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)

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