It was the Tuesday after Friday’s windstorm—a “derecho,” we are told—and I had just boarded the elevator at Lewis-Gale Hospital. It was crowded, and my vertical traveling companions were a representative cross-section of our fair city, people of varying races, backgrounds, and states of health. I always feel awkward on crowded elevators, and this time I decided to make conversation. Given the circumstances across the valley following the devastating windstorm, I asked vocally, “Ya’ll got power?”
It turns out that, storm or no, when a priest poses such a question on a crowded elevator, people receive it in many different ways. Clearly, a couple of folks took my inquiry to be about the progress of AEP work crews in their neighborhood. But others thought I’d asked, out of the blue, a deeply spiritual or existential question. Their circumstances when they boarded the elevator were many: Some were ill; some were grieving; some were in shock. And the priest had just asked them, “Yes, but do you have power?”
Today’s Gospel gives us the beginning and ending of a story but leaves out the middle. The middle of this story—the part we don’t hear—is the feeding of the five thousand. At first glance, reading the beginning and ending of a story while omitting the middle might seem like eating the top and bottom bun of a hamburger and throwing out the meat, but sometimes in storytelling it can be an enlightening thing to do. So what does our Gospel today reveal?
Our reading begins with Jesus and the disciples taking a boat across the Sea of Galilee in order to rest and recharge their own batteries. But the masses from the surrounding countryside hear of their presence, and Mark tells us they “hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of [Jesus].” By the time Jesus gets off the boat at this supposedly deserted place, it is filled with the least, the lonely and the lost, seeking him out.
We then leapfrog over the feeding of the five thousand, with its loaves and fishes, and the end of our reading today has Jesus and the disciples crossing back over the Sea of Galilee, hoping finally for that elusive respite. This time, Mark says, “When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized Jesus, and rushed about the whole region and began to bring the sick…wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they…begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”
You see, today the lectionary is trying to tell us a truth that holds no matter what the middle of the story is: The movement of Jesus’ ministry, day in and day out, was punctuated by yearning people—powerless people—seeking him out, following him over water and across wilderness, to ask, “You got power?” to touch him, and to experience that power for themselves.
Armando Maggi, a professor at The University of Chicago (my alma mater), teaches a class entitled “Preserving the Spell.”[i] Professor Maggi begins the class by showing his students a clip from the opening scene of Walt Disney’s 1938 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The movie begins with the evil witch in her castle asking her magic mirror who is the fairest of all. It then cuts to Snow White in her scullery maid’s smock, singing as little cartoon birds gather round her. When Professor Maggi turns off the DVD, his students giggle at the silliness they’ve just seen. It is the reaction their professor hopes for.
Seventy-five years ago when the film was first released, dismissive laughter would not have been the audience’s reaction, Maggi says. But now, fairy tales lack magic. We’re no longer satisfied with them, which is why we desperately attempt to retell them in new and compelling ways. (Indeed, Snow White has been remade on the big screen twice this year alone, once as a comedy and again as a dark and somber action film.) Stories that once enchanted us, gave us hope, and offered windows into something different and new have exhausted their ability to move us. The old stories have lost their power.
The same week I read about Dr. Maggi’s course, TIME Magazine published a story entitled, “The Greatest American Antihero.”[ii] The story tips its hat to today’s top-rated TV dramas—shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad—but it also points out the disturbing nature of our adulation for their main characters. Don Draper in Mad Men is a talented and suave adman, but he’s also a philanderer who will bury the good work of his staff in order to further his own jet-set career. Walter White in Breaking Bad is a high school chemistry teacher who turns into a crystal meth drug lord, eventually killing anyone who stands in his way.
The heroes in these shows are antiheroes, and—as the title “Breaking Bad” conveys—they succeed by drifting from morality to amorality to immorality, and they rise to dizzying heights while maintaining a veneer of goodness and polish. And people love to watch them.
As is so often the case, television mirrors to us what we demonstrate again and again in our real lives, with the kind of models we raise up in politics, sports, entertainment, and business. We seek out antiheroes, I believe, because we’ve given up our sense of the heroic. Snow White, with her message that purity and love can overcome malevolent darkness, makes us laugh. You see, we need the power of goodness and light, but we no longer believe in it. We’ve grown cynical, and so we give our admiration—indeed, our hearts—to antiheroes who have learned to use shadow to make their way, to succeed, and to conquer. Rather than recoiling at the way they compromise goodness for power, we credit their ingenuity and endurance.
First century Palestine was not so different. Again and again, people’s expectations had been dashed. God’s prophets had been struck down so often that their messages of compassion and grace were laughed at. Grass-roots heroes had emerged who could not deliver on their promises. And so antiheroes like King Herod and his kin, whose royal claims were tenuous and predicated in equal measure on collusion with the Roman Empire and a brutal and heavy hand, who drew strength from darkness, rose to dizzying heights. What a stark choice in whom the yearning powerless could place their hope: a laughing stock or a polished monster.
Do you see, then, why the masses flock to Jesus? Do you see why they’ll cross sea or desert just to touch his cloak? He is different from everything else they’ve experienced or heard about. He is no fairy tale wrapped in fantasy. He is real. His cloak is spattered with the same mud as theirs. He bears the same sores on his feet from walking miles of dusty road. But in love he is uncompromising. He will not succumb to cynicism, and he will not bend to the world. He is the light which darkness cannot smother, and in his light there is power. If only the least, the lonely and the lost can cast their eyes upon him; if only they can touch the fringe of his cloak; they know they’ll have power, too. They’ll find true healing and hope and joy. They’ll discover light that pierces darkness, and they’ll carry that light with them.
It was true then, and it is true now. Perhaps the old fairy tales have lost their force and most goodness in the world fails and falls short. Perhaps the world lifts up antiheroes in whom we are encouraged to place a sorry and diluted hope. But it’s a false choice. There is a hero—one hero—and he is present here today just as he was on the muddy banks of Galilee. [He is present in the waters of baptism.] He is present in bread and wine of the Eucharist. He is present in this Body, in the light behind the eyes of each of us gathered here.
My clergy colleague in Christiansburg, Phyllis Spiegel, tells the story of when, as a child, she innocently grabbed the end of a plugged-in extension cord and sucked on it like a pacifier. She says it zapped her with such force that her mouth tingled for three days. Phyllis told this story at a clergy meeting, and immediately another priest, an Episcopal convert from another tradition, said, “Yes, I felt that the first time I received Communion. When the wafer touched my tongue, it was like an electric current.”
The God of love and light and power is manifest in Jesus the Christ. This is no fairy tale. It is the deepest reality, the really real that flows beneath the surface currents of the world. It is here—he is here—this day, offering healing and joy and hope. He is here, waiting for us to touch the fringe of his cloak. And so I ask you, “You got power?”
[i] “Spellbound,” by Lydialyle Gibson. The University of Chicago Magazine, May-June 2012, pp. 52-57.
[ii] “The Greatest American Antihero: Walter White is badder than ever, but has dark TV become a cliché?” by James Poniewozik. TIME, July 16, 2012, pp. 60-61.