Sermon: Sunday 29 July 2012
The Revd Canon David Monteith, Canon Chancellor
Eucharistic Life – John 6
Crowds desperate to get there on time to really see the star turn after the build-up of many months if not years! Crowds desperate for food to eat. But now food produced by the global food companies branded with their golden arches. Plenty of high quality grass but not available for the people to sit down on, instead reserved for the elite athletes of our world. I could add to moans about traffic, the cost of a cold drink or the gaffs that already have been broadcast associated with the Olympics – apparently such is or has become our British character. But I am the least sporty person in the world I will not be drawn in that way. Indeed I am about to preach a sermon which contests such an approach. Instead note how a little flame can enchant and reframe the world despite our cynicism. In the end we have decide which story is going to narrate our life.
We have every danger this morning of not hearing the story of feeding the 5000 because of familiarity and because there are other stories which actually more often tend to run our lives. It is a story of abundance yet we hear it through the filter of our capitalist world which depends actually on there not being enough. This system has delivered a lot to our world and indeed it looks as if there is no other really workable system for our world, at least on a macro scale, but that doesn’t mean it is all good nor that it shouldn’t have limits. So for example the banks recently have revealed that this system is not entirely valueless but may even at times operate with values that are not only bad for us but which are repugnant to us. Or Professor Michael Sandall in his recent Reith Lectures and in his book What money can’t buy: the moral limits of markets makes the very convincing case that everything in our lives has now become infected by the market. Sandall notes that this has a very far reaching and corrupting effect on our lives. So for example, we joke about needing to sell a kidney in the light of the prices in the shops. Whilst donors may need the money and those in renal failure may need the kidney, creating a market in kidneys begins to shape a human narrative in ways which are unlikely to make for happiness.
So Sandal tells this story to illustrate how beginning to conceive of the whole of our lives in terms of capitalism is corrosive in surprising ways. Pricing items can produce effects opposite to those intended. He cites a study of a nursery in Israel where some parents were persistently late in picking up children. The owners of the nursery introduced a system of fines as a deterrent. The effect was to double the number of parents who were late. Sandal says this is because parents regarded the sum they had to pay as a fee for being able to leave their children for longer at the nursery. The constraint on behaviour changed from ‘I do not want to be late and inconvenience other people’ to ‘Can I afford to pay the fine?’ The nursery responded to the explosion in late arriving parents by scrapping the fine and going back to the ‘honour’ system. But the ethic of responsibility had been damaged: the number of late pick-ups stayed at the higher level.
Value and economics sit behind the encounter we find in today’s gospel. Our capitalist system depends on there being scarcity so that more and more production is needed. But the gospel story counters living by the rules of scarcity by offering the taste of abundance. The whole world is questioned by believing that God already has created enough and it begins to take away power we have ceded to other value systems.
The feeding of the 5000 must have been very important to the early church because it is the only miracle story which is told in all four gospels. Notice that John describes the location as the Sea of Galilee but also the Sea of Tiberias. The city of Tiberias founded by Tiberius Caesar became the Roman capital of Galilee but it was built upon a necropolis – a city of the dead which meant that according to Jewish law it was unclean. It was attractive and on a good trade route so it attracted the wealthy and in turn the poor flocked there in search of a pot of gold. The crowd was of 5000 men but when you add women and children, maybe we get to 20,000 people – the number reckoned to have come into Leicester city centre for the Queen’s visit in March. A crowd of poor people deemed to be unclean, a thriving mass of humanity in search of satisfaction for their hunger. Philip says it would take six months’ wages to feed them – think how much bread you could buy for £10,000. That is the scale of this story.
The Romans were known to placate the poor by providing distributions of bread or grain but here Jesus makes people sit down – actually to recline. This is not a food parcel distribution. This is a meal and the poor who know more about scarcity than most are the guests. Jesus then takes seriously a little boy who has five barley loaves and two fish to offer. Barley was cheaper than wheat. It was the food of the poor. And the words used for fish doesn’t mean a nice fresh bass or John Dory but instead it refers to a dried pickled fish – our equivalent of some fish paste or a tinned sardine – delicious and healthy but not high dining. Here reclining on the verdant grass, symbolic of rich blessing the people are fed in abundance in the presence of Jesus who gives thanks. This is just like the experience in the wilderness when the people were fed and Moses then ordered them to gather together the abundant food. God’s people know abundance but they forget it and replace it with scarcity.
This of course becomes interpreted in light of the church’s daily and weekly experience of being gathered, welcomed and fed in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Indeed the word Eucharist comes from this very bible passage. Jesus gave thanks – the Greek verb being eucharisto. Indeed there is evidence of using barley loaves within parts of the life of the early church – something rediscovered in the Reformation when common bread was used in place of the more familiar unleavened bread which we now use – unleavened bread makes the connection with the story of Passover; Barley or Common Bread makes us aware of the ethics of every Eucharist. When the church meets with Christ and breaks bread we are invited into a world where there is no scarcity where actual poverty has no impact on social relationships or empty tummies, where spiritual poverty has no impact on what we think of ourselves or how deep we perceive our faith to be. Here we discover that it is possible to be alive and to have enough – so much that there is enough even to fill 12 baskets. These symbolise the 12 tribes of Israel so in other words there is enough nourishment here to feed the whole nation.
I want to finish by reading to you from a book by Sara Miles who has glimpsed the abundance seen in the broken bread of Holy Communion – the story by which she lived her life changed.
‘One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions – except that up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamentalist crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything. Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all, but actual food – indeed, the bread of life. In that shocking moment of communion, filled me with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body. I took communion, I passed the bread to others, and then I kept going, compelled to find new ways to share what I’d experienced. I started a food pantry and gave away literally tons of fruit and vegetables and cereal around the same altar where I’d first received the body of Christ. My new vocation didn’t turn out to be as simple as going to church on Sundays, folding my hands in the pews and declaring myself ‘saved’. Nor did my volunteer church work mean talking kindly to poor folks and handing them the occasional sandwich from a sanctified distance. I met thieves, child abusers, millionaires, day labourers, politicians, schizophrenics, gangsters and bishops, all blown into my life through the restless power of a call to feed people, widening what I thought of as my ‘community’ in ways that were exhilarating, confusing, and often scary. The Gospel that moved me, the bread that changed me and the work that saved me, transformed me to begin a spiritual and an actual communion across the divides.
– Edited from Sara Miles,
Take this bread-a radical conversion, Ballantine Books, New York, 2007
© The Revd Canon David Monteith, Canon Chancellor and Acting Archdeacon of Leicester