I was reading this week the story of Marcus Rashford, the English soccer player in the national team, in the wash-up of the Euro 2020 finals and the dreadful racist social media postings against him and two other players after the penalty shootouts lost the match.
In all the horrid nastiness, I was reminded of the extraordinary work this young man did during the UK pandemic where he started a petition urging government ministers to extend free school meals through half-term and the Christmas holidays, eventually pressuring ministers into providing £170m of extra funding during the height of the covid-19 lockdown and acknowledging implicitly, the increasing poverty and despair around the nation. Marcus Rashford forced a government u-turn with his work because he remembered his childhood when he received free school meals which made a difference to his life. He was a young man making a difference.
In John’s gospel (6:1-14) is the story of Jesus feeding 5,000 hungry people, together with the uncounted children and women. This story is one of the very few told in all four Gospels and it is among the earliest and most widespread traditions about Jesus.
And out of the hungry crowd, comes a boy, who upon hearing Jesus ask his disciples about how they were going to feed the gathering crowds and the disciples somewhat tart responses at the ridiculous nature of the enquiry, we hear Andrew report:
There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people? (John 6:9)
There is a moment, such as the one Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes in her poem Aurora Leigh:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
and every common bush afire with God:
but only he who sees, takes off his shoes;
the rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries,
and daub their natural faces unaware
more and more, from the first similitude.
We stand in the presence of God’s almighty power, if only we can stop long enough to hear and see the sign happening. And the sign shows God responding to our most basic needs, sufficient food for everyone to live following a generous offering from a boy, without power and a quiet voice. Jesus reminds us of this obligation placed upon all of us in his story about the judgement of the nations (Matt. 25:34-35):
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink…
On the mountainside, out comes a boy from the crowd offering his food, generous and wanting to be helpful. The boy is treated with disbelief and scorn by disciples who are still calculating how much it will cost and wondering how far away are the shops? Jesus steps through the criticism and disbelief, focused on what needs to be done and asks the people to sit, he accepts the gift of food from the child with all its implications as a sign from God, and Jesus blesses and shares the bread and fish with everyone:
…as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ (John 6:11-12)
We are told the fragments filled 12 baskets. I suspect some would have been given back to the boy, and the rest shared among those most in need.
In this story of Jesus feeding the five thousand, the action of a single boy sharing his limited rations, giving them to Jesus to make the food abundant with his generous distribution has shown us how against all the evidence, by behaving counterculturally towards the hunger and needs of the poor, God has already gone ahead of us and is making a difference if only we could see it. It is at this point I am reminded Jesus said on a regular basis: ‘You of little faith.’ (Matthew 14:31b)
In February 2016, France adopted a law on fighting food waste. It meant supermarkets were forbidden to destroy unsold food products and were compelled to donate it instead. This law constituted the starting point of the fight against food waste through banning its destruction and enabling donations and it is now making a difference to the capacity of people to access food for life.
The fragments of food left over in our lives show how wasteful we can be in our eating and in our ways of disposal. Might this not be a time for us to wonder about our own resourcefulness and access to abundance, in this time of increasing fear, anxiety and despair in our communities. So many are doing without, slipping into homelessness and hunger, while many have a growing desire to look after themselves and focussing solely on their own families. Jesus warns us against this temptation in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s gospels:
‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’ (Matt:12:48-50)
One of the hallmarks of our Christian faith is our capacity to see God’s family as our family, whether young or old, and to include them in our sharing and concerns. In a time where so many are living fearfully and recklessly, tearing at one another to make sure we ourselves are protected first ahead of the queue, we forget there is a difference when choosing to live faithfully. This story about Jesus feeding the world as his family makes such a difference to how we see our faith and our way of life.
In 2013, Pope Francis said on the UN’s World Environment Day:
We should all remember, however, that throwing food way is like stealing from the tables of the poor, the hungry! I encourage everyone to reflect on the problem of thrown away and wasted food to identify ways and means that, by seriously addressing this issue, are a vehicle of solidarity and sharing with the needy….when food is shared in a fair way, with solidarity, when no one is deprived, every community can meet the needs of the poorest. Human ecology and environmental ecology walk together.
For Jesus and Pope Francis, our resistance to wasteful consumerism means instead a commitment to living in solidarity in the ordinariness of human life and survival. As we reflect on Jesus’ direction to love our neighbours as our own family as much as ourselves, there is a depth of relationship between us all which demands mutual accountability.
The act of sharing food is the gospel coming to life, transforming us in the act of giving as much as in the act of receiving. There are expectations of us as a community nurtured by the life-giving Bread from God who is a constant presence in our lives. While the Gospel tells us, all who were fed were satisfied, the collection of the leftovers points to those outside the circle of those gathered who still need feeding. It is a reminder the goods of the earth are not disposable, and those who are strengthened by the Bread of Life have an obligation to alleviate the hungers of those still waiting to be fed.
In this parish we do so much with our food ministries and our support for those in need among our wider family and I am amazed with how many we help in our church family. But I am made joyful by the voice of the boy who asks, ‘Can I help? I have some food to share.’ How often do we wait until we have enough before we share, or think that what we have is not good enough? Jesus reminds us: ‘For God, all things are possible.’ (Matt.19:26)
It was fitting the Passover was near, the feast celebrating God’s liberation for God’s people, for Jesus was at work setting people free from hunger, from perceived limitations and from disbelief. We all share in the bread given for a hungry crowd who is our family, and we all share in the spiritual bread of eternal life.
As this broken bread was gathered up and so became one, so may your church be gathered up from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. (Didache ix.4)
The Lord be with you.