Sermon at the Eucharist on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity 2020
We give thanks for this offering, and for its multiplication.
The Reverend Mark Birch Minor Canon and Precentor
Sunday, 2nd August 2020 at 11.15 AM
One of the questions that people of faith are sometimes challenged with—with more or less hostility—is whether or not we believe in miracles; miracles like the feeding of five thousand that we just heard in the gospel reading. Do we really believe that 5000 people ‘ate and were filled’ thanks to just five loaves and two small fish?
Well, I find that miracle easier to believe given what a difference a single cantor makes. We had hoped to field a few more singers today, but unfortunately Mr Johnson has had to put on the brakes, so we will have to wait a bit longer. I know we are not 5000, but nevertheless we are, and will be, disproportionately nourished through this small, but perfectly formed, musical offering (not often Mr Brown has been described in that way) and we give thanks for this offering, and for its multiplication; the miraculous, disproportionate nourishment it gives us as we keep the Eucharistic feast.
The Eucharist—this rich condensation of the Gospel, where we, and the countless multitude of God’s Church are nourished, physically and spiritually by Christ himself—the Eucharist takes its pattern, its shape, not just from the Last Supper, but equally from the feeding of multitudes that all the evangelists record. In Matthew’s account this morning, we are told that Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it and it was distributed—actions that are replicated in every Eucharist. But something that you may not have spotted, which Matthew records, and many priests replicate, if they remember, is that Jesus, after taking the bread, ‘looked up to heaven.’
This ‘looking up to heaven’ appears to be the moment, the pivot, when the meagre offering becomes an ample sufficiency—when five loaves and two fish become enough for five thousand; when thin fragments of bread and a mere cup of wine become a Holy Communion; a sharing in the banquet of heaven, in Christ, with more than enough to go around.
By looking up to heaven, heaven is welcomed in, in the feeding of the 5000, in every celebration of the Eucharist, and earth is transformed—we glimpse it, we taste the miracle just momentarily, but it is also a promise, an assurance of greater things to come.
During a period of pandemic, indeed during the normal struggles and challenges of daily life, we all look down an awful lot. Particularly, at the moment, we are having to painstakingly think through everything we do—read endlessly-changing government and church guidance - write risk assessments—tread oh so carefully—remember our face-coverings—our slightly-obsessive hand-washing. It is all important, of course, and right that we take great care, but it makes everything so very complicated, and slightly fearful; it is hard to lift your head, or your heart, above it.
Even in the best of times, we all need reminding to ‘look up to heaven’. Music is a powerful reminder, and it is good to have even a modicum of that back. Buildings, buildings like this are another potent reminder, especially those that lift the eye and the heart as readily as the Abbey, and thank goodness we have been able to re-open, even in a limited way.
When the time comes to properly review our responses to the pandemic, I hope we can think again about the closure of Churches, and its effect on our well-being—not just for confessing Christians, but for the nation at large. It is not enough for certain Christians to enjoy warm feelings privately in their private homes on their private computers. Christianity is a public religion, and its public spaces play a crucial part in its mission; its mission to lift eyes heavenward, to welcome heaven not just into our hearts or homes, but into the world, the world that Christ has claimed for the Kingdom of heaven.
Some quarters within the Church seem to want to turn ‘doing without Church buildings’ from being a tragic necessity into a spiritual virtue—its being going on in one guise or another for a long time - thinking that weaning us off our buildings will focus hearts and minds on the real essentials of faith—the realm of warm feelings; private and individual.
But the over-emphasis on individual feelings is a distortion of faith every bit as great as any over-emphasis on buildings. Arguably it is a more serious distortion, because it plays directly into the kind of individualism that is so corrosive of any kind of common life. Churches, as public, shared spaces, lift not just my eyes to heaven, but ours. Liturgy, public and shared, which is explicitly about our connection and need of one another, in Christ, is one of the few remaining challenges and correctives within an individualist and consumerist culture. Looking up to heaven was not something Jesus did for his own sake, but for the sake of the multitude; that great, hungry crowd.
Maintaining Church buildings, keeping them open, is crucial to our mission of looking up to heaven not for our sake, but for the sake of a nation and a culture that is hopelessly and unhappily self-absorbed.
Its perhaps a bit grandiose, but sometimes I feel like I share the anguish that St Paul talks about in the letter to the Romans. He writes about his deep sorrow for his own people, who are the inheritors of a great and glorious promise; a sophisticated and rich theological inheritance and a Messianic hope, and yet they just won’t receive it. It grieves him.
If I hadn’t been given the extraordinary privilege of a theological education as part of training for priesthood, I would have been almost entirely unaware of the riches of the Christian heritage in this land—thanks in part to some of those whose mortal remains lie in this building. I would have had no awareness of the philosophical and anthropological sophistication of Christian theology—those from many lands, over many centuries, who have enriched our understanding of ourselves and the world through the Gospel.
This great Christian inheritance—intellectual, musical, architectural—is being abandoned, bit by bit—by the Church, as well as by the culture at large. It should be a cause for anguish, not because of some snobbish intellectual or musical elitism, but because these are the resources that can lift everyone’s eyes to heaven—to keep us astonished at the miraculous hope that is set before us in Christ, and not to let that become conformed, shrunk to the smallness of our own minds, our own understanding, or our own feelings.
The prophet Isaiah wrote:
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.
God is saying to his people, why settle for a snack, when you could have a feast? We could ask the people of this land, even while we are asking ourselves, that same question.
The heavenly banquet is on offer to us. If we will only look up to heaven then we may find that the world is miraculously changed—perhaps in fleeting glimpses and in a tantalising taste that leaves us longing for more.
Miracles are not any disruption of the laws of nature, but a revealing of the hope on which nature and all her laws hang—the hope of a creation redeemed from decay; a creation into which heaven has been opened through the Incarnation; through the ‘looking up to heaven’ of the One who came down from heaven.
In this Eucharist, in this building, with this music, let us give thanks to God for the great inheritance that reminds us to lift our eyes, lift our minds; to lift up our hearts.