Years ago I found myself visiting with a parishioner during her soap opera and we were having a discussion about two of the characters. It seemed one person was telling the other that their marriage was over.
“What’s the problem?” I asked. “He caught her kissing another man,” the parishioner answered. “Well, it’s a soap opera,” I replied, “she’s not allowed to go more than two days without kissing someone.” “But you see,” the parishioner returned, “her husband doesn’t know he’s living in a soap opera.” “Oh,” I said, “it must be terrible to live in a world you don’t understand.
Believe it or not, this discussion came to mind in light of today’s Gospel reading because in it we are faced with a similar dilemma: we are reminded that we live in a world we don’t fully understand. Today we are told that Jesus took five loaves and two fish and fed a crowd well in excess of five thousand. This is a remarkable miracle story. Incidentally, it is the only miracle of Jesus that is recorded in all four of the Gospels. This leads me to conclude that something extraordinary, something truly miraculous, occurred that day so long ago.
Yet Biblical scholars have tried to offer us explanations of this miracle. They have tried to give us logical and believable ways that this feeding may have occurred. One explanation says that the crowd was so touched by Jesus’ act of faith and generosity by offering what little was available to him that they reached into their cloaks and pulled out the hidden food they were hoarding and began to share it with their neighbors.
Another explanation is that the meal of bread and fish became a spiritual meal for all concerned and only a morsel was needed to sate the needs of the diners.
But these practical explanations miss the point. The feeding was a miracle and miracles, by definition, cannot be explained. Note that Matthew doesn't try to explain what happened. For that matter, not one of the other Gospel writers tries to explain how the miracle occurred either.
If the point was to know how Jesus accomplished such a feat we would have an explanation as a part of the Gospel’s text. Instead we are simply given a miracle story and we are left to accept or deny it. And this may be our biggest struggle this morning: We need explanations.
We are, after all, heirs of the Age of Enlightenment, post-modern educated and logical people. Everything should be explainable. Every occurrence, no matter how confounding, can be dissected, analyzed, categorized and understood in concrete, scientific terms. If it happened, we have to be able to explain how it happened. That is one of the operating principles of our modern lives.
And it is a fallacy. How do we dissect love? How do we analyze compassion? How can we categorize mercy? How can we truly understand the matters of faith in concrete and scientific terms?
The simple truth is that we can’t. The life of faith is living within the tension that we cannot explain everything; it is the realization that we live in a world that we do not understand. The life of faith is being willing and able to see beyond the concrete reality of our world to consider that perhaps, just perhaps, there is more to this world than meets the eye.
Let me give you an image to consider. The African Impala is a magnificent animal. It is generally no taller that 36 inches at the shoulders. But it can jump as high as 10 feet and in one leap can span a distance of over 30 feet. Yet these nimble animals are very easy to contain in zoos. They can be kept in an enclosure with a solid wall a mere three feet high. The reason is that they will not jump unless they can see where their feet will land.
Are we not much different? Are we willing to see beyond the short little wall of our tangible world and into the marvelous depths and possibilities of God’s creation? This morning we have heard a miraculous story of the feeding of thousands on meager provisions of bread and fish. We marvel at this story as we should. But we probably wonder how it really happened; and that is natural.
But let us remember that God is not bound by our limited understanding of reality. We must understand that the Gospels are not a science text book. They were not written to tell us how these things happened but that they happened at the hands of our Lord. This gives us the hope that miracles can happen in our lives as well. They can and they do.
The matter is simply how we choose to view our lives. Are not our lives made up and filled with more than the tangible and quantifiable? Yes they are. We are surrounded by love, mercy, hope, forgiveness, compassion, joy, mystery, and revelation. Is it any wonder that there are moments in our lives that we cannot explain or understand?
So it seems to me that this morning’s Gospel reading can serve as a mirror of sorts. As my Old Testament professor used to say, “We read the Gospels and let them read us.” This morning we can begin to see ourselves in our response to the Gospel. Are we people limited by probabilities and proofs or are we willing to be people of faith in the boundless opportunities of God’s grace? Or are we willing to offer the loaves and fishes our lives in the hope and joy that God can and does still work miracles?