The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12, Year B)

Ministry of Miracles

A sermon by parishioner, Peter Ulisse

At the beginning of today’s gospel we see Jesus heading out to the mountains with a large crowd following him.  Apparently they have already heard him preach and seen him heal the sick and are so impressed that they have come impulsively with little regard for their physical well being.  But even before he preaches on spiritual matters we see Jesus concerned about their health.  He asks Philip, “where are we going to buy bread for all these people to eat?”  A very good question indeed.

Today if we were going to a big event – a ballgame, a concert, a play, or to hear an important person speak, we’d simply get in our cars or head for the metro – food would be the least of our problems as it would be for the people we were going to see at the event.

But here we see Jesus behaving in his usual loving and compassionate manner.  When he becomes aware of the food issue Jesus does not dismiss it by saying “that’s not my problem.”  Instead  he shows concern for everyone there and turns to a boy who has 5 barley loaves and 2 fish.   Jesus doesn’t panic- he calmly instructs Andrew to tell the people to sit down, gives thanks, and then somehow allows the apostles to distribute enough bread and fish to feed the 5000 with even some left over- “gather us the fragments so nothing may be lost” he instructs and they fill 12 baskets.  Our Psalm today says, “you gave them their food in due season” and when the people see what he has done they say “this is indeed the prophet who has come into the world.”

I was about 9 years old when I first heard this story read in church.  As a young boy I thought, “wow, how did Jesus do that?  This is incredible.” It was truly a “super” natural event, a miracle, and certainly this was proof that Jesus was God.  And even when I heard of other miracles Jesus was performing – turning water into wine early in his career, restoring sight to the blind, even walking on water, this one was the coolest – I couldn’t begin to figure out the math. I had faith.

But as time progressed and I went away to school,  got married, had children, and attained what I thought was the perfect professional job, all began to fade into the background.  Yes, as a Catholic I was of course going to church “every” Sunday and receiving the sacraments along with my children, but as is the case with any extended repetition in life, things dulled, and I had so many responsibilities, so many things to do.  Even the word miracle began to fade as I seemed to hear the word all the time in much more mundane contexts: it was a miracle I got tickets to that concert; it was a miracle the storm held off until after the family picnic.  Sports were the worst – there was the Miracle on Ice in the Olympics; the “Hail Mary” touchdown pass leading to a miracle finish. I even had this stuff I put on my BLT’s called Miracle Whip.

But, as I continued to grow both intellectually and spiritually, I was drawn back to Jesus’ miracles. I believed the early biblical writers wrote these miracles down in order to demonstrate in part that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. But maybe there was something more here, something that exists beyond the spectacular stories demonstrating that Jesus is divine. And maybe it might even come back to the good news that Jesus had been demonstrating both in the way he was living his life and in the words he spoke in parables and the beatitudes – words which would outlast miracles and still be valuable 2000 years later when the more spectacular events had worn off.

One word which came to mind was humility.  As Jesus is performing  the miracle of multiplying food, he is already  becoming an important figure – here we see thousands leaving the safety of their homes to follow him into the hills.  Yet never does he call attention to his new found fame or promote what he’s doing. Even as he performs the miracle he does so quietly, even using the apostles to carry out his task. And then, as the gospel says, “when they were about to make him king he withdrew into the mountains by himself.”  Clearly Jesus is not a showman and if he were alive today I can’t imagine him on 60 Minutes, The Today Show, or late night TV.  And I can’t picture him on Facebook posting something like, “hey guys, today I turned 5 loaves into 5000.”  He does what he does not to win an award, become famous, or even so people might like him more, but because it is the right thing to do. Humility, not ego, a lesson which might be even more important in today’s world than it was in Jesus’ time.

Then there is the compassion.  Jesus’ mission  is of course to spread the “good news” about the spiritual life both within ourselves and regarding our relationship to God.  But that doesn’t mean he’s abandoning the earthly world with all our very human needs.  So here we see him preaching  (interesting that we don’t actually hear what he’s saying) yet still  being very concerned about his followers needs in the wilderness.  And in reality hasn’t Jesus been doing this his whole life – relieving the physical, psychological, and spiritual suffering of others whether they be beggars, persecuted women, the sick, or just ordinary people. This is even true regarding his miracles – grief for Lazarus’ family, empathy with the sores of leppers, calming the fears and anxieties of his apostles during a storm at sea, and even helping his mother at a wedding feast in Cana. His whole life has been built around “loving thy neighbor”, and our reading gives us yet another example.

So yes, turning 5 loaves into 5000 is indeed a miracle. But  our faith now is no longer that of a 9 year old, innocent, requiring a spectacular response. Rather, our faith is based on spiritual growth over the years.  And, as I look around the church today I see so many quiet miracles – the miracles of humility, love, and compassion – just as Jesus taught us. I know quilts don’t appear by magic, altars aren’t suddenly adorned, beautiful gardens don’t fall from heaven, and weekly e newsletters don’t write themselves. Pipes don’t get fixed, technology doesn’t organize itself, and harmonious music doesn’t flow from the rafters without many  people, each in their own roles, humbly  doing what they love without seeking awards or acclaim. Just like Jesus.

And as I look out I also see compassion everywhere.  Certainly it is evident in the more public activities like the Anti- Racism Alliance, the Meditation and Prayer groups, and in the combined Outreach efforts into the community. But it’s also present in the more quiet moments, the ones we share privately with each other. And I don’t think there has ever been a person on our prayer list, past or present, who was considered just a name, but rather a person we actively inquired about and  prayed for while communicating our concern with loved ones suffering as well. I know this has truly been the case for myself and entire family regarding one of my son’s having to deal with several major surgeries over the last two years, and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts , just as I’m sure you all felt the same in times when you faced insurmountable difficulties.  You know you belong to a caring church led by our incredible Pastor Jane who holds it all together and is the epitome of humility and compassion.  Yes, it’s been 2000 years since Jesus was creating physical miracles on Earth, but that doesn’t mean they are gone as he continues to guide us in our darkest and most joyful times. And, with his help may we continue to live that ministry and experience those miracle moments which occur every day of our lives, and may we be blessed with the awareness to appreciate them.