Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘signs’

Signs in All of Life

John 6:1-21

signsThere is a good quote from the movie Signs, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. This is said during a scene in which a Pennsylvania family has just learned that creatures from another planet have started descending on earth. Their spaceships light up the sky all over the world. The father in the family, speaking to his brother, says:

People break down into two groups. When they experience something lucky, group number one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence. They see it as a sign, evidence, that there is someone up there, watching out for them. Group number two sees it as just pure luck. Just a happy turn of chance.

I’m sure the people in group number two are looking at those fourteen lights in a very suspicious way. For them, the situation is a fifty-fifty. Could be bad, could be good. But deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they’re on their own. And that fills them with fear. Yeah, there are those people. But there’s a whole lot of people in group number one. When they see those fourteen lights, they’re looking at a miracle. And deep down, they feel that whatever’s going to happen, there will be someone there to help them. And that fills them with hope. See what you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, that sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or, look at the question this way: Is it possible that there are no coincidences?

signs2Do you believe in signs?

Or is life just a day-to-day routine of cause and effect?

I’m not arguing for or against either view; I think both are needed in the world, for sure. But I will say that in my experience, there have been signs that I felt I was supposed to notice. Sometimes it was as simple as an unexpected phone call; or a text; or an email. Other times it was a subtle change in a friend’s or family member’s behavior. A couple of times, it was a sign that seemed to scream out:


I’m always curious as I walk through this life to see how much people pay attention to stoplights and traffic signs and other signs that they obediently follow. Think about how much we pay attention to those types of signs.

And then think about how little we may pay attention to the other types of signs, like the signs that whisper to us:

Slow down.


You know that this relationship is unhealthy. Time to change.


Is this life of routine really living?


You’re not ugly, you’re beautiful. You’re not stupid, you’re wise.


I think that person needs my help.

This story in the Gospel of John is a sign story.

In this Gospel, scholars identify seven signs before Jesus dies. Seven, of course, is a number with significance. It is about wholeness, and so, it would follow that the seven signs of Jesus are meant by John to give the reader a “whole” picture of Jesus. The feeding of the 5000 happens to be the fourth sign.

Now any “sign” or “miracle” story always depends on the reader to make up his/her mind about how to interpret the story. Is the feeding of 5000 a literal miracle that actually happened, or is it merely a symbolic story to illustrate something else? Like always, you get to choose which type of reader you will be.

I will say, however, that there may be another way to read these stories. Rather than taking the hard right [literal] or the hard left [symbolic], what if we consider the writer’s perspective? Why did this person write this story, and what were signs in the author’s perspective?

So let’s give it a try.

John’s Gospel is trying to prove a point. More than any of the other Gospels, John is trying to say to its audience that Jesus was with God from the very beginning of time and therefore was God from the very beginning, as opposed to becoming divine at his resurrection. This is key for John’s Gospel.

But in order to prove that, John has work to do.

You see, the audience reading this Gospel would have been a mix of Greeks and Jews and Hellenistic Jews, etc. So many of them were well aware of the great religious prophets of old.

Moses? Yeah, pretty miraculous. Um, he talked to a burning bush that was G-D!!!!
And…the parting of the red sea? Come on….and there’s much more with Moses.
Man, maybe we should make a movie about that. Or two, or three, or a hundred….

mosescoolSo John’s Gospel wants to prove that Jesus was a great prophet like Moses, and even better. So the signs keep coming in the Gospel. And Jesus goes up on mountaintops just like Moses, but Jesus doesn’t need to wear a veil to hide his face from God like Moses did. Jesus doesn’t have to remove his sandals to talk with God.

And then there’s the prophet Elisha.

elishaIn 2 Kings 4 of the Hebrew Scriptures, Elisha performs a miracle! He feeds 100 people with only twenty barley loaves of bread. Wow! Elisha rocks!

So John has Jesus feed 5000 with some little kid’s loaves and fishes.


And it all adds up when you see the crowds say after the meal:
This is indeed the prophet who has come into the world!

I think listening to John’s perspective about signs and miracles can help us find some meaning in this story, because to be frank, a literal reading doesn’t work for me and here’s why.

5000 people are fed, and Jesus is portrayed in John’s Gospel as the bread of life, and that people will never go hungry. But hello? If Jesus were some magical Harry Potter prophet who could multiply food in the blink of an eye, why not do it for all the poor people? Jesus talked about the poor and cared for them deeply. If he really was so magical, why not feed everybody? Same goes for today. Not everyone in the world is fed. People are hungry–starving even. Some don’t have access to drinking water. Where’s God and Jesus in all of that?

But I also think that trying to explain away the miracle of the 5000 doesn’t so the story either. Often people react to literal readings of the Bible and go in the other direction. They try to explain every sign and miracle. So in this case, when the boy offered to share his food, then everyone else in the crowds realized that they also had a little bit, and if they pooled their food together, everyone could eat. I am not sure about that. Sounds like the children’s story Stone Soup to me.

So let’s return to the author of John. What was he thinking?

Well, I’m guessing, but the number 5000 is a bit arbitrary and not tied to any important numerology. 5000 is a significant number, though, and as the story states, a number like 5000 would mean that many people are now following Jesus. A crowd that size just might equal the size of a Roman legion. And that’s John for sure, because this Gospel is keen on that contrast between Jesus’ band of followers and Caesar’s band of soldiers. The Jesus way vs. the Roman occupation and the religious elites.

Secondly, in John, whenever people are fed, it’s not just about people getting food they can chew on. If Jesus is the bread of life and the shepherd who feeds his sheep, and the giver of living water—then we’re definitely talking about spiritual food.

I think that changes the story for me a bit.

I feel like Jesus is teaching his disciples [and the others gathered]. He is illustrating provision and sharing. Provision, because actually, there IS enough food and water for everyone in the world to eat. Yes, today we are overpopulated, but we still [via the land and water] have enough to eat. So Jesus tests Philip by asking him where they are going to find enough bread for all to eat. Jesus knows there’s already enough! Provision. It’s there. But without sharing, we don’t see that sign of provision. I don’t need to reiterate, do I, that the Western world is eating WAY more than we ever should? It’s insane. We don’t share well. We’re like a two-year-old who won’t share her toy with her brother. So the signs I see in this story are that we have been provided with all we need, and not just food. All we need to be whole and healthy people. And second, that we have a responsibility to share. If not, not everyone will be fed.

Now, to the end of the story. Did Jesus really walk on water?

Take that, Moses and Elisha!!!


The disciples were rowing in their boat, trying to cross over to the other side, and a strong wind comes. They are not afraid yet, even though they are alone.

But then, they see [don’t miss this word!] a sign: Jesus is walking on the sea and coming near the boat. Well, at this point they are a hot mess and freaking out. What Jesus says is so important:

Ego eimi.

This is the Greek form of the Hebrew name for G-d [YHWH].
This is the assurance of the divine presence–that they are not alone in their little boat.

He tells them not to fear.

John’s author, writing to a mix of people who weren’t sure about Jesus, and actually, weren’t sure about tomorrow, were encouraged to not be afraid.

Walking on water? A sign, but not of magic. A sign of encouragement, presence, and confidence.

I think that too often we look for the Hollywood Jesus stuff—supernatural miracles that are fit for 3D or IMAX. We want God to be an in-your-face action hero that blows us away with thunder and lightning, high mountaintops, raging seas, feeding of 5000, walking on water, and massive miracles. But the reality is that most of our lives we are walking on the ground, living day to day. Most of the time we’re not on high mountaintops or surrounded by raging seas or experiencing massive miracles.

Many days we’re trying to figure out how to pay our bills, send a kid to college, keep our job or find a new job; get through school, and sometimes, we’re just hoping to wake up in the morning and get out of bed.

So where are the signs in real life?

This is where the John story does speak to me. I argue that we overthink the signs. We want something miraculous and overwhelming; supernatural, maybe. But why?

Signs are everywhere, and we don’t have to look far.

It is about how much we decide to pay attention, and usually that means that we’ll have to slow down. Signs don’t come easy to those whose lives are one multi-task moment after another. The entire natural world around us is full of signs. But you won’t notice them if you speed past them or just consider them background noise.

Your feelings are signs. They are trying to tell you something. Are you listening?

Your physical body gives you signs every day. Are you paying attention?

Your dearest friends say and do things that are signs for you to notice. Are you noticing?

I encourage you to spend less time waiting for some miraculous event or a supernatural sign. Instead, expect to see signs in your day-to-day life.

Pay attention to them.

And this will feed you in an unexpected way.


The Wine of New Realities or….PURA VIDA!

Check out: John 2:1-11


Costa Rica is a beautiful country. I just returned to the icy cold of Philly after 17 days in Central America. Costa Rica shares borders with Nicaragua [on the north] and Panama [on the south].  It’s hard to describe just how beautiful of a place it is. When Maria and I landed in its capital city, San Jose, we were instantly overwhelmed by the natural beauty all around us. San Jose is located in the Central Valley, the most heavily populated region of Costa Rica. The Central Valley is surrounded by volcanoes—some of them still active.

Here is a picture I took of the crater at the Poaz Volcano.
poazNow if you expect it to be hot and humid in CR, think again. In the morning and at night, we wore sweaters or light jackets. During the day, it was sunny with low humidity, never reaching above 83 degrees Fahrenheit. Okay, if you’re dealing with frigid temperatures right now [like in Philly], you may be getting mad. After all, it’s January! But I have to tell you more.

Years ago, Costa Rica’s land was nearly 90% rainforests. Sadly, at the start of the sixteenth century, after Europeans and U.S. nationals pushed indigenous tribes out of their homes and started buying and developing land for commerce, Costa Rica’s tierra madre [mother earth] suffered greatly. Due to massive industrialization and land clearing for coffee, banana, and pineapple fields, the precious rain forests and all the plants and animals that lived there were in danger of extinction.

Consider this: Costa Rica, land-wise, is a small country. And yet, it is home to a mind-boggling 12,000 species of plants;


1239 species of butterflies;


440 species of reptiles & amphibians;


832 species of birds;


and 232 species of mammals.


If you’ve never seen one of these creatures, this is a tree sloth–un oso perezoso. They are amazing. We saw a bunch of them even as we drove down a common road; they were hanging from power lines.
And I assume that I must be related somehow to the tree sloth, because like me, they also spend most of their time sleeping, and even when they are awake, they move very, very slow. My distant cousins, maybe?

Well, actually, I’m probably more closely related to this guy here.
monoHe’s a white-headed capuchin.

I have to say that spending time in the rainforests of Costa Rica changed my perspective about a lot of things. I admit that I previously thought that monkeys only lived in the cages of zoos in the Americas. How wrong I was! Costa Rica not only has the white-faced monkey, but also the spider monkey, the howler, and the squirrel monkey—all native to those forests. Sadly, though, as I mentioned before, after European and U.S. conquest of Costa Rica, the amazing plants and animals were in great danger of extinction. It was not until the 1970’s–years after Costa Rica’s independence–that the government and its people were able to put together a plan for sustainability and the rescuing of the rain forests. Today, though the forests and the plants and animals are still threatened, Costa Rica is back to being about 50% rainforest. In fact, the Environmental Performance Index (EPI), a method of quantifying and numerically benchmarking the environmental performance of a country’s policies, rates Costa Rica as the number 5 country in the world for environmental policy and implementation.[1]

My life partner Maria and I were very fortunate to experience the biodiversity of this great country up close.

And we came to adore the Costa Ricans—Ticos–as they affectionately call themselves.
And we learned about a famous phrase they say: Pura Vida.


In English, it doesn’t really translate well. But what pura vida means is full of life or this is living or this is the life. If you tip well at a restaurant, the waiter or waitress may say pura vida! If you try a food or a drink you like and say this is delicious a Tico may say pura vida! If you meet someone in Costa Rica, share a laugh or a joke or a story, see a crocodile, a monkey, a toucan, or a tree sloth–you just might join in and say pura vida! Truthfully, as Maria and I experienced the warm hospitality of Costa Rica’s people, the beauty of its surroundings, the delicious fruits, the foods, and the amazing weather—we started to say, without hesitation, PURA VIDA!

I kind of think pura vida was what Jesus of Nazareth had in mind as he lived and taught people about what it was like to really live. The story of a wedding in Cana and water that becomes wine is precisely about life and living it to the fullest extent. This story has a lot of symbolism in it, so I’d like to start there. And I’d also like to mention that the wedding story is only found in John’s Gospel. That should make sense, though, because the water to wine story is what John’s Gospel calls a signs story. You see, John wrote a lot about the signs that appeared throughout Jesus’ ministry. This Johannine concept of signs is often equated with miracles. But it’s actually more nuanced than that. In John, signs are the better word to describe what Jesus was doing. Jesus didn’t just perform amazing feats of magic [i.e. miracles] to impress people or to make them believe in something. Jesus performed signs, because signs pointed people to something or to someone. And in the majority of cases, the signs of Jesus in John’s Gospel point people to life. Pura vida.

So let’s look closer at the story itself. Right away, our Spidey senses should be tingling as the story starts out with On the third day…What else happened on the third day?

Okay, so we know that this story will be about new life—resurrection, a transformation of the mind, an enlightening; a new perspective. John’s Gospel also likes characters and this story doesn’t disappoint. It’s Jesus and his mom together on stage! The mother of Jesus is never called Mary in John’s Gospel; she only appears here and at the foot of the cross when Jesus dies. So Jesus and mom are at a wedding, and just so you know, weddings of this time and place usually lasted seven days. Notice there is no mention of a wedding ceremony, just the party afterwards. It was customary for guests of the wedding to help contribute to the feast that would last, as I mentioned before, for nearly a week. One would honor the bride and groom [and his/her families] by providing wine and other such things. Wine was important though. Wine was a symbol of abundance. The Hebrew Scriptures talk about that quite a bit. A cup overflows when God blesses. God’s favor pours down from heaven, washing over God’s children. More wine meant more blessing.

Also, wine was [and is] a common, everyday drink, but also a celebratory drink. In Israel and Palestine, people drank wine daily. But they also used different wines [most likely aged, rich, full-bodied wines] to celebrate. So if you’re a guest at a wedding celebration that could last up to seven days, you better have enough wine. Am I right? Well, something happened at this particular wedding. The wine ran out early. This was bad news and would dishonor the couple and perhaps reflect badly on the guests. So Jesus’ mom, clearly a woman of details, told Jesus: They have no wine.

We don’t know why the wine supply ran dry. Were Jesus’ disciples crashing the party? Did Peter have too much to drink? We don’t know, but Jesus responded to his mom. But he didn’t respond in a condescending or scolding way as some people have inferred. When Jesus said to his mom, Woman, this was in fact a common, respectful way to address a female. What concern is that to you and me? My hour has not yet come. Was it Jesus’ fault that they ran out of wine? Did he forget to bring his share or was the Galilean Wine and Spirits store closed on the Sabbath? Jesus didn’t seem convinced that they should do anything about it. And his hour is of course a reference to his death. Maybe it wasn’t the right time to help out?

Actually, Jesus did care, because his mom then said to the people working at the wedding reception, Do whatever he tells you. Jesus hadn’t expressed any intention to change the wine-less party situation. But his mom already knew that he would. She knew something about him; saw something in him that gave her confidence in his ability to remedy this situation.

Do whatever he tells you.

So there were 6 stone water jars that could hold up to twenty or thirty gallons, all empty. The jars were meant for use in Jewish purification rituals. In other words, they were religious implements used for the cleansing of sins. We would call it baptism in our traditions. Fill the jars with water, Jesus told them. So the helpers filled the jars to the brim [remember that Hebrew Scripture God-Abundance-focus]. Then Jesus told them to pour some out and give it to the head guy in charge of the wedding for a taste test. The steward tasted the water which was now wine, and was clueless as to where it came from. The helpers knew, though. John wants us to know that the helpers saw the sign first.

Well, at this point, the steward is confused. So he found the groom and expressed this head-scratching detail: at a wedding feast, everybody always serves the best wine first, and then once people are getting toasted [drunk], the mediocre, box wine comes out. But you, says the steward, saved the best wine for last. It is a sign, says John’s Gospel, a revelation of God’s work.

A million things to say about this, but I’ll keep it short. I’m drawn to a couple parts of this story: first, Jesus’ mom saying: Do what he tells you to do; and second, the hour has not yet come.

#1: Do what he tells you to do. I really, really wonder what Christianity as a religion would be like if we actually did do what Jesus told us to do. Seriously, think about it. Equality, acceptance, love, and honor for all people—not just some, but ALL people. The so-called servants are the ones who see signs and even participate in the miracle. Jesus’ God is not a punisher, accuser, or lightning bolt-holding terror who waits for us to make mistakes so we can be found guilty. Jesus’ God wants cups and jars to overflow with the best wine which is a symbol of abundant life—pura vida! Jesus lived and taught that such a God cares more for the poor than for the rich, powerful, and esteemed of society. Do what he tells you to do. Love and care for all creation and protect the vulnerable, oppressed, and hurt. Do it.

Second, the hour has not yet come. It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend. Hundreds of thousands of kids, youth, and adults will participate worldwide in service projects, community building, education, and interfaith engagement. Much of what we talk about and hear about Rev. King each January focuses on his “I Have a Dream” speech and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom [the Great March], which took place on August 28th, 1963. Though I am certainly a great big fan of the I Have a Dream speech, it is only one sound bite in King’s legacy and the dream that he spoke of was not limited to merely signing civil rights legislation. King desired equality, respect, love, and acceptance for all people of all races, religions, cultures, and countries. If he were with us today, he would most certainly say what Jesus said: the hour has not yet come.

The dream is not fulfilled.

We still hate and hurt, destroy and kill. We still discriminate, push people to the back of the bus, turn a blind eye to prejudice and poverty, and ignore our neighbor’s needs. The hour of the dream has not yet come. The new, fully vibrant wine meant for everyone is still undiscovered.

And so, in a world that can often seem so lifeless, how does this wedding story teach us to live?

Martin Luther King said it: The time is always right to do what’s right.[2]

All the signs point us there.

It doesn’t matter how things are going for us today or tomorrow. We ought to do what is right. We ought to create community where everyone can experience a full life; this means we’ll have to get rid of the things that take away people’s ability to live well. We should stop using religion or a god as a way to separate people or control them; instead, we should point to the signs of God’s love and grace, sharing OUR love and grace with all people, no matter what. The reality of God’s grace is not real unless we share it openly, never keep it for ourselves, nor limit it to only a few.

Jars need to be filled and overflow, and they need to be shared. People need signs that point them to love, community, and acceptance. The routines of religion and habit won’t do; the jars are filled with a new, delicious beverage of wisdom and transformed perspective. So participate. Do. Live. Share grace. Amen.

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., Oberlin College, Oberlin College, Assembly Speaker 1963-64.

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