WIT welcomes Rev. Alexis James Waggoner, Minister of Leadership and Congregational Development at the Church of the Village, UMC, in New York City as a guest poster.
What if the miracle from the story where Jesus feeds five thousand people isn’t that thousands of people are fed, but that Jesus blesses what was already there? Many folks, whether Christian or not, are familiar with this story. In its telling and re-tellings it has the flashiness we’ve come to expect from so-called miracles. A sort of imagined lightning bolt from heaven where — BAM!! — a handful of food is multiplied millions of times over.
But the telling of this story is quite unassuming. We don’t get the paradigm-shifting, table-turning, name-calling Jesus here. At least not overtly. But he also doesn’t go for what the disciples propose, which is to send folks away to get their own food. This option certainly made logical and cultural sense against their backdrop of scarcity, of people fending for themselves. An environment where the thousands who came to hear Jesus would have been used to those with power and control taking the few resources that were there, and either hoarding for themselves or only sharing with a a select few.
Rather than send people away to fend for themselves, or only sharing the meager meal of bread and fish with a couple friends, Jesus blesses what is there and in doing so implicitly states his belief that what is here is enough.
Is this the so-called miracle?
Not a lightning-bolt-from-heaven kind of miracle. But rather: belief as miracle. A belief in God’s abundance that roots in and is so strong that others are compelled toward this belief — to not just believe, but to act, and to share to the point where the belief is brought to fruition, in a self-fulfilling cycle.
Giving this text real meaning for real people requires us to reframe what is often meant by “miracle.” An embodied reading requires us not to spirituallize, not to relegate what is happening to the realm of the magical or otherworldly. Not that there aren’t pieces we can’t understand, or a spiritual presence at work. But if we only go there, that has a tendency to become the focus.
It is then easier to move away from the reality that there are real people in real need who are aching to have those needs met. A reading that honors the work of Jesus prioritizes the physical. A reading that honors the work of Jesus stays with someone in their need, does not send them away, blesses what they have, and believes that “enough” is possible. This is the miracle.
And yet, it is not just about the “someone,” it is communal. We act in concert with God’s activity in the world. We act in concert with each other. If we each take what we have, offer it to God, and share with those around us, we demonstrate our miracle of belief in the power of us all coming together.
This sounds miraculous to me, right now. I have not been believing lately that it’s possible to bless what I have to the point of sharing it in a way that will make a measurable difference. What we have does not feel bless-able. What we have is a global pandemic. We have police murder and brutality. We have a childcare crisis, an economic crisis, a whole host of other crises. I’m pretty sure I don’t want to bless those things.
So we need to be clear on what this blessing-to-action, and belief-as-miracle is not. Miraculous belief is not a rosy, unfounded belief, blind to reality. It’s not magical thinking: that if we only believe hard enough the “right” thing will happen. (And thus, if something “bad” happens, we must not have done or said or believed the “right” thing.) And it’s not a belief that our suffering is blessed by God.
How then can we acknowledge and look into the suffering enough to see where the very real needs are? To see where we can act from miraculous belief in a way that makes transformation possible?
What helped connect these things was a rocket launch. This may seem a bit incongruous but as I watched the launch of the Mars Rover a couple weeks ago, some pieces clicked into place. I was touched by the stories shared of so many people coming together to bring the Rover from conception to the launch pad, and all during the middle of COVID.
I was moved by what it took to get it from belief to action.
As I listened to the engineers and managers and scientists tell the story of this accomplishment, I started to feel the miracle of belief. As I thought about how to root my belief so strongly inside of me that it feels miraculous, I realized I DO have templates for this. Through inspiring stories like the Mars rover. Through watching people around me dig their heels in and change the world. Through seeing my congregation rise up and support each other, creating better days ahead by believing it is possible.
If your belief does not feel miraculous right now, that’s ok. If it feels overwhelming to look through suffering to find transformative action, that’s ok. If you feel like you are hard pressed to think of stories that move from belief to action, that’s ok.
Remember — Jesus blessed what was already there, what was in front of him, miraculously believing it would lead to collective transformative action. Not believing he would go it alone, but believing others would come alongside him to share, and believe, and continue the miracle. The beautiful thing is, the crowd that followed Jesus wasn’t sent off to fend for themselves. They were able to draw strength from the miraculous belief-transformed-into-action as they witnessed and accompanied those around them. And that’s what we all are, what we can continue to be for each other.
Rev. Alexis James Waggoner is the Minister of Leadership and Congregational Development at the Church of the Village, UMC, in New York City. The Church of the Village is a queer-friendly, progressive, radically inclusive, and anti-racist expression of God’s love and grace. You can join their virtual service at 10:30am ET every Sunday.