As many of you have seen week-in and week-out during the service of Holy Eucharist, right after the passing of the peace and announcements, the table is set by the gospeller and assistant. During this time the presider is approached by a verger or acolyte with a cruet of water, a basin, and a towel draped over his arm. The presider places their hands over the bowl and prays a prayer of preparation as water is poured over their fingertips. They dry their hands and then approach the table for the holy feast instituted so long ago by Jesus Christ. On one particular Sunday I was the presider. We’d shared the peace and a beautiful anthem was being sung by the choir as the gospeller and assistant set the table. One of our former vergers approached me with water, a basin, and a towel draped over his arm. I stood, placed my hands over the bowl and began to pray as he poured the water…except it was wine! He’d picked up the wrong cruet! Well that shocked me out of my reverie. However, manifesting the calm for which vergers are known, this wise gentleman didn’t miss a beat and asked me in a whisper, with a twinkle in his eye, “How did you do that?”
How did you do that? We are captivated, even entertained, by miracles and stories of miracles. We hear allusions to them, especially biblical miracles, throughout literature and common parlance. Water into wine, walking on water, healing the sick, casting out demons, calming the storm, manna from heaven, water from a rock, rising from the dead, feeding the five thousand.
Are they real? Are they magic? What? How did they do that? What really happened there?
Scholars who have tried to explain the miracle stories over the ages fall into clear categories of interpretation:
- Miracles happened in the days of Jesus and they happen now.
- Miracles happened then but not now.
- Miracles weren’t really miracles and can be rationally explained.
- Miracles are universal mythological stories that may or may not have literally happened and yet offer universal truths that guide our lives. The clever motto of this category is, “All the stories are true. Some actually happened.”
Commentators on today’s story from the gospel of Matthew—the feeding of the five thousand—are no different. Specifically, (1) It was a real miracle. (2) There is a rational explanation: what really happened was a lesson in unselfishness i.e. as Jesus and the disciples shared, others were encouraged to do the same so that there was plenty for all. (3) The story is symbolic and depicts God’s act through Christ in meeting human need. (4) As Albert Schweitzer wrote in his book, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, this was a symbolic meal Jesus performed as a preview to sacrament, that is, tiny bits and pieces of the bread were shared and the story just became exaggerated over time.
Regardless of where we might lean in interpreting miracles, and this can be a very interesting conversation, a word of caution: We can get so caught up in trying to figure it all out that we miss the story, the message from God for our lives. So join me, if you will, in just that—the story, its main characters, the location, the context, and the plot according to the author of Matthew, and its relevance in our lives.
The main characters were Jesus, the disciples, and the throngs of people following Jesus. The location and hence the context is in the wilderness beyond the realm of the violent King Herod. Violent King Herod, indeed. The disciples had just learned and told Jesus the horrific news. King Herod had ordered John the Baptist to be beheaded and his head brought to him on a silver platter and at a party, no less, as a dare that met the king’s political ends nicely! John, the cousin of Jesus, with whom he had grown up, played with at the knees of his mother and his aunt Elizabeth. John, his friend, and John, the prophet, who foretold his coming, had paved the way for him, had baptized him in the river Jordan, beheaded! Can you imagine the grief? In his agony, Jesus goes to a desolate place to be alone but he couldn’t get away from the throngs of people who followed him. And this wasn’t just a few people. Imagine the numbers. Five thousand not counting the women and children, so we’ve got at least 15,000. This Cathedral holds 3,000. Multiply times five and picture that. See them coming in droves across the land. Jesus saw them and what does he do? Drive them away? Send out a notice that the shop is closed until tomorrow? No, he has compassion for them, sees them as sheep without a shepherd. He goes to them and heals their sick. The people so longed for a higher truth, an alternative way of being from the violent status quo in their society under Roman rule, so longed to be fed at the table of peace and truth they weren’t even thinking about regular food. They just knew they were to follow this man, Jesus. When evening came the disciples gave Jesus the heads up that the people were going to be hungry and Jesus said, “You give them something to eat. Bring me what you have; what you call the paltry five loaves and two fish.” Jesus took the food, looked up to heaven, blessed it, broke it and gave it to the disciples, his ministers, and they gave this bread of life to the people and all were fed abundantly, yes, miraculously.
This alternative way of being, the way of the compassion of Christ is still counter cultural…still draws us as it did the throngs so long ago to be fed from the banquet of peace and truth. The abundant life of new perspective in Christ is real. And once we eat of this food, once we realize this sumptuous miraculous feast is ours for the taking, we seek it everywhere and sometimes recognize it in the most unlikely places. God making a way out of no way.
At a memorial service last Friday following the recent massacre of seventy-six people in Norway, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said, “We’re going to answer hatred with love.” “We’re going to answer hatred with love.”
And I’m sure you remember the extraordinary compassion we witnessed following the horrific massacre of the young Amish girls and the gunman’s subsequent suicide in that schoolhouse in October 2006. A grandfather of one of the girls said of the killer, “We must not think evil of this man.” An Amish neighbor reached out to the gunman’s family and comforted them offering forgiveness. Dozens of family members of those who had died attended the funeral of that tormented man even as they grieved for their own children.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and a group from the Episcopal Church traveled to the Congo recently and visited several safe houses for women and young girls across that region who have been brutally raped, some rejected by their own churches as somehow guilty themselves. She broke bread with them at a Eucharist just last Sunday and told them, “I see remarkable resilience, hope, the ability to celebrate the presence of God in the face of life’s tragedy. That is the kingdom of heaven, my friends, surprising as it is.”
And now another opportunity: Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams calls all of us to reach out to the people living in the drought and famine in the Horn of Africa, in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, and Somalia, as they face severe food shortages, malnutrition, and death at alarming rates said to be the worst in 60 years. Fed at the table of Christ ourselves, we can literally do as the psalm says today, “Open wide your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.”
In a little while you will rise from your seats, come forward, stretch out your hands or receive a blessing, and ask for that which will be freely given and given abundantly and then, as St. Augustine said, “Be that which you have received.” This act of receiving and becoming in action that which we have received, that is, the compassion of Christ, announces to the world, to all principalities and powers, the unseen forces in the world that Jesus is Lord and good has overcome evil. And we the church, the body of Christ encouraged and strengthened go forth into our offices, our classrooms, our city councils, to the peace negotiations, to Congress, to the dining room table and living rooms of our own home. Beloved of Christ, may the miracle of this story be alive in you this day. Receive. Take. Eat. Transform the world.