John 6:1-21, 10th after Pentecost, Kristin Philipson
A week ago today a young man made his way to a lively and family-friendly high street on a beautiful summer evening, took a loaded handgun out of the bag he was carrying and began to shoot at people. Danforth Avenue is within walking distance of Rosedale United Church and the neighborhoods that are adjacent to it are home to a number of our members. Some of our members used to live there and many of us visit frequently to shop or eat or see concerts or catch up with friends. Last Sunday night was warm and in Toronto that meant whole families were still out reveling in the fact that they didn’t need to be bundled up inside at 10pm, which is when the gunman began his spree. In total thirteen people were injured and three people (including the gunman) lost their lives.
Like most people in the city I’ve spent this week asking the kinds of questions one asks when tragedy strikes: What led to this situation? What could have been done to prevent it? How can we make sure such violence never occurs again? But I’ve also asked myself this question: “What is it that faith can offer people…in a situation like this?” That’s the question Matt Galloway asked one faith leader who works on the Danforth when he interviewed her on the CBC Radio’s Metro Morning, and it’s the same question we asked standing in the office here at Rosedale United Church last Monday morning. What could we do, the “we” being this church community and the “what” being our community’s response to the fact that a young man could become so unhinged and unbalanced as to acquire a handgun and shoot at people on a busy street, close to where many of us live? As a church community, what could we do to comfort the victims of gun violence and to prevent future loss of life?
The tricky part about crafting a Christian response to a tragic situation is isolating exactly what difference our faith makes. There is nothing uniquely Christian, for example, about the pursuit of social reform; for as long as there have been human civilizations there have been people who have sought to make human society as safe and as healthy as possible, and for as many people as possible. Western philosophy credits Socrates with first linking the good life to the pursuit of virtue or morality. So it’s not like faith communities are adding anything new to the conversation by dint of our wanting to make the world a better place; lots of people in Toronto are talking about how to make our city safe and our people more mentally healthy – and their conversations are not necessarily inspired by their religion. So what exactly can the Christian faith offer to people in a situation like this; what exactly does our faith add to the conversation?
It seemed that everyday, everywhere Jesus went with his disciples they were met with some kind of social crisis, situation after situation; it was relentless. There were people who were desperately lonely, children sick and close to death, a man who had been ill for 38 years who was still no closer to finding healing. Aware that the disciples were becoming overwhelmed by it all, Jesus thought he would give them a little break, and so they traveled across to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee, but a crowd of people followed them. So Jesus led them all a little bit farther up the mountainside, into the remoteness of the wilderness where there would be nothing and no one, but just as they were sitting down and making themselves comfortable, Jesus looked up to see the great crowd coming toward them. Perhaps they could have retreated even farther into the wilderness, but I think Jesus realized an opportunity was at hand and he had in mind what he was going to do” (Jn 6:6). To confront the crowd’s need, Jesus reasoned, especially with what little they had, would give the disciples an opportunity to answer an important question: In those times of crisis, when people are in great need of help, what exactly is it that you – as a disciple – can offer to them? When you have nothing else at your disposal, what exactly do you bring to a crowd of needy people as person of biblical faith?
“Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” Jesus asks the disciples and their eyes widened at the absurdity of the question (Jn 6:5). Where shall we buy bread? We’re out in the middle of nowhere! Not only that, but the crowd looked to be numbered in the thousands. “Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” Philip exclaims (Jn 6:7). What are they, philanthropists? Andrew points to a little boy wandering among the crowd trying to sell a few loaves of bread and some fish that he’s brought along with him. “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish,” Andrew says, “but how far will they go among so many?” What exactly is Jesus expecting them to do as disciples, with this crowd of needy people? Eliminate the crisis with a snap of their fingers? What are they, miracle workers? Is this the expectation of a disciple?
I remember being in my interviews to become a candidate for ordination in the United Church of Canada and being grilled by one of the members of my Education and Students Committee. “Why exactly are you going into ministry,” I can remember him asking me. “You say you like working with children and teenagers and running groups for people of all ages – why don’t you go into teaching?” he said. “Well, I’ve always wanted to include advocating for social justice as a part of my work,” I explained. “So go into social work,” he countered. “But I want to work with people who are sick and dying,” I said, “I want to be right there helping people make meaning out of the most trying situations in life,” I said. “So go into medicine;” he wouldn’t let up. At the time I thought this committee member was being a little pushy and mean; I left most of our meetings feeling like he was trying to dissuade me from going into ministry. But I can see now that he was actually trying to help. He was forcing me to articulate the difference my Christian faith made. He was forcing me to distinguish myself as a disciple. Anyone can help people but Christians bring Jesus and God into our response to human need. Why?
When we are not all of us doctors, or teachers or politicians; when we are not all of us social workers, or psychologists or therapists; when we can’t purchase enough to give everyone even a tiny bite of what they need; when we are not the miracle workers a given crisis needs – what exactly do we contribute as people of faith? When we count up all that we have on hand to find we’ve got just five small barley loaves and two small fish and yet there are thousands upon thousands of hungry people in the crowd, what do we bring to the table as people of Christian faith?
I went to the Interfaith vigil that was held on the Danforth on Wednesday night to mourn each of the victims killed in the shooting last Sunday and to grieve with a neighbourhood that no longer counts violence as the evil out there but the reality right in their midst. I wanted to feel the difference faith makes, what this vigil offered to crowd that had followed us here. I had shown up totally empty handed but as I walked with the crowd toward the fountain I passed a man and a woman who were handing out tea lights in plastic cups. It’s not like we needed the light on such a bright and sunny evening, but the candles were a statement in contrast to a different kind of dark. What words would be spoken on such an occasion? Right behind where I was walking a group of people sang in harmony: Peace, Salam, Shalom.
When I think about what the Christian faith has to offer in times of crisis and sorrow, I think its most profound message has to do with suffering. “It’s a real struggle,” Matt Galloway noted during his interview with the faith leader from the Danforth; “It’s a real struggle for a lot of people though, in a moment like this,” he said, “I mean, this is the kind of thing – as the phrase goes – that tests your faith” he said. What he means is that many people would look at what took place last week on the Danforth or they try to process the fact that (back in June) stray bullets hit two little girls while they were simply playing at the playground and they look back and try to make sense of a man ramming a van into innocent pedestrians and they take these crises and this sorrow and all the instances of violence in our city as a sure sign of God’s absence; it’s the fact of human suffering they say; God can’t possibly be present in suffering. And this is precisely where disciples of Christ can jump in to add something to the conversation, because a person who thinks that God only comes around when times are good hasn’t met the God of the Bible. Where did anyone ever get the idea that God and suffering don’t mix?
“I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt,” God says to Moses. “I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering…” (Ex 3:7). “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord,” the Psalmist calls out; “O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ear be attentive to my cry for mercy” the psalmist prays (Ps 130:1-2). Why utter such words if you’re not confident in a God who understands suffering intimately? What people of faith bring to the table after any tragedy is our willingness to celebrate God’s presence, to proclaim our faith: that there is no situation God’s love cannot redeem and no suffering God cannot overcome.
As Christians it is our conviction that in Jesus God took on flesh and bone; Jesus is God incarnate – God in human form. So it stands to reason then that whatever Jesus experienced during his life, God experienced too – the warmth of friendship, the decadence of wine, the peace and quiet of a sunrise, the comfort of a good hug, the softness of holding hands – but in Jesus God also lived through abandonment and betrayal, fear and anxiety, pain and sorrow, hurt and suffering – in Jesus’ human life and his in human death we believe that God was fully with Jesus. God suffered, but God was not vanquished or overcome by suffering. God raised Jesus to new life as a statement about suffering: “that in all things God works for the good…” (Rom 8:28). In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone.
“When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, ‘Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?’”(Jn 6:5). If this was what was required of a disciple then Philip may as well have quit right then and there; “Eight months’ wages would not buy bread for each one to have a bite,” he said (Jn 6:7). The others looked around desperately. The crowd was so big and they were so few. What could they possibly bring to the table? “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish,” Andrew said, “but how far will they go among so many?” (Jn 6:9). “Have the people sit down,” Jesus said. “[He] then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish” (Jn 6:10-11). I think people of faith get tripped up because we think we have to be God during times of crisis, meeting everybody’s needs, curing society of all of its ills. But it’s important to remember that as disciples we’re not called to be God, but rather to celebrate the fact of God’s presence in all of life. By giving thanks to God, Jesus showed what he believed: that God was there, right in the middle of that hungry crowd. He took what he had, gave thanks, and shared it among those in need. He celebrated God’s presence in the midst of suffering as the One who weaves out of terrible happenings wonders of goodness and grace. Jesus celebrates God’s presence and that, it turns out, is what we, as disciples, are called to do. And they “filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten” (Jn 6:13).