It’s nice to be back after a few weeks of vacation. As many of you know, my wife Amanda and I had hoped to be in Spain this summer to walk the Camino again. That obviously isn’t possible this year, so we decided to do the next best thing. We stayed at a friend’s cottage for two weeks, and spent most mornings going on long walks, usually 20 kilometres. This is an excellent way to calm right down and enjoy the beautiful countryside.
I don’t own a cottage, but over the past few weeks I got to enjoy that unique rhythm that comes from cottage life. Many of you know this well from experience – time has a way of slowing down at the cottage. Clock time doesn’t seem so important. Instead, time gets measured in terms of whether it is swim 0’clock, nap o’clock, even drink o’clock. That last one seems to vary a lot from cottage to cottage.
Just as time shifts at the cottage, so does our attention. Many people like to go down to the water or a good vantage point to watch the sun go down every day. One of the joys of cottage life and hiking for that matter is that you get a chance to appreciate the natural beauty of the world. This is possible in the city, too, and I know many of you enjoy going for walks through ravines and places like Mt Pleasant Cemetery. But on vacation, it just seems easier to open up and appreciate nature even more, perhaps because there are far fewer distractions.
I felt that very often in the past two weeks. I spent a lot of time walking down country roads past farms. My eye was drawn to circling turkey vultures over head, and to the errands being run by osprey eagles as they delivered fish to the young ones in their nests. I was particularly struck by the beauty of the wildflowers that seemed to lead my way along the road.
Simple flowers like Queen Anne’s Lace, bluebells, buttercups, and others.
They seemed to be like my guides, marking my way.
I also marvelled at the beauty of the little and big birds around us – the yellow American goldfinches, the osprey eagles, the cardinals, the wonderful songs of the sparrows.
What struck me as I walked was that none of this beauty was for me. The birds, the beautiful butterflies, the flowers – they were all leading their own lives. Unlike the flowers we cultivate, these wildflowers by the road had not been engineered by us to be pleasing to the human eye. Instead, their beautiful looks and sounds were for their own business of getting by. The birds have calls to help them keep track of each other’s position, and to attract mates. The wildflowers have colours designed to attract bees and other pollinators like wasps and butterflies. In fact, scientists tell us that many flowers have colours which only bees can see, so the patterns we see in a wildflower aren’t even the whole picture.
And yet, we do reap the benefits. Walking down a farmer’s road, or through a forest, or sitting on a dock, we are the recipients of a bounty of excessive, gratuitous natural beauty. Nature could get all of this done in drab colours and sounds, but it doesn’t. The flower has no idea what joy it brings to us, but the joy is real. Does the yellow bird have any idea that simply flying from this tree to that delights the casual bird watcher? Or does the loon have any notion that its lonely, haunting cry defines time away from the city?
The world is awash in a bounty of beauty which is a form of grace to us all, if we take time to notice. It is like we have inherited a kingdom but we have no idea what we did to deserve it.
I like to think that the day that Christ fed the 4000, they were sitting in a meadow where wildflowers grew. Versions of this story is featured in all four of the gospels, so it made a very big impression on Christ’s followers – they insisted it needed to be included in the book version of Jesus’ life. To modern ears, the story seems flat out impossible. Christ has been healing the crowds for days, and they have run out of food. The disciples want to send them home – they can’t afford to buy enough bread for them all. But Jesus has a different idea. He asks for how much food they do have. It’s not much – two fish and five loaves. Not nearly enough.
But Christ blesses the food, and it multiplies, so that it becomes more than enough for everyone. Now, to our modern ears this story poses many problems. It breaks the laws of physics, so it seems flat out impossible. The people who believed this story must have been out of their heads, superstitious rubes who would believe anything they heard. Now, just for the sake of logic, the New Testament presents Christ as God in human form, so by rights, God can do anything God wants. The fact that you or I can’t do this proves nothing. Could God do it? Sure. God makes all of creation possible, why not this?
But even if we grant that Jesus actually did this, another problem arises. What difference does it make? Sure, it’s very nice that Christ was able to feed a huge crowd that day. But since no one else can do it, does it really matter that Jesus did this really, really nice thing on that one day long ago? Is this just more proof that Jesus is nice? We have lots of examples of that. So, what does this story prove, and why is it in all four gospels?
This picture may provide a clue. It shows the miracle. We see fishes and loaves. It was painted in a catacomb, an underground tomb, three centuries after Christ. If you look carefully, you’ll see that something is wrong with this picture. The number of fish and loaves is incorrect. There’s one extra basket here, even though the text clearly says that 7* baskets were collected. People back then knew their bible far better than we do, so this is not a detail they would get wrong of ignorance. Instead, scholars believe that the extra basket is there to make the viewer realize that what matters most about this miracle is not how much bread or fish was multiplied.  What matters is the spiritual principle which made the miracle happen.
The picture is reminding us that Christ took what he had, a few loaves and fishes, and by following the way of God, he multiplied them. The point is that when we follow God’s way, we don’t need to have the power to snap our fingers and make something come out of thin air. Christ probably could have done that, but the gospel writers insist on showing that human beings who follow God’s way can take what little they have, and make it grow, with God’s help. When we act in a godly way, asking for God’s help, it doesn’t matter how little we have, we can get stuff done, and things will grow and multiply.
We see this in the natural world all the time. The beautiful birds who bring us joy just by going about their business. The flowers which are beautiful but have no reason to be pleasing to the human eye. The oak tree which each year will drop up to 100,000 acorns, feeding hundreds of squirrels and birds who else eats acorns? Nature works on the excessive grace principle – it has God’s fingerprints all over it.
But how does this apply to us? How do we make this kind of difference? There are times in everyone’s life when our lives feel like they have been pointless. We’ve just been taking up space. We haven’t accomplished much, or not as much as we wanted. 10 years, 100 years, who will remember us? We’ll just be a statistic, and probably a forgotten one at that.
A little while before I went on my vacation, I was in my back shed, praying and meditating. That’s my man cave, I guess. As I was sitting there, all calm and open, hearing the birds and the wind, I heard a new sound. My neighbour was whistling in his garage. It was beautiful. Now, my neighbour is not a professional whistler, if those even exist. He was just happy, puttering in his garage. He had no idea I was there. But his whistling was beautiful, and it made me happy.
That’s what life is like all the time. You may not know it, but you are bringing happiness to people all the time, just as much as any wildflower or pretty bird. You have no idea how someone has appreciated the fact that you stayed standing on the bus or subway, so they could have your seat, and you didn’t even know they needed it. You’ll never know how many ways you have brought a smile to someone else, what classmate admired your laugh or was brought joy as you raced down a field playing sports. People may feel their neighbourhood is a better place because you keep up your garden, or have decided to stay in your building because of decisions you’ve supported on the condo board. The way you dress may have inspired others, or you may have given someone a laugh on the wheel trans that made that driver’s day turn around.
God has blessed each and everyone one of us with simple gifts which have been rippling out into the universe every second we have been alive. That is part of the beauty of life. As Christians we are taught that God is generous, and we are invited to join that ongoing picnic that Jesus started that day with the 4000 and their families. If this much beauty can be accomplished without us even knowing it, among birds, flowers and our own lives, unconsciously, the possibilities are astounding when we decide to work with God in making the world more kind, more loving, more compassionate. Don’t worry about how little you have to give – God will multiply whatever you have. That’s God’s way. It works for flowers, birds and bugs. The difference is that you’ve been given a chance to know how this divine system works, to join in the chorus, to whistle in the garage on purpose.
 William Palmer, An Introduction to Early Christian Symbolism, (London, 1885), 4.