Sunday, 31 July 2011

you give them something to eat

Isaiah 55.1-5; Matthew 14.13-21
St Thomas the Apostle Finsbury Park
Sunday 31 July 2011

Our gospel reading today starts with Jesus in a state of exhaustion and grief. His cousin and colleague John the Baptist has been beheaded by King Herod. Jesus responds in the way many of us would on hearing bad news. He withdraws to a quiet place to be alone with his thoughts and with feelings of great sadness. This was no ordinary bereavement. For Christ it was a foretaste of his own death; a powerful reminder of the forces that were working against him and would not rest until he had been executed. Who wouldn’t need a bit of space?

But crowds of people still demand his attention. They want to hear more of his stories; learn more about the Kingdom of which he speaks; to bring their sick friends to him to be healed. In spite of his weariness and troubled mind Jesus feels great compassion for the people and performs many healings.

They are in the middle of nowhere. The crowds have followed Jesus out of the villages to this deserted place. The disciples – no doubt mindful of their own hunger and tiredness – suggest to Jesus that he sends the people away so they can buy food.

His response? “You give them something to eat.”
“What with?” they reply. “We’ve got nothing here except some bread and a few fish.”

Here, Jesus exhibits what the Americans might call a can-do attitude. Don’t clutter the situation with your own problems and needs, just feed them. Yes, it is late. Yes, we are in a desolate place. Yes, there is nowhere to buy food. You give them something to eat.

How often do we bring our objections to the call that being a disciple of Christ makes on us. We’re tired. It is not a good time. It’s late. We might even dress up our objections as caring for other, as perhaps the disciples did. “Look at you Jesus, you’re exhausted. Send the people away.”

You give them something to eat.”

Two years of drought in the Horn of Africa have left over 12 million people in need of food. These include half the population of Somalia, many of whom have fled to refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. Not everyone lasts the journey. Others make it as far as the camps only to collapse with exhaustion.

The British fundraising campaign has so far raised £37 million. This is a terrific achievement in such a short space of time, and is typical of the generosity of people in this country in a time of need.

Nevertheless perhaps we could do more. The amount raised equates to about 60p for every person in the country. Of course it is not simply relief aid that is required. The action of the international community is vital in solving some of the problems that this region of Africa faces. Political solutions, technological and agricultural solutions are all required to ensure that the people of the world have enough to eat. It isn’t that we lack the resources or the ability. But the will of wealthy nations to share what they have at the levels necessary seems as lacking as ever.

What is it that stops us from doing more for the poorest people of the world? Like the disciples, we sometimes bring our well-meaning objections to the situation.
“There are so many problems in the world - we don’t have enough to fix them all.”
“The aid doesn’t reach the people who need it.”
“Their governments are corrupt. It is their own fault!”
“We’ve got our own problems. Don’t you know there is a recession on?”
“I’ve already donated £1.”

You give them something to eat.”

Jesus’ command cuts through our objections as much as it did those of his disciples. Like them we may already feel we’ve done the caring thing, made the compassionate suggestion. For Christ, though, our thinking - like the disciples - is sometimes too small. The costliness of following Jesus suddenly becomes costlier still.

Yet, Jesus is able to take whatever little we offer and make the most of it.

As Tom Wright puts it,
“This is how it works whenever someone is close enough to Jesus to catch a glimpse of what he’s doing and how they could help. We blunder in with our ideas. We offer, uncomprehending, what little we have. Jesus takes ideas, loaves and fishes, money, a sense of humour, time, energy, talents, love, artistic gifts, skill with words, quickness of eye or fingers, whatever we have to offer. He holds them before his father with prayer and blessing. Then breaking them so they are ready for use, he gives them back to us to give to those who need them. And now they are ours and not ours. They are both what we had in mind and not what we had in mind... It is part of genuine Christian service, at whatever level, that we look on in amazement to see what God has done with the bits and pieces we dug out of our meager resources to offer to him.”

Food is at the heart of our worship as a community of God. We meet week by week to feast on the goodness and generosity of God. And we can be a bit possessive about that too. “You can’t have it until we know you are really serious, until we know you are one of us or understand what you are participating in,” we object. Are these really objections made in the name of the one who said, “You give them something to eat.”

Perhaps people don’t need to know, or go on a course or be confirmed. Could it be that simply being hungry for God is enough of a reason to allow a person to feast at the table of Christ? That participation in his love feast should be based on need, not understanding. Do we trust the Holy Spirt so little that we have to inhibit her work to those who hunger to be fed?

The love and presence of Christ that we encounter in the Eucharist is not something to be rationed out, or controlled by entry qualifications. Like the 12 baskets of leftovers after the feeding of the 5000 we must trust in God’s abundance. There is more than enough to go round.
“The Lord says this: Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.” [Isaiah 55.1]

You give them something to eat.”

Sara Miles, Take This Bread: a radical conversion (Ballantine Books, 2008)
Tom Wright, Matthew For Everyone part 1 (SPCK, 2002)

Sunday, 24 July 2011

the events of the last week challenge self-serving interpretations of scripture

Today's epistle (Romans 8.26-39) contains some of the best known verses in the New Testament, and are among the most cherished by Christians:
‘All things work together for good for those who love God’
‘If God is for us, who is against us?’
‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ?’

These promises have comforted and reassured Christians throughout the ages. But they have also been distorted to justify inappropriate action - or sometimes a lack of action - on the part of Christians.

Paul’s assertion that ‘God is for us’ has been used by armies to claim divine protection as they set off for war. ‘All things working together for good’ is sometimes glibly treated as a way of imagining that God will get on with the business of caring for his own so that we don’t have to – or, even, that if people are faithful to God nothing bad will happen to them. So if you suffer, it is obviously your own fault. I’ve heard very committed Christians utter the complete tosh that even catching a cold is evidence of a lack of faith.

These are appalling and twisted ways of interpreting the points that Paul was trying to make, and they take his words completely out of context.

If anything should make us think twice about investing cherished Bible verses with naive and self-centred meanings, it is the events that we have seen unfold in the news this week.

Firstly, the worst drought to hit East Africa in 60 years is putting the lives of 11 million people at risk. So far the country worst hit is Somalia, where 1 in every 10 children is at risk of starving to death. Hundreds of thousands of people are already trying to leave the country, many of them dying on the journey or shortly after arriving at aid camps in other countries. The situation is expected to worsen.

God doesn’t call us to sit back and say, ‘Well it will all work out somehow.’ Or that he’ll look after his own. Or that it is their own fault. Or even, as I hear people at St Peter’s say, charity begins at home. Christ’s mission and ministry reached across religious and national divides. God’s preferential option for the poor is not for Christians. It is for poor people, regardless of which faith - or lack of - they adhere to. But we are called to act as Christ’s hands in a suffering world.

The only thing keeping the images of starvation off our television screens at the moment are the actions of a so-called Christian fundamentalist thought to have blown up government buildings in Norway, before pitching up at youth camp and shooting dead 85 people, mainly teenagers. I wonder if he drew strength from the idea that God was for him and nothing could be against him?

Fundamentalism of any sort - Christian, Muslim, Communist, Fascist - is intolerant and oppressive. The actions of this one young man may be extraordinary and exceptional, but they are rooted in the same hatred and fear that fuels all intolerance. There is nothing about the love of Christ present in the actions of the Norwegian gunman, and we stand together with other Christians this morning in saying, “Not in our name.” One of the possibilities already beginning to emerge in the light of Norway is that Christian Europeans might now be better able to identify with, and offer support to, the millions of law-abiding and peaceable Muslims who also say in the aftermath of extremist acts of terror, “Not in our name.”

Paul did not write to the church in Rome to offer bland reassurances that nothing bad would ever happen to them, or that God was on their side and destroying their enemies. The situation in first-century Rome was quite the opposite, with Christians being roundly persecuted. It is in this context that he says, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” These were not imagined possibilities for Roman Christians, they were everyday life. But even in the face of such desperations, Christ love is constant.

Paul quotes Psalm 44, one of the so-called Psalms of Complaint. It is a national lament and a prayer for help. In spite of their faithfulness to God, the people of Israel experience terrible suffering. We’ve heard from our ancestors about all the great things God did, they say. But all we experience is hardship. “For your sake we are being killed all day long, we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

What kind of consolation is Paul offering to the church? Not that God will save his people from suffering, but rather through it and perhaps even because of it [see Tom Wright]. That in some way the hardships encountered are gathered up into God's purposes, and lived out by his people as an extension of Christ's love. We see in the terrible imagery of Jesus Christ on the cross, not the beloved Son of God being saved from his suffering, but rather one who would triumph over it and in so doing extend God’s love to the world.

We have our own share of suffering here at St Peter’s - of terrible illness, of grief, of mental anguish. Paul tells us that in the face of these troubles Christ prays for us. That even when it is hard for us to find the words to say to God the groanings of our heart are understood and carried before God in prayer. What we are promised is that even in terrible suffering God the Father stands alongside us, God the Son brings hope, and God the Spirit brings healing.

As a community of God’s people we share the conviction with which Saint Paul ends this passage,
“...that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”