Harrowing Of Hell
July 25, 2021

Signs in the Time of COVID

The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

Good morning Christians, Seekers, and Friends!

Happy Sunday everyone! I hope that today you will find the occasion to rejoice in this day that the Lord has made and this season of summer 2021 that we are already a little over a month into…

I know sometimes when something miraculous happens—like the creation of vaccines which can keep folks able to receive them alive—we can quite quickly become accustomed to it and lose sight of just how wonderful it is to be able to emerge, in many locations and situations, from behind our masks, and return to a more normal life; a life in which we can travel and see our families or once again replace our forced ‘staycations’ with our preferred vacations. I know that this was definitely the case for me.

As many of you know, last week I was not here. I was gone for a week to travel to my nephew John’s wedding in Montana. However, when I first received my ‘Save the Date’ in late January from John Michael and his now wife Allyson, I was not sure that I would be able to attend. Because just seven or eight months ago we did not have the vaccine available for folks to use…. And it is just since April, May, and June that many of us were able to be fully vaccinated. Isn’t it miraculous when you think about it? I am up here in person, in the pulpit of our beautiful church, with our choir and our congregation – LIVE and IN PERSON.  Absolutely amazing! Never before have we been able to have a vaccine ready so quickly. When scientists began seeking a vaccine for the coronavirus Covid-19 in early 2020, they were careful not to promise quick success. The fastest any vaccine had previously been developed, from viral sampling to approval, was four years, for mumps in the 1960s. To hope for one even by the summer of 2021 seemed highly optimistic. But by the start of December 2020, the developers of several vaccines had announced excellent results in large trials, with more showing promise. And on December 2, a vaccine made by drug giant Pfizer became the first fully-tested immunization to be approved for emergency use. The incredible speed by which this vaccine was available “challenges our whole paradigm of what is possible in vaccine development” according to Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at the University of Florida in Gainesville. And it inspires hope for the future in what is possible for humanity when the principalities and powers that be come together to work on an issue.

For me, on a personal level, it meant that what seemed highly unlikely in January if I wanted to keep this community safe, became entirely possible by July 17 – the date of John and Allyson’s wedding. I was able to go to Montana to see this amazing couple exchange their vows in front of the Rev. Gary Waddingham who was not only a big part of my nephews’ growing up but was also part of the Standing Committee that sent me, the youngest postulant from Montana in 50 years, to seminary, and the priest who presided at my wedding, and my mother’s memorial service. As he placed his stole around John and Allyson’s  joined hands, I wept.

Maybe it was because it was on John Michael’s head that I first poured the water of baptism or because he was the first grandbaby in our Glover-Garcia clan or because I am now of an age where I am watching the next generation step forward and take the wheel, I found myself so moved by my nephew’s wedding. I have, indeed, cried at weddings before, but my tears this time recognized just how important and miraculous this wedding was for all of us who were in relationship with this young couple. It was knitting us together in a new way and leading us forward towards the new things that God was doing in our lives.

After spending seven full weeks in the Gospel of Mark—my favorite gospel – this week in Ordinary Time we are reading from sixth chapter of the gospel of John where we will remain for the next four weeks too. One of the reasons that I prefer the writings of Mark is that, as the first gospel written, Mark to my mind is the most clearly narrative account of Jesus’ life and ministry which allows us, as readers, to come to our own conclusions about what we’ve heard. John, on the other hand, sometimes seems to be doing equal parts of telling a story and theologizing from that story. We see this right from the beginning in chapter 1 – here we have no birth narrative but rather a highly sophisticated expression of Jesus’ significance and role in the salvific history of the world. Now I love the beautiful language of the “Logos” and I do believe that: 

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

But ain’t that a mouthful? Beautiful sounding, yes, but a little less accessible—am I right?

John’s gospel structurally is set up carefully – with attention not just to Jesus and his works but to the order in which these events occur. Christian scholars note that the Gospel of John can be broken into four parts: the prologue – a part of which we just read (John 1:-1:18), the Book of Signs (1:19 to 12:50), the Book of Glory (13:1 to 20:31) and an epilogue in chapter 21.

Within the Book of Signs, the Johannine author features 7 miracles or signs –beginning with the Wedding of Cana where Jesus changes the water into wine in 2:1-11, the healing the royal official’s son in John 4:46-54; the healing the paralytic at Bethesda in John 5:1-15; the feeding the 5000 in John 6:5-14, and Jesus walking on water in John 6:16-24; the healing the man blind from birth in chapter 9 and the raising of Lazarus in John 11. 

In today’s gospel story from John we are, of course, dealing with two of  Jesus’ miracles—the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on water.  Now while a colleague was just the other day telling me about why walking on water doesn’t work in our ‘scientific’ world, I love this story and more still, the story of the loaves and fishes which is the only miracle featured in all four gospels. And while I have admitted that I prefer the writing of the Markan author because of his clear story-telling, I want to draw our attention to two details that the Johannine author has included that are not present in the three other gospels. Namely that the five loaves and two fish were taken from a young boy of whom we don’t hear anywhere else AND that the loaves were ‘barley loaves’ another detail we are again given only in this account. Now, I know that you all are probably thinking – yes, and so what? But I think these details are significant because they make an important point if we follow where they lead. First of all, a lot of us think of this little boy in terms of his giving up of his meal without considering the fact that this child was, of course, there with his family. The size of his meal is rather too large for a child to eat and was probably meant to be shared with siblings and family. That the loaves of bread were made of barley also tells us that this child was from a poor family as barley was cheaper than wheat, and so barley was the flour used to make the bread of the poor. That Jesus, himself, takes this barley bread and breaks it and shares and distributes it to those who are sitting on the grass and does the same with the fish is significant.

So, while we might be rather skeptical of miracles for the most part – wondering how it is possible for five thousand people to be fed from five loaves and two fish—there is something about the details that have been retained that are important. Because even though it is a simple story –a miracle that is far less flashy than Jesus walking on the water, the feeding of the five thousand cuts to the heart of things: Jesus who can do all sorts of incredible things also cares about and responds to our basic needs. That is where John is trying to get us to go. Jesus feeds us. And he leads us in the way that we, too, can feed one another: if we willingly give what we have to Jesus, God will provide for the many out of what we give.

After returning from my nephew John’s wedding, it is not surprising to me that Jesus’ first miracle or sign occurred at a wedding. Since long before Jesus’ time, weddings have been an important occasion for the joining of extended families and their communities. So it was with John and Allyson. We feasted together, celebrated together, danced together and watched as miraculous things abounded on their wedding day. 

The fire on the edge of my sister’s small town which was under orders to evacuate around midnight on Friday which my two other nephews were fighting as volunteer firemen shifted direction and was stopped when the wind changed – allowing them, their neighbors, family, and friends to attend the wedding Saturday afternoon. And a tiny little cowboy of about two years old – with his little wranglers, western belt, big ol’ buckle, and boots pushed around three kids aged 6 and 7 on a little cart. We all watched in disbelief as this little laughing fellow transported his older friends onto the dance floor. There were glorious signs of love and friendship all around on that day and on this one in this new world after Covid. We have been blessed—abundantly blessed. This is the day that the Lord has made – let us not become so accustomed to this gift of life that we do not see the miracles in our midst. Share with others. Care for others. Love one another. You don’t need to hold on to your loaves and fishes—there is enough — for nothing shall be impossible with God. Even the celebration of a new and powerful love in the time of Covid 19! Weeping aunties are optional…