Is it ready yet?

Given by David Teall
27th February 2011
Matthew 6

The banner at the top of our Pew Sheet tells us that this is the Second Sunday before Lent, the point in the Lectionary when we get back to the sequence of Sundays that occur every year, no matter how early or late Easter may be.  However, that is not the only description that could be given to this day.  For many of you it might be more meaningful to describe it as the First Sunday post Panto, the day of the long-promised return to normality.  For others, it might be described as the Last Sunday of half term.  As I look around I see bleary-eyed grand-parents with a tired but happy smile on their faces, partly because of happy memories of exciting games with their grand-children and partly because they have got their houses back to themselves at last.

I can relate to both of these descriptions.  I enjoyed the panto very much, more especially as I didn’t have to do anything other than attend, and I have had the joys of grand-children coming to stay over half-term.  Oliver, one of my grandsons, aged 10, is particularly partial to Pat’s home-made Chocolate Cake.  This time it didn’t get made before he arrived so he had to go into the kitchen and ‘help’.  Under Pat’s watchful eye he assembled the ingredients:  Chocolate, Butter, Caster Sugar, Eggs, Milk and Flour.  Then the first exciting bit: creaming the butter and sugar.  Just as he was about to switch on the mixer his brother Josh rushed in (he’s seven – he doesn’t do anything slowly) and shouted (he’s seven – he doesn’t do anything quietly) “Is it ready yet Grandma?”  Aaah!  The joys of being a grand-parent!

I shall return to the Curious Tale of the Half-Term Chocolate Cake a little later and hopefully explain how it relates to my main topic for this morning: reading the Bible.

Philip has spoken to us over the last few weeks about the dangers of forming an opinion by interpreting a single passage of scripture in isolation.  Today’s Gospel is a very good example of a passage that can very easily be misinterpreted:  at first sight it appears to be a Hippy’s charter:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.   Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.   and a little later:  Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?”

That’s all pretty clear isn’t it?  Don’t bother with all that sowing and reaping stuff: sit around and enjoy yourself and God will provide.  Don’t worry about what clothes you wear.  You’re beautiful!  Peace and Love!  Peace and Love!

For a baby boomer like me, who spent his teenage years in the 60’s this could all sound very attractive.  “do not worry about tomorrow” the reading goes on, “for tomorrow will bring worries of its own.   Today’s trouble is enough for today.”  And it’s all here – in the Bible – so it’s the Word of God isn’t it?

If only it were that simple.  The Bible does indeed contain the Word of God, but it is written in the words of men.

To hear God speaking to us through those words requires a much deeper study than that made so far by my inner Hippy looking for an excuse to do nothing all day.

Most scholars today believe that The Gospel of Matthew was written at sometime between 80 and 90 A.D.  The author is unknown but analysis of the text suggests that he was a Greek-speaking Jewish Christian, possibly a scribe.  Similar analysis suggests that he used the earlier Gospel of Mark as one of his sources alongside a collection of stories about Jesus that was in circulation at the time often referred to as ‘Q’ and some other unknown sources of his own.  It was some time later that the Gospel was attributed to the disciple Matthew.

The Sermon on the Mount, from which today’s reading is taken, is a compilation of sayings of Jesus, not a word-for-word transcript of a particular sermon given at a particular place on a particular day.  The author has grouped them together in order to form the first of five major discourses in his Gospel, all of which end with the words: “and when Jesus had finished saying these things … …”or similar.  

Some scholars suggest that these five discourses reflect the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, which were traditionally written by Moses.  The author, speaking to a largely Jewish audience, wanted to portray Jesus as the new Moses who fulfilled the prophesies of the old and superseded them.  Thus, by presenting the sayings of Jesus as a single sermon on the law of the New Kingdom delivered from a mountain, the author is reflecting the story of Moses receiving the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai, a symbolism that would have been instantly recognised by his audience, just as you recognised my references to the Panto and to half-term.  By this means he retained ownership of the fundamental story from his Jewish roots but moved it on to proclaim the New Kingdom of Jesus Christ.

Some of you may find this sort of analysis rather harsh and disturbing.  If Jesus didn’t really preach the Sermon on the Mount in the way described in Matthew’s Gospel;   if the author put stories together in order to put his particular ‘spin’ on events, then what are we to believe?  To hopefully help you to understand that, I have a confession to make, or maybe it is not so much a confession – more an explanation.

Oliver and Josh did, indeed, come to stay with us over half-term but it was not in the week just ended as was implied in my story: it was the week before as they go to school in Staffordshire where the holiday pattern is different.  We did many things with them but on this occasion Pat didn’t actually make a chocolate cake though she has done so on many previous occasions.  Joshua, like most seven year-olds, is always asking ‘is it ready yet?’ though whether he did so the last time a cake was baked I can’t be sure as that was a while ago and memories of one visit can easily merge with another.

So was my story true?  In a strictly historical sense it was not.  I linked it to the half-term just ended because, knowing my audience, I knew that many of you would relate to that and it would help me gain your attention.  The story gave you an accurate description of Oliver (he like his food) and Joshua (he is aged seven, impatient and noisy) and it gave an accurate description of family life in the twenty first century that would be of interest to historians in 2000 years’ time.  In one sense it was not ‘the truth’ but it contained a great deal of truth.  The Bible, for very similar reasons, is much the same.

So finally, with these thoughts in mind, let’s go back and have another look at today’s reading.  Is it really the Hippy charter that it appears to be?  To answer that we need to understand that Jesus and his disciples, and the people to whom he spoke and the author of the Gospel of Matthew were all Jews and were all very familiar with the stories in Genesis, one of which we heard as our Old Testament reading today.

In this story of the creation God said:  ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.’  He didn’t say: ‘Behold, I shall give you a ready-made freshly-baked Pizza every day.’  We know too from other stories about Jesus that he had a great respect for and affinity with those who worked in the fields and those who looked after the animals: many of his parables were about them.  There is no way in which he would denigrate the hard work put in by such people nor deny its importance.  We need to keep looking.

Now that we know what the passage does not mean we can look at it with fresh eyes.  It is towards the end that we find the final clue:  “your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

The story is not about whether or not we spend our time working in the fields to turn God’s gifts into food for the table or clothes for our back: Jesus has assumed that we will do that.  It is about the priority we give that work.  If our first priority is to eat good food and wear fine clothes then we are failing to give the necessary priority to building the kingdom of God.  By contrast, if we make building the kingdom our first priority, the material things of life, such as we need, will follow.  Far from suggesting an easy path through life, what Jesus is asking of us is to put the needs of others first, for that is the key to building the kingdom.  Building the Kingdom is a hard task that faithful Christians have been working on for the last 2000 years.  Like Joshua I’m tempted to ask: “is it ready yet?” but I know I would get the same answer as he did:  No – the work has only just begun and, now that you are here, you can do your share.

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.

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.