Proper XIII Sermon, Year A, "More than either/or"

Sunday, July 31, 2005

The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector

St. John the Baptist, Sanbornville

Neh. 9:16-20; Ps. 78:1-29; Rom. 8:35-39; Matt. 14:31-21

Fifteen years ago I heard a sermon on today's Gospel story of the feeding of the 5,000 that has stayed with me ever since. It was preached at St. John's -on-the- Green in Waterbury, Connecticut by the then associate rector, whose name has since escaped me. As I said, I remembered the sermon, but not much about the preacher. But what she said has stayed with me, not so much because I found her message edifying or up-lifting, but because the interpretation she gave of this feeding miracle by Jesus disturbed me - actually I was stunned, then appalled, eventually angry, and then I settled down to just plain disagreeing with her. Now, I know very few, if any, people in this congregation have ever had this sort of adverse reaction to a sermon before. But none-the-less, sermons can and do sometimes provoke people to respond the way I did at St John's on that summer, Sunday morning years ago.

O.K. so now I'm sure you're all wondering just what the preacher said that got me all bothered. Well, what she did, was to de-miraclize the feeding miracle of the 5,000. (Which, by-the-way was under-counted by several thousand. The number 5,000 only takes into account the men present - women and children not being deemed significant enough to figure into the head count - but that's another sermon!)

Anyway the preacher said that Jesus never multiplied those five loaves and two fish, into the literally hundreds and hundreds of loaves and fish, it would have taken to feed that huge crowd of people. Instead, she explained, what really happened is that all those folks had actually packed picnics for themselves when they went to hear Jesus. But, because they were unsure just how long they would be away from home, they were initially loath to share what they had with others. In a nut shell, they were being stingy and hoarding their food for themselves. Which to re-phrase it, is to say that no miracle happened. Instead, Jesus just got the people to stop being stingy, which then allowed them to break out all those secreted tuna fish sandwiches in their backpacks and share with others.

I was shocked! The preacher in one fell swoop seemed to just gut Jesus of being anything other than someone persuasive enough to convince people to stop being self-centered, and to, at least momentarily, care about someone else's needs. Now while this in itself isn't bad, it isn't the stuff of being the Son of God, either. And for me her de-miraclizing of the feeding story, also de-Son of Godded, Jesus, and made this interpretation all wrong.

Over the years I have often thought about that sermon, and how it offended me. Which also tells you that this has stayed on my mind , as I have grown in ministry, and developed my own theology. Oh, and by the way, when a sermon bothers you that much, and it's message stays with you, oh, say fifteen years, it's best to pay attention to it. I assure you God is trying to teach you something. As he has me.

One thing God has taught me is that we all need to be skeptical when a preacher says they know what really happened, when it comes to the stories of scripture. Because unless they were really there, they can't really know. They can only make a, hopefully, informed opinion. And while the preacher of that sermon was an older women, I'm quite sure she wasn't 2,000 years old! So we really should be cautious in speaking in absolutes when it comes to issues surrounding biblical stories.

Another thing God has taught me from that sermon is that it's always tricky to frame the works of God in an either/or context. To do so is to set limits on God, and of course these are human imposed limits, not God's. When we humans do attempt this, I'm reminded of the quip that, "God made humanity in his image, and we have been trying to return the compliment ever since!"

In the book of the prophet Isaiah, God tells the people, "my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways." (Is. 55:8) God is not in any way restricted in how God can impart his message to people, or achieve his Kingdom. Period. For that preacher to have said that her interpretation was the authentic one of what Jesus did that day as he feed the multitude, is to do just that: It is to limit God. And that is just plain wrong as God is limitless and infinite. Which means that instead of seeing God as doing either/or things, we should strive to see the AND/OR possibilities, in all that God has ever done, and all that God continues to do in creation.

Another thing God has taught me is that while the preachers sermon and interpretation have really annoyed me, there's also a real nugget of truth - a real pearl of great value and wisdom - in what she said. Although I'm not sure she saw it. Let's hope God has been teaching her too.

To open myself up to see the and/or possibilities of that feeding event, I need to also see how God worked through her interpretation. And when I open my mind to this, I see that her understanding of what Jesus did that day is as much a miracle event, as the miracle of literally multiplying those fish and loaves of bread.

Remember, she said Jesus was able to get this huge mass of people to share their hidden picnics with one another, so that all ate and were satisfied. Now on the surface that shows Jesus had charisma, but it doesn't appear to be miraculous.

But isn't it a miracle?

In today's reading from Romans St. Paul asks, "What can separate us from the love of Christ?" Well, plenty actually. And that separation all originates within us. Paul lists the perils of life that we believe can separate us from Jesus: tribulation, peril, death, powers, principalities, and a slew more. But as Paul states, none of these can separate us from Christ, because Christ never desires to be separated from us, and Christ can overcome all these and more.

But, we by our own deeds can separate ourselves from Christ. We can turn from him. Our skepticism, hard-heartedness, meanness, selfishness, believing the theology of scarcity, small-mindedness, pettiness, our dis-belief that God actually loves us. All these things can, and do keep us separated from the love of Jesus Christ.

And Jesus knew that as he faced the hungry crowds before him, as he was challenged to feed them with five loaves and two fish.

The converting of a self-regarding, stingy, selfish mass of people, into a crowd that freely gave out of their own resources is a miracle of no mean order. The ability of Jesus to turn the hardened hearts of humanity - to kindle in them altruistic impulses, to believe that God provides for them in abundance, versus living in the fear of scarcity - is miraculous.

If you doubt this, just honestly ask yourself by examining your own life and heart. We are a hard-hearted lot. Moving us away from the sinful behaviors that make us so, is a miraculous change. Turning hardened human hearts into one's able to hear and receive the love of Christ is no easy feat. Those thousands of people in the story were not prepared to share their rations. Turning hardened hearts is done only though the power of God acting in our lives. When seen in this light, we see a miracle of the sharing of the secreted food, as wondrous as the literal understanding of multiplying the loaves and fishes. God lovingly works through them both: and/or, not either/or.

[This morning] [In a few moments] we will baptize Trevor Joseph Johns into the household of Christ. We will pray for Trevor that God give him, "an inquiring and discerning heart . . . a spirit to know and to love [God], and the gift and wonder in all [God's] work." (BCP p. 308)

It is a prayer that asks God to let Trevor always hold fast to the gentle, vulnerable, joy-filled, innocense of childhood. It is a prayer that Trevor always be on guard against a hardened, cynical, heart, instead cultivating a heart that allows the spirit of God to live there. It is a prayer that he always believe that God will provide for him abundantly, if he approaches God with the same innocense, trust and joy as the child he is now.

Through his gentle presence and compassionate love, Jesus conveyed this same message to the hungry crowd that day. It turned their hearts, and the abundance was such that there was plenty to eat and plenty to spare. The scripture informs us that, "they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over."

Jesus conveys that same loving message to us today. He bids us all to come to him with, " inquiring and discerning hearts . . . spirits to know and to love [God], and [to always be aware of] the gift and wonder in all [God's] work." Doing that fed all those people that day, and it fed them with a whole lot more than just literal bread and fish. God always gives abundantly. Always remember with God it's more than either/or.

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