The Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
July 26, 2015 – Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Ephesians 3:14-21; John 6:1-21
Let’s get this out of the way right up front.
Many of us struggle with stories about miracles.
Whether we’re talking about Jesus walking on water or the friend of a friend we know who believes that her cousin was healed of cancer solely through the power of prayer.
These are the stories that make some us say to our more secular friends,
“Yeah, I’m not THAT kind of Christian.”
We’re Christians who believe in Jesus’ message of compassion and justice, and God’s unconditional love and Grace.
But the stories about magically multiplying fish and Jesus moon walking on the sea, surely those stories were meant to be taken metaphorically and not literally like SOME Christians believe.
If you’re a skeptic, you’re not alone.
Founding father, Thomas Jefferson struggled with this so much he went as far at to publish his own version of the gospels. He sat down with the New Testament and removed all the miracle stories. He literally cut out the verses that couldn’t be explained rationally or empirically and pasted what was left into a book that came to be known at the “Jefferson Bible.” I have a copy of it here if you’d like to take a look at it after the service. But you won’t find today’s scripture reading from John 6 in here – Jefferson cut the entire chapter out.
Our skepticism is normal – We are after all a product of our time.
We live in the age of reason.
The age that upholds the “truth” found in empirical knowledge.
The age of fact checking and forensic investigation.
We don’t just put things under a microscope to examine them more closely, we can now look at and manipulate the very building blocks of life.
We can split atoms to make weapons, and pull molecules and genes apart and put them back together again, creating new plants, new animals, new foods, a new “us” in the process.
The fact that we can do all of this would seem miraculous to someone living even just 100 years ago…..and to someone living 2,000 years ago, the things we do today would be incomprehensible.
Yet those same ancient people would be amazed at how we struggle to understand how one man could feed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread, and how that same man could calm a storm and walk on water.
Our first century ancestors might shake their heads in amusement at how much time and energy our scholars and scientists have devoted to seeking rational explanations for the miracle stories that Jesus’ first followers shared without question amongst themselves.
We say Jesus couldn’t have really walked on water – it’s physically impossible - it must have been low tide or he was walking on a sandbar or on the surface of a submerged rock.
Or he was actually wading on the shoreline but it was too dark and stormy for the disciples to see clearly.
Some suggest that Jesus pulled off a magic trick using the science of non-Newtonian fluids – fluids that become solids when a force is applied to them.
If you Google “Jesus” and “corn flour” you’ll find You Tube videos that demonstrate this phenomenon using water mixed with cornstarch.
If you fill a pool with the mixture and run across it, your feet will rebound as if hitting a solid surface.
No one has yet to reasonably explain how the Sea of Galilee came to be filled with cornstarch right before Jesus walked on it.
Perhaps a cargo ship carrying baking supplies capsized in the storm.
Our first century ancestors might also be perplexed at how we take the story of the feeding of the 5,000 – a story about the miraculous power of God – and turn it into a moral lesson about sharing and generosity.
Once again, we can’t quite wrap our heads around the miracle, so instead we look for explanations -
Perhaps the people were so moved by the generosity of the boy who shared his meager lunch with Jesus, that they too reached into their picnic baskets and pulled out the bread and fish they had brought for themselves, and shared it with those around them who had nothing.
This is a wonderful and meaningful interpretation of the story.
And we might say the true miracle might be found in how many people had their hearts moved that day because Jesus inspired them to practice such radical generosity amongst strangers.
But in weaving this explanation we make ourselves the focus of the story.
The hungry are fed not by God alone, but by the collective and generous work of the people, who gathered and distributed from their abundance.
Again, this is a wonderful and meaningful message – and it is one that we need to hear – because ultimately feeding the hungry DOES depend on our willingness to share, and it is OUR hands that gather and distribute the resources that God has given us.
But when we seek explanations for these miracles – When we place our hands in the basket, and put Jesus on a sand bar – we miss that these were meant to be stories about the incomprehensible power of God.
The power that the author of the letter to the Ephesians describes as “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”
These are stories about how God transforms us - from the inside out.
Suddenly. Radically. Miraculously.
The people who witnessed Jesus feeding thousands of people with a few loaves of bread were transformed.
The people who witnessed Jesus calming a storm and walking across the sea were transformed.
Right then and there they stopped being the person they had been and they become someone new. Someone different.
Someone more compassionate, more generous, and less fearful.
Someone more open to believing in the life-changing power of God.
Perhaps it’s helpful to think of this change as more of a metamorphosis than a transformation.
A transformation can happen gradually over time,
as we make changes in the way we think and act in the world.
We decide to drink less. Exercise more.
We try to reel in our anger and make a concerted effort to be nice to the people who annoy us most.
We choose to be more active in our church and in our community – to give back and be more thankful for what we have been given.
Transformation often involves a series of small changes that add up to one big change over time.
Metamorphosis involves a much greater, more sudden, and more noticeable change in how we exist in the world.
Many of you may have heard of or read the classic novella by Franz Kafka, titled “Metamorphosis.”
It’s the story of a traveling salesman named Gregor Samsa, who wakes up one morning to discover that he has been inexplicably transformed into a giant insect. Beyond the startling imagery, the story is about how Gregor and others in his life respond to his sudden metamorphosis.
Most are disgusted by him, but others choose to step in and care for him by performing the basic tasks he can no longer do.
We might find parallels in our own lives if we’ve ever made radical changes in how we think, act, or present ourselves to the world…
Changes that were met with both rejection and acceptance….
Giving up an addiction and the friends that came along with it.
Getting a divorce in a faith tradition or an era where it was stigmatized.
Identifying as a Christian – in a public way – in a culture that has a perception that most Christians are judgmental and narrow minded and that faith itself is superstitious, old-fashioned, and irrelevant.
When God reaches in and changes our hearts it can’t help but change our lives and the way we move in the world.
But as Kafka’s travelling salesman discovered, when we long for transformation - a change in our everyday monotonous existence, we should be careful what we wish for.
There’s a humorous story about two men who arrive at the gates of St. Peter only to find that heaven is temporarily closed for renovations.
They’re told that they can return to earth for one week but not as themselves.
They have to choose some other form to take.
The first man says, "I've always wanted to be an eagle, soaring above the Rocky Mountains."
"So be it," says St. Peter, and off flies the first man.
The second man mulls this over for a moment and asks,
"Will you be keeping track of us?"
And St. Peter responds, "No, with the renovations going on there's no way we can keep track of what you are doing. This week's a freebie."
"In that case," says the second man, "I've always wanted to be a stud."
"So be it," says St. Peter, and the second man disappears.
A week goes by, the renovations are completed and God tells St. Peter to recall the two men.
"Will we have trouble locating them?" St. Peter asked.
"The first one should be easy," said God "He's somewhere over the Rocky Mountains, flying with the eagles. But the second one who wanted to be a stud could prove to be more difficult to find."
"Why?" asked St. Peter. And God replied,
"Because he's on a snow tire somewhere in Alaska."
Did Jesus feed 5000 people with only 5 loaves of bread?
Did Jesus calm the seas and walk on water?
Does God move in our world in miraculous ways to cause us to look up and take notice and awaken to a new way of living?
Often when we try to explain away these miracles we effectively remove God from the story.
In the feeding of the 5000, the people may have been moved to share what they had brought for themselves, but if we want to tell the story this way we have to be sure to emphasize the miraculous transformation that had to happen to move so many hearts, simultaneously, in such an amazing way.
Similarly, Jesus may have only appeared to be walking on water due to the natural occurrence of a low tide, but we shouldn’t allow our need for empirical explanations to dismiss or disregard the experience that the disciples claimed to have.
They believed they saw Jesus walking on water and it was that experience, that vision, that caused their hearts to move from fear to joy.
They were transformed.
And because THEY were transformed WE are sitting here today, telling the same story, 2000 years removed.
Thomas Jefferson struggled to believe.
So much so that he removed Jesus’ miracles from the gospels dismissing the transformational value and truth they had to offer.
The words of Jesus he did include are words of wisdom.
Words to guide us, inspire us, and change us…..but will the words in this book (Jefferson’s Bible) transform us in the same way as the words in this book (The Holy Bible)?
What would life be like without the miracles?
The unexplained occurrences that cause us to gasp in delight, shed tears of joy, and search for God between the lines.
What would life be like without transformational experiences?
The times when our minds are changed, our perceptions are moved, and our hearts break wide open with love.
It’s okay to be skeptical. No one says we have to check our brains at the door to be members of a community of faith.
But it’s okay to believe in miracles as well.
If we can do wondrous things that would baffle our ancestors,
then God certainly has the power to do wondrous things that are far beyond our comprehension as well.
But if we’re sitting around waiting for a miracle to transform us it’s not going to happen.
We have to be willing to leave our lunch behind and follow Jesus up a mountain.
We have to be willing to step into the boat while the waves rise all around us.
But even when we do, we may not be instantly transformed in the same way that the people who witnessed Jesus’ miracles were.
What we CAN do is continue to seek out opportunities for transformation in our every day lives.
Volunteer in the community. Mentor a child. Go on a mission trip.
Join a small group ministry group. Don’t be afraid to sit with others and talk about your experiences of life, relationships, and faith.
Head over to SHARE in Milford and help out at a community dinner.
Push back when you hear others say something that is racist, sexist, homophobic, or divisive in any way.
Resist the urge to paint all liberals and conservatives, all Christians and all Muslims, with the same brush, and try to do more listening and understanding, and less defending and demonizing.
Read the Bible.
Read the stories of our ancestors who believed in miracles because all things are possible with God.
Open yourselves for transformation.
Fall on your knees, and allow Christ to dwell in your hearts,
as allow yourself to become rooted and grounded in love.
Thanks be to God. Amen