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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Take this light: A reflection for Candlemas

On Sunday in the parish we celebrated The Presentation of Christ in the Temple: also known as Candlemas. We heard again the account of Jesus being brought to the temple by his young parents, to be met by Simeon and aged Anna: expectant, hopeful and looking for this baby who would be a light for all people.

As is traditional at this time of year, we brought candles and lights from home to be blessed and taken away again: a sign of the light of Christ that each of us carries out into the world. As we lit our candles and switched off the lights around the crib, I spoke about the significance of what we were doing. What follows is an adapted and developed version of what I said in that moment.


As December nights grew colder, darker
So we huddled around this place

Waiting.

Waiting for the light to glow:
Faint, at first –
Then a crescendo to full brilliance
As the promise of a saviour came to pass.

We knelt here in worship with the shepherds
And sang his praises with the Christmas angels.
We basked in Joseph’s quiet wonder
And we heard Mary’s joyous yes.

We brought gifts to mark the arrival:
Crafted woollen sheep
Whispered prayers
Tears of loss
Of joy.

We made room here for the lost and the forgotten
Shepherd rubbed shoulder with father as we placed our own people around the manger.
Always room for more.

We watched in anticipation
Long after the world ditched Christmas
Sharing a star with far away travellers
And claiming their homage to this child as our own:
A light for all people.

And now we gather here
One last time.
And we switch off the manger’s light.

Not because he is gone.
Not because it is over.
Not because we are done.

But because he is here.
Because it has begun.
Because we are called.

The light that began in this crib
Is the light we now hold in our hands
As we take its blessings back
To home and to heart.

But it doesn’t stay there.

Take it: take it in your words, your actions, your care
And shine it into the bleakest corners of this world.
Take it and illuminate your heart as you light up your home
So that you become bearers of the manger’s light
In the coldest, shadowy places of life.

Take it, and know that you are blessed
And will bless
And will grow
And will go
Onwards, down darkest paths
As people who carry this light.

God has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and has given us a place with the saints in light.
You have received the light of Christ; walk in this light all the days of your life.
Shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father.

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“I just want to be blessed”

My abiding memory of Christmas will be the person who said these words to me.

It was nearing midnight at the end of Christmas Eve. I was celebrating Holy Communion with a small but sincere congregation. We had just started on the Eucharistic prayer, when through the doors at the back of church, directly ahead of where I was facing, a young woman entered church with her two dogs. She wandered to the front of church, sat down in the children’s corner, and was quickly welcomed and shown where we were in the liturgy. The dogs busied themselves in giving the church a thorough ‘sniff-test’.

After the Eucharistic Prayer, I explained to the congregation that everyone was welcome around the table:

We welcome all baptised members of the Christian faith, regardless of your denomination, to come and receive the bread and the wine. If you would rather receive a prayer of blessing this evening, please come forward holding your service booklet.

Over the sound system, I played John Rutter’s Angels Carol (if you don’t know it, and even if you do, you must listen to the clip at the end of this post).

Have you heard the news…
that they bring from heaven…
to the humble shepherds…
who have waited long?
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Hear the angels sing their joyful song.

I turned to offer the bread and wine to the chalice assistants behind me, and when I turned back, she was there. Standing expectantly, hopefully, right in front of me on the other side of the altar.  She was dressed in pyjamas and slippers. She stood alone, with the congregation still sat behind her.

“What would you like?” I asked. “The bread and wine, or a prayer?”

“I just want a blessing.” She replied. “I just want to be blessed.”

I put down the bread and walked around the altar to join her. There, I stood with her, my arms on her shoulders. I asked her name, the names of her dogs, and I held her, and prayed with her for herself and for them. Then she skipped back to her seat, and chatted loudly through the rest of the service. She left at the end with a flourish of joy: “MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE!” she shouted, as she held the entrance doors wide open, the dogs scampering around her feet.

I just want to be blessed.

It has stayed with me. Echoed through the days of the Christmas season. A bold, audacious, extravagant request, spoken through the vulnerability of the intoxicated girl in pyjamas. Not demanding, but confident. Not self-centred, but expectant that she would receive that which she asked for.

I just want to be blessed.

What might blessing look like, for us? For this person, it was about running to God’s table, hearing the story of divine love, receiving solid touch and whispered blessing. It was about standing before God, stripped to the simplicity of her pyjamas and slippers, and hearing her name spoken in prayer. It was about leaving in exuberance, filled with joy.

Her expectant hope and vulnerable approach seems to be the stuff of Epiphany. In Epiphany we celebrate the revelation of God’s love to all people. The magi were not Jews. They came from foreign lands, and their entrance onto the Nativity scene is a reminder of a divine love that is offered not just to an elite, select group, but to every person, regardless of their nationality, gender, sexuality or social status.

The prophet Jeremiah talks about God’s people being “gathered from the farthest parts of the earth” (Jer 31:8). Expectant hope, vulnerable approach, courageous humility: these are attitudes for the furthest corners of life. This is the stuff of Epiphany.

At my lowest, at my most distant, at my most vulnerable I hope I will remember the confident approach of my parishioner on Christmas Eve. And I hope she remembers something of it too. Perhaps her memory is hazy. Perhaps she now feels ashamed, or embarrassed. She needn’t. She modelled to all of us who were there that night what it means to run joyfully into God’s arms, stripped of everything that might otherwise keep us away. That night; however momentarily, however impulsively; she was blessed, and she came home.