Sunday, August 31, 2014

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 3
Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”
4 When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.”
5 “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” 6 Then he said, “I am the God of your father,[a] the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
7 The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.

If you’ve decided to take all your summer adventures and turn them into the next great Canadian novel, I have to warn you: there are really only seven basic plots that make up the world of stories. Seven—no more, no less.

I learned this last week during a workshop with Julia Golding, a UK-based author of books for children and youth. While describing her own journey from reader to successful writer, she mentioned the seven basic plots according to the aptly named theorist Christopher Booker.

So what are these seven plots, and how do they summarize every story ever told? We’ll ask Mr. Booker, and he’ll get us on the right path toward becoming the next Dan Brown.

The first basic plot is called ‘Overcoming the Monster,’ so think Beowulf or Star Wars. In this plot, our hero discovers that great evil exists in the world and sets out to destroy it.

The next basic plot is called ‘Rags to Riches,’ and for this we have Cinderella or Harry Potter. Our hero begins in a very humble place, gains wealth or status, faces some sort of setback, then finally matures into a princess or a great wizard.

Third is “The Quest,’ a storyline best demonstrated by The Lord of the Rings. One or more intrepid people set out to get something or go somewhere, encountering every sort of adventure on the way.

Fourth is ‘Voyage and Return,’ like the Wizard of Oz or Back to the Future for you Michael J. Fox fans. Our hero enters a strange land and encounters some adversary or problem, and must confront it before returning wiser and more mature.

Next is ‘Comedy,’ like When Harry Met Sally or Bridget Jones’ Dairy. In this plot it is obvious that two people ought to be together, but circumstances conspire to keep them apart. We laugh as they foolishly try to overcome these circumstances.

This is followed, of course, by ‘Tragedy,’ in the manner of Macbeth, always the best example. Our anti-hero seems to achieve what he seeks, only to have his whole world appropriately fall apart.

The last, number seven, is ‘Rebirth,’ best demonstrated by old Ebenezer Scrooge himself. The one who starts out looking like a villain will have some kind of encounter or experience that will precipitate a complete change in direction.

Now, of course, you are worried that the complete story that came to you in a dream doesn’t fit into one of these neat little categories. You will be pleased to know you can mix and match, or occupy more than one category and easily get away with it. How do I know? Because the story of Moses and the Exodus does precisely that.

Obviously Moses is Overcoming the Monster, because the monster is Pharaoh. Pharaoh is the Darth Vader of the Bible, a fact that Moses only begins to discover after he kills the Egyptian taskmaster and must flee into the wilderness of Midian. When God calls Moses and tells him to go back, the true villainy of Pharaoh is confirmed (“I have seen the misery of my people,” God says).

And the monster Pharaoh’s heart is hardened not once, but twice: once to refuse Moses’ (and God’s) demand to release the people, and again after they were free. As horse and rider are thrown into the sea, we are finally assured that the monster has been defeated.

Equally obvious is the fact that the story of Moses is Rags to Riches story. This tiny Hebrew lad is saved from destruction by floating down the Nile in basket, only to end up in the palace with a princess as his adopted mother. Like the other ‘boy who lived’ (Harry Potter) Moses will only later discover who he truly is, and will then rejoin his people and face the ultimate conflict.

For both Harry and Moses there will be a contest to the death with an intimately connected foe. Moses and Pharaoh grew up together, and in the same way Harry and he-who-must-not-be-named became forever connected the first time Voldemort tried to kill Harry. Only one can survive, and with God’s help, it was Moses (spoiler alert: and Harry).

Of course, you will argue, the story of Moses and the Exodus is a classic Quest story, and perhaps the ultimate quest story: finding the promised land. These intrepid people achieve their freedom, but this is only the beginning. They must wander in the desert for forty years, encountering hunger, thirst, snakes, and ultimately themselves.

And like The Lord of the Rings, the Exodus is really a journey of self-discovery, learning what it means to be God’s people, and learning how they must live once they arrive at the promised land. And like Sam and Frodo, God and Moses journey together and enjoy a special bond, but are still reduced to disagreeing and bickering along the way. And, of course, like Samwise, God always saves Moses in those moments of great peril.

Maybe you will argue this is a Voyage and Return story, whereby a death at the beginning of the story, whether it be that Egyptian taskmaster or a wicked witch, forces a journey into the unknown. Both Moses and Dorothy have made powerful enemies, and must return to confront them whether they want to or not.

I think my favourite is the Exodus as a comedy, in the sense that God and God’s people are meant to be together, but circumstances keep driving them apart. Moses goes up the hill to receive the commandments and the people immediately start making a golden calf, breaking the first and second commandments before the ink has even dried.

There is even the madcap moment when God says ‘look, Moses, at what your people have done—these are stiff-necked people and deserve only one fate.’ But then Moses say ‘wait a minute God, these are YOUR people, not my people. Imagine the humiliation of saving these people only to turn around and destroy them.‘ And God relents. And just like every classic comedy, they end up together in the end.

But maybe you like the Scottish play more than Bridget Jones. The story of Moses is a tragedy insofar as he will never reach the promised land. At a critical moment, Moses makes the mistake that costs him everything. He has confronted God and troubled God, but only once does he accept God’s help and claim the miracle as his own.

God guides Moses to supply water from the rock, which he does, then neglects to give God credit for the miracle. In effect, he tried to take the place of God before the people, and his punishment was to die just before he reaches the promised land. In other words, it’s a tragedy.

And finally, it seems obvious that the Exodus is a rebirth story. Plucked from the Nile, Moses is reborn. On the run in the desert of Midian, God brings him back. Emerging from the parted Red Sea, like we emerge from the water of baptism, Moses lives to lead these people.

Even in his tragic death, in sight of the promised land, Moses is reborn through the epitaph found in Deuteronomy 34:

Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, who did all those signs and wonders the Lord sent him to do in Egypt—to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land. For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.

The story of Moses, the greatest prophet Israel has ever known, is more than one story or even seven stories. It is the story of stories because it is the story of the one who met the God-who-cares. It is the story of the one who stood in the presence of God and did not perish, selected to facilitate the liberation that God intends for all of us. It is the story of the God who selects unique men and woman to overcome monsters, face overwhelming odds, and ultimately triumph, based solely on their trust in God.

May this story become our story, a journey with God toward the promised land: with trouble that will not overwhelm, with faithful companions by our side, and with the power of God, directing our way and supplying all our needs, now and always, amen.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 15
10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11 What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”
17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”

Our God now shows the kids about sin with commandments.

O is for other gods
G is for graven images
N is for the name of God, never taken in vain
S is for the sabbath, so relax
T is for thy father and mother, and honouring them
K is for killing
A is for adultery
S is for stealing
W is for witnessing falsely
C is for coveting, always a bad idea.

Our God now shows the kids about sin with commandments. There will be a test later.*

If you ask the internet, you will be rewarded with numerous ways to memorize the ten commandments. There are rhymes, cute children with ten fingers, silly songs and various other mnemonics. The one I just shared may be the best of the lot, and it really isn’t that good.

There is another approach, kind of controversial, that involves picking your favorites, and leaving the rest. And I hesitate to even suggest this as an option, except that this is exactly what Jesus seems to do in Matthew 15. Six or so get kicked to the curb, and then he adds a couple, making a new total of six.

The six commandments. Will it work? It’s certainly easier to remember six, and it is a nice round number, but it doesn’t correspond very well with your number of fingers, unless of course you have been careless with the table saw. So what are these six commandments, and what’s left out? Let’s take a look:

Jesus said “For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”

Basically, the first five are gone. Other gods, graven images, name in vain, sabbath and honouring your parents are gone. Coveting is gone too, but that was always kind of awkward anyway. Exodus 20:17 barely fits on a tablet:

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.

I’m assuming Moses misheard, or was getting tired at this point in the transcription. Either way, this was always the last (10th) commandment for a reason. Covetousness is bad, but there are better ways to say it.

If you’re keeping track, or still wrestling with my opening mnemonic, you will be the first to note the additions: sexual immorality and slander. Again, I don’t want to seem picayune, but sexual immorality and slander are fully related to adultery and bearing false witness. Variations on a theme, and questionable as new commandments. But this is Jesus, so we better try to figure out what he was up to.

The first thing to note is that one broadens the original concept while the other is a small subset of the original. See if you agree: Adultery is expanded by adding sexual immorality, the first being one aspect of the other. Slander, on the other hand, doesn’t expand bearing false witness, rather it’s a subset of not telling the truth. So we’re back where we started.

Maybe we should begin at the beginning. At the beginning of this chapter Jesus is taken aside and confronted by the religious ones and asked why they do not wash their hands before meals. He and his disciples don’t follow the hand washing ritual proscribed by the law, and some people take note (Just as an aside, Jesus was locked in a theological debate with the so-called religious elite—I’m sure he would still encourage us to wash our hands before we eat).

So the debate began, and by the time we get to the lesson shared today, Jesus has formulated this counter argument about what defiles: not what goes in the mouth, but what exits the mouth in the form of the bad things we have been discussing this morning. And he adds some additional context, as an aid to understanding:

“Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”

So Jesus has created both a anatomical guide to what happens when we ingest the things we choose to put in our mouths, and he has also traced the source of the things that exit the mouth—that would be the heart. There is a two-way path here: food begins at the mouth and travels downward while all kinds of evil begins in the heart and travels up and out the mouth. “Watch you mouth,” as my mother might say, or “you have a smart mouth” which didn’t mean anything like it sounds.

Once again we have an issue. Take the list (murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, and slander) and try to locate them in the mouth. It doesn’t quite work. False testimony and slander are verbal, and exit the mouth, but the others do not. How is this going to work?

Jesus, of course, is a little more subtle (and expansive, as we shall see) when he says “For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery and so on.” In effect, we have gone from saying bad things, to doing bad things, to simply pondering them in our hearts. “For out of the heart comes evil thoughts,” and this is enough to convict us of wrongdoing, enough to become the moral equivalent of actually bearing false witness or actually slandering someone.

And all this is really tricky. There was been considerable ink spilled of late in this topic of thought crime—can it be considered criminal to plan to do something criminal, to have criminal thoughts? And where do you stop? The recent conviction of a rather misguided young man, for buying a plane ticket and planning to become a jihadi, is an example to how we have criminalized the act of simply planning to do something obviously criminal.

Again, where do you stop? If two drunks are fighting in front of my house at 2.30 in the morning, and I say “I should knock their heads together until they stop” have I just committed thought assault? Should that be a crime? It’s not very Christian—I’ll give you that—and I suppose I could get dressed, go out, and help them talk it through—but my thoughts are more of the head-knocking variety.

So we’ve gone from this new list of six heart-proceeding examples of wrongdoing, to the development of thought crime (and all the problems that will pose in a free society) and I fear we’re no further along than when we started. So let’s go back to the text once more, and see what else we can learn.

At the beginning of Matthew 15, Jesus is asked the question about failing to wash his hands in the ritual manner. Then he responses with this:

Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’[a] and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’[b] 5 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ 6 they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.

Suddenly we see there is much more going on here. The fifth commandment (honour your parents) didn’t disappear at all—in fact, it’s at the heart of this new discussion. For it turns out that the religious elite were manipulating the system of gifts given to the Temple, and declaring some gifts ‘devoted to God” when they should have been giving to parents in some kind of need. You could honour your parents by giving them food to eat, or you could be manipulated into believing that the food should belong to God, and does not fall under the command to honour your parents.

In other words, we have stepped in the middle of a very complex conversation between the Jewish religious elite and the Jewish Jesus: reformer, radical, and someone who was quick to expose hypocrites, liars and people who follow the letter-of-the-law rather than care for the vulnerable.

And this, it seems, explains the emphasis on the heart. It doesn’t matter if our outward actions seem righteous—if our heart is harbouring ill-will, self-interest, or the intent to deceive. The heart matters, and the rest is just posturing and memorizing list of commandments.

May God bless us and dwell in our hearts, that we may resist the wrong, and follow the right, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

*Adapted from

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 14
22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land,[a] for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind,[b] he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

I feel like a fish out of water
We were dead in the water
He’s in deep water
To be in hot water
To muddy the water
It won't hold water
To have just one oar in the water
To pour cold water on
Just treading water
To spend money like water
Keep your head above water
Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water
You can lead a horse to water
I can't walk on water

Those of you who speak English as a second language can no doubt testify to the difficulty of learning idioms that belong to this language. ‘To pour cold water on something’—meaning to discourage an idea—demonstrates how a common phrase or set of words can convey meaning completely unrelated to what the words literally say.

And if you doubt what I say, or you think this won’t hold water, I give you manger des pissenlits par la racine. Literally 'to eat the dandelions by the root,’ it is the French way of saying ‘kicked the bucket.’ Isn’t language fun? Interesting, the French idiom gives us an image (or, a weird image) that still seems to give us a visual of what we’re talking about. Why the Danish say “to take off the clogs” and the Dutch say “to give the pipe to Maarten remains a bit of a mystery.

Notice also the way our idioms related to water seem to fall into groups. Many of my examples relate to trouble, and some relate directly to swimming. Remembering that learning to swim was very rare in the past, treading water or keeping your head above water make perfect sense for times of trouble or to describe barely hanging on. Some relate to an abundance of water or the vastness of water (deep water) and at least one is just a Bible reference.

But notice how ‘walking on water’ has entered common parlance to mean ‘asking the impossible’ or attempting the impossible. And the reverse is true too. When it is said that someone can ‘walk on water’ it means they can do something extraordinary, something that others simply cannot do.

Well, that pretty much sums up the lesson for today. After feeding the five thousand, Jesus needs a time away, and the twelve drop him off on the opposite shore. Some time later Jesus decides to rejoin his crew, and walks on the water to them. They freak (as the kids might say), thinking he might be a ghost. “Relax,” he says, “it’s me—don’t be afraid.” And in a strange version of the Doubting Thomas story, Peter says “Lord, if it’s you, command me to come to you.” He begins well enough, but soon he notices the wind and the waves and begins to sink. He utters a short and perfect prayer (“Lord, save me!”) and Jesus gives him a hand along with a slight rebuke. The others say “Truly you are the Son of God.”

I say a strange version of the Doubting Thomas story because both stories involve demanding something tangible from Jesus—a Jesus that is in the midst of an extraordinary moment. And it is the extraordinary moment that bears examination, the extraordinary moment that can perhaps best be described as ‘liminal.’

Liminal literally means ‘threshold,’ the in-between places and times that speak to transition. In both of these stories Jesus is both with them and not with them. He is on the water with them but he is not in the boat. He is in the room with them but was actually dead just a few short days ago. And for Peter and Thomas to ask for proof, or confirmation, or a demonstration, also speaks to the ambiguity of liminal times and places.

Strange too that water appears when we enter a liminal space. God separated the waters and the dry land, creating the first coastline, the first threshold between shore and sea. God parted the Red Sea to create a liminal and very temporary space for the Israelites to pass. Jonah spent three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, not on land and not in the sea, but in that transition between reluctance and the call of God.

I would argue that we seek the sea in these warm summer months precisely because it speaks to us on some deeper and more profound level—the shore being the liminal place between our home on land and the primordial place from which we came. I made the same point just last week by the campfire: explaining to my ever-patient family that the comfort we find by the fire comes from a million years of just sitting and staring, making the occasion grunt and maybe roasting a marshmallow.

But liminal spaces are generally more about discomfort than comfort. Transitions can be tense—or painful—and often require that we surrender one thing in favour of another. For Peter and the others, it seems to be the realization that this is no ordinary rabbi. Instead, they have come to see that this man has a rather unique relationship with nature is none other than the Son of God, or simply God, since the Son of God can be no other.

And the inverse of this lesson—this realization—is that they are not God. Peter gave it a good try—he may have even demonstrated some God-like certainty for a moment—but the sinking and the crying out confirmed that he is just a man. Jesus may ask ‘why did you doubt?’ but we know the question is rhetorical. We know and he knows that Peter is just a man.

So if ‘walking on water’ is doing the impossible, why do we insist—time and time again—that we can walk on water? Why do we try to change people when we know in our heart of hearts that they must want to change? Why do we try to forgive every sin and slight when we already know that forgiving everything is something only God can do? Why do we try to be all things to all people all the time when we know that our limitations are real—and accepted by everyone but ourselves?

And why do we think we can solve the world’s problems? Almost every problem I can list is bigger than you and me, bigger and more complex that we can comprehend, yet we are surrounded by voices that say only you can make a difference. I’m not arguing for inactivity, and I’ll still carry a pop can around the entire day before I put it in the trash, but I won’t carry the entire weight of the world around with me, because that job belongs to God.

When Peter says “Lord, save me” he gives us the most pure form of prayer there is, the most heartfelt, and the most candid too. “Lord, save me” says ‘I cannot save myself’, and that ‘solving most problems is beyond me,’ and that the act of saving belongs to God alone.

The most difficult liminal space is the space between what belongs to me and what belongs to God: what humans can solve and what only God can solve. Take, as an example, the war in Gaza. This conflict has been active for 66 years now, reaching the point where the parties involved can no longer agree why they are fighting. Yet the conflict continues.

Meanwhile, each side is also waging a war for public opinion, saying ‘accept our perspective, join us in hating the other side.’ They attempt to reduce the conflict to the simplest terms possible, terms that, of course, support their side. They portray their enemies as monsters, even as they say that they only want peace. Information is met with disinformation, tweets are read as news, and everyone with an opinion can find something to bolster their narrow view.

The truth is only God can transform the human heart, only God can take a person to the place where they say “enough” or “Lord, save me!” Only God—not the UN, not John Kerry, not even the United Church of Canada—only God can ‘walk on water,’ meaning only God can do the impossible when generations of human effort have failed.

May God find us in that liminal space between our desire and our real limitations, and save us once more. Amen.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 14
13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

For the historically-minded, it’s been a busy summer. June saw the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, this past week marked the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War, and later this month there is one more important anniversary that may best be set aside.

You see, August 24th marks the 200th anniversary of the burning of Washington, and while it is considered a British victory in the War of 1812, it seems unseemly to celebrate such an event. Now friends, and generally trying to be good neighbours, we are unlikely to produce a commemorative stamp or set of coins for this particular anniversary.

Curiously, the story seems to have been reduced or simplified over time to become ‘the British burned the White House.’ In fact, we were a little more comprehensive than that, burning the Capitol Building, the Treasury, the Navy Yard, and sadly, the Library of Congress. Private homes were spared—these were gentlemen soldiers, after all—but books were not.

The 3,000 or so volumes in the Library were destroyed, and the young nation turned to a former President, Thomas Jefferson, to help. Jefferson initially offered to sell the government 10,000 books from his collection—then the largest in the US—but settled on 6,500 instead. If you visit the Library of Congress today you can see this collection has been reassembled: on a remarkable variety of topics reflecting Jefferson’s varied interests.

One book you will not find there—though you can buy a copy in the gift shop—is the so-called Jefferson Bible. The third President, as an devotional exercise, decided to take a razor and glue and create his own ‘cut and paste’ version of the Bible. And while he did share copies with his friends during his later years, it was only after his death that his edit was published as the Jefferson Bible.

Now, before anyone takes the drastic step of cutting their Bible to bits, they need a plan, and Jefferson’s plan was to remove everything in the New Testament that he perceived as supernatural or miraculous. And this fit perfectly with his deist philosophy, the belief that everything you need to know about God can be observed in nature or arrived at through human reason, and does not require any form of revelation or supernatural activity.

In other words, Jefferson’s religion was an ethic based on the moral teaching of Jesus, with some non-miraculous activity added for good measure, but excluded any sense that Jesus was divine or divinely inspired to say or do anything. And this, of course, has found a new audience in recent years, with the Jefferson Bible viewed as a building block in the development of liberal theology.

I share all of this, in part, because Matthew 14.13-21 would fall outside the part that Jefferson decided to retain and paste in his new Bible. And when the story of the loaves and fishes isn’t being extracted with a razor by candlelight, it is being earnestly explained away by theologians and preachers. As a matter of fact, this story is explained away so frequently, that a consensus of sorts has developed around what actually happened that day—making it somewhat unique in the area of biblical interpretation.

The sermon, which you have no doubt heard before, goes something like this: the disciples despaired over the size of the hungry crowd and implored Jesus to sent then away that they might buy food. Jesus said, ‘no, you feed them’ and they said, ‘but Lord, we only have two loaves and five fishes.’ Then Jesus said, ‘give them to me’ and broke and blessed the bread, giving them to the crowd and feeding the five thousand. Clever preachers will then tell you that Jesus’ blessing prompted the crowd to share the food that they already had, feeding the five thousand in a biblical version of the story of stone soup.

A really clever preacher will make this a stewardship sermon, and remind people that the money we need to pay the bills is already here in the church, it just happens to be stuck somehow in your wallets. Then we call for the offering. It seems that occupying this pulpit is like taking truth serum, forcing me to give away all the best preacherly tricks.

Obviously I’m going to take a different tack from the almost Jeffersonian approach, and defend the supernatural while I do it. And to begin, I want to take us back to last week. You will recall that we were parsing parables, looking at theme and structure and trying to find new meaning. They tend to come in a recognizable shape, and the meaning is supposed to point to the Kingdom of God.

I would argue that the story of the loaves and fishes is as close to resembling a parable as any narrative in the life of Jesus. And it this shape lends itself to a search for meaning, but that would be jumping ahead. So first, the parable of the loaves and fishes:

The Kingdom of God is like an itinerant teacher, who confronted by five thousand hungry people, takes five loaves and two fish and transforms them into a feast: where all are filled and twelve baskets remain.

So if you agree with me that this story resembles a parable, and if you further agree that we can use some of our parable wisdom to interpret this story, then we may be closer to discovering how it was that five thousand we fed that day. Rather than explain it away, I hope we can embrace it, and make it our own.

The Kingdom of God is like an itinerant teacher, who confronted by five thousand hungry people, takes five loaves and two fish and transforms them into a feast: where all are filled and twelve baskets remain.

You will recall that our list of parables from Matthew 13 broke down into two general categories: surprizing abundance and hidden treasure. We had mustard seeds and fine pearls, and these two themes allowed us to reach the conclusion that the Kingdom of God is both surprizing abundance and hidden treasure.

Now, if you took the second theme, hidden treasure, and applied it to the loaves and the fishes, you might quickly reach the conclusion that so many contemporary interpreters reach. You might decide that there is no miracle here, and that the hidden treasure in the story is the bread that has being held in pockets and satchels, liberally shared at the moment that Jesus blessed the bread. In short, a parable about sharing.

And while I have no doubt there will be a lot of sharing in the Kingdom of God, it hardly seems like an aspirational goal for such an important time. If the Kingdom of God is being realized, sharing might be the appetizer before the meal, but the meal itself should be something else, something larger, something more fitting to the title ‘Kingdom of God.’

The Kingdom of God is like an itinerant teacher, who confronted by five thousand hungry people, takes five loaves and two fish and transforms them into a feast: where all are filled and twelve baskets remain.

Imagine that story of the loaves and fishes resembles the first great theme of the parables, the surprizing abundance of the Kingdom, the inexplicable growth of the mustard seed, the leaven, the weeds, the seeds sown in good soil, and the full net that exceeds all expectations. Like the expanding yeast and the great catch of fish, the transformation that happens on the hillside that day is a sure sign of the Kingdom, and not just selfish people learning to be generous.

Imagine then, entering a living parable, a parable-in-time with the author of parables, and receiving his blessing. Imagine experiencing the inexplicable and surprizing abundance of the Kingdom of God in the moment, and knowing that this indeed is the Son of God. The human mind will struggle to comprehend, and maybe find a simple way to explain away what just happened. And this urge will continue down through time.

But we resist. We resist the rational and the convenient explanation and let God be God. We can trust the wisdom of the Kingdom, the wisdom that says ‘my ways are not your ways’ and ‘take stock, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.’ May God allow us live in parable, now and always, Amen.