2 Kings 4:42-44; John 6:1-14
Arguably the greatest sports call of my lifetime was when Al Michael shouted “Do you believe in miracles?” This morning we look at two scriptures asking the same question. Our quick answer is, “Why of course we do!” But then as we struggle with what we entertain as probable and what is not, little questions begin to surface, exposing small cracks of doubt in our faith system.
Do you believe in miracles? Thomas Jefferson claimed he did not. He believed everything was dependent on the planning and sacrifices of the human spirit. Jefferson had little time for leaving his destiny to the whims of God. If you have read a copy of the Jefferson Bible, you will note all the miracles have been eliminated.
Of course Jefferson was not a particularly religious guy, no matter what the religious right would have us believe. But William Barkley, the great Scottish Biblical commentator, was a man of great faith. Many of us grew up on his wonderful analysis of the New Testament. Other than the resurrection, Barkley struggled mightily with miracles. They did not fit into his logically trained mind. I love looking back at his commentaries as Barkley contrived elaborate explanations for the miracle stories. Barkley was not lacking faith but his convictions were based on more than a belief in the unexplainable. He was particularly wary of irrational observations fueled by overactive imaginations.
My rational side tends to agree with Barkley and Jefferson. I celebrate God’s creation of the universe and I cherish the belief that God’s presence shadows my every step. I believe God expects us to be the creator of miracles. Yet if Herb Brooks were asked if the USA hockey win involved divine intervention, I am sure he would scowl and mutter, “We worked hard and believed in ourselves.” So how do skeptics come to cherish the presence of miracles? Perhaps we need the eyes of Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush alive with God.
And only he who sees takes off his shoes—
While the rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.
Some marvel at the wonder of miracles. Some witness the hand of God in the ordinary.
This morning our scriptures center on miracles. One you know very well. Not only is it recorded in the New Testament multiple times, it has to be the favorite story of any Vacation Bible School. A small boy with a couple fish and some crumbs of bread contributes his lunch to a holy cause and 5,000 folks are fed, with leftovers. Barkley has a field day with this illusion. He claims the miracle was not that Jesus fed 5,000 people but when the boy offered all he had, everyone else was willing to share. There was always plenty of food. The miracle was getting folks to open their picnic baskets and their hearts unconditionally. Does this take away from the power of God? No!!! If God can create the universe, filling an order of fish and chips should be child’s play. But it is hard work to get folks to share.
I just spent a few days with three children who are seven and under. Now you know any children claiming Deb and I as their grandparents have to be perfect. Even so, I discovered the most often used words within the Paukert household are “Mine” and “No”. The concept of sharing is discussed only when a younger child is playing with a toy an older child desires. It is a feeble attempt to engage in an ethical principal in which the strong tries to persuade the weak to willingly discard a valuable commodity for something of lesser value. Goodness and fairness are never part of the exchange. It is a blatantly selfish act based on guile and deception.
In most households this trait must be practiced until perfected because it has become the very bases of any economic system. If you have something I desire, I am willing to make an offer, but I do not want to lose out on the exchange. If I am the stronger trading partner, I can offer a plethora of worthless objects in order to obtain the item I desire. Think of the Dutch bargaining with Native Americans for Long Island. Think of Roger Maris being traded to the Yankees for Marv Thornberry. So I ask again, how hard is it to share? Let me up the ante. How hard is it to share when you may not receive anything in return? This is the faith demonstrated by the young boy who gave up his lunch when Andrew said, “Will you share?”
The boy didn’t say, “What do I get?” He simply responded, “OK”. The boy was given an opportunity to help and he selflessly responded. Now what kind of world would we be living in if this were the norm and not the exception? I am not really sure, but I suspect we would never have to listen to Donald Trump again.
Could the human response to a need be a far greater miracle than a Godly response to prayer? That may be a dangerous question, but let me suggest miracles are performed all the time by those not busily gathering blackberries. Instead of gouging ourselves, perhaps we should be take off our shoes and thank God for the opportunities to silently and faithfully contribute.
Ah, but the cynic from within rises to challenge even my brilliant analysis. What if the boy shared because he saw Jesus and knew he was in the presence of God? What if the boy shared because he was certain that Jesus had a trick or two up his sleeve? If this is the case, the boy did not share; he was buying into the real thing. If Jesus suddenly appeared in this sanctuary and said, “I have need of your American Express Card”, how would you respond? I pray none of us would say, “Jesus, what did you ever do for me?”
I hope our response would be to take off our shoes, bow our heads, and say “OH MY GOD” …… and actually mean it in a religious way.
Perhaps the best explanation for the boy’s action was he had Godly parents who made sure he read the Torah each night before going to bed. The boy knew turning scrapes into a meal was possible because it had been done before during the days of Elisha.
Large personalities dominate the Bible but many miracles were instigated by names we seldom remember. You know Abraham, Moses, Sampson, Gideon and David. With the crumbling of the Davidic kingdom emerged a group of outsiders and shamans that delivered God’s edicts to the descendents of Abraham. The greatest was Elijah. His cloak was picked up by the mystic Elisha. You may not know much about him. He arrived on the scene as Elijah was taken to heaven by a fiery chariot. Most of Elisha’s stories have a supernatural flavor. He pales in comparison to Elijah yet Elisha not only represented the mystery of God, Jesus duplicates many of his stories in the gospels.
Elisha lived in desperate times. Food was scarce making starvation a constant occurrence. In our text we read that Elisha appeared among a crowd of more than 100 famished people. We have all seen the videos of rescue workers trying to spread food among folks fighting to live. The food only gets to those strong enough to fight their way to the back of the truck. The weak are trampled and left for dead. Elisha was given a small sack of food by an unnamed bystander. The first miracle occurs when Elisha asked the mob to quietly sit, and they responded. Then Elisha fed everyone, with leftovers to boot.
Two universal truths are displayed by this story. First, there is suffering and need in this world. Second, God’s blessings are more abundant than we realize. But a third truth is exposed in the telling of the story. Sometimes, we fail to notice the real miracle that has taken place.
This story, just like Jesus feeding the 5,000, began when someone responded. An unknown man brought food for the poor. It certainly wasn’t enough to feed everyone. The man could have put it aside and saved it for himself. But he didn’t. This unknown man responded to a need, allowing his generosity to spark the blessing of God.
What is it that defines a church? The obvious answer is a church is a group of people who identify themselves through their belief in a higher power. But what is it that would cause someone outside that church to make the observation that its members are a holy people.
During vacation I read Thomas Cahill’s Desire of the Everlasting Hills. You might remember Cahill as the guy who claims the Irish saved civilization. That notwithstanding, his latest book describes the Roman/Greek world during and immediately after the life of Jesus. Cahill observes as both Judaism and the followers of Christ begin to settle in Greek and Roman provinces, folks noticed something vastly interesting about their new neighbors. They worshipped one God. They observed a holy day. They treated their wives with dignity. They placed great value on their code of ethics. They cared for the poor, the destitute, the widows and orphans and anyone of a lower economic class.
So I ask you again, what is it that defines a church? I hope we would include worshiping one God, observing a holy day, treating each family member with dignity and placing great value on our Commandments. But what is it that catches the attention of those peering through our doors?
A small boy came to hear Jesus. When it was noon he opened his bag and prepared to eat the lunch prepared by his mother. A stranger said to him, “Will you share what you have?” Without hesitation the boy said, “Yes”.
So what is the church? Maybe it is folks who always bring an extra bucket each time they pick blackberries because they believe every day God provides the opportunity to perform a miracle. Amen.