SERMON BY THE RT. REV. ROBERT THOMPSON
AS BISHOP OF KINGSTON
AT THE KINGSTON PARISH CHURCH
SUNDAY, AUGUST 2, 2020
SERMON TEXT: Matthew 14:16
Gracious Creator, the world is full of an abundance of what we need to live. And, in Jesus Christ, you have given us bread for our deepest hunger. Now silence in us any voice but your own, that we may hear the word you have for us this morning. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord! Amen.
Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat” (Matthew 14;16)
Today I will lay down my crozier on the Altar of the Church where I was consecrated as a sign of my retirement as Bishop and priest of the Church after 47 years in Ordained ministry and 15 Years as Bishop. I am doing this at the right time when I can laugh at myself having learnt not to take myself too seriously, because whatever I have achieved there are others to come who will achieve even greater things within the wonderful tradition of our Diocese.
If I learned one thing during this Covid-19 period it is the inadequacy of the autonomous self; and that God is summoning us to a new way of thinking about how we might collaborate with each other and with God himself. This is the gift we have been given – an opportunity to birth a new future. So when people ask, when will the pandemic end; when will we return to normal life? I say, perhaps, we are asking the wrong question. Rather we should be asking: how will this pandemic change us? How will it change the ways we think, act, and decide things; how we do business, and how we live our lives?
These are the question our text would like us to address this morning as we celebrate our national Independence. Christian Faith can’t answer all our questions; it can, however, if we so choose, inform the way we think, act and establish priorities for our lives and our nation, as a whole.
Something new begins when God’s transforming power is relied upon and when we dare to trust the abundance of his love, instead of our insecurities and fear. So, today, as we celebrate, we have an opportunity once again to affirm, not only our achievements in sports and culture, but a vision of what is yet possible once we choose to claim the working of God’s extraordinary power in our lives. As we look back through the years and forward to the future, we will need to be reminded that despite the many obstacles and fears, God never failed to provide the hand that sustained us, and the beam of light that opened our eyes to new possibilities.
This is precisely what the story of the feeding of the multitude with the five loaves and two fish can do. It’s the only miracle Jesus performed that is recorded in all four Gospels. Every Gospel felt that this particular story needed to be told.
But although it’s a well-known story, it’s not a simple truth to appropriate.
The disciples meant no harm when they went to Jesus suggesting he should send them away; they were simply being practical. Night was falling, they were out in the middle of nowhere, and their stomachs were beginning to growl. It was time to call it a day. It was time to take care of themselves and they suggested that everyone else do the same thing.
But Jesus had a better idea. “They need not go away,” he said, seeming to know that what the crowed needed more than a hot meal was to stay together; seeming to know that there was more nourishment for them in each other’s company, than in Miss Mavis’ curry goat and rice. Sometimes, what is more important than a hot meal is the connectivity we share.
“They need not go away”, Jesus said to his disciples, “You give them something to eat.” Nothing could be more ridiculous: What do you mean; we should give them something to eat? All we have between us is five loves and two fish, which is hardly a snack for twelve men, much less a multitude of five thousand.
Jesus may not have been making sense according to the perspective of the disciples, but then again, they were operating out of a sense of scarcity. They looked at the crowd, saw no lunch cart in sight and assumed that no one had anything to eat. They looked at their own meagre resources and assumed that it was not enough to go around their immediate circle, much less to feed the whole crowed.
But Jesus operated out of a different set of assumptions. If the disciples operated out of a sense of scarcity; Jesus operated out of a sense of plenty. He looked at the same things the disciples looked at, and where they concluded there was not enough, Jesus saw unlimited resources. Jesus knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that when God’s abundance is affirmed by everyone there would be plenty of everything everywhere.
The first thing about this familiar story is that Jesus didn’t feed the multitudes. The disciples did. “You give them something to eat.” I suppose we’ve all wondered about that story. What exactly happened that day? How did he do that? Let’s simply go with what the text says. The disciples gave what they had and it was enough.
There is a Chinese proverb which says; when the greatest leaders have done their work, the people say: “We did it ourselves”. The disciples were, of course, baffled when Jesus rebuffed their suggestion that He should send them away to go and buy food for themselves, with the words, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat”. The job of every leader, in the church, in Government and in the home is to enable others to do their very best and to achieve their fullest potential in the interest of the common good.
During my incumbency as Rector of St. Andrew Parish Church, our mission to the community of Majesty Gardens, through the St. Andrew Settlement had become strained because the people, although grateful for the services offered by the church, they played no part in its management and direction. They were not part of the solution, only recipients of AID. Successive Administrations have failed to come up with a workable social contract because, in my opinion, those on the margins of society have never been invited to the conversation. So we expect to resolve crime in our inner cities and the primary stakeholders are hardly ever consulted. Jesus knew that when those who are left to feel marginalized by the social system are brought into the conversation, transformation occurs. I learned from my experience as pastor in Majesty Gardens that the best results of any initiative for and on behalf of the poor comes only after collaborating with them. “You give them something to eat”. As surprising as this sounded to the disciples, they learned from Jesus that day what constitutes wise leadership.
The wise leader will, from time to time, allow him or herself to be led: by instinct; by collaboration; by listening to the wisdom and experience of others; and by a painstaking discernment of the choices that lie ahead. The responsibility will, ultimately, rest with the leader. But he will, from the start, have shown himself to be someone who gives priority to collaboration and who values the input of others. This is the first thing we learn from our Gospel.
The Second thing our Gospel suggests is that in our moment of fear and insecurity, only bold and faithful action will save us during these unsettling times. To live abundantly – opening our hands; sharing what we have; confident that our meagre resources, in God’s hands, will always be transformed by God’s abundance is all that we need. What the Gospel wants us to acknowledge is the transformative power that comes, once we are prepared to let-go of our fear and receive the impossible and extraordinary dream of God’s abundance.
Biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann, explains this very well. He suggests that it is far less challenging to live with the false notion of scarcity, than to rely on God’s abundance. This was Jesus’ challenge to the disciples and it remains his challenge to us today.
The response most of us make to that feeling of deep, fearful, anxious conviction that there is not enough to go around, and that no more will be given, is to keep everything to ourselves, and to get good protection so as to keep others from getting what we have. Scarcity is a myth based on the false notion that we are in control of life and that we can predict its outcome. It’s the kind of myth that drives consumer society today. In contrast to this idea that there isn’t enough to spare, there is the biblical notion of the generosity of the Creator God. And because the world is held in the hand of this generous God – scarcity is not true. It is not true, for where God is present; God has already found a way.
What if we were to accept this idea as a way of life? Then perhaps, we would begin to witness to the hope that despite limited resources; despite this pandemic; the God of abundance has already made a way. It may not be the way that conforms to our old autonomous self where everything revolves around what we want, but the way of new opportunities to birth a new future. That is precisely the message of our Gospel. However, before we can get to that point of appreciating the impact of how the affirmation of that truth can begin to change our lives; we need to examine a little deeper how the idea of scarcity – the fact of never having enough – actually controls our behaviour.
This feeling of scarcity expresses itself at every level of life, and believe it or not, remains the primary cause of violence against one another. Think about it for a moment, once you are driven by this myth of scarcity there remains one objective in life; to acquire stuff for hoarding, never for sharing. What remains, is a deep anxious conviction, that since there is not enough to go around, and that no more will be given, let’s keep everything to ourselves. That’s the kind of mind-set that drives our economy, our wage negotiations, and the privatization of wealth away from any consideration for the social good of all. (Ultimately, the mind-set that pays attention to one thing only, the economic bottom line). Some interpreters of the story go as far as to suggest that only after the crowd noticed the generosity of the lad in offering the five loves and two fish that others were themselves willing to share what they had brought.
The truth about our Gospel is that, while the resources appear scarce in the barrenness of our experience, God always finds a way to multiply meagre resources to great and wonderful effect.
And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a lonely place, and the hour is now late; send them away, to go into the country and villages round about and buy themselves something to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.”
So we learn afresh this morning that because the world is held in the hand of this generous generative God – scarcity is not true. What if we were to accept this idea as an opportunity to give birth to a new future? Then perhaps, we would start witnessing to the fact that, despite our limited resources, there would always be enough, and to spare.
Two things are necessary in order to receive the promise of that miracle today. The first comes by realizing that we must detach ourselves from the accustomed practices from which we derive immediate benefits, but which, in the long run, have detrimental consequences. Covid-19 has made that abundantly clear to us. The second thing is, we must be prepared to believe. To believe that even in places where the ground is dry and perceived to be incapable of generating food – food will be given from heaven in ways that are strange and inexplicable.
“Israel in the wilderness is brought face-to-face with the extraordinary oddity of the Creator who will give bread”. But here-in lies the challenge. The bread of heaven comes with a requirement. There are instructions posted on every loaf; “Gather as much of it as each of you needs”. Brugermann commenting on this says this is biblical language to mean “no hoarding”. No storing up. “For wherever God’s abundance is affirmed, there is no warrant for hoarding. No member of the community need be threatened by what the neighbour has, no need for greed, no need for brutality, no need for violence, because Yahweh is the giver who keeps on giving, every day, sufficient for the day”.
The claim of the miraculous feeding in the Gospel is that when we open our lives to God’s generosity and collaborate with one another, there is more than enough to share, and where there is sharing more is generated. Those of us who care about God’s gift of abundance must reflect on whether we embrace this claim, and whether it is possible to break free from the claim of scarcity that is all around us, as the dominant power of politics and the relentless liturgy of TV commercials.”
When Jesus told the disciples to give the crowds something to eat, He knew that God would find a way. So when you say your prayers, and when you offer your gifts this morning, don’t be tight-fisted. Instead, believe that God will do for you by making way for the extraordinary to happen in your life.
And that leads me to say one last thing: To be open to the impossible, we must believe that God has already found a way out for you. Belief; is not simply believing things about God. Rather, it is to share in God’s life, God’s friendship. Yes! God’s kingdom is here, but only insofar as we are prepared to accept it, enter it, live it and thereby establish it. God is mystery and so can never fully be understood. However, in this life, we can stay in close communion with God through Jesus Christ.
Interestingly, John’s account of the feeding miracle is followed by an extended commentary on the meaning of Jesus as the bread of life. In Chapter 6 verses 48-51 of this Gospel, Jesus declared: “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But, here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
The “bread” that Jesus now offers, is the intimate sharing in his own person, through a life lived with and in him. Those who embrace him, his person and his mandate, will be deeply satisfied. Life in Christ fully overcomes the hunger of the world. So John is demonstrating how Jesus, the living bread of life, becomes for us the transforming presence in our lives. For it is as we embody God’s own flesh, that we are empowered to live a new and different way in the world.
So, my friends, never take your presence here for granted. In this busy and complex world where our lives are pointed in every conceivable direction, and moved by different passions and interests, it is the Sunday Eucharist that will provide for you the orientation that will keep you grounded in God’s extraordinary love.