The readings on which this sermon is based are found at: http://users.bigpond.net.au/frsparky/r129.htm
s129g03 Lockleys 27/6/2003 Sunday 17
"É when he had given thanks, he distributed them É" John 6:11
This is one of the major miracles that Jesus performed. It is one of the very few incidents which are recorded by all four evangelists, and so rather unique. In a world where people had to produce much of their own food and had not, like we have in the western world, the facilities to preserve and store food for any length of time, the ability to feed people would have impressed itself on the population much more than for us. I have had nine years in country ministry and everyone in the country is pleased when the rains come. It is not just the farmers on the land, but the whole community. If the farmers are short of cash, the whole economy falls into a heap. In the days of Jesus, everyone would depend as much on what they could grow themselves as on produce they could buy.
One of the reasons I continue the ancient use of unleavened bread and fortified wine rather than ordinary bread and grape juice for the Holy Communion is that these keep for a long time. Leavened bread and grape juice have very limited "use by dates" without refrigeration.
The crowd in some senses had been lured away from their normal day to day lives by the activities of Jesus. Jesus was a magnet drawing people and the normal extingencies of life were forgotten. They well knew that people do not live by bread alone &endash; they were being fed by the words and works of Jesus. Jesus knew that a bit of bread is necessary occasionally, as he himself provokes this miracle. He recognises that they are there because of himself, so he has a responsibility for their material welfare beyond his words of instruction.
Jesus acts, not because the people complain, but because he already knows their need.
But the real question for me is had one of the disciples taken the initiative and given thanks over these loaves and fish and distributed them to the crowds, rather than Jesus, would not the same miracle have happened? And for the God I worship, I have no doubt the answer is yes.
One has only to look at the things that happen in this parish, when lay people take the initiative and do things - it happens often enough - does not God bless them? Of course, we all know, the answer is yes - without me waving my magic hand in the sign of the cross, over individuals or over the process.
I am beginning to realise that one of my "modus operandi" is to insert the minimum of regulation and interference. I am sure that the Wardens and Parish Council will testify that while I do usually chair meetings I do not direct the activities and tell people what to do. The music in this parish happens with the minimum of input from me, and I think that we are reasonably happy with the music here. The fund raising and especially the miraculous efforts of those who organise the monthly "Trading Post" happen with the minimum of input from me, and how we are blessed! The same scenario is repeated again and again, with the Bible Studies, the Prayer Group, the Mothers' Union, and all the people on the various rosters who keep the process ticking over. And this happens, again and again, in your day to day lives, among those with whom you live and work. It is not at all confined to that which is labelled "Christian" or "Anglican". I do not control what is put in our pew bulletin, the parish paper or the "outreach" and while I would not agree 100% with every word published - does that really matter? There are "horses for courses" and I'm sure someone else's words or slant on the truth will have its appropriateness and bless someone. I don't think that there would be many who think that I don't put in my 40 hours each week, even despite this minimum of input into individual activities. The point is how blessed we are by this activity of lay people.
When we say: "Give us this day our daily bread" the reality is that God already has and does. So often we think it will only satisfy us and that there will be none left over for anyone else. Of course, in our story, even after the feeding of the 5000 there is still much left over for others.
Richard Treloar, reviewing the book "Life of Pi" in the latest issue of "Eureka Street" (July - August 2003 p 9) says: "The principle of scarcity - the fear that there is not enough to go around (enough love, enough food, enough land, enough of God, enough "salvation") is a strong motivator for possessiveness and for jealousy" and "whenever we use our doctrines, our scriptures, our resources, our power or our privilege to insist that God's embrace is for us alone, we heighten anxiety that there is not enough of God to go round. We stir up fear in others, and the abundance of God vanishes." (Richard Treloar is Chaplain of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne, and teaches at the United Faculty of Theology.)
I find it interesting that to my knowledge there is only one recorded incident when Jesus ever gave something of his own to feed others - after he was raised from the dead - he seems to have already caught some of his own fish (John 21.9). But other than this he always uses someone else's contribution - here he uses food belonging to a young boy. At Cana he uses water drawn by the servants. Perhaps this will give us added impetus to look at the contributions others might make to the ministry, even though they will indeed be different from and complementary to our own. Even the food for the Eucharist comes from you and me, and this is emphasised by our practice here of inviting those who care to do so to contribute a bottle, flagon or cask of Port to be added to make up the wine for communion.
I point out that the narrative suggests that neither Jesus nor the disciples themselves were fed. Jesus always uses the gifts of others and gives them to those who are in need. Other people's needs are his first and only priority. A guru wishing to advance his particular cause would have told the rich young man to sell all he owned and give it to him and follow him. No, Jesus tells him to sell his goods and give the proceeds to the poor. Jesus wants the person for him or herself, not for what he or she can contribute to his cause. And Jesus loves us for who we are, not for how much we can further his cause.
We in the Church may not think we have much to give away. We are, it seems, rapidly becoming redundant, though as Mark Twain once had cause to comment, reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated. We may not have lots of money or material possessions to give away, but I suspect that really doesn't matter much. What we do have lots of - is the knowledge of the love of the Lord for all people. According other people the respect due to them as people made in the image of God will cost us nothing except any sense of superiority, which we can all well do without anyway. According other people the respect due to them as others made in the image of God is that which I suspect provoked that comment: "We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done." Luke 17.10
We honour other people by accepting the contributions they wish to make. We dishonour others by expecting them to only admire the contribution we have or are making - for by doing so we are actually only using others for our own gratification.
I was reflecting as we read the gospel for the feast day of St Peter and St Paul a while back, and the thrice repeated command of Peter to "feed my sheep". I had never thought about it before, but these come as a result of Jesus asking Peter the three times "Do you love me?" The way we are called to love Jesus is to forget Jesus entirely and to feed others, to build other people up. We are called not to criticise the unbeliever or those who believe differently, not to try and change society, ridding society of this or that evil - and there are certainly enough of them to be rid of - but to encourage and uphold others. To treat others with respect and acknowledge their talents and contributions.
And those wonderful words - "I desire mercy not sacrifice" illustrate the same thing. The mercy we are bidden to show is towards our fellow men and women and this is far more important even than the sacrifices we make to God. Our relationships - one with another - are more important than the time we spend on our knees or the money we put into the collection.
We are bidden to feed others, to give them something. We are not called to criticise, correct or challenge others. We are to give others something, but not is such a way as to increase their dependence. So we don't dispense forgiveness in such a manner that people need to keep coming back (regularly) to confess and receive absolution. The purpose of forgiveness is so that they in turn might forgive others, not to look down on those who do not indulge in this regular rubbing out of misdemeanours.
The loaves and the fish were distributed to them all - no one missed out. And what we have to offer similarly is meant to be distributed to all. People who call God by a different name and people who worship in different ways - all of them deserve to receive an equal portion of the blessings on offer. It is not up to us to pick and choose who will receive them and who will not. St Paul says: "if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink." (Rom 12.20)
And we are bidden not to give Jesus (or the Bible or the sacraments or the wisdom of our experience) - for people to accept - but we are bidden to give of ourselves, for in the end it is us who are God's gifts for others. We are bidden to offer our companionship along the way.
Today as we come to worship, we are bidden to consider what we give thanks for. It might be the warmth and security of our own homes, the plenty which we can afford. We do well to give thanks but also to distribute them too. Sometimes we can thank God for our weakness. I have, on occasions, thanked God for my shyness, for I know that in some situations this allows others to feel more at ease. In this way I distribute my inabilities and they simultaneously become lessened. As we give our possessions away we realise that we in fact can live with a lot less. Indeed as one looks at some of the greatest geniuses in the history of the human race, it is often those who suffered mental illness who have stood out the most and made the greatest contribution.
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