Sermon: Sunday 26 July 2015
The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
‘Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.’
No doubt on hearing that verse, there will be people here who immediately will think of Grace Road, Welford Road, Filbert Street as was or maybe Vicky or Abbey Park. ‘There was a great deal of grass in the place!’
For the next 5 weeks our gospel readings come from John chapter 6. When you go home today, read it. The feeding of the five thousand must have been very important to the first Christians because very unusually it appears in all four gospels. The church which commemorates these events is at Tabgha on the shores of Galilee, and it recently suffered an arson attack suspected to be perpetrated by some zealous Jewish settlers. The church dates from the early or mid-300s, with the beautiful mosaic floor showing the loaves and fishes from a century later. This is a place and an event which has mattered much to Christians – so why might that be so?
John sets this story within the frameworks of events around the Passover Festival where it was believed faithful Jews were supposed to return to Jerusalem in thankfulness for their liberation from the captivity of Egypt, led by Moses to the freedom of the Promised Land. This rich theological motif now underpins much modern day political thinking about the State of Israel. But notice in this story that there are at least 5,000 people who are in Galilee rather than in Jerusalem. Northern Israel was not vastly populous so this is a significant proportion of the local population.
Why were they not with the thousands who had headed to Jerusalem? Well, maybe some like Jesus and his followers would travel there but here we have large numbers of rural people rejecting the vision of faith and life available in Jerusalem and exchanging it for another kind of word and another kind of nourishment which Jesus offers. Passover would be in the ether with all the emotional intensity that we lay upon great community celebration and festivals. In Passover the matzo bread is shared to remember the gift of manna. Here bread is offered too. Moses heard the moanings of a hungry crowd in the wilderness. Here Jesus gathers in a kind of wilderness with the people looking for a sign from God. Jesus seems like a kind of new Moses.
But there is yet another layer which needs teasing out. The little local boy offers his typical lunch; some pickled fish and some barley bread. These days you’ll pay more in a posh deli for barley bread than ordinary wheat bread, but not so in biblical times. Barley bread is the bread of the poor whilst the wheat is shipped off to the city at premium prices. John tells us that all this happens by the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberius. This is the first reference to this body of water, mostly known outside the gospels as a lake, but here a sea, a place of chaos and of course the barrier that needed crossing of old to freedom in the Promised Land. But this sea tagged with the label Tiberius. This is laden with social significance, for this place founded for Tiberius Caesar is built on a necropolis, a city of the dead. This makes it an unclean place under Jewish law and makes all of its inhabitants unclean too. So we begin to see a hoard of people, disenfranchised from Jerusalem, deemed to be unclean, poor and at the mercy of the Roman invaders, desperate to be fed in body and soul. The bread and fish are broken and shared with enough provision made for them with lots left over – 12 baskets as if one for each of the 12 tribes of Israel. God’s abundance is made clear which arises from the edges of society and which comes to nurture the centre and remainder of society. All this emerges through the presence of Jesus amongst these people in a space which allows for such profound revelation to emerge. As John says, ‘Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.’ Grass is a common image from the Psalms, sometimes speaking of the fleeting nature of life but also speaking of the abundance of God, not least even on the lips of Moses speaking about God’s word being like gentle rain on the grass (Deuteronomy 32:2). We see Passover afresh – liberation within reach.
So can we see the green grass upon which we can sit together with a sense of solidarity, with a sense of all being in the place where we recognise our belonging does not come from right or status but rather because the real truth is we are precariously at times on the edge. In the world of religion we are impure, unclean, unworthy despite our Christian pedigree or our identity as a Cathedral. Yet we have a space in which gifts might be to be offered to Christ which through grace might multiply and not only feed us but spill out to feed the world like the water feature now pumps out holy water into the gardens outside the walls of the holy place. Is that in your mind as we gather to be fed with the bread of heaven?
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s epic poem Aurora Leigh contains this stanza:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware.
It is true that blackberries need to be picked, and that the ordinary routines of life really matter but the discernment of the abundant life of God also really matters. And for me this speaks strongly to us and the life of this cathedral at present. The gospel story suggests that there is grass right in our midst, a place here in which a miracle of multiplication not only might happen but does happen given that this is the place we gather to meet the risen Lord.
Canon Rosy met the other week with a few members of this congregation alongside people from St Nicholas’, and St Andrew’s here in the city centre along with All Saints’, Belgrave to begin a process called ‘Partnership for Missional Church’. This is a process of discernment, of coming together and intentionally looking for signs of the work of God in our midst. It is long and slow and will invite more and more people to be involved. It is led and organised by lay people out of the hands of people like me because we too often carry the whiff of Jerusalem whereas we need more of the green grassy slopes of Galilee! But the poem reminded us that it was only the one who sees that notices the common bush is afire with God. ‘Partnership for Missional Church’ is about cultivating learning to notice God.
Today we are called to notice the many blessings we have received. 140,000 visitors since the end of March; people responding to God’s call to ordination; the gift a new curate in our midst making connections between this place and the developing life of Asian Christians in our city; or the day by day encounter like the lady with learning disabilities who asked me to light a candle for her to remember her deceased parents afraid she might burn her fingers; to the supermarket trolley now filling with gifts for our food bank revealing generosity right here in our midst.
I can’t be sure but I suspect the Feeding of the 5000 became so important to the early Christians because it came to stand for what Christ kept on doing – a miracle of multiplication every place his followers found a space which would become holy ground not because they were told it was holy but because through the quality of relationships, through cultivating the instinct to be generous and learning to see the work of the Spirit, and so the abundance of God was made known.
© The Very Revd David Monteith