August 3 NOTES FOR REFLECTION
Texts: Isaiah 55:1-5; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21
Theme: I was going to suggest "A Free Lunch" this week, even though the purists among us might immediately suffer an acute attack of pedantry and insist that the mass meal (interesting expression, now I come to think about it) took place in the evening. Well, "A Free Evening Meal" doesn't really work as well, does it? Staying with the lunch motive, I wonder about "A Lunch Break". For the last few weeks there has been a real sense of teaching and learning through the kingdom parables: as disciples we are being taught by the Master. This week feels different: this time we are being taught about the Master and through him about God. Anyway, our theme this week is about the Grace of God, however we want to express that in a pithy theme.
Introduction. Once again we start with Isaiah at his musical best: it is near-impossible to read the first few verses of this passage without bursting into song: and why not? The great prophet is calling us to praise the graciousness of God, whose bounty knows no limits. We then turn to St Paul, who is now making a somewhat slow start to his next argument as he turns to the "problem" of Israel, the chosen people, who are proving to be far more resistant to Christ than are the Gentiles. Given the daily tragedy of Gaza, St Paul's words seem to take on a stronger meaning this week. Then we finish with the well-known story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand (Matthew Edition).
Background. This week Trish and I had a very pleasant evening with some friends who had invited us to their home for dinner. Another couple (mutual friends of ours and our hosts') were also there, which added to the pleasure of the whole evening. Conversation flowed as we settled in, sipping and nibbling the first offerings, until our hostess announced that all was now ready and invited us to come to the table. We took the food, looked up to heaven and asked God to bless it and us. Then we tucked in and delighted ourselves in the rich food on offer.
Of course, the time passed quickly, and all too soon it was time to go. The familiar ritual of finding and sorting out our coats and finding our car keys was well underway, when our host asked if we would like to settle up with one bill or separate ones. As we had all had pretty much the same meal (albeit, perhaps in varying quantities) we elected one account, which we would split between us. But when we saw the bill we were quite shocked at the amount. Granted GST had contributed to it, the total still seemed excessive so we asked the hosts to itemise it. The amount for materials (food and drink) seemed reasonable, but the labour charge was excessive, and the surcharge for power (including heating and lighting) bordered on the outrageous. And as for the charge for off-street parking!
I have, of course, made up everything in the last paragraph. What I have been trying to do is to find out how Jesus' parables work so powerfully in us; and it seems to me that one of the elements in this technique is to take an ordinary situation and open our eyes to its real meaning. The real meaning of the wonderful hospitality given to us by our hosts is that it brings us into the very presence – into an actual experience – of the grace of God. And perhaps it is only when we imagine what we would think and feel on such an occasion if our hosts suddenly produced a bill and asked for payment that we can be jolted awake enough to see God in the generosity of our gracious hosts.
Let's try the same exercise on the all-too familiar story in the gospel passage. Let's add to the end of verse 19 the words, "charging each of them one denarius". Then we might reconsider verse 20. Who, exactly, took up the twelve full baskets of leftovers and what happened to those leftovers? Perhaps some of the crowd felt that, as they had been charged for their meal, they should have a discount, or a say in the disposal of the leftovers. A doggie-bag each for the children at home?
Perhaps we miss something here if we take this event purely as a sign of Jesus' divine power, though it is certainly that. But is it also another opportunity to repent, to change our mindset, to see another way of living? Perhaps we need to challenge ourselves and others to accept that the old saying "there is no free lunch" is essentially a political slogan – when was the last time you heard it said by a hungry, disadvantaged person? Every time we contribute to a food bank – or volunteer at a soup kitchen – or support "Food Share" programmes like the one run in Dunedin – we are offering an alternative way of thinking and acting, one that is much more in line with the readings we have before us this week.
And perhaps that issue of who is doing the talking is enough of an excuse to get something else off my chest this week. When I was praying about the ghastly events in Gaza it suddenly came to me that this isn't a war between Israelis and Palestinians, this is a war between adults and children – (or, at the risk of sounding like David Cunliffe, a war between men and women-and-children). Adults are doing the talking, and justifying, and explaining, and firing the life-defying weapons; children are doing the suffering and dying. Israel's adults insists that it is seeking only to protect its citizens from rockets fired from Gaza; the Palestinian adults insist that they have no other way of defending themselves from the crippling blockade they have suffered for so many years. There may or may not be some merit in those adult claims. But (Palestinian and Israeli) children are suffering and dying because of them.
So let's change the storyline for a moment and think about an alternative set of news headlines. ADULTS DECLARE WAR ON CHILDREN! KINDERGARTENS AND SCHOOLS REDUCED TO RUBBLE! BEACHES AND PLAYGROUNDS NO LONGER OFF-LIMITS! KIDNAPPING AND MURDER THREAT! NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND!
Parables have the power to change the way we think. So do news stories. So do questions – such as who is doing the talking and who is doing the suffering and dying.
Isaiah. I love the heading to this chapter in the NRSV edition I am using: "An invitation to Abundant Life". (It almost makes up for the ridiculous choice of "Ho" with which to open verse 1: to my ear it makes God sound like a cross between a rapper and a very shy Santa.) The first thing I like about the heading is that word "Invitation" – what follows is not a command or summons – but a gracious invitation. Come, my people, come to receive my heavenly food! That's really what God is saying here as he stands behind the Holy Table. And what he is offering is not the minimum he can get away with – it is "Abundant Life"! And notice how easily the passage moves between eating and listening – both forms of receiving and taking into ourselves, of receiving nourishment, of being built up and made strong. To what end? So that we can become truly God's people, an attractive example to others, the people that witness to other peoples, passing on God's invitation to them, by what we say and do and become. (It is against this backdrop that St Paul's comments in our second lesson should be read.)
Taking It Personally.
· This Sunday pay particular attention to the "The Invitation" to receive Communion. If you are administering the bread, perhaps use the words "Receive abundant life, and be thankful", or something similar.
· As you prepare for worship this Sunday (or, in fact, any Sunday), repeat to yourself the words from verse 2b: "Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good".
· Reflect on your past week. What has given you the most satisfaction "without money and without price"?
· Have you spent money or time on something that brought you no satisfaction? Why?
· Are you spending enough time listening to God (verse3a)?
Romans. How moving these words of St Paul are at this present time! It is all too easy for people to assume that anyone who criticises Israel is anti-Semitic, if not a fully fledged Nazi-sympathiser. No one could accuse St Paul of that. It is precisely because, in the flesh, he is himself a Jew that he is heartbroken by Israel's failure to recognise the Messiah. It is precisely because he accepts the "exceptionalism" of Israel's position in salvation history (how many nations falsely claim that for themselves today!) that he has "great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart" at the failure of his own people to see the new thing God is doing among them in Jesus Christ. The point is, not that Israel is worse than any other people, but that it is failing to be better. Today Israel is acting like any other state, perhaps, using its power to defend its interests, and seeing no reason to apologise for doing what every other state would do in the same circumstances if it had the power to do so. But Israel has not been called by God to be like any other state: it has been called to be a light to the Gentiles. And what is true of Israel is equally true of the New Israel, of which you and I are citizens, aren't we?
Taking It Personally.
· Have I been unfair to Israel? What do feel at this moment? Is St Paul being unfair to his people?
· How do you feel about the idea that the "New Israel" (that is, Christians) are called to be an example to others, and not behave just like others? If "Moslem extremists" blow up our churches, is it okay to blow up their mosques?
· Is bombing, etc a form of "child abuse"? What about imposing a blockade, restricting the supply of food, water, and medical aid to children? Would changing the language in this sort of way help or hinder the search for peace and justice?
· As a citizen of the New Israel, how might you change your own language when talking about the situation in Gaza with your friends or family?
Matthew. This is one of those very difficult stories to get congregations to listen to (including us!) because of the tendency to switch off as soon as it starts, not because it is alarming, but because it is so familiar that we think we have heard it all before. The best approach may be to start with the issue of Jesus' mental and emotional condition at the start of the episode. Even in a world of ever-increasing horrors there is still something particularly shocking about beheadings, surely! Jesus has just been told about the beheading of his cousin John. He immediately withdraws, seeking "a deserted place by himself". But his cover is blown and soon vast crowds have walked miles to find him from surrounding towns. How easy it would have been to hide, or to lose his rag and tell them in the Aramaic equivalent of Anglo-Saxon to "depart from this place". But, of course, he did not do this. He set aside his own need for time and space to grieve – and, perhaps, to consider his own safety – and he gave himself in ministering to their needs. Then the disciples turned up – where had they been? Had they been enjoying time off? Anyway, they bring the practical mind into play. Okay, Lord, it's nearly closing time. These guys must be famished – send them off to the nearest takeaway or hot-bread shop, so they can BUY REAL FOOD. (Cue to preachers, a chance for comic irony here!) But Jesus turns it back on them – you feed them!
Taking It Personally.
· So this is about learning how to be a disciple after all! Another reason to review your past week. In what way(s) have you helped to feed others this week?
· In what way(s) have others helped to feed you this week?
· What sort of "food" are you thinking about?
· Reflect on the words of The Invitation at your local church this week. Are all truly welcome to participate? How might you encourage others to come? Is Communion more important or less important than the cuppa afterwards?