29 July 2018, Sherando Presbyterian Church
1 After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. 16When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.
How Many Are Enough?
“Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”
That detail sticks in my mind. I work in a profession that pays poorly — farming — but if we’re talking about providing a simple meal for 5000 people, spaghetti and garlic bread, even I probably make enough money in six months to pay for that.
Most of you probably make more money than I do, and all of you together make a whole lot more, but however much you make, however much you’ve paid, it hasn’t been enough to keep this congregation alive. So I guess it isn’t about spaghetti and garlic bread. Or about money.
In my seminary reading for this week, there’s a story of a rabbi who gets up every Thursday, says a prayer to set her intention, and then walks around the city looking for ways to serve people. She makes no plan for the day other than to look for what needs to be done, and to do what she can. “I may help someone move into an apartment,” she says, “or sit beside a homeless person, or help a tourist find her destination. The idea is to be free of any idea other than to serve people, with kindness.”
That’s her way of being what the Jews call a mensch, which is a person who pays attention to the needs of other people and does what she can to meet those needs. The ancient rabbis said that there had to be at least 36 mensches on the planet at any given time, or humanity would collapse under the weight of selfishness, anger, greed, and fear.
Thirty-six people in any given moment trying to meet the needs of other people: it doesn’t seem like that would be enough. “There’s a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they among so many people?”
Last week I noted that the Revised Common Lectionary had cut the most exciting verses from the middle of the story, so they wouldn’t distract us from the unspectacular theme of shepherding. Well, this week the Lectionary gives us back that material, but from a different perspective. You may have noticed that we’ve jumped from the Gospel of Mark, which is the earliest of the four Gospels, to the Gospel of John, which is the latest. Conventional consensus holds that Mark probably wrote his Gospel within 20 years of Jesus’s death, before the destruction of the Jewish Temple by the Roman occupiers who were tired of dealing with Jewish delusions about the restoration of their kingdom. The Gospel of John was probably written some forty or fifty years later, for an audience of people whose vision of themselves and the world was conditioned absolutely by Rome’s decision to eliminate their hopes.
It would be like the difference between telling the story while we’re still trying to rebuild this congregation and telling the story after this sanctuary has been turned into a Dollar Store. How does that difference in perspective shape your response to five loaves of bread and a few fish?
John points out that the Passover was near, the holiday that commemorates the night the angel of death “passed over” the houses of Hebrew slaves in Egypt before Moses led them to freedom. You may recall that those people were essentially homeless for 40 years, wandering through the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula, with no food, not even five loaves of bread and two fish. So every night God made food fall from heaven: manna — the Book of Exodus says it was like coriander seed mixed with honey — and in the morning, everyone went out to gather what they needed to eat that day. Only that much. If they took more than they needed, it would rot.
John inverts that detail. In his story, there’s more food left over than there was to begin with, twelve baskets of left-over fragments, and Jesus tells the disciples to gather up all the left overs “so that nothing may be lost.” The suggestion seems to be that, with Jesus, abundance is inevitable. With Jesus, everybody eats, and there isn’t just enough: there’s more than there was to begin with!
Does that suggestion ring true to you, now that it’s been decided that this congregation will be dissolved, because five loaves of bread and two fish aren’t enough after all?
Six months wages would not buy enough spaghetti and garlic bread for each of them to get a little. The problem is that it actually would — it actually did — and the congregation is dissolving anyway.
I do not know the story of what happened here, but I can look around and draw some obvious conclusions: that choir loft used to be full of singers. A praise band used to gather over here. The sound booth back there was once staffed by engineers, and you needed pew space for 150 people. Now you don’t even need room for 15.
So how do we reconcile the demise of this congregation with a gospel story suggesting that, in Jesus, abundance is inevitable?
Maybe we don’t.
My human inclination is to make the different components of reality fit together in a matrix that correlates this with that and interlocks the threads of life in a fabric of meaning and coherence, like a cloak that I can wrap around myself. Well, one of the things I’m learning in seminary is that God doesn’t share that inclination. It is entirely human. The cloak I want to wrap around myself is the thing that Jesus told his disciples to leave behind when they set out on their work trip a couple of weeks ago.
How do we reconcile realities that seem incompatible? We don’t: we just let them stand beside each other, and we feel how that feels.
It feels uncomfortable, doesn’t it?
I’m sure you’re all aware that what has happened to Sherando Presbyterian is not unique. Over the last 50 years, membership in this denomination has declined 47 percent, according to one estimate, and some denominations have lost 67 percent of their members. The Washington Post recently ran an article showing that the number of people who self-identify as mainline protestants and the number of people who actually attend Protestant worship services will converge at the zero point in the year 2039.
Those numbers mean that people of my generation, most of whom were born into some religious tradition, have decided to stop listening to what their churches say about the world to a degree that can only be construed as the failure of those churches to say something worth hearing, something worth coming back to hear again. So even though I was not a witness to the specific events that led to the demise of this congregation, I do know more or less what happened here: people listened to what was being said inside this building, and they left this building and held that message up against the world outside, and they said, no: that message is wrong. Or at least it’s incomplete to a degree that makes trying to fill it out seem like more trouble than it’s worth. That’s what I said about the message in the church I left 30 years ago.
And I would suggest that stories like the one we read today are often responsible for that reaction. Maybe the Lectionary cut this stuff from last week’s story to keep us from balking at material that doesn’t line up with reality. Without the spectacular stuff, all we had to handle was miraculous healing, and most of us have heard that kind of thing often enough to stay in the room while it’s being discussed. But this stuff is of a different order: five thousand people, five loaves of bread, everyone eats, and there’s more bread left over than there was to begin with — a lot more.
If that information doesn’t make you look for a more coherent vision of reality, how about this: after the disciples had rowed three or four miles out to sea — three or four miles, like the distance from here to Dinosaur Land — Jesus comes running across the water to catch up with them. Three or four miles, John says, making the information harder to accept for its specificity.
How do we reconcile walking three or four miles across the surface of the sea with the sea as we understand it, or with walking as we understand it, or with people as we understand them?
The answer to that question is: we don’t.
What I did, and what a lot of people like me did, was to say, “I’ve followed you this far, but I’m not going across that line. Beyond that line, you enter the symbolic realm, or the figurative realm, or the fabricated realm, and I’m not going there. Alternate paradigms for processing reality don’t require that kind of confrontation, so I’ll go with you to this point, but I’m not crossing over into information that strains credibility to such a degree that it might as well be made up.”
It’s worth noting that this story is one of only a handful that appear in all four of the Gospels in similar form. Most scholars agree that Matthew and Luke used the Gospel of Mark as a source for their versions, so it’s not surprising that they should all have this story, but John wrote his version some 40 years later, in a different place, apparently without direct access to the other versions. So how do we explain the fact that he tells the same story in the same way? Well, either we say that it happened, and the report was handed down through oral tradition, or we say the writers agreed to make it up, so the Gospel would have more power over people reading it 2,000 years later.
That article in the Washington Post, which was written by Ed Stetzer, who is the director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, contains a surprising piece of information: 93 percent of the clergy at churches which are growing today— meaning evangelical-style churches — agree with the assertion that Jesus rose from the dead in a real body of flesh and blood, leaving behind an empty tomb. At churches where membership is in decline — meaning mainline protestant denominations — that percentage drops to little more than half.
If your church is growing, you can be virtually certain your clergy believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead. If your church is shrinking, there’s a good chance your clergymen and women have some trouble reconciling that information with the reality they understand.
Now, I’m just a seminary student, not a clergyman, and I have no idea what the clergy at this church have believed or not believed in the past ten years, but I can tell you this: I find it impossible to reconcile a lot of what I see in the Gospels with the reality I understand, which is why I left the church thirty years ago, along with millions of other people like me — a decline of 50 percent in the last 50 years. I came back to church because feeling separated from God became intolerable for me, as it does for everybody, I believe, for all those millions who have left their churches in the last 50 years. I came back to the tradition I left, not to an evangelical tradition, because I believe that the reality I understand is real. Contradicting that reality in order to feel closer to God would make me feel like an impostor, not a disciple, so I’m not going to do that.
And I’m finally beginning to wonder whether maybe I don’t have to: what if the compulsion to reconcile one set of information with another is a human frailty which God does not share? What if I let the reality I understand sit here, and the reality of those twelve baskets and those three or four miles sit here, without having to blend them together into one coherent fabric? I’m beginning to wonder whether the key to bringing millions of people like me back to the traditions they abandoned might be inviting them to set aside the fabric of coherence, which is what Jesus tells his disciples to do: leave that cloak behind; go without what you believe you need — the protection of coherence. Say yes and yes, instead of yes and no.
Like most theology, this way of thinking does not set us up for what to do tomorrow, when the doors to this building close, so I’m going back to what that rabbi does every Thursday: be a mensch. As your congregation dissolves and you go forth into the discomfort of incoherent realities, be a mensch. Be one of those 36 people who keep humanity from imploding under the weight of its own selfishness, greed, and fear. To do that, you don’t have to reconcile anything with anything. All you have to do is say yes and yes and yes.
Thank you for inviting me to go through this uncomfortable reality with you.