Proper 12, Year BEphesians 3:14-21
Do you like bread? I do. I like the taste and the smell that fills the house as it bakes. It’s one of the few foods that can be fulfilling just to smell. At this point, even if you don’t like bread, I’d recommend developing a taste for it, because we’re going to be hearing about bread in one form or another for the next five weeks.
You see, we made a shift in the lectionary today. We have been happily wending our way through the book of Mark. In fact, if we kept reading today where we left off in Mark last week, we would read about the exact same miracles that we read about today. But we have transitioned over to the book of John, where for the next few weeks we will be hearing about bread – also called the “bread of life” series.
One of the big characteristics of John’s writing is that he concentrates on “proving” or demonstrating the divinity of Jesus. While within the book of Mark one sees very clearly Jesus’s humanity, John emphasizes the “oneness” of Jesus and the Father. He does that partially through descriptions of Jesus’s signs and miracles, which is where we join him today.
Miracles. We love to hear about them. We want to believe in them. We want to experience them. We may even pray for them. At our heart we are skeptics, however. We pray for miracles, but we make back-up plans.
The problem in our “post-enlightenment age” with emphasizing miracles to prove anything about God, or Jesus, or religion is that, for the most part, people really just don’t buy it. At best we see miracles as something that happened in another time to other people. At worst, the description of miracles actually inspires doubt or ridicule for the entire concept of faith.
So where do we go when our Gospel is full of miracles and our lives not so much?
Jesus and his followers are in an impossible situation. 5,000 hungry, searching people. The ancient middle east countryside was not known for its abundance of fine restaurants or fast food. Philip has run the numbers – providing for them is quite simply impossible. I know I just said that John’s whole focus is the divinity of Christ, but when I read this Gospel story, it is not Jesus I find most interesting. John makes it clear that Jesus already knows how this is all going to come out, anyway. The person I find myself focusing on wouldn’t have been considered a person at all. A boy. Within the culture of the day, he was a nonentity; the property of his father. He carried barley loaves; less expensive, more hearty and more durable than wheat. The food of common folk. He carried dried fish, not sumptuous rich, fresh fish; but traveling food, working folks’ food, food that would last. This young nobody with nothing gave what he had to solve a problem of immense proportions.
We live in a seemingly impossible situation. Poverty is rampant. Pollution chokes our earth. Corporations are recognized as people, but too often, individual human beings are not. Violence rules the streets and fear controls our policy making. We care. Of course we do. But we become stymied looking for solutions. We run the numbers, as Philip did, but the math doesn’t work out advantageously. We look against all odds for the dramatic miracles, and are blinded to the common, everyday miracle of God’s presence within us, within the boy, within the world, all around us.
As one commentator observed, the trouble with these extraordinary occurrences, multiplying loaves and fishes, walking on water, is that when we focus on them, we obscure the truly miraculous. The truly miraculous happening in this story is not the multiplication of loaves and fishes, but that a human being could be such a sign of hope, compassion and healing that thousands could feel that their hunger for “the bread of life” had been assuaged.
“What is truly awe-inspiring is not [just] that someone could walk on the surface of the water without sinking, but that his presence among ordinary, insecure, and timid persons could calm their anxieties and cause them to walk where they feared to walk before—in the end, all the way to their own Golgothas……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” (Douglas John Hall – Feasting on the Word)
In a conversation about the lectionary lessons earlier in this week, I asked what that wonderful phrase from Ephesians, “so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” meant. The answer I got was, “That sounds like an awful exaggeration, doesn’t it?” Sadly, it does, yes. But here’s the deal. It doesn’t have to be. We are not used to giving God that kind of room to move in. We ask God in for a visit now and then, during worship, or some inspirational music, or a walk in the woods, or after a life crisis. But asking someone in for a visit is relatively easy – you show respect and good manners and know that everything can get back to normal when they leave. Paul’s prayer is for us to allow God permanent residence in our hearts. That means change. That means things do not go back to normal.
It means that we see the heartbreaking realities around us with new clarity. It also means that we see, and live, the miraculous. The troubles of the world become a reason to go on, not an overwhelming impediment. It means we don’t stand wringing our hands, waiting for big, flashy miracles. We become witnesses of and conduits for the small ones on a daily basis.
Interviewers once asked Mother Theresa how she kept from being overwhelmed by the masses of the needy. Her reply? “I love them one at a time.” (“Proclaim,” 1983 #4, p. 42.) Bishop Desmond Tutu advised, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”
We live the miracle of the little boy, offering up the loaves and fishes that we have, knowing full well that we can’t walk on water, but the One who walks with us can.
Remember Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s words:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God
And only he who sees takes off his shoes –
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father. I pray that we may all be filled with all the fullness of God, and that we may invite that heavenly power at work within us to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.
Glory be to God!