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Bishop Woodie White Bishop Woodie White

Bishop Woodie White was the bishop of the Indiana Area conference of the United Methodist Church, and now is Bishop in Residence at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, GA.

Member of:

United Methodist Church

Representative of:

United Methodist Church
Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA


I Love a Mystery

Matthew 14:13-21

August 04, 2002

Have thine own way, Lord
Have thine own way
Thou art the Potter
I am the clay. Amen.

My earliest images and world view were formed by radio. I grew up in what was called the heyday of radio. All across America, in that period, persons huddled around a pictureless box. Families and groups of children and young people had their special times to gather and to listen - not look at - their favorite programs.

To this day, I can remember my mother and grandmother seated at a table or in a favorite chair glued as they listened.

I remember the programs well - "Ma Perkins," Lorenzo Jones and his wife Belle, "Stella Dallas," "Young Widow Brown." Then, of course, there were my favorites: "Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy," "Captain Midnight," "Sergeant Preston of the Yukon," and three times a week - Monday, Wednesday, and Friday - there was "The Lone Ranger." It seemed every Sunday night every radio in America tuned in to hear those haunting words:

"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows."

But there was one program I remember especially well, for when possible, we would listen to it with lights out or a few on to increase the tension. The program: "I Love a Mystery." Many nights I would retire to bed just a bit unsettled after listening to some suspenseful radio drama, especially ones called "Suspense" and "I Love a Mystery."

Today's gospel lesson is one filled with suspense and mystery. It is a familiar story. There are actually three versions of the same event. In addition to the Matthew account, there is the same telling in Mark and in Luke.

Jesus and his followers were in a large gathering in Galilee. The time spent there must have been considerable, for there was some concern that the multitude had grown hungry. Evening approached and the disciples reminded Jesus they should return to the village for food.

Jesus responds, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat."

Well, I can imagine what the disciples must have thought. How absurd! Look at all these people. We hardly have food for ourselves! But, instead, they responded, "We have only five loaves here and two fish."

Then Jesus orders the crowd to sit down on the grass. He takes the two fish and the five loaves, lifts them up to heaven, blesses and breaks them, and then gives them to the disciples to distribute among the crowd. The scripture, in almost matter-of-fact, understated language, says, "And they all ate and were satisfied." Then to drive home the point of this miraculous occurrence, the scripture announces, "And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over."

And then it says, "...those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children."

There must be a place in one's life for mystery. Even in an age that seems to make scientific advances beyond imagining and explores the broad regions of space, there must still be a place for mystery.

This miracle and others performed by Jesus have always been open to examination and biblical scholarship and inquiry. Yet, in the midst of it all, there is mystery - that not known or explained fully.

Indeed, if one does not have a place for mystery, one could go mad in today's events, or despair, or become frustrated, or worse, cynical.

There are those events in life when the mind and the spirit seek to comprehend the incomprehensible. Perhaps this is what St. Paul meant when he wrote,

"For now we see in a mirror dimly,
but then we will see face to face.
Now I know only in part,
but then I will know fully,
even as I have been fully known." (1 Cor. 13:12)

Charles Albert Tindley, a great hymn writer, gave us so many familiar hymns such as "Nothing between My Soul and My Savior," "Stand by Me" and "Leave It There." In his hymn "By and By" he seems to suggest that there must be a place for mystery, that which we cannot fully comprehend in this time. He writes:

By and by when the morning comes,
when the saints of God are gathered home,
we'll tell the story how we've overcome,
for we'll understand it better by and by.

What parent has not looked at three or four children and wondered how could they be so utterly different reared in the same home with the same parents hearing the same admonition, embraced by a common love, but, oh, so utterly different.

Mystery!

And who really can explain love? I mean to be in love! Why do you love one and not another? Mystery. Explain the beauty of a sunrise or sunset. Oh, one can explain scientifically what causes it, but one cannot explain the beauty of it.

There must be a place for mystery.

The late Bishop Edwin Boulton of the United Methodist Church once wrote:

I am sorry for the person who has reduced life to the kind of dust that you can hold in the palm of your hand and say, "This is all there is and I understand it all."

I am truly sorry for the person who has all of life reduced to absolute surety. I like to have answers as well as the next person, but there are mysteries galore.

Today you may be facing some heartbreak, some calamity, some tragedy. An unexpected illness has found you. Perhaps some horrific event has overwhelmed you and you seek some rational, some logical one-two-three explanation. And you're certain there is such. Well, life has taught me sometimes there is, but sometimes there isn't.

I believe everyone should have a mystery room called "I don't understand."

Natalie Sleeth has written a beautiful hymn that has spoken to my spirit in such moments. The words are these:

In the bulb there is a flower, in the seed, an apple tree
In cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free.
In the cold and snow of winter, there's a spring that waits to be
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

There's a song in every silence, seeking word and melody;
There's a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me.
From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.

I remember it well. Several years ago, it was the Sunday before Christmas. My mother telephoned from New York, which is my hometown. We talked every Sunday, but this was different. It was early in the morning, and she was crying. It was a mixture of joy and sadness, and she kept saying again and again, "I'm on my way, but it's all right. I want you to know I'm on my way, but it's all right."

Startled, I began to inquire if there was something wrong. She had not been ill, but she attempted to reassure me. "It's all right!" she said. "It's all right. I'm on my way, but it's all right."

Our phone conversation finally ended. A few days later, as I was leaving for a Christmas Eve service, the phone rang again. It was my aunt telling me my mother was on the way to the hospital. She had taken ill, but it did not appear serious.

Later that evening, I asked my wife if she would mind if I flew to New York on an early Christmas morning flight. What I would do would surprise my mother for she did not know I was coming. I'd spend time with her and get a later flight back home in time for Christmas dinner. My wife agreed. So I went to New York that Christmas morning, arriving at the hospital, only to learn that hours earlier, my mother's condition had taken a turn for the worse. Sadly, in hours she was gone.

The telephone conversation that Sunday morning that I had with my mother was to be our last. I left the hospital, went to the apartment building where my mother lived. To my utter surprise, she had everything waiting for me - receipts for all bills paid, insurance policies. The neighbor in the next apartment, upon my arrival, gave me my mother's keys, saying, "Your mother told me to give you this when you got here!" I didn't tell my mother I was coming on Christmas. Mystery.

Charles Albert Tindley said it: "We'll understand it better by and by."

There must be a place in life for mystery.

Let us pray.

In our end is our beginning; in our time infinity;
In our doubt there is believing, in our life eternity.
In our death, a resurrection, at the last a victory,
unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
Amen.


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