Sermon for Pentecost 9A – 2nd August 2020

Matthew 14.13-21

Greetings to you from Big Barns! We hope you are keeping well in body, mind and spirit and we are looking forward to seeing you face to face as we return to worship in our church buildings in the near future.

I’d like to begin this week’s sermon by telling you a story about three little mice who sadly died and went to heaven. After a couple of days, St Peter called on them and asked them how they liked being in heaven. The mice said that it was OK, but since they had such short legs, it was really difficult for them to get around because heaven was so big.

So, St Peter told them that he thought he would be able to help them. After a little while, an angel came to the mice and gave each of them a set of roller skates. Right away, the mice put the roller skates on, and that meant that they could zip around heaven, really enjoying themselves.

Mouse roller skating embroidery designA little later, a certain cat died and went to heaven. After a couple of days, St Peter called by and asked the cat how he liked being in heaven. The cat answered by saying, “Oh, boy, do I like being in heaven! I’m having a great time and I’m really enjoying myself. And most of all, I love those meals on wheels.

Today’s gospel is about another meal – though not quite a meal on wheels. And this meal is perhaps one of the most well-known meals in history – the feeding of the five thousand. But before we get to the miracle in this story, we find Jesus withdrawing to a “lonely” place with his disciples. We are told that this happened on receiving the news of John the Baptist’s execution.

We know that in those times Galilee was quite heavily populated and Jesus had already become a well-known figure. So, what was the reason for this withdrawal? It could have been to provide a period of rest and reflection for Jesus and his disciples, a time for the disciples to be taught by their master. However, a more obvious reason was to avoid possible danger after the execution of John the Baptist and there are several times the Gospel records Jesus prudently getting out of the public eye when things were getting too hot.

However, on this occasion, Jesus and his companions had been spotted as they slipped away. So, while they made for the other side of the lake by boat, “the people…leaving the towns, went after him on foot”.

When Jesus stepped ashore, he was faced with a large crowd. His immediate reaction was one of deep compassion and he began to heal the sick among them. This contrasts with Mark’s version where Jesus’ compassion leads to teaching the crowds. The healing, of course, in its own way was a kind of teaching, as the teaching was also a kind of healing. Jesus’ aim was always to restore people to wholeness in body and spirit – that is the meaning of salvation.

At this point in the story it is worth reflecting ourselves on how we react to sudden and unexpected calls on our time and energy. Are we always filled with compassion for those who ask for help? Especially if those asking are strangers or people we do not particularly like? How many real opportunities for bringing some wholeness into a person’s life have been lost because a request was made in conflict with plans that we have already made, not least religious plans? (Remember the priest and Levite who ignored the mugging victim on the road to Jericho because they were on the way to the Temple?)

There are usually two possible reactions to calls for help. On the one hand, we can completely ignore such calls when they conflict with what we have planned to do. In this case, we always put our own perceived needs first and we are not going to put ourselves out for others. Once we begin to react like this, we won’t often be asked for help and it is hardly the Christ-like response.

On the other hand, we may be one of those people who simply cannot say ‘No’. In which case, we put aside what we have planned and go to help the person, even though we do not want to do so, and may feel highly resentful. On the outside we will be all smiles while on the inside we can be in knots of anger and frustration. The final outcome of this kind of response is “burnout”. If we are this kind of person, it is very important for us to be seen as ‘super helpful’ and we will sometimes make any sacrifice to preserve that image. Such persons need to be needed and, deep down, they are answering their own needs rather than those of another.

Obviously neither of these responses is appropriate and they are not the ones that Jesus made.

It requires great sensitivity and discernment to know when we are required to show compassion by giving all the help we can, even at some inconvenience, and when we show equal compassion by encouraging people to stand on their own feet. We are not personally  responsible for saving the whole world and sometimes, difficult as it can be, we will have to watch many people go without our help. But there will be times when we are the only individual who can help this person now. Recognising these moments needs a combination of honesty and firmness.

There are times, like today, when Jesus immediately responds to the people’s needs. There are others when, in spite of their requests, he either withdraws to a solitary place alone or goes elsewhere (see  Mark 1:35-38 and John 6:15 for such examples).

Another reason why we are sometimes reluctant to give help is that we think we have nothing to give. In the gospel story, as the day wore on the disciples became anxious about the crowd. “It is getting late, this is an isolated place, send them back to the towns for food,” the disciples urge Jesus. “There is no need for them to go; give them something to eat yourselves,” Jesus tells them. “But we have only five loaves and two fish,” they answer. Jesus is teaching them self-confidence and urging them to share the little they have. They will be surprised how far it will go. And, if we do the same, we can be pleasantly surprised too. We, like the disciples, are called again and again to make a connection between Jesus and others, offering the little we have with total generosity.

The story of the feeding of the five thousand tells us clearly that God really cares about his people and that there is enough and more for everybody. But it also tells us that a great deal of God’s care and compassion for the world is devolved to us – his followers. A great deal of the human suffering in the world has been caused by the actions of humankind but can equally be relieved by the actions of humankind. Jesus did not feed the crowd directly. He left that to his disciples. He still does. It is too easy to blame God for problems and suffering in the world, too easy to blame governments, too easy to see these things as other people’s problems. But they are also ours, they are mine and they are yours. And so together, we are called to feed the poor and cloth the naked – to stand against injustice and inequality in whatever small way we can.

Most of us haven’t taken part in the Eucharist for a considerable amount of time. And as we look towards getting back into our church buildings and being able to do just that, I encourage you to commit yourselves afresh to share in God’s work – a commitment to clearly communicating and demonstrating His compassion to all.

Our God is a cares about that which He has created. But, much of the time, he needs our hands, feet and mouths to show people just how caring He really is. Think on these things – and when you next take part in Holy Communion, be prepared to take His love beyond the altar, the bread and wine to the places in which you live and work. Have in your mind to be ‘recharged’ and then, as you meet people, both those you see every day and those you have never met before, my friends – ‘give them something to eat’!

Blessings to you and all those you love this week,

Fr Simon

Sermon for Pentecost 8A – 26th July 2020

1 Kings 3:5-12; Psalm 119:129-136; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

On Thursday we had an on-line quiz night, which as great fun – thanks Beatrice and Janet for all your hard work and all those who were able to take part for making it such fun. In one of the rounds we all had to tell three stories from our past; two had to be true and one false. The challenge for everyone else was to work out which one was untrue. In preparing for this, I found myself with literally dozens of different ideas and just couldn’t decide which ones to choose. Selecting two true and one untrue happening proved to be remarkably challenging from what has clearly been an eventful and perhaps mis-spent life.

As I stared blankly at the list of readings for today, I was faced with much the same problem. Do we go with Solomon asking God for wisdom rather than riches, or do we go with the verses from Chapter 8 of Paul’s letter to the Romans which are so familiar at funerals or do we go with five parables of the Kingdom of Heaven in quick succession like automatic gunfire?

King Solomon looks pretty straight-forward, with a good solid moral message. After all a passage with the line “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” is something we could all wish for in our leaders. But remember, this is the Bible and 1 Kings 3, as in life, is more complicated. In order to do justice to this chapter, we have to understand the ambiguities and complexities associated with this passage, so bang goes that chance of sermon occupying less than half a page.

To get some context, we would have to read the few verses before and after our passage to get a fuller picture. They point us to the good the bad and the ugly of Solomon:  Our passage ignores the verses that refer to Solomon also receiving riches and a long life in addition to the wisdom that he asks God for. Why? Because a link between prosperity and obedience whilst very much at the heart of some Biblical writings is not a simple cause and effect and if I started down that line, you’d be lucky if we were done in 50 pages.

Immediately preceding Solomon’s dream in verses. 5-12, there are allusions that hint at some of the negative aspects of Solomon’s reign, namely his tendency to worship other gods and that foreign wives were responsible for leading the Solomon and many other kings astray. It does of course serve to remind us that the leaders described in the Bible, as in life, more often than not are a mix of complex motives. So, we should be careful not to romanticise politicians and recognise that any leader has the potential to be corrupt and to abuse power.

Subsequent chapters of the Solomon story are available now, at a Bible near you. In them you’ll find that King Solomon might be remembered as the one who built the temple for God, but … this act of piety is accompanied by the reality that he used forced labour to do it. There’s nothing new in the idea that numerous innocent people might be harmed in political leaders’ attempts at greatness!!

So what do we get from all of this? That people are generally a mix of good and bad motives or intentions and that people have the potential to do good, but also harm.

In the unresolved tensions of the story of Solomon we see that it’s in the messiness of life that God acts, popping up when we least expect and turning our expectations upside-down. It’s significant that it’s God who approaches Solomon and grants him a wish, regardless of his failures and frailties as a human being, so there’s hope for us as well. Hope for us as we open ourselves up to God in prayer amid the messiness of our own lives.

Prayer of course isn’t really about words, in spite of all the books of words entitled ‘Prayers’, but I suppose that words do help to stop our minds wandering. Teach us how to pray, the disciples ask Jesus and in response he gives them what we call the Lord’s Prayer. So this difficulty is nothing new, in our second reading. Paul has some quite helpful words for the Christians in Rome:

The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Sighs too deep for words”, that just about sums it up. The problem is however not that we know what we need and merely lack the right words for requesting it. As James Dunn puts it, we “do not on our behalf know what to want,” let alone how to ask for it.

These last few months in ‘lock-down’, have been, to say the least, rather unusual, perhaps even strange. I don’t know about you but for me, as we start to emerge from the restrictions, that’s even more strange. In the midst of our disorientating confusion, it’s the Spirit that comes to the rescue and on our behalf, aligns what we want deep down to pray about, to God’s will for us and for our world. But we do have to make the space, to give the Spirit a chance and so allow God to come into our lives, and suffer alongside us. He won’t shield us from all suffering, but He will save us from suffering alone.

When I feel a sense of helplessness with much of what is happening in the world, when on our behalf, the politicians and the diplomats seem unable to get to grips with very real problems. When there is so much going on where on the face of it God seems to be absent, I find that it helps to remember what Paul goes on tell the Romans in words so familiar at funerals:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

God’s love is with you and with me. God’s there to be present for us in our lives. So when things seem bad and we seem powerless to do anything about it, then there’s always the option of turning to God in prayer as opposed to despairing.

The American monk, mystic, poet and spiritual writer, Thomas Merton speaks about this when he writes:

If I have this divine life in me, what do the accidents of pain and pleasure, hope and fear, joy and sorrow matter to me? They are not my life and they have little to do with it. Why should I fear anything that cannot rob me of God, and why should I desire anything that cannot give me possession of Him?

Exterior things come and go, but why should they disturb me? Why should joy excite me or sorrow cast me down, achievement delight me or failure depress me, life attract or death repel me if I live only in the Life that is within me by God’s gift?

Prayer is central to a Christian life and prayer is about being attentive to God’s presence with us, so why not spend a minute or two being attentive to God’s presence with you just now; remembering that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, it might just grow into a sizeable plant with birds nesting in its branches. That faith might just multiply like yeast cells and leak out beyond our walls and leaven the world around us as it emerges from ‘lock-down’ and needs hope that there is indeed a bright future.

This is hope in the sense that Paul is talking about. It’s also what Jesus is describing in today’s parables, the hope that comes from God’s love, a hope that defies rationality. In that sense there remains cause for hope even when it’s difficult to see where we are going. Keep cheerful, support one another and I hope that I’ll be able to see you all very soon. In the meantime, call to mind some of the wonderful stories of incidents and encounters that have made up your life and you’ll see what I mean about it being difficult to choose just one or two.

Amen.