Sermon: Sunday 12 August 2012
The Very Revd Vivienne Faull, Dean of Leicester
‘This is what happens when you starve to death: ta first there is hunger, and a craving inside which after two or three days turns to pain. But the obsession for food does not last long. After four or five days the knowing pains subside and the stomach wall begins to shrink.’
So begins a 2000 word description by Paul Vallely in 1985 of the Ethiopian famine. He was then writing for the Times, about the physiological and psychological processes which go on when a woman watches her child starve, and then herself collapses from lack of food.
The piece concludes:
‘You will probably not actually die of malnutrition itself, but the wasting has lowered your body temperature and increased your vulnerability to the most minor of infections. Death, when it comes, will be a blessed relief.’
Famine is back in Africa; indeed it is endemic in a sub-Saharan strip from Ethiopia across to Niger. And most of us find it difficult to face so much painful reality. We turn back to Olympics, and rejoice with competitors for Ethiopia and Niger who have evaded hunger.
And in the knowledge of that hunger, it is awesomely courageous, even shocking, to participate in the Eucharist as we do this morning. For the Eucharist proclaims that hunger and poverty, disease and death, are not the last word in the human situation. There is always a temptation to regard hunger and early death as the ultimate reality: the brutal and ever present reminders that in fact the universe is hostile. But the Eucharist which we celebrate today asserts that we are embraced and held within a greater story, greater even than the facts of famine and starvation.
Chapter 6 of St John’s gospel, part of which we have just heard read, draws out the meaning of the feeding of the 5000. In the course of his teaching to the crowd, Jesus rebukes them for taking their fill of the food but failing to see the miracle as a sign. He contrasts the food which perishes with the food that lasts for eternal life, the manna in the wilderness with the true bead from heaven. Christ himself is the true bread from heaven, he says, and those who eat this bread will never die. Through a series of Eucharistic references we are invited to understand the bread and wine as pointing beyond their immediate visible appearances, to eternal life. The human need for food is subordinate to the human need for the true bread given for the life of the world.
The chapter doesn’t stop there. It poses a challenge to the assumption that scarcity and death are the truth of things. For the feeding of the 5000 indicates how eternal life is to be characterised: as a vision of divine abundance that sweeps aside the assumptions of scarcity with which the disciples operate. They began: ‘There is a boy here with five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many?’ In Jesus’ presence the food multiplies so much that even after the hungry are satisfied, more remains. When people offer all they have, Jesus takes, blesses, breaks and shares it… and they find that it is more than enough.
But how is this connected to the life of the body of Christ, and how can it have relevance to a hungry world?
Eating together was a central theme of the early church’s life. Jesus ate with his followers, and they carried on eating together after his death, resurrection and ascension. The earliest Christian community was not a place where eating was incidental. The shared meal was the basis of communal life. And the first organisational problem the community faced, and resolved, was one which emerged out of the daily distribution of food. Everyone was to be fed, everyone was participate in the Eucharist, the place where rich and poor, Jew and Greek, slave and free, woman and men, found reconciliation and peace.
So how should Christians in the 21st century embody what their forbears learnt in the power of the Holy Spirit?
Perhaps we have learnt some ways of being, what the church has traditionally called disciplines, here in recent years, as, firstly, generous hospitality to each other, to visitors, to the vulnerable, has become a natural part of our life. Coffee, juice, wine, nibbles after most major services, monthly lunches for staff and volunteers which give us an hour or so away from computers and telephones, lunches on Sundays hosted by Julie Ann and welcoming those who are on their own, or new to the Cathedral, the daily menus being planned for those who will go on pilgrimage to Greenbelt together. All these are examples of our habit of hospitality.
And, alongside the discipline of hospitality, some have begun to explore the discipline of fasting, a discipline which nourishes prayer, but which can also be an act of solidarity with those who are in need. Although it can never replicate the experience of involuntary hunger, it gives some hint of what it is to experience the vulnerability of physical need.
And the third discipline which we are beginning to rediscover is that of almsgiving, of giving not just as an act of charity, but of solidarity with our brothers and sisters, here and across the world.
In a world where many go hungry God calls us together to hospitality, fasting, almsgiving. God also calls individuals out into particular service, calling individuals to work at parts of the global system which create the conditions which bring about hunger. Famine has complex, multiple causes, and individuals can only work at particular bits of a broken system. It’s a tradition which began with the Deacons, which had to sort out the dispute I referred to earlier, about the daily distribution. It continues in the lives of Christ’s followers including Paul Vallely, whose words began this sermon, and who uses his position as a senior journalist (Associate Editor of the Independent, columnist for the Church Times) to continue to remind us of what is going on in Africa, particularly for the poorest. Paul attends his local Roman Catholic church in Cheshire.
And also in the news this week was Harriet Lamb, who for over ten years has led the Fairtrade Foundation. She said this week: ‘Everyone laughed when we started: they thought Fairtrade was for few yoghurt eating vicars. None thought for a moment the public would be willing to pay extra, or that companies would pay more so that the world’s poor would get a decent price for their products. But, she says, they do, and they have.’
Fairtrade is now mainstream and going global. In the UK some £1.3 bn worth of goods, from coffee to chocolate were sold last year bearing the now familiar symbol of a man holding up the world. This week Harriet was debating sustainability with some of the world’s biggest retailers as part of the UK’s Olympic Business outreach. She sat with the executives of Kraft, Tesco and Coco Cola and said that she has to pinch herself that they have got this far. ‘Most companies,’ she says, ‘now understand they have got to change their attitudes; it is the public that has driven this and made it happen’. In the autumn, Harriet moves to lead Fairtrade international in Bonn, saying they will now move to support millions more farmers and workers across the world. This year UK Fairtrade moved beyond food into trading in gold, ensuing that the gold leaf for the re-guilding cockerel on top of Chichester Cathedral was produced justly. Harriet Lamb a member of St Saviour’s Anglican church in Herne Hill.
From time to time the clergy here suggest that individuals might consider God’s call to ordination, to priesthood and to the breaking of bread at the Eucharist. Perhaps, in a world where starvation retains an intractable hold, there are other callings which are as profoundly significant. In this cathedral there may be those who are called to be the next generation’s Paul Vallely or Harriet Lamb, those who will play their part in creating a world where the Bread of Life is offered to everyone
© The Very Revd Vivienne Faull