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United Church of Jaffrey
October 20th, 2019
John 6:1-14 | A quote from Albert Einstein
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” — Albert Einstein
After the service we made sandwiches.
It was a Hot July day in 2015, and I was serving as an intern in a church in New Haven Connecticut.
Some of us slapped together a box of turkey sandwiches.
Another crew was on the ham and cheese detail…
still others spread out the old PB&J.
Together, we filled three cardboard boxes that held 200 hundred sandwiches in all.
To this we added some other random goodies — boxes of raisins, a bevy of bananas, some fruit snacks and cookies.
We top it off with some bottled water, and hauled it all out in front of the church on New Haven Green where, after a short worship service, a long line of people formed and started moving past the tables, gathering their lunches.
Things were going along swimmingly until eventually, I became aware that there were more people than there were sandwiches.
I had an impulse to let someone know – to step back and tell someone:
“Uh… we need more sandwiches.”
But since I helped prepare the sandwiches, I knew… there were no more sandwiches.
And so I watched as the sandwiches steadily dwindled…
50, 30, 20, 15, 7, 6, 5, 4
And then, suddenly, there it was — the bottom of the cardboard box.
And person number 201 was standing in front of me.
I lifted up my hands in a gesture of apology.
“I’m sorry” I said, “we’re out.”
We call this a “reality check.”
You and I have some experience with this, don’t we?
You have a vision of something you consider important – something, say, that you want to achieve — and when you set about doing it, along comes “reality” to throw an obstacle in your path.
You promised your boss you’d get to work on time – but the traffic is all backed up at the five way.
You know your kid would thrive in that amazing private school—but it’s crazy expensive.
Oh well… Reality.
You want to exercise and lose weight—but you overdid it one day, and now you have a bum knee.
I want to trust you, but I don’t know you. You could be nice, but then again, you could be mean and violent. So I am wary…
Reality is where we end up when repeated disappointments have cured us of our innocence.
We want to believe in the goodness of people, but we are confronted with violence.
We want to do our part to fight climate change, but we can’t get to work without getting in the car.
We want to believe in justice and equality, but we are confronted with racism and sexism at the highest levels of government.
“Get real!” my son says to me from the backseat of the car.
If only he knew! Reality can be pretty harsh.
Our gospel lesson today is from the 6th chapter of John.
It doesn’t take a Biblical scholar or a theologian to figure out that John’s gospel is very different from the other three gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke.
John tells stories, like the wedding in Cana and Christ’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, that don’t show up in the other gospels.
And if, as in today’s reading, John tells a story that appears in the other gospels, he does so, very much, in his own particular way.
Listen to how John sets up the miracle of feeding the 5000.
“Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”
And Philip, one of Christ’s disciples, replies:
“Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”
I find Philip’s response fascinating!
Reading it, I think – wow – this Philip is a real pragmatist!
On his feet, Philip calculates how large a sum of money would be necessary to feed such a crowd – and, if that wasn’t enough, he also translates that sum into time and labor.
“Six months’ wages,” he says “would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”
Philip is like my friend Misty the mortgage broker, who can, with the stub of a pencil and a post-it, figure the total payment on a loan amortized over thirty years at a rate of 3.256 percent.
In other words, Philip is Mister Reality.
Mister Reality says: “There is no way we can feed all these people! Are you crazy?”
But Philip is playing into Jesus’ hand. This is just the response Jesus wanted, for, as John says, in a quick aside to the reader, Christ himself: “… knew what he was going to do…”
And you also know the story, don’t you?
A kid shows up with a meager amount of food — five loaves and two fishes – barely enough to feed a handful of people. Christ has everyone sit down on the grass, divvy’s up the food, and when all 5000 have eaten, he has the disciples gather up the leftovers – filling 12 baskets.
Where did all the extra food come from?
The story does not bother to explain, it just reports, quite as a matter of course, that everyone ate their fill and, what’s more, there were plenty of leftovers.
From five loaves and two fish?
John does not feel compelled to explain. This is a miracle story.
I could have used a miracle when I was standing there with empty hands looking at mister 201.
But unlike Christ, I can’t work miracles.
Whether I like it or not, I am practically constrained by reality in a way that Christ was not.
The fact is…
If we intend to feed people,
If we intend to live in a just society,
And if we intend to build a society in which we can trust and even love our neighbor,
We must do so within the constraints that we inherit as humans.
How, then, does the story of the feeding of the 5000 have any relevance to us?
It’s a good question.
With lives so full of reality, miracle stories are a bit of a puzzle to the modern mind.
I suspect that, many of the “Spiritual but not Religious” crew (a demographic that is steadily growing) simply dismiss miracle stories as silliness.
Taken at face value, they can seem frustratingly naïve.
This sentiment is nothing new.
Thomas Jefferson famously took a razor blade to the Bible and removed all the miracle stories, claiming that they were “artificial vestments” added by later writers to demonstrate Christ’s divinity to weak-minded believers.
For my part, I think miracle stories, such as the feeding of the 5000, have value.
But I’m not holding my breath, waiting for a miracle to happen.
Nor am I interested in miracles as proof of Christ’s divinity.
At the end of the day, I have to admit that I don’t have much patience with miracles themselves as phenomenon.
I’m not counting on a miracle to save us.
If we are going to be saved – and I am thinking now about the specter of climate change that threatens life on earth – I think we are going to have to do the hard work ourselves.
If we are going to address gun violence, homelessness, or health care inequities, we’re going to have to do it through the agonizingly slow process of changing our cultural and political habits so that change is possible.
So what, then, is the importance of miracle?
I differ from Thomas Jefferson, and realists of our day, in that I don’t think miracle is at odds with reason.
Miracle does not replace or defy rational thought
it perfects rational thought by momentarily breaking its imperious grip on us —
allowing us to glimpse beyond it.
I am reminded of Albert Einstein’s famous quote:
“Imagination is greater than knowledge.”
In the coming years, as we continue to face crushing problems related to climate change, over-population and the maldistribution of wealth…
what we do not know may prove to be more important than what we know…
And to find out what we do not yet know, imagination is a far more powerful tool than knowledge.
It is through the imagination that our view of the world expands.
Reality – the impossibility of feeding the 5000 – puts a halt to the imagination.
But miracle – the possibility of the impossible — breaks open reality, leaving it vulnerable to the workings of the imagination.
The possibility of the impossible.
I like the sound of that.
Imagine Philip standing there, in that grassy place, looking out over 5000 hungry people, thinking – “there’s no way! It’s impossible!”
It’s true, I think, that if we intend to build a just society in which we tend properly to our mother the earth, and we trust–even love–our neighbor,
We must do so within the constraints that we inherit as humans.
We can hope for, but we can’t depend on miracle.
But neither should our imaginations be limited by what we, in our limited understanding, believe to be possible.
The theologian Harvey Cox has written that the gospel is a story that stimulates our moral imagination.
If this is so – and I think it is – miracle is a narrative technique that shatters the impossible – bringing new things into the realm of possibility.
And finally, let us be take special attention to the nature of this miracle that Christ performed —
Did he use his power to invent a nano-chip the size of a human hair to make computers more powerful?
Did he build a skyscraper to touch the heavens?
Did he splice a fish gene into a tomato to give it longer shelf life?
He did not do any of these things, because he was not interested in the return on the investment of shareholders.
He was not concerned about “progress.”
He was motivated by the hunger of the people, and his miracle helped them.
And so to, we…
when we use our imagination to expand our world and bring new ideas and knowledge into being
Let us do so, as Jesus did…
Not to profit ourselves,
But to help others in their need.