Remembrance Sunday sermon from David – click to open – Remembrance Day 2018
Two sermons from David on 16 September 2018 – click to open;
From 8 o`clock – Trinity 16 BCP
From 10 o`clock – Feeding of the 5000
St John the Evangelist was on his death bed, surrounded by his devoted disciples. ‘Master,’ the pleaded, ‘Give us a word before you die.’
‘Beloved,’ John croaked, ‘Let us love one another, for God is love.’
‘But you’ve said that already,’ they complained.
‘There is nothing more to be said,’ John gasped with his final breath.
‘You shall love the Lord your God, lock, stock and barrel, and your neighbour as yourself,’ Jesus declared. ‘And after that, no one dared ask him any more questions.’ An enviable reputation which folk like Teresa May would bust a gut for. Love God, love your neighbour, love yourself: after that, what more could be said?
Except I don’t think we are very good at loving ourselves. My experience of walking alongside thousands of people over the years is that folk tend to be very hard on themselves, judge themselves very harshly, and feel they are simply unworthy of being loved. In part the blame lies with Christianity, always lecturing us that we are miserable sinners. In part it’s a cocktail of guilt peddled by the world, that we have been very naughty, have broken it and we jolly well ought to fix it. Whatever it is, be it climate change, or nuclear proliferation, or pollution, or simply the latest food fads. I am made to feel bad about driving a diesel, bad about eating meat, bad about eating eggs, on and off, bad about heating my home, bad about leaving Europe, bad about staying in Europe, bad about being a priest, very bad about being a bishop. You are almost made to feel bad about being good.
Whereas Jesus commands you to love yourself. Who are you to defy Jesus, to ignore his explicit command? Take yourself off to a quiet place and indulge yourself, take a long, hard look at your life. Run the film of your life, all the glorious moments, and no life is devoid of glory, as well as all the knocks and wounds which you have managed not just to survive, but to rise above. As well as all the knocks and wounds you’ve dealt out: be gentle with yourself, think on all the stresses and tensions you were coping with, which made you snap. Hear Jesus throughout, saying ‘Love yourself.’ In all those situations, so personal to you, think of Jesus beside you, loving you so much. Christ loves you so much he can’t take his eyes off you.
I recall visiting a very gracious lady who was paralysed with gloom and remorse about the way she had treated her late father-in-law, who had lived with her and her husband in his declining years. She hadn’t beaten him up or anything, she just regretted the times when her patience had snapped and she had told him off. I got her to describe an average day with dad, and to be honest he sounded like the most miserable, curmudgeonly git ever created. ‘Dorothy,’ I blurted out, ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself. You deserve a medal. I’d have throttled him after half an hour.’ She burst out laughing, but it was a moment of liberation, a moment when she laughed and loved herself rather than hating herself.
She made a massive career-change and went on to be a matron of an old people’s home, and was the kindest most patient matron you could ever find. She even kept an eye on my dad in his final years when we were far away in Cardiff. When you dare to obey Christ’s command and love yourself, and what’s more feel you are loved and cherished by Christ, then that love overflows.
And letting it flow clears the way for more love to flood in. Dam love up and it goes sour, just like God’s gracious gift of manna went sour in the wilderness when the Israelites hoarded it. Be generous, be profligate in loving your neighbour, so you can be freed up to love yourself. Giving is a tangible mark of that. ‘There will always be someone in need,’ our reading from Deuteronomy stressed. ‘The poor you will always have with you,’ Jesus declared. The poor need us
to open our hands. But more than that, we need them, to break our hearts, break through our walls of self-protection and make us generous.
Are you a Gollum or a Jesus? In the Lord of the Rings, Gollum, originally the most beautiful of creatures, comes across the One Ring and makes it his own, his precious, hiding away, wasting away in the dark and dank, paranoid, killing anyone he suspects is out to steal his treasure. Jesus, although he had everything, clung to nothing, became as lowly as a servant, emptied himself of all but love and was bathed in eternal light. How sour the name of Gollum sounds. How sweet the name of Jesus sounds! Sweet or sour, the choice is yours. Love God, love your neighbour, love yourself, and let love flow.
Laura was a eight year old dancer, fawning upon Pharaoh as he performed a pastiche of Elvis Presley in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, staged by our primary school. Laura got more than carried away with her Sha-waddy-waddy dance and all eyes in the theatre were on her rather than on a by-now distinctly piqued Pharaoh. If history teaches us anything, Pharaohs are best not to be piqued!
The audience laughed, at first gales of laughter of the liberal tolerant sort, ‘What a card this Down’s Syndrome child is!’ Laura’s parents had bravely opted to have her educated mainstream. But then the mood changed to one of total amazement, that any child was capable of giving herself so utterly, in such a lock, stock and barrel way. Here was no less than a latter-day David, who had danced with sheer joy before the Lord when his army had finally taken Jerusalem, even doing cartwheels before his band of adoring maidens, doubly excited because underwear had yet to be invented. His wife Michal had despised him for putting his heart and soul, mind and strength into his gyrations.
No one in our audience despised Laura; quite the contrary, the theatre was as one, everyone deeply moved as they witnessed such energy, such giving in totality, which simultaneously thrilled and shamed us, we who mete out our enthusiasm in ounces when God measures it in tons.
Love God, love your neighbour, love yourself, and let love flow.
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d anything.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
WIDOW’S MITE 21 OCT 18
About 20 years ago my mother became very ill with a rare type of brain tumour. So rare that the Doctors admitted they were quite stumped about how to treat her. It was an agonising time for my sisters and I and my father as we saw my mother’s health deteriorate week by week.
One day, after work in London I popped into the very prestigious and famous book store Foyles, and because, I suppose, my mother’s condition was always on my mind, I found myself browsing in the medical section.
Imagine my surprise when I came across a small paperback book of about 60 pages whose title was the name of the rare type of brain tumour my mother had and whose contents outlined various ground-breaking research and treatment options.
I flicked through the pages and knew I just had to have the book to help us as a family understand more about my mother’s condition and perhaps even assist the doctors. I started to walk towards the cash desk to pay when I thought I’d better check the price for this slim volume. There in pencil on the inside cover was the figure. £175. £175! 20 years ago. For a paperback! For a moment I hesitated. This was silly money. I couldn’t really afford it.
But it was only for a second. I loved my Mum and would give all that I had to try to make her well. £175 to help her was cheap at twice the price. I bought the book. Took it to the next meeting with my mum’s consultant who took it away and studied it and explored various new treatment options as a result. I have never told anyone in my family how much that book cost as money was never the issue.
And I’m not telling you this story now to big me up but to illustrate the fact that I, and I am sure you too, know all about sacrificial giving for our loved ones.
If there is something our nearest and dearest needs, or that would make them very happy, most of us find ourselves being generous to a fault. Caution is thrown to the wind. We go beyond what would be prudent to give, even beyond what we can easily afford to give. We may be prepared to dig into our savings, put life goals on hold for the sake of the one we love.
We are all familiar with the concept of generous giving. And we recognise it as a noble, sacrificial, thing.
Now, let’s think by contrast, about how we go about giving money to other causes – ones we’re not that personally invested in for instance a charity that doesn’t excite our interest that much, or a whip round for a not very popular colleague’s leaving present. We don’t mind giving a bit, but the amount we end up donating is relatively small and comes out of the surplus we have after we’ve taken care of not just our needs, but also our wants, and the naughty but nice treats on top.
What we give to these causes is from the bounty we have. It doesn’t hurt, indeed sometimes we hardly notice the amount that has gone. It is still giving, and good as such, but not in the same order as the sacrificial giving we were thinking about earlier.
In our Gospel reading today Jesus looks into the hearts of His hearers then and now. He contrasts the widow’s modest but sacrificial offering with the larger but less “costly” gifts of the richer worshippers that day. Jesus taught a lot about money and possessions– more than 10% of his sayings were on this topic more than He said about sex, or hell, or salvation.
In his teaching He argued that how we chose to handle our money, ultimately given to us by God, said something about our relationship with God. And He called His followers to look beneath the surface of their giving to what it said about their spiritual health.
So this morning I invite us to consider how we decide how much we give to God – both to the church and other causes we feel called to support. Do we fish around in our purse or wallet when we come to church and give a bit of what happens to be there that day? Or do we plan our giving and commit to give week by week whether or not we’re there, either through envelopes, standing orders or such like?
Thank you if you do give a planned amount regularly as of course the church’s outgoings are the same week by week whether or not we’re there, and it is very useful indeed for the finance team and PCC to know how much money is guaranteed to be coming in regularly.
But even if we give in this planned, regular way our Gospel reading poses a further more challenging question. What does the amount we are giving, proportionate to what we have, say about our relationship with God? When I say giving to God I mean to causes He has put on our hearts. In my experience this almost always includes giving to the church we’re a member of, but it very often extends beyond that to other needs and issues He has drawn us to.
Are we giving generously, even sacrificially to God perhaps cutting back on our luxuries to give to what God has put on our heart? Or are we giving from the metaphorical equivalent of the crumbs that have fallen from our table small amounts that are hardly missed, if we’re honest?
How we decide what we give, and how much that is proportionate to what we have, is of course just between each of us and God. It is no one else’s business and we are not answerable to anyone but God. But we cannot cheat God. He knows how much we have. He knows how much we could spare to give if we chose to do so. How much we would be prepared to give for a loved one.
And the irony is not lost on Him if the amount we choose to give Him is nearer what we’d give to a not very popular work colleagues leaving gift, than what we’d give to someone we care deeply for.
I have to admit I feel uncomfortable sharing these thoughts with you as it is very un-English to talk about money and I don’t want to offend anyone, or put anyone on the spot. But the teaching I am sharing this morning is Christ’s teaching and I feel its important we address these issues together.
St Augustine said; “Find out how much God has given you and from it take what you need; the remainder is needed by others.”
I pray that God will give me and us all soft, open, hearts, to hear what he is saying about what we need and what we should give. And that having heard from Him we will do His will.
Well something I’m sure we all find challenging at some time or another is adapting to change. And yet we live in a time which seems to be one of constant change. And it’s the same for the Church too as we seek to reach out to a changing world with the unchanging message of the gospel – the good news of Jesus.
And, of course, a big change for us here was when we become part of the North Scarborough Group ministry not all that long ago. And I suppose in some ways it’s something we’re still getting used to – and yet having said that I think there’s much to celebrate in what has been achieved so far. But then, there’s still some way we can go in building stronger ties across our churches and reminding ourselves of our place within it all and also committing ourselves to working and going forwards together.
Well I’ll be developing some of these thoughts a little more later on but first of all I want to place them within a wider context.
And so let’s start with some words of Jesus when he says: “Come, follow me.” And something we see in the gospels is Jesus calling people to follow him. And as the gospel story unfolds we see him taking a ragtag group of followers, who at one stage seem to have lost the plot, and then, as they journey with him, we see him moulding and shaping them into a group of people who could be entrusted with taking his mission to the ends of the earth.
And the Christian life itself is often likened to a journey – a journey that begins when we come to Christ and takes a life time to complete. And I suppose the person who made this most clear is John Bunyan who in prison (for his beliefs) had a dream which became a book called the Pilgrim’s Progress. And it’s an allegory of the Christian life – a journey in which the central character ‘Christian’ begins the way of salvation and eventually arrives in the celestial city having had many dramatic adventures along the way.
And it’s not surprising really that the Christian life should be likened to a journey as the early followers of Jesus were originally called, followers of ‘The Way’ which meant the road or the journey. And didn’t Jesus himself say: “I am the way.”
And in much the same way as our individual Christian lives can be likened to a journey – when we come together corporately as the Church we’re also on a journey. But let us be clear by what we mean by the Church. As I’m sure you’ve heard many times before, the church is not really the building but the people, the fellowship of believers – living stones as it says in the New Testament. We are the Church. We are the body of Christ in this place, in this locality with a calling and the enabling of the Holy Spirit to continue with the mission of Jesus and to be an ambassador for him.
And St. Paul uses this metaphor of a body to show that the church like a human body is made up of many parts which are all dependent on one another to function efficiently and healthily. As St Paul says:
‘the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary those parts of the body that seem weaker are indispensable’
And so we too – each one of us, all have a part to play in supporting and encouraging each other in the body of Christ; and to build each other up in the faith. We are all part of one another – all part of one body. And if we are together the body of Christ, we need one another, not only for the health of the body as a whole, but also to enable each individual to function at their full potential.
And so as a fellowship of believers we are journeying together. But as in any journey it’s one in which things can happen along the way and we can slow down or even come to a standstill. We can even go backwards or if we are not careful stray from the path and lose our way.
And there’s quite a vivid example of this from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress if we can go back to that for a moment. And it’s where ‘Christian’ and his companion near the end of their journey and they reach the edge of the Jordan River. And from where they are standing they can see on the other side the heavenly city. But at this point Christian’s friend says, “I’m not going through the river and he turns and walks down a side path, hoping there’s another way to the heavenly city.” And Bunyan writes, “And in my dream I saw there’s a road to hell even at the gates of heaven.”
Well we need to keep on going and keep our eyes focussed on the Lord Jesus. And it seems clear to me from Scripture that God’s desire is for us to keep moving in the direction in which he is leading. ‘Let us keep in step with the Spirit’ is what Paul says to the churches in Galatia.
And for us here at St Laurence’s if we are seeking to keep in step with the Spirt there will be times when God will call us into places and situations we’ve never been before: places and situations which will create not only new opportunities but new challenges as well. It’ll not always be easy but when he calls we need to follow where he is leading.
And there’s a fascinating image that often comes to mind when I think of the different stages in my own personal journey of faith. And it’s in the Old Testament story of the Exodus as God leads his people across the desert to the Promised Land. In the text it says:
‘By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light.’
And when the people were camped this cloud would rest above the tent of the tabernacle but when it lifted it was a sign they were to pack up and move to the next stage of their journey and into a new place and a new situation. And if we think of it in modern day terms that cloud speaks to me of God’s presence amongst his people.
And it was not long ago when we, at St. Laurence’s moved into this new stage of our journey as we became part of the North Scarborough Group Ministry. I like to think of it as if the cloud of God’s presence lifted and moved us into a new set of relationships with new opportunities and new challenges. A coming together with others but still all one in Christ. And we find an echo of this in our reading from Ephesians when Paul speaks of Jesus bringing Jew and Gentile together and making them one in him.
And if we go back to the Old Testament nation of Israel for a moment – these were a people given a special calling by God. Abraham and his descendants were called to be a ‘light to the Nations.’ But somehow over time they strayed from the path and by the time of Jesus had lost their way. Instead of being a light to the rest of the world they had built dividing walls to separate themselves from everyone else. An example of this could be seen in the temple in Jerusalem where there was an inscription on the wall warning those who were not Jews to go no further into the temple courts – as if they did, they would only have themselves to thank for their death, which would inevitably follow.
Dividing walls – and that’s what walls do – they determine who’s in and who’s out; who’s included and who’s excluded. And there are not only physical walls we can see with our eyes but also the invisible walls of the heart. And it’s walls that keep people apart and it’s walls that make people suspicious and distrustful of one another: yet there’s something about human nature that wants to build walls.
And we catch something of this in a poem by the popular American poet, Robert Frost called ‘Mending Wall.’ And it’s the poem mentioned in the last issue of ‘parishlife.’ And it’s really a metaphor for the things that divide people. In fact, it’s one that President Kennedy quoted from when he inspected the Berlin Wall in June 1973. And what the poem does is to describe two neighbouring farmers who routinely each spring meet up to patch up a rock wall after the ravages of snow and ice over winter have broken it down. Together the narrator and his neighbour, between whose properties the wall runs, patiently put the wall back together stone by stone. But as they do this, the narrator begins to question the point of the wall in the first place as neither of them keep any livestock that are going to stray and they both grow different crops. He sees no reason for the wall to be kept at all. The neighbour doesn’t really have an answer to the question, yet will not be swayed from keeping the wall. He simply keeps trotting out something he remembers his father saying: “Good fences make good neighbours.”
But that then takes us to the heart of the reading we had from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus as there can be walls within churches and between churches. And these can be some of the most difficult. As for Ephesus this was a mixed church made up of Jews and Gentiles – two very different groups of people at one time separated by culture, ethnicity, religious practices and beliefs. And yet, in this new Christian community they are brought together through their new found faith in Jesus and into a new identity
It’s no longer a case of who’s in and who’s out; who’s near to God and who’s far from God. Through the cross of Jesus, the dividing wall that used to stand between the two has been torn down
And this speaks very much to our world today. While it may be the inclination of humankind to put up walls; it’s the inclination of God, through Jesus to pull them down. And God’s purpose is for inclusion, not exclusion, it’s to bring us closer to him and to one another.
And as I was reflecting on what this morning’s readings might be saying to us in the North Scarborough Group today – some well-known words of a hymn, we often sing, kept coming to mind – the one that says:
‘Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live. A place where saints and children tell how hearts learn to forgive. Built of hopes and dreams and visions, rock of faith and vault of grace; here the love of Christ shall end all divisions.’
And we live in an area of rich diversity don’t we, and that is reflected in our churches. Yes they are all different with different needs – yet we are all one in Christ Jesus. This is who we are – the body of Christ in this area and ‘if one part suffers’ says Paul ‘every part suffers with it’ and therefore we all need to support and encourage one another and to build each other up. To draw alongside and to give practical help where one might be struggling
And wouldn’t it be good if each one of us could seek to reach out across the group and also to other churches to build new relationships and friendships. And so let’s together build a house where love can dwell.
And if we are to keep in step with the Spirit isn’t that what we should be seeking to do – to build the household of faith in this area of North Scarborough.
a house where love can dwell;
a house full of grace, friendship and forgiveness;
a house where all dividing walls have been dismantled;
a house full of people who are passionate about Jesus; and
a house where all are welcome. Amen.
Philip Newell (Reader)
Sermon preached at St Laurence’s, Scalby at a service of Holy Communion on Sunday 14th October 2018
Dear Friends, as you’ll see from the heading above, I am not just Vicar of Scalby but three other parishes. What’s more we are part of a wider grouping called the North Scarborough Group Ministry (NSGM), which also includes the parishes of Cloughton and Newby. Reverend Mike Leigh and I are full-time stipendiary clergy for the Group, and we are fortunate to have been joined recently by Rev Shena Moray, based with Mike at Newby, who is a newly ordained curate, with us for three to four years. To be able to offer worship in all the churches across the Group, we are supported by a number of retired clergy, and Readers (that is trained lay people, authorised by the Church to preach and lead worship.) I am so grateful to all these who give so much of their time and gifts to minister to us. Without them it would be quite impossible to provide services so frequently across all these locations.
An advantage of having so many people who lead worship across the churches is that a range of styles and approaches are offered, which helps keep us flexible and open to new things. It is a privilege to benefit from so many ministers and, alongside their diversity of styles and approaches, is of course the diversity of the churches themselves within the Group from rural, to suburban, to village locations, from 12th century buildings to relatively modern (1930s) and peopled with ages from 0 to 100 or thereabouts. The temptation can be to stay safely with the people, service styles and buildings we know best, and part of the remit of the NSGM is to encourage us from behind any “walls” we have built up, be they of shyness or fear or reluctance to experience difference.
I am grateful to my Reader colleague Philip Newell who introduced me to a poem by Robert Frost entitled “Mending Wall” which asks whether the walls we experience are in fact necessary at all. It includes the lines
“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offence. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down.”
Frost’s poem speaks to me of the walls we experience in our lives, and challenges us to prevent them being formed in the first place, and to work to see those there come down. Walls within families, between neighbours, between ethnicities, classes, age- groups, between nations, between churches and denominations. So many walls.
The Bible teaches Jesus Christ through His life, death and resurrection broke down the dividing wall between God and humankind, and also between groups of humans at odds with one another. God longs for us all to know peace with Him, and with one another, and my hope and prayer is that our churches across the NSGM become more and more places where His peace is experienced, and our church members more and more known in their local communities as workers for peace at every level.
But, of course, the desire and work for peace is undertaken by people of all faiths and none.
Especially at this season of Remembrance in this centenary year of the end of the First World War, I know very many of us are drawn to commit ourselves afresh to work for peace wherever we experience its absence. As the popular song goes, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me”
Well we are continuing in Matthew’s gospel and today we are looking at the miracle of the feeding of the 5000. But before we get into what that might be saying to us today I’d like spend a little time beforehand looking at some of the background. And the situation is that Jesus’ cousin, John – John the Baptist has just been murdered by Herod. And Herod is a nasty piece of work and the immoral ruler of this part of the country in which this story takes place. And so as we meet Jesus in chapter 14 he is grieving over the loss of his cousin John, a young man of about 30 years old. And it’s a tragedy that such a young man in the prime of his life, with a huge ministry should have his life cut short by a cruel and evil king.
And I wonder how we would we feel in a situation like that if we had just lost someone close to us in such a terrible way? And most people I think would want to hide away, to be alone, and to withdraw and not to be troubled by crowds of people. And for Jesus it’s been a hectic time and on top of that he has now received this shock news that his cousin has been brutally murdered and he probably might be next. And understandingly Jesus slips away for some time to be alone, but it’s not long before the crowds discover where he is and begin to throng around him. And contrary to what we might normally expect in a situation like this, his reaction to them is not frustration, it isn’t anger, it’s not annoyance. Here is what we read in v.14
‘When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.’
And what we see is that the sorrow that Jesus felt over John and the sorrow he may have felt for himself, is now turned into sorrow and compassion for the crowds around him and his heart goes out to them.
And in the parallel version of this story in Mark’s gospel it says he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And what we see in this as a very intimate and personal metaphor for the care, protection and guidance that the Lord gives to those who turn to him in faith. And you can almost hear in this echoes harking back to the Old Testament and Psalm 23. And I’m sure you know that is the Psalm that begins: ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.’ But it is not that the Lord is just a shepherd. The Psalm says: ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’ And that speaks of a personal relationship. And our faith is not just an empty religion, it’s a living and personal relationship we can have with the Lord Jesus Christ, who is very much alive today.
And as Jesus ministers to those in need around him we can begin to hear further echoes from this same Psalm. The Good shepherd meets our needs. He restores the sheep. He has the sheep to lie down in green pastures. And as it says in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has the people to sit or recline on the green grass.
Now we need to still bear in mind that Jesus’ intention in coming to this place was not to minister but to take a break, to get some peace and to get some rest. He’s already had a taxing ministry schedule and is still grieving over the death of his cousin, John. But as Jesus begins to see some of the desperate needs in the crowd he is stirred to the depths of his heart and moved with compassion. And so he begins to minister to them.
And it’s not just Jesus who is tired but the disciples are tired as well, as they have been assisting Jesus with the ministry. And ministering to needy people can be very demanding and draining. It can take a lot out of you. People can very insistent and demanding. And none of the disciples have anticipated that there were going to be this number of people who would be chasing them across the lakeside. And I’m sure all they wanted to do was to take a break and spend a little time themselves with Jesus.
And I can imagine the sort of thing that may have been going through their minds as the day was wearing on. “Lord I think we’ve done enough for today.” I can imagine someone like Peter saying: “Lord can’t you just tell people to go home – we are just not prepared for this – can’t we just tell them to get lost.” And sometimes we can become very weary with well-doing.
And over the years I’ve been here at St Laurence’s I’ve seen so many of you lovingly care for others and give them support and that’s just been an amazing thing for me to witness. And it’s not unusual, is it for followers of Jesus who have a heart that deeply cares for others and their circumstances to find Jesus again and again bringing others to them to give them help and support.
And I wonder how many times you may have encountered needs that you felt were far bigger and beyond the resources you personally were able to give. Or you may have been faced with circumstances or a problem that was so overwhelming you’ve thought – this is just beyond what I can cope with? Or sometimes you may have felt so tired and worn out that you just couldn’t go on. And in these situations sometimes all we can do is to take it to Jesus and pray. And one of my favourite spiritual writers is the Quaker, Richard Forster and he says this. He says:
‘If we truly love people, we will desire for them far more than it is within our power to give them and this will lead us to prayer.’
And it’s often when we are at the end of our own strength and resources and we turn the whole thing over to the Lord that he steps in and does the unexpected.
Well Jesus and the disciples are continuing to minister to this vast number of people but the disciples are becoming increasingly aware that it’s getting rather late and that these people they are ministering to haven’t had anything to eat all day. And if we look at verse 15 it says: ‘As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so that they can go to the villages and buy some food.”
Now try and imagine – you are one of the disciples, you’re already very tired and hungry. And you suggest to Jesus that it might now be a good time to wind things up but Jesus is having none of it. And this is how he responds. He says: “No – No – they don’t need to go away. – You give them something to eat.”
Well how might you react I wonder? I know I’d be thinking: “What’s he asking us to do now – this is impossible.” And I’m sure what Jesus is doing here is seeking to provoke a response. And there is a response: “Well we have five loaves of bread and two fish but that’s all.” And, of course, that’s barely enough for two people, never mind such a big crowd. And these weren’t loaves as we think of them today, like a Kingsmill or Hovis ‘Best of Both.’ They were actually more like small pancakes or pita bread, little flat cakes or bread that would have been cooked on a stone.
And Jesus says: “Look bring them here to me.” It then says: ‘Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people.’
And so Jesus takes the loaves, lifts his face to heaven and prays and then breaks them and gives them to the disciples. And a possible interpretation of the text (and I’m only saying possible) but a possible interpretation, and what I think happened, is that the bread and fish are multiplying as the disciples are distributing the bread and the fish to the people in the crowd.
In other word it requires their participation and faith. The disciples are actually having to do something. They need to step out in faith.
And so try and imagine the possible scenario. Jesus gives each disciple a little piece of bread and a little piece of fish and sends them up the hill and says: “Now go feed those 400 people over there, Andrew. Peter, you feed those 500 up there.” And I can imagine Peter looking at these little pieces of bread and the fish and saying “this is crazy – why does Jesus get me to do these crazy things? This is embarrassing.” But nevertheless Peter goes up the hill in obedience to Jesus.
And he starts to tear off a little piece of bread, as we do here when we are having an informal communion, and it starts multiplying in his hands. And it’s amazing. And possibly in being so taken up with the task he’s been given he gets caught up in the flow of it. And so he tears off another piece and there is more bread. He starts tearing off more pieces and starts ripping up the fish and they are multiplying – and on it goes. And, of course, as we know when everyone’s eaten there’s more food left at the end than there was at the beginning.
And so what about the personal application for us today. Well I wonder about those times when we encounter a need which, we know is much bigger than our own resources to meet. We long to help but in reality we know there is very little we can actually do. But then what about, when faced with circumstances like these, giving them over to God and saying something to him along these lines. “Lord I acknowledge this is way beyond me but I offer to you whatever I can do to help, however inadequate that maybe for you to use for your glory.” And it’s amazing how, at times, he takes us up on that and often in ways we don’t expect.
And I’ve been reading what Tom Wright says about this and he says:
‘We offer uncomprehendingly, 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 then he goes on to say this: ‘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 meagre resources to offer to him.’
And I think that is amazing! Amen
Philip Newell (Reader)
Sermon preached at St Laurence’s, Scalby at a service of Morning Worship on Sunday 6th August 2017