Feeding More Than 5,000

Let’s eavesdrop on a conversation that happened forty years ago:

Jim Friedrich and a friend went hiking in Yosemite for about a hundred and fifty miles—from Lake Tahoe to Tuolomne Meadows. At the end of the hike, they hitched a ride back to civilization. When the driver picked them up, he asked them eagerly “Have you heard the news?” “No. What news?” After twenty days in the backcountry, anything was news to them. “Nixon is going to resign today!” President Nixon was going to resign that very day, August 4, 1974. If you remember Watergate: the break-in and cover-up that implicated the highest realms of power in this country, then you probably remember where you were when Nixon became the only U.S. President to resign from office. It was big news.

The ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven

The ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven

It wasn’t until Jim got home that he found out that another big news event had happened ten days earlier: eleven women were ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. Their ordination was “irregular”—without the approval of the whole church. In 1973, General Convention had failed to approve the ordination of women, and yet a year later three bishops were convinced that the Holy Spirit was calling them to act. As Jim put it, “they sped up the grinding wheels of change.” Eleven women gathered from all over the country in a small, activist urban church in Philadelphia, and called upon the Holy Spirit to come upon them.  These women, and the bishops who ordained them, imagined an alternative future, and invited the church to move forward. Sometimes it takes a long time for the whole church to get it right.

The miraculous feeding in the wilderness is a miracle found in each of the Gospel narratives. It is sometimes called the “feeding of the 5,000”—I’ve called it that myself. But 5,000 isn’t even close to the right number. The final line of the text in the Gospel of Matthew says:

And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

There were 5,000 men, and uncounted women and children. It was the feeding of more than 5,000.

Why didn’t the women and children get counted? Didn’t they count? Women and children were there, in that “deserted place,” and they were hungry too. Women and children were sitting down on the grass by the shore of the Sea of Galilee. They counted for Jesus, he made sure they were fed. But somehow, when the story was written, the women and children didn’t count the way the men did. And as I read it now, frankly, I’m up to *here* with the whole thing.

The problem is that our sacred texts were written thousands of years ago, and they reflect the patriarchal reality of those times. And still people read them literally and say that in order to be true to our faith we need to maintain reality in exactly the same way. They haven’t reckoned with the ever-new and always powerful Holy Spirit!

I love the Bible; it is a source of inspiration and revelation. It is God’s liberating word.  It upsets me greatly that our living Holy Scriptures have been used to justify oppression in deadly ways.

  • When people were working to abolish slavery, the opposition quoted the Bible as saying that it was approved by God. See! It’s in the Bible.
  • During World War II, our scriptures and our church were co-opted into the murderous destruction of God’s Chosen People.
  •  Now people point to the Bible in defense of what they call Biblical marriage. I have news for you, in the Bible marriage was a contract between two men that shifted women as a property transaction. Not something I want to perpetuate.

The people who want to use the Bible as a weapon against the less powerful didn’t reckon on the power of God’s spirit to transform us, whether we welcome the change or not.

Where was I when the Episcopal Church was taking this historic step? In High School. I didn’t know that while I was taking an adolescent sabbatical from church, the institution was changing. I didn’t know, then, that many Episcopalians lay and ordained were hearing God’s call to affirm the place of women in the church. I didn’t know that the priest who baptized me, the Rev. Bob Appleyard, was an early advocate for women’s ordination—a cause he continued to work for when he became the Bishop of Pittsburgh. There might have  been something about that Baptism that pointed me in this direction. If all of these changes hadn’t happened, I would quite literally not be here right now. I wouldn’t be a priest! And I wouldn’t be able to  be your priest.

Jim Friedrich, an Episcopalian who became a priest himself, was an observer when the General Convention next convened in Minneapolis in the summer of 1976. The ordination of women (along with a major revision of the Prayer Book) topped the agenda. It is hard to imagine the convention of any institutional body as holy, but Jim says this one was. It was structured as a Eucharist: where we have readings in worship, delegates told stories that expressed their understanding of the issue. The votes were carried up as an Offertory. Jim said that the meeting was prayerful and courteous of both sides of the issue. When the votes were counted, the deputies and observers were restrained in their reactions—no cheers, applause or booing.

Jim reports: “There were some quiet hugs, heads bowed in thanks, eyes moist with emotion. But as the multitude began to make its way out of the hall, most of the faces I saw appeared thoughtful, solemn, even stunned, like communicants returning from the altar, or Moses descending the mountain, glowing like fire.”

Jim didn’t say that what happened at convention was a miracle, and maybe that would be putting it too strongly. But there is certainly something of the miraculous in a power structure that suddenly and peacefully opens the way and invites those who have been on the outside to enter and participate fully.

The feeding of the more than 5,000 is considered a miracle.

Miracles in the Bible often require people of faith to suspend our disbelief, or at least to suspend our belief in the laws of physics. But if we are wrestling with miracles intellectually, we haven’t fully entered into the narrative. Miracles—at least the way I understand them—are transformative of the human spirit. The change may appear to affect bread and fish, or water, or fire, but the real change is worked on us.

Martin Buber said that a miracle is so unexpected and startling that it is experienced as if it had never happened before. When a couple is in the hospital birthing room and meet their child—it is as if it had never happened before in the world. Buber particularly mentions the birth of a firstborn child, but I believe it is uniquely true of the birth of each and every child. The new parents experience the birth and are transformed. Miraculous!

As I explored the text in preparation for a sermon, part of my preparation is to meet with Rabbi Arnold. We examine and question the narrative. We dig through related parts of the Bible. It is wonderful to study with him. In this text we talked quite a bit about miracles—and he shared a prayer that is said in the Jewish Sabbath worship service. I would like to share it with you.

Days pass and the years vanish and we walk sightless among miracles. Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing. Let there be moments when your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk. Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns, unconsumed. And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness and exclaim in wonder, “How filled with awe is this place and we did not know it.”

malalaToday we baptize a girl and a boy as new members of our church community: Annabella and Griffin. May they grow into a world that nurtures them and rejoices in their gifts, equally. May we reach out through the power of the Spirit to all the places in the world that don’t yet respect the dignity of their girls as well as their boys. May both boys and girls, women and men be freed to be their own true selves.

  • To Pakistan, where Malala wanted to go to school.
  • To India, where girls cannot travel in safety and freedom, and are not respected as persons.
  • To China where they have privileged boys over girls so strongly that they have sent their girls to the U.S. for adoption. We have been the richer for that.
  • In this country, where we are still living into equality and dignity for every human being. May we get better ourselves, so that each of us is counted, and each of us counts.

May Griffin and Annabella help lead us into future where we will encounter the miracles that will transform us into the people God dreams we will become. Not everyone is called to be a priest, but everyone is called by God to use our individual gifts to heal and change the world.

Blessings, Anne+

In closing I would like to thank the Rev. Jim Friedrich for sharing his memories of historic events. I got to know him when I was in Seminary at CDSP; I was a classmate of his spouse and partner, the Rev. Karen Haig who is herself an Episcopal priest and a very dear friend of mine.

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