges Johns beautifully concludes, “In the ‘prayers of the people,’ we place before the Lord the great needs of humanity. We may find echoing back the words, ‘What do you have?’” Whatever we have is not enough. Yet the text shows that our “not enough,” when placed in the hands of Jesus, becomes abundantly more...so much more…that there is enough for all, and even some leftover. (“FOW)

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