|Today’s scripture readings:
2 Kings 4:42-44
Nathan Roberts was 23 years old, a recent college graduate, unemployed, and living in his parents’ basement, when he received an email. It was a message from his friend Michael Kimpur, a Kenyan man who had become his best friend and roommate while they were classmates at Bethel University here in the Twin Cities. Michael had written to ask Nathan a question: “How much money do we have in our bank account?” Nathan replied, “We have $250 in my bank account.” Michael told Nathan, “Send it all, because we’re starting a school in Kenya.”
Nathan was a white boy from the suburbs and Michael came from a nomadic tribe in rural northwest Kenya. Needless to say, theirs was an unusual friendship. They came from such vastly different cultures that they could have just as well been born on different planets. One of those cultural differences was the American concept of private property versus the traditional Kenyan understanding of communal ownership. In Michael Kimpur’s community in Kenya, there’s no such thing as private property. You’ll never hear someone say things like, “This is my cow,” or, “This is my hut.” There’s only our cow and our hut, because in the Kenyan desert, life is hard, and people pool their resources to survive. Which helps explain Michael’s question: “How much money do we have in our bank account?”
Nathan sent the $250 (from his bank account), and together he and Michael really did start a school. See, when Michael had finished his degree at Bethel and returned to Kenya, the elders had selected him as the leader of their village. At the same time, wars between tribes battling over severely limited resources in the desert had taken dozens of people’s lives and left around 30 children orphaned. The elders rounded up all the orphans in the village, brought them to Michael, and told him that as their new leader, it would be his responsibility to provide for these kids. With nowhere else to turn, Michael wrote to his friend Nathan back in the United States with a request for money. What is known today as Daylight School started in 2008 with 30 orphans and $250.
A couple weeks ago I traveled with my husband Oby’s church on a mission trip to Kenya to visit Daylight School, and just ten years after its founding, it’s amazing to see what it has become. Today, over 380 children attend the school, ranging in age from pre-kindergarten to eighth grade. One-third of the students are orphans. Each year, students in grades six, seven, and eight take national standardized tests. In 2015, Daylight scored second highest out of over 150 schools in the county, and for the past two years, the highest-scoring student in the county has been a student at Daylight School.
There’s no way a school that started with 30 orphaned students and $250 should have become what Daylight is today. In those earliest days, the need was too great and the resources too scarce. There simply was not enough. One of the lessons of Daylight School is that, with God, “not enough” is never the final answer. When we trust that God is in control, what little we have to give becomes more than enough (Johns). God whose power is at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.
It’s sort of like five loaves and two fish that somehow fed an enormous crowd of people with twelve baskets of leftovers. There’s no way such a small amount of food should have fed so many people. Somehow what little there was to give became more than enough.
Presumably the Gospel writer included this miracle story because it would have inspired faith in those who read it. Those earliest readers of John’s Gospel likely would have found in this story evidence of Jesus’ divine power and would have felt compelled to place themselves among the community of believers who followed the way of Jesus. But I think we find ourselves in a different situation. I would guess many of us actually struggle with this story. There was a time when these supernatural miracle stories made more sense; a time when people held open the possibility of divine intervention that defied the laws of nature. But we who live in the modern, post-Enlightenment age—who have been taught that the entire universe operates according to a set of predictable, unchanging principles and trained to look for rational explanations for everything we observe in the world around us—we have learned to be skeptical of events and experiences that cannot be explained.
So what are we supposed to do with this miracle story about a supernatural multiplication of food? In the past century or so, some scholars have put forward an interpretation of the story that is more palatable to modern readers. They suggest that maybe nothing supernatural actually happened after all—that maybe the young boy in the story who offered to share his five loaves and two fish shamed everyone else into sharing what they had, too, and that when everyone chipped in there was enough to feed the entire crowd.
That may be a more likely explanation than a supernatural multiplication of food, but if you ask me, that makes it a far less satisfying story. Karen-Marie Yust of Union Presbyterian Seminary puts it this way: “Instead of fostering an exploration of God’s ability to act in surprising ways and transform human expectations, the shame-based version of the story focuses on the ability of persons to solve their own problems and justifies shaming as a means of motivating proper human behavior. God is no longer a miracle-worker unbounded by human laws, but a social manipulator who reminds people to share.” She wonders, “Can God not be much more in our lives than an omnipresent social worker reminding us of our duties?” Has our modern desire to explain everything robbed us of our capacity to wonder, to marvel at things that seem too good to be true, or to perceive the extraordinary within the ordinary?
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about Daylight School. Strictly speaking, there are no miracles in the story of Daylight. There was never any supernatural multiplication of food or money or anything else. No laws of nature were ever broken. That $250 Nathan sent to Kenya provided food for those 30 orphans for two weeks. After that, Nathan called some other friends from Bethel and started asking for money—$25 here, $50 there. Eventually groups of people started making trips to Kenya, buildings were constructed, teachers were hired, and little by little Daylight grew into the school it has become today. At every step of the way, when Nathan and Michael encountered a challenge, people rose to the occasion, and they figured it out. Nothing miraculous, nothing supernatural—just a lot of determination and human ingenuity.
On the other hand, looking back, it is impossible not to sense something supernatural in the story of Daylight School. It’s an unlikely story. Considering how the school began, it’s surprising that it survived at all, and even more shocking that it has become such a model of success. There is something extraordinary and, yes, even miraculous about Daylight.
Isn’t there at least a possibility that, by some mysterious, divine power, the extraordinary infuses the ordinary and makes a new reality possible? After all, that’s what we claim each time we bring a little one to this font and pray for God’s spirit to be present in the ordinary water we pour into the bowl. It’s what we claim each time we come forward ourselves and receive a morsel of ordinary bread and a sip of ordinary wine in which we believe God is mysteriously present. When we are washed at this font, when we are fed at this table, we believe the extraordinary infuses the ordinary, that God comes into our lives and transforms our world in ways we can’t fully understand.
Strictly speaking, the water in this font is just ordinary water and the bread and wine we receive at this table are just ordinary bread and wine. In all likelihood, it really was the ordinary act of one child willing to share his five loaves and two fish that unleashed the compassion and generosity of the wider community, as they pooled their resources together and discovered they had enough to feed the whole hungry crowd. And really, Daylight School is the result of a series of ordinary actions—earnestly-given donations, volunteer construction labor, and everyday classroom teaching. And yet, it’s impossible not to sense in these ordinary things something supernatural and miraculous—something extraordinary in the ordinary.
Robert A. Bryant, “John 6:1-21: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).
Douglas John Hall, “John 6:1-21: Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).
Cheryl Bridges Johns, “John 6:1-21: Homiletical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).
Nathan Roberts and Michael Kimpur, “The power of cross-cultural friendships,” from TEDxRapidCity, August 23, 2016, accessed July 29, 2018, https://youtu.be/4zRGs8o8a5I.
Nathan Roberts and Michael Kimpur, Poor Millionaires: The Village Boy Who Walked to the Western World and the American Boy Who Followed Him Home (2014).
Karen-Marie Yust, “John 6:1-21: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 3, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).