Archives for posts with tag: CS Lewis

Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, 2nd August 2020

Matthew 14:13-21 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=463368596

When I saw that the Gospel reading for today was the story of the feeding of the 5000, my first reaction was to be very pleased. Everybody knows that story, and there are lots of things that you can say, that it illustrates, about Jesus and his teaching. It’s in all the gospels, but in St Matthew’s version, which Gail has just read for us, we have the least detailed version. For example it does not talk, as some of the other gospels do, about Jesus getting the people to sit down in groups of 50. 100 groups of 50 people – that really brings home the scale of the feeding problem.

There are lots of things that you can talk about. Bishop Jo, in her sermon for today, which you can see on YouTube, (see https://youtu.be/EqGmtC-Rlio) concentrates on Jesus’ order to the people to sit down. She spends quite a lot of time on the theology of sitting down, and also how to tell people how to sit down. Apparently when she and her husband Sam Wells were working in the United States, at Duke University in North Carolina, he got taken to task for saying to people, ‘Please sit down’, which apparently is not sufficiently polite. In the southern States the correct thing to say is, ‘You may sit down’. Sitting down and taking it easy for a moment has its benefits.

And then again, you can make a lot out of Jesus looking up to heaven, blessing and breaking the loaves of bread, (and, presumably, doing something similar with the fish), and then distributing them; it certainly could remind you of Holy Communion, and perhaps is supposed to be a sign that Jesus was pointing forward, towards that sacrament.

We use the expression ‘to break bread together’ as a shorthand for having a meal, and I have heard preachers deliver long and abstruse analyses of the menu on the shore of the Sea of Galilee that day; that Jesus was handing out fish and chips, or rather, not literally fish and chips, but the Palestinian equivalent.

It’s interesting that there has been some fuss on social media recently because Mr Rees-Mogg, the MP, has a sister, who rejoices in the name of Annunziata, who has been giving advice to poor people about the virtues of making their own chips as opposed to buying them ready-made. It doesn’t touch on the question whether poor people, or indeed any people, should be eating chips, especially these days, in the light of the Prime Minister‘s campaign for the people to lose weight.

As some of you know, two weeks ago I ceased to be the general manager of Cobham Area Foodbank, after seven years, right back to the foundation of the Foodbank. I still have a tendency to see things relevant to food banks in all sorts of different contexts.

So obviously, Jesus feeding the 5000, in fact feeding them with something that Burger King used to refer to as a Fish King, a piece of fish in a burger bun, (or anyway wrapped in bread) – which was much loved by my children when they were little – that reminds me of all those times when I had to answer questions about what food people should donate to the food bank.

A Fish King from Burger King

What do poor people eat? Well, I would explain that the Foodbank gives out a nutritionally balanced parcel intended to sustain a family until the next time that the Foodbank opens. In our case this was one week. It is not the case that we just provide pasta and beans and other cheap things, because, as I tried to explain, the Foodbank clients, poor people who can’t afford to buy food, are human beings.

They are not a special breed of people who only live on pasta and beans. They are human beings just like you and me. So the real answer to the question, ‘What shall I give to the Foodbank?’ is not what’s cheap, but rather, “What would you like to eat?” And what would you think would be good to eat and nutritious? You don’t live on baked beans all the time – or at least I really hope that you don’t – and it’s the same with food bank clients. They need a variety of things. They need protein, even if it comes in tins.

Well I could have gone into great detail about that, and compared Annunziata Rees-Mogg’s recommended diet for poor people with what a food bank actually provides, noting on the way that Jesus followed the same principles as our Foodbank. ‘Man shall not live by bread alone’ – because, He provided some fish as well.

But the thing is that I bet that none of you actually think of this story as being just about all those rather abstruse points. Indeed I get a bit fed up when I hear sermons which don’t deal with the obvious things which I think leap out of stories in the Bible.

The obvious thing, that you would notice when you read it for the first time, is that Jesus somehow managed to feed 5000 people – or actually more than 5000 people, because it says that it was 5000 men, plus women and children – with five loaves of bread and two fish. How on earth could He do that?

I can’t honestly remember what my Mum or my Dad said in answer to that question when I first asked it when I was little, but I bet you that it had something to do with miracles. Miraculum, a Latin word – something to admire, something the be astonished at. Are we allowed to talk about miracles, or are we too grown-up? Do you believe in miracles?

When I went to Rome in October for the canonisation of John Henry Newman, I was reminded that Newman was only allowed to become a saint in the Roman Catholic Church when they had discovered and verified two miracles that he had performed, miracles of healing. Many people today do still believe in miracles. They believe in what Saint Athanasius or Saint Thomas Aquinas argued, that miracles are there to demonstrate that Jesus was not just a man like you or me, but he was also God and he had divine powers.

It’s not all straightforward. Think of Jesus being tempted in the desert, to jump down from the pinnacle of the temple for example. Satan wanted him to do all sorts of miraculous things which only someone with divine powers would be able to do. But he didn’t do it. But Jesus does go around healing people. Indeed, in this story it begins by Jesus ‘having compassion’ on the crowd and healing some people who were sick. No details. It’s just very simply said, in one word, ‘he healed’.

People say that scientific knowledge has pushed out the need for us to explain things by talking about God. CS Lewis however wrote a whole book, ‘Miracles’, against what he called the ‘naturalistic’ as opposed to the ‘supernatural’, the more-than-natural. Laws of nature, by themselves, don’t explain everything: that if nature governs everything, there is a contradiction at the heart of it. That is, who created nature? Was that creator subject to the laws of nature?

So over against that is the argument that there is more to it than what we can discover by scientific enquiry. More to it – let’s say, that ‘more’ is God. We can fairly uncontroversially define God as the ultimate creator and sustainer of life, all powerful and all knowing. Present everywhere: omnipresent.

But he could be what Richard Dawkins calls the blind watchmaker, the ultimate creator, who set the mechanism of the world in being, and then let it get on by itself. We as Christians bring up against that things such as the feeding of the 5000. We bring up the fact of Jesus Christ. The fact that Jesus Christ lived and died, in the early years of the first century of the Common Era, is very well attested in conventional history.

We can argue that the story of Jesus would not still be so well-known today and it would not be the case that the Christian religion would be growing so strongly as it is (you have to remember that growth in South America and the Far East is far greater than in the north of Europe) – Christianity would not indeed be the fastest growing religion in the world, if Jesus Christ had been just an ordinary human like you or me.

So the point of this sermon, in case you had not realised, is that the feeding of the 5000 is a miracle, and as a miracle it is a sign of God at work in Jesus.

So in a way I hope that you don’t have a Fish King from Burger King for lunch; but if you do, please do remember that a forerunner of the Fish King was Jesus’ favoured menu.

Sermon for Evensong at St Mary’s on 17th November 2013, Second Sunday before Advent
Daniel 6 – Biblical Big Cats

In the 1960s, if you had gone shopping at Harrod’s, you would have found that they had an Exotic Animals Department. You may remember the wonderful story of the lion cub who was sold in Harrod’s and who became known as Christian the Lion. He lived in Chelsea with two young men who owned a trendy furniture shop, for a year before he got too big and was taken to Kenya to be released into the wild. There is a very sweet story about him meeting up with his former owners several years later, and fondly remembering them.

We tend to be rather soppy about cats – and that includes the rather daft idea that lions and tigers and leopards, big cats, are just that, big cats. If only they got to know us properly, we think, they would be just like big pet cats, with sweet, gentle dispositions, keen on sleeping and climbing under counterpanes on the spare bed when no-one is looking: happy to be stroked and to have their tummies tickled.

You will remember the famous zoo owner and gambler, John Aspinall, who kept tigers and encouraged his keepers to go into their enclosures with them, to play with them as pets. Unfortunately, those tigers didn’t know what Mr Aspinall expected of them, and on several occasions, they devoured their keepers.

The truth is that even domestic cats do not have entirely reliable tempers. My two Bengals are very good at rolling on their backs, purring and generally appearing very friendly, inviting you to tickle their tummies: but you should be aware that the height of ecstasy for both of them is then to grip your hand in their paws and give you a good bite! Nothing personal, of course. It’s just what cats like doing.

Which brings us to the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. There were several Persian kings called Darius, but most scholars agree that this was Darius I, who died in 486BC. He set up a complicated administration structure for the Persian empire. According to the Book of Daniel he divided Persia into 120 administrative zones, although the contemporary account in Herodotus’ Histories suggests that Darius only set up 20 regions, called satrapies, and his descendant, King Xerxes, increased the number of satrapies, perhaps indeed to 120.

It is possible that the Book of Daniel was written not just in order to tell historical stories – and indeed it may be that the history is a little bit shaky in places – but rather for prophetic teaching purposes, to demonstrate the power of God. So Daniel going into the lions’ den illustrates this. It is an escape story, just as in the earlier chapter, chapter 3, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, three other Jewish exiles in Persia, in Babylon along with Daniel, were cast into a fiery furnace because they refused to worship a golden image which Nebuchadnezzar, the king before Darius, had made. And again, God saved them and they were unhurt, even though the fiery furnace was so hot that the people who were throwing them into it were themselves consumed by fire.

Daniel portrays Darius as a benevolent king, who was tricked into signing into law an edict, that anyone who prayed to anyone apart from him, the king, for thirty days – and according to the commentators, ‘prays’ should better be translated as ‘makes a request’ either of gods or of humans – that anyone who prayed to anyone apart from the king, should be punished by being thrown into a den of lions.

Interestingly, none of the historians can find any evidence that the Persians had dens of lions, or that they used them to deal with criminals as a way of execution. The Romans certainly did. They had a special expression for it, damnatio ad bestia, condemnation to the beasts. The main reason why the early Christians were martyred by being thrown to wild beasts was because they refused to worship the emperor; similar circumstances to those in which Daniel found himself.

There are a couple of other interesting things which we should note in the story of Daniel in the lions’ den. One is the way in which King Darius refused to contradict the law which he had made, the edict. The laws of the Medes and the Persians could not be changed. Indeed that expression, ‘The laws of the Medes and the Persians’, became synonymous with the idea of immutability, unchangeability in the law.

I think also that we are meant to understand that it was not one of those cases where the Israelites on the one hand were God’s chosen people, and on the other hand there were their oppressors, the Gentiles, the ‘nations’, people who didn’t believe in God and who were vastly inferior to them. In this case, the Medes and the Persians were decent people, who treated the Jews in exile fairly and well. One defining characteristic of the Medes and the Persians was that they recognised the rule of law.

As Lord Denning famously said, ‘Be you never so high, the law is above you.’ He was quoting Dr Thomas Fuller, who said this first in 1733. This is a hallmark of civilisation. This is something we look for today as a desirable feature in all countries. When we talk about ‘failed states’ – Somalia, perhaps Iraq, Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier of Pakistan, the rule of law is said to have broken down.

So here Darius felt that, whatever he personally may have wanted to do in order to be compassionate to Daniel, he was not allowed to do, because there was a higher principle, the rule of law. And so he very reluctantly sealed the lions’ den with Daniel in it, with his own signet ring.

This is a terrible story. So often in ancient literature we don’t get the gory details. The King simply decrees that somebody should be done in, and he is: witness Herod with John the Baptist. But here, King Darius personally supervises his good friend and trusted minister Daniel being fed to the lions.

Clearly those lions were very fierce, because when Daniel’s story has had a happy ending, and Daniel has survived a night in the den without being eaten, King Darius makes sure that all the people that tricked him into making the law and putting Daniel in mortal danger by it, are themselves thrown into the den, with their children and their wives; ‘Before they reached the bottom of the den the lions overpowered them and broke all their bones in pieces.’ So it’s not the case that the lions’ den had been filled with special soft lions like Christian the Lion. These were normal cats, and for Daniel to survive a night with them really was a tremendous miracle.

This is one of the great Bible stories, which I’m sure we all remember from Sunday School, from our earliest days. It’s right up there with Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories. But are there any lessons which we can learn from it as grown-ups today? What about the laws of the Medes and the Persians? Are there laws today which result in cruelty? Is there anyone like Daniel, who, despite being innocent, is being thrown to the lions? Can we by prayer, by relying on God like Daniel did, in fact negate the effects of these immutable laws?

I will leave you to ponder on that. There are 38 shopping days left until Christmas. It’s a fortnight until the beginning of Advent. Christian the Lion and his descendants are no longer available in Harrod’s. Perhaps in Advent there is another lion that we should remember. What about Aslan, the lion in ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’? Now there was a Christian lion!