Feeding 5000 ... again

Most of us have broken the law this morning.  Not simply because all are sinners and have fallen short of the glory of God.  But because of how we have travelled to church.  Because, as you probably know, there is an ancient law that has never been repealed – and that is, that it is illegal to travel to church on wheeled transport!  Unless you’re on your way to a funeral which happens to be … yours.  But yes, our devotion to church this morning led many of us take the gamble with the law, running the risk of being put in the stocks or sent to the Tower -


I’m not sure how long it will take Westminster City Council to discover these un-repealed laws – it seems that it would be quite helpful as they make their case for Parking Charges on Sundays.  


Now, before those of who travelled to church this morning on foot, or by horse, begin to feel morally superior, I must ask you whether you have spent an hour practising archery this week, or whether you had a mince pie at Christmas.  Because if you did, you are living outside the law!


Silly laws, made for specific historical reasons, that have sat there for centuries on statute books, because no one’s got round to un-making them.  


Jesus was an expert law breaker – and in his day, there were lots of laws you were expected to obey… There were the laws from the books of Moses and the Prophets.  And there was Roman law, that had to be obeyed from across the empire.  And the reason that, technically, Jesus ended up being crucified, was that he had broken laws from both Jewish and Roman traditions.


So Jesus is on the hillside, there are thousands of people present – and it’s getting late.  So … what does he decide to do.  His disciples have suggested that it’s time to send people home.  But Jesus has another idea – but it is illegal.  It’s not that doing miracles was an illegal act.  It was rather that what Jesus chose to do specifically was punishable by death.  Both from the Jewish and the Roman perspective.


From the Jewish perspective, there was one great law-giver, who also happened to be the one great bread-giver.  His name was Moses – the Jewish equivalent of Alfred the Great, providing his people with numerous books of laws to be obeyed.  It’s what you need to govern an ordered society, after all.  But Moses had led thousands of Israelites out of captivity in Egypt where they had been slaves for four centuries.


Incidentally, do you know when slavery was banned under British Law?  What year it was banned?  - 2007!  I’m not sure if the Daily Mail reported that one – but if they had, you can imagine the headline: political correctness gone mad.


But Egypt had kept Israelite slaves for four hundred years, and as they made their escape across the desert, they were – not surprisingly – concerned about where they were going to get food and drink.  And – we know the story – bread rained down from heaven.  And they gave it a name – which is precisely the same phrase that my children used when I produced some home made soup and placed it under their nose.  Okay, it was the first time I’d tried to make soup.  Okay, I didn’t know that you were supposed to boil the vegetables before making them into a soup.  But when it ended up in a bowl under their noses, they looked up at me and said “What is it?”  That is precisely what the Israelites said when Moses dished up the bread of heaven – Manna – is Hebrew for ‘what is it?’


The person who dishes out bread, is the person you can trust – the one who is blessed by God to give the people what they need to survive.  By dishing out bread for free, Jesus is putting himself on a par with Moses, the great legislator and provider of bread.  Blasphemy lawyers will not struggle to find fault with anyone playing that kind of game.  But then – you cannot execute someone in a city under Roman control, without permission from the Romans.


So – the only one worth blaspheming in the Roman empire, is Caesar himself.  And of course, Caesar is every bit as much as a bread-giver as Jesus.  It was Caesar’s job to provide bread to his citizens – and the grain for that bread would come from around the empire – from places like Galilee.  So these people – having watched their grain shipped off to feed over-priviliged Romans – now have someone who can conjure up food out of nothing – to feed Five Thousand men!  That is more men than Pontius Pilate has in the entire province.  So … if you want to get rid of Jesus, you report him to Caesar!  This miracle can be seen as a challenge to mighty Caesar and his authority.


But, of course, there is something else at work in the ministry of Jesus.  Whatever else he does with this miracle – he is using whatever power there is at his disposal, to give people what they need.  Not necessarily what they want – but what they need.  Indiscriminately – thousands of people.


If Nazareth City Council had levied weekend parking charges upon its scenic, lakeside locations – there is no way Jesus would ever have attracted a crowd of five thousand men.  


The issue of Sunday parking charges is a big one for some people at present – big enough, it seems – to have found its way onto a Radio 4 report this morning.  But the baffling thing here – is the bizarrely shallow substance that comes with arguments on either side.


When you look at how churches are reacting, it looks worse than pitiful.  Like spoilt children, who have always taken privilege for granted – the complaints and the whining and the pathetic attempts to disguise it in objective argument: I’ve been coming to this church for years – why should I have to start paying to park here?  This desire to keep having things our way – no matter what else is happening in the world around us, no matter how the world is changing – would be nothing worse than pitiful.  A sad inability to recognise that the world is changing, that driving to and parking in London is a privilege that will not last for long, anyway.  Free parking on Sundays will end, sooner or later – probably sooner than many would like.


But what makes the church’s objections worse than a pitiful inability to see what is happening in the world – is the fact that it invests energy in coming together to argue for its own privilege.  One woman described parking charges as a disaster.  If that is a disaster – then you must have a pretty comfortable life, the kind of comfortable life which Christians claim to have abandoned.  If I were reading these arguments from churches and petitions objectively, I would have no sympathy whatsoever with anything I have, as yet, heard articulated in any argument or written on any document.  It looks like a bunch of people who are angry because their personal lifestyle choices are under threat.


And that – ironically – is the best support for introducting Sunday parking charges.  Personal lifestyle choices!  The belief that what humans really need – is freedom to choose.  


From the council’s perspective, of course, they are not using parking charges to raise money.  They are simply responding to patterns of consumer behaviour, Sunday being the second busiest shopping day of the week.  I suspect that – if consumer choice is paramount, then retail consumers are likely to outnumber the concerns of religious consumers.  So it’s time we abandoned the religious consumerism approach to this.


The miracle on that Galilean hillside shows Jesus inviting the wrath of the authorities of the day, because he sought to give the people what they needed… in this impoverished corner of the empire, on this particular day, it happened to be food.  


In our day – the question facing us is equally about what it means to be human.  What it means to treasure consumer convenience.  The Sabbath Day!  I would not argue that – oh, we have to have a Sabbath day because the bible says so – not in a secular age.  Nor can we say – oh we need a Sabbath day because we want to worship and park for free.  Rather – the reason that Sabbath law existed at all, was that – as humans – we need a regular rhythm of being able to stop and look at who we really are.


Now, with Sunday trading law – consumerism now invades every split second of our week.  There are no longer days when shops are closed – when we have to wait, when we lose the opportunity to consume.  No longer a time when – in our hyper-active, non-stop, overly consumerised culture – even our time is consumed.  We never, culturally, have opportunity to stop, to look at who we are, to be re-oriented.  Because we live in a culture now, that gives no actual space, and no philosophical space, for being able to Stop – literally, to Sabbath.


That was why God introduced the Sabbath in the first place.  For all people to be aware of another order beyond the constant drive and grind and relentlessness of human activity.  It is not simply a break so we can relax: One famous rabbi called the Sabbath, a ‘Palace in Time’.  A palace we enter into, to receive what God wants to give us so that our lives flourish.


Now, it is the loss of Sabbath – not the introduction of parking charges – that prevent us from worshipping God properly.  The parking charges are nothing more than the inevitable consequence of being content with a culture that no longer knows how to stop and reflect upon itself.  Instead – although slavery is now illegal – we willingly subject ourselves to the slavery of a relentless, unreflective, non-stop existence.


Tomorrow night, Westminster Council will make the decision about whether to introduce Sunday parking charges.  But regardless of the outcome, it is a fairly minor skirmish really.  If the churches really want to counter this decision-making in a long-term, effective campaign – it will be to fight for a way of bringing true Sabbath celebration into public life.  To introduce space into our world, for people to stop and be confronted again with the question of what it really means to be human, to do what we can with the time that is given for us.


The sad reality is, that the discourse on parking charges is currently dominated by conservatism.  We don’t want to lose our lifestyle, and our choice of church, our convenience, our luxury.


The only legitimate campaign, from a Christian perspective, is to follow the example of Jesus: giving others what they need in order for their humanity to flourish.


What does it mean to give bread today?  


What is it that people around us need in order to live?  Some of the ministries in which the church already engages with people on the doorstep, serve as examples.  But what else.  If Jesus came into central London today… and crowds of people listened to what he was saying: what miracle would he do, that we need?  That people in London need?


If we can answer that question – then we might have a legitimate reason for opposing the parking charges.  If we cannot answer that question – then it is time to re-learn what it means to celebrate Sabbath, to stop, to worship, and to be radically re-oriented to the purposes of God.