Sermon: "You give them something to eat".
The Reverend David Sudron, Sacrist and Succentor; Minor Canon
Preached on 31st July 2011
by The Reverend David Sudron
It’s interesting, I think, that the Apostles’ first plan is an entirely feasible one: send the people somewhere where their needs can be furnished. But there is a fundamental truth to be taught here which their pragmatic approach will not expose. To send the people away will rob the Apostles of an extraordinary opportunity to witness how Christ can transform the poverty of their offerings into a revelation of divine providence. In company with the Fathers, let’s read this as an analogy.
It is not difficult to see in it a reflexion of the Church, founded upon the Apostles, surrounded by a world in as deep a need of the Good News as ever, but unsure of quite how to relate it to the situation in which she finds herself, and feeling rather as if she’s not really up to the task. Amidst the satisfactions which our political culture assures us are limitless in a society which is driven by consumerism and its nasty little false god called ‘Choice’, she may be forgiven for wondering how she can help the adherents of this modern-day cult to see that they are spending their money “for that which is not bread and their labour for that which satisfieth not.” On the contrary, Holy Church has nothing but the best to offer: “Hear, and your soul shall live.”
In these last weeks we have seen a plethora of grizzly examples of the cruelty of the insatiable desire to acquire (a suitably naff way to describe consumerism, don’t you think?). The grotesque insensitivity to which Mr Murdoch’s empire is steadily confessing provides the awful evidence of the way in which power corrupts. It is desperately sad that we need to be confronted with complete disregard for the vulnerability of the bereaved, in addition to the routine manipulation of those whom the mass media takes up as its darlings then destroys as its targets. This very morning the Sunday Mirror is flourishing a scoop on the late Amy Winehouse; even in death they cannot cease tormenting her and her family.
The media mogul’s delusions of grandeur are the antithesis of the vision of the feeding of the five thousand. This vision is not about what grand human gestures can accomplish, but about what God can do out of ordinary human willing. The Gospel is not paving the way for the mighty, military Messiah the Jews of Jesus’s day were expecting, who would overturn the old order by human force: such a pseudo-saviour is not coming because the world has no need of one. Rather, the Gospel is setting the agenda in which a very different kind of greatness is brought by God out of the small contributions to goodness made by each one of us. It could translate as The Times costing 35p more relieving Mr Murdoch of the self-inflicted burden of subsidising it by £50,000,000 a year.
In the face of the unspeakable crimes which have have been committed in Norway in this past week there have been some touching examples of what God can bring out of the small gestures of individual people. First have been the responses of her politicians. Instead of the blame and recrimination which often understandably (but usually unhelpfully) follows ghastly events, Norwegian politicians have shown a mature humanity in their understanding. They know that no ordering of a society is ever going to be able to exclude the possibility of anything like this ever happening. The Law of the Old Covenant attempted to do something like that and it failed. That much energy directed into negative activity is never going to accomplish much, and Norway’s politicians seem to have no appetite for it.
Second has been the witness of her people. The procession of roses to Oslo’s cathedral and the carpets of flowers surrounding it would be beautiful enough tributes in themselves. But what is more important still is what the Norwegians are telling the world these things mean: that these crimes will not be allowed to disturb or destroy the goodness of their society, and that they hold to a basic belief in the decency of the overwhelming majority of its members. The response is not a self-pitying wound-licking: it is a positive assertion of wholesome shared beliefs. This is the kind of outlook which Jesus is forever encouraging.
Now, if these are the kind of multitude small gestures out of which God can bring great things, the Church needs to be in the thick of this, blessing and encouraging what people are saying and doing. This has been happening in Oslo Cathedral. It needs to happen not only at times of crisis, but whenever wholesome, positive living is celebrated. It happens in this church on Durham Big Meeting Day, blessing the sense of strong community spirit and neighbourliness shared by still more than the two-thousand people who come here. It happens at St Cuthbert’s Hospice’s Light Up A Life service, blessing the importance of palliative care that honours the sanctity of life until its natural end. It happens each week, each day, as the daily round of divine service consecrates the lives of those who come to worship God and have the vision of the means of grace and the hope of glory renewed within them.
So it happens as these things are brought into the temple of God’s Presence. Much work is needed to do more of this. Still more needs to be done to deepen our understanding of how we carry these blessings out into our daily living. Here the work of After Sunday has an important part to play. Every church-goer in this diocese ought to know about it. If you don’t, ask Peter Sinclair about it, have a look at its website. Ask to take part in one of its courses. It is a concrete way to help people see just what God can make of our small-scale efforts, and to build confidence in how we can contribute to human flourishing, and thereby see people fed in the way God wills.
A world in which we hear Christ’s command to give others something to eat, each making our careful contribution, is one that can see the appalling suffering in the Horn of Africa become a thing of a shameful, selfish past. It can be one in which men like Murdoch cannot abuse the suffering or manipulate the weak or operate like an unaccountable arm of government. It can be one in which the dangerous and the disaffected don’t slip through the net with catastrophic consequences. All it needs is for us, like St David, to do the little things, and God will do the rest.