David Walker's Sermon - 29th July 2018
Heavenly Father, grant me the ability to speak of you and speak for you but, above all the knowledge that I may only speak through the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
The feeding of the five thousand is such an important event in the life of Jesus that all four gospel writers include it in their writings. Although some of the details differ from gospel to gospel the story itself stays the same, a powerful record of a unique and wonderful event, which might well be described as a miracle.
The story tells us so much about the person of Jesus and, of course, through Jesus, the nature of God.
This morning I want to consider it from two angles - economics and grace, and possibly even the economics of grace. And if that sounds complicated, it isn’t. Because we live in a world dominated and shaped by economics but wholly dependent upon grace. Together they construct the features of this world, albeit providing a different understanding.
At the age of 15 I made a life defining choice. (Due to the rather odd system which my Grammar School used at the time). Faced with having to decide on A Level subjects it came down to either Latin or Economics and being a particularly immature 15 year old I just wanted to play football. I chose Economics despite not knowing what it was and finished up eventually taking a degree in the subject.
I now know, of course, what Economics is and my default way of thinking is to think in economic terms, and becoming an accountant later on certainly didn’t change that.
What is economics? Fundamentally it is the study of the science of the distribution of scarce resources, the basic assumption being that the resources of this world are scarce and finite.
By resources we mean raw materials, labour both physical and mental, capital machinery, land and organisational skills. All of these are finite and as economic beings we are interested in their efficient and effective use. There is only so much of this stuff. And having limitations on stuff makes us needy and greedy, and brings out the worst in us. We measure worth and value and even goodness and virtue in material terms as just another kind of stuff.
The concept of scarcity lies at the heart of economics.
But what if there were something that was not scarce, something that was actually the most abundant resource in our whole universe, that actually increased in quantity the more it was used? That would turn economics on its head.
Many, many years later when I began to seriously study Theology I saw that this resource in fact does exist and that theology is the study of that abundant resource, the infinite and everlasting resource that is god’s grace.
Grace is quite simply the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, free and unconditional and undeserved, and because God is God and is who he is. Grace turns economics on its head.
Whilst economics assumes scarcity theology assumes the opposite, abundance, the abundance of love shown to us by a loving God, and this is a resource which knows no limits and which is there for all to share.
So, let’s look at this morning’s gospel.
Jesus has attracted large crowds to see and hear him. They follow him into the wilderness. Thinking of their needs he is concerned that they have something to eat. He first asks Philip where they could buy bread for them. A test for Philip?
Yes – Jesus knows that they could not buy that much food, not here in the wilderness, and not anywhere probably because in 1st century Palestine the economy operated very differently to ours. There weren’t really any shops as we would know them, and they didn’t necessarily use money as a means of exchange (although, of course, the Romans did). And, besides that, six months wages would be insufficient to pay for it all.
But Jesus knew what he was going to do. He didn’t need the market place to do it.
He knew that the food they needed was a commodity that money could not buy, that he could give them the food they needed in a different way. That the solution to this problem was not economics, but grace. Grace, a free gift without limit.
The loaves and the fishes were limitless resources. Not scarce. There was no need to ration, to hoard, to protect one’s own share, no need to be needy or greedy, no need for all the feelings that can bring out the worst in people.
The loaves and the fishes fed the 5,000 with 12 baskets to spare and we know that if there had been 10,000 or 100,000 there would still have been some to spare.
Jesus simply calls down God’s love on his people, God’s grace. And he feeds the people with bread and fish but with so much more, with his love and with the father’s love. And showing the people that no matter how much they need there will always be sufficient and then some. It will never need to be marketed or rationed. And it should never be exploited.
In John’s gospel Jesus feeds each of them personally, he distributes this grace directly to every one of the 5,000. He doesn’t ask questions of anyone. Are you deserving? Are you thankful? Are you even hungry? He doesn’t ask how much they need, he just gives them what they want. He gives to all unconditionally. But he does establish a connection with them. They must actively receive from him. They must take the bread and the fish and consume it. They must be satisfied.
When Jesus is finished they recognise him as a prophet and try to make him a king.
At that moment God has given them everything they need and they, the crowd, recognise that and they are thankful.
That is the economics of grace. Based on enough rather than not enough.
But what about us? How might we have responded? Back then it was a much simpler world.
If we had been 1st century Jews attracted and mesmerised by this charismatic preacher and healer, so much that we would follow him into the heat of the desert, forsaking food and shade and comfort.
If we had heard things and witnessed events the like of which we could never have even contemplated. If we had sat down and suddenly remembered the discomfort and hunger of this wilderness.
And if then we had felt the excitement of the crowd as the food arrived and as we queued patiently to receive it from his hands, patiently without panic or anxiety. And if it had been the best, most sustaining bread and fish we had ever tasted. All these ifs. What would we have done?
How would we have responded to this free gift, to this act of grace?
Not by eating part of it and selling the rest on to a neighbour. Not by hoarding it and saving it for later. No, your neighbour has enough of their own and there will be more for you whenever you want it. It is God’s gift to you. And in that moment you are the most special person in the universe because Jesus has fed you, not just with the bread and the fish but with his body and his blessings. You have experienced true grace and it is now yours to do with as you wish.
What about now?
We live in a world where the ‘invisible hand of the market’ has a chilling grip on all that we do. Where everything has a price. Where we often understand and appreciate price ahead of value.
How do we fit God’s grace into a world where economics, the study of scarcity, holds sway? It should be easy but it’s not. We human beings have ways of making things more complicated, more difficult, than they should be. And our thinking often becomes programmed and predictable so that we find it hard to conceive even that there may be a box to think outside of.
Our first reaction to grace can sometimes be suspicion or even rejection. It might be to hoard it or even demand more. We receive grace and we don’t know what to do with it. We don’t know what is an appropriate response.
One of the aspects of the royal wedding which appealed to me was the guest list.
The good and the great were invited but also the ordinary people.
What was their response to this gift? Some immediately grumbled that they wouldn’t be given a proper meal, despite being provided with a substantial goody bag of snacks and souvenirs.
But even worse than the grumbling, the day after the wedding the goody bags began to be resold on EBay. Not exactly loaves and fish in the desert but a free gift nevertheless.
Who does that? Who takes a free gift that they’ve done nothing to earn and which they probably don’t deserve and cashes in on it? What does that say about them?
But hang on, before we condemn those folk let’s just examine our own lives.
What about all the goody bags we’ve received? All the things we’ve taken in our lives. Have we always responded in the right way?
I’m sure I haven’t. I’ve hoarded stuff, valued stuff, material things, more than I should, and cashed in on the good fortune of living a comfortable, well resourced life, without always acknowledging where it has come from.
What about life itself? What about the greatest gift that God has given us, the very reason we are here now. Grace. Are we all guilty of putting a price on it?
Even in Jesus’ time there would have been a form of economy recognisable to us. No doubt when Peter and Andrew and James landed their fish on the shores of the lake they would have taken some of them to market. And Jesus himself as a young man, a carpenter in his family business, would have bought and sold the wood and the artefacts created from it.
But the markets were rudimentary. There was much more of an ethos of sharing, in families and even in communities. And here again Jesus is showing us the way.
His suggestion of buying the food he needs is quite ironic as he knows that cannot be the answer. The only answer here will come through sharing and trusting in others to share. As the theologian Ched Myers describes it
‘ (Jesus) determines the available resources, organises the consumers into groups, pronounces the blessing and distributes what is on hand...The...miracle here is the triumph of the economics of sharing within a community of consumption over against the economics of autonomous consumption in the anonymous marketplace’.
Jesus is here demonstrating the importance of treating grace as a gift given freely to all without exception and without judgment , not to be earned and not based on merit, and nothing for us to do but move towards God and accept it in the same grace as it has been given. In other words to give as we receive, to share our bounty with others, to try to see that we have enough, and to cease being haunted by the spectres of scarcity.
We live in a world where the majority do not have enough and where a small minority have many, many times more than enough. A world of inequality and unfairness. A world where some cannot share and some won’t. A world that is crying out for a better sharing. A better understanding of grace. A better acceptance of the economics of grace.
Imagine a world where everyone understood the economics of grace, of abundant life in all its glory, where everyone had enough and knew that they had enough. Where, like those whom Jesus fed, all were satisfied. What sort of world would that be? What would be the point of economics?
Grace has a lot to teach economics. We have long been stuck with an appreciation of economics based upon the 18th century capitalism of Adam Smith, and based upon the idea of scarcity. Grace is abundant.
But Jesus in feeding the 5,000 is saying that the resources of this world are abundant, that there is enough for everyone and I think we know that. Scarcity, as it exists, is based upon manipulation, based upon a lie if you will. The truth is that we don’t need markets, we don’t need to be ruled by the hegemony of supply and demand. But to break that rule we must accept an alternative rule, which is the rule of God, and God’s love and God’s abundant grace.
Is there anything we can do to bring this world about?
As individuals, probably not. We are largely stuck with it and with its economics. But we can change ourselves and, of course, we are not just individuals, we are all of us part of the body of Christ. We have a relationship with God and with our neighbours.
We can begin by accepting and acknowledging the grace we receive from God and which we see in others. We can seek to change the little things we can change.
And we can always give thanks for what we have. And that’s where this sermon ends. Not with any solutions.
With more questions than answers.
With a ‘discuss’ hanging in the air. And with an overall frustration – except that we know that God will always be there for us, God will always make the first move, will always be inviting us into his future.
And we know that this grace we have been talking about will never run out, will never fail us in this life or in the next.
We have faith and where we have faith we have hope, and we have the knowledge that God will always meet us in the wilderness with gifts of loaves and fishes.