“Loaves and Fishes” The Rev. D. Wallace Adams-Riley
Loaves and fishes; the multiplication thereof. And Jesus’ walking on water.
What do these classic moments in the life of Jesus have to do with me, and with you, right here in the heart of Richmond, Virginia, in July 2012?
Before the Enlightenment, it was commonplace for Christians to make “the argument from miracles” (as it was called), as they made the case for their faith. The argument from miracles, for the existence of God, and the divinity of Jesus.
But then came the scientific method, historical-critical analysis, demythologizing, deconstruction, etc., etc.
For centuries, we have not taken miracle stories at face value.
And, indeed, sometimes we have trouble taking such stories seriously, and are, at moments, tempted to mockery.
A mockery captured classically in a line from the movie Jesus Christ Superstar, when Herod bids the “Superstar” to “walk across my swimming pool.”
But the light of rationalism can leave us dry as the desert.
The popular biblical scholar Marcus Borg warns of this, inviting us to claim, or reclaim, or claim more fully, a post-critical naiveté, a post-critical wonder.
As Borg explains, we all, as children, had a pre-critical sense of wonder; the wonder of the child, a wonder which naturally accepts at face value the stories that the adults offer, whether those stories be about Jesus, or about Santa Claus, for that matter.
However, that easy, pre-critical wonder, as delicious as it was, runs into trouble before we’re very old at all, as a child gradually begins to become aware of, and likely asks, tougher and tougher questions, about, well, the facts, ma’am, about accuracy, about reality, about what is true.
And, of course, this developing consciousness of the child is good, to say the least, is, indeed, a blessing beyond measure.
(And, in their heart of hearts, every parent knows this, even a parent exasperated with a child’s seemingly endless string of questions.)
Yes, of course, that instinct to question, to dissect, to analyze, to take apart, to second guess, is critical to healthy development.
True enough; true enough. And, let us pray, we never leave the questioning behind.
However, however, and this is a huge however, as Borg would help us reflect upon, of course, questions are not ends in themselves.
And a diet of skepticism will not feed our souls, nor will it save the world.
The challenge for the mature person of faith is to maintain the capacity for lively questioning, for healthy critical thinking, while, at the same time, remaining open to and cultivating what we can call a post-critical wonder.
In other words, while we can never go back to the naiveté, the wonder, we experienced as a small child, there is a wonder to be experienced and celebrated that comes only with maturity, a sense of humble and joyful openness to the mystery that is life, and the mystery of God.
But, again, that adult wonder, if we may call it that, is not to be taken for granted, and can be stifled, or smothered, by an overgrown, overheated,
you could say adolescent, infatuation with skepticism, with, well, our own imperfect questions.
As the poet Elizabeth Barret Browing would remind us,
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
And only he who sees takes off his shoes
The rest sit round it… and pluck blackberries.……
You could say that, in this morning’s gospel, Philip, Andrew, and the rest of the disciples, are indeed sitting round plucking blackberries, while Jesus recognizes that something of God, something mysterious, something beautiful, something grace-filled, is about to be unleashed, right then and there; something that those present will never forget, something that fills them with wonder.
I didn’t realize, till recently, that we don’t even know where the word “wonder” comes from.
I mean, our dictionaries will tell us that it came from a proto-German word wundran.
But, further back than that, we just don’t know.
And, really, isn’t that life imitating art.
It’s better that we don’t know where the word “wonder” came from.
We’re left wondering where “wonder” came from.
One of my favorite moments yesterday was taking a picture of Penelope, our youth minister, as she stood between, on her right, the newly consecrated Bishop Suffragan of Virginia, Susan Goff, and, on her left, the Bishop Suffragan of Connecticut, Laura Ahrens.
There stood three gifted, spirited women leaders of the church.
And, as they put their arms around each other for the picture, and smiled big smiles, Bishop Ahrens said, “girl band!”
I wonder what each of them will do, in the days and years ahead, as they offer their lives, in service.
In service to God, and to God’s world.
And I wonder what we will do, in the days, and the years ahead as we wonder together.
There will always be those voices that are skeptical, that second guess, “But where will we get bread for all these people?” “Five loaves and two fish, but what good will that do?”
“Women, but they can’t really provide the kind of leadership that is needed from a bishop, can they?”
Yes, there will, of course, always be questions, some of them good questions, some of them, well, not so good, and that’s as it should be.
Meanwhile, may God cultivate in us, in me and in you, a holy wonder, a wonder that wonders what dubious and holy thing God will do next.