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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 6, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 14:13-21
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I would like to change the world.  I would like to broker peace in Israel/Palestine and the Korean Peninsula.  I would like to reverse climate change.  I would like to end racism and rape culture.  I would like to end crime and to heal the brokenness that leads to crime.  I would like to feed the hungry multitudes and end hunger.  I would like to make healthcare available to everyone without fear of debt.  I would like the change the world.

I’m not going to, at least not in a big way, like one of the ways I just listed.

I look at what Jesus accomplished in just, what, 33 years, and I realize how little I’ve done.  Maybe it’s not fair to compare myself to Jesus.  You know:  the whole God thing.

William Barber, II

But look at what Martin Luther King, Jr. accomplished in 39 years.  Or what William Barber, II is accomplishing – and, yes, he’s younger than me.  (If you don’t know who William Barber is, don’t worry.  You will.  Just keep coming to worship, and by the end of September …)  Heck, even Barack Obama is younger than me.

The chances are that I will not ever do some great, society-changing, justice-making, peace-creating act or series of acts.  So maybe I should just give up.

Jesus fed 5,000 people – well, 5,000 men, plus the women and children who most people thought weren’t worth counting.  Not so for Jesus.  While most folk didn’t think women and children counted, Jesus did.  He made sure everyone got enough to eat.  “All ate and were satisfied,” Matthew says.

And Jesus didn’t just feed this multitude.  He did it with five loaves of bread and two fish.  How impressive is that?  Impressive enough that the story is told six times in the four gospels.  That’s right.  Two of the gospels repeat the story.  And Jesus didn’t just walk up to the wall and say,

No replicators out there in this deserted place.

It’s all pretty crazy.  I mean, we all know “that the laws of Newtonian physics aren’t suddenly flexible if you just have enough faith.  Atoms and molecules don’t just shape shift wily nilly.  It’s more reasonable to believe that things are only what they seem.  Water stays water, 5 loaves stay 5 loaves and the dead stay dead.”[1]

I suppose it’s possible that “everybody felt so compelled to be good people after hearing Jesus preach that they all opened up their picnic baskets and gave parts of their fried chicken and potato salad to their neighbors[, and] so that … is why there was enough food to go around.”[2]  Thousands of people sharing with their neighbors is pretty miraculous.  And if the only lesson you take home today is, “Be nice and share your juice box,” well, that’s a pretty good lesson.  In fact, sharing is a necessary part of God’s economy, so it’s a really good lesson.  But maybe there’s something else going on here.

Nadia Bolz Weber asks us to consider “that we [just might] have a God who can actually feed so many on so little.   A God who created the universe out of nothing, that can put flesh on dry bones [of] nothing, that can put life in a dry womb of nothing.  NOTHING is God’s favorite material to work with.  Perhaps God looks upon that which we dismiss as ‘nothing,’ ‘insignificant,’ ‘worthless’ and says, ‘Ha! Now that I can do something with.”[3]

Jesus was working on self-care when the crowd interrupted.  News of King Herod’s execution of John the baptizer reached Jesus and he decided to take a break.  He decided to go to a deserted place by himself.  I imagine he needed it.  Preaching and teaching and embodying God’s truth is dangerous business – it was then and it is now.  John died for it.  And Jesus knew he could be next.  So he went to a deserted place by himself.

But taking this personal space doesn’t last.  The crowd hears that he’s gone away and they go after him.  “Jesus responds with grace and compassion to the crowds that come, healing their sick.  As the day draws to a close, the disciples make a pragmatic suggestion:  There is no food here, and the people must eat.  Send them away to fend for themselves.  Jesus’ response is to make the disciples waiters of the Spirit. …

“The ‘lonely place apart’ in the end does become a place of rest, healing, and nourishment [– but] for the larger group,”[4] and not so much for Jesus and the disciples.  It isn’t until later that Jesus gets his alone time.

Like I said, the disciples’ suggestion that Jesus send the crowd away was pragmatic:  There is no food here, and the people must eat.  Only it turned out they were wrong.  “Maybe the mistake the disciples made wasn’t only that they forgot [that God likes to work with nothing], but also that they forgot that they too were hungry.  They defaulted to ‘what do I have’ rather than ‘what do I too need, and is that also what the people in front of me need?’  The disciples seemed to forget that their own personal need for bread, and not their own personal resources was the thing that qualified them to participate in the miracle of feeding thousands with nothing on hand.  It was not their cooking skills, it was not their ability to preach enough Law that they guilted everyone into sharing; it was their own deep hunger which exactly matches that of the crowd.  How often do we forget this ourselves?”[5]

I know I forget it.  I get so caught up in the hunger I see around me that I think I have to solve it.  So I look at what I have at my disposal to feed them, and I keep coming up short.  I’m short on compassion, or will, or time, or skill.  “And I think of how God called me to this and needs me to feed God’s people and so I lean on my own resources and when I do I quickly see how little there is.  A few loaves?  A couple fish?  It’s never enough.”[6]

Chances are I’m not the only one who’s worry about coming up short, who’s afraid of being found out.  “That sense of ourselves comes from the same economy of scarcity that makes us fret over how to stretch bread and fish, our selves, and our love.  In the face of such want, and of our own failings and limitations, it seems utterly foolhardy to trust in God’s abundant gifts, laid out before us and coursing through our veins.  Yet this is the presumption God commends us to embody.  While we run around readying ourselves – accruing the right skills, the right personality, the right spirituality – God is busy calling us as we are now …”[7]

God doesn’t ask if we can do big things.  God asks if we’ll live faithfully.  Here’s the thing – and I know this; I just don’t always get this.  Even in the midst of that call, God loves me totally apart from any work I do.  Even in the midst of that call, God loves you totally apart from any work you do.  That’s not to say that the work you do isn’t important to God.  It is important.  It’s just not necessary for God to love you.

What is necessary – at least I think it’s necessary – is remembering this, especially if the work you’re involved in is important, transformative, kin-dom building work.  That’s right.  I think that the deeper your work is in building the kin-dom of God, the more you need to know that you are loved by God whether you do that work or not.  When Jesus looks out through you and asks, “Where are these hungry people going to get food?” he’s “including you in the category of hungry people and himself in the category of bread.”[8]

“When I rely only on my strengths which, trust me, are few, when I think I have only my small stingy little heart from which to draw love for those I serve, when the waters are rough and storms are real and I am scared – filled with fear of what is happening or not happening in the church, filled with fear that I don’t have what it takes to be a leader in the church, filled with fear that everyone will see nothing in me but my inadequacies, I have forgotten about Jesus – my Jesus who’s making something out of my nothing and walking towards me in the storm.  That’s our guy.  The Man of sorrows familiar with suffering, friend of scoundrels and thieves, forgiver of his own executioners, resurrected on the 3rd day, … the great defeater of death and griller of fish and savior of sinners.”[9]

And that’s why, when it comes to size matters, the size of what you’re doing really isn’t important.  What’s important is the size of the love we put into what we’re doing.  And when there are days when all you can do today is sit on the ground and let someone pass you the bread and fish, do that.  Do that with great love.

Yes, Jesus tells the disciples, “You give them something to eat.”  So they do what they can with who they are and what they have – and Jesus makes the magic happen.  Amen.

[1] Nadia Bolz Weber, “Sermon the Feeding of the 5,000,” Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2015/07/sermon-on-the-feeding-of-the-5000-preached-for-pastors-musicians-and-church-leaders/ (posted 25 July 2015; accessed 1 August 2017).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, though I did some grammatical corrections. (Some of her emphases have been changed – bolds, italics, etc.)

[4] Julie Polter, “Servants of Boundy,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/servants-bounty (accessed 1 August 2017).

[5] Weber, op. cit.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kari Jo Verhulst, “Take and Eat,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/take-and-eat (accessed 1 August 2017).

[8] Weber, op. cit.

[9] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, January 22, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Mark 1:21-28 and John 2:1-12
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

"Head of a Woman," by Pablo Picasso, 1960. Downloaded from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1990.192/

“Head of a Woman,” by Pablo Picasso, 1960. Downloaded from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1990.192/

This painting is “Head of a Woman,” an oil painting from 1960 by Pablo Picasso. It is an example of his early cubist work.[1]

When I was a kid, I didn’t like cubism. My mom studied art, so there were a sufficient number of art books around the house for me to be exposed to several different styles of art at a young age. I didn’t like any form of abstract art as a kid because it didn’t look like what one would actually see. If you’re painting the head of a woman, the painting should look like the woman’s head. I didn’t understand what cubism was doing.

Today, I like this picture. I like it to some extent because of its form and color – how it looks. But what I really like about this painting is what Picasso was doing. At first glance, it looks like he’s painted a goofy looking face from straight on. But if you divide the picture in half, you see two profiles of the woman, one right and one life. What Picasso was doing and what cubism in general does is depict the same scene from multiple points of view at once. In this case, we’re looking at this woman’s head from her left, her right, and from directly in front of her.

head-rightCubism is considered one of several types of Modern Art. And I suppose it is. But I like to think of it (no offense to any art historians in the congregation) as Postmodern Art.

Postmodernism is largely a rejection of the Enlightenment quest for certainty. The Enlightenment “was an intellectual movement which dominated the world of ideas in Europe in the 18th century. The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy, and came to advance ideals like liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state.”[2] This philosophy helped thirteen of the American colonies to break away from monarchy of King George III and declare their independence. “The Enlightenment was marked by an emphasis on the scientific method”[3] and, while there was great doubt about how much the human mind could know, there was a quest for certainty.[4]

This reliance on science and knowledge continued into Modernism with the onset of industrialization, with Modernism affirming “the power of human beings to create, improve, and reshape their environment, with the aid of scientific knowledge, technology and practical experimentation.”[5]

Postmodernism evolves with new questions. Instead of questioning the authority of a monarch, it questions the authority of any certainty. So it ends up being quite open to various claims of truth. Another hallmark of Postmodernism is a refusal to focus on a single metanarrative, a single overarching story. This puts Postmodernism at odd with Christianity because Christianity does focus on a single metanarrative – the Bible. Still there are plenty of Christians who consider themselves to be Postmodernists and plenty of Postmodernists who consider themselves to be Christians. Many find a spiritual home in progressive Christianity because, while progressive Christians focus on a single metanarrative, we don’t reject as invalid other metanarratives simply because they aren’t ours. But that’s not important to the point I’m making today.

It is the openness to various claims of truth, of seeing things from multiple points of view, that connects to what is happening in cubism and why I think cubism is in many ways Postmodern art. Postmodernism says that something can be both completely true from my point of view and false from yours. Both points of view are valid. Cubism’s desire to hold, to express multiple points of view at the same time seems very Postmodern to me.

The difference that I’m trying to highlight between Postmodern thought and Modern thought can be summed up in this cartoon. Which one is right? Is it a 9 or a 6? Modern Philosophy would say that there is one correct answer, that it is either a 9 or a 6. Postmodern thought would say it is both, depending on your point of view.

At this point, my sermon could go one of two directions. I could preach about how Postmodern thought has influenced the advent of “truthiness,” “fake news,” and “alternative facts.” I could talk about the challenge we face both in holding openness to differing personal experiences and holding firmly onto the empirical nature of science and math. I’m not going to preach that sermon today. I may at some other time, but not today.

Today I want to explore how Modern and Postmodern thought impacts our reading and understanding of the miracles stories of Jesus, stories like we heard today. This room is filled with Modern and Postmodern minds. I’m wondering what we make of the miracles of Jesus, like the ones we heard about in today’s scripture lessons.

If you are purely a child of the Enlightenment, you might do what Thomas Jefferson did. He went through the gospels and literally excised the miracles of Jesus with a knife. Anything that went against rational thought and science couldn’t have happened, so we’ll simply remove it from the text. He then took what was left over from all four gospels and rearranged them into his own narrative, creating a gospel according to Jefferson. Today’s readings ended up in his trashcan. That’s one approach to the miracles of Jesus.

John Shelby Spong says that the miracle at the Cana wedding should be understood metaphorically. It is the introduction to the section of John’s gospel that Spong refers to as “the Book of Signs. Each sign in this section of the fourth gospel “is depicted as a mighty act, done quite publicly, that points to something even bigger and more important. At the same time,… the signs accounts are filled with strange references, enigmatic words, unusual actions and dramatically drawn characters, all of which appear to mitigate against these signs ever having been understood as literal events that occurred inside the normal flow of history.”[6]

The first clue for us that this story isn’t really about a wedding in Cana is in the opening words. “On the third day” makes us (or at least it’s supposed to make us) think of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. When Jesus tells his mother, “My hour has not yet come,” he is again referring to his crucifixion. Spong says that this story is about “calling Israel into a new status,” a new relationship with God, one where the “wine of the spirit has replaced the waters of purification.”[7] Searching out the metaphor in the miracles is another approach.

Marcus Borg wrote that, in addition to several summary passages in the gospels about Jesus healing many people, “The synoptic gospels also contain many individual stories of exorcisms and healings. In addition to possession by evil spirits, the conditions treated include fever, paralysis, withered hand, bent back, hemorrhage, deafness and dumbness, blindness, dropsy, coma, and skin disease.”[8] Borg writes, “Behind this picture of Jesus as a healer and exorcist, I affirm a historical core.… I see the claim that Jesus performed paranormal healings and exorcisms as history remembered. Indeed, more healing stories are told about Jesus than any other figure in the Jewish tradition. He must have been a remarkable healer.”[9]

While Borg wouldn’t say whether or not the specific healing/exorcism we heard about in our lesson from Mark happened, he would say it is an example of how Jesus was remembered by his followers, that he healed people like this. Understanding the miracles as the early followers of Jesus understanding and experience of him – that’s another approach.

Brian McLaren suggests that we use these stories to stimulate questions about our own lives. He looks at the story of the wedding at Cana and wonders: “In what ways are our lives – and our religions, and our cultures – like a wedding banquet that is running out of wine? What are we running out of? What are the stone containers in our day – huge but empty vessels used for religious purposes? What would it mean for whose empty containers to be filled – with wine? And why so much wine? Can you imagine what 180 gallons of wine would mean to a small Galilean village? What might that superabundance signify? What might it mean for Jesus to repurpose containers used to separate the clean from the unclean? And what might it mean for God to save the best for last?”[10]

He looks at the story of healing we heard from Mark and asks: “What unhealthy, polluting spirits are troubling us as individuals and as a people? What fears, false beliefs, and emotional imbalances reside within us and distort our behavior? What unclean or unhealthy thought patterns, value systems, and ideologies inhabit, oppress, and possess us as a community or culture? What in us feels threatened and intimidated by the presence of a supremely ‘clean’ or ‘holy’ spirit or presence, like the one in Jesus? In what way might this individual symbolize our whole society? In what ways might our society lose its health, its balance, its sanity, its ‘clean spirit,’ to something unclean or unhealthy? “And what would it mean for faith in the power of God to liberate us from these unhealthy, imbalanced, self-destructive disorders? Dare we believe that we could be set free? Dare we trust that we could be restored to health? Dare we have faith that such a miracle could happen to us – today?”[11] Perhaps we can call this a literary approach, where the story stimulates reflection about our own lives and our community life.

Which approach works best for you? Ignoring the miracles? Looking for a metaphor in the miracles? Embracing the experience of the first followers of Jesus as a healer? Inviting miracles stories to stimulate questions about our own lives?

John Newton

In a few minutes, we’re going to sing “Amazing Grace.” I picked this hymn because of the story behind it, a story I know many of you are familiar with. For those of you who don’t know the back-story, the hymn was penned by John Newton in 1773, during the Enlightenment. It is thought that it was at some level a reflection on his own life. After serving a conscription in the British Navy, Newton entered the Atlantic slave trade, eventually captaining a ship. He had a conversion experience during a storm off the coast of Ireland and eventually left the seafaring life to study theology. He became an important abolitionist in Britain. It was while he was serving as a curate in a church in Olney that he wrote “Amazing Grace.”[12]

In the hymn, Newton writes about experiencing a miracle. The miracle he experienced wasn’t one of an abundance of wine nor was it the healing of a physical malady. But it was the miracle of a healing. God’s grace embraced him and he went from being lost to found, from being blind to seeing. This miracle is much easier for our Modern minds to accept because it is a healing of the attitude rather than a healing of something physical. But does that somehow make it more believable than someone’s literal heart healing without medical intervention?

Did Jesus’ first disciples experience him as a healer because they lived in a pre-Modern time so they didn’t have scientific skepticism? Or has scientific skepticism gotten in the way of our awareness of the metaphysical?

The miracles of Jesus – are they sixes or nines? Or are the both? Or might they be something else altogether that we just don’t recognize? I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do know this: They are significant and they are wonder-filled.

As we move into our time of quiet, I invite you to reflect on …
… anything from the sermon or scripture that caught your attention; or
… a time when you felt you experienced a miracle, or when you prayed for a miracle that never came; or
… one of the ideas of how to approach miracles talked about in the sermon and how that approach may apply to other stories in scripture; or
… the image and sounds and smells and tastes of an empty ceremonial stone container being filled with water that is transformed into wine, then sit with the words empty, full, and transformed.

[1] http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1990.192/ (accessed 20 January 2017).

[2] “Age of Enlightenment,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Age_of_Enlightenment (accessed 20 January 2017).

[3] Ibid.

[4] krm, “Doubt and Certainty in the Age of Enlightenment,” Johns Hopkins University Press, https://www.press.jhu.edu/news/blog/doubt-and-certainty-age-enlightenment (posted 11 October 2011; accessed 20 January 2017).

[5] Blogstuff, https://dturneresq.wordpress.com/2007/10/20/the-history-of-thought-since-the-reformation-from-wikipedia/ (posted 20 October 2007; accessed 20 January 2017).

[6] John Shelby Spong, The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic (New York: HarperCollins, 2013), 13.

[7] Ibid, 84.

[8] Marcus Borg, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), 66. (This book was also written by N. T. Wright, with the two of them taking turns writing and responding to each other. This quote is from a section written by Borg.)

[9] Ibid.

[10] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 21, page 98. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[11] Ibid, page 99.

[12] “Amazing Grace,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amazing_Grace (accessed 21 January 2017).

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