Mark 8:11-13; John 6:22-35
The Rev. Tom Herbek
March 11, 2018
Philip Yancey once wrote: “Some Christians long for a world well-stocked with miracles and spectacular signs of God’s presence. I hear wistful sermons on the parting of the Red Sea and the 10 plagues and the daily manna in the wilderness, as if the speakers yearn for God to unleash his power like that today. But the follow-the-dots journey of the Israelites should give us pause. Would a burst of miracles nourish faith? Not the kind of faith God seems interested in, evidently. The Israelites give ample proof that signs may only addict us to signs, not to God.” (Disappointment With God)
The essence of faith is that we act on “more than meets the eye.” Dag Hammarskjöld puts it this way: “We act in faith –and miracles occur. In consequence, we are tempted to make the miracles the ground for our faith. The cost of such weakness is that we lose the confidence of faith. Faith is, faith creates, faith carries. It is not derived from, nor created, nor carried by anything except its own reality.” (Markings)
The signs are not what is important. What is important is that we believe that God is with us. And that we use that belief to act– to make this world a better place, to love one another, to combat injustice, to care for those in pain, to reach out to those who are alone, to be the people of God, God’s hand and feet and voices on this earth.
The writer of the gospel of John describes a situation where the people were gathered around Jesus, wanting to believe him, but not ready to do so until Jesus proved he was the Messiah. The people wanted something spectacular, a sign, a miracle, something magical to happen. They suggested that Jesus make some heavenly bread magically appear, just like Moses did.
Jesus comments that it wasn’t Moses, but God, who gives bread from heaven, a type of bread that gives life to the world. The people respond: “Then give us this bread.” And Jesus replies, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.” Jesus did not give them the proof they wanted in the way they wanted it.
In various places throughout the New Testament, Jesus is clear that miracles only lead to a desire for more miracles, more spectacle, more magic- not to faith. And miracles are not the essence of who Jesus was. Today we are at a place in New Testament studies where many scholars do not believe that the miracles, as presented in the gospels, really happened the way they were described.
The gospels were written between 40 and 80 years after Jesus’ death. Paul, however, writing only 15-20 years after Jesus’ death, doesn’t even mention any miracles attributed to Jesus. Either Paul did not know of them or felt these miracle stories were of little value. Perhaps Paul believed that to believe that Jesus is the son of God does not require the kind of proof that comes from miracle stories. New Testament scholar John Spong says that he believes the miracle stories are not factual events, but were metaphors trying to describe something that we have no language to describe, the fact that Jesus is God. Our language is inadequate, and we try to find ways to describe Jesus being God, language that tries to describe something unique and special, and ultimately beyond our words.
When the Jews wanted to describe God, to give God a name, they asked, and God replied: “I am who I am, and I will be who I will be.” No boundaries there! For Jesus to describe himself as the “bread of life” does not give us boundaries, either.
The writers of the gospels were trying to show Jesus as God, trying to describe Jesus in a way that would help people to understand. When the writer of John’s gospel describes Jesus as the bread of life, he means, perhaps, that to know Jesus is to discover that Jesus meets the deepest hunger in our souls. It is this realization that is the essence of faith.
For Jesus to miraculously create bread from heaven, like Moses did, would satisfy their hunger for only a few hours. And then, the next day, he would have to do it again. The physical hunger of the people would be quelled for a brief time, and they would have their miracle. But the people would then become addicted to miracles, demanding more and more.
And miracles are not what God is all about. Breaking the laws of nature, intervening in spectacular ways, proving himself in magic, is not who God is, and certainly not who Jesus was. We must not take the biblical stories and the miracles literally, but we should take the bible very seriously.
We must also try to see life with our hearts, not just with our eyes. Kent Nerburn tells a wonderful story about the miracles that are found in the events of days and moments that change us in significant ways:
I am carried back to a time years ago when I was living in the medieval university town of Marburg, Germany.
I was 25, penniless, alone, frightened, and ill. I was living in a garret. I had no friends and I was far from family. My days were spent working in an antique restoration shop of an embittered alcoholic man, and my nights were spent wandering the streets watching the passing lives of people who neither spoke my language nor knew of my cares.
I had never been so alone.
The mother of the man for whom I worked was a very insightful woman. As a child of twelve she had watched the Nazis come into her classroom and take the Jewish children away. No one spoke of it and class went on as if nothing had happened. But day by day, night by night, she saw her friends and playmates disappear.
She became a watcher and a survivor.
For months she watched me struggle with the demons that were driving me. She would see me sitting with the neighborhood children, drawing cartoons in the shadow of the castle. She would see me staring vacantly into the distance when I thought no one was watching.
One day she took me aside.
“I watch you,” she said. “I see the loneliness in your eyes. I watch your heart running away. You are like so many people. When life is hard, they try to look over the difficulty into the future. Or they long for the happiness of the past. Time is their enemy. The day they are living is their enemy. They are dead to the moment. They live only for the future or the past. But that is wrong.
“You must learn to seek the blue moment,” she said.
She sat down beside me and continued. “The blue moment can happen any time or any place. It is a moment when you are truly alive to the world around you. It can be a moment of love or a moment of terror. You may not know it when it happens. It may only reveal itself in memory.
“But if you are patient and open your heart, the blue moment will come. My childhood classmates are dead, but I have the blue moment when we looked in each other’s eyes.”
I turned and stared into her lined and gentle face.
“Listen carefully to me,” she continued. “This is a blue moment. I really believe it. We will never forget it. At this moment you and I are closer to each other than to any other human beings. Seize this moment. Hold it. Don’t turn from it. It will pass and we will be as we were. But this is a blue moment, and the blue moments string together like pearls to make up your life. It is up to you to find them. It is up to you to make them. It is up to you to bring them alive in others.”
She brushed her hand through my hair and gave me a pat on the side of the head.
”Always seek the blue moment,” she said, and returned to her work.
- Small Graces
Some of the most powerful signs of God’s grace and God’s calling come to us in our everyday life, not in miracles that cause bread to fall from heaven onto the ground, or burning bushes, or parting of seas. Jesus came to show us that God’s presence in us satisfies our souls, renews and recreates our spirits, empowers us to become all that we have been created to be. It is not magic.
But it sometimes is miraculous. The miraculous part of it is that we may discover- deep within our hearts and souls- strength when we believe we have no more energy to give, hope when we believe we have no more reason to keep trying, love when we believe we have no more compassion within us. Kent Nerburn describes what he learned when he met an older woman named Alice who was living in a nursing home:
I sit today before the window and watch the growing dawn. A memory of Alice rises before me, for it was Alice who taught me about windows. She was small, frail, framed in a halo of light from the window before which she sat. I approached cautiously, and knelt beside her.
”Alice?” I asked.
She turned to me. Her eyes were cloudy, but filled with light.
“They said you would be willing to talk to me about life here.”
This was not a task I had relished. I was writing a small piece about life in nursing homes, and my sense of rage at the heartless way our elders must end their lives had almost overwhelmed me.
My heart had been torn a thousand ways as I had walked the halls and spoken to the residents in these places that claim to care for our aged and give dignity to their final days. It had been a gauntlet of pain and sorrow. The lonely; the incoherent lost in their private memories; the dazed; the angry; those who grabbed your arm and begged, “Daddy, Daddy, take me out of here, I want to go home”- all of them and more had confronted me and filled me with a deep and unassuageable grief.
With each footstep tears welled up within me and I raged against a heartless God, a heartless society, the cruel ways of nature and the sadnesses of life. My heart did not have enough tears to purge the rage and pain that were washing across me.
“You must talk to Alice,” the nurses had said. “She will show you something.”
Reluctantly I had agreed to do so.
And now I was beside her. She said “Good morning,” but her eyes were staring out the window. I did not wish to disturb her; I kept my silence.
“Look,” she said finally, pointing out the window. The traffic flowed noisily below. The cacophony of a life she would never again share rose up from the streets. I stared through her one opening into the outside world. Far in the distance was the cupola of a cathedral.
Isn’t it beautiful?” she said. “I come here every day to watch the sun rise. I’ve been all over Europe. I’ve seen Notre Dame and St. Peter’s and the Duomo in Florence. But none was more beautiful than this, and I can see it every day.”
I looked out. The sun was bursting around the edges of the dome, enveloping it in a halo of pastel light. The sun reflected off her glasses, and I could see the tears in her eyes.
We spoke a bit. I took some notes. But none of that mattered. It was the cathedral, and the dawn, and the radiant morning light that we were sharing. She reached over and grabbed my hand.
“Isn’t this a gift?” she said.
I did not know what to say. I had come that morning, prepared to look with sadness on the shrinking horizons of her life, to weep for her lost dreams and the tiny window that framed the boundaries of her day. But those were my tears, not hers. Her tears were for the beauty. From her window she received the spirit of the dawn.
I think often of Alice. She was an artist of the ordinary. The great French Impressionist painter Claude Monet had sat before a window, painting the cathedral at Rouen as the light played upon its surface over the course of a day. Alice was doing no different, but she painted with the colors of her heart.
I left that day changed in some fundamental way. I had wanted to define the walls of Alice’s prison; she had wanted to give me the gift of the day. I had wanted to see limitation; she had wanted to show me possibility.
She had taken a moment from the seamless flow of time and space and held it up in private consecration, and we had partaken of it together in a small communion of our spirits.
As I walked back down the hall, one of the nurses who had directed me to Alice looked up from her desk.
“Did she show you something?” she asked. “Yes,” I answered softly.
“Her window?” “Yes.”
“I thought so,” she smiled, and went back to work.
I walked out into the morning with the eyes of a child.
- Simple Graces
The presence of God is all around us. Jesus tried to show the people of his day that they did not need miracles to see God, at least not the miracles they wanted. Jesus saw signs of God’s presence in tax collectors, children, and prostitutes, and the opportunities of everyday life to see the presence of God’s love. The proof of God’s presence in our world is not found in some magical setting aside of scientific, natural laws.
The proof of God’s presence in our world is found when:
- one person surprisingly reaches out to another person in need,
- one person continues to fight for justice for someone who never expected it,
- one person helps another person to believe there is hope when they were ready to give up,
- one person holds another person’s hand to try to help them through their pain,
- one person speaks kindly to another person that everyone else ignores,
- one person helps another person to believe in themselves when they were ready to stop trying,
- one person becomes the hands and feet and voice of God– here in Canandaigua, NY.
And that is the proof of God’s presence in our world.