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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Broken Biscuits

Disappointment: we’ve all met it.

A failed job interview.
A friend who lets us down.
A diagnosis.

A test we didn’t pass.
A holiday that didn’t meet expectations.
A financial hit.

A God who doesn’t sort it.

I think of it as broken biscuit syndrome

My four year old loves his mid-morning biscuit.
He looks forward to it, plans it, asks for it.
At the right time, I relent, and we go to the cupboard.
This is the moment he’s savoured; the moment he can choose the biscuit he’s dreamed of all morning.
We open the box.
Disaster and disappointment: all the biscuits are broken.
Not one is whole, round and perfect.
His dream is shattered.
Two halves will not do.
The shadow of disappointment crosses his face, and he wrestles with the reality that his hopes will not be realised exactly as he had thought.

20161205_153823Broken biscuits.
A silly thing to get upset about, but not when you’re four years old.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Matthew 11:3

I wonder if John the Baptist was suffering from broken biscuit syndrome?
He gave everything for this cause.
He held nothing back: the vitriol, the frustration, the passionate anger of light clashing with darkness.
It landed him in prison: this wild lover of the outdoors confined to a cell.

In his question is lament, sadness, disappointment.
Are you really the Messiah?
Why aren’t you more like me?

For John, maybe Jesus was a broken biscuit.
Not what he had hoped for, nor what he expected.

When we feel disappointed with God we are in good company.
In fact, it’s inevitable for all of us who imagine God in our own image.
(And how else are we to imagine God?)
As we project our own hopes, personality, agenda and expectations onto God, God will always disappoint.

Encouragement for John comes as his disciples are walking away:

 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.”
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he’. Matthew 11:7-11

Did they hear Jesus affirm John?
Did they hear the overwhelming kindness of that white lie?
(And did you spot it?)
Did they hear?
Did they hear?
Did John?

When we feel that God is a broken biscuit, how can we hear this affirmation?
Perhaps it is just out of earshot.
Or perhaps our ears are closed to it.
Perhaps we might need to let go of what we cling to for security, turn and look disappointment in the face, and journey through it to find God reaching out to us from within and beyond.
Or perhaps the message never reaches us.

There will always be broken biscuits.
There will always be disappointments.
But one day we will see our most punishing failures and setbacks for what they are: crumbs on the floor of Heaven’s banqueting house.

Thin Places: A poem for the Transfiguration

You know a thin place when you pass through one. Somewhere in which people have prayed for a long time. Somewhere with a sense of perfect stillness. You might feel like you’re in a thin place when you visit a big church or cathedral, or the ruins of a monastery or other holy site. The atmosphere of a thin place is difficult to describe, and overwhelming to experience.

The story of a rabbi standing on a mountain top with his friends, and in a single moment being transformed by brilliant light, is a thin place story. It leaves me wondering whether thin places have a particular geography, or whether our lives are actually full of the potential of these moments, wherever we happen to be, as Heaven touches Earth?

Perhaps we are never far from a thin place.
Perhaps thin places are just longing for our attention.
Perhaps we need only to give them space, and they will find us.

This poem is an exploration of thin places: of their fragility and strength. I believe they are there to be inhabited, for a time, if only we stop and notice them.


Thin Places

The sun-bleached rainbow framed by heavy cloud.

A fleeting, fragile moment
That lifts eyes from Earth to Heaven beyond.
In an instant her curtain is drawn back
And she is stripped bare in brilliant light:
A glimmer of the promise
We heard whispered long ago.

The kindness of a stranger’s gentle smile.

It is good for us to be here,
Sheltered from death’s dark shadow
And the sting of dread that wakes us each new day.
Here, we are as we are:
Alive to Earth’s brilliant goodness;
Eyewitnesses to Heaven’s majesty.

The crash of waves along deserted sand.

This place is not for now:
The bubble bursts,
The curtain drops,
The moment fades.
This is a home too perfect; unready yet to hold
The fullness and frailty of all we must become.

The peace of death as pulse and breath are stilled.

We do not leave unchanged
If change is to become ourselves.
Ahead: a thousand moments of transfiguration,
Each one a death – and resurrection – in itself,
As we are both transformed and transform,
Sacred moment by sacred moment.

IMG_0429

Sunrise over Lake Galilee: a thin place.


I took some inspiration for this from Pablo Neruda’s poem Keeping Quiet. It’s worth spending some time with. Here’s a glimpse…

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

Barnabas: A meditation on encouragement

This meditation can be used in different ways. You could sit with it for a while and take time to reflect on different words and phrases. But most of us flick by things like this at more of a pace: just more words that we absorb in our hurried catching up. That’s okay too. This piece is intentionally short for that reason. Maybe a word, an idea or a question will remain with you into the day. Stop here for as long as you are able. And no longer. Use this place as a quiet pause, a deep breath, a moment for your soul to listen and speak.

It might help you to know a bit more about the story that has inspired this piece. If so, you can read it here.


Speak words that bring strength, encouragement and comfort
(adapted from 1 Corinthians 14:3)

Child of strength
(I know you don’t feel it)
You have more steel than you know
And the disturbance within you is only a sign that
You are changing, journeying, living.
Do not be afraid of turmoil:
Have you forgotten your strength?
20160513_133842

Child of encouragement
Courage was planted
As a seed deep inside your heart
Long before you met Fear’s sweet seduction.
You cannot lose your courage
Any more than you can lose your heart
Though, as with your heart, it may wither with neglect.
Whose kind words watered the tender shoots of your courage?
Whose generous gaze shone sun on your emerging petals?
tulip

Child of comfort
Always be ready to console.
Be the arms that held you tight
As you wipe away tears of another’s broken heart.
Watch with eyes that notice:
Whose head is bowed?
Whose shoulders droop?
Who smiles shakily through misery’s fog?
Offer them this gift:
The best that they cannot see in their self.
2013-12-28 16.12.09

…and a victory of hope

It was the women who went to deal with his body. Early, at dawn. Few would see them. They wouldn’t make much fuss.

They would nurture him in death as they had tended him in life. Washing him with tears and anointing him with oil. Grieving, broken, empty.

But then everything changed.

An empty tomb.
A panic.
An earthquake.
A bright light.
An angel.
A cry.

A greeting.

A RESURRECTION!

IMG_1696
A revolution beyond all expectations.
A victory greater than political autonomy.
A liberation more eternal than simple Earthly freedom.

The victory of Easter is a different sort of victory.
It is a victory that points all of our struggles towards a greater whole.
It is a victory that shines the most brilliant of lights into the darkest of our experiences.

It is a victory that hears our emptiness and brokenness, our failures and frustrations, our disappointment and fear, our dying dreams and our misplaced expectation, and says…

these things do not have the last word.

Easter day is a triumph of:

Joy
over
sorrow

Peace
over
turmoil

Reconciliation
over
conflict

Reunion
over
grief

Good
over
evil

Rest
over
pain

Stillness
over
anxiety

Love
over
hatred

Life
over
death

Light the fireworks!
Uncork the champagne!
Laugh and sing and marvel in awesome wonder!

Today we know not how our story ends, but that our story doesn’t end.
Today is simply the beginning of the eternity of our lives.
Today we mock and laugh at Death himself, knowing that although we bear his scars, he will never again defeat us.

Some questions to enrich, embolden, renew, and restore:

20160324_170024


What new dreams are gestating within you?
What flickers of hope can you see in the darkness?
Where are the safe places emerging in which you can put trust?
Which of your frustrations is opening a door to new, surprising opportunities?

Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Where, O grave, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?

 

The death of a dream…

How many of your dreams have died?

The friends of Jesus had a big dream. Political autonomy, religious freedom, an established kingdom. They were planning for revolution.

Everything had pointed towards it. Miracles and healings. Visions and voices from the sky. A herald in the wilderness. Challenges to authority. And a leader who was determined, radical, and not quite of this world.

The tension was mounting. Talk of signs and swords. Decisions of ‘in’ or ‘out’. Predictions of denial and betrayal. Declarations of loyalty. A meal, a prayer, a confrontation…

24 hours later, their revolutionary leader was dead.20160324_155808

How could they have got it so wrong?
Didn’t they see his power?
Didn’t they hear his words?

This was his moment: why didn’t he fight?
They had planned for God’s Kingdom.
All they were left with was a dead body.

Their great leader had failed.
His friends had misplaced their trust.
The dream was dead.

They’d have to watch their backs now too. Rome wasn’t kind to trouble makers. And the Temple authorities had flexed their muscles. Pilate and Herod had shaken hands under a banner of hate. At best, Jesus’ friends would be laughing stocks. The mugs who had fallen for the latest self-styled messiah. At worst, they’d be dead by the end of the week.

Some questions to unsettle:

How many of your dreams have died?
Which of your hopes remain unrealised?
In what or who have you (mis)placed your faith and trust?
Are you carrying frustrated expectations?

This is not the end

Is anybody there?

Is anyone listening?
Does anyone care?

These anguished and lonely cries are as old as human life itself. Wherever there has been life, there has been hardship, suffering, oppression, injustice, cruelty and pain.

I love ancient stories of faith and spirituality. They contain great comfort and wisdom for any of us who are asking these questions.

In our Morning Prayer readings we are hearing again the story of the people of Israel, who have been slaves in Egypt for so long, that they have forgotten who they are.

20160317_103816As they are oppressed, they cry out.
Not to God, but to themselves. To one another.

Honest, angry, anguished and lonely cries.
Just like our own.

Suffering can snatch from us our sense of self.
It erodes our confidence in our own identity.
We forget our own strength.
We neglect to retell our stories.
We lose sight of who we are.

How do we know if anyone listens when we cry out?
How do we know if anyone cares?

We don’t yet know how our own story will end.
We don’t know fully what freedom we will find, or what oppression we will face.
But we can treasure the stories of others.

The story of Israel is precious, because it tells of God’s response to our cries of pain.
We may not feel like anyone has seen, or heard, or knows.
But this is God’s response to the people of Israel, and to us:

I have seen
I see you, struggling.
I watch, as you put in all that effort, for… what?
I notice, when you shed a tear and quickly wipe it away.
I look on, as your busy mind fights the sleep your body so desperately needs.

I have heard
I hear the anxieties that nag at your soul.
I know your thoughts, the moment you think them.
I listen, when no one is there and you allow your grief to rise up.
Do you even hear your own cries?

I know
I know how hard it is.
I know how others treat you.
I know the guilt you carry at how you treat others.
I know things are not fair.
I know that you feel like you’re wading through treacle when you should be soaring on air.
I know you.

I will
I will act.
Circumstances will change.
I will not leave you alone.

You shall
You shall be free.

I Am
I Was.
I Will Be.
I Am.

If you want to read this story for yourself, or you want to know what happens next, you’ll find it in the opening chapters of Exodus, which is the second book of the Bible.