Monday, 5 September 2016

On Picnics and Self-Offering

A sermon given at All Saints, Worthen and at New Street United Church, Welshpool, on the feeding of the 4,000 from Matthew chapter 15 :-

Mostly when I go on a picnic, it’s just me, or me and the wife, or maybe the two of us plus daughter, son-in-law and our three grandchildren. That’s quite enough, I find. I’m not one for big do’s, not really. I only go to big do’s under protest. I seem to recall a few deanery and diocesan events that involved picnics, over the years. I went to Buckingham Palace once, but even that was only 1,000 or so. 4000 seems a little excessive, I must say. Theologians may argue about whether the feeding of the 4000 and the feeding of the 5000 are one event remembered twice and told twice, or two different events. But that’s not important to us today. The simple facts are what matter: 4000 plus people are hungry and in need of feeding. There is nothing like enough food to go round. But they all get fed, and there’s even a load of food left over at the end. Oh, and Jesus was there - that seems to have something to do with the fact that the impossible somehow became possible and got done.

So it’s a miracle. Now I’m not big on miracles, and nor was Jesus. Confused? He certainly did an awful lot of them. But here are three important things: firstly, that often when he did something amazing he told people to keep quiet about it, not that they did, always; secondly, that there was nothing unusual in a rabbi, a respected teacher of that day, performing miracles, particularly miracles of healing; and thirdly, it seems to me that Jesus explicitly ruled out any thought of dazzling people into belief by performing stupendous miracles. When tempted in the wilderness, he refused to turn stones into bread, even though that could have been a great way of feeding not only himself but all kinds of hungry folk, and he refused to leap from the pinnacle of the temple, which surely would have dazzled the crowds when angels appeared to bear him up and save him. And he spoke against those who asked him for signs.

So I’m not big on miracles per se; it’s what the miracles are for, what they’re doing, what they show us about God and about ourselves, that’s what draws me in. And I think this story of the feeding of the four thousand, this great feast conjured out of almost nothing - this is a marvellous and complex story which takes us into the heart of God.

So let me touch on a few special features in this story, beginning with the fact that this is already a place where the love of God is being powerfully felt. Broken people are being mended, and, as they see what is happening around them, people are coming to faith in a new way, and they are praising God.

And we see the compassion of Jesus, not only in the miracles of healing he performs, but in his care for all the people gathered there, that they should be provided for, that they shouldn’t be sent away empty. Hospitality is an important duty in Middle Eastern cultures. Of course they must be fed. “So how are we going to do this?” asks Jesus.

Of course the disciples have no answer. Or they do, but it’s an answer far too small for the question. It’s ridiculous. They do have some food, but nothing like enough - seven loaves and a few fish, and them only tiddlers. But here of course is the main and deciding feature of the story - their puny, insufficient offer is accepted. “No, lads, that’ll do,” says Jesus, in effect “Let’s see where it gets us!”
Then he gives thanks, and shares the food. He does nothing flashy, no pass of the hands, no incantation; he speaks the normal thanksgiving words - the writing here is quite deadpan. And yet they are all fed! What happened? How was it done? We can ask that if we like, but it’s not important. What is important is this: God makes what needs to happen possible.

God makes what needs to happen possible. Not out of nowhere, but beginning with what we offer him. Ah, no, it is a bit more than that: beginning when we offer him all we have. What if the disciples had said - just think about this - “We’ve got seven loaves and a few small fish; if we split the four loaves between us, and maybe keep half the fish, could you see what you might manage with the rest?”

Of course, Jesus could have fed those people with a single loaf and a single fish; maybe even with nothing - with God, all things are possible. But this isn’t that kind of miracle; this is a miracle that challenges his Church into action, a miracle that begins with us. If we offer what we have, all we have, to him, amazing things happen. “Lord take me and use me, put me to what you will,” that’s the prayer John Wesley made, that Methodists continue to say each new year within their covenant service. The hymn writer Frances Ridley Havergal understood that need for total giving of self - remember her most famous hymn, “Take my life and let it be dedicated, Lord, to thee.” It includes this daring and foolhardy line, “Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold.”

How ready are we to do that? But here is the experience of the disciples that day, and the experience of disciples of Jesus ever since: what we can offer may seem too small; we may think we don’t have the strength, the skill, the numbers, the resources . . . but it’s not what we offer that matters, but that we give all we can. God takes what we give and multiplies it, that’s the promise of this parable; our small offering is made sufficient to the task, provided we give wholeheartedly, provided we set our own shoulder to the wheel.

Bishop Stephen Cotterill, the Bishop of Chelmsford, has rightly said, “Whatever we pray for, we have to be prepared to do.” It wasn’t enough for the disciples simply to want Jesus to do something about those four thousand would-be picnickers, they had to be part of the solution themselves. Even if all they had was seven loaves, they had to be part of the solution - and what they had was enough. It’s no good hoping someone else will do it, or even praying someone else will do it.

And, for what it’s worth, here’s my take on miracles. Miracles do happen, and they happen all around us. Wherever the little love we can give gets tied into the great big huge wonderful love of God, miracles happen. Miracles don’t happen instead of what we do, they don’t happen so that we won’t have to do it, they happen because of what we do, because of what we offer, because of what we feel, and of course because of what we pray. They are love making a difference, love changing lives, feeding hearts. We serve, praise, proclaim, worship the God of love; he is always wanting to make miracles happen among us. What we offer to him is what opens the way for him to work his will among us. He is waiting on us, as he says in Revelation, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” We may think we’re too small and weak for the task, but hear what Jesus says in Luke’s Gospel: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Amen.

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