Readings for the eleventh Sunday after Pentecost in Year B
These middle weeks of summer, when the theme of bread circles through the readings and the readings themselves overlap, beginning and ending in the same place over and over; it’s as though the disciples are still circulating through the crowd gathering up baskets of crumbs from the loaves and fishes, as though the miracle is still feeding our souls.
We are not altogether comfortable with miracles, in this day and age, except when we need one. We like to explain the loaves and the fishes away as one little boy shared his lunch with another little boy, who shared his lunch with a family who had packed and stashed a stuffed but secret hamper with food enough for an army … We point and say, “You see!” If we would only share, we could take care of ourselves and everyone else, no miracle needed. And perhaps that’s true. It’s certainly an idea worth exploring, worth sharing. But the gospels were written so that we might know not only what we can do for ourselves, even for one another, as important as that is; but so that we might know what God has done for us.
The feeding of the five thousand is reported in every gospel because the memory of Jesus giving thanks, breaking bread, sharing it out, enough for the whole crowd, enough for the whole world; that story of Jesus taking bread, and giving thanks, and breaking it open should remind us of the love that God has for us, which is poured out for us as often as we seek it, as much as we need it, as long as we are hungry for it; and not only for us alone but for every stranger on the hillside who holds out her hands for a crumb of comfort. The miracle, the thing which is beyond our understanding, the extent and reach, the abundance of God’s love for us; that is what the gospels are trying to describe in the story of the loaves and the fishes.
But then what comes next?
The people in the crowd were so blissed out by their unexpected picnic that they fell asleep on the hillside. They literally missed the boat that the disciples took back to Tiberius. They missed the awesome and fearfully wonderful sight of Jesus walking across the water, over the Sea of Galilee, his very footsteps calming the storm beneath his feet; his very incarnation trampling the chaos and treading down the waves that threatened to swamp his followers. The people who remained on the hillside, full to a food coma of bread and fish, did not notice Jesus slipping away from them, and they had no idea what they had missed.
That might account for this conversation in Capernaum, in which the crowd and Jesus might as well still be talking from opposite sides of the lake. The people, who sought Jesus out because of the healing in his hands and his prophetic preaching, that the kingdom of God is at hand – these same people, who were healed, and fed, and satisfied, now seek him out and say, “What else can you do? What more have you got?”
They remind me of those lines in our Book of Common Prayer, in Eucharistic Prayer C:
Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength;
for pardon only, and not for renewal.
Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ,
that we may worthily serve the world in his name.
We are fed because God loves us, and because God loves us, God wants us to share that love with those around us, with those among us, with those we have yet to encounter. If we are Jesus’ disciples, the witnesses not only to the breaking of the bread, but witnesses also to his faithfulness in the storm that followed, his calm in the chaos, his presence in the darkness – if we are Jesus’ witnesses, what will we tell the crowd who come asking, “What more will you do for us? What else have you got?”
Assuming, for a moment, that we are still travelling with Jesus, that we haven’t fallen asleep on the hillside having had our fill; what is the hope that we will offer those still trying to come to terms with the irrational and unreasonable love of God?
Long ago, before I was a priest, I met a woman who was sure that God could not love her any longer, because of things that she had done, situations she had undergone. I asked her, what would it take for you to know that it is safe to pray again? She said, I would need a sign. I said – and I could hardly hear myself say it for the beating of my heart, because it is scary to think of oneself as a sacrament, but I said – what if the sign is that you got into a conversation with a stranger who told you that she knows, categorically, for sure and certain, that God loves you, and is waiting for a word from you; that God forgives you? And she looked at me, a little strangely, and she said, “That could work.”
What if you are the sign? What if you are the miracle? For
each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.
and just as God spread manna in the wilderness, and just as Christ broke bread on the hillside,
… he gave gifts to his people,
Not for solace only, but for strength; not for pardon only, but for renewal; not for the moment only, but for eternity, that we might be one with Christ, and serve the world worthily in his name.
What if you are the miracle? What stories would you tell of the footsteps in the storm, Christ’s power over the chaos, coming to be with us in the boat even as it is sinking? What tales of abundance, of enduring providence, of selfless grace, of the power of sacrament?
Perhaps the lesson of the little boy with the loaves and fish is less what we can do for ourselves, and more what God can do with even the little that we have, if we are willing to put it in Jesus’ hands to be transformed from something temporary to something of eternity; if we are willing to follow him, not only to ask what God will do for us next, but to follow out of genuine curiosity about what Jesus will do next, about the mysterious movements of God in the world, watching for those moments of miracle, of power, of intimacy with creation and with us, God’s creatures.