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I feel like I might need to give a little disclaimer for this sermon. I had to give a sermon title for the bulletin last week and as I was writing the sermon, I realized that it was going in a slightly different direction than I originally thought it would. Sermons are like that sometimes. The original sermon title was “The Miracle of Fearlessness.” So, though fear is related to the text and I believe plays a significant role as a barrier to our understanding of God’s abundance in many shapes and forms, I’m not going to spend as much time talking about that as I will the abundance of God’s love and grace and how that impacts our understanding of forgiveness and reconciliation.
So, our text this morning comes to us from the Gospel of John. It’s a familiar story – it is one of the few stories that is also told in all four of the gospels. Matthew 14, Mark 6 and Luke 9 all have a similar telling of the story. Jesus and the disciples are headed away from the crowd of curious learners for some rest, but the crowd presses in towards them. So, Jesus then spends the day teaching the crowd and when the day draws to an end, the sun begins to set and, the disciples worry there isn’t enough food to sustain the crowd. The disciples encourage Jesus to send the crowd to the neighboring towns and villages so they can find food to eat. Jesus then instructs the disciples to feed the people with the food they have among them. Between them, they have 5 loaves and 2 fish. Jesus then instructs them to have the people sit in groups and he blesses and breaks the bread and fish and distributes the food among the people. In the end, there are 12 baskets full of leftovers after feeding 5,000 men, not counting the women and children among them.
Our Scripture reading today comes from the Gospel of John and, as we’ve discussed before, the Gospel of John is unique and has distinct differences from the other Gospels. The purpose of the book is stated in the 20th chapter stating how the book is a collection of descriptions of the signs Jesus did in the presence of the disciples to that the reader might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and that through believing, we might have life in his name. Therefore, each account, each story told in the Gospel of John, is carefully placed within the text to speak to another aspect or element of God’s power in and love for the world through Jesus Christ. So, as we turn to our Scripture reading this morning and hear this familiar story, let us listen for the Word God would have us hear this morning in the slightly different telling of the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand and walking on water.
Let us pray, Gracious and Loving God, open us to your presence. Orient us towards your love. As we listen to your Word through Scripture, may you speak to us anew and may we forever be changed by your miraculous presence. Amen.
John 6: 1-21
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.’
When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Our Scripture reading this morning tells of miracles. Food multiplying inexplicably. Walking on water without the clear, glass platform just below the surface – for two of them. You can almost picture the scenes. Jesus and his disciples – they go all the way across to the other side of the sea and up a mountain and all the while, like the paparazzi following the royal family or Britney Spears, a crowd of people follows them. This crowd had seen him heal the sick – they wanted to know more about him, they wanted to be healed by him. With the crowd pressing in, Jesus asks his disciples how he thought they would be able to feed all those people. Perhaps with a bit of defensiveness in his tone to protect his pride as he had no idea how to feed the people, Philip responds to Jesus’ question, “Dude, I could work for like 6 months and not make enough money to pay for all these people to just get a bite of bread – and that’s just a bite, much less a meal.” Another disciple chimes in, “Look, this kid here thought ahead and brought 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. Still not enough to feed everyone…but…” And, Jesus asks the disciples to have everyone sit down in the grass on the mountain-side. Jesus goes to the boy, we don’t know what he says to him, if anything, and he takes the loaves and the fish, gives thanks for them, perhaps like many of us saying grace before a meal, and he begins distributing the food to the crowd. After everyone had eaten and had their fill, Jesus asks the disciples to go around and see if there are any leftovers and if so, to collect them into baskets “so that nothing may be lost” – they collected 12 baskets full of leftovers. You can almost see Jesus give a wink and a nod as we watches the disciples bring back the leftovers, once again reminding them of the abundance in their midst. And, the crowd, who had seen Jesus heal the sick, have now been witness to another sign of God’s presence through Jesus.
When the disciples and the people realized what just happened, it was like a scene from the latest season of Orange Is The New Black when a group of the inmates begin to worship Norma, a mute but older and more spiritual inmate – the people on the mountainside pressed in wanting to make Jesus their king. But, Jesus retreated and went up the mountain by himself and rested there while the disciples headed to the boat on the sea and pushed off, heading for Capernaum. In the middle of the night, when the winds and the darkness picked up, the disciples still rowing 3 and 4 miles out, they see Jesus walking towards them on them on the water and they were terrified. We don’t know if they were terrified by the storm, or terrified because they weren’t sure where they were or how far from the shore they were, or terrified because they saw Jesus walking on this water they knew to be choppy and overwhelming – whatever the reason, they were terrified and to assuage their fear, they thought of the first practical thing they could – get Jesus in the boat and off that wild water. And then, suddenly, they were safely on the other shore.
These are wild stories and the speculation of what happened in these stories is overwhelming – you can’t imagine the volumes people have written to explain or understand these stories. How could 5 loaves and 2 fish feed 5,000 people? How could Jesus walk on water? Jesus did these unlikely and practically magical signs but what could they mean for us now?
There are all kinds of explanations about the miracle of the multiplied bread and fish. Some say that the miracle in that moment was the experience of hearts being changed in the presence of Jesus. In that moment, people turned to one another and shared the food items that had brought along, as the boy did. Simone Campbell, a Roman Catholic nun, a lawyer and a lobbyist, was one of the founding nuns of Nuns on the Bus and is the Executive Director of NETWORK, a lobbying group of women of faith who have hit the road to educate and empower the public to work for social justice through voting. In her interview with Krista Tippett on the podcast On Being, Sister Simone commented that she imagined it wasn’t a miracle to the women who were there – they knew where the food came from, how it was prepared and how it was served to the men of the crowd. The miracle was God’s provision being made plain in the presence of the women who remembered to think about the details such as meal planning. Like Sister Simone, there are lots interpretations and speculations as to how the people ate, but I’m not quite yet prepared to make a guess as to how the food was multiplied. I am content to bear witness to a miracle of Jesus feeding the multitude and, I do think there is more to the story that just bread and fish for the people.
So, let’s back up a little bit and see if we can get a better handle on the context of these miracles taking place. Jesus is preparing for the Passover, which is the Festival of the Jews, a celebration to commemorate the liberation of the slaves by God as they were led out of Egypt by Moses. After the tenth and final plague upon Egypt, Pharaoh released the Israelites from slavery. In the wilderness during the Exodus from Egypt, the people were hungry and Moses told the people of manna – food from heaven which God would send for their daily fill. Each morning, manna would appear, like dew upon the ground, and the people were instructed to take only a measure for each member of their family for that day. On the day before the Sabbath, they were to take two portions – one for that day and one for the Sabbath. If they attempted to collect more than they needed to save leftovers, they would find it rotted and ruined and the people learned to trust in God’s daily provision of nourishment.
Fast forward to the scene on the mountainside and with the celebration of the Passover nearing, the people were gathered and food security was a concern. Through Jesus, God multiplies 5 loaves of bread and two fish and all who were gathered ate and had their fill. And, not only did the people feast and have their fill, there was such an abundance that Jesus instructed that leftovers be collected so that nothing would be lost. Like manna in the wilderness, the bread and fish reminded the people of God’s loving provision – but, collecting the leftovers, that was new. This is a pivotal moment in our understanding of God’s provision, the abundance of a new life in Christ. Because through Christ, God’s provision of love and grace is not just to survive the day in the wilderness, but rather, God’s love and grace is overflowing and is meant to take us beyond survival to meaningful life abundant. And, indeed, this really is a miracle to behold.
This week, I read the book Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy, and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer by Jeanne Bishop. If you haven’t read it, I recommend you do – although, full disclosure, I happen to know Jeanne as she is a member of Fourth Presbyterian Church, the church where I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister – but, I’m not trying to make a plug for her for the sake of plugging her book – I really do think this is quite a powerful book and speaks beautifully to our text today. If I could just get up here and read her book for you, it would serve as a better sermon – although the 4 hours it would take me to read it might not fit in the 15 minutes typically allotted for the sermon.
So, the book – as indicated in the title, Jeanne tells the story of her journey through grief following her sister’s death. Back in 1990, Jeanne’s younger sister Nancy (who was 25 at the time), her husband Richard, and the unborn child in her womb were killed by a local high school student in their home in Winnetka, IL, a wealthy suburb in what’s known as the North Shore of Chicago. The night of the murders, Saturday night before Palm Sunday, their family had all been together to celebrate the fact that Nancy and Richard were expanding their family. On Sunday morning, Jeanne was in the narthex of the church, readied with her folder of music and bulletin, ready to process down the aisle with the choir waving palms, when the church secretary came and told her that she had a phone call she had to take. Her father was on the phone, calling to tell her that her sweet young sister had died, as did her husband and the unborn child, and another pastor was coming to pick her up to bring her to the police station. After arriving at the police station, they learned the cause of death, some details of what had happened and as Jeanne describes in her book, the first thing she said, which even startled her, was “I don’t want to hate anyone.” She said, (and, I’m quoting from her book here – she says)
“I think I grasped at that moment that evil had intruded into our lives. I could not ignore it. It was too vast and terrible not to change me. It required a response. I knew, even then, that I could not allow that my response be hatred. That would take me away from who Nancy was, someone who loved, and move me closer to who the killer was, someone who could snuff out the life of another human being with the squeeze of a trigger. Whoever he was, I would not hate him.”
Six months after the death of her family members, an arrest was made and a year later, a student at the high school where Jeanne and her sisters graduated from years before went on trial for the murders. A week later, a verdict of guilty was handed down and he went to prison with a juvenile life without parole sentence.
Throughout the book, Jeanne speaks of her faith and how her understanding of God’s love informs her being in the world. She walks the reader through a multi-year process of grief – of a decade of not wanting to speak the name of her sister’s killer; of the impact that harboring hatred and fear has and she describes the sensation of choosing a different path of learning about restorative justice and what reconciliation truly means beyond forgiveness. She talks about how her understanding of Jesus has impacted her understanding of other people and how she drew near to the tangible experience of Jesus in the world. Over time, and not confusing forgiveness with forgetfulness, she forgave her sister’s murderer, acknowledging that he, too, might be transformed by God’s power, as she had experienced in her own life, and she believed that he might be redeemed. And then, she read a book by Dr. Randall O’Brien that challenged her and changed the course of her future. This challenges me too, and I hope all of us, really.
In a chapter on forgiveness, O’Brien says, “No Christian is ever in the position of privilege, wronged one or wrongdoer, where he or she is excused from the responsibility of working for reconciliation.” And, this brings me back to our text for this morning.
You see, when I read Jeanne’s story or hear the response of the Mother Emmanuel congregation in Charleston, South Carolina, it becomes clear to me the importance of the abundance of God’s grace and love in those 12 baskets collected after the meal. I see, anew, how we are called to gather in groups and sit down on the grass with one another – even if we arrived here alone. We need to eat our fill of the bread and the fish and the forgiveness together. And then, we need not get up and leave because our bellies feel satisfied in the moment. We need to see that there are baskets full of leftovers and know they will not be lost. With patience and with perseverance and confident in God’s abundance, we are assured that there is more grace and love to go around to sustain us for the work of reconciliation beyond forgiveness.
Our text this morning reveals for us a truth that, like the bread and fish shared by a boy in the crowd, God’s forgiveness has the power to multiply as it is shared freely with all God’s children so that all may have their fill – wronged one and wrong doer, murderer and murder victims’ survivor; people of color and people of privilege. There is always more grace and love leftover beyond forgiveness to work for reconciliation with each other and with God. We need not fear this work. We need not allow our fears of losing control, of losing face, of losing power hold us hostage because we, as followers of Christ, believe in a God who not only satisfies our hunger but will supply our need abundantly and none of it will be lost. So, I ask you, in the coming week, what group will you sit with in the grass and with whom will you feast on forgiveness and work for reconciliation?
This sermon was preached at Western Presbyterian Church, Washington, D.C. on 7/26/2015.