July 26, 2015
John 6: 1-21
When Barbie came up and asked me if I could preach today, I thought, sure, why not? But then she says, “Don’t forget, this is transition Sunday between Stan and Jill. So make sure that the sermon addresses the changes that we are going through, and the future, and all of those transition-y things.” (Yes, that’s a paraphrase.)
Our scriptures are filled with stories about or that take place during transitions in community or political or religious life, so it should be no problem to find the right passage for us, for today, right? It’s been two years, nearly, since we said goodbye to Sharon. The transition committee was working overtime, calling an interim, and then another interim, writing a church profile, and generally trying to take care of us all. The search committee has been reading and reading, and interviewing, and traveling, and listening, and praying, and here we are, one week away from something new and exciting. The process of getting here has been similar for all of us, and yet the experience has been unique to each person. Some feel like we’ve stalled, some feel like we’re waiting for something, and some think all we’ve done is slow down a bit. Given the diversity of experiences and perspectives, I learned quickly that attempting to find one passage to speak to us all was, perhaps, a bit ambitious. So I went to the lectionary and found the good old gospel of John, the flashy gospel. And not just one little story, but three separate stories over twenty one verses. Guess we’d better get started.
You start with the feeding of the five thousand. A story like this appears in Matthew and Luke, but not quite like this. In the other gospels, the disciples are asked how much food they have on hand to feed the crowds. In this one, Jesus asks the disciples to go and buy food for them instead, to which they reply, “What???? We don’t have that kind of money!” But one child comes forward with a small supply of bread and fish, and as it is passed out among the crowd, it is discovered that it is indeed more than enough. This is in great contrast to the expectations of the disciples, who assumed, in spite of all that they have seen of Jesus’ miracles so far, that it would be impossible to feed so many. A fantastic story, showcasing the extraordinary events that surround Jesus in his ministry, as well as the limitations of the disciples, who find it so difficult to see past the obvious.
Next, the crowd is so impressed that they seem to want to make Jesus their king! Well, why wouldn’t they? Clearly he has wisdom. He is able to heal the sick and feed the multitudes, so perhaps he is the one that was foretold. But Jesus, perceiving their plans, wants none of it, and hides out in the bushes till they stop looking for him. Not even the disciples know where he’s gone. Why hide? Jesus speaks frequently in John of being sent by “the Father,” which seems to fit in with idea of being the savior of the people, but his idea of being a savior sent by God doesn’t fit at all with that of ordinary people. The people are thinking of a king, a military and political leader who will save them from their oppressors; and why wouldn’t they? In times past, this is exactly what they’ve had. But Jesus is thinking outside of the historical box. Not a king, but a leader who love the people, not as a figurehead, but as one of them. Someone that they can trust to show them a mirror so that they can see the sacred and sins side by side in themselves, someone who will move through life with them. A fascinating detail, showing Jesus’ strength in humility.
And then, a story that is, to my mind, one of the most fantastical in the entire gospel: Jesus walks on water. The disciples, having not found Jesus yet, decide they should probably push on to the next place, and step into a boat to sail to the other side of the sea. I find this part of the story odd, given that most of the disciples are fishermen, and therefore would know how to read the weather and deduce that a storm is on its way, and yet, they all climb in anyway. Ah, well. So there they are, in the middle of the sea, the waves tossing about, and up comes Jesus, walking on the water as though it is dry land. The disciples want to take him into the boat, but no sooner is this bit written than they are all at the shore, and the boat is no longer needed. Strange and fantastic, isn’t it?
There was a time when the gospel of John was my absolute, least favorite of the four, and here’s why: The gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke all have miracle stories in them, they all have examples of the disciples falling short, much like John, but they all also seem to be rooted in historical sources that can, to a certain extent, be traced and studied. One can read these and feel that they have some kind of solid grounding, the likes of which any post-enlightenment biblical scholar can appreciate. Yes, they contain stories that are beyond what our modern minds can wrap around, but the Gospel of John? That’s another story. It has stories in it that would have stretched the realms of believability even for the time it was written in. It has its own creation story, one which references the original Hebrew texts not at all. Its miracle narratives go beyond casting out demons and healing the sick and into a place where the dead come back to life at Jesus’ command, water is solid enough to walk on, and water is wine. In John, the Godly nature of Jesus is amplified, tenfold. It’s like someone came into the room and shone a black light on the gospel story.
And that’s it, isn’t? When a black light is shining, everything it touches is amplified, brighter, yet the shadows are darker somehow. It don’t really change what it is we’re looking at, but it does force us to see the brightest parts for what they are. And, it does add a sense of wonder.
This is probably what we need as we begin the next part of our ministry. In our heads we can likely imagine how it will be as Jill settles in, how there will be a honeymoon period, how we will all need to take some time to get used to each other. What it will be like to discern the next step in our ministry. This is wonderful, but let’s kick it up a notch. Let’s look around our community, our world, and let’s imagine a ministry that addresses justice and love in ways that we canhold in our hands and research thoroughly, but let’s also shine a black light on it. Let’s imagine a ministry, a new phase in our life where it’s possible, that with God’s help, a few loaves and two fishes really can feed five thousand people. Doesn’t that sound amazing? Let’s look forward to speaking the truth in love, supporting that message with strength in humility. Let’s envisage a ministry and a life lived together so that, should we find ourselves in a place that causes us fear, we can be confident that ours is a God who would make water solid enough to walk on in order for us to feel safe.
I like this black light! I love that it can remind the reader, the listener, that though the fantastic can be explained away with rational thinking, we really don’t need for that to happen! The fantastical is possible, and our imaginations are invited to look at the brightest possibilities, and consider them, even as we sit with the logical. This black lit, flashy gospel, it reminds of what we are capable of, with God’s help. May it be so for us all. Amen.