This sermon was preached online to the congregation of Saint Oswald’s Parkside by the Revd Canon Bill Goodes on Sunday, 25 July, 2021. (Pentecost 9B)
“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” John 6:9
I trust that you were all affronted by the horrors described in the Old Testament reading. There was king David, being guilty of sexual abuse of power, manipulation of his loyal subject in order to cover the result of his actions, and conspiring to commit murder of the innocent party hindering his plans.
In our Old Testament readings over these weeks, we’re following the fortunes of the Israelite people at this particular stage in their history. We were disappointed that they insisted on going against God’s plans, and appointed a king for themselves “like all the other nations”. However then we rejoiced that David was anointed, that he overcame the Philistine champion, and that he was installed as king over Judah and then the whole of Israel. We danced with him as he brought the powerful symbol of God’s presence into the city which he called “the Lord is our peace”.
But now, in his position of power, he has dashed our confidence and hopes. Why should we read such an awful story as we worship?
Well, first of all, I would invite you to take up your daily paper, or watch your TV news broadcast, and see these same crimes repeated day after day, not only by lowlife characters, but by people in positions of honour and power. But second, I invite you, as the introduction I loved to read to Mandrake’s latest adventures did every week in the Women’s Weekly, “now read on”! (Yes, the Women’s weekly was once a weekly publication!) For, if we “read on”, we will learn of the birth of the child so uncomfortably expected, of David’s repentance and sorrow at the child’s death, and what that meant for his understanding of his actions. We will learn too, of the birth of a second son, Solomon, to David and Bathsheba, and how it was this son among so many of David’s children, who began to bring to fulfilment God’s promise to “make a house” for David.
Remember Tony’s sermon last Sunday, and his refrain, “God says, ‘I can work with that’”. It reminds me every time of the story of the gentleman who was walking in the country, and when he met a local man, asked “How do you get to the Railway Station from here?” To this the local replied, “Well, if I were going to the station, I wouldn’t be starting from here!” God, on the other hand, always starts from where we are, no matter how we got there!
We see this same principle being worked out in the Gospel story. It is an impossible situation — everyone recognizes that! Out here on the wrong side of the Sea of Galilee, a great crowd coming towards them. We read the story from John’s gospel today, but it is included in all the gospels, and other accounts have the crowd being out there for a long time with nothing to eat, and the people are seen to be “like sheep without a shepherd”. In this account, however, the need for food seems to be the Lord’s first consideration on seeing the crowd. “Where are we to find bread for these people to eat?” “Even if there were shops nearby we’d never be able to afford enough food for each to have a little”, the faithful followers complain.
But then, perhaps a little sheepishly, or even as a kind of challenge, Andrew reports, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.” It’s still impossible, isn’t it, yet Jesus says, “Make them sit down.” He takes the impossible situation, the impossibly meagre or inappropriate resources, and feeds the crowd.
Now over the next few weeks, our gospel readings will invite us to consider the deep spiritual implications of these actions of Jesus, at this time near the Passover feast, as he takes the bread and fish, blesses them, breaks the bread and distributes it to the people. These readings will lead us deep into the significance of the Eucharist and of our Communion with Christ and with one another, but today, I invite us to focus our attention on how God works.
Now Zoom and other electronic means of sharing remotely in acts of communion are truly remarkable — unthinkable to people of my generation or earlier — but how many of us today are saying to ourselves, or even out loud, “I’d much rather be sitting on those uncomfortable seats in the freezing cold of the church building rejoicing in the fellowship of a group of people that I never would have chosen as my close companions — much rather be there than sitting here in my warm pyjamas watching on a screen and wondering whether I should unmute myself.” Now I pray that by next week we will be able to realize those hopes, and to be able to stretch out our hands to receive and then eat that small token of God’s loving care for us, but that’s not where we are today! We are isolated, physically, from one another, deprived of the outward physical sacramental signs of God’s grace towards us, and this brilliantly-lit house of prayer is closed, unwelcoming, deserted except for what the COVID regulations would call two faith leaders remembering in word and action what we would all like to be doing — doing so on behalf of us all, if you like.
But we have a God who says “I can work with that!” and will use this situation as effectively as any other to reveal that nature which our Ephesians reading puts so beautifully. praying that God will “according to the riches of his glory, grant that we may be strengthened in our inner being with power through his Spirit…” Look again at that wonderful prayer and take to yourself the amazing gift of this gracious God.
Then perhaps, even in our restricted circumstances, we may be able to say, with the letter’s writer, “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine: to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever, Amen”.