July 25: The Ninth Sunday After Pentecost

The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews is the vicar of St. Hilda St. Patrick. The sermon for Sunday, July 25, 2021 was preached in response to John 6.1-21 based on the manuscript below.

The crafters of the Lectionary this week,
give us in John
what we skipped in Mark
last week.
You’ll recall Jesus teaching the crowds
even as he tries to get the disciples
to come away and rest.
Then they rest,
and the crowds seek Jesus
looking to only touch
the hem of his cloak.
In Mark,
in the intervening time,
Jesus multiples loaves and fishes
and feeds 5000 men.
That’s what we hear
today in John.
After multiplying the loaves and fishes,
Jesus goes to pray
and then walks on water.
That’s in Mark and John,
and today we hear John’s account.

Jesus has been moved with compassion for the crowds,
so he sits down like any rabbi,
and starts to teach them.
His teaching goes so long,
that they get hungry.
Knowing what he’s going to do,
Jesus asks how they can be good hosts.
“Where are we to buy bread
for these people to eat?”
Philip tells him
that even in six months’ time working
they wouldn’t be able to afford enough
for everyone
to have a mouthful.
Jesus takes bread
offered by a boy,
and gives thanks.
He shares it among the crowd,
and rather than getting a mouthful
they ate until they were full —
and there were leftovers to boot!

To avoid being made a king,
Jesus flees the crowd,
like runs away.
The NRSV’s “withdrew”
is far nicer than John’s tone here.
The disciples leave him
and get on a boat
headed to Capernaum.
He misses the all aboard
so they set off without him.
Around three or so in the morning,
the wind and the sea
seem to be conspiring
against them.
In the bad weather,
now a figure is walking on the water.
They’re reasonably terrified.
Jesus calls to them,
“It is I”
his refrain throughout John’s gospel
as he rephrases God’s call to Moses
from the Burning Bush:
“I am who I am.”
Whether Jesus
gets into the boat or not
we don’t know.
What we do know
is that the disciples reach their destination
as soon as Jesus arrives.

Today we’re confronted
With two miracle stories
that defy our common sense.
Five loaves of bread
and two fish
can’t produce enough food
for 5,000 people
to be wholly satisfied.
don’t walk on water.
We float when we’re lying down.
but that’s usually
not a good sign.
Miracle stories,
especially for a tradition
that loves to highlight
its love of science and reason
can be a stumbling block.

At the same time some of us wonder
“Okay, what if they did happen?”
Do they happen every day now?
Is God an ATM,
as comedian Mrs Betty Bowers says,
and prayer through Jesus
the PIN?
How does the Church
manage the heartbreak and disappointment
when the miracle doesn’t happen?
How does the Church
tend to those who’ve been told
their prayer wasn’t given a yes
because they just didn’t pray hard enough
or have enough faith?

I think we do that, in part,
by taking a step back
and reminding ourselves that
this religion we’re a part of
is weird
and it’s not about us.
The characters in John’s gospel
are blank screens
onto whom we can project ourselves,
in whom we can see ourselves.
The disciples who are with Jesus
don’t ever understand Jesus
even as the crowds seem to get it.
How many of us
who come back week to week
are still trying to figure it out
or are certain
that we’re doing a terrible job
at actually following Jesus?
This religion we’re a part of
is weird
and it’s not about us.

Although the characters in John’s gospel
are screens,
none of the gospels
is about peripheral characters
whether they’re named or not.
This weird religion,
these four books of Good News
are about Jesus.
Jesus that we believe,
collectively, if not always individually,
died and rose from the dead.
Jesus that we believe
is the Son of God.
Is the creator of the whole universe
who chose to give up power and become human,
let himself be put to death,
and then defeated death itself
through the power of his love as God.

These miracles today
Multiplying loaves and fishes
walking on water
aren’t about us.
They’re not a model
for us to read God as the ATM
and they are certainly not to be used
to show that with enough faith
God will give you a Mercedes
or save someone from death.
At the same time as William Placher says,
“If the Creator of the universe
was walking around Galilee
in the first century,
it seems plausible
that some quite unusual things
might have happened
in his immediate vicinity.” [1]

The Good News here,
is that Jesus is the son of God,
and that that’s weird.
The miracles today
Aren’t for setting us up
to get what we want
or to be shamed
or to be disappointed.
The gospels,
all four of them
are about Jesus the God man
who initiates the heavenly banquet
where rather than struggling
for a mouthful of bread
feeds everyone until they’re full.
Like I told Logan my second Sunday
I’m not giving you
the crumbs of Christ.
The gospels,
all four of them
are about Jesus the God man
who rather than being elevated as an earthly king
rather than leading an insurrection
says “I am” and brings the disciples
to their destination.

Miracle stories
can be hard for us…
but they’re not about us.
Miracle stories about Jesus
never point to our having
our best lives now
or speaking things into existence
or planting that seed
and demanding to see the harvest.
They’re also not about
whether they can be demonstrably proven,
replicated in a lab
and peer reviewed.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews
tells us that
faith is the substance of things hoped for
evidence of things not seen.

So we come to this table,
in our weird religion,
eating God’s flesh
and drinking the Cup of Salvation.
Coming to a God
whose love for us is abundant
and extravagant.
We’ll probably never walk on water
or see five barley loaves and two fish
feed five thousand men
not even counting their potential families.
But the miracle of the Incarnation
I AM made flesh
calls us to him.
Jesus bids us come to him
in remembrance that he
died and rose for us
and to feed on him in our hearts
by faith
with thanksgiving. Amen.

[1] Placher, William. Mark: Belief, a Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible) (Kindle Locations 2023-2024). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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