Glynn Cardy 14th August 2022
In most cultures past, and in many places presently, the mark of a good God, good leader, or a true prophet was the ability to feed people. Food was not something you could take for granted. Food insecurity was real. ‘Give us daily bread’ was a plea not without substance in lands that knew the vagaries of droughts, storms, frost, and floods.
And the giving of thanks for food is not just an indirect way of saying thanks to the cooks. Or to those who grew, harvested, packaged, delivered, or paid for the food. Or indirectly giving thanks for the climatic conditions, good growing soil, or the ability to transport and receive exports from afar.
Giving thanks for food is an acknowledgement that each mouthful of good sustenance is a little miracle. A grace that has come our way.
Give us our daily bread has a pedigree in the Bible. The prophet Moses was accredited with convincing his God to provide the miracle of the manna ‘bread’ to the wandering Israelites. (Though I always thought a shortcut route to Canaan might have been more useful). The prophet Elijah was accredited with the miracle of the bottomless jar of flour and jug of oil for the widow of Zarephath. Elijah’s protégé, Elisha, was accredited with stretching 20 barley loaves out to feed 100 men.
These stories of provision, as you can imagine, influenced the stories that sprung up around Jesus. The 20 barley loaves became five, the 100 became 5,000. And there were fish thrown in, the strength of good protein. For Jesus, like Moses, Elijah, and Elisha, was for his followers a prophet who would lead them out of deprivation and into blessing, out of an empire of fear and into an empire of love.
The 4th Gospel (John’s Gospel), as David Galston says, contains nothing historical. Rather it is the reflections of a community of Jesus’ followers, some 80 years after his death, reworking the stories they’ve heard, adapting them for their time and context. Much like we do with the Bible today, and reader and followers have done for centuries.
When looking at the feeding miracle of John 6 and comparing it to the accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke the most obvious difference is the insertion of both the disciple Andrew and a young boy. In other words, the storytellers made up a tale about where the five loaves and two fish came from. The miracle needed a catalyst – a boy who believed in the impossible, an adult friend (Andrew) who believed in the boy, and a prophet (Jesus) who understood how the impossible can become possible.
This feeding of the five thousand though, in the 4th Gospel, was just the entrée. The text goes on to talk about Jesus being the bread of life. A sort of communion sermon if you like. The miracle, says the author, is not actually the bread that the 5,000 fed on but Jesus, his message and methods, which can feed your soul and change your life.
Yet, let’s not pass on from this young boy too quickly. There is a thread the runs through the Jesus material about the little, the least, and the last, the nuisances and nutters, the unwanted expendables. It is they who are invited to the banquet. It is they who are called down from the trees where they are hiding. It is they who find healing and hope. Jesus was not a physician to those who had the money to please, but to those who didn’t and were in need.
This young boy is not of the privileged. Otherwise, he would have sent his servant to make the offer (and make sure Jesus knew who the benefactor was too). This young boy though is not impoverished either – after all he has a lunch. But being a child, in that day and still too often in ours, was not to have a voice. He was of no account really, to be bypassed until he was older, even if he had something of substance to offer.
And that is why we should not discount the role of Andrew. He saw the child with the eyes of his heart. He reached out beyond his own blinkered culturally-conditioned vision that said children are of no use, nothing, and saw with the eyes of faith and possibility. And with such seeing a miracle was enabled to happen.
It takes faith – what I often call ‘courage’ – to hear the still small voice. Whittier’s wonderful hymn of course is an interpretation of the account in 1 Kings 19 of the murderer Elijah on the run from the King’s justice. (Though the author doesn’t quite scribe it like that). Elijah calls on God for mercy, and God sends baking. (I wonder who the angel was? Or maybe all bakers are angels unaware). Then Elijah does his 40 days and nights of wilderness wandering. Finally, there is the revelation of earthquake, wind, and fire. The big noisy plain-to-see hard-to-miss stuff. But his God is not in it. Rather Elijah’s God is in the nothingness of sheer silence. (What Whittier calls the ‘still small voice of calm’). God is in the nothing.
If God is all around, in the everything, miracle peeping out from behind miracle, then God is also in the nothing. Which is very Jewish. Which is very Jesus. Which means, when theology and prayer moves to ethics and practice, it is those who are accounted as nothing, expendable refuse in the advance of power and privilege, who really do matter.
There was an old guy who got a big kick out of watching children’s sport. On Saturday mornings he would troop off and line the fields with the other parents and grandparents and watch and encourage and cheer. He was a fan of amateurs, playing with their hearts, giving their all. The All Blacks could have been scheduled to play at Eden Park but if there was a choice, you’d find him at Keith Hay Park watching the Owairaka Midgets C-grade team.
There are some people who are interested in why good things happen to bad people, some interested in why bad things happen to good people, and some interested in good things and bad things per se. But this guy he was interested in why and how little miracles happen for ordinary people.
When a nothing team full of nothing kids from a nothing club rises us up with nothing to lose against some upmarket, well-financed outfit with designer label uniforms, and play and try and play and try, with heart and guts and mud galore, and manage or not to bring home the trophy – well, that just did his heart good.
“Murphy’s Law does not always hold,” he’d say. “Every once in a while, the fundamental laws of the universe seem to be momentarily suspended, and not only does everything go right, nothing seems to be able to keep it from going right. It’s not always the best shot, or the best player, or the best skilled team that win ball games.”
Ever drop a glass when you are washing the dishes and have it bounce three times and not even chip? Ever come out after work to find your lights have been on all day and your battery’s dead but friendly passer-by has seen your predicament and is all lined up with jumper-leads and know-how ready to help? Ever pull that drawer in your desk that has a ten-year accumulation of junk in it – pull it too far and too fast – and just as its about to spew its contents all over the room you get a knee under it and stagger back hopping on one foot doing a balancing act like the great trapeze artist you’re not and you don’t lose it? A near-miss at an intersection; the glass of knocked-over milk that spreads across the table but not onto the floor; the lump that turned out to be benign; picking the right lane for once in a traffic jam; opening the door of your car with a coat hanger though the window crack on your first try. And on and on and on and on.
When little miracles occur for ordinary people, day by ordinary day. When not only did the worst not happen, but maybe nothing much happened at all, or some small piece fell neatly into place. The grace of what-might-have-been-but-wasn’t, and it was good get off scot-free for once. Or the bliss of just having that day, when nothing special happened, but life just worked.
Part of having faith is pausing to pay heed to and give thanks for little miracles:
The little miracle of food. Receiving it, giving it.
The little miracle of overcoming your fear and offering your lunch.
The little miracle of trusting that a child holds the answer to a multitude’s need.
The little miracle of seeing with the heart, when seeing with the eyes doesn’t tell all the truth.
The little miracle of hearing God not in loud powerful authoritative tones but in the stillness, smallness, and profoundness of sheer nothing.
The little miracle of surviving the day, of seeing some good happen, of enduring some bad, and still being able to give thanks at the meal table that evening.
The little miracle that happens even to us, even on our worst days, when chance gives us a break, the sun smiles, our fears are parked out of sight, we greet the world with love, kindness and optimism, and we look down and find a hand holding our own.