I have not published any of my sermons or quiet day addresses on the blog for a while, what with the other things we have had to discuss, but, for new readers, time was that I used to put them on a few days before the Sunday and anyone who had the time or inclination to schlep through them would make a comment or two. I used to find this helpful, when they were constructive, so maybe such a thing might happen again. The mysteries of the Common Worship cycle of readings have not been made known to me, so your perception of a suitable sermon for this Sunday may differ to mine if you are not, like us, using the Roman cycle.
I hate shopping for anything other than exotic foods and vestments. Market Street holds no pull for me and the promise of discounted socks is no source of joy. The January sales serve as nothing but an irritant making the journey from the metro station to the pub longer and more arduous. I hate the crowds, the sellers of flashing necklaces and balloons in the shape of puppies. I resent having the sound of bagpipes imposed on me and find it even more of an affront to be asked to pay for the pleasure. I am a thorough misery when I need to go shopping and I have no time for looking at fourteen types of black shoes deciding which ones I like. I know the ones I want and all I require is that they be packaged, money exchanges hands, preferably the smallest amount possible and I be allowed to go. Market Street and the dreaded Arndale Centre in Manchester is a long way from a market in Judea two thousand years ago we would think, but in reality all we have done in the intervening two thousand years is to invent more and more middlemen between shoes, or clothes and us. We need brokers, shops, wholesalers, advertising agencies, packaging companies, someone to design the shop, to give the staff free passes to the gym and jaunty T-Shirts rather than a decent wage and the thought of buying directly from the manufacturer is long gone.
The marketplace in Judea and now is cramped. It's every corner has a tent and its vendor, or a middleman and a broker. The marketplace is noisy. Each vendor hawks his wares, trying to be louder and showier than his competitors. Every peddler promises quality products at a reasonable price. The marketplace is depressing - for that very reason. As the day ends, hungry labourers return from their work to purchase food, food they have no money to buy, or food they do not need, food to throw away after everyone has looked at it, too scared to eat lest they can no longer fit into clothes designed for a mop rather than a human being.
Into the midst of the marketplace, both of Judea and the modern world where transactions are calculated in billions and over dozens of countries, all day and night so we are offered a choice of fifteen types of tomato all tasting identical at Tesco’s, in the midst of this most hard edged, money orientated world, comes the voice of God, echoing through a journey that began with the evolution of the first human beings, according to God’s divine plan. The people of God are addressed in the first reading by Isaiah, and he speaks at the end of a great exhortation, which has taken as its themes the new exodus, the word of God, the King of heaven and King David, the movement of nations and the announcement of salvation. Here is hope and here is a reminder that there is much more to be done. Here God speaks through Isaiah, giving hope and the promise of salvation to a people on the move, waiting for the Messiah, it is the great invitation to be of God. The invitation to live a life influenced by Him and the invitation to have faith, ‘Come to the waters all you who are thirsty, though you have no money, come! Buy Corn without money and at no cost wine and milk, listen and your soul shall live’! What is this telling us? What does it tell the pilgrim people of God? That if you have all the money in the world, it would not buy salvation. It is not decrying the people working in the marketplace for having money and it does not exhort us all to be on the poverty line but it tells us that if we have money it is of no help in finding everlasting life. The water of life, the Holy Spirit that the prophet alludes to here, is not available for any financial price and, in fact, that if you hoard money it is a hindrance to finding salvation, do not hold on to earthly things for it shows a lack of faith on your part in the things of God. Put simply, Scrooge was too busy counting money to see the world going on outside the window. Do not make money your God, but play your part in the marketplace with integrity. This is a close echo of the other ‘money’ story in the scriptures, the oft-misunderstood ‘Widow’s mite’, and the thought that the widow is showing how a follower of Christ should give her last penny, for it is worth more than the many pounds of the other man. In fact, this passage echoes here when Christ says that he will ‘tear down these walls’ for what you have done! You most damned of people, for you make this women pay to enter my house! Did you not read in Isaiah that the Spirit of God comes freely?
And so the story continues, the people of God sent on their way with the Lord before them, waiting for the Messiah who comes and continues this theme. Once again, we see ourselves in the marketplace of humanity. Once again we see real human concerns, in the second reading, Paul writes to the Romans saying that no lack of worldly concerns, no amount of persecution, poverty, homelessness, no continuation of the refugee status which the people of God have had since He first chose them as His people and the chose Him as their God, no fortune tellers and silly horoscopes which he alludes to can come between them and the free waters of the Holy Ghost, offering the promise of the soul living forever in God.
This same Paul and his other friends were with Jesus when he heard the news of his friend John’s death and he was sad. They went with him to be by themselves, but five thousand men and twenty thousand, it is estimated, women and children came after him. This number is important as it shows Jesus feeding a tenth of the population, Israel is fed, symbolically, as a foretaste of the Eucharist, which we are fed at today. We are the descendents of the tribe in exile; we have been called once again to the waters. We are called once again in the marketplace to put our faith in the things of God as the disciples are in the Gospel. They are annoyed, for they wanted space on their own with Jesus, to support him after the death of John, to show their love for him, but what they get is a crowd demanding to be fed, what they get is the people of God.
They are scared and they feel responsible, after all, they are following Jesus as well, and they do what we normally do when we are scared ‘send them away, take the problem out of my sight’, let somebody else deal with it. Hope it goes away. Jesus says no, take responsibility, stand up to what you have been taught and feed them. Have faith and get on with it, not knowing what the outcome will be, for that is faith, not knowing what will happen in the end. Of course, they say they cannot and he says ‘bring them to me’.
The people come and Jesus, with faith in his Father, feeds them. He teaches his disciples to have concern, which they displayed, but also compassion and faith. He teaches them and us to be like him, to pass on the good news to all who come, not as a holy club for the support and comfort of its members, but to be effective in the community, in the marketplace. To bear witness to the gifts of the Spirit of God, which comes freely to all who truly thirst for the Kingdom of God, in the marketplace, in our Churches and in our lives.