After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?' He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. Philip answered him, ‘Six months' wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.' One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?' Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.' Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.' So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.'
When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.' Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.
You may have seen among the news headlines that self-help efficiency guru Stephen Covey died two weeks ago. A copy of his famous book sits on my shelf, a gift from a long ago boss at the beginning of my first "real" job. Covey's book was very helpful to me, freshly out of college, in thinking about how I wanted my life organized. In particular I was impressed by an exercise in the first chapter. It was a pen and ink drawing with subtle shading. The question was simple: what do you see?
Covey described the picture as the second half of a famous demonstration during his Harvard days. A portion of a class would be shown an image of a young woman, her head turned slightly to one side. A second portion would be shown a picture of an elderly woman, with a hooked nose. This second drawing then would be projected for the whole class to see, with fascinating, even (especially for the professors!) amusing results.
Covey used this exercise to make what is at once a very simple but very profound point: "each of us tends to think that we see things as they are, that we are objective. But this is not the case. We see the world, not as it is, but as we are."
Something of this same idea pervades John's entire gospel. The stories John tells are meant to shine light, to ask us, his readers/hearers again and again, what do you see? Like Covey's famous drawing, John's stories are meant to uncover who we are, what we assume, what we expect.
Of course, unlike Covey's picture, where seeing a young or old lady was not an issue in itself, John is very careful to point out that there are right and wrong ways to see Jesus. Jesus is no mere Rorschach image onto which we may project our hopes and fears; no, he is Lord, and it is only in his light that we see rightly.
After all, the first story we hear, about the amazing feeding of a vast crowd, ends oddly, unexpectedly. The story begins with the crowd responding because "they saw the signs he was doing for the sick." Of course. This is how it's done. You draw a crowd, you build a following, you galvanize a nation. And you do it by meeting their needs, by addressing their wants, by answering their hopes.
But even as the crowd grows in its estimation of Jesus, he withdraws. He rejects the crowd, retreating to a local mountain. Here the first story ends, with a question hanging in the air: what is wrong with wanting bread, especially with wanting someone who can apparently produce bread out of thin air? Aren't full bellies a good thing? Isn't a reliable food chain a good thing? What do we not see?
The second story, of the disciples heading off into a storm on the Sea of Galilee, is another story about seeing rightly. The disciples get out on the lake, and a storm blows up with rough waves. Into the midst of this Jesus walks up. Now, it is a common conversational thread around this congregation that when times are tough, people seem to want Jesus to show up. Rarely have I heard anyone say that if Jesus really showed up in the midst of their problems, that it would terrify them. But here we have a group of people, who have been with Jesus for quite some time, who each ended up with a full basket of leftovers from the feeding of the multitude, who react with terror when the Lord arrives. Sheer, stark terror. John notes that out on the lake they are in darkness, which tells us that they still do not see Jesus rightly, any more than the crowd did.
This is where sermons are hard. Week by week, you come here hoping-hoping for something that will get you through the coming week, hoping for something that will "feed" you, hoping for something that will still the "storms" you find yourself in. And I stand up here and I am forced to say that you, I, all of us do not see rightly. We see as we are. Not as we are meant to be, but as we are. We are Philip, seeing only a problem where there is an opportunity. We are the crowd, seeing only a man who provides food for the day rather than life that endures. We are the disciples, rowing around in the dark and scared to death when salvation actually shows up.
Dr. William Willimon once said that the amazing thing about this story is the amazing thing about Jesus himself: the story starts out being about us, but before it is done it is a story about Jesus, about his purposes, his goals, his plans. We come here hoping that today will be engaging enough, worthwhile enough, satisfying enough, or peaceful enough. Yet Jesus continues to pursue his goals and purposes for our lives, to bring us closer and closer to what we are meant to be: his brothers and sisters, people who resemble him. We are meant to be people who don't think that God only creates problems for us, or should simply give us what we want and get out of the way. We are meant to be people who see life as ongoing moments that may appear ordinary but which are simply shot through with the glorious Kingdom of God. We are meant to be people who see in every storm a chance for the Maker of all things to walk up. We are meant to be people who see in every loaf of bread a gift from the hand of the One whose pantry is never empty. That's what Jesus sees, because that's who Jesus is. Amen.