Miracles We Can Do

A sermon based on John 6:1-21
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on July 29, 2018
by Rev. Scott Elliott

We just heard the story of “The Miracle of the Feeding of Five Thousand” which appears in all four gospels. As the name suggests most understand THE miracle in the story to be making a small amount of bread and fish into so much food it feeds five thousand with an abundance of left overs.

THAT supernatural miracle IS in the story and we will consider it, but there is another miracle to consider as well. And perhaps it is all the more profound because it has no supernatural quality to it other than being an integral part of Jesus’ ministry and Way. It’s a miracle every community of Jesus can do – and should do.

Before I get to that second miracle, lets consider the first, the one on everyone’s mind when we hear that Jesus fed five thousand with a small bit of food a boy could carry. John 6 starts with Jesus’ disciples not knowing about the boy’s cache of food. They wonder how in the heck they will do as Jesus suggests and get food to feed a gathered crowd of 5,000 people. If we only look at the lesson, without context, that seems a fair enough question. In ordinary circumstances the followers of Jesus would seem to have a right to be concerned about Jesus’ extraordinary suggestion that they buy thousands of people food. As we heard

When [Jesus] looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward 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.”

Standing alone Phillip’s concerns seem to be on the mark. But they are NOT meant to be in the context of the Gospel of John. For the previous five chapters Jesus has been doing extraordinary miracles . . . like turning water into wine, reading a woman’s mind, healing a royal child, healing an elderly pauper. The Gospel of John evidences that when there’s a need Jesus can and will provide. That is a core message the disciples should have known by this time.

John wants us to know that regardless of how things are expected to ordinarily play out, with Jesus they play out in extraordinary fashion. So there’s a thick-headed-ness to the disciples’ thinking that ordinary impediments like the lack of money are an issue. It’s our thickheadedness too, because we also doubt it. All of us live in a world where we are conditioned to have a thick-headed-ness about our perceptions of reality. Asking us to feed an unplanned gathering of 5,000 people is still bound to have us as concerned as Philip about the logistics and practicalities of pulling it off.

Jesus tests the disciples by asking “Where are we going to buy bread for these people?” He wants them to critically think. Philip’s concerns fail in that regard. But not all of the disciples fail the test, at least Andrew seems to have an inkling Jesus can do something. Andrew does not question how to feed the crowd, instead he tells Jesus what is available to pull off what Jesus asks. Andrew states “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”

On one hand we can hear Jesus’ request as questionable, we are with Andrew when he suggests the loaves and fish at hand are not enough. That is critical thinking at work. On the other hand Andrew’s listing the available resources suggests – and proves to be– the seed of the answer to the problem. Had the disciples used critical thinking by applying what they know about Jesus they should have concluded He’d provide with what was at hand. Because in the previous chapters of John Jesus takes the kernel of ordinary help there is and works it to extraordinarily solve the need.
The catalyst for miracles of Jesus’ are Christ’s presence and what is available. As we heard in the lesson when He learned there was some food:

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.

That is a pretty cool miracle. Everyone wanting food got it. Everyone wanting to be at the “table” (such as it was) was welcome.

Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor observes in one of her book of sermons called Mixed Blessings that there are three basic interpretations to this story. (I am paraphrasing). One interpretation is to hear the story as historic, that is that Jesus literally multiplied a paltry bit of food into a miraculous overflowing abundance. Another interpretation is symbolic, something like, everyone took a pinch and had a symbolic meal (like what we do at communion). A third way is to understand the story as about causation. The boy’s willingness to bring out his food to share with Jesus’ blessing caused others to bring out food stashes and share so that all got fed (like what we do at pot lucks). (p. 90).

Rev. Brown Taylor’s sermon, called “Local Miracles” is brilliant, and I do not do it justice in that summary. After describing the three options the great Episcopal priest then details a humble mission she was on where untrained but dedicated youth and their church leaders offered what they had to help, and the results were miraculous– not a supernatural miracle but one where what humans had was offered and Christ made it work. Her take is Jesus’ famous feeding miracle can be heard to be about God matching the gifts we bring to Jesus so that the things God calls us to get done. I love that!

Rev. Brown Taylor’s interpretation understands the story as metaphor for giving what we have and letting God use it and add to it to accomplish what God calls us to. I understand this interpretation to be the third way she offers of understanding the story as one of causation that comes about when we offer what we have for needs at hand. The boy offers his food, then the incarnation of God, Christ, uses it and adds to it to solve the need that Jesus had lifted up– making a meal for those who chose to be at His “table,” whether it be a table indoors or a table in the meadow, and whether it be a table set for physical or spiritual nourishment.

Rev. Brown Taylor’s sermon did not expressly address the other miracle I mentioned It is another miracle that we can do. This miracle leapt out as I prepared this sermon on medical leave in the context of national happenings of exclusiveness in the news, coupled with our church’s relentless efforts to be an inclusive community of God where everyone is welcome as God made them. In today’s meal story – as well as in other meal stories about Jesus– He knocks down hurdles to who may have the food or who may be at the table. Jesus meals, Jesus’ tables, like God’s love always have no strings attached.

Jesus never, ever denied those outcast and oppressed in the culture access to food like a conservative cake maker did in Colorado to an LGBTQ couple. Jesus never, ever asked elite politicians to leave his table like a liberal restaurant owner did in Virginia to a White House employee and her family. Jesus denied no one what he offered. Jesus denied no one a place at the table. Jesus let anyone who chose to come to him, come to him. Jesus offered nourishment to any and all. Jesus offered community to any and all.

There were–and there are– no strings attached to the God of Jesus’ love, the God of love that Jesus steered his path toward. The nourishment and grassy table in our reading were just like that, all are asked to sit at the make-shift table of grass where all are fed and welcome. ALL. NOT SOME. ALL. No one is excluded. That is the oft overlooked miracle in the feeding of the five thousand. And we can do this miracle too – AND unconditional welcome and nourishment IS as relevant today, as it was in the First Century.

Last month social media was abuzz asking if Jesus were a commercial cake maker or a restauranteur would HE deny Gays or politicians access to what HE offered? While Jesus’ meal ministry was not related to selling cakes or serving restaurant food, we can look to that meal ministry to figure out if Jesus would deny anyone food or a place at the table.

And actually Jesus’ meal ministry took place at a time with a widespread banquet meal practice that excluded those the banquet giver had no use for, cultural outcasts and opponents. Consequently had there actually been First Century anti-Gay banquet providers they could exclude an LGBTQ couple from their banquet.Similarly if there was a politician or other person of equal or lesser rank that a banquet provider did not like they could choose not to invite them. Simply put, in Jesus’ time and place if you meant something to the culture . . . you were invited to banquets. If you meant nothing . . . you were not invited.

See, exclusion was woven into the fabric of the banquets, even as it was woven into the culture. Jesus’ meal ministry was designed to rip down the ugly woven fabric of exclusion and rejection! Jesus is remembered throughout the Gospels for inclusive meal practices. It is a big deal. One we still strive toward . . . and the culture wrestles with.

Jesus’ movement catered (pun intended) to cultural outcasts and enemies by bringing everyone to banquets THAT throughout the culture were otherwise were exclusive. Or as he does in our story today Jesus also brought the banquets to everyone! And this was NOT about outcasts excluding elites because Jesus made it cut the other way too– elites were not excluded. No one was excluded. Jesus knocked down all manner of cultural barriers to his meals. If you wanted in, you were invited and welcome.

But we also know that Jesus’ ministry resisted oppression especially in the presence of elites. (That is why he gets into trouble!) You may recall a meal story that illustrates this. In Luke 7 (36-50) Jesus is invited to a banquet and a sinful woman hears he’s there, she shows up weeping and then bathes his feet with tears and anoints them with oil. Luke tells us the elite banquet provider who invited Jesus said to himself “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” Jesus responded by pointing out how the outcast woman was more gracious than the host. He said:

“Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet . . .

Upsetting the elite further Jesus goes on to pronounce the woman’s sins forgiven and that her faith saves her. He honors her by telling her to go in peace. ///

At meals Jesus defends the oppressed, he lets everyone in and treats them equally. We can hear this happen in the lesson where 5,000 people are gathered by the lake and not one of them has to meet a standard for being fed or to sit at the grassy table. In Jesus’ day and age that was counter-culture. In our day and age it is too.

There are two miracles in our reading. Jesus takes the very modest food offerings from a child and nourishes 5,000 people. We can hear that miracle as supernatural or as symbolic or as metaphor. But there is only one way to hear the part where Jesus invited all to sit at his table and be fed. That miracle came about because ALL MATTER TO JESUS. Red, yellow, black and white, outcasts and elite, LGBTQ and political opponents are precious in HIS sight.

If we make everyone precious in our sight we can do that miracle too. May we strive to do just that.