Saturday, August 30, 2008

Pentecost 16A Dying to Self

In one episode of The Simpsons, Homer finds out the real advantage of having a born-again Christian as a neighbour.  Now Homer dutifully goes along to church every week with Marge and the kids, but most of the time he’s asleep, so he never learns a great deal.  Anyway, this one time Homer hears something interesting.  ‘Love your neighbour as you love yourself’, the preacher announces.  ‘If anybody asks you for your coat, you’ve got to give them your cloak as well.  If somebody forces you to walk a mile with them, go two miles instead.  Do for others as you would have them do for you’.

This is all news to Homer, who has always tried to live by the golden rule, ‘Do unto others before they do unto you’, but he’s nothing if not quick on the uptake.  ‘Hey’, Homer wonders out loud, ‘that means Flanders has to give me his lawnmower, any time I ask!’  Flanders, sitting in the next pew up front, looks worried.

So Homer starts calling on Flanders several times a day to borrow stuff.  Soon, not only Flanders lawnmower, but the entire contents of his garage including his car, are over at Homer’s house and Homer is making plans to get the swimming pool towed away as well.  This eventually provokes a spiritual crisis for Flanders, but that’s another story.

So what is it about being a Christian?  Do you have to be a doormat?

Simon Peter, like Homer, has woken up just this once, as we heard in the Gospel reading last week, ‘Hey, you’re the Messiah of God’.  That’s code for lots of things, it carries a whole history of meaning like Israel not getting pushed around any more because the promised descendant of David is going to set a few things straight, but most of all it means God with us and God for us – the sign that we are God’s no. 1 priority, proof that God takes us seriously and that God works for us.  Least, that was the theory.

You might think, also, that the Messiah of God might be a coded message: ‘watch this guy.  You want to know what I’m like?  Well, actually I’m a lot like him.  You want to know what’s important to me?  Well, watch him’.  Yes, God’s Messiah does show us God with us and God for us – but that’s exactly where it starts to get disturbing.

Because then Jesus breaks the news to the disciples that he’s not going to be following the script, at least, not in the way they imagined.  Instead, Jesus sees the road ahead of him as a path of suffering, misunderstanding, betrayal and death – that obedience to God leads essentially and inevitably to failure – and only on the other side of failure and death should the disciples dare to hope for resurrection and renewal.  Elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel you get some sense of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sin, or payment of a divine ransom, but here the whole point just seems to be, ‘that’s just the way it goes if you’re going to live the path of love and forgiveness consistently, without compromise or turning aside.’  It’s a point that Matthew is making for the people of his own community, as well.  Jesus’ way, the way of love, is also the path of faithfulness for followers who – like Jesus – are going to experience rejection and suffering.


Actually, you can’t blame Peter for wanting to argue the point.  But Jesus, who has just given Simon the new nickname, Peter, which means ‘Rocky’ – now Jesus says ‘mate, I’ll tell you what sort of rock you are - you’re a rock that people trip up on.  ‘You’re in the way’.

Because the way of Jesus is the way of lowliness, not the way of power as Peter expects but the way of self-emptying love and humble vulnerability – and of course that makes the leadership role that Jesus has just handed to Peter a very different kettle of fish as well.  Because if it’s based on Jesus own model of leadership then it’s got to be the sort of leadership that turns the status quo upside down, the sort of leadership that’s supposed to put the lowest and the least first, the sort of leadership that puts the Beatitudes into practice, that blesses the ones the world rejects and that challenges the ones who are accustomed to holding the reins of power.  The sort of leadership that puts the small child in first place and rejects the temptation of power.  And that’s why Jesus addresses Peter here in exactly the same terms as he rejects the devil’s temptation during his 40 days in the wilderness: ‘get behind me, Satan’.

But, what does it mean for disciples like you and me?  It’s not, I think, a demand to have no ego at all, not a demand to submerge our self-identity in some sort of goody two-shoes insipidness like Ned Flanders.  Who, incidentally, before the end of the episode had run amok and smashed up everything that Homer had borrowed just so Homer couldn’t have it any more.  Living like that isn’t the answer, obviously.  But what Jesus is calling us to is a way of living that sets aside competitiveness, manipulation and game-playing.  Jesus is also inviting us to set aside any image of ourselves based on what the world around us defines as success.  The challenge instead is to live authentically, to stop wasting energy justifying ourselves and trying to prove that we are worth loving because of the possessions or the influence we have.  Maybe the invitation to take up our cross and follow Jesus just means to abandon the project of the false self as a facade, to take the risk of being authentic and vulnerable, to take the risk of loving in the same way we ourselves are loved, no matter what, by the God who made us and who reveals the depth of God’s love for us in Jesus.  It means allowing our own lives to grow out of God’s own life, always facing outwards, towards others, instead of inwards, towards ourselves – allowing ourselves to be poured out in love instead of holding something back in reserve.  That’s the model of self-giving love we see in Jesus, who because he knows for sure how much he is loved by God the Father is able to take the risk of loving others.

There are consequences to living like that, generously instead of defensively.  There’s a cost, there is much we have to let go of, indeed, to die to.  There’s a cost that’s sometimes forced on us, the cost of living generously and authentically can sometimes be enormous.  But we do need to be clear what it isn’t.  The cost isn’t that we are called not to care about ourselves or to love ourselves.  Quite the opposite, in fact, you are called to love yourself as God loves you, to care for yourself as God cares for you.  The way of Jesus is not the way of the doormat at all!  Caring for yourself as God cares for you means having the courage to live openly, to nurture the life and energy of God’s Holy Spirit within you, it means living courageously towards the fulfilment of your own life, the life of others around you, and God’s own life.  Where Christianity has taught that following Jesus means refusing to care for yourself or closing yourself off from the joy and beauty of life, then it has become a false religion, a religion that leads not to openness and love but narrowness and isolation.

Taking up your cross doesn’t mean living grimly and dutifully, it means taking the risk of living joyfully and with passion.  It means letting go of all the false substitutes, all the toys of our consumer society that distract us from our primary purpose of loving and being loved  It means giving yourself the permission to recognise your true needs, the self-fulfilment you can find only in living with anticipation, face forwards to the future, oriented towards others and towards God.  Yes, it means living without a safety net, yes, it means risking the backlash of misunderstanding and even hostility from a society that values competitiveness and self-protection above all else, but so what?  The life that God gives you is a peculiar currency – this is Jesus’ theory, not mine, so you can take it seriously – the more you give it away the more it reverberates and grows, the richer and deeper and wilder it becomes.  The more you give this life away, the more you really start to live it.

Die to your false self.  Just give yourself permission to be who, deep down, you really are. 


Friday, August 15, 2008

Pentecost 14A The Canaanite Woman

I remember once I had a friend, a work-mate, who was a Jehovah’s Witness.  Lennie was a very annoying man, there were so many things he couldn’t do, like drinking coffee or swearing, that it was rather hard to know how to have a conversation with him at all.  Mind you, this was a pretty blokey sort of environment we were in.  There was something about Lennie you couldn’t quite put your finger on, something that said not only is this guy a bit different, but that he was OK with that, it actually suited him to be a bit different. 

Then, after I’d known Lennie for a while, he asked me one Friday if he could drop around home for a chat.  He seemed fairly set on the idea, so eventually I told him that he could.  And that, of course, was when I found out he was a JW.  Lennie came in to my room with a shoulder bag full of tracts, and he told me the one thing wrong with being a JW was that he was expected to do some missionary work, there were a certain number of contacts that were expected of him every year, a sort of quota he had to meet.  And would I mind just taking a couple of tracts, even if I didn’t want to read them. So long as he could put me on his stats.

So I gave him a glass of water and we talked about this and that, and I guess I mentioned that I had a rather different take on what God was like and didn’t really want to talk about his version, which made him a bit downcast for a moment, though it did seem to me that Lennie took rejection fairly well.  And after a while he picked up his shoulder bag and asked me whether it would be alright if he came around again same time next year, so I said why not?

It was the beginning of an interesting relationship.  I can’t say Lennie and I ever agreed about much, and I can’t say he didn’t have some totally whacky ideas – but along the way I learned to take Lennie seriously, and I learned he had a point of view that was worth thinking about.  Lennie stretched me.  He annoyed me, and provoked me, and he made me challenge some of my own assumptions, question a few of my stereotypes.  In his own, always slightly shambolic way, Lennie had claimed a sort of kinship with me, and he helped me to see the world from a different angle.

There are three big temptations, I’ve found, for people who are trying to discern where God is, and where God wants to take them in their lives.  Three temptations to rigidity that limit our growth both as individual Christians, and as a church.

The first one is thinking we already know all the answers  We already know what God is like, and what God wants of us.  And if we fall for this one, we stop growing altogether.  We no longer look for clues as to what God might be telling us, how God might be challenging us.  We already know it all.

The second temptation is to think that there are some people who are so far off the beaten track that we don’t have to listen to them.  Some people we can write off, nothing valuable to contribute.  Give them a label, like ‘fundamentalists’ or ‘JWs’, it means we don’t have to waste valuable time and energy decoding their nonsense.  And so we retreat into a ghetto of the like-minded. 

And the third temptation?  It’s the worst of the lot, the idea that the truth doesn’t change.  God’s word to us is the same this year as it was last year, right?  After all, Jesus is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, incarnation of the God who is the same yesterday and today and forever.  Not only that, changing course must mean the course we were on before was wrong.  God doesn’t change, so we can’t either.  And so we practice the religion of an idealised past.

And these three temptations, I think, are based on a view of Jesus that’s mistaken, and an idea of God’s relationship with us that’s mistaken as well.  Because today’s Gospel reading shows us a picture of a Jesus who’s very human, Jesus on a learning curve.

Today, Jesus is on holiday.  He’s headed north, and for the first and only time in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has crossed over into Gentile territory.  Mark tells the same story and he says it more explicitly – Jesus is staying in the seaside resort of Tyre where he has rented a little cottage and is trying to stay anonymous for a bit.  Maybe he just needs a little well-deserved time out.  Except this foreign woman recognises him and starts demanding stuff.

Mark’s Gospel calls her a Syro-Phoenician, which more or less just tells us where she comes from.  Matthew calls her a Canaanite, which is a bit of a stretch since there hadn’t been any real Canaanites for a thousand years or so.  It’s a bit like describing a woman from Norway as a Viking.  It’s a put-down.  Matthew is rubbing it in a bit, not only is this lady a foreigner, she is well and truly outside the circle of God’s covenant relationship, one of the pagan peoples God commanded the Israelite armies to dispossess and exterminate.  God doesn’t talk to us through them.

And Jesus gets it wrong.  Not just a little bit wrong.  Jesus gets it totally wrong.

Remember, this comes straight after Jesus has been explaining to his disciples that the Jewish food laws aren’t what’s really important.  ‘It isn’t what goes into your mouth that can defile you’, Jesus tells them.  ‘It’s what comes out of it’.  Yet, what comes out of Jesus’ mouth when this desperate woman asks him for help?  Absolutely nothing.  Sheer, devastating, hurtful silence.  Jesus ignores her, as any well brought-up Jewish male would have.  A woman, and a foreigner.  In that culture, to engage in conversation with somebody is to recognise them as an equal.  And Jesus doesn’t.

Then, when the disciples pester him to get rid of her, he explains, ‘I was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel’.  It’s easy enough to see why Jesus might have understood his mission in those terms.  He knows that God is doing something new through him.  He knows his mission is to help people break through the boundaries that keep them in relations of oppression and to learn that God’s forgiveness and love has no limits.  But there are still limits to his own understanding of all that that means.  And when she refuses to take no for an answer, then comes the word that really defiles: ‘it’s not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs’.  Excuse me?  Actually, I’ve read commentaries that suggest this wasn’t a particularly insulting thing to say.  Jesus uses the diminutive form of the word for dog.  Little dogs.  But, you know what?  Even allowing for 2,000 years of changed values, Jesus is telling this woman that she is a little less than human, that she is not his concern. 

Then this woman – unnamed, I guess, because she is a woman, and a foreigner, engages Jesus in a verbal contest, she gets the better of him in one brilliant metaphor that shows, not only does she understand the claim of the Jewish people to be first in the queue, but she knows that God’s love is bigger than that.  ‘Even the dogs get the crumbs that fall from the children’s plates’, she tells him.  And that’s the ‘aha’ moment.  That’s when we see the penny drop.  That’s when Jesus learns something new about who he is, and where God is leading him.

And Jesus changes course.  Again the travel itinerary is clearer in Mark’s Gospel, which Matthew is using as a source at this point.  Jesus stays on around the region of Tyre, in Gentile territory, and his very next act is to restore the power of hearing and speech to a man who was deaf.  Gentiles, in other words, who had not been worth recognising as human, are now being brought into the conversation of God’s love.  And then comes the feeding of the 4,000, not just a clumsy editor’s mistake in repeating the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 but the same miracle of love now demonstrating the inclusion of Gentiles in God’s covenant.  A boundary in Jesus’ thinking has been crossed.  Those who were outsiders are now on the inside.

Jesus has been changed.  The encounter with this unnamed lady – St Whoever – turns out to be a crucial turning point.  Jesus has been forced to listen to somebody his upbringing had taught him to ignore, and to act with compassion in a situation where nobody would have blamed him for moving on.  His choosing to listen and to heal, to change his mind even at the cost of being shown up by this pushy nobody – this is the real model of discernment that we should be following.

Real spiritual discernment is not about certainty but about openness.  Real discernment is about recognising God’s leading even when it comes to us through outsiders and nobodies.  And real spiritual discernment means recognising when our thinking needs to be stretched, when we need to change course, to recognise a deeper sense of what it means to be faithful in a new context.

Of course God’s love doesn’t change.  But just as creation is a work in process, so God’s engagement with us, and God’s word for us, is always fresh and new.  There are surprises around every corner.  Who’s pushing you out of your comfort zone today, offering you a new vision of what God might be calling you to be?  Who’s inviting you to grow, challenging your view of what it means to be Christian, what it means to be a church?  And how are you going to respond?


Friday, August 08, 2008

Pentecost 13A - Come on in, the water's fine!

A story made for TV!  Today’s Gospel story has got the lot, narrowly averted disaster, supernatural themes, mystery and a bit of high farce thrown in for good measure.  I know preachers are supposed to start with a story, entertain and amuse for a couple of minutes before hitting the congregation with the serious stuff, but this is impossible to beat.  Right after last week’s miracle of making the little you’ve got left in the fridge stretch out to feed the unexpected guests, Jesus sends the whole crowd packing, disciples and all, and takes the rest of the day off.  It’s not the only time we see him doing this, balancing the needs of others against his own need to pray, to rest and reflect on what he’s doing.  Jesus sends the disciples on ahead of him, all, so to speak, in the same boat, and a very fragile little wooden boat it would have been, on an overnight voyage across the famously fickle Sea of Galilee.

And the disciples are making heavy weather of it.  Now, this isn’t the ‘peace, be still’, story, that happens earlier, in chapter eight.  The little boat is being battered and tossed about, like little boats always are, the disciples apparently aren’t in danger of being swamped but they’re sure as heck jittery.  Matthew maybe downplays this a bit, but to his Jewish Christian audience the drama of this overnight crossing would have been electric.  First century Palestinian culture wasn’t into sun, sand and surf!  The sea represented chaos, disorder, the home of monsters and other slimy horrors, a bottomless watery infinity of terror.  In the Book of Revelation for example, the writer’s idea of a perfect new creation is one where ‘the sea is no more’.  In Genesis, in the second verse of the whole Bible, uncreation is represented as a watery chaos over which God hovers and speaks the world into being.  For Matthew’s Jewish audience the night time drama of this little boat being tossed about on the black water represents everything that terrifies us, all rolled into one.  So here’s the first thing.  It takes courage just to get on with life.  It takes courage as disciples to know that Jesus sends us off ahead of him with a job to do, to live our lives in a way that proclaims the goodness and reliableness of God 

And Jesus takes a short-cut, catching them up by walking across the water.  I guess with stories like this we can’t avoid asking ourselves, ‘can I really believe this one?  Did Jesus historically really truly walk on water?’  and we can’t avoid noticing that the nature miracles especially all seem to resonate with Old Testament themes.  So whether Matthew is embroidering a bit on something that really happened, or whether he is just telling a rollicking good yarn, the story of Jesus walking on water means something, it means that the God of the Old Testament who weaves creation out of the watery chaos, who is represented in Psalms as stilling the storm and riding on the waves, it means that this God is present to us in Jesus.  And the disciples, of course, find this even scarier than whatever might be lurking under the black water.

So here’s the question.  While the rest of them all do the sensible thing, which is to cower a bit lower in the boat, roll their eyes and groan and pass out, Peter does the typically Peter thing, which is to say he gets Jesus to invite him out there on the water.  Why does he do that?  Why get out of the boat?  Is this Peter being foolhardy and brash, is this a sort of immature me-too-ism, does he just not know any better, or is Peter just really wanting to be wherever Jesus is?

I remember once, years ago, when I lived in Brisbane, being at one of those theme parks on the Gold Coast with my little boys.  One of those places where you pay a small fortune to ride down waterslides and get drenched at every turn before finally getting dumped into a pool the size of a bucket at the bottom with shrieking strangers catapulting into you.  Except while we were there it started to rain, and I remember thinking, as we all ran for cover, that there was something a bit contradictory about being afraid of a summer shower when we had all paid good money for the privilege of being drenched anyway.

So what is it about getting wet?  Do we love it, or we scared of it?

Bit of both, probably.  Something in us doesn’t want to play it too safe.  Something inside us is attracted to the idea of just jumping in, like Peter, right into the middle of wherever Jesus is, or wherever Jesus wants us to be. 

A clinical psychologist named William Sheldon, writes that human beings have got a subconscious motivation that runs deeper than sexuality, deeper than the desire for security, or power, deeper even than the need for approval and acceptance.  And this hidden motivation, Sheldon says, is the need for orientation, the need for purpose and meaning.  We want our lives to matter, to stand for something that’s true and worth something. [1] And so we want to jump in.

But, you know what? we’re surrounded by water, and the dragons lurking underneath are real.  Psychologically, there are real sea-monsters in the deep waters of our lives.  What does it mean for us to affirm with conviction that Jesus is Lord, when we are all too aware of the deep destructive powers in our own lives?  You don’t need me to tell you what the limitations are in your own life, the fear of failure, or the fear of success, the fear of loving or of being loved, the patterns of self-sabotage or jealousy, the insecurity that drives us to possessiveness, the guilt that drives us to lay undeserved blame at the feet of others.  We all have this stuff, different variations of it that we have inherited or acquired from ancient disappointments, underwater stuff in the oceans of our own lives. 

And there’s even scarier stuff in the water that doesn’t come swimming out of our own brains.  For Matthew, and the community Matthew wrote for, the fearsome realities were not limited to inner psychological demons.  There were also the political and social and religious powers that limited and controlled the lives of men and women, that kept human beings in relations of oppression.  Twenty one centuries later, the external dangers are just as fearsome.  The helpless anxiety created by wars and random acts of terrorism.  The moral paralysis of climate change created by human economic activity.  The runaway cost of housing and food prices, the financial pressures on young families, the moral vacuousness of a popular culture based on Big Brother and big TV screens.  Whole countries at risk from AIDS.  The knowledge that every single day of the year, 30,000 children die of hunger and easily preventable diseases.

But Matthew’s story tells us something profoundly reassuring.  It tells us that the sea-monsters aren’t the only inhabitants in our inner oceans, there is someone else who walks in the middle of our fears with the power of compassion and of healing.  It tells us that the deep waters of our fears and failures, the chaos of our world’s politicking and misplaced priorities - that that’s where God is, and that’s where God invites us to be as the practical agents of God’s love.  Matthew's story tells us that we can function even in the deepest water of our own fear, because God is there ahead of us.  This is the second thing.

So brave, silly Peter gets out of the boat.  For a few steps he walks, then he starts to think to himself, ‘hey, nothing underneath my feet’.  It’s like one of those cartoon characters who walks off the edge of a cliff.  You don’t fall until you happen to look down and notice that there’s no ground there any more.  He takes his eyes off Jesus.  So this is the third thing.  When you’re in the middle of the chaos of life, whatever your own personal version of chaos is, don’t look down.  Keep focussed on your true centre.  Keep looking at Jesus.

Of course Jesus comes to the rescue.  And as he pulls Peter back into the boat he uses that phrase he uses so often, ‘you of little faith’.  How do you imagine him saying that?  I used to think it was a bit of a put-down, an exasperated way of telling the disciples off, a sort of ‘oh, if only I had a few real disciples, you lot still don’t get it’.  But as I read it in this story I’m not so sure.  It seems to me that Jesus is overwhelmed by love for Peter at this point.  Jesus is calling Peter his little one.  Jesus is commending Peter, ‘you, who do have a little faith – you, who wanted to get out of the boat and come to me wherever I am’.

Come on in, the water’s fine.




[1] Quoted in Abingdon Preaching Annual 2008, p. 254.

Pentecost 12A - Jacob wrestling

A hopeful development in the area of criminal justice during the 1990s was the development of the technique known as ‘restorative justice’.  This has been put into practice quite widely in Canada and New Zealand, as well as parts of the United States.  Depending on the nature of the criminal offence, restorative justice might be an alternative to putting a perpetrator in jail, or it might be applied as well as a jail sentence.  But basically the idea is to bring the perpetrator and the victim together for a series of meetings with a specially trained facilitator.  Because, it was realised, each of them have needs that can only be met by the other.  Victims generally need to see the person who has harmed them, to tell that person how angry they are, how much they have been hurt, how some things in their life might have changed forever, and they need to ask ‘why?’.  “Why did you do this?’  And, even though they might not realise it for a long time, the victim of the crime also has a need to forgive.

The perpetrator also has some needs, although again, they might not realise it at first.  They need to hear the consequences of what they have done, they need to hear the anger and hurt, and they need to start working through why they acted like they did, what might be different in the future  And they need, eventually, to ask for forgiveness.  But before forgiveness can even be talked about, the victim and the perpetrator, together, are encouraged to talk about what can be done to put things right.  What punishment should there be?  Is it possible to make some restitution?

As you can probably imagine, this is a really confronting experience for both sides.  Both parties are afraid of the confrontation, and they both need some support.  There’s some really painful stuff that comes out, some truths get spoken, a whole lot of lies get exposed.  There’s shame that has to be faced up to.  But at the end of the process, experience has shown, both parties find some healing, and maybe the chance of a new beginning.

The ironic truth is that that the painful confrontation with the one we have wounded, or been wounded by, is the only way we can finally become complete.  The great psychologist Karl Jung is getting at something like this when he talks about the necessary confrontation with the Shadow, the unconscious part of ourselves where we push everything our conscious minds don’t want to face up to.  According to Jung this is the most important task of the second half of life, facing up to our own Shadow selves so that we can become whole people.

The ancient scribes who wrote down the stories of Genesis knew this truth at a very deep level.  Today we find Jacob, that quick-witted trickster who has gone through life accumulating wealth, wives and enemies, getting ready for it all to come tumbling down around his ears.  Jacob’s chickens have come home to roost, the long-delayed confrontation with his scary brother Esau, the one he cheated out of his inheritance so long ago, can’t be put off any longer.  Esau is waiting on the other side of the river Jabbok, and Esau, we’re told, has brought an army with him.  Still, Jacob tries to buy some time and maybe even fend off his brother’s anger with a series of extravagant presents, tries perhaps to buy some sympathy by sending his wives and servants and little ones across the river first.  Then, eventually, all he has left is himself, alone and in the dark, waiting for the first light of morning so he can cross the river and take whatever is coming to him.

And, the story tells us, God wrestles with him all night.  Clearly, the storyteller means us to understand this in a very physical sense – real dread, real, heart-pounding fear, sweat and straining of muscles, desperately trying to get the better of this silent opponent who, Jacob finally comes to understand, is none other than God himself.  Karl Jung couldn’t describe it any better, the fearsome struggle with the divine that both wounds and heals us.  No place for hiding his true nature in this encounter – Jacob knows he can’t get the better of his fearsome opponent but refuses to let go until he receives from God the blessing that he took by deception from his dying father all those years ago.  And what a remarkable observation – God can’t prevail against Jacob, either – or against me or you – Jacob himself needs to come to a new understanding before the stalemate can be resolved.  And so Jacob gets his blessing, and a new name – Israel – ‘God strives with him’ – or ‘he strives with God’, it doesn’t matter which – and he receives a wound that will always remind him that integrity comes at a cost.

The other day, while I was driving, I found myself listening on the car radio to an interview with Jim Wallis, the American progressive evangelical leader who has just published a new book, called ‘Seven Ways to Change the World’.  And Reverend Wallis was saying he thinks the evangelical churches are beginning to see themselves a bit differently now.  He said, the days of churches being preoccupied with sex and doctrinal controversy might be coming to an end, and that what people are really yearning for is a theology of hope and a new moral centre.  I do hope he’s right!

But what really caught my attention is when Wallis mentioned being at a meeting with the then British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, and they were talking about the fact that 30,000 children die every single day from hunger or preventable illnesses.  Can you even imagine that?  And Gordon Brown said to him, 'You know we have the knowledge for the first time, the resources, the information, the technology to end extreme poverty as we know it - extreme poverty - but we don't have the moral will.' He looks across the table and says, 'That's your job in the churches'.  Wallis said we need to develop the theology, and the politics of hope, and he quoted one of Desmond Tutu’s sayings, 'Christians are prisoners of hope', in other words, as Christians we have to make the choice to have hope, to believe in and to work towards the possibility of a just future. [1]

Which, of course, is exactly what our Gospel reading this morning is telling us.  You know, it used to be popular for preachers to try to explain the miracles of Jesus – oh, maybe it’s not a miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes, maybe what’s so miraculous about it is that from the first selfless gift of five loaves and two fish, according to John’s Gospel the gift of a little boy, maybe the miracle is that from one act of generosity the hearts as well as the lunchboxes of many were opened.  Well, either way, it’s a miracle, but what we really need to focus on is what it means.  Which is that God’s priority is for the meeting of human need, for acts of compassion and hope.  There’s a rich echo here of an earlier miraculous feeding, the gift of manna in the desert that sustained God’s people as they fled from oppression in Egypt.  And there’s also an echo of the central act of Christian spirituality, the Eucharist itself, God’s most costly miracle of feeding that reconciles and restores us.

Which brings us directly to the point, which is that the providence and the generosity of God has a price tag.  Cheap grace is not the real deal!  I think there’s a special poignancy for us, in our privileged corner of the world, that we hear today’s stories together, Jacob’s nocturnal struggle and the miracle of the loaves and fishes.  Because if the second story reminds us what justice looks like from God’s point of view, and it reminds us that God is passionately concerned with human need, then the first story reminds us that we in our wealthy corner of the world need to struggle with the dark side of our own success, our conspicuous over-consumption, our preoccupation with our own security, our comfort and our lifestyles.  We need the painful struggle of confronting how much the material wealth we take for granted as a society has depended on structures of global inequality.  If the good news for those who have nothing is that God’s desire is for them to be filled, that God is passionately involved in their suffering – then the good news for those of us who have enough can only be that God desires to wrestle with us, that God desires to contend with us for our integrity, to wound us, to convict us and to bless us with the gift of open hearts.

It’s another paradox.  We cry out to be filled, but deep in our hearts something whispers to us that the bread Jesus wants to feed us can only be eaten on an empty stomach.



[1] ABC Radio National, ‘The Religion Report’, 30 July 2008