Canon Chancellor - Revd Canon Dr Mandy Ford
Tomorrow, five and half million Zimbabweans will go to the polls to vote in free elections for the first time in twenty eight years.
Under the brutal regime of Robert Mugabe, the country has deprived of investment, leaving 70% of the population without meaningful work and living in poverty. Years of drought and poor farming techniques mean that those people are going hungry, with millions eating only one meal a day. The people of Zimbabwe are longing for justice, and for bread.
The crowds who followed Jesus lived under an oppressive regime, they longed for freedom from the Roman occupying army. Many were subsistence farmers and labourers, folk whose supply of daily bread was uncertain, dependent on landlords and overseers, as we hear so often in the parables. They longed for justice and for bread.
They hold on to the hope that the promised Messiah will satisfy their needs, and so they flock to see and hear this latest prophet and miracle worker. Whether they are so excited about the possibility of seeing a miracle that they don’t bother to take provisions for the day, or too poor to have food to take along, by the end of the day, this huge crowd is hungry.
The disciples were overwhelmed by the need they could see in front of them. With his practical head on, Philip surveyed the size of the crowd, and concluded that six months wages would not buy even enough bread for a snack for everyone. Andrew had gone scavenging in the crowd to see what resources might be available, but five barley cakes and two dried fish, the travelling food of the rural poor, in one boy’s pocket, seemed completely inadequate.
Just as the disciples were overwhelmed by the needs of the crowd, it is easy for us to feel overwhelmed by the need we see in the world. We are bombarded with information and images: refugees huddled in flimsy rubber boats; children dying of malnutrition in the Yemen; thousands fleeing floods after a dam burst in Laos; exhausted families camped on the Israeli border seeking refuge from the bombing of Syria; the street homeless begging as we walk through London and so it goes on.
So what do we do? It is very easy to become complacent or cynical… to think, I do what I can…or to believe that there is no point doing anything. Perhaps we think that all we can do is pray – and hand over responsibility to God to sort out his fractured, wounded, hungry world.
When (Jessica / Malcolm) pray later in the service, they will place our concerns and anxieties in Jesus hands.
In this gospel story, when the disciples are overwhelmed Jesus challenges them, “What do you have?”.
If Jesus were to challenge us by asking us to look again all this suffering and to ask us, “What do you have?” we may be tempted to respond, “Not enough”.
But the gospel story shows us that “not enough” is never the final answer. Not enough bread and fish, in the hands of Jesus fed 5,000 people.
If we put our poor resources in to the hands of Jesus, we may find them transformed.
Think about almost any charity making a difference in the situations we are praying for, that charity began with a small group of people who wanted to make a difference. A group of doctors and journalists founded Medecins Sans Frontiers in 1971 in response to the crisis in Biafra, today it involves 42,000 people in responding to need across the world.
In Zimbabwe, there is widespread fear and cynicism that these elections will not change anything. There have been widely reported incidents of violence and forced attendance at rallies supporting the ruling Zanu pf party, while many of the claims of the opposition leader Nelson Chamisa have turned out to be lies. But there are signs of hope: 44% of those registered to vote are under the age of 35, they long for bread and for justice, and if the elections are seen to be free and fair, they may at last see new investment in their country.
Last year, faced with a failure of the harvest for another year, our link Diocese in Masvingo started a feeding programme in a number of primary schools. In response to our prayers, and to Jesus’ challenge, “What do you have?” your financial gifts fed hungry children in two of those schools for nearly a year.
Whatever the resources at our disposal, however meagre, whether financial or personal, whether we can respond in practical ways, through prayer, or charity, this gospel might stand as a warning never to allow ourselves to become complacent or cynical, but to keep responding to Jesus question, “What do you have?”
When Jesus transforms what we have, he wastes nothing. At the end of the impromptu picnic, he sends the disciples to gather up the leftovers. We are told that there are twelve baskets full. Nothing is wasted, just as no-one is left behind, in this lived parable of the kingdom.
Whatever we have, it is valued and precious, it will not be wasted if we offer it to Jesus to use in the Kingdom. What we need is not brains or brawn, but strength of spirit, the spirit of God at work in us, to transform, to strengthen, to encourage us.
As this gospel passage vividly illustrates, in the hands of Jesus, with the spirit’s power, little can become much, the few can become the many, and the weak can become strong.
Now to him who by the power at work within us
is able to accomplish abundantly far more
than all we can ask or imagine,
to him be glory in the church
and in Christ Jesus to all generations,
forever and ever.