Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
July 29, 2018
I cried out to God for help;
I cried out to God to hear me.
When I was in distress, I sought the Lord;
at night I stretched out untiring hands,
and I would not be comforted.
I remembered you, God, and I groaned;
I meditated, and my spirit grew faint.
You kept my eyes from closing;
I was too troubled to speak.
I thought about the former days,
the years of long ago;
I remembered my songs in the night.
My heart meditated and my spirit asked:
“Will the Lord reject forever?
Will God never show favor again?
Has the Lord’s unfailing love vanished forever?
Has God’s promise failed for all time?
Has God forgotten to be merciful?
Has God in anger withheld compassion?”
Then I thought, “To this I will appeal:
the years when the Most High stretched out God’s right hand.
I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
I will consider all your works
and meditate on all your mighty deeds.”
Your ways, God, are holy.
What god is as great as our God?
You are the God who performs miracles;
you display your power among the peoples.
With your mighty arm you redeemed your people,
the descendants of Jacob and Joseph.
The waters saw you, God,
the waters saw you and writhed;
the very depths were convulsed.
The clouds poured down water,
the heavens resounded with thunder;
your arrows flashed back and forth.
Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind,
your lightning lit up the world;
the earth trembled and quaked.
Your path led through the sea,
your way through the mighty waters,
though your footprints were not seen.
You led your people like a flock
by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘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. Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’
Over the years I’ve heard two different interpretations for this miracle. The first, and most familiar, is that Jesus defied the laws of nature to produce enough food to feed 5,000 people from 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. We might think of this as the “magical” interpretation – where something happens that is physically impossible. Miracles like this are all over the Bible – the parting of the Red Sea; manna falling from heaven to feed the Israelites wandering in the desert; Jesus changing water into wine or raising Lazarus from the dead.
The second interpretation is that the people who went out to see Jesus in a deserted place did what we would do if we were headed to a concert on the Esplanade or a day at the beach – they packed their own food, enough to feed their families. But when the hour grew late and it was time to eat, no one wanted to bring out their picnics, lest they would have to share with any unprepared neighbors and end up without enough food for themselves.
When one little boy, seeing a need, steps forward to share what his family has brought – I imagine his mother frantically trying to call him back – “No, that’s our food! Don’t give it away!” – his generosity inspires the crowd to share as well. It’s a miracle, in other words, of human scarcity and selfishness transformed into generosity and abundance – a “metaphorical” miracle, if you will.
This interpretation might seem a little weak – certainly not as impressive as feeding 5,000 people out of thin air – but when you consider the power of human nature and the cultural forces that encourage us to care for our own first before we look after others, it’s actually quite powerful.
So which interpretation do we pick – magic or metaphor?
If we call it a metaphorical miracle, we don’t have to wrestle with whether we believe in science-defying supernatural feats. We can dig deep into the force that transforms human behavior and look for ways to replicate that in our own society rather than fretting over whether God is still in the miracle business.
But we arguably lose something – the hope that comes with worshiping a God who is able to overturn any obstacle we face, no matter how seemingly impossible. If you’ve ever prayed for stage 4 cancer to somehow reverse itself, or for your child to be okay despite a terrible accident, you know how powerful that hope is.
If we call it a magical miracle, on the other hand, then we get to embrace this God who defies our understanding and goes beyond our human limits – the God who makes a way out of no way, and that can be deeply comforting. We also get to embrace the narrative that all these miracle stories tell – namely, that God is a God who provides for God’s people, who never runs out of sustenance, freedom, health, or hospitality and who shares these all willingly, even lavishly with us. There’s a reason there are 12 baskets full of crumbs left after everyone has had their fill – the message is that this God, this Jesus, never runs out, always has more than enough.
As we talked about in Bible Study on Wednesday night, it’s pretty clear that the author of John is in the magical camp. He’s deeply committed to portraying Jesus as not only the son of God, but one with God – able, indeed, to produce food, wine, or healing out of thin air.
But in these days when seas no longer part and bread no longer falls from heaven, does embracing the magical interpretation leave us full of false hope? Does it leave us bitter and angry at God for not curing us of a terminal illness or saving our children from heartbreak or harm, since God has so clearly done so in the past?
Here’s another question – do we have to choose one interpretation over the other?
During his papal tenure, Pope Francis has gotten some flack for how he’s talked about the feeding of the 5,000 – one of his self-proclaimed favorite miracles. “[R]ather than a multiplication it is a sharing,” he has said, “inspired by faith and prayer. Everyone eats and some is left over: it is the sign of Jesus, the Bread of God for humanity.”
He’s also called it a parable, a word we tend to think of as a made-up story meant to illustrate a point: “The parable of the multiplication of the loaves and fish teaches us exactly this,” he says, “that if there is the will, what we have never ends. On the contrary, it abounds and does not get wasted.”
This has, as you can imagine, caused quite a stir amongst more traditional Catholics. Does the Pope himself not believe Jesus did “real” (aka “magical”) miracles? What does that say about the divinity of Jesus? And what does it mean for the future of the Catholic church if the guy in charge is serving such watered down theology?
It turns out, though, that in those same speeches – often in the same paragraph – Francis has clearly called the feeding a miracle, one of food being reproduced, not merely being shared but not running out, a miracle that is accomplished only through “the grace of God.” (This is a good reminder of the dangers of proof-texting – of lifting quotations out of context to make your point. Media outlets, take note.)
And the word “parable”? Writer Jimmy Akin reminds us that in Greek, “parable” – parabola – literally means “to throw beside” – to put two things next to each other and see what similarities or differences come to light. “Compare and contrast” might be a more straightforward definition for “parable” as used by the Pope, this son of the Church who is well steeped in biblical Greek.
And that is exactly what Francis does: he throws a magical interpretation of Jesus’ actions 2,000 years ago alongside our global food crisis, where almost 1 in 8 people do not have enough food to eat, and asks how a metaphorical interpretation – the miracle of sharing – might challenge us to do something miraculous, to accomplish a sea change in our human preconceptions and patterns of behavior, to overcome the seemingly impossible:
“We are in front of a global scandal of around one billion,” says the Pope, “one billion people who still suffer from hunger today. We cannot look the other way and pretend this does not exist. The food available in the world is enough to feed everyone.
The parable [or comparison, we might say] of the multiplication of the loaves and fish teaches us exactly this: that if there is the will, what we have never ends. On the contrary, it abounds and does not get wasted.”
If we can find our way to embracing both magic and metaphor, then when it comes to the miraculous we’ll find ourselves immersed in a far more interesting challenge than intellectual arguments for and against. We’ll find ourselves wondering how we can take inspiration from the divine to effect a transformation with our own two hands.
Because after all, Jesus didn’t immediately multiply the loaves and fishes to produce a huge mountain of food in front of a hungry crowd, though he arguably could have; instead, to accomplish his miracle he worked through a little boy stepping forward; he used the passing of food from one set of human hands to another. And in that way, each person there participated in the incredible miracle – whether magic or metaphorical – of no one going hungry and everyone having enough.
To close, I’ll tell a story I’ve shared before but that’s too good not to repeat.
Quaker author Parker Palmer tells about an unusual experience he had while flying:
“After a speech in Saskatoon, I boarded a 6 a.m. flight home to Wisconsin. Our departure was delayed because the truck that brings coffee to the planes had broken down. After a while the pilot said, ‘We’re going to take off without the coffee. We want to get you to Detroit on time.’
I was up front where all the ‘road warriors’ sit — a surly tribe, especially at that early hour. They began griping, loudly and at length, about ‘incompetence,’ ‘lousy service,’ etc.
Once we got into the air, the lead flight attendant came to the center of the aisle with her mic and said, ’I know you’re upset about the coffee.” Dramatic pause. “Well, get over it! Start sharing stuff with your seatmates. That bag of peanuts you got on your last flight and put in your pocket? Tear it open and pass them around! Got gum or mints? Share them! You can’t read all the sections of your paper at once. Offer them to each other! Show off the pictures of kids and grandkids you have in your wallets!’
As she went on in that vein, people began laughing and doing what she had told them to do. A surly scene turned into summer camp!
An hour later, as the attendant passed by my seat, I signaled to her. ‘What you did was really amazing,’ I said. ‘Where can I send a letter of commendation?’‘Thanks,’ she said, ‘I’ll get you a form.’ Then she leaned down and whispered, ‘The loaves and fishes are not dead.’ ”
Friends, whether you tend to take miracles at face value or look for a more down-to-earth explanation – or both – let us, each and every one, find a way to follow Jesus’ lead and keep miracles alive. Amen.