Tootling with Vigour

Given by John Barratt
12th December 2010
Matthew 11

I read in the newspaper recently that there are about three septillion stars in the universe, and that, every second, 65 billion neutrinos pass through each of my eyeballs [and yours!].  Anyone who knows what a ‘septillion’ or a ‘neutrino’ is, please tell me afterwards!  We now know how tiny a place we human beings occupy in the visible universe, and science explains so much of why our bodies are as they are.  The President of the Royal Society recently wrote that the Society’s founding 350 years ago “signalled the emergence of a new breed of people – described … as “merchants of light”.  They sought to understand the world by experiment and observation, rather than by reading ancient texts.”  He also wrote that the application of science has led us to a risk of irreversibly degrading the earth’s environment.

Holy Scripture, unlike Science, deals with un-measurable human experiences, especially our failures to do what is obviously right, by exploring the rich mystery of our lives, which the best intellects cannot penetrate and the most eloquent words cannot precisely describe.  A recent book [1] has shown that, in the West, the best ideas about human nature have always been shaped by the interplay of science and technology with philosophy and theology, and that recent developments in neuroscience, genetics, artificial intelligence, and biomedical engineering call for fresh reflections on what it means to be human and how we might shape our future.  So let’s look carefully at some of the church’s “ancient texts”, to see why their different focus is so important for the inspiration of good human achievements.

Next year we will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, and remember with gratitude the sacrificial courage and dedicated skill of those who, over centuries, produced a version of these ‘ancient texts’ in English.  Translation of the texts’ permanent truths from a different cultural background adds to the mystery of their subject-matter.  Bill Bryson gives an enjoyable example of correct but strange translation – a warning in English to motorists in Tokyo: “When a passenger of foot heave in sight, tootle the horn.  Trumpet at him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, then tootle him with vigour.”  Much Biblical language can sound rather like that.

The Bible records millennia of human wrestling with life’s mystery, recording and revising the insights gained, so it is not a structured science textbook.  There are some parts we will reject for good reason.  Look in Deuteronomy at commandments for stoning people and animals to death, or Psalm 137, which ends: “Happy is the man who … takes [Babylonian] babies and smashes them against a rock”.  Try following that with a choral evensong’s “Glory be to the Father”!  Think of the medieval church’s official resistance, because of a phrase in a Biblical poem, to Galileo’s insistence that the earth moved round the sun, or consider the view of some Christians today, following their reading of the Book of Revelation, that all-out war with the Muslim world is needed to bring on final Armaggedon and, for them of course, their translation to heaven.

Jesus was inspired by his deep study of the Old Testament and we are introduced to him in the New.  In reading and discussing the Scriptures usefully we must be open to Jesus’ teaching and example, applying the two great commandments he selected from the Old Testament – to love God and our neighbour – so that we can hear in our hearts the living Word of God, the Father of all human beings.

This morning’s “ancient texts” are about our opportunities to make a new start in righteous living, rather than being discouraged by our failures.  The factual times in which the Scriptures were written were as chaotic and full of terrible events as our own.  Order and Justice seemed as unattainable to most people then as they seem to us today.  Today’s psalm and the extract from Isaiah are both poems which express the Old Testament message of God bringing Order out of chaos, and challenge the whole community to exchange selfish mind-sets for the deeper reality of God’s all-encompassing Justice.  A couple of generations after Jesus, and in very testing times, the book of James urged the avoidance of theoretical faith, and exhorted patient, practical responses to the liberating word of God, remembering that “The Judge is standing at the gates.”

Today’s Gospel reading is about two cousins, John the Baptist and Jesus, both deeply committed to their ancestral Jewish faith, despite their nation’s collapse.  John, following the prophets, had encouraged people to change their mindsets, and Jesus at his baptism had been clearly endorsed by John.  Thereafter their ways had separated.  John, in desert penury, had offered people a once-only opportunity to change their mindset; Jesus, sharing everyday life with ordinary people, insisted that the opportunity was always and repeatedly available.  John, now a hapless prisoner expecting the death sentence, wanted re-assurance that Jesus would lead the people aright.  In his reply to John, Jesus explained how he encouraged ordinary people by emphasising God’s constant blessings, rather than his condemnations.  Using Isaiah’s poetic language [2], he says [in the ‘Good as New’ version], “Go back to John and … tell him that blind people are getting their sight back, disabled people are able to get about again, outcasts are being restored to the community, deaf people can hear, many are getting a whole new life, and those who don’t count for much in our society have had Good News for the first time in their lives.”

There can be no doubt that ordinary people have remarkable capacity to respond to challenge, as some recent newspaper reports have shown.  Think of the schoolgirls in the middle of a demonstration who recently linked hands round an empty police van to protect it from yobs, or the remarkable youngsters who care so assiduously for their incapacitated parents.  Or listen to this:  “When PC Dave Hill heard on his radio about an explosion at Edgware Road tube station, he and a colleague changed course and went straight to the scene without stopping to think.  At the mouth of the underground tunnel, it occurred to him that there could be a second [explosive] device, but he carried on into the dark.  Asked why, during the inquest into the deaths of the 52 people that died in the 7/7 bombings, the policeman simply replied: “Because I was there”.  It was a refrain that was heard, in varying forms, throughout the evidence.  Ordinary men and women who had performed extraordinary feats, who had, in some cases, literally taken a leap into the dark to help injured passengers in desperate need of help, repeatedly down-played their heroism. What enabled these people to act so calmly and efficiently?  Or, to put it another way – what turns ordinary people into heroes?” One expert emphasised training.  Another expert said “… you don’t have to be special.  With the right mindset and opportunity, most people are capable of heroic acts.”  [3]

Jesus challenges us to change our mindsets and train to achieve what he called ‘the Kingdom of God’.  If, this Advent, we can overcome our hesitations and past failures, there will be no lack of opportunities to meet people’s deep needs or to stand up for what is right.  Next week, our Advent inspiration will be the committed response of a very young woman called Mary, who found herself unmarried and pregnant in an unwelcoming society, and who remained constant to that commitment through the disturbing years that followed.

Let us use to the full the resources and fellowship of the Church, in training for the life-enhancing way of the generous, self-sacrificial, unpompous Jesus of Nazareth.  So we will become ‘merchants of light’ as we engage tangibly with people’s needs by the committed use of our time and talents, tootling melodiously but, in the face of obstacles, tootling with vigour!


[1] Murphy and Knight, Human Identity at the Intersection of Science, Technology and Religion Ashgate 2010.

[2] ch 35, 5-6; ch 42, 18; ch 61, 1.

[3] Guardian 26 Nov 2010.

Harvest Reflection

Given by David Teall
26th September 2010
Genesis 1

Alongside the large pool where boats turn around at the bottom of Foxton Locks near Market Harborough is a large area of unused land trapped between the canal and the farmland beyond.  It is an impenetrable mass of nettles, thistles and brambles making it a complete no-go zone for all but the smallest animals which can sneak in at ground level.  Every time I pass it I am reminded of the old story about a young priest who, having been brought up in a city, was sent to serve his curacy in a small village.  Walking through the village one morning he stopped to talk to a farmer who was digging potatoes on his smallholding.  “Isn’t it wonderful” he said to the farmer, “what God can produce from such a small piece of land?”  The farmer scratched his head, looked around his field and replied:  “He didn’t do so well when he had it to himself!”

What the young Curate had failed to express is that farming, like all successful human endeavours, is a partnership between man and God.  When we come together each year for our Harvest Festival it is to thank both sides of that partnership for what they have given to us.  We thank God for the animals and plants that feed us and for the land upon which they live and grow and we thank the farmers for their skill and labour in looking after the land, caring for the livestock and growing the crops and all those involved in bringing their produce to our table.

Our reading from Genesis this evening took us back to the very beginning of the partnership between God and man.  The story, of course, is not a factual account of the mechanism of creation but a myth – a story that attempts to explain something of the nature of God in terms that we human beings can understand.  As such it contains some essential truths that are as relevant today as when they were written including the nature of the partnership between God and man.

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’

It is that word dominion that is the key to the partnership, but it is all too often quoted out of context.  Other translations of the bible use either the word rule or reign, which are words that we are more familiar with, but to understand their meaning we have to look at the whole sentence.  It begins: ‘Let us make humankind in our image.’  This is not talking about physical appearance but the very nature of God whom we know to be loving, caring and compassionate.  It was only after He had given us the capacity to exercise these qualities that He went on to give us the responsibility of reigning over the rest of His creation.  That is the essence of our continuing partnership with God:  to have dominion over His world and to exercise that dominion with the same love, care and compassion that He shows to us.

Our New Testament reading, which is, in fact, a quotation from Jeremiah, looks forward to the day when the whole of mankind is working in perfect partnership with God.

They shall not teach one another or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.  For I will be merciful towards their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.

The world has not reached that day yet, but the partnership between God and man has led to some huge advances in Agriculture, even over the very short period of my lifetime.  When I was a young boy growing up in Nassington the corn was still cut with a reaper/binder and the sheaves placed in stooks in the field to dry before being carted back to the farm and stacked.  The harvest, which involved every willing hand from the village, started in August and continued well into September or even October in a wet year. When the stacks were broken open later in the year to be threshed the average yield of wheat was around a ton per acre.  Today the same fields are harvested by a team of three contractors in just a couple of weeks with average yields of over 3 tons per acre – a three-fold increase.

To the countless millions who have died of famine over the ages the prospect of a three-fold increase in food production would have seemed like the answer to all their prayers.  Unfortunately, it has not turned out to be as simple as that.  During the same period the world population has also increased three-fold, from
2 to 6 billion and the countries with the greatest population growth have not been those which have seen the greatest increases in yield.  The world as a whole has more food, but there are more mouths to feed and an increasing need for those who have to help those who have not. This too is part of the deal – part of the covenant – part of our partnership with God.

And what of the future?  The Human population of the earth is still growing rapidly and is expected to reach between 9 and 10 billion by the middle of this century – five times the population that I was born into.  How are we, as Christians, going to respond to the huge challenges that this will bring to the world of agriculture and to our partnership with God as we exercise dominion over His world?  There are going to be some very difficult decisions to be made.

The dramatic increase in crop yields over the last 60 years has been brought about largely by a combination of the increased use of artificial fertilisers and plant breeding.  Many of the fertilisers are manufactured from raw materials such as natural gas, a commodity that is rapidly being consumed, mainly for energy by the affluent west.  How are we to balance these competing demands on limited resources?

Increases in yield from the use of traditional plant breeding techniques appear to have reached a plateau.  Scientists tell us that further advances will need the more refined techniques known collectively as Genetic Modification or GM.  These techniques offer the prospect of crops that are resistant to disease and pests and so don’t need expensive, polluting sprays to control them; crops that will grow in less fertile soil; crops that will grow in much drier conditions.  Are we to view the use of these techniques as mankind interfering in God’s realm – that of creation – or are they an example of the partnership between God and man working effectively to provide daily bread to more of His children?

We are privileged to live in one of the most beautiful and most productive parts of God’s earth and we enjoy the luxury of knowing that we have a bountiful supply of bread for our tables.  This evening we offer thanks to both sides of the partnership that provide it for us.  We thank God for His mercy, for His generosity, for His love, for His compassion.  We thank the farmers and all those who work in the production line between field and table for their labour and for their faithfulness.  We thank those who work in plant and animal breeding programmes and those who work in the agro-chemical industry for their valuable contributions towards increased yields.  Finally, we pray for wisdom to discern a path through the difficult decisions that face us that will keep faith with and honour our partnership with God.  Amen.

Rich towards God

Given by David Teall
1st August 2010
Luke 12

We don’t have readings from the Book of Ecclesiastes very often yet I suspect that many of you here know the words of Chapter 3 by heart.  They were turned into the folk song ‘Turn Turn Turn’ by Pete Seeger in 1939 and later became a number 1 hit for the Byrds.  Felicity will be singing the song during our communion this morning.

The Book of Ecclesiastes, or Qoheleth as it is called in the Hebrew Bible, begins one verse earlier than our set reading this morning.  The missing verse says: “The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.”  These words were traditionally taken to identify the author as Solomon but scholars are now agreed that the book was written by a later author who used this introduction as a literary device to claim the wisdom associated with Solomon.

To understand what The Teacher is trying to tell us we must first consider his use of the word ‘vanity’.  The literal meaning of the Hebrew word hebel from which this is translated is ‘a breath of wind’.  The Teacher uses this word as a metaphor to indicate transience, uselessness or deceptiveness.

Looking at our reading again with this in mind The Teacher does appear to be a bit of an old misery.  If he were going to appear on a television show today it could only be on Grumpy Old Men.  A few years ago maybe he could have taken the part of Private Frazer in Dad’s army:  “We’re all doomed – doomed!”  Or maybe, for those of you whose memories go back a little further, he could have been Senna the soothsayer In Frankie Howard’s Up Pompeii: “Woe, woe and thrice woe!”

The depressing outlook of the Teacher has, at times, caused some to question the place of Ecclesiastes in the Bible as a book of Holy Scripture.  However, careful reading of the whole book does reveal two important conclusions of the Teacher:

  1.  We must accept our lot and enjoy the gifts that God has given us: our work, our food and our drink.
  2. We must please God, fear him and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of everyone.

Moving on to our Gospel reading:  on first reading, the Rich Fool in Luke’s telling of the parable was being eminently sensible.  There had been a good harvest and, rather than let the food go to waste, he thought he would build some larger barns to keep it in.  Surely this was a praiseworthy thing to do?  Did not Joseph do much the same thing in Egypt fifteen hundred years or so earlier, and he was revered as a hero?

What is more, surely the Rich Fool was only doing what The Teacher in Ecclesiastes had recommended: he was accepting his lot (the good harvest) and resolving to enjoy the gifts that God had given him? 

So where did he go wrong?  Why, in the parable, did God round on him and call him a fool?  It was because he was seeking to take advantage of the first of The Teacher’s conclusions but to ignore the second:  “We must please God, fear him and keep his commandments, for that is the whole duty of everyone.”  There was no thought of God’s commandments in his proposal: it was entirely selfish.  He just wanted to put his feet up, eat, drink and be merry.

There was nothing intrinsically wrong with his proposal to build bigger barns: it was his reason for doing so that was wrong.   He wanted to do the right thing, but for the wrong reason and with no regard to God.   As Ella Fitzgerald and later Bananarama might have said if they were being more biblical:  “It ain’t what you do – it’s the reason that you do it.”

Ecclesiastes took 12 chapters and an awful lot of groaning and moaning to reach his conclusions.  Jesus summed them up in a sentence:  “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

“Rich toward God.”  That is the key to the lesson from these two readings, but what exactly does it mean?  That’s not an easy question to answer in just a few minutes, but I can give you a few pointers.  It is to do with the value we place upon God and upon our resolve to follow his commandments.  It is about what we can give to Him and what we will allow Him to give to us.  It is about what we are prepared to do to help build His Kingdom here on earth.  “Thy Kingdom come” we repeat every time we say the Lord’s Prayer but just what are we prepared to do to help to build it?  Being “Rich toward God” involves our whole life, our whole being.  It is about everything that we do and, as we have learnt from today’s parable, our motivation for doing it.

To return to our readings, and to link them together, the rich fool was chastised by God because he was seeking to take advantage of the first of The Teacher’s conclusions but to ignore the second.  He was happy to accept God’s gift of a bountiful harvest but he was not prepared to be Rich toward God.

To express that using two different words, one of which we hear a great deal of these days:  he wanted what he saw as his rights (what God had promised him) without his responsibilities (what he had promised God).  As Frank Sinatra once sang (and I promise this is my last song quote!) “You can’t have one without the other”.

Though the message is clear, we human beings are very slow learners indeed when it comes to this lesson.  We want the Government to provide more services but we don’t want to pay more tax.  Trades Unions want more money for their members without regard for the profitability of their company.  Citizens demand their Human Rights with no mention at all of their Human Responsibilities.  Without a doubt, if I could change just one law in this country, high on my list would be to sweep away the Bill of Human Rights and replace it with a Bill of Human Rights and Responsibilities.  For each ‘right’ I would like to see stated the ‘responsibilities’ that go with that right: you can’t have one without the other.  For example:

The Right of Free Expression imposes, both on the media and all of us as individuals, a responsibility to be polite and civil and to be absolutely certain of our facts before expressing our views. 

The Right to Free Assembly imposes upon us the responsibility to behave in a calm and peaceful way and not to use the might of the crowd to intimidate others who do not share our view.

The Right to own Property imposes upon us the responsibility to respect the property of others.

The Right to a School Education imposes upon the children who receive it the responsibility to respect their teachers, to behave well in class and to do the work they are set.

We often hear politicians condemning this country or that because of their ‘poor human rights record’.  I have no quarrel with that as far as it goes, but it does not go nearly far enough.  Whether they acknowledge it or not, what the politicians are judging is the extent to which the country in question has built, or is building God’s Kingdom here on earth.  As we have learnt from our readings today that can only be achieved by being ‘Rich toward God’ and all that that entails.

In our prayers today, and every day, let us ask God “How rich am I toward you?’ and be prepared to listen to the answer.   Amen

Pentecost 2010

Given by David Teall
23rd May 2010
Genesis 11

The story of the Tower of Babel is an intriguing one that comes early in the Book of Genesis.  In the preceding chapters of this gripping, fast-moving adventure story full of sex and violence we have heard about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and their fall from grace through disobedience of God.  And about Cain and Abel and their descendants and how they formed a society so full of wickedness that God decided to wipe mankind from the face of the earth.  Fortunately though, as usually happens in the early chapters of an adventure story, there was a good kid on the block – a man named Noah – so mankind survived.  Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, and their wives survived the flood and through them the world was re‑populated.  It was their descendents who built the Tower of Babel.

In attempting to build their tower “with its top in the heavens” the descendants of Noah were attempting to put themselves on a level with or above God, just like Adam and Eve did when they ate the forbidden fruit.  What I find most interesting though, is the method God used to deal with their arrogance.  He “confused their language so that they would not understand one another’s speech.”

God knew that the ability to communicate with one another gave Noah’s descendents great power, and like all such gifts, that power could be used both for good and evil.  That is still the case today.  The rapidly-growing power of the Internet and the increasing use of English as an International language is taking us back to the position of Noah’s descendents in the land of Shinar when the whole population of the world were able to communicate with one another.  Will we use that power wisely for the glory of God, or will we use it to attempt to build another Tower of Babel and set ourselves above God?  Intriguing though that question is, I will leave it for you to ponder as I would like to focus our thoughts on some of the problems of understanding even our own language.

What have you been thinking as I have been talking about the stories in Genesis?  It’s all a load of rubbish?  We weren’t created in the Garden of Eden: we evolved from apes.  How could Noah possibly have built an ark big enough for a pair of all the animals on earth?  How did he stop the lions eating the antelope?  What about the dinosaurs?

You will not be surprised to hear that I have spent much of my time during my three-year course to train as a Reader studying the Bible.  One of the most interesting and liberating things I have learnt about is the many different styles and genres found in this best-selling book of all time.  Our Bible contains 39 books in the Old Testament, 27 books in the New Testament and up to 16 or even more books in the Apocrypha depending upon which have been included in the version you buy.  These 80 or more books were written by at least 40 different authors over a period of time spanning at least 1600 years.  Some are History, some are Law.  Some are Prophecy, some are Poetry.  Some are Letters, some are Biography.  Each book was written with a particular audience in mind and, in modern parlance, given a particular ‘spin’ to make the content relevant to them.

The authors of these books used many different literary devices to get their message over including, where appropriate, metaphor and myth.  Today we think of a myth as a legend or fairy-tale, but its proper meaning is to describe the actions of God in terms of this world.  That’s an impossible task, of course, but writers over the ages have felt compelled to try, as have painters, musicians and artists of all kinds.

If we read the Bible, as unfortunately some do, as if it was all written in the style of a 21st century history book we will fail to understand the truth that it contains.  The Book of Genesis is a whole collection of stories, many of which are Myth – an attempt to describe the actions of God in terms of this world.  Once we accept it as such we can dismiss the misguided criticisms of Richard Dawkins and his followers with the sadness they engender and see through to the real truth that it contains and understand its relevance to us today.  That is how the myth of the Tower of Babel can give us an insight into the development of the Internet.

The story of the coming of the Holy Spirit in our Pentecost Reading from the Acts of the Apostles is another Myth.  Not a legend; not a fairy-tale, but an attempt to describe the actions of God in terms of this world.

The use of both wind and fire in the description is an example of writing for a specific audience in a specific time and place.  Wind and fire are both used in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, to describe God’s self-revelation and the words for wind, both in Hebrew and Greek, are closely associated with spirit.

Relieved of the impossible task of trying to understand the story of Pentecost in literal terms we can begin to understand its true meaning:  The Spirit of God is for all people regardless of race, colour or creed.

I find that the concept of the Holy Spirit is actually easier to understand than to describe.  For me, it is strongly linked with the concept of the soul which I visualise as that part of a human being in which the Spirit of God resides if we will but let him in.  When we do allow the spirit in we are inspired, a word that literally means breathed on, by God.  When we are inspired in this way, our actions can be recognised as the work of God by people throughout the world, regardless of their faith or what language they speak.  The word of God needs no translation.

We witnessed a dramatic example of the action of the Holy Spirit on Boxing Day 2004 when we heard the dreadful news of the Asian Tsunami.  People throughout the world were moved to help in whatever way they could.  The voice of the Holy Spirit calling us to help was heard by people throughout the world, each in our own language.  It recognised no boundaries and accepted no limitations. 

Mercifully, events on the scale of the Boxing Day Tsunami are rare, but the power of the Holy Spirit is not just for emergencies: it is for today and every day.  If we will but let him in to our lives he can and will help us in everything that we do.  Look again at the prayer we said together at the beginning of this service:

As we wait in silence,
fill us with your Spirit.

As we listen to your word,
fill us with your Spirit.

and last of all:

As we long for your empowering,
fill us with your Spirit.

Fill us with your spirit.  That is our prayer for today, and every day.

Now have a look forward if you would at the back page of your Order of Service at the section entitled the Commission.  Here, at the end of the service, I shall ask you to go out into the world empowered by the Holy Spirit.  As you speak the words of the Creed in a few moments, and as we offer our prayers to God, open your hearts to him and ask him to fill you with his Holy Spirit so that, during the Commission you can answer boldly: 

By the power of the Spirit, we will.

Amen.

The Feeding of the Five Thousand

Given by David Teall
3rd August 2008
Matthew 14

DavidTeallIn our journey through Matthew we have, over the course of the last few weeks, heard many of the parables that Jesus told during the course of his short ministry here on earth. Several of the parables have involved seeds and the sowing of seed and last week Philip left us with the question “What sort of seed are you?” During the course of my talk this morning I shall be asking a similar question.

This morning’s reading, the Feeding of the Five Thousand, occurs in all four gospels and there is a further account of a similar event known as the Feeding of the Four Thousand in Mark and Matthew. The inclusion of six separate accounts in the Bible of what may have been just a single event may well be part of the reason why the story is amongst the best known. But what type of story is it? Is it a Miracle or is it a Parable? I would like to suggest that it is both.

There can be no doubt that the miracles performed by Jesus helped to spread his name rapidly across Galilee and Judea and to draw the crowds to see him. Indeed, in John’s Gospel we are told that the Five Thousand had gathered ‘because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.’ Through his performance of miracles, and in particular, his healing of the sick and feeding of those in need, we are given a vivid insight into the love and compassion of God. A love that has no boundaries and extends to all: Man and Woman – Jew and Gentile. And what a blessing that insight has proved to be to us and to countless millions of believers over the centuries. The knowledge that we have a God who feels our pain and loves and cares for us as his children.

But what of the Feeding of the Five Thousand as a parable? Much has been written on this subject. Some writers have looked back to parallels in the Old Testament such as Elisha taking 20 loaves of barley to feed a hundred people in the Second Book of Kings or the story of Moses and the falling of manna, or bread from heaven in Exodus. Others have looked forward to parallels with the Last Supper, the Eucharist and the Messianic Banquet. Both make fascinating reading, but this morning I would like to tease out what to me is at the centre of the story by looking at it from the point of view of the boy mentioned in John’s account of the story.

All four Gospel writers tell us that there were five loaves and two fish but only John tells us where they came from: ‘there is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.’ We don’t know anything else about him, but we do know that that boy gave up what he had in order that the multitude could be fed. Let us think about that a little more. How many people would five loaves and two fishes feed under normal circumstances? It depends rather upon the size of the loaves which we don’t know, but they were likely to be rather closer to the size of what we would call a bun rather than that of a Mighty White Sliced Loaf! We know a little more about the fish as some of the gospel writers do tell us that they were small. So, how many would this packed lunch have fed? Five people perhaps? That would be a bun each and less than half a fish. Maybe if the loaves were a little bigger it could have been stretched to 10 but more than that and the ration would be getting a little meagre. That would suggest that Jesus miraculously produced the food for at least 4990 people from thin air. If he could do that, it is reasonable to suggest that he could equally well have produced the food for the full 5000 from thin air – but that is not what happened. For the miracle to occur, Jesus asked someone, in this case the boy, to give up what he had for the benefit of those who had nothing. That, for me, is the key to this story.

Put yourself, if you would, in the place of that boy as he saw Andrew, a big, burley fisherman, striding through the crowds looking for food. You’ve got these five barley loaves and two fish but no-one else around you seems to have got anything to eat at all and there are thousands of them! What are you going to do? What thoughts are racing through your mind as Andrew gets nearer and nearer? ‘I’m hungry. I’ve been out in the desert for hours. I’ve no idea how long it will take me to get home. I need this food for myself. I thought ahead and brought it with me. If other people didn’t think, that’s their lookout. I’m keeping it for myself.’ Might you have thought in that way, at least for a while?

But wait! Maybe you were not just carrying the food for yourself: ‘this food is not just for me’ you rationalise, ‘it’s for my family and friends and neighbours. I have a responsibility to keep it for them. I’m not going to give it to Andrew to share with all these people who I don’t even know!’ Might that have been your reaction?

Or perhaps you had neither of these responses. Perhaps you heard Jesus talking to the crowds a few months ago: ‘Blessed are the merciful’ you remember him saying. ‘Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.’ ‘In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you.’ Inspired by the wisdom and authority of this itinerant preacher from Galilee you were determined to live your life according to his word and so handed over the loaves and fishes to Andrew without giving it a second thought.

We shall never know what thoughts went through the mind of that boy as he clutched his parcel of food on the mountain side 2000 years ago, but we do know what goes through our mind when we see an appeal on television or pick up the Christian Aid envelope that drops out of the Gazette onto the floor. How does our response to the needs of others compare with the possible responses I have suggested of the boy on the mountain?

I suspect that we all like to feel that we do better than the totally selfish response of wanting to keep everything for ourselves. I suspect also that few of us would claim to follow the teaching of Jesus entirely in both our thoughts and our actions without a second thought. Such devotion is beyond all but a very few whom we rightly revere as Saints.

That leaves most of us, to some extent or another, occupying the middle ground of willingly extending our help to family, friends and near-neighbours but still hesitant when asked to extend it yet further. Jesus was well aware of this human failing and tackled it head on in another of his well-known parables – The Good Samaritan. In that story he made it clear that we are all neighbours and that we must help anyone who is in need; not just those with whom we live in close proximity. So how can we use the story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand to help us to extend our horizons further and care for all our brothers and sisters in this great global village in which we now live?  I suggest that we remember that for a miracle to happen, someone has to give up something of what they have for the benefit of those who have not – and that someone is me and you.

Sometimes the cause and effect are easy to see. The response to the Asian Tsunami a few years ago saw millions of people in the west give up a little of what they had and the miracle in terms of relief for the suffering happened before our eyes. In other cases the cause and effect is not so clear.

Every time we go shopping we make decisions that will affect our neighbours somewhere in the world. We may choose to buy food that has been flown in from the far corners of the earth or we may choose produce that has been produced here in the UK. We may choose Fairtrade products or we may go simply for the cheapest. When we make those decisions let us remember that for a miracle to happen, someone has to give up something of what they have for the benefit of those who have not.

Governments too, on our behalf, make decisions that have huge effects on our global neighbours. Encouraging farmers to grow oil-seed rape or use maize for the manufacture of bio fuel in order to keep down the cost of fuel has reduced the quantity of basic staple foods being grown and pushed up their cost to the detriment of the poor. The amount of maize needed to produce just one tank of fuel for a typical family car would feed a family of four in the third world for three months! Using fertile land to grow bio fuel in a world where millions are starving is not the answer to soaring fuel prices. Being prepared to give up some of our use of fuel for the benefit of others is the way for the miracle to happen.

We who live in relative luxury in the western world must take on board the fact that the day-to-day decisions we make have a radical effect on the lives of the poor throughout the world. To “Make Poverty History” will indeed take a miracle: but for that miracle to happen, we must follow the example of that small boy on the mountainside and be prepared to give up something of what we have for the benefit of those who have not.