Updated: Oct 22, 2021
A devout old shepherd lost his favorite Bible while he was out looking for a wayward lamb. Three weeks later, a sheep walked up to him carrying the Bible in its mouth. The shepherd couldn’t believe his eyes. He took the precious book out of the sheep’s mouth, raised his eyes heavenward and exclaimed, “Thank God! It’s a miracle!” “Not really,” said the sheep. “Your name is written inside the cover.”
Miracles are in the eye of the beholder and, you may be surprised to hear, they always have been. Contrary to the popular opinion that ancient peoples were a silly, superstitious lot who ran around like Bud Abbott after meeting Frankenstein, those who witnessed the miracles of the gospels did not see them as unexplainable manipulations of natural law. While they were perhaps not as prepared to argue that Jesus did not really walk on the Dead Sea but instead only appeared to because of its high salinity, they were certainly aware that people could appear to be dead when they were not. And Jesus was not the only person out there performing miracles; he had quite a few contemporaries who also demonstrated magical powers. So, for the people who first witnessed Jesus’s miracles, the fact that he could do things that seemed out of the ordinary wasn’t any more impressive to them than it is to us to go see Penn and Teller. What mattered to them was why these things happened. Michael White argues, “The miracle story is not interested in whether it ever happened or not. People believed that this sort of miracle happened all the time. In fact, we know these are commonplace miracles… The point is that the story is more than just the expectation that it could happen, or that it did happen. It's a statement about their belief in the person who they say made it happen. In other words, the stories are more about the presentation of theology and belief than they are about worrying about reality or non-reality of miracles.”
In today’s gospel we heard one of the most famous of the Jesus miracle stories. In fact, it is the only one that appears in all four gospels. In the version from the Gospel of John, Jesus sees a large crowd following him and asks his followers how they are going to feed all these people. Predictably, the disciples do exactly what our leadership does when we have a scarcity at Grace. They go to Philip, who is apparently the Treasurer, and he does the math, ultimately telling them what they already know; that they don’t have enough money to feed themselves, much less the crowd. Then Andrew, who has apparently conducted a very short stewardship drive, turns in the day’s offering, which is disappointing, to say the least. Jesus is unfazed. He simply gives thanks for what they do have and distributes it to the people – and there is more than enough. It is a miracle.
Most scholars (and denominations) place miracles in one of several categories. Jesus’s ability to make something out of (almost) nothing is generally classified as a manipulation of the natural order, just like his ability to walk on water later in the same story. For most of my life and in most conversations I have had about these sorts of “power over nature” miracles, the debate has always been about whether they really happened because biblical miracles are proof of Jesus’s divinity. We have assumed that if Jesus was able to genuinely exert his will over Mother Nature herself, then he must be divine. Of course, non-believers have argued that the opposite must also be accepted; if Jesus’s miracles weren’t indisputably unexplained phenomena, then that proves that his actions were not wrought by the power of God. But what if we don’t care if they actually happened? What if the mist over the Sea of Galilee made it look like Jesus was walking on the water instead of near it? What if one small boy’s willingness to turn over all the food he had as a gesture of faith in Jesus simply shamed everyone else into digging back into their pockets and pulling out the food they’d been saving for themselves? Or what if it all happened exactly as the gospels say, but Jesus was not the first or only miracle worker to pull it off? Or, as Arthur said to me this week, what is the meaning of the miracle anyway?
As is often the case, the four gospel accounts of this incident vary, but they have several things in common. First, people were already following Jesus at the time the story takes place. Second, Jesus insists that his disciples feed the people – he doesn’t send them to get their own food. Third, he blesses the food before it is distributed. Finally, when they follow Jesus’s instructions, they find that there is enough food with plenty left over. So, if Michael White is right and Jesus’s “miraculous” actions are not about proving that he is divine but rather showing us what God looks like, here’s what we learn: Our God takes responsibility for his followers. He models gratitude for what we have, and he always provides not only enough, but far more than we need. In other words, what the miracle of the loaves and fishes tells us is that Jesus is the one who gives himself so that we can have life and have it abundantly.
I realized recently that I spend a lot of my time thinking about what we don’t have. We don’t have a rectory. We don’t have enough money to pay health insurance for a full-time rector. We don’t have enough volunteers to run Godly Play, Youth Group, train acolytes, and for Altar Guild. I am obsessed with how there is not enough – not enough energy, enthusiasm, faith, or time. The people who followed Jesus across the Sea of Galilee also worried about what they didn’t have – and their worries were much bigger than mine. They didn’t have enough food. They didn’t have enough money. They didn’t have enough power over their own lives. But they sensed something about this man that made them hope that he might provide them with what they needed – and it was not bread and fish for one meal. What he gave them was hope. What he gave them was the knowledge that they were cared for. What he showed them was that in the hands of our loving God, whatever they had would be enough. That was a miracle.
I need that miracle in my life right now – and I suspect you do too. I need to remember that God does not need to multiply our bank account, provide a developer for the upper lot, double the size of our congregation, or flood my inbox with people seeking volunteer opportunities to show me that she is God. In fact, I know that winning the lottery or seeing Jesus’s image in my French toast would not increase my faith in God one iota. The world is filled with scientifically inexplicable phenomena. Didn’t Picasso say, “Everything is a miracle; it’s a miracle that one does not dissolve in one’s bath like a lump of sugar”?
We have things backwards. Instead of looking for miracles, we need to remember what miracles mean. We need to remember who our God is and what he taught us - that when we are rooted and grounded in love rather than fear, when we are gathered in his name, sharing whatever we have, leaving no one out, thanking God for what is rather than mourning what is not, we need not fear because there is always enough – and that is a miracle. AMEN.
L. Michael White, (2018), “Magic, Miracles, and the Gospel,” lecture, Harvard University, found in Frontline: from Jesus to Christ, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/symposium/magic.html.