A sermon by John A. Bolt
First Presbyterian Church, Morgantown WV
July 29, 2012
17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Well here we are again, together on Sunday morning at the intersection of Spruce Street and Forrest Avenue at First Presbyterian Church in Morgantown. But unlike most Sundays, I’m standing up here and you’re sitting out there. What gives me the right to even deign to believe I’m qualified to stand here in the pulpit and say anything of value to you? There are many of you sitting out there in the pews who are more educated than I am. Who, no doubt, have studied the Bible more than I have. Who are better public speakers than I am. Who are more faithful – more “Christian” – than I am.
So why me? Maybe the best way for me to “proclaim the Word” this day is for us to just open up our hymnals again and ask Janna to lead us in another hymn sing. But I’m not going to do that. Sorry.
First thing I’m going to do, though, is to step out from behind this pulpit and come down there.
And, I think you’ll realize before I’m done, this illustrates exactly my point for the day.
You’re probably thinking about now that I’ve forgotten to read the Scripture selection for the day, but I haven’t. You see another reason I wanted to step down here is that because in some traditions, the Gospel is read from the middle of the congregation – some even stand during the reading. I’m not going to ask you to stand, but I do want you to hear the Gospel from the middle of the crowd.
Today’s primary reading is the extremely familiar story of the feeding of the five thousand. If you’ve attended church for long, you’ve heard the story. Even if you’re a newcomer to faith, you’ve heard allusions to the story in the popular culture. And, if you have the honor and privilege of preaching any number of times, it’s likely that this story is one that you’ve addressed.
This story is in all four of the Gospels, and that in and of itself tells us it’s important. Matthew has it in Chapter 14, verses 13-33; in Luke, it’s Chapter 9, 10-17; and in Mark it’s 6:30-52. Today’s telling is in John, Chapter 6, 1-21, and I’m reading from a new translation – the Common English Bible.
Listen for the Word of God to us today:
After this Jesus went across the Galilee Sea (that is, the Tiberius Sea). A large crowd followed him, because they had seen the miraculous signs he had done among the sick. Jesus went up a mountain and sat there with his disciples. It was nearly time for Passover, the Jewish festival. Jesus looked up and saw the large crowd coming toward him. He asked Philip, “Where will we buy food to feed these people?” Jesus said this to test him, for he already knew what he was going to do. Philip replied, “More than a half year’s salary worth of food wouldn’t be enough for each person to have even a little bit.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said, “A youth here has five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that for a crowd like this?” Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass there. They sat down, about five thousand of them. Then Jesus took the bread. When he had given thanks, he distributed it to those who were sitting there. He did the same with the fish, each getting as much as they wanted. When they had plenty to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather up the leftover pieces, so that nothing will be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves that had been left over by those who had eaten. When the people saw that he had done a miraculous sign, they said, “This is truly the prophet who is coming into the world.” Jesus understood that they were about to come and force him to be their king, so he took refuge again, alone on a mountain. When evening came, Jesus’ disciples went down to the lake. They got into a boat and were crossing the lake to Capernaum. It was already getting dark and Jesus hadn’t come to them yet. The water was getting rough because a strong wind was blowing. When the wind had driven them out for about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the water. He was approaching the boat and they were afraid. He said to them, “I Am. Don’t be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and just then the boat reached the land where they had been heading.[i]
Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.
Thanks be to God.
Please join me in prayer: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each and every one of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
This passage this week presents a bit of a dilemma for even the occasional preacher. Many of you, I’m sure, are aware of something called the Revised Common Lectionary. It is structured system established by Protestant scholars in North America that lays out a three-year path through the Bible. It is “revised” from a similar lectionary developed by the Catholic church as an outcome of Vatican II.
Each Sunday, there are four readings: one from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a New Testament epistle and a Gospel reading. The selections follow the church calendar and, while they do not encompass the entire Bible over the three-year period, they cover its scope and breadth.
Many, perhaps even most preachers – although I’ve never seen a statistic – follow the lectionary. It has two main advantages, I think: it forces you deal with parts of Scripture, or issues raised by Scripture, that you’d rather not. I mean who would WANT to preach on Psalm 137 verse 9: “A blessing on the one who seizes your children and smashes them against the rock!”? (That verse comes up next year, by the way, on Oct. 6.)
And following the lectionary also keeps you from harping on your favorite passages or topics all the time.
In other words, at least in my view, it helps keep you honest.
Often the four passages are linked in message, sometimes more obviously than others. But sometimes there seems to be no relation or connection among them. And then again, the relationship may at first seem not to exist, but shows itself in the most surprising of ways.
For example, one of the other Scripture sections coupled with this story is from 2nd Samuel, Chapter 11, verses 1-15. You may be familiar with this story as well: it is the story of David, Bathsheba and her doomed husband, Uriah the Hittite. Uriah is a warrior, a mercenary on David’s army that was conducting the siege of Rabbah – which is where part of present day Amman, Jordan is.
The short version of this story is that David gets Bathsheba pregnant. He then brings Uriah back home and sets up multiple situations where he hopes Uriah will sleep with his wife – or as the writer of Samuel puts it euphemistically “get his feet wet” – and the affair will then be concealed. But he is thwarted by Uriah’s integrity and loyalty to his troops.
So David orders the battlefield commander to put Uriah in the frontline, and then withdraw. As a result, Uriah is killed. And, as it says later in verse 27: “What David had done was evil in the Lord’s eyes.” The consequences begin to rain down on David.
Not obviously related to a story of a miraculous feeding of the 5,000. Not obviously.
There are preachers, of course, who do not follow the lectionary. It is not, after all, required, and even those who do will deviate if circumstances seem to call for it.
One of the challenges to this, however, is that it means that, over time, the same scripture passages will roll around. Now the supremely lazy could just head to their archives, dust off what they said three years ago and hope no one really remembers. And I confess that when I was certain that I was in a different place, I have used previous sermons, at least as the starting point. But not today.
But actually, I think this constant returning to familiar stories is a good thing because it forces you take another look. It’s often been said that you don’t read the Bible, that it reads you. In other words you can read the same scripture over and over and that each time – depending on what’s going on in your world at the moment, or what needs you may have spiritually – you will get a different message.
And I have certainly found that to be true.
Nevertheless, as I mulled over this story of the feeding of the 5,000, I again asked myself what could I possibly add to people’s understanding of this scripture. What else can I find in here to suggest as a lesson for us?
I’m sure you’ve heard sermons that focused on miraculous aspect of this, or used it as an example of what can happen when we all pitch in together, or the results of true sharing. Those seem to be the usual points drawn from the story.
And they are all valid. It was a miracle, however it happened. When we all pitch in together, we can do great, miraculous things.
But something struck me a bit differently this time around – I don’t claim it to be an original thought, it’s just that it stood out more to me than before.
Let me back up and give you a bit of context.
One of the things that’s been on my mind a lot these days is what I perceive as a failure of leadership. Actually, that’s not the right way to say it. What I really mean is the failure of followership.
You see – and again this is my perception – too often we followers expect our leaders to do it all – and then of course then we can criticize and snipe all we want. And while, yes, I am talking about the country, I’m also talking about many other areas of our lives. Of course one of the problems with generalities is that they touch places where they are not true, and there are many situations – and people in this congregation – where it is not true.
But ask yourself, where do I fall down on my responsibilities to and as a leader? And I don’t want to be misunderstood here. I’m not talking about just supporting what our leaders – be they presidents, principals or preachers – are doing, but actually and actively getting out there and leading ourselves.
“A youth here has five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that for a crowd like this?”
A youth. Other translations say “a boy,” “a lad.” The other Gospel writers don’t even mention him. And yet …
There’s a story in my family which has become one of our touchstones and it seems relevant here. (And, Margaret, I didn’t start out to tell it, it just seems to be very connected here.)
You see many years ago when we were living in Dallas, we were headed to church one Sunday morning – I think it was early December. We were driving past a strip mall near our home and there, in the parking lot, was a car parked near the curb, with its hood up, various car parts strewn on the ground, a group of folks standing around and a hand-lettered sign that said something like, “trying to get to Colorado for Christmas.”
Now I don’t usually do things like this, but for some reason I stopped and gave them some money. Our family has different recollections about how much – I say $5, others say $20. But it doesn’t matter; all the while, there’s this 12-year-old boy in the back seat saying, “Don’t do it, Dad. It’s a scam.”
But I did, and off we went to church.
A couple of weeks later, on another Sunday morning, we’re headed to church when, about four or five miles down the road, guess what?
There was a car parked near the curb. With its hood up. Various car parts strewn on the ground. A group of folks standing around and a hand-lettered sign that said something like, “trying to get to Colorado for Christmas.”
This time, the 12-year-old voice in the back seat said, “See, Dad, I told you so.”
At that point, I did what all dads try to do in a situation like this, I tried to save face in front of the boy, and racked my brain for a response. The Holy Spirit gave it to me.
“Greg, it doesn’t matter what they do,” I said. “It only matters what we do.”
One moment of inspiration has become our family’s story. As many of you know, Greg is now a Presbyterian pastor in Oregon. He is married to a Presbyterian pastor. Along the way, that story has been the inspiration for actions taken by us all (and sometimes the guilt felt when we don’t take action). It has been told around campfires at Bluestone, and in the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church in Bend, Oregon. And, yes, I have used it a few times myself.
You see, the moment matters. And you never know when you’re going to be called on to be a leader – and in what way you’ll be called on to lead. Whether it’s actively – such as standing up in front of a crowd preaching, or more passively – such as encouraging and supporting and working with others.
But whichever way we lead, we must lead. Each and every one of us. We cannot simply abdicate our responsibilities or say “let someone else do it.”
This is one of the reasons I am such a Presbyterian. This idea of shared leadership, and of a community of leaders, is an integral part of our theology. We believe that the community leads.
Just because someone is a minister – what we now call a Teaching Elder – doesn’t mean they have an inside track to The Truth, or that they have a higher role or function than you or me. That is why all of our governing bodies are half Teaching Elders and half Ruling Elders.
But I don’t want to seem to pick on ministers. Just because we elect someone to a leadership position in a group doesn’t mean they necessarily have The Word in their back pocket. That’s why we call them Moderators instead of Chairs or Presidents.
And, yes, that’s why we are so enamored of committees – because we believe that together we do better than individually. Does it get frustrating? You bet. But it’s also shown, over time, to be the best way to move forward.
You’ll notice on the communion table there are multiple sets of communion ware, and you may have been wondering why they’re there – especially since this isn’t a communion Sunday.
Each one of those is from a meeting of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s General Assembly I have had the privilege of attending. Among them are this one from Syracuse, N.Y.; here’s Richmond, Va.; and here Birmingham, Ala.
And this one is from the meeting this year in Pittsburgh.
Notice how they are all extremely different. Each was designed to reflect the culture or the region where the meeting was held. Syracuse’s reflects its history of salt mining; Richmond is pewter and recalls colonial days; Birmingham’s is an homage to its history of mission work in Africa; Pittsburgh’s recalls its role in glass making.
All are different, markedly different. But all serve the same purpose: to give glory to God by serving the bread of life and the wine of salvation.
And because of that, all are important. Just like you and just like me. And the person on your left. And the person on your right. And we all have a responsibility to be leaders by our actions as well as our words.
The integrity of Uriah the Hittite stood in the way of the treachery of one of the most revered people in Judeo-Christian history. One person. One minion.
The generosity of one youth, one lad, shows us the importance any of us can play in feeding – literally and figuratively – the world. One person. One single person.
The frantic scramble by a father not to lose face in front of his son can lead to a story that can help convey what it means to be Christian. One person. One moment.
Jesus calls on us all to be leaders. No matter our title. No matter our station. No matter our wealth. No matter our intelligence. No matter our gender. No matter our politics. No matter our family. No matter who we love.
To God alone be the glory, amen.
Please join me in prayer: Good and gracious God, we are all your children, and we are all leaders. Help us to have the faith to stand up and be leaders whenever we see the need, and to display your grace and your love in everything we do. We ask in the name of your Son, Jesus the Christ, amen.
[i] The Common English Bible (2010-09-01). CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha – ePub Edition (Kindle Locations 50215-50235). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.