2 Kings 4: 42-44
Ephesians 3: 14-21
John 6: 1-21
I was recently at the General Synod of the Church of England in York.
Thanks to those who wrote to me prior to Synod. It’s always good to hear your concerns.
We passed motions calling on the government to work to rid the world of nuclear weapons, which must be a good thing.
We also passed a motion committing the Church to disinvesting from fossil fuel companies by 2023 unless they’ve made sufficient progress to align with the Paris agreement and assist with the transition to a low carbon economy.
Good too, I think.
I’ll come back to this later.
One of the things which also happened at General Synod was an address by the Archbishop of South East Asia – a Malaysian.
He told us a story about a recent visit to South Korea as part of a Church delegation.
‘We all were sick of kim chi, he said.
(South Korea’s famous pickled cabbage in case you don’t know.)
‘We asked if we could eat something different.’
And according to the Archbishop, a decision was made that they should go out for a BBQ – which in Korea happens on the table in front of you.
So, the meat came out and people started tucking in.
After a while the question arose: ‘what kind of meat was it?’
Duck came the reply.
But what big bones Korean ducks seemed to have.
So, the question was asked again: ‘what kind of meat is it?’
Duck came the reply.
‘Can you just spell duck?’, the Archbishop said.
‘D O G’, came the reply!
And the theological point, my daughter asked?
That was far from clear!
As I reflected on our readings for today, my mind was drawn to a piece of writing by the American political theologian William Cavanaugh.
It’s titled ‘The City: Beyond Secular Parodies’.
In it, Cavanaugh draws a contrast between ‘the state story’ and ‘the Christian story’.
That’s ‘state’ as in government. The state and the Christian story.
And Cavanaugh says that in terms of the foundational stories they tell about the world and about human beings – how things really are – these two stories are quite different.
The Christian story with its roots in Genesis begins with an ‘essential unity’ as its starting point.
Unity between God and human beings – made in God’s image – before the fall.
True freedom, for the Christian story, is participation in God with other humans.
There is no difference between mine and thine, yours and mine.
Creation is good.
The state story, by contrast, building on key political philosophers like Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau…
…and relax I have no intention of giving you a political theory lesson…
…the state story, building on these people, sees things quite differently.
It begins not with an essential unity between God and human beings…
…but more a ‘state of nature’ based on individuality.
It’s a very different notion of freedom from the Christian story.
For our key political theorists, humanity was born free but they primarily mean free from one another.
And because of our selfish wills, we need saving from each other.
Which is where the state comes in – to protect us from ourselves – and hence we have things like law and property rights.
Religion in this view, it’s worth noting, is suspect – tending towards violence – and it is here that we find the origins of today’s secularism.
But the key point is this…
Cavanaugh usefully reminds us that there are different foundational stories about what it is to be human – what it is to be free – circulating.
The Christian story and the state story.
They say quite different things.
They understand human beings differently.
They understand freedom differently.
It is important for us to remember this – and not just as a backdrop to my sermon.
The state story and the Christian story are different.
And yet we are very liable, I think – all of us – to end up internalising the state story.
It’s very powerful.
But it is the Christian story, wherein lies our salvation and the salvation of the world, that we must cleave to.
So, I think this offers a useful backdrop to today’s readings.
It has certainly aided my thinking.
What struck me as I looked at our bible readings – and which drew me back to William Cavanaugh – is that all three of our readings speak beautifully of how the Christian story is different from the state story – a story, as I have said, we are all in danger of imbibing.
Take 2 Kings Chapter 4
A man from Baal-shalishah brings twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain.
‘Give it to the people and let them eat’, the prophet Elisha says.
And what comes the reply from Elisha’s servant?
‘How can I?’ ‘We’ve got a hundred people here. There’s not enough’.
You can just hear the incredulity in his voice!
And our gospel reading. John chapter 6.
Jesus feeds the five thousand. We know all about that
But what does Philip say, as Jesus is limbering up?
‘Where are we to buy bread for all these people?’
‘Six months wages would not be enough.’
Thus, we can say that these two stories – from 2 Kings and John’s gospel – are stories of plenty.
Of God’s abundance.
Of God’s generosity.
God’s providing in situations of need.
The twenty loaves from Baal-shalishah were enough.
‘He set it before them’, we hear, ‘they ate, and had some left.’ (verse 44)
And in John…
‘Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them…as much as they wanted.’
In fact, more than they wanted. Twelve baskets more.
That’s our God! Plenty. Abundance. Generosity.
And yet in both cases, the question to Jesus, the question to Elisha, was ‘how can I?’ – six months wages won’t be enough.
It’s almost as if in God’s economy – in respect of the Christian story – even as we think about something as intractable as global poverty – such questions – ‘how can we?’ are disallowed.
These, might I suggest, are ‘state story’ questions not ‘Christian story’ questions.
In the Christian story, there is no separation between mine and yours – the starting point – and the end point – is an essential unity between God and human beings.
We see it every time we celebrate the Eucharist.
Which brings me back to General Synod – though not dog meat you’ll be relieved to hear!
The institutional church is very prone to examining ‘state story’ questions not ‘Christian story’ questions.
That’s too hard, that’s too difficult, we say or we think.
We may think it is good that the Church is discussing disinvesting from fossil fuel companies.
And yes, it’s a start.
But actually the problem in terms of damage to our planet is more fundamental than this.
The problem is our economic model – our fixation with economic growth, driven by a financial system which demands growth to prevent a financial crash.
Rather like a gambler addicted to gambling…
That’s what we ought to be discussing at Synod – not how the Church Commissioners invest the Church’s money in an unreformed financial system, which is damaging God’s creation.
But the state story, which the institutional church is always in danger of imbibing, says that’s not realistic, it’s not practical.
But we’re not bound by that story. Or at least we shouldn’t be.
Ours is a story of God’s abundance, plenty, more than enough.
Against this backdrop, questions like ‘how will it be possible?’ – like that of Philip in John or Elisha’s servant in 2 Kings…
These questions sound ridiculous!
And all of us — cast out the voice which tells you otherwise.
It’s a false story. It’s the state story.
In a little while, you will be joined by your new vicar, David Stephenson.
How exciting is that!
I pray that it will be a most fruitful era – for you all and for the communities in which you sit.
But remember your foundational story…
…of a God who provides – and will provide – more abundantly than we can ever ask or imagine.