When I was in University, yeah, back in the days when stone and chisel were our writing tools, I took a course on Moby Dick. The first day of class the prof asked us what we thought the book was about. I suggested it was about revenge and the destruction it brings to the soul of the one who is seeking it. I know, pretty good answer, right. Apparently not. Apparently the book is about the evil of British colonialism. Moby Dick apparently represents the British power to claim domination of the waters while Captain Ahab represents the singular attempt to stop this beast.
Why should you care? Maybe you don’t but this illustrates how things are not always as they seem. We make all kinds of assumptions without taking into context the time in which stories are told. Not unlike our scripture this morning. In out thirst to prove the reality and superiority of our God, we hear the story about Jesus feeding the five thousand and say, “See, see what our God can do. Our Daddy God is bigger than your God. Our Daddy God could beat up your Daddy.” Okay, that’s a little juvenile but the sentiment is not far off.
Part of this story IS about Jesus showing people that their God, the God of Moses and Abraham and Elijah, is alive and well and upheld God’s covenant to them that the God of Israel is still the great I AM.
Moses gave the people manna in the desert. Jesus is feeding the five thousand. Elijah fed a few hundred with a few fragments of food. Jesus is joining the league extraordinary gentlemen. But what this was not was Jesus’ attempt at self-aggrandizing. What Jesus wanted to do was to show the people that their God had not abandoned them even during these times of oppression by the Romans. Their God was alive and well and was in their midst still providing, still performing miracles.
Notice as well, that mention is made by John that Jesus leads them to a grassy knoll. This is more than an indicator of a Galilean spring. Jesus is showing his credentials as being the Good Shepherd. “I shall lead you beside the still waters and into pastures green.”
But, instead of seeing any of that, what do the people see? They see what they want to see. They see what is on the surface. They see Jesus performing miracles and they want to make him King, a King like Herod who leads by the sword..Lead a revolt. Take over power. And Jesus wants none of it. So he leaves.
Note, that this all takes place in Tiberius. Not a week before Tiberius became the scene of John’s beheading. Now Jesus shows up and just happens to have 5,00 men with him. Sorry women, you weren’t counted in census taken in those days. How do we know there were 5,000 men? The tradition of that time was to have people sit down in blocks of 100 people military style. So there they sit with Herod leaning over the Palace wall taking his shoes off trying to count all these men. How many soldiers did he have at the Palace? A few hundred, maybe a thousand if he armed the kitchen staff. Herod starts to sweat. He had just killed their prophet to fulfill some silly promise he made to his 12 year old daughter and now 5 thousand of his people are sitting beneath his wall.
But Jesus doesn’t attack. Those who live by the sword die by the sword. Peace is never found in retaliation. Instead, Jesus gathers up the fragments of their lives, meets their needs and hopes Herod is watching, because Herod, this is what real kings do. Then, they all go home peacefully.
I felt great pride in our United Church last Thursday as I watched the election of our new moderator at General Council. I was especially touched by the gifts our indigenous people brought to the Conference. When I first tuned in, an elder of the All Native Conference was speaking of the wisdom to take the time in all of these court proceedings to make time and space for the presence of the Great Creator among them, and to listen for the Creator’s voice.
As I scanned the court I could see the colonialists shifting in their chairs, flicking their pens impatiently wanting to get on with the business of church. I so quickly identified them because often, I am one of them. Efficiency is dogma and proper procedure is our doctrine. The danger of such a system is that we become servants to this system and often forget that, first and foremost, we are servants of a living God who may be trying to tell us something, show us something, something written outside the script. We become no less oppressed a people than the Israelites under Herod’s rule.
When the voting for moderator came down to last ballot, our present moderator, Jordan Cantwell, asked that the court take 6 minutes of silence to discern the voice of God at this time. During this time, a gentleman played an oboe in the background to encourage a spirit of peace and reflection. It was only after this time of listening that Jordan then called for the vote.
Just imagine what would happen if we invoked the presence of the living God at all our meetings, left an empty chair for God to fill, and took time to listen for God’s voice?
As I noted on the slide in my introduction of Richard Bott to you this morning, Richard said upon his nomination that “Our greatest issue as a church is our fear in the face of uncertainty.” Isn’t that true? We like our certainty or stability because our power and privilege are founded on that stability. We like the control of preserving what we have because it benefits us.
So, as Richard points out, when we see the church changing “… we have this sense that we are dying off or that we are failing as a church.” Failing because we are failing at preserving the church as it was. But in every change something is gained as well as lost. We become a church which is responding in real ways to the current needs of ministry of the community around us.
Yes, I shall mourn with the rest of you when some of the traditions and places of the past, which now hold no more function than mere sentiment, will be no more. I fear, that maybe the time will come when our sanctuaries, which hold such powerful memories for me, will be seen as representing an establishment and will no longer be useful as sacred worship space.
Yet, have we not become just as oppressed as our fore parents when we, in the fear of loss, fight tooth and nail against such changes eating up valuable resources in the process. Yes, we may lose some things, the traditions of Presbytery, the fellowships built there, the meals eaten together, but maybe, just maybe God will show us a new and promising land.
If there was ever a time in our church that we need a Good Shepherd, it is now. Someone, who does not necessarily stop the storm but reaches through the storm to show us the way. Someone who can lift before us a living God, a God who made covenant with our ancestors but who honours that covenant with us today. A God who will never leave or forsake us. A God who will gather us beneath the walls of a tyrant and, instead of taking up the sword, shows us how to gather our fragments and feed each other. Who shows us the ways of peace. Who promises that there will be more than enough left over for all of us. Oh we beseech you to deliver your people from this time of fear.
I will say this before I go. Jesus has said to us, “What I have done, you will do even greater things than this.” “I breath upon you all the Spirit of God to empower you, to gather up the fragments of your lives, feed one another, and bring healing, hope, justice and peace to this world. If you can do that then you have performed a greater miracle than I ever have by feeding 5 thousand.” An opportunity lays before us. as the disciples of Christ. An opportunity to see visions and dream dreams. An opportunity to embrace the fact that we serve a living God, a Great Creator who we hear calling our names, who is calling us into new places and asking us to trust.
As for me and my house, we still believe that we are not alone, that we still live in a world God has created and is creating still, and who will work in those and others who choose to listen to God’s Spirit. We believe in a God of resurrection and new life, not the resurrection of an old life, but the resurrection of a new and better life.
That’s what I believe. What do you believe? Who do you serve, the god of manna or the God of Life? Think carefully and faithfully about this my friends, because who you decide to follow will determine the fate of our church.