Sunday, July 30, 2006

July 30 Sermon, The Loaves and Fishes in our Midst

Sermon texts:
Ephesians 3: 14-21
John 6: 1-21
What picnics stick out in your mind? I remember one picnic in particular, on my honeymoon. Lara and I were on the second day of our honeymoon, and the little inn we stayed at (the Sooke Harbor House) on Vancouver Island BC. This little inn had a premier chef that cooked with the flowers (edible flowers) from the garden, and also prepared us a sack lunch to take with us on our exploration of the island. I remember eating the sack lunch and drinking the bottle of apple cider on a rock overlooking a beautiful little stream. I remember the fullness of the moment, the excitement of venturing into a life with this woman I was picnicking with.
I believe “packed moments” like that contain miracles that are perhaps more subtle but just as powerful as what we might expect when we hear the word “miracle” and think of events that defy the laws of nature.
I want you to know about one way that I view my calling as a minister. What I have to tell you may help you understand why I preach the way I do, why I minister to you the way that I do. Unlike many pastors that I have conversations with, my objective as a pastor is not to “ save your soul so that you can go to heaven after you die.”
I don’t think that the afterlife is where God intends us to place such a heavy emphasis. Besides that, I don’t believe that I can save your soul to begin with, and I bristle at preachers who use that kind of language. Your soul is God’s breath—it is between you and God. Now I am interested in you “saving your soul,” but I am more interested in you saving it for the present moment. By opening our eyes to what life—this life—contains, we might just become more involved and interested in what is going on now rather than what will happen. What is going on now can sometimes be perceived in all its glory when these “packed moments” come along-- These picnic moments.
Your soul is in enough danger as it is in this life to worry about what will happen to it in the next life. Our souls are in danger because they are bored. We fill our life with such soul-less entertainment that church and the worship of God is comparatively boring. Our souls are in danger because the food of our soul, which is hope, is in short supply these days. World events, even just little every day things like the heat sap us of our hope. Our souls are hungry, and the present moment holds the Gospel Feast, but we are too bored to eat.
Can you imagine the picnic on the grass that is described in this scripture reading? Can you imagine listening all day to this new, charismatic prophet, and then at the end of the day realizing you were hungry on a physical level, and then through the miracle performed with the aid of a little boy, you were fed full? Can you imagine?
The story we heard in the Gospel this morning was perhaps one of the best known stories about Jesus in early Christianity. The earliest Christian art decorating tombs in the catacombs were pictures of five loaves and two fishes. This story is the only miracle story to make it in all four of the gospels. Mark and Matthew even tell it twice.
Several features of the story are common to all the Gospels—Jesus multiplies five loaves and two fish into a meal that feeds a multitude. The disciples are worried about the crowd. And there are leftovers enough to fill baskets.
Some aspects of John’s telling of the story are particular to John. John is the only Gospel writer to include a young boy giving the gift of five barley loaves and two fish. John is the only gospel writer to mention the boy and the only writer to mention that the boy brought “barley” loaves. This is somewhat important because barley is the kind of wheat used by the poor folks. The boy who gave all he had was a poor boy. If we’re willing to give what we have, God will make it tremendous. It’s not the size of the gift, it’s the size of the heart it takes to give it.
One idea about how this miracle may have actually transpired in an “explainable” way is really quite beautiful. The “rational” explanation goes something like this: Jesus and his disciples are busy healing and preaching, it gets late, people are hungry, and the disciples wonder what to do. It didn’t speak too highly of a savior to send his listeners away hungry, now did it? In walks a young boy whose faith makes the miracle really happen. He is willing to share what he has so that all may be fed. He’s kind of like Jesus in this way.
His gift inspires others in the huge gathering to share the meal they brought for their family with those immediately around them. And through the miracle of generosity, all are fed. But it took the boy’s gift to make it happen. When the crowd saw the young boy give his own family’s lunch to Jesus with the faith that he could do something with it, the power and presence of Jesus really came alive for the crowd. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” was not just something people said or thought about, it was what they did. Just as it is today, it took a massive “eye-opening” to the divine potential in the power of community for that crowd to see the answer was right in front of them.
Now, I’m not saying I don’t believe in miracles, because I do—but what we need to understand is that sometimes miracles happen in very ordinary ways. Sometimes miracles are accomplished through things we normally don’t even notice. I don’t know how this miracle happened because the text doesn’t tell me and I wasn’t there—but I know that more then 5000 people were fed, and I know even the “rational” explanation sounds miraculous to me.
This miracle story also made me think of a version of heaven and hell that I’ve heard about before.
Have you ever heard of the Polynesian vision of the afterlife?
Both heaven and hell are identical in this vision, we all sit at banquet table loaded with all the delightful food of our lives and the eating utensils are very long forks. You may have seen these forks in people’s homes. In hell, the people are sitting around the table festering with rage and hunger. You see, the forks are too long an unwieldy to use to put food into your mouth. You certainly don’t just throw down the forks and use your hands, because this just isn’t done in the afterlife. No, the people in this hell waste away, staring at each other across the banquet table from one another, wishing they could do something for themselves.
In heaven, the table and food and forks are the same, but here the people are full of joy and contentment and delight as they taste the richest and most vibrant tastes you could possibly imagine. Here they are well fed because they sit across from one another, and the forks are just long enough to reach across the table to the person sitting there. Everyone picks up a fork and feeds those around them, and they are fed by their neighbors.
Sometimes visions of the afterlife are a good lesson about how we should live in the present moment.
We must feed one another the miracles and the hope contained in the present moment. There are loaves and fishes in our midst, and we don’t see them because we are looking at a big fork and thinking, “how am I gonna stick that in my mouth?” The hope, the miracles in our presence are seen when we turn our eyes toward others and sincerely wish to commune with them. They were seen by that little boy in the wilderness, who took what little he had and offered them to the disciples to give to Jesus.
That little boy saw the big fork and thought about those across the table. He didn’t see as the world trains us to see. He didn’t see five loaves and two fish, and add up to seven. He knew that two more things factored into the equation, and these two things could multiply his gift exponentially. He saw two hands—he saw the hands of the Christ, who was healing and preaching and opening eyes. He saw the only two things that mattered in this occasion!
We’re not seeing with the eyes of faith when we look at what we have and we see what we cannot do. The eyes of faith perceive only the possibilities, and sometimes the possibilities may astound us. The eyes of faith see what little we have plus the hands of Christ. The power of Christ, states Ephesians, is “at work within us and is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can think or imagine.”
The hands of Christ aren’t bound by what we can understand with our knowledge. But the Ephesians author prays that we are able to “comprehend.” You see, comprehend and understand are two different ideas. A famous theologian said, we cannot understand the cross, we can only stand under the cross. Comprehending is the way the little boy looked at the fish and loaves and “comprehended” possibilities. He didn’t understand how it could possibly happen, but he comprehended that those loaves and fishes were enough.
The author of Ephesians prays that we have this little boy’s faith. The author prays, “that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
So I invite you today to take this bread as your last meal today, To imagine yourself eating it with the crowd of people listening to Jesus. I invite you to feel the hunger pangs throughout this day, and to use those times to focus on the Love of God which ultimately fills us. Jesus thought of nightfall as the beginning of a new day (Middle Eastern cultures regard the evening as the beginning of a new day), so if you choose to break the fast after the sun goes down tonight—do so in the company of a family meal—a feast together.
My hope for you is that fasting on a day when we’ve read and celebrated “feasting” may encourage you to perceive the spiritual feast which is in the present moment. My hope is that this ancient discipline that Jesus practice helps you attune your minds and hearts to the fullness of God which passes all understanding. Amen!

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