Crazy Math

Sabbath Day Thoughts — John 6:1-14

We are well acquainted with miracle stories.

A thirty-five-year-old nun, serving as the principal of a girl’s school in Calcutta, heard Jesus’ “call within her calling:” to abandon her teaching and go forth into the city’s slums to tend the poorest and sickest of people. She completed a six-month course in basic medical care, traded her nun’s habit for a sari, and left her convent behind so that she could be the hands and feet of Jesus for those whom she saw were unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. She tended lepers dying in the street, fed maimed children who begged for a living, and cared for women forced into lives of prostitution. All that need of the streets of Calcutta plus one poorly trained nun should have been a formula for failure. Yet by some crazy cosmic math, two years later Sister Mary Teresa was joined by twelve like-minded nuns and together they launched the Missionaries of Charity. Today, there are 5, 167 sisters of the Missionaries of Charity, serving the poorest of the poor in 758 communities in 139 countries.

In 1990, Tom Logan was visiting Dr. John Knowle’s, a missionary doctor at the Ekwendeni Hospital in Malawi. The two men came across the pump and raw materials to build a shallow well, delivered by the Malawi government years before but never installed. Knowing that waterborne disease from foul, open, community water sources was the leading cause of death for Malawi’s young children, the two men were shocked and angered. “Why don’t you install it?” Logan wanted to know. Dr. Knowles responded, “Why don’t you install it, Tom?” And so was launched the shallow well program of the Marion Medical Mission. That first year, Logan installed thirteen wells. Marion Medical Mission now installs more than 3,000 wells each year in partnership with local villages and leaders. Thirty years after Tom’s bold question, “Why don’t you install it?”, four million people in Malawi, Tanzania, and Zambia now have safe, clean drinking water, thanks to the shallow well program.

Millard and Linda Fuller were self-made millionaires before they were thirty. Instead of retiring and living large, the Fullers sold most of their possessions and moved to Koinonia Farm, the Christian community founded by pastor and Bible scholar Clarence Jordan. Aware of the need for adequate housing for the poor of rural Georgia, the Fullers teamed with Jordan to develop the concept of “partnership housing.” Those in need would work side-by-side with volunteers to build decent, affordable homes. The first partnership home built was for Beau and Emma, who lived with their five children in an unpainted, uninsulated shack without any plumbing. Two years later in 1976, the Fullers founded Habitat for Humanity, International, which now works in all fifty states and more than seventy countries. Habitat has helped more than thirty-five million people achieve their dream of “safe, decent, and affordable shelter.”

We are well-acquainted with miracle stories. Today’s reading may be the best-known miracle story of all. The feeding of the 5,000 is told by all four gospel writers. Today we get to hear it from John’s perspective. Jesus had been teaching his disciples on the hillside above the Sea of Galilee when he looked up to see a huge crowd on the move. They were in need of his wise words and healing touch. It was also late in the day, and there were no resources at hand to meet their physical hunger.

To test his friends, Jesus asked how they could feed the multitude. Philip surveyed the throng and knew that their need for bread far exceeded the financial resources they had on hand. Andrew did some reconnaissance and came up with five small loaves of barley bread and two little dried fish—resources that weren’t even his to share. The other ten disciples were silent, clearly thinking that they were powerless in the face of such need—there was nothing that they could do about it. The twelve disciples likely expected that would be the end of the discussion.

Jesus confounded those expectations. He took their meager provisions, blessed them, and shared them as if it were Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma’s house with all the fixings. Then, by some crazy and holy math, five loaves plus two fish equaled enough to feed 5,000 men and their families, with leftovers to spare. That vast, hungry crowd was miraculously fed in body, mind, and spirit. Praise the Lord!

Well-acquainted as we are with miracle stories. We are also familiar with times when we have felt like we needed a personal miracle, like when we lost our job, like when our marriage was on the rocks, like when the doctor gave us that scary diagnosis, or like when we were lost in grief. Given the history and crazy math behind faithful people who accomplished extraordinary things with the Lord’s help, we might think that when life gets overwhelming, or crisis strikes, or the rug is pulled out from beneath our feet, we would have faith and trust that the Lord will make a way and see us through. But we can tend to be a little like the disciples. Like Philip, we can only see all the ways that we are woefully inadequate to meet the moment. Like Andrew, we hope someone else can provide what is needed to fix our problem. Like the other ten disciples, we shake our heads, we throw up our hands, and think it is hopeless. The need overwhelms us. We want to give up. We want to run away. We want to crawl into bed, pull up the covers, and retreat into denial. There may be miracles out there, but we cannot imagine that any amount of multiplication or distribution could meet our need. We say, “Jesus, where is my miracle? Jesus, where are my loaves and fish? Jesus, where are my leftovers to spare?”

Miracles often begin with the smallest of faithful acts. A thirty-five-year-old nun with inadequate training decides to go out and help just one leper, one child, one woman, one person at a time. Tom Logan and his friends install a long-forgotten shallow well. The Fullers help their impoverished neighbors build a concrete block house with indoor plumbing. Jesus says grace—he blesses five barley loaves—the bread of the poor. He prays over two salty, dried fish. It starts small. It starts with just one simple faithful act. We can do that. We can launch our hopeful intent into that impossible void. We can place our little bit into the hands of Jesus. We can trust that some crazy math can begin to unfold. Somehow, with the Lord’s help, we find that we have what is needed to face the impossible. Really and truly, it is a miracle.

We know that’s true because there are miracles who walk among us, people who have defied and confounded every expectation. The widow, who wakes each morning to an empty house and the pall of grief, yet finds the courage to set that aside, smile, care for her family, and help her neighbor, she is a miracle. She and Jesus are doing some crazy math. The youth who rises above the dysfunction and alcoholism of his parents to get an education and forge a professional identity, he is a miracle. He and Jesus are doing some crazy math. The impoverished neighbor who finds ways to share with others and be generous with family and still put a little something in the offering plate each Sunday, they are a miracle. They are doing some crazy math with Jesus. Thank God, everywhere we look, miracles of multiplication and blessing and abundance are unfolding if we will only have eyes to see.

So maybe this week, in that best-known of Jesus’ miracles, and in the stories of Teresa and Tom and Millard and Linda, and in those indomitable spirits who live next door or bump into us in Top’s or sit next to us in church, we can find a little hope. We really are well-acquainted with miracles. We can find the courage to stand on our ground. We can throw back the covers and get out of bed. We can take the first simple step. We can place our little bit in the hands of Jesus and trust in the crazy math to come.

Resources:
Bryant, Robert A. “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 6:30-34, 53-56” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 3. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2009.
Yust, Karen Marie. “Pastoral Perspective on Mark 6:30-34, 53-56” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 3. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2009.
Johns, Cheryl Bridges. “Homiletical Perspective on Mark 6:30-34, 53-56” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 3. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2009.
–. “Mother Teresa” in Biography, Feb. 24, 2020. Accessed online at biography.com.
–. “Habitat’s Story” in Habitat for Humanity, International. Accessed online at habitat.org.
–. “Who We Are: The Beginning” in Marion Medical Mission. Accessed online at mmmater.org.

Photo by Ivan J. Long on Pexels.com

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