Today’s story from John (6:1-21) is a retelling of last Sunday’s absent text from Mark…the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on water. I have no idea why the lectionary is developed the way it is, why we’re reading this excerpt from John instead of Mark, but we are, and I’m sure there is good logic and reasoning for it. Really, when we consider most of the world around us, we can explain it through the lens of logic and reasoning. That’s why God gave us brains, right? I mean, these days we know that God didn’t create the world in the literal 6 days, but over millions of years. Scientists and archeologists have found ways to use logic and reasoning to explain the plagues in Egypt from the time of Moses. And all of that is wonderful research, and the nerd in me is joyous to hear about the discovery of the “God particle” in recent scientific news. But sometimes, when my logic and reasoning really take over, and my need to have all the questions answered gets out of control, I become a cynical skeptic. “No way did that stuff really happen” is what pops into my head when reading miracle stories. “No way did Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead.” “No way did Jesus feed 5000 people on five loaves and two fish.” “No way did Jesus walk on water.” Surely, none of you have thought that way…right?
While logic and reasoning are good, and the nerd in me rejoices in logic and reasoning, it can blind us to the miracles happening around us daily. Despite what some of us might think…that God doesn’t do that kind of thing anymore…there are miracles happening around us all the time. Anyone who has beaten cancer will tell you it’s a miracle. Anyone who has lived through a tornado, hurricane or wildfire and not lost their homes or loved ones will tell you it’s a miracle. Anyone who has walked the fine line between life and death because of substance abuse and is now sober will tell you it’s a miracle. Anyone who has experienced family problems but has found a way to heal and reconcile will tell you it’s a miracle. These kinds of miracles may not be of epic proportions, but they happen and they change lives.
So what’s a miracle all about? While the Biblical text tells us that miracles are about feeding and healing, they also serve to reinforce that Jesus was more than just a man; that he was the Divine incarnate. Miracles, especially the ones in the New Testament, remind us that God is ever present in our daily lives; that God understands our hunger, our pain, and our need for healing.
In the Ephesians reading (3:14-21), Paul is praying so that the people might let Christ dwell in their hearts; that they be rooted and grounded in love. The Message translation reads “that Christ will live in you as you open the door and let him in.” The idea here is that when we let Jesus inside of us, then we are changed from the inside out. And that change makes it possible to recognize the miracles around us. Imagine for a moment that you are among those 5000 people who were fed by Jesus. Not only was your physical hunger abated, but your spiritual hunger as well…being in the presence of Jesus, letting him into your heart, made it possible for the miracle of transformation to happen. Or suppose you were among the disciples who witnessed Jesus walking on water. His words of consolation “do not be afraid” open you up and give you the courage needed to follow Jesus and carry his message to far off villages and towns. Miracles can open our hearts to Jesus, and by opening our hearts, we experience the miracles around us.
So my question for you is, have you opened your heart and experienced the miracle, or are you being logical about everything?
I find it interesting that we get a story about Jesus’ compassion and healing in Mark right after John the Baptist is beheaded. It’s almost as if the gospel writer was illustrating the worst of human kind in comparison to the very best we can aspire to be.
According to the gospel of Mark, Jesus is surrounded by people after trying to find a place to rest and relax, and instead of pushing them away, he looks with compassion on them. Sometimes when we hear the word “compassion” we think “pity”. To pity someone means to feel sorry for them, but also to be removed from the situation. To pity someone doesn’t require engagement. However, to have compassion means to be engage with someone in unconditional solidarity. It means being moved and affected by their situation. Compassion is the essence of the ministry of Jesus. And it is in this space of compassion that Jesus teaches and heals the crowd.
The part that we don’t get in this Sunday’s gospel (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56) is that this compassion leads Jesus to not only teach and heal those who had gathered, but also feed them. The gospel gives us an outline of our Christian life and practice…teaching through the lessons found in Scripture, healing through prayer, feeding in the Eucharist.
This Sunday, I’d like to focus on the healing aspect found not only in the gospel, but also in the lesson from Ephesians (2:11-22). In this letter, Paul is writing to the church to ask them to remember that Jesus is our peace. In other words, it is in Jesus that we are healed and are at peace. Paul tells the early church that we are no longer strangers, but part of God’s household.
Most of the time we talk about the practices of healing and reconciliation during Lent. But these two lessons give us an opportunity to examine these practices during the rest of the year, and ultimately the rest of our Christian lives. The kind of peace that Paul is teaching the church about isn’t simply a letting go of hostility towards one another, but a peace that is radical and shocking. It’s a peace that calls us who were once estranged, broken and hurt to come together in love that reflects the love of God. When we accept Jesus as our peace, we accept the freely given gift of love, healing and reconciliation. And with the acceptance of that gift, we are then enabled to engage the world with boldness.
What does this kind of radical peace look like? Maybe it’s the ending of apartheid in South Africa. Or the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. Or the tearing down of barriers between Israel and Palestine. Radical peace can be found in the coming together of Jews, Christians and Muslims to rebuild neighborhoods. Radical peace can be found in the ordination of all people, including the LGBT community. That’s radical peace. But radical peace can also be found in the handshakes and hugs of brothers who have been estranged because of family disputes. Radical peace is the breaking down of walls—both the visible and the invisible—and then building up the Kingdom of God.
I think this is the kind of healing that Jesus may have been up to when he got out of the boat to offering teaching and healing (and food) to those who had gathered around him. Perhaps the healing wasn’t just the physical healing of the lame and the sick, but also the spiritual and emotional healing of those who had been marginalized and kept separate by barriers and walls. Instead of feeling pity and moving on to a quiet place to rest and relax, Jesus is moved with compassion to be with and among the people. Instead of retreating to grieve the loss of John the Baptist, he finds radical peace by being peace and healing to others. And in that teaching, healing and feeding, Jesus compels those who had gathered to reach out in radical peace to each other and offer healing to one another.
When I hear these kinds of gospel stories, I am reminded of what the church was originally meant to be. It wasn’t about a building so much as it was about the people. The word “church” comes from the Greek word “ekklesia”—the gathered community. On the lake shore, Jesus was with and among the ekklesia, teaching, healing and feeding. He was there to offer radical peace. He was there to break down walls. He was there to help bring about reconciliation.
I recently read an article about this particular story from Mark, and the writer said, “If the church today is unrecognizable as a place of healing, then we need to reflect on what our mission and purpose in the world are…” That was a good challenge to offer! It made me ask myself, are we, in our current place and time, here to offer radical peace and healing in the tradition of Jesus, or are we unrecognizable in our community? I think St. Mark’s does have a lot to offer in terms of healing and peace. We are healing one another in our relationships, we offer a safe space for support groups, we provide clothing to children, and meals to the hungry. But our challenge is to remember, as Paul was reminding the early church in his letter to the Ephesians, that “we” are not “fixing” or “saving” “those people”, but rather we are called to reconciliation, radical peace and healing because we too are the recipients of those free gifts. We are no longer strangers, but part of God’s household.
It isn’t often that I choose not to preach on the Gospel. But given that the text is the beheading of John the Baptist, while the other readings talk of David dancing before the Ark (2 Samuel) and all of creation belonging to God (Ps 24), and being blessed and chosen by God (Ephesians), I just couldn’t go down a path of trying to understand evil in the world around us. Plus, lately, I’ve seen and been a part of too many experiences of God’s blessing to ignore this opportunity.
While on vacation, I got to spend a lot of time being quiet. Being quiet is hard for me, but it’s something I need to do. So immediately Matt and I took off for the nearby Zen Buddhist Abbey. The land there was so lush and green. The bells and wind-chimes made beautiful, tranquil music. The alpacas were friendly and would eat out of our hands. At night, the frogs chirped their mating songs. I needed to be there because even though I’m daily surrounded by the beauty of God, I had forgotten. Being at the Abbey, in a different place with different sounds and sights, reawakened my awareness that I am in the midst of God’s blessings. Then we went off to Lost Lake. There we watched the chipmunks play, hiked, and enjoyed the stars; again I was reminded that all things in heaven and on earth are blessed. I was in a very comfortable, well nourished, spiritual space. I had been healed and renewed.
But then I went off to General Convention in Indianapolis, where the hottest day was 107, and the coolest day was 98. In that kind of heat, surely God’s blessings couldn’t be there. And with that many Episcopalians in one place, quiet reflection on the beauty of God’s holiness would be non-existent. But strange things happen when God is at work.
Among the business of convention, important resolutions were passed. The church agreed to a trial use of a same-sex blessing. The church agreed to allow transgendered people to be ordained. There was much discussion of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the church’s response to it. There was much work and discussion around issues of economic justice, immigration reform, and health care. There were worship services celebrating the diversity of our church—Spanish language services, Native and Indigenous language services, the Integrity Eucharist celebrating the LGBT community and its allies. And it is within these conversations and worship services that I experienced God’s love.
We are not a perfect church with perfect people in a perfect world. We do not all agree. But we are all chosen by God, blessed by God, marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit. We are a people of baptism and Eucharist. We are a people who have been given the great gift of God’s love which is excessive, tender and abundant.
One of the best parts of convention and the Episcopal Church Women’s conference was watching mothers interact with their children…especially their infant children. I have to admit to a bit of “baby lust” when I watch these interactions. But those of you who are parents or grandparents might understand that warm fuzzy feeling that you get when a baby smiles or sleeps, instinctively knowing that they are warm, safe, and loved. Or when a mother breast feeds her infant child, that sense of calm and shared tenderness. I think that’s part of why I’m so often drawn to icons of Mary and Jesus…they are tender towards one another; a reflection of the relationship between us and God, and ultimately a model for relationship with one another.
So often this text from Ephesians has been used to divide people…those who are “chosen” and those who are not. But I believe a careful reading of the text in light of our baptismal covenant (which calls us to be disciples and to respect the dignity of every human being), and with the many blessings of God which surround us daily, we are reminded that when all things in heaven and earth are gathered up in Christ, then none can be hopeless, helpless or left out.
So now that I’m back, I’m going to give you a little homework assignment. How do you recognize God’s excessive, tender and abundant love in the world around you, and how do you share that love with others?
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.