The Crack and the Light
July 27, 2003
John 6: 1-15
There are times when life seems unfair. When someone we love is hurt, when we need to deal with a serious disease, when someone we trust betrays us, it is easy for us to say, “Why is this happening to me? I don’t deserve this.” The anger and the depression of those times leads to question our ability to continue. In those circumstances it is easy to doubt whether there is enough strength, enough wisdom, enough hope for us to go on. That is why today’s Gospel is so important, because in the Gospel Jesus tells us that when God is active, there is always enough. God can find life in our darkest moments. If Jesus was able to feed five thousand people with a few barley loaves, then certainly we can count on God to be present in our time of need. But if we are to believe that and see that, we need to let the flow of our life play out so that we can understand the specific way that God is directing us and guiding us.
Kevin was twenty-five years old when his doctors told him that he had bone cancer and the only way he could survive would be to have his right leg amputated at the hip. He agreed to the procedure and it was successful. But it left Kevin an angry and depressed young man. He couldn’t understand how life could be so unfair to take away his leg at such a young age. He bore a deep resentment against people who were well and had use of all of their limbs.
Luckily he found a skilled therapist who began to work with him, discussing the events of his life and using art therapy to allow his deeper emotions to emerge. Over a period of two years he began to make progress. He began to accept the loss of his leg and look for meaning in life. What he found was that he had a gift of sharing his experience with others who were undergoing similar losses. He was very good at that kind of sharing. The medical community began to know of Kevin’s ability and began to ask him to visit some of their patients who had undergone a very serious disability.
On one occasion he was asked to visit a young woman about his own age who had just lost both of her breasts to cancer. She was so depressed that she found it difficult to speak to anyone. Kevin came to her hospital room in the middle of the summer wearing a pair of shorts that clearly revealed his artificial leg. But the woman would not even raise her eyes to address him because she was so embarrassed of her disfigurement. The nurses had left some music playing in the room and in an attempt to get her attention Kevin turned up the volume, removed his artificial leg and began dancing around the room with one leg, snapping his finger to the music. His response was so unexpected and bizarre that the young woman looked up and watched him in astonishment for a few moments and then began to laugh. “Man,” she said, “If you can dance, I can sing.” Through such experiences Kevin discovered a purpose and a direction in his life which he never had before.
After a number of years, he decided to meet with his therapist again to review his progress. When they got together and she opened his file, out fell a drawing that Kevin had made early in his therapy. He picked it up and realized what it was at once. It was one of the earliest drawings he made. His therapist had asked him to draw a picture of how he saw his body. He had drawn a large vase and then with a black crayon he had drawn a jagged crack down the center of that vase. Kevin remembered how his teeth were clenched in anger as he drew that crack and how hard he pressed with the crayon on the paper. For this crack represented to him how he was forever flawed, how his body was broken and no longer whole. He felt he could never live life fully again. Holding the picture now several years later, he said to his therapist, “You know, I don’t think this picture is finished.” “Really?” she said. And pushing him a carton of crayons suggested, “Why don’t you finish it now?” Kevin took a yellow crayon from the box and began to draw broad lines of yellow emanating out from every area of that crack. Then he said to his therapist, “I now realize that it is from this crack that the light shines forth.”
Kevin’s experience reflects what we believe as Christians. For we believe that those things that attack us in life, those things that are unfair do not need to destroy us. We believe that with God’s help we can find life even in the midst of death. We believe that with God’s help even though we are wounded there will be enough strength, enough wisdom, enough hope for us not simply to continue, but to grow and to thrive. The choice, of course, is always ours. When things in life attack us, when we must face problems in our family, sickness, addiction, loss, we can receive those things either as a blow that ruins us forever, or with God’s help see them as a crack from which in time the light will shine forth.
A Dangerous Truth
July 30, 2006
It is a dangerous thing for you when your pastor travels to El Salvador, especially when it is the kind of trip from which I have just returned. It is dangerous because what affects me, affects my preaching, and that affects what you will be listening to from some time to come. The trip was called an “encounter.” Its goal was to lift our delegation from the first world and place us gently but definitively in the third world. Crispaz, who designed the trip, did an excellent job of informing us of the history, culture, and present situation of El Salvador. They brought us face to face with politicians, economists, environmentalists, theologians, and church leaders who provided a complex but consistent picture of the country.
The picture is not good. I have traveled to many places in the world, but I have never seen the kind of poverty which I saw in El Salvador. Thousands of people were living in corrugated metal huts without water, electricity, or sewage. Yet they were living blocks away from a modern shopping mall about four times the size of Beachwood Place filled with upscale American and European merchandise. There is money in El Salvador but the majority of its people have little access to it. The average person in El Salvador makes $160 per month, and the cost of most products is comparable to what we pay in the United States. The land has been exploited. Since the time of the Spanish conquistadors, the trees, minerals, and other resources have been exported without care for the environment. Today because of the land’s erosion, farming is difficult without expensive chemicals and fertilizers. Those who are able to receive an education find no jobs. This is why a significant number of the young in El Salvador risk their lives to enter the United States illegally. Roughly one third of the economy of the country now depends upon “remittances.” This is the term used to describe the money Salvadorans living in the United States send back to their families at home. The poverty and inequality render the political situation dicey. Public demonstrations are often marked with violence. There are disturbing rumors that the “death squads” which killed thousands in the 1980’s may return.
The picture is bleak. I struggled and continue to struggle to discover how I, as a follower of Jesus, can respond to such a desperate situation. An easy response is money. There is no doubt that money can help, especially when it is targeted to be used in a way that empowers groups within the country. This is the approach we have been taking for three years in our relationship with Mujer y Comunidad, a women’s group in Zaragoza. But the structural problems of the country are so pervasive and complex that it is clear that no amount of our charity will resolve them.
So what can we do? What should we do? I am sure that I will be struggling with these questions for years to come. But there are two truths in today’s gospel which can at least provide a beginning to a Christian answer.
The first comes from the exchange between Jesus and Philip. Looking at a crowd of 5,000 hungry people, Jesus asks Philip, “Where will we go to buy bread for them to eat?” With this question Jesus makes it clear that the problem of those who are hungry is our problem too. A Christian cannot say that the hunger and poverty of others is their problem alone. We are connected to each other. This is true not only spiritually but economically. We live in a global economy. We in the United States are at the top of that economy. The way we live, the way we shop, the way we invest or refuse to invest affects the world. It affects the poorest nations most dramatically. We cannot live our lifestyle within our own borders without impacting others. Such isolation is an illusion both economically and spiritually. The problems of the world are our problems too.
The second truth emerges from the exchange between Jesus and Andrew. Andrew tells Jesus that he has five loaves and two fish, but that it is impossible to make a difference by using them: “What good are they among so many?” Jesus uses them anyway. Thus he teaches us that the impossible is no excuse. Even though what we can contribute is hopelessly insignificant compared with the size and complexity of the need, we must contribute anyway. We must believe that even small changes in our lifestyle, our shopping, our attitudes can and will be used by God for good. What those changes should be must be discerned by each of us. But we cannot use the smallness of their impact to absolve us of the responsibility. The impossible is no excuse. We must act.
It is a dangerous thing to travel to El Salvador. It changes you. It initiates a journey of redefining what the gospel means. It is a humble beginning to realize that the problems of the world’s poor are our problems too and that the smallness of our options does not excuse our inaction. These are two simple truths, two small steps to begin a long journey. I invite you to make that journey with me.
Looking for Miracles
July 26, 2009
A man was very rapidly losing his hair, and this caused him a good deal of concern. So he was attracted to an advertisement in the newspaper. “Miracle formula! Guarantee: a full head of hair within 24 hours!” Now of course he was skeptical, but he was also hopeful. So he called the manufacturer. “How is it possible,” he said, “that you can guarantee a full head of hair in 24 hours?” “It’s a miracle formula,” the manufacturer responded. “It’s made of persimmon and olive.” “I’m suspicious of miracles,” the man said. “But you assure me that this formula will grow hair?” “Oh, no,” said the manufacturer, “it doesn’t grow hair. It shrinks your head to fit the hair you have.”
We can be justified in being suspicious of miracles, especially when they are miracles that contradict the laws of nature. Now I believe that dramatic miracles can happen. But they’re few and far between. That is why it is important to remember that there are different kinds of miracles, and why Jesus’ words in today’s gospel are so helpful. Jesus looks up and sees a vast and hungry crowd, and he gives his disciples a command: “Make them sit down.” Now at first this command of Jesus can seem marginal, a throwaway line. But things change when we ask, “Why would Jesus say it?” I suggest that Jesus wanted the crowd to sit down so that they would not miss what he was about to do. Think of it. In a huge crowd, there are all kinds of things happening. People are talking and arguing and complaining and thinking and wondering. As they mill around in their own particular preoccupations, it would be easy for them to miss the miracle that Jesus was about to perform. So Jesus’ command to sit down was a command to pay attention, to recognize the action of God before their eyes.
This command of Jesus can be very useful to us in dealing with miracles, because we often overlook the miracles in our lives. Now of course, if the sun was to stop still or rain began to fall up, we would all notice that. But most miracles are not so dramatic. Some miracles are constantly present. They are the ones that are easy to overlook. We can overlook the way in which our lungs draw oxygen from the invisible air, which allows us to remain conscious and alive. We can forget the way our kidney filters our blood, preserving the elements that are good and eliminating the ones that are poisonous. We can forget how our pancreas works with its own sugar thermometer, keeping the level of sugar in our blood constant. If it failed to do this, we would go into a coma and die. We forget the miracle of how a baby learns to talk, how suddenly we can come to an idea, how music can make us cry. We forget the wonder of how a blade of grass grows, or how a few cells within the womb divide and multiply until they form a human person with fingers and a personality and eyes that can see color. We can overlook the fact of the earth spins on its axis and thereby prevents the oceans from falling into the sun. Science continues to explore and explain many of these phenomena in our world. Yet science is not the enemy of miracles. Even when we can explain our world, it does not make it ordinary. It still retains its wonder.
Jesus calls us to sit down, to pay attention, to recognize the wonders that surround us. If we do that, think of how it could change us. Would it not make us more humble, more hopeful, more patient, more alive? We live in a world of miracles. Let’s make sure that we take the time to see them, because every time we take one in, we recognize the presence of God.
The Advantage of Giving
July 29, 2012
Cami Walker was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a month after she was married. She began to lose the use of her hands and the sight in her right eye. Walking became difficult and she had to suspend her promising career as an art director. Soon her life spiraled down into depression. She became addicted to painkillers. One evening she called a friend for support. But instead of offering her pity, he gave her a challenge. He asked her to do something. He asked her to give one thing away each day for the next twenty-nine days. This request seemed strange to Cami, but she decided to do it. The results of her experience are chronicled in her book, 29 Gifts. Each day she gave some simple thing away. One day she gave away a half an hour of her time to a friend. Another day she gave a bouquet of flowers to a stranger on the street. One night she made dinner for her husband, which is the first time she had done so since she had been diagnosed with the M.S.
As the time proceeded her life began to change both psychologically and physically. By day fourteen she was able to walk rather easily, and by day twenty-nine she was able to go back to work, part time. She still had the symptoms of the M.S. But her new routine gave her the ability to cope with them. She would describe her experience this way: No matter how many material things we have we are still tempted to see ourselves in a place of scarcity. We are afraid we do not have enough or that we are not good enough. Giving moves us out of our story and connects us with someone else. Giving takes us out of a place of scarcity and introduces us to something much bigger. This experience not only enriches us, it heals us.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus decides to feed the multitudes in the wilderness, but he begins with something. He begins with five barley loaves and two fish. This paltry food does not belong to Jesus. It belongs to a young boy in the crowd. What would have happened if that boy had been unwilling to give his food to Jesus? I imagine Jesus would have found another way to perform the miracle. But in the story, Jesus’ ability to feed the crowd depends on the willingness of the boy to share what he has. We know that it turned out to be a good deal for the boy. By the end of the gospel, with twelve baskets of fragments left over, he had more to eat than if he had kept the food for himself.
Each one of us in a variety of experiences has to decide whether we are going to hold on to the things that we have or share them. Indeed sometimes the right decision is to hold on to them. There are times when we need to keep our time, energy, and resources because of responsibilities we have to others or to ourselves. But, as we make the decision whether to hold on or to give, it is important that we do not make that decision out of fear. It is also important that we understand what the advantage of giving is.
Giving does not simply bless the person who receives. It also blesses the person who gives. As Cami WaIker would say, “It not only enriches us, it heals us.” Or as the young boy in the Gospel might say, “I was afraid when Jesus asked me to give him my lunch. But when I did, he fed thousands. And I had more to eat as well.”
The Most Popular Miracle
July 26, 2015
The miracle that takes place in today’s gospel is called, “The Multiplication of the Loaves and the Fish.” It was a very important story for the early church. We know this because in the gospels there are two versions of Jesus’ birth, four versions of Jesus’ death, but six versions of this miracle. The evangelists really liked this story. They kept telling it over and over again. And they told it in a very peculiar way.
In the New Testament it is usual that the way in which Jesus performs his miracles is described. Jesus places his fingers in the ears of a deaf man, and he hears. Jesus tells Peter to step out of the boat and Peter walks on the water. Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb, and Lazarus comes. But in the miracle of the loaves and fish, we are never told how the loaves and the fish are multiplied. Did Jesus keep pulling loaves and fish out of the sack of the young boy? Did the food fall from the sky like manna? Did bread and fish suddenly appear before each person reclining on the grass? We are not told how the multiplication takes place. Instead all that we have in this story is the beginning and the end. The beginning: 5,000 hungry people in the desert with only five loaves and two fish. The end: all are satisfied and there are twelve baskets of fragments left over.
What a strange miracle story. It has no middle. We are never told how Jesus performs this miracle. You would think that if this miracle was so important to the evangelists they would do a better job of telling it—unless of course the way that they tell it is the very point. I would like to suggest that this story of the loaves and the fish was so important to the early church because it provided a clear definition of faith. Faith is believing that God knows our trouble and our hunger and that God will feed us, even if we do not know how God will do it. Faith is believing that although we are in the desert without food we will be satisfied, even though we cannot imagine how that might come about. This is why the comments of Andrew and Philip are in the story. Neither of them can imagine how Jesus could feed 5,000 with five barley loaves and two fish. Andrew says, “What good are these among so many?” The evangelists use such statements to make it clear to us that faith is not about imagining how God will work. Faith is believing that God knows our hunger and will satisfy it, even though we cannot picture how such a solution might occur.
When we are worried about a family member who is struggling with addiction, faith is believing that God knows that problem and will lead the person we love to a better place even though we think the situation is hopeless. When we have a relationship with someone that does not work, that keeps hurting us, and frustrating us, faith is believing that God sees that rupture and is working to bring it to a place of reconciliation even though we cannot imagine how that would take place. When we have to recover from a divorce or undergo a long series of medical treatments, faith is believing that God knows our fear and weakness and will give us strength even though it seems impossible to us.
The story of the multiplication of the loaves and the fish has no middle. It never tells us how the miracle takes place, because the evangelists understand that faith is not knowing how God will work, but believing that God sees our hunger and will give us food—with twelve baskets of fragments left over.
July 25, 2021
A man is sitting in a bus terminal waiting for the bus to Cincinnati. He looks around and sees a machine with a sign that says, “Your height. Your weight. Your future. One Dollar.” He says to himself, “What the heck.” He puts in his dollar and steps on the scale. A little ticket comes out which says: You are five feet, ten inches tall. You weigh 160 pounds. And you are waiting for the bus to Cincinnati. The man is amazed. How did the machine know that? So he decides to fool the machine. He goes into the men’s restroom, turns his baseball cap around, puts on a pair of sunglasses, slips into his jacket and stuffs it with paper towels to make himself look much heavier. Then he comes out and steps on the scale again. Another ticket comes out. You are five feet, ten inches tall. You weigh 160 pounds. And while you were wasting your time in the men’s restroom, you missed the bus to Cincinnati.
Wasting time can be dangerous. You can miss a lot. Each day life flows past us and many things happen. But if we are distracted enough, if we are unattentive, we can miss some things that really matter. If we are always fussing with our cellphone or looking for new videos on social media, if we are so driven to succeed that we are always working and thinking of our career, if we are too concerned about our home, planning improvements and buying new devices, it is possible that we can miss miracles.
This is why Jesus acts the way he does in today’s gospel. Before he feeds the five thousand, before he blesses the five loaves and two fish, he directs his disciples to tell the crowd to recline, to tell the people to sit down. Jesus is well aware that the people can be so involved in conversation and moving around that they would miss what he is about to do. So before he works the miracle, he needs to get their attention. He needs them to notice the gift that they about to receive.
The same is true for us. Everyday, God sends us blessings, graces and opportunities. How many of them do we notice? Do we recognize the gestures of support that come from our spouse or friend? Do we seize the one moment in which it is possible to have a real conversation with our teenage son or daughter? Do we hear the pain in a coworker’s voice? The pain that is really a call for help. Or do we just plod along fussing with this and that as God’s gifts pass us by.
Today’s gospel asks us to recline, to sit down, to pay attention to the gift that God is about to give us. It invites us to take a moment and ask, “Lord, what is it that you want me to see and hear? How do you want me to act and grow?” It is a shame when the bus leaves without us. It is a waste to miss a miracle. So pause and pay attention, so that when God’s food for us arrives, we may eat and be nourished.