|Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
July 29, 2018
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 12
More Than We Can Imagine
When I last spoke to you a couple of weeks ago, I shared with you the best piece of advice I’ve ever received, something I was told before I got married that has stuck with me ever since. You can be right, or you can be in relationship. It’s a profound piece of wisdom and not only for married people. All of us need to remember that when we let our need to be right, to win, to be the victor in every conversation or conflict, we can weaken the threads of our relationships. You can be right, or you can be in relationship.
Well today, I want to share my second favorite piece of advice, a witty piece of wisdom I’ve always loved from George Bernard Shaw: “People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.” As Shaw knew, there’s nothing more deflating or spirit-killing than to be told why your idea won’t work, why you are destined to fail, before you’ve even tried it. Negativity can make even modest challenges seem impossible, because they sap your energy and shrink your imagination. I think we’ve all been there: faced with a challenge, we float an idea, a solution, and the first thing we hear back is, “No, that won’t work,” usually followed by those infamous words, “We tried that once…”
I suppose we can take some small comfort from knowing that we aren’t the first ones to face negativity; cynicism and skepticism have been around exactly as long as people have proposed new ideas or suggested different ways of seeing things. That’s exactly what’s going on in the story from Second Kings that we heard [this morning], in which the wonder-working prophet Elisha gives instructions to his servant for how to feed a hungry crowd. But the servant knows – he absolutely knows! – that Elisha’s idea won’t work. “How can I set this before a hundred people?” he asks. Wouldn’t it be better to not do anything rather than try something I know won’t work?
It’s pretty much the same situation in our gospel lesson. Thousands of people have followed Jesus away from town to hear him teach and see him heal, but they don’t seem to have remembered to pack snacks. I know every parent understands the sense of desperation the disciples felt when they realized they left the snacks back on the kitchen counter – there is nothing worse than hangry kids in the backseat, when you know you won’t be home for another few hours. Well, Jesus sizes up the situation asks his disciple Philip a sort of trick question: “Where are we going to buy bread for all these people?” He knows how to solve this problem, but he wants to hear what the disciples think: do they think it’s possible? How big are their imaginations? But all they can see is the enormity, the impossibility of the challenge.
I have a hunch that those disciples didn’t think of themselves as negative or pessimistic people. They probably thought they were just being realistic. After all, math is math, and you can’t feed people with what you don’t have. But this isn’t a story about logical outcomes, this is a story about Jesus, and Jesus sees possibilities that are outside the tame boundaries of “realistic.” So, he directs the people to sit down, and after giving thanks to God for the meager amount they have, he starts passing it out. And we know where the story goes from there, with everyone eating “as much as they wanted,” and there even being leftovers.
Like I said, “People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it,” and when it comes to Jesus, there is no such thing as an impossible situation. His imagination isn’t limited by the sort of cynicism that masquerades as practicality that so often causes us to step away from challenges rather than toward them. That’s the thing about this Lord we follow. He can always imagine something different, something better, something grander than we can. He doesn’t know anything about the space between a rock and a hard place, let along how to get stuck there. As the writer of Ephesians puts it, “[Glory] to him who… is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” While we are busily talking ourselves out of even bothering with a solution, for certainty that it won’t work, Jesus is begging us to offer something, anything, even if it’s the equivalent of a few loaves and fish, because he knows how to accomplish what we can’t even imagine.
So, what does this mean for us? What does it mean to follow such a Lord? After all, the 5,000 may have been fed that day, but the world remains full of stubborn and solution-resistant problems. So, what are we as Jesus’ disciples 2,000 years later supposed to do?
Well, first, we must be people of hope. For Christians, hope is not just something we feel when our circumstances are favorable, it is what we uniquely have to offer the world. Recently, a close friend of the late, great Dorothy Day was asked what she might say about the times we’re now living in. Dorothy Day, if you don’t know, was the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and a tireless champion of people suffering on the margins of our society. She’s currently on the fast track for canonization by the Roman Catholic Church, because her witness was so obviously godly. Well, this friend of Day’s said, “she’d be upset by things today, but she would say we have a duty to hope.” (repeat) And the reason we must hope is that hoping is how we remember that God is able to do more than we can ask or imagine. Hope is how we connect with what we can’t see or comprehend right now. Hope is how we remember that, even though we don’t know how, even though we can’t imagine the solution yet, God desires the good outcome even more than we do, and what God desires, God makes real.
The second thing we must do, even as we hope and believe in a Lord who is able to do more than we can fathom, is to give. We must never stop giving what we have to Christ, giving from the best of who we are and what we have and not just what’s left over after we’ve done everything else we want. We must be the little boy with the loaves and fish, sharing what we have with Jesus…even if it seems like it is woefully inadequate for the size of the situation or the complexity of the challenge. Because we don’t get to know what he will do with what we give. Remember, he is able to do more than we can ask or imagine, which means our giving can be the starting place for miracles.
A few years ago, a friend of mine in Rhode Island told me about his experience volunteering with something called Mobile Loaves and Fishes, which is basically a large food truck that goes out every week to take meals and clothing to the homeless of Providence. Dennis and a team of volunteers made a couple hundred sandwiches, packed up all sorts of other kinds of food, and then drove downtown to hand it all out near the bus station. When they arrived, there were already 100 people lined up and waiting for them. It only took a few minutes before he and his team realized there wouldn’t be enough food for everyone. If you’re expecting me to tell you that miraculously, they found enough food to give to everyone, well, I’m sorry to disappoint. Instead, a different sort of miracle happened. Here’s how my friend Dennis put it.
“Eventually, we ran out of food. Everything! The stainless-steel shelves of the truck were shining in the sun, [but] there were more people who hadn’t received food. I was standing beside the truck looking into the empty shelves, just to the right of this line and within one foot of an elderly gentleman. Our eyes connected and he said, ‘It’s all gone, huh?’ I said, ‘Yes, we gave everything away… everything.’ I wanted so much to not be making eye contact with him anymore, (to be beamed somewhere else). It was obvious that the clothes he was wearing hadn’t been washed lately nor had he, and his eyes and face looked worn. As he rested his hand on my shoulder he said, ‘It’s ok, you did the best you could.’
I actually felt the blood drain from my knees. I felt like I wanted to drop to the ground and sob. But instead, I looked at him, tried to wipe away the tears and said, ‘We’ll be back. We’ll bring more.’ We then spoke for awhile about where he stays, the people he lives with, and how grateful he is that he doesn’t drink anymore. I shared with him that I have been sober for 21 years…one day at a time. Then an AA saying went through my mind again, ‘There but for the grace of God, go I.’”
I am convinced that what happened with Dennis was a miracle. Yes, he was passing out hundreds of pre-made sandwiches, rather than a few loaves and fish, and yes, at the end of the day, there were some left without food. But weren’t there hungry people the day after Jesus fed the 5,000, and does that make it any less of a miracle—that hunger continues to exist? Or does it just give us an easy excuse not to try at all?
I believe miracles happen in our world any time a person reaches beyond excuses and fear and complacency to help someone else. That is where miracles start. When we stop believing the voices around and within us telling us why we shouldn’t, why it’s impossible, why what we have to offer is not enough. Miracles happen when we hope and give and trust in Jesus, because it’s then we discover his power to do things we couldn’t have even imagined before.
People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it. It’s not just good advice; it is a part of our call as Christians, because our God can take what seems small and make it more than enough. So, glory to him whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.
 Twitter, James Martin, SJ.