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‘Unexpected delights flowing from irreverent risks’

St. George’s Hanover Square 26th March 2006 John 6:1-14

26 March 2006 11:00 | The Revd. Cathy Bird

Greetings from Hinde Street Methodist Church where, as Fr. Roderick has already mentioned I am based. He and I met as colleagues in Stamford Hill and it was destined to be a great friendship from the moment of our first meeting when as a terrified newcomer to ministry I tentatively knocked on the door of the vicarage and was welcomed not only with open arms but also with a gin and tonic! There was the one occasion when at a dinner party at his house just before Christmas, guests were each presented with a small gift and we were, through a wry grin that these were all gifts given to him on previous occasions which were just too awful or useless or tasteless to be kept. We all opened our presents with great hilarity, until the point that one of our number unwrapped some rather interesting handkerchiefs and another guest said, “I gave you those!” We shall return to the subject of good etiquette!

One of the things I love about the story of the feeding of the 5000 is that, up to a point, it reminds me of every church council I’ve ever been to. It starts off with a problem to be solved – in this case how to feed the people? The next thing that happens is that someone – in this case Philip – says we haven’t got enough money to do anything about it.

Usually that’s the end of the story – money is always the first and best excuse not to do anything about anything! But sometimes, just sometimes, and it happens here – there is a little tentative voice which resists the negativity and dares to raise an idea – “ well perhaps we could…..” In the story we’re dealing today, it is a child who thinks his two loaves of bread and five fish might be of help, and a disciple, Andrew who, even tho’ he’s not quite sure how it might work, recognises that its important enough to mention. Usually and sadly those tentative, often seemingly ridiculous or risky ideas go no further. If money isn’t enough to put people off finding a solution, then fear and uncertainty certainly will be – especially if it demands people doing things differently from how they have been done before. Very rarely do we, as a church, as a community of faith, have the faith to take things onto the next step, to attempt to make a vision a reality. You might say, ‘There’s nothing like a committee to kill a good idea!’ Thankfully, Jesus doesn’t have a church council and he takes the child’s offering and Andrew’s feeling that something can be done with it, and he runs with it we might say, in spite of the obvious obstacles. And those obvious obstacles were fairly significant. To say nothing of the small amount of food for the large number of people, the Jewish community in Jesus’ day were particularly concerned with the right way of doing things. Especially when it came to eating food, issues surrounding the ritual purity of what was to be eaten and of the moral and religious integrity of those with whom food was to be shared were of paramount importance. You may have heard the interpretation of the miracle of the loaves and fish which says that once the generosity of the child had been witnessed in offering his meagre supplies, that this then prompted others to bring out their own food and to share it with one another. Well, its not unlikely that anticipating a long day, waiting to see Jesus, and being aware of his tendencies to mix with and attract those considered to be socially unclean, that folk might have thought ahead and brought with them properly prepared and ritually pure picnics. However, its harder to explain the willingness of this presumably eclectic crowd of folk to sit down, side by side and share what they had brought with others, potentially sinners and gentiles, unknown characters of dubious background, eating with whom side by side could have represented an indecency, a significant offence. And that is true whether or not they were eating food miraculously transformed, or food taken from bags and eaten en masse.

And it is this I think, that is the key to this story, the real miracle if you like - Whether you like the interpretation that everyone got out their own lunchboxes and shared them, or if like me you prefer something a little more mysterious, the real miracle here is surely in the eating together; sharing unclean food with unknown neighbours, a reconciliation, an awakening to the heart of Jesus’ message about breaking down social and religious barriers and prejudice, opening the way into a new sort of Kingdom in which right behaviour is less to do with correctness and propriety and reserve and more to do with community and relationship and vision.

In spite of church council’s, I actually believe there are lots of Andrew’s around – people with germs of ideas, the beginnings of visions. But how do we respond to them and the challenges they often create? – are we too caught up and worried about doing things properly that we fail to notice the opportunities for engagement – the opportunities to be, you might say, a little bit ‘improper’? You see, I actually think, as Christians today in a world which is in so many ways bound by rules and the ‘;right ways of doing things’ that we long to engage in a bit of ‘improper’ behaviour, especially when our norms and assumptions about what is right and proper get in the way of our relationships with those alongside whom, at least metaphorically, we are sitting . And not least because our - perhaps particularly British - obsession with doing things properly and responsibly can actually, by default, pave the way for all sorts of harmful or abusive things to happen; Mothering Sunday can be a particularly difficult time for those people whose experience of motherhood has been difficult, for those whose maternal relationships were harmful or abusive; the message we get is one of duty and responsibility – we must send flowers, send a card etc etc; and that’s the most wonderful thing to do of course; but we can’t forget how much domestic abuse of one kind or another is allowed to continue because people feel that they cannot speak up about it. Because families aren’t supposed to do that sort of thing it gets shrouded in a veil of secrecy and shame and people suffer in the name of decency.

One of my great bugbears at the moment is Westminster Councils ‘Killing with Kindness campaign’ a poster and advertising campaign encouraging people not to give money to beggars and street homeless people; apart from presenting a highly inaccurate and misleading picture of who homeless people are and why they might be begging in the first place, I quite resent the guilt trip placed upon me in the implication that by giving money and otherwise engaging with them, I will be helping to kill them by fuelling a drug habit; its really not quite that simple; for different reasons some of us will give money to beggars, and some of us won’t, either is a fair choice to make if its made in a considered and reasoned way, but to imply that by giving money I am behaving improperly – even cruelly – is a judgement of the most extreme and ill considered kind; so behave improperly I and many others hopefully and probably will.

The story of the feeding of the 5000 encourages us to question all the things we see and do which lead to people being kept apart from one another; and it gives us permission to step over the line sometimes, lest we fail to notice the potential miracle moments, the childlike visions of what might be possible with the meagre resources we have, the opportunities for making something seemingly impossible happen.

I want to end by telling you a story that has become legendary in Methodism in this country; it was a story told by an ex-President of the Methodist Conference Inderjit Bhogal during his Presidential address. A description of a reaI, an actual encounter, I shall read the story to you as Inderjit told it.

“Graham is homeless. He says people call him a ‘tramp’ and sometimes give him money. He lives on the streets of Sheffield where I have got to know him well. As a walker, he gave me sound advice as I prepared to walk along the roads from Sheffield to London. I later saw him sitting on a concrete bench in the city centre. He had a bandage round his head and one foot. ‘Banged into a wall,’ he said. As we got into conversation I asked him to help me. I said I was working on a sermon about tables and bread and parties in the wilderness. ‘I love bread,’ he said. He reached into a carrier bag beside him. His boots and walking stick were by his side. Out of the bag he fetched bread. ‘I always have bread,’ he said, ‘I know a shop. I turn up just before closing time. They give me a couple of loaves. With it I feed myself and my broth­ers and sisters who are poor.’ He talked to me about all those homeless ones who walk at night as others sleep. He held out a large round cob. ‘This is made from rye. I love it – my favourite,’ he said, ‘try some. ’He broke off a large piece with his rugged hands and held it out to me. I re­ceived it and said ‘Amen’ and ate it in bits over several minutes. As I ate it, he unpacked his carrier bag and brought out different kinds of bread and placed it all on the concrete slab bench which had now become a table. Suddenly I was having a meal, and he was the host. Each loaf was held up and its contents were described. I was given a piece from each loaf. ‘You need a good red wine with this bread… it would be a good one for your communion at church. ’I was being fed by one of the poorest men I know in Sheffield. He became an icon of God who prepares a banquet for us all – a table for all where all are included. “

That vision of a table – or it might be a home, a neighbourhood, a city, or the world – a vision in which all sit down side by side, is a vision not clouded by duty, expectation, propriety, or etiquette, but a vision made bright by the selectively irreverent risk taking of Jesus that leads us all, ultimately to the one table, an utterly improper and scandalous table because it strips away all that divides and separates humanity, the table at which any notion of hierarchy or status or superiority vanishes as we all stand, equal and adored in the sight of God.
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