03 August 2008

Sermon for 3 August 2008 - "Swept Into A Miracle"

I preached at Bethany Lutheran Church in Kelly, Iowa this morning - here's
the sermon. If you're in the vicinity of Wakefield, Nebraska next Sunday,
I'll be preaching at Salem Lutheran Church, my home congregation, for their
125th Anniversary Celebration worship service at 10:30 a.m. Stop on

One of the icons of my childhood is the Star Wars saga. I was 3 the year the original “Star Wars” swept movie theatres around the world. I played with Star Wars action figures for years. In the Star Wars saga, there is an iconic moment that almost everyone, even people who aren’t fans, knows very well. It comes in the middle of The Empire Strikes Back. We find Luke Skywalker training to be a Jedi with Yoda on the planet Dagobah. Luke’s X-wing fighter has sunk into the swamp, and when Luke tells Yoda he will try to raise the ship, Yoda scolds Luke: “NO! Do or do not – there is no ‘try.’” When Luke can’t raise the ship by himself, Yoda raises the X-wing out of the swamp while the strings play the Jedi theme majestically. Luke says, “I can’t believe it!” to which Yoda responds: “That is why you fail.”
What a powerful cinematic moment this is! My friend Aaron, a band director in central Nebraska, has used the “Do or do not – there is no try!” line on his students for years. But it’s only a movie, unfortunately. As much as we might wish it were so, we do not live “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” There is no soundtrack to the lives we live, and the reality in which Christ meets us is far less romantic than the scorching deserts of Tatooine or the glittering bustle of Coruscant. But Christ does meet us here, and he comes offering something better than movie magic. Christ comes to sweep you into a miracle – not a magic trick, nothing accomplished through special effects or computer imagery, but a genuine, actual, living, breathing miracle. Let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ, we come to you hungry for the faith which only you can give. Fill our hearts with joy in your presence, peace in our souls and hope for the future – and when the time is right, send us into that future to be those who live out the hope you have provided. In your strong, gracious name we pray, Amen.
Perhaps a bit of setting is in order here. In Matthew’s gospel, this story comes hard upon the heels of the execution of John the Baptist by Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. So when the gospel tells us that “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew…to a deserted place by himself,” we can be fairly certain that Jesus wanted to be alone to mourn the death of his cousin and make peace with the fact that yet another of God’s prophets had been rejected and killed. There is a wonderful juxtaposition happening here in Matthew. In the midst of a birthday party thrown in his honor, Herod Antipas couldn’t be bothered to spare the life of one troublemaker from Galilee. Yet Jesus, who was interrupted in his quest for solitude by a crowd of thousands, had compassion enough to feed those thousands. Matthew reminds us of the words of the psalmist, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” [1] There is a world of difference between Jesus of Nazareth and Herod Antipas, a difference we would do well to remember in this season of politics and promises. (I’ll leave it to you to decide which of the candidates most closely resembles Herod – it might be fun, but it would definitely be a digression from our gospel text this morning).
So – into the midst of the teeming crowds upon which Jesus is showing compassion stride the disciples, the ones who have followed Jesus for some time now. They’ve heard him preach the kingdom of God and teach the crowds what it means to put their trust in God. They’ve seen Jesus heal the sick and cleanse lepers. They’ve even been sent out to do some of the same work on Jesus’ behalf. So, after all this, the disciples have only one thing to say to Jesus: “It’s getting late and we’re in the middle of nowhere: send these crowds away so they could go get something to eat!”
It’s hard to say what the disciples meant by this order – and do note that it’s an order, not a request. Some interpreters argue that the disciples were actually showing compassion by reminding Jesus that a crowd of this size will require a lot of time to find food, while others have chosen the more cynical interpretation, that the disciples just wanted Jesus to get rid of the crowds. Regardless of the intent behind the order, the meaning is clear: crowds do not feed themselves, so they must be sent where they can be fed. Little did the disciples know that the crowd had already found the place where they could and would be fed, and not with just a little bit of food, but with an abundance.
So the miraculous feeding of the thousands began. As Frederick Bruner wrote, “Jesus not only cares about hungry people – he does something (and motivates his church to do something) about their hunger. He does not give tracts, advise fasting, or counsel patient resignation. He feeds.” [2] But if this is a miracle, this feeding, it is a miracle of the most ordinary kind. Read the words of Matthew 14.20 very carefully: there was no thunderclap, no tearing asunder of the heavens. No dove descended, no sunbeam appeared, no angelic choir sang. “All ate and were filled.” Simple. Plain. And, we must note, carried out by the disciples, not Jesus. His voice gave the blessing, yes – but it was the disciples’ hands that distributed the meal. However long it took for twelve people to feed several thousand men, women and children, that was how long the miracle took to occur, and it’s a fair bet that the majority of the crowd had no idea that anything miraculous was taking place.
When commentators work with these verses from Matthew, they are naturally drawn to the question of how the miracle happened. Some argue that the crowd, seeing the disciples giving out their own bread, began sharing food they had brought with them. Others argue that it was a miracle ex nihilo, “out of nothing,” bread and fish rising from where there had been none before. In one internet forum, a heated debate rose over this central question: was this “the description of a real miracle” or not? Some of us need Jesus to be the miracle man pulling bread out of his hat. Some of us need Jesus to be an ordinary guy inspiring his followers to share their own out of a mystical sense of esprit des corps. This argument isn’t about Jesus, really: it’s about us, and our need for Jesus to be something we can control, something we can understand, instead of someone we can trust. Arguments about how miracles happen are essentially exercises in missing the point. It doesn’t matter how the thousands were fed; the point is, they were fed, and in that feeding a miracle was indeed taking place.
What if we asked a bigger question: when did this story about Jesus become miraculous? Did this story become miraculous when the crowds were fed, or did this story become miraculous when an overwhelmed, grieving teacher and healer gave up his time of private mourning out of compassion for the thousands who were following him into the wilderness? Did this story become miraculous when Jesus blessed the bread, or when the disciples were given faith to turn around and begin distributing bread they knew wouldn’t be enough for their own needs? Also, when did the miraculous come to an end here? Was it when all had eaten? When the twelve baskets of remnants were collected? What about the day after, when the crowds departed and began telling the story of what had happened? If someone came to faith in Jesus as a result of that story, wouldn’t that be a miracle as well?
The thing about life with Jesus is that the miracles never stop. The crowd that day in the wilderness didn’t so much witness a miracle as get swept into a miracle, one that had been happening for quite some time and is, in fact, still going. Jesus takes what the church has to give, blesses it, and gives it back to us for the sake of the world: and thus the miracle continues. As Thomas Long says, “the church is always in the desert, the place where it cannot rely upon its own resources, which are few. The church is hungry and is surrounded by a world of deep cravings…”[3] Yet even the little we think we have is far more than God needs – after all, for the One who called light out of darkness and shape out of chaos, multiplying a little bread is no hardship at all.
All of us here today are living miracles – not because of who we are, but because of the one in whose name we gather. And, like the disciples, we are not only gathered but sent in His name for the sake of the world. Barbara Brown Taylor says that “Miracles let us off the hook. They appeal to the part of us that is all too happy to let God feed the crowd, save the world, do it all.” But, she says, the call of the church is to be swept into the miraculous, to be a part of what God is doing: “Not me but you; not my bread but yours; not sometime or somewhere else but right here and now…stop waiting for food to fall from the sky and share what you have. Stop waiting for a miracle and participate in one instead.”
There were some in the crowd that day, I’m sure, who ate their food, heard Jesus speak, and went away untouched, unmoved, untransformed. It’s a sad truth that getting through to us takes a lot of time and effort on God’s part. But here, today, you and I are still being swept into the miracle of life in the name of Jesus Christ, the gift of God’s grace which feeds our souls until we are filled to overflowing. Christ has swept us in and now sends us out. This week is your crowd, his love is your bread, your hands and life are his gift to the world – go, friends, and give our Lord Jesus Christ away until all may eat and be filled. Amen.

[1] Psalm 146.3
[2] Bruner, Frederick. Matthew: A Commentary. Vol. 2: The Churchbook. © 2004 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI. p. 66. (emphasis mine)

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