Sermon: “Far More Can Be Mended Than You Know”
Text: John 6:1-14
Date: July 1, 2018
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
I was a teenager in the 70’s so as I was mulling over how to speak about the feeding of the 5000 and other miracles of Jesus my memory sent up a catchy old tune from its murky depths: “I believe in miracles, where you from, you sexy thing? I believe in miracles since you came along, you sexy thing, you.” Any of you remember that song? The lyrics continue, “Where did you come from baby/ How did you know I needed you/ How did you know I needed you so badly/ How did you know I’d give my heart gladly?” I’m listening to it, and off to the side on my computer screen is a little tab that says “I Believe in Miracles, Christian Version.” I wondered if some imaginative person had adapted this catchy song, took the sexy thing out of the song and made it about Jesus. Like, “I believe in miracles, where you from, you holy thing? I believe in miracles since you came along, you godly thing, you. How did you know I needed you so badly/ How did you know I’d give my heart gladly?”” Alas, it was a different song altogether.
Although that 70’s song really is about finding a lover after a long and lonely dry spell, it raises at least one question that people tend to wonder about in the gospels whenever Jesus performs some kind of miracle: “Where did you come from [baby]?” Miracles hint at an other-worldly power at work. They hint at a supernatural dimension of life. Miracles amaze and mystify those who observe them, and lead to both awesome wonder and great fear.
Do you believe in miracles? If you’re like me, that’s not a question for which a simple “yes” or “no” answer will suffice. To say I believe everything recorded in Scripture happened just that way would be a bald-faced lie; and what’s more, I don’t think it does Christianity any favors to just swallow every word of the Bible whole. The Scripture deserves a more subtle, thoughtful reading than the old “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” bumper sticker indicates. On the other hand, to say “Nope, I don’t believe any miracle stories” is way too flat-footed and faithless. There has to be a way to talk about miracle stories in the Bible that isn’t about a flat “Yes, I believe in miracles” or “No, I don’t believe” binary.
I enjoyed doing some research this week into the big picture of the miracles of Jesus. There are four broad categories of miracles Jesus works in the gospels: Healing, exorcism, raising the dead, and control of nature miracles. The most numerous are healing stories, followed by exorcisms (casting out demons), then a variety of nature-controlling miracles and three instances of raising the dead (not counting Jesus’ own resurrection). We chatted in the Tuesday Bible study about the stories that we remember most clearly, or are most meaningful to us—how about you? Which stories immediately come to mind if I ask you whether you have a favorite miracle?
My theory before posing the question is that remembering or choosing a favorite would most likely reveal how such a story of Jesus connects with your personal faith story. Even if you didn’t receive the miracle story in question as exactly factual or historically accurate, you might resonate with a story because something about it found an echo in your own faith journey. (Do you think that’s so?) We can discover meaning in miracle stories regardless of the “yea” or “nay” of whether we think it happened just like that. The stories of Jesus get integrated into our own stories in a beautiful way. This understanding is what attracted me to our “Consider This” quote for the day by Alasdair Macintyre: “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question, ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'”
While we’re not a part of the miracle stories in the same way Jesus’ contemporaries were, they are still part of our inner guidance system as we tell them over and over, as we wonder about them. We wonder about them, both in the sense of bringing our many questions, and in the sense of feeling them open us to amazement and astonishment at what God is doing in the world. That latter sense of wonder carries over into gratitude for the unexpected ways God still works in our lives. Miracle stories don’t merely speak of the past; they help us frame and interpret our experience in the present. These stories may become part of our own stories.
Biblical scholar Ted Hildebrandt wrote a great article about Jesus’ miracles with lots of great big words and numerous footnotes that points out that for the most part the miracles function as revelations of the Kingdom of God about which Jesus preached. They reveal something about the nature or character of the kingdom of God. Makes sense, right? People who are suffering from illness are healed, and they are restored to their families and communities. People who are under the sway of evil powers are liberated. People who have come to a (sometimes literal) dead end receive new life. The hungry are fed, and multitudes are brought into relationship with one another. For the most part, Jesus used marvelous signs to highlight or call attention to the Kingdom of God drawing near.
Take the feeding of the 5,000, which we heard this morning. It’s the only miracle story that appears in all four gospels. That may well speak to its significance as a revelation of the Kingdom of God. It’s a rich story that can yield many meanings, about being blessed and filled, about what might happen when we quit our everlasting worrying about there not being ENOUGH and share what we have. Preacher Brian Stoffregen asks the question about who Christians identify with in John’s version of the feeding miracle, and notes that most of us probably see ourselves as those who are being filled and satisfied by the Living Bread Jesus gives. He challenges Christians to identify with the youngster in the story who gladly shares what he has and watches in wonder what God-With-Us can do with his humble offering.
The subtext of abundance is a story we find hard to believe, isn’t it? As I’ve said many times in sermons, we’re always being bombarded with stories of “not enough” in our culture so we’ll keep on buying stuff and embarking on expensive self-beautification projects. In addition, the Haves are often proclaiming that there is not ENOUGH to feed, clothe, house, and heal the Have-nots. What few public benefits we offer as a country are constantly under attack as we pretend there is not enough wealth to go around to end desperate poverty among us. The Kingdom of God principle revealed in the feeding of a multitude at the heart of every gospel challenges every one squashing kindness by saying, “We can’t afford it.” I like the way Francis Spufford recapitulated one aspect of Jesus’ Kingdom of God message: “Behave as if nothing you gave away could ever make you poorer, because you can never run out of what you give. Behave as if this one day we’re in now were the whole of time, and you didn’t have to hold anything back, or to plot and scheme about tomorrow. Don’t try to grip your life with tight, anxious hands. Unclench those fingers.”
I want to borrow the words of another great writer, Rev. Steve Garnaas-Holmes, who lifts up another beautiful aspect of the feeding miracle story. Steve’s imagination puts him in the crowd with those being fed: “Alone and struggling, I came to hear him. I stood in front and took it in. I heard a word of grace. I gave him my heart as he spoke.
“I saw him break some bread, bless it and give it in baskets to his helpers. They gave me some. It tasted like freedom. And then a hush fell, the others silent. I didn’t see why, couldn’t imagine why: I wanted to sing and shout, to praise loudly, to tell my story: there in the bread, my whole life poured into the bread, my whole life rose before me, like bread rising, full and very special, touched by God. Why not sing a song?
“Only when I turned around did I see why the spreading hush, the awed silence, as the gift was passed from hand to hand: his helpers kept going among the people, bearing baskets of bread, giving it away. The bread did not end. He did not just feed me. He fed everybody. All of them. Here was a miracle: not me, but 5000. I was not alone. We were as one. A community, drawn together as if we were one body, one loaf of bread. The miracle was not the bread but the sharing, not that he made bread, but that he made a community, not that he gave me a gift, but that he gave the same gift to others, that he drew my “I” into a “we.” I was saved, not by being made special, but by being included.
“I imagine the miracle happens again and again, not by making bread appear, but by making it disappear, into the hands of the hungry. I wonder what it was like to be one of those people helping him, following him, carrying those baskets out into the crowd, seeing the miracle in the unending bread, among the people. I think I could spend my life doing that.”
Beautiful, right? I especially like his line, “I imagine the miracle happens again and again, not by making bread appear, but by making it disappear, into the hands of the hungry.” We may not have been on that Galilean hillside, but we can still participate in this story in a very real way, participating in the miracle of anxious humans unclenching their fingers long enough to share what they have, seeing the miracle of community emerging where generosity abounds.
Understanding our own discipleship in the light of the miracle stories—making these stories part of our own inner guidance systems—is one way to appreciate them. We can receive them as wonderful metaphors and storied revelations of life as it should be.
If that’s all we do, however, we’re falling short of the potential of miracle stories to bless and disturb us. Our very scientific and rationalistic mindsets are quick to deny the possibility of a “supernatural” dimension of life. In a peppery critique of the New Atheism, Francis Spufford describes the science only, “just the facts, ma’am” worldview as a comfortable one: “This world is solid, stolid even. It makes no sudden moves.” He challenges those who think what we’ve learned as science equals reality in its whole, saying that our perceptual world isn’t science. “It is a cultural artifact created by one version of the cultural influence of science, specific to the last two centuries in Europe and North America. It is not a direct, unmediated picture of reality; far from it. It is a drastically human-centered, human-scaled selection from the physical universe, comfortably restricted to the order of reality which is cooked rather than raw, which happens within the envelope of society. It scarcely touches on what the world is like apart from us.”
Spufford has a way with words, doesn’t he? I appreciate the way he calls a strictly scientific worldview out on the carpet as a “comfortably restricted” view of reality. There’s nothing quite like a miracle story to challenge such a squashed human-scaled view of reality to a duel. Remember how that “I believe in miracles” song asks the question, “Where did you come from?” Isn’t that a question we are compelled to ask about Jesus, and isn’t it both comforting and discomforting that his life points to a dimension beyond the merely human?
I have long been rather skeptical about the factuality/actuality of the miracle stories. Refreshing my memory on the definition of skepticism, I found that Merriam-Webster references not only doubt and incredulity, but includes this defining characteristic: “the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain.” I say we need more humility about what we know and don’t know, and more uncertainty where God is concerned is entirely appropriate. My comfortable and restricted “scientific” worldview leaves little room for God. Yet faith reaches out with hope that God will reach into our grim, violent human order from the deeper dimension where life is more powerful than death and love is more powerful than hate to disrupt our greedy business as usual. John D. Caputo helped me see miracles as a sign of God’s work as “the source of irregularity, of disordered and displaced orders…No one who reads the New Testament slowly would ever come up with a theory that associates God with ‘natural law,’ not when irregularity, interruption, and lawless miracle are the very occasion of the appearance of God. God is the force or element in things that interrupts their current drift.”
If ever we needed a force or element in things to interrupt the current mean drift of humanity, we need one now. In the face of the “law of the jungle,” the “survival of the fittest,” the drift toward xenophobic authoritarianisms around the world, we need some “lawless miracles” to interrupt the drift of hate with a powerful and unmistakable force of love. Our own feeble ability to love needs to be fortified and multiplied by God’s love until love draws everyone in.
A gospel re-telling that moves me deeply ends with the resurrected Christ pulling a weeping and desolate Mary Magdalene to her feet. Christ says to her, “Far more can be mended than you know.” I say: Thank you God, thank you, Jesus, thank you Spirit. We need mending, we need a power we cannot generate and cannot fully understand. Help us to use our knowledge, we pray, use our learning, but don’t let us stop there. You know we need your otherworldly power to upend our worldly misery. Lead us to trust that far more can be mended than we know.
 Recorded in 1975 by the British band Hot Chocolate
 Spufford, Francis Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense New York: HarperOne, 2013, p. 113
 Garnaas-Holmes, Steve
 Op cit, Spufford, p. 70
 Captuto, John D. The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013, p. 34