Friday, August 03, 2012

Sermon for the Eighth Sunday After Pentecost, 2012

Proper 11, Year B
29 July 2012
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Athens, Ga.
Old Testament: 2 Samuel 11:1-15 (David & Bathsheba conceive a child)
Psalm: 14
Epistle: Ephesians 3:14-21
Gospel: John 6:1-21 (feeding of the 5000; JC walking on water to the apostles' boat)

This week we continue to follow Jesus back and forth across the Sea of Galilee.
-His home territory
-Preaching, teaching, healing
-Seeking a bit of rest, even: but his growing reputation means the crowds will have none of that: they need him.

But this week the action has switched away from Mark, to John’s account of Jesus’s early ministry.
-Feeding of the 5000 the only miracle story recorded in all four Gospels
-This is the kind of statistic that tells us the story was tremendously important for the writer’s - and therefore the early Church’s - understanding of who Jesus was, and therefore of the very character of God.

I want to suggest today that part of that heightened importance given to this story of Jesus’s miraculous provision of food for a large crowd of people has to do with one of the themes of John’s Gospel: knowledge, information, is only powerful to a point, and it is the Kingdom of God that picks up where the power of knowledge ends.

So I’m already caught up in Olympics fever as much as anyone (hope our women’s soccer team will do us proud, again; the men didn’t even qualify), and in thinking about the amazing power - indeed the miraculous power - that human knowledge these days can acheive, I couldn’t help but wonder about what knowledge has done to create the super athletes of our time. Consider for a moment the distinct possibility that the careful, intense application of scientific knowledge to the world of sports in the modern era has produced nothing less than miraculous results. And I mean miraculous not just compared to 100 or 50 years ago, but compared to 20, or 10 years ago. The examples are too numerous to list, really. Think of the speed of a Usain Bolt or Tyson Gay compared to those lovely chaps in Chariots of Fire! Think of the strength, power, and speed of a Michael Phelps compared to the not-too-shabby swimming of Mark Spitz. Think of my hero of 30 years ago, Bjorn Borg, who was no slouch of a tennis player - wooden rackets and all - but who had NOTHING like the incredible power, wicked topspin, and pinpoint placement of a Rafa Nadal or Roger Federer.

The achievement of these athletes and countless more like them owes a tremendous debt to NEW KNOWLEDGE, doesn’t it? The careful, intricate, highly scientific study of physiology, nutrition, respiration; the million-dollar research programs on new equipment technology, from shoes to rackets to swimsuits - you name it. The amazing power of applied information is partly what goes into producing an Olympic or other world-class athlete in the early 21st century - really, into producing miracle-workers.

But when we see these athletes do their thing, however inhuman it may look at times, don’t we STILL KNOW, SOMEHOW, that the careful, scientific knowledge that produced their elaborate nutrition programs and training regimens and playing techniques was not really enough, BY ITSELF, to stun the crowd with another amazing shot, to garner the gold medal, to set the new world record? Don’t we know that underneath all that technical development must also come boatloads of sheer determination, years of willing the body through tough training regimens, the fortitude to play through pain, and a deep well of inspiration?

That is, in the production of world-class athletes - and in our lives in light of the Gospel, isn’t there a limit to what human knowledge can do for us? A point at which we still have to look back to first things?

Jesus, in his opening question today, heads straight for the basic human need: it’s the hour for a meal; we are all accustomed to buying bread from the shops; where and how shall we do this and ensure these good people don’t go hungry?

And what’s the disciples’ reaction? Well, they’re suddenly full of knowledge, aren’t they? Full of information: a rough calculation suggests that six months wages would hardly by a crumb for each member of this size crowd, says one. A boy here has five loaves of bread and two fish, says another, “but what good is such a small amount to this massive group.”

They are stunned in the face of the staggering need and can only offer the collection of knowledge about the need and calculations about the scope of the need and. . . and . . . the people are getting hungrier by the minute.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ, my sisters & brothers, picks up where human knowledge reaches the limit of its powers.

Just as the miraculous feat of the athlete, even today, points not primarily to the science that went into producing such a finely tuned human machine, but to the inspiration and fortitude and will-power within that person - that is, to the very character of that the feeding of the 5000 points away from knowledge as we know it...away from the information-collecting of the disciples...away from the stalled system of what to do in the face of overwhelming need...away from the movement toward ideology when the crowd senses someone with great power (“Let’s make him king!”)...

No, the feeding of the 5000 points to a new kind of knowledge and the miraculous new power that goes with it:  the knowledge of the love of God for all Creation; the knowledge of that love as expressed in the one sitting on the hill, resting - bothered not so much by a new flood of information about the overwhelming needs out there, but instead “bothered” by the deep desire to be in authentic relationship with all who crossed his path, and therefore animated by noting their most basic needs. The one whose presence always seemed - often miraculously - to be a multiplier; the one who’s body became abundant food, indeed. Yes, there is an end to the often incredible power that comes from human knowledge and information. There is a point where it ceases to help.

The next step is love.

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