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Created for Community: Working Miracles

Lectionary Texts:

Psalm 14 and Gospel of John 6.1-21

Rev. Douglas Olds (all rights reserved)

First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo (CA)

July 29, 2018

A private jet carrying a pilot and a CEO went down over the Pacific. Miraculously, the two washed up on a spit of an island. The pilot sat down on the shore to sunbathe, while the CEO—a take charge kind of guy—went off to explore.

After a brief time, the CEO came back to the pilot on the shore: “I’ve got bad news,” the CEO reported. “There’s no food or water on this island.”

The pilot said, “I make 200,000 dollars a year, and I tithe.”

The CEO said, “Did you hear? There’s no food or water here, and we’re hundreds of miles from any shipping lane. We’re going to die!”

The pilot said to him again, “I make 200,000 dollars a year, and I tithe.”

The CEO shouted, “You think being a good churchgoer is going to bring you a miracle? You don’t understand! We have no food and water, no shelter, and we’re surrounded by an empty and rough ocean! We’re going to die!”

The pilot responded, “NO, you don’t understand! I make 200,000 dollars a year, and I tithe. My pastor will find me.”//

One good miracle deserves another. Our reading from the Gospel of John this morning proposes two miracles accomplished by Jesus: feeding a multitude with a small number of loaves and fishes, and his walking on the water.

Now our receptivity to these stories might depend on whether we read them as miracles. Our culture—shaped by the Enlightenment and secular modernity—suspects claims of “miracle.” It rules out miraculous interventions by the divine that interrupted an orderly flow of nature’s laws. In an age of materialism, miracle has become “a discarded relic.” God's past displays are relegated to be forgotten or explained away from materialist causes. Critical reading of scripture then becomes a way for taking a sign-giving, interventionist God out of our history and substitute psychological or existential lessons. The meaning of the sign of the feeding of the multitude from a small number of loaves and fish might existentially mean that Jesus initiates sharing from his limited resources, but that a more significant feeding can be accomplished by followers in the crowd being motivated to share from their own abundance based on ethical mirroring of the initiatory acts of Jesus.

Fish and loaves can be spread from the community of shared resources based on mirroring Jesus’s signal act of holding a loaf of bread aloft and giving thanks to God. The sign is Eucharistic: in communion we hold the loaf aloft and give thanks to God so that we are internally moved to participate in the virtue of hospitality that shares from our own abundance. This sign demonstrates to us that the virtue of gratitude is contagious—and in collectivizing, a community of gratitude brings about social hospitality. This way of reading the feeding of the multitudes as an explanatory sign rather than a miracle humanizes and normalizes Jesus—perhaps at the expense of his divinity. Jesus initiates the sharing of food, and his followers complete the process.

If we read the walking on water episodes as a literary sign rather than a miracle, we might note the metaphor of stormy water as a sign of chaos in ancient near eastern religious texts, including the Bible. “The cosmic waters symbolize the continued threat the forces of