Link to Lectionary Text: http://www.lectionarypage.net/YearB_RCL/Pentecost/BProp12_RCL.html
Link to Mary Oliver poem, “Maybe”: https://vimeo.com/58778481
It is the 21st century
and we have just discovered planet 452b
that may be an earth-double.
We see these stories
about Elisha and Jesus differently,
and ask different questions of these stories,
than those who first heard them.
Actually, these stories
were not even intended for us –
strangers on another continent 2000 years away –
but we shouldn’t get our nose bent out of shape about that.
2 Kings reports four miracles
performed by Elisha
in order to demonstrate
that he is an appropriate successor
to the prophet Elijah.
John attributes miracles to Jesus
that were performed by Elijah and Elisha
in order to demonstrate
that Jesus is an appropriate successor
to the prophets Moses, Elijah, and Elisha.
In each of John’s miracles
Jesus one-ups his predecessors.
For the author of John’s gospel
the point of this story is not
a 21st century amazement that such
supernatural things could happen,
it is that Jesus’ Wow-factor
is bigger and better than
Elijah’s and Elisha’s Wow-factors.
Here’s what I mean.
Elijah and Elisha are walking along
followed by a bevy of lesser prophets –
disciples so to speak –
when they come to the river.
Without skipping a beat
Elijah smacks the water with his robe
and the two of them walk through the water
on dry land – echoing back
to Moses at the Red Sea.
Jesus walks ON the water without the assist of a magic robe.
Elisha does three food tricks
during a time of terrible famine,
the final one we heard this morning:
he feeds a hundred men
with only a single tithe of food
that someone gives him –
in other words, just enough to feed one prophet.
And yet there is food left over.
Jesus feeds five thousand
with just enough to feed one family
and still there is plenty left over.
In a more innocent time
such miracle stories were used by preachers
and ordinary folks sharing their faith,
that Jesus is God
or the one an only and most powerful.
I can remember thinking that myself as a kid:
Wow, walking on water, that proves it!
Of course, I don’t remember any sermons
in which it was pointed out
that the other great prophets of Israel
did such miraculous things too.
And when I was a kid
no one ever told me about Milarepa,
the great Tibetan spiritual master,
who could fly.
Even in the 1950’s
it was still possible for Mainline Protestants,
to talk as if we believed the Bible was factual
and word-for-word literal,
even though our clergy were not taught
that way of thinking in our seminaries.
We talked that way,
at least with our kids,
and so we could think of the Bible
as a source of proof.
We didn’t have to prove Jesus walked on water;
it was self-evident
because the Bible said so.
But that was then
and this is now.
I suppose there are still churches
that speak of the Bible as proof of itself –
churches that try to hermetically seal
its members within a cocoon of thinking
so they are not troubled by obvious questions
raised by using the bible as proof of itself.
But we wandered away from that reservation
a very long time ago.
The authority of the Bible
is not that it is an unassailable,
of meticulously detailed factual events
recorded with the miraculous assistance of God.
In fact, that is not what the Bible is.
The authority of the Bible
is that we are the same community
in another time
and in another place
seeking, struggling with, and encountering
the presence of God in our midst.
We are the same community of the Bible
doing the same things
and seeking the same things
and struggling with the same things
as those people thousands of years ago.
The problem with the Bible
is not the Bible itself;
the problem is what we have laid on top it.
As the movement that survived Jesus
aged and developed and spread,
and then became the religion of an empire,
it sought to harmonize the Bible.
It had to harmonize in order to reinforce
all the beliefs we brought to the Bible
from far outside the Bible.
In other words, and for example,
five hundred years after Jesus,
Christians living in what is now Turkey
and who were citizens of Rome,
wanted to make Scripture
conform to their worldview
and religious assumptions.
They didn’t want the gospels, for example,
to contradict each other
or to be in tension with what they believed,
so they imposed upon them
an interpretive matrix
that mushed things together,
ignored internal contradictions,
and made things fit.
But they were not alone.
Christians in Ethiopia did that
and Christians in Egypt did that
and Christians in Spain did that
and Christians in Britain did that
and Christians on the Minnesota prairie did that.
We have rung the Bible
stained glass images,
maudlin, triumphant, and sentimental hymns
and every other kind of art
and cultural prism at our disposal
until the people,
and ideas of the Bible
look and sound like we want them to.
We did all of that
to harmonize the wildly divergent,
and truly eclectic stories of the Bible,
as if they formed a clear image
and delivered proof for our way of thinking.
But let’s think about this scenario.
Let’s say that everyone
who is a part of this congregation
has been keeping a spiritual journal
that describes our understanding
of what God is doing in our lives –
or in some cases,
complaining about what God
is not doing in our lives.
And let’s say that the people of St. Mark’s
have been doing that since 1883
when it was first formed.
And now let’s pretend that somehow,
all those scraps of paper
were brought together and typed into a computer.
What we would have
would be a wild mishmash of perspectives
flowing across a period of time
that witnessed the second Industrial Revolution;
two world wars and a cold war;
the discovery of electricity, flight, and
the splitting of atoms;
not to mention the rise and fall
The quality of writing,
the breadth and narrowness of perspective,
the quality of wisdom and insight,
the peculiarity and ordinariness of content
would be wildly different from person to person.
Just imagine the differences
we might find between
someone here born in 1920
someone else born in 1950
a teenager who would have been born in 2000,
and someone who is now a child of four?
What kind of violence
would we have to do the writing
that all those people
produced over all that time
in order to make it harmonious
point of view?
So one of the truly wonderful
and amazing things
that is happening these days,
is the effort to return to the Bible
without all of our harmonizing efforts.
We will never be able to strip away
everything we have laid over the Bible
and there is no pure and pristine original
to get back to and uncover.
For one thing,
the Bible was originally told not written
and when it did get written down,
it was done in disconnected scraps
by a variety of editors
over a great many years
So there is no original Bible
for us to uncover
and say, “Ah ha! Here it is!”
as if it were a buried pirate treasure.
But what is exciting,
and I am an enthusiastic cheerleader
for what is happening in our time,
is that we can begin to see
what we have laid on top of the Bible
and recognize it as our effort to harmonize
what was not originally in harmony.
We can learn a lot about ourselves
by seeing what we have shellacked the Bible with,
and we can learn more and more
as we keep digging.
So what that means
is you will not hear me say,
in sermons or in classes,
“Jesus walked on water
therefore Jesus is Lord.”
What I might say instead,
is that this story originates
in the Gospel of Mark
who uses it to proclaim Jesus as Lord
even over Nature,
and that John retells it
a generation and a half later to proclaim Jesus is greater
than Elijah and Elisha.
I will not proclaim that it really really happened,
but try to point out what the particular
editor or author hoped we would see.
And like Paul or Augustine or Dorothy Day,
I will converse and argue with the story
rather than simply believe
what Mark or John or the 2nd Council of Nicea
may have wanted us to believe.
But that still leaves the question
of whether or not
Elijah could part the waters of the Jordan;
and Elisha could feed a hundred men
with a portion allotted to one man;
and whether or not
Jesus could walk on water
or feed five thousand
with an amount normally shared
by a single family;
or for that matter whether or not
Milerapa could fly?
We all come to such a question
from a different place,
and I come to it from a place
I call experiential agnosticism:
if it is not in my experience
I am not investing myself in it –
I let it that dog sleep until my experience
requires me to make a decision.
In other words,
I have never seen evidence
that would suggest a human being
can walk on water or fly,
but I have seen some weird things take place
that weren’t supposed to be possible.
So I will leave open the possibility
for more weird things.
But mine is an agnostic point of view –
neither believing nor disbelieving
in a specific miracle story
until I have experience of such a thing myself.
Yet that does not diminish Jesus
in my way of thinking.
The power and sacredness
of his wisdom and teachings
were never dependent upon his walking on water –
and that is the point.
When the Bible has to be proof of itself,
then it has to be all factual
and absolutely the way it says it is
OR it is nothing at all.
Ironically, that is a logic
that condemns the Bible
to be nothing.
What we know,
from reading the Bible and living our lives,
is what Mary Oliver describes
in her luscious poem, “Maybe”:
the threshold — the uncles
the women walk away,
the young brother begins
to sharpen his knife…”
Jesus is different
and whether the threshold he crosses
is the Temple in Jerusalem
or the crack in our way of thinking
we could not seal,
he leaves a disturbance in his wake.
The harmonizing we have done to the Bible
puts us to sleep
and lulls us into forgetfulness
but the Jesus who survived our efforts
weeps through the overlay
and emerges from the fog, and he is
“…a thousand times more frightening
than the killer storm.”
The Jesus who gets under our skin
like a holy parasite
and worms his way through our thoughts
and into our heart
causing us to see the world differently
and do things that risk our own self-interest,
is far more powerful
than any old water-walker
or sweet-talker of storms.
I don’t have an experience of Jesus
but I sure to know about that other one,
the one who has gotten inside
even when I put up resistance,
and who scares the heck out of me.
That is the Jesus
you will hear me preaching about.