Go and share your bread: Austerity, Abundance, and the Kingdom of God

The following is adapted from a sermon that will preached at Holy Cross, Timperley, on Sunday 29th July 2018 (Trinity 9).


austerity
ɒˈstɛrɪti,ɔːˈstɛrɪti/
noun
noun: austerity; plural noun: austerities
  1. 1.
    sternness or severity of manner or attitude.
    “he was noted for his austerity and his authoritarianism”
    • plainness and simplicity in appearance.
      “the room was decorated with a restraint bordering on austerity”
    • a feature of an austere way of life.
      “his uncle’s austerities had undermined his health”
  2. 2.
    difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce public expenditure.
    “the country was subjected to acute economic austerity”

Austerity has become one of our defining narratives. Stories – life – based on the assumption that “There is not enough to go round”. We’re told that we must tighten our belts, adapt to scarcity, get used to hardship, and guard the resources we still have.

Thank God, I’m not a politician or an economist, but a theologian. Because I believe that austerity is not the way of God, nor is it the way to enable a society to thrive. Short term hardship for long term benefits doesn’t wash when the short term becomes the long term, and the gap between the rich and the poor grows larger and larger. But I’m not here to preach economics.

Austerity is not the way of God, and yet it is the starting point for Jesus’ followers in John’s account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Philip and Andrew are anxious, and we can hear the cogs whirring:

Get the people home. It’s nearly dark and there’s no food. Send them away to fend for themselves. There is not enough to go round. We have to come up with a different plan: we could invest six month’s wages in this crowd and it would be money down the drain.

But Jesus knows a way better than anxious austerity. Anxiety is never a good state of mind to be in. Anxious leaders create anxious followers, and anxious people suppress creativity, increase irritability and achieve little.

And so Jesus shows these anxious guys a different solution to the impossible. Not austerity, but abundance. Not scarcity, but generosity. Not fear, but trust.

What are we to make of the Feeding of the Five Thousand? Some of us think it was a divine supernatural act. Others of us acknowledge that God can work miraculously through the most ordinary of acts, such as a shared lunch. But this miracle was not divine conjouring trick, nor an exercise in sharing.

This miracle was about God and about what God wants for God’s people. Jesus showed that crowd, as the Gospel writers show us, the lavish, endless, inclusive, compassionate abundance of God: in God’s Kingdom there is always enough.

God’s abundant goodness. A God of love who has enough for all. This is the love that Paul talks about in his letter to the Ephesians: a love of incomprehensible, endless depth and height and breadth. A love so all encompassing, so abundant, that we will never fully grasp it.

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

The narrative of austerity has no place in God’s kingdom, because austerity is rooted in fear and suspicion of the other. Austerity is not about love, but control, or simple, catastrophic indifference. These are not the ways of God.

What about us?

We don’t have endless resources. We have limited time, energy, health, money – as frail humans, even our capacity to love and to have faith is limited. Some of us are giving all that we can. Perhaps some of us might, at some point and through the grace of God, feel moved to offer more.

But as people of limited resources, how do we model and live out the abundant love of Christ?

Perhaps it is enough, at first, for us to know God’s love for us. Perhaps it is enough only to grow deeper into this love. To own it and experience it and share it: to claim it for ourselves and for those around us. To see God’s love for the darkest, most rotten parts of ourselves; for those we love and those we despise and those we are indifferent to. To know a love of endless abundance. Perhaps the whole of life is about coming to dwell more deeply within that knowledge. Perhaps on the deepest level, that is all God asks of us.

And yet, as we go more deeply into love, as we come to dwell within it, we are always changed. Perhaps we discover a corner of our heart that is more austere than we knew. Perhaps we discover a hardness within ourselves: an unresponsiveness and a frantic, anxious clinging on to a finite resource that, in the end, will never bring us joy. Perhaps, as we know God more deeply, so we become open to the question: “Are my resources really as limited as I believed?” Perhaps we find that we do have more to offer, and we come to know a deepening of our generosity.

And as we ask that question, perhaps we also discover a depth of abundance within ourselves that is without limit and full to brimming. Maybe we discover gifts to be handed away endlessly: Love, tolerance, kindness, compassion, understanding of the other, trust, faith: perhaps beyond our time and our material resources and hardness of heart, we do have quite a lot to offer by way of abundance.

Imagine a world where each of us modelled abundant kindness. Endless tolerance. Endless compassion. Endless forgiveness. Endless understanding. I don’t think that such a world would be a world of austerity. I think that world would be God’s world.

As we hear this story of bread broken, shared and left over, our eyes are drawn to the table before us. It is only in our own breaking of bread and pouring of wine, as we celebrate Holy Communion, that we find the fulfilment of this story. Here, week on week, we enact the abundant, self-giving, inclusive, immeasurable love of God.

As I preside at the Eucharist, I always try (and sometimes fail!) to ensure that there is more than enough bread, and more than enough wine. The theological significance of having some leftover shouldn’t be lost on us after reminding ourselves of this miracle of abundance. In the Kingdom of God there is always more than enough.

And it is no use partaking in this sacrament, week on week, if we remain unchanged by this abundance. We cannot change the ways of others. We cannot alter the stinginess and miserliness of the world around us. But we can change ourselves. My hope and prayer for each of us here who feast on the abundance of heaven, is that we do not leave this place unchanged, but that we renew our resolve to give everything that we have, and everything that we are, for the good of the people of this world.

And so go out today, back into this austere, weary world full of people who are under so much strain; go from here and share your bread. Model kindness, compassion and love as if there is no other currency by which to live. Because in the Kingdom of God, kindness, compassion, and love need no guarding, no rationing, and no hierarchy. They are for all and they are endless. As people of God, will we hear the call to grow into abundant love, and to allow ourselves to be shaped by that abundance?

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Rotas, rhythms, and “back to school”

This week – one of the hottest of the year – my head has been in Christmas: Christmas services, Christmas rotas, Christmas planning. Given the nature of my work, even in July Christmas is never far away – it’s a perk of the job.

It’s not just been Christmas. I have worked through rotas for September to December, so I have journeyed through Autumn, Harvest, Halloween and All Saints, Remembrance Day and Advent as I’ve headed towards the big C. My head has done 4 months of festivals and feasts in a week.

I love the Autumn. After the slower pace of Summer, Autumn brings refreshing rhythm and a renewed sense of purpose.

But we’re not there yet.

This week my oldest child finished his first year of Primary School. I bawled, and I wasn’t alone. His class said goodbye to the staff who had nurtured and encouraged them and formed them into a solid bunch of friends who would continue to do this school thing together. They spent their last day in an environment which had cocooned them so delicately: a stepping stone from mum’s arms to school’s bosom. They said goodbye, at least for a time, to the friends they had come to know and love and invest in their weekdays with.

And so this week was an ending, of sorts. A week of looking ahead to the Autumn, of looking back over the school year, and feeling a little bit out of kilter within it all.

I never stopped to imagine how the end of the school year would feel, as a mum. The strange combination of desolation and elation, of sadness and thankfulness, of disorientation and relief. The anxious, fearful, overwhelming, joyous sense that I will taste this strange cocktail of loss and reward again and again and again: the end of Reception, the end of primary school, the end of secondary school, graduation or new jobs, moving out, serious relationships being made and broken, grandchildren being born: trauma and celebration.

And what grounded me through this week was those Autumn rotas.

Right now we teeter on the precipice of summer. Life goes freestyle for a while, as we muddle through again as a family of 5 who’ve lost all routine. We might have to learn to tolerate each other a bit more. To adapt to the loss of a routine and sense of community that term time gives us. We will have to navigate the arguments and the tantrums and the meltdowns without the promise and sweet relief of childcare and school looming the next day.

And that’s okay. We’ve done this before. We’ll adapt and it will be awesome.

But right now I feel unanchored. It will be fine to float for a while, and we are all desperate for the rest. But I’m looking forward to those Autumn days. The restored routine. Fresh expectation. New friends and old mates. Early mornings and 3.25pm picks ups and solid bedtimes and grown up evenings. The slide towards Christmas, the nights drawing in and the frantic October morning search for that elusive pair of gloves.

We need rest. But then we need rhythm. And Autumn is packed full of it. We find rhythm in routines and systems and the promise of special times that happen over and over. From ‘Back to School’ to Harvest to Armistace to Advent to Christmas to New Year’s resolutions – we are carried by familiar stories and rituals that ground us and tell us more about who we are.

Rhythm keeps us sane. Rhythm tells our story.

And rhythm tells bigger stories too – it refreshes and reminds and resets us for the journey ahead.

So I’m grateful for summer, and for the rest it brings. But I’m looking ahead too, to a new rhythm and a new term. Old stories told in new ways. Feasts and festivals (and perhaps the odd famine) that will shape and mould and send me on my way.

Drop a ball. Smash a plate. It’s okay to be just “good enough”.

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When I drew this sketch I had no intention of showing it to anyone. Ever.

That was the beginning of this year. I was recently back to work after maternity leave, and for 6 months I had sat on the sidelines of my ministry and tended to our third child. It had been tough. I thought that being a mum third time around would be something I could do with my eyes closed. It wasn’t and I couldn’t.

I had planned to continue an element of my priestly ministry while on maternity leave. And to an extent, I did. I know some people question the wisdom of that decision. It’s one I took seriously and for me it was the right thing to do. But balancing these commitments with a failure to thrive baby, expecting “easy” and getting “tough”, led to something of an identity crisis.

Was I a bad mum for even trying to keep a part of my ministry going through these precious months?

Was I a bad priest for having a third baby? (yep – those irrational postnatal hormones were rife!)

Here were two vocations – two ways of living – coming together and working out how to coexist. As a priest who is a parent, and a parent who is a priest, this is a  source of both agony and joy for me.

How can I give my all to being a good parent, as biology drives me to do?

How can I give my all to being a good priest, as I have been formed and trained to do since first sensing a call to this half a lifetime ago?

How can I do both these things that are not mere ‘jobs’, but calls to ‘be’, when they sometimes seem to be at odds, each demanding every small piece of me and taking everything I have?

Last time I seriously wrestled with this stuff, this sketch was my attempt to work through the pain of this. The chalice and paten at an abandoned table. The empty sanctuary. The messy house. The screaming baby. The kind, compassionate children. The hollow, torn apart mum-priest ready to leave the house but getting nowhere. The darkness and shadow and out-of-reach window. A sense of being trapped in one place, while the other place waits, empty.

In other moments the picture could probably function the other way around: the demands of ministry crowding out bewildered children who wait patiently for their mum to come home and play.

I’m in a better place at the moment. I know that being a parent and a priest are not incompatible roles, and that each nurtures, informs and gives energy to the other. I know that because, on the good days, that’s how it works. That’s why I’m still in ministry, and still loving it, with three kids under 5.

The reason I’m sharing this, is because recently I have heard others say that they, too, struggle with this constant juggling. Once or twice, I’ve shown them this picture. And so I’m showing you, in case it helps you.

What balls are you juggling?
What plates are you spinning?

List them.

Go on – even just mentally.

In how many directions are you being pulled?
How many roles are you holding in tension?
How close do you feel to it all coming crashing down?

And I want to say this.

It’s okay. It’s okay to feel like this.

It can be a dark place to be in.
I know – I go there often, and I’m a priest.
(Priests go to dark places more than most people realise)

But if you feel like this, don’t ignore it.
Draw it, sing it, write it, exercise it out – but don’t keep juggling.

Drop a ball.
Smash a plate.

And when you do, be kind to yourself.

For me, this means remembering that I am not perfect. The illusion that I am gives my ego a boost, but eventually it is only myself that I disappoint.

I’m not perfect. And that’s why I’m happy to show this picture and share this particular journey.

Good enough.
That is all I have to be.
That is all YOU have to be.

And sometimes not even that.

And that’s okay.

 

The well-keeper: Clergy in an age of busy

I wrote recently about self-care, with this caveat:

I am a champion of the importance of self-care. Wellbeing, resilience, self-awareness, wholeness – call it what you like but whatever term we use, it’s important. And it’s important not solely for our own sake, but so that we can be a resource, a wellspring to those around us.

And I’m grateful to David, who left this thought on the post:

I love the connection you have made about the importance of self-care and being a wellspring. Wellspringing- could that be the refreshing replacement for the overused “wellbeing”?

Some months ago I was part of a conversation with clergy colleagues about how Church of England clergy can – and should – grow a deeper awareness of what their congregations do when they’re not in church. As the conversation inevitably meandered, the question arose:

“What’s the point of clergy?”

There are a million different ways to hear this question, never mind answer it. In this instance, it arose out of an understanding that those who are not clergy (“the “laity”) – that is, the majority of people who walk into churches – might be nurtured by, and grow through, not just activities that happen “inside” churches, but in a life beyond church.

Forgive me if I say that this is a frightening thought for clergy in a church which has at times, however inadvertently, failed to hear, understand, nurture and liberate its members through previous decades (think: sheep and shepherds, children and fathers, ekklesia and presbyter – all metaphors with both deep value and severe limitation).

But if clergy are no longer to be (only) shepherds, fathers and presbyters, then what metaphor might serve a church which is intentional about “Setting God’s People Free”? The Ordinal offers powerful and deep descriptions of priestly ministry, and these deserve much meditation, consideration and reflection (I often tell candidates I see for ordination to spend time reflecting prayerfully on these images).

Priests

 

Father doesn’t know best

Well, not always. For a fleeting time, I used to catch my 5 year old up to no good. Responding to his amazement at my 360 degree omniscience, I would say “Well, mummies know everything”.

I stopped that pretty quickly. One day soon he’ll discover it’s not true, and I’d rather have my integrity intact when he does.

How tempting is it for those of us in priestly ministry to assume an air of “the ministry professional knows everything?” I suspect most of our people know that’s not true, even if we’re adamant that it is!

Institutions are wrecked. We have moved past the point where authority itself is license to speak or act or persuade.

And amazingly, how few of these priestly metaphors are about knowing everything? How few are about authority (at least in a worldly sense) and power and control and knowledge?

Watching, walking, telling stories, discerning, sustaining, delighting, searching, offering: what intense metaphors these are for the awesome and impossible task of holding a community of faith together!

The well-keeper

Ever since that conversation with my colleagues, I’ve been musing on the metaphor of well-keeper. In an age where 90% of Christian ministry happens outside the church building, where Christians spend perhaps just a few hours a week coming into church, where the church as institution is dying while spirituality unfettered by religion is booming, then what’s the point of clergy?

Perhaps clergy are the well-keepers. They are the ones who might find life-giving water, and share it round. They start with no special knowledge or strength: it is their own thirst which drives them to the well. And when they find it, they have no monopoly on the water. The water is a free-flowing gift, although it might be that clergy have the time and resources to dig a little deeper and set the flow going.

To those who seek rest and sanctuary, clergy might offer peace, a sounding board, a listening ear. To those who live frenetic lives, they offer attentiveness and availability. For those facing uncertainty and doubt, their listening and their words instil value and build confidence, renew vocation and discern God’s voice.

Clergy are the well-keepers. They find the water and build the wells. They maintain them, and repair them when they’re damaged. They signpost others to them. And they draw from them themselves.

The pun is deliberate, and this brings us full circle.  It is only from the path to wholeness that we can call others to join us. There is a calling on clergy to keep well as they keep the wells. Of course, wholeness and wellness are destinations yet to be reached. Sometimes they feel far away or only mirages. But clergy must be committed to their own self-awareness, self-management, and self-care. Not only for themselves, but for the flourishing of the whole people of God.

In busyness and panic and chaos and simple everyday life, in the mutuality of lay and ordained vocations, perhaps it is clergy who have – or should have – the gifts, the time, and the tools to stop, to dig, to drink, and to call others to do likewise.

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