Of Dogs and Coal Miners

Matt. 14:13-21
Pent. 11

This past week brought the good news of the rescue of the nine coal miners in West Virginia. The nation’s attention was fixed on that ordeal. The town and the nation prayed for the successful rescue of those men. When it was over, newspapers called it a “miracle.” On a lesser vein, my Black Lab, Ben, has sufficiently recovered from kidney failure for Dr. Garman, the vet, to report that all of the gases and blood counts were back to normal and that the kidneys were functioning normally. He has a slight discrepancy with his liver, but that is attributed to the medicine he has been taking. Many of you joined me in praying for Ben’s recover. Several speak of the recovery as a “miracle.” Were those two events miracles? As far as I am concerned, “yes.”

I want to speak briefly today about miracles. It is appropriate so to do because our Gospel passage for this Sunday in Pentecost tells the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. This miracle is recounted in all four Gospels. I am not going to try to deal with he issue of God’s providence, nor that of tragedy and suffering. I am simply positing the thesis that miracles offer life sustaining glimpses into God’s nature. They are, if you will, epiphanic.

Now let’s start with our own experience of sustenance and of miracles. To live we have to eat. Whether we have Swedish meatballs, Italian bread or something else, those foods offer physical sustenance. We also require emotional sustenance. Most likely you feed upon the love of a parent, mate or child. I thrive on the praise of a superior. Of course, there are unhealthy foods and unhealthy emotions. Some of us eat too much fat and some of us chew upon our lost opportunities and failures. For the most part, however, our emotional and physical hungers are met by healthy foods. Just as there is a physical hunger, so there is also a spiritual hunger. You and I are drawn to the force of life, the power and creativity which emanates from the depths of eternity. That force of life, that power and creativity sustains our sense of wonder and awe - our spiritual hunger.

Often it is the miracles in our lives which touch our deepest and most spiritual longings. Most of us live cluttered lives of constant interaction with people, places and things. There is fatigue, despair, challenges and surprises. Into the midst of all that a miracle occasionally falls. What was your miracle? Was it unearned love, a second chance, forgiveness or reconciliation? Forty- three years ago Faye agreed to marry me. Doctors said she could not conceive. In 1972 she gave birth to our son, Christopher. We related fully to the story of Abraham and Sarah. Other miracles occurred: acceptance into the priesthood after thirty years in the secular world, the smile of a formerly comatose patient in the hospital. In each case a miracle occurred at that juncture between the possible and the impossible, at that point between the rational and irrational. Could we not place Ben’s turn around and the survival of the miners at such a point?

Now look at the story of the feeding of the 5000. Jesus was an acknowledged preacher, teacher and healer. One day as it was getting late, a crowd gathered and it looked as though they would go away hungry. The disciples, His fellowship committee, suggested that the people be dismissed so that they could go into the villages and countryside and buy food. Jesus replied, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” “But all we got is five loaves and two fish!” they replied. Jesus blessed the bread and fish, broke them and gave them to he disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowd. All ate and were filled. Twelve baskets of food were left over. 5000 men were fed, along with the women and children. What a story!

So what happened here? A miracle is generally thought of as something which violates the laws of nature or of physical science. It is doing the impossible, doing the improbable, an event which defies the laws of logic.

Scholars take four different paths to explaining the miracle of the loaves and fishes. 1) 19th century rationalists said that what really happened was the Jesus shared his food with his disciples. The crowd followed the example of Jesus and the disciples. They in turned shared the food they themselves had brought a long, an apple, a hunk of bread, a flagon of wine. Instant pot luck! 2) Other scholars say that this was a liturgical, or ritualistic, symbolic meal. They note the phraseology: he took, blessed, broke and gave. This meal re-enacted the manna in the wilderness. 3) For centuries the Church argued that there are various kinds of laws, moral, civil, natural, and revealed. These laws are not seen as contradicting one another, but at times can seem to be in conflict. 4) Finally there are those of us who say that our knowledge and perceptions are limited and that all knowledge is filtered through perspective and assumptions. We don’t know what really happened. We need to ask, “what is the point, or significance, of the story?” This is my position.

What we do know is that Jesus was seen as an extraordinary person. His actions embodied what he preached. He conveyed the compassion, love and power of God. What He did and said nourished the minds, souls, spirits and therefore the bodies, of those who came to Him. In Jesus men and women discovered the presence of God in their lives. His very life stood in the present kingdom and at the same time stepped into the coming kingdom of Heaven. He could break conventional practices and ways of thought and yet at the same time embody the hopes and dreams of the past and of the prophets. Like Jesus Himself, some of his actions were powerful and extraordinary. The only term for those actions is the word, “miracle.”

These actions, these events, like Jesus, stand at that point between denial and affirmation, despair and hope, nothingness and being. A miracle is the entrance to meaning and life. It is a revelation, an epiphany. It is a showing forth of meaning, purpose and life where before there was scant meaning, randomness, chaos and confusion. A miracle takes its meaning from Jesus Christ Himself; and at the same time opens up the meaning of Jesus Christ. A miracle stands at the point between the impossible and the possible, the improbable and the certain, physical death and eternal life. Christ gave meaning to His actions, and His actions were part of the vitality and active process which flows from the creative power and love of God.

Just as people two thousand years ago experienced real miracles, discovering glimpses of other dimensions in their lives, and of God Himself, so you and I are fed by the miracles in our natural and spiritual lives. The recovery of Ben reminds me of the generosity of the family who gave him to me, of his companionship during the times of death and loss in our family. The saving of the miners reminds us of the power of hope and the wisdom of precautionary laws (the state mandated rescue drill). God gives us reason and wisdom to use as part of his creation and creative power.

Perhaps you noted in the miracle story, as I did, that it is not all about receiving. It is about giving. Jesus said, “You give them something to eat.” The disciples conveyed the miracle. They participated in the symbolic and physical acts. They were the extension of Christ’s person and His physical acts. They became “the body of Christ.” What struck me about Ben’s recovery, is not the reversal and remission, it is the compassion and honest love of the parishioners. His health was important to many of you because you have been shaped by the sacraments and the love of God to be compassionate and generous. We were also blessed to have a compassionate vet. In a similar vein, was there not a miracle in the mining town that they all pulled together and prayed together? Grandstanding took a back seat to genuine compassion and caring not only for the miners but for their families. Was it not hope and faith that kept the workers going and prompted them to stay at it, to take risks, and to use their God given abilities to the fullest? In the tragedy of 911 we saw the same compassion and power given by people ready to sacrifice because of a sense of value and loyalty, because “that is what one does.” The miracle in New York was the outpouring of genuine compassion. It showed that God is present even in tragedy and grief through redemptive hope, recreative action and spiritual empowerment. In the rescue of the miners it was as though this time we were given a break. Tragedy was not to be our steady diet. We were blessed to be reminded that compassion and giving, hope and inspiration, loyalty and perseverance are present in the body of Christ as men and women of good will seek to embrace life and to serve others.

As confessing Christians, as disciples, as part of the body of Christ, through the miracle of our faith, our words, our lives and our own actions can point to denial or affirmation, physical death or eternal life, rejection or acceptance, impossibility or possibility, nothingness or being, despair or hope. It is through the miracle of our faith, individually and corporately, that we too can offer nourishing glimpses, or small revelations, of the nature of God’s love and creative power when we open our hearts and minds, as we do in the sacrament of the Eucharist, to His power and to His love. Amen.