Year B; FB. Proper 12; 25 July 2021
Throughout this pandemic, we have heard from leaders and scientists the phrase, “We follow the science. Everybody, follow the science!” And that’s what most of us in our community have been doing. I frequently check the epidemiological course of COVID. I’ve listened with special focus to the scientists and the healthcare experts. It is GOOD to follow the science and take it seriously. Now in this Delta variant surge, more and more people are joining the chorus, “Follow the science!”
You and I follow the science AND we are also disciples of Jesus. We are indeed 21st century educated, rational thinkers. We are modern people experienced in life and the facts our lives teach us. And so, when a miracle story – well, TWO miracle stories reach our modern ears as in the gospel lesson today, we wonder, “How do modern believers in Jesus make sense of this the multiplication of the loaves and fishes? How do we love and worship Jesus, believe that he is truly “The Word made Flesh” who reveals God to us, and, at the same time, honor the mind God gave us to think and figure things out?
The feeding of the multitude is no small miracle story in the gospels. It is the ONLY miracle story that is found in all four gospels. In three of the gospels, it is directly followed by the miracle of Jesus walking on the water. The early Christian communities believed in these miracles of Jesus – that he stilled storms, healed the sick and served huge mountainside crowds with nearly nothing as if he were a Jewish banquet host.
Today, we are challenged to live in the tension of the good news of these stories, the grace and abundance God reveals to us and the facts of science and technology. We are challenged as believers even more right now because we are tired from the uncertainty we are living in, and that science might not be our savior. That there are the negative threats of unvaccinated people to our country and the world, and the uncertainty of changing weather patterns. These are constant worries to us and to our families.
But there is something wonderful in the feeding of the 5000 miracle that captures even the most secular of us. Abundance coming from nearly nothing is a story that can only come from a holy source. And so, we know of even secular organizations and agencies that acknowledge the scriptural miracle of the feeding story as they name their restaurants and feeding programs things like “Feeding the Multitude” or “Loaves and Fishes.” Feeding, food, abundance, gathering around a meal restore us and point us to the grace that only God can give.
All Jesus asks is that we sit down. Even after he was told that there wasn’t enough food for the crowd he says, “Make the people sit down.” He didn’t say, “Let them go home. Disband them so they can get something to eat.” Instead, he saw an opportunity for the anxious crowd to take a pause. The story even adds a refreshing detail that there was much green grass, something that seems also to be a miracle in dusty first century Palestine.
I believe that one of the first miracles of all the feeding stories is that Jesus got everyone to sit down. The crowds had been following him anxiously and expectantly from town to town. The crowds were restlessly clamoring, looking for every opportunity to carry him off and make him king, never taking time to just sit, pause, pray and contemplate.
What if the point of the miracle was to call his followers to an abundance of rest and a moment of blessing all that God gives us? What if the miracle is to make us stop and contemplate all that is holy, even loaves, even fish, even green grass? What if Jesus is inviting US to feed our modern-day hunger by pausing to embrace the wonder of God and the serenity only God can give?
In my seminary preaching class the professor gave us an assignment to read and write a review of the Pulitzer Prize winning book by Annie Dillard, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” It’s a book of her essays on wonderings and observations of nature that surrounded her in her hermit-like country way of life. I was fresh from the corporate life of pharmaceutical sales and marketing, hard-driving, bottom-lined-profit executive summaries, bullet-pointed presentations and fast-moving seasons of sales. I was smart! I was educated! I was a thinking, rational, modern person! I had experience with a multitude of things in my life.
AND, I DID NOT know how to read a pondering book like “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” I had NO patience for her musings. I couldn’t stand how she drilled down into a pond with her intricate observations of frogs and shades of water and details of foliage. And that’s exactly what I wrote about in my book review.
I share this description of my impatience with contemplation coming out of corporate life because it points to the hope of transformation. These years following seminary, I have been transformed. As I matured as a follower of Jesus, the pauses and retreats and prayers, wonderings and contemplation have taught me about God’s love, grace and abundance. I have not witnessed a feeding miracle or a walking on water miracle. But I have received God’s manna multiple times in my life that has fed me, has kept my soul from despair and has brought a beauty of holiness into my life that I cannot explain.
I think, as we mature in faith, and as Jesus asks us to sit down and invites us to be fed by him, we grow in wonder. It’s a miracle to me that we moderns can even hold in our rational minds the possibility of God acting in ways we cannot fathom. Haven’t you said more than once in your life, “I just can’t explain it” in response to a grace or a depth of love or a beautiful glimpse of nature?
I’ve returned to Annie Dillard’s book now and again and have re-read her words and ponderings and observations. In them, I have felt the nearness to God that only a pause in nature can give. Here is something she writes about fish, ordinary fish:
“Occasionally, by waiting still on a bridge or by sneaking smoothly into the shade of a bankside tree, I see fish slowly materialize in the shallows, one by one, swimming around and around in a silent circle, each one washed in a blue, like the sky’s, and all as tapered as tears….”
Then she ponders the holy in the fish: She writes, “I am coming around to fish as spirit. The Greek acronym for some of the names of Christ yields ichthys, Christ as fish, and fish as Christ. The more I glimpse the fish in Tinker Creek, the more satisfying the coincidence becomes, the richer the symbol, not only for Christ but for the spirit as well…To say that holiness is a fish is a statement of the abundance of grace; it is the equivalent of affirming in a purely materialistic culture that money does indeed grow on trees.”
Then she finishes this thought with words from Jesus, “’Not as the world gives do I give to you’; these fish are spirit food…”
The gospel today is a perfect Maine summer invitation to accept Jesus’ command to sit down on the green grass, pray, take in all that God gives us and re-engage our capacity for wonder “so we don’t miss the extraordinary within the ordinary” like “fish as spirit food.”