Sermon on Isaiah 55: 1-5 & Matthew 14: 13-21
First, some family news. A few weeks ago my mother-in-law became severely depressed – most unlike her. She’s normally a very dapper and chirpy eighty-five year old. She also lost her appetite and became very weak. In the end she had to be admitted to hospital.
To cut a long story short, it transpired that all her troubles were due to a deficiency of sodium in her system, caused by some tablets she’d been taking. We get sodium from salt of course. We’re often told of the dangers of consuming too much salt. But it seems that it can be almost as bad to eat too little.
You’ll be relieved to know that my mother-in-law is now restored to full health, but the whole episode made me realise, not for the first time, how close a connection there is between the people we are and the physical make-up of our bodies.
And we are physical entities, tangible parts of the physical world. We take up space. We weigh a certain number of stones and ounces – sometimes rather more than we’d like to.
You’ll find plenty of people these days who’ll say that there exists nothing else except matter and that we as human beings are nothing but matter. Complex entities no doubt but in the last analysis nothing else but the sum total of that physical complexity. End of story.
Because of that some would deny us even the ability to choose. This morning you decided to come to church rather than lie in bed or read the paper but that wasn’t, some would say, the result of any real choice on your part. You may think you decided to come to church but actually, on this view of the world, your decision was simply the result of neural activity going on within and between the billions of cells in your brain acting in co-operation with the billions of cells in the rest of your body.
On this view it’s difficult to see how a person in any meaningful sense can be said to exist at all, other than as the material and transient conglomeration of the trillions of molecules that make up our bodies.
But what if that’s not the whole story? What if matter is more than just matter? What if matter is created by that which we call God, what if it is sustained in being at each moment by God – and I believe it is perfectly reasonable and rational to accept those last two contentions as accurate reflections of reality.
Then, matter is linked to a realm beyond itself – to that dimension of reality that is beyond space and time – where God is. Except that God can’t be said to be anywhere. Language breaks down at this point because our words and our grammar are completely rooted in our existence in this world of space and time.
Our readings today reflect this fact that matter has, as it were, one foot in the world of space and time and one foot in the world of the spirit that is outside space and time. More particularly they are concerned with food, the stuff that keeps us in being and hopefully brings us a little pleasure along the way as well.
The passage from Isaiah uses food – and drink – as an image for that which really sustains us. He tells us to search for real bread.
‘Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread?’ Isaiah is not disparaging the food that keeps us alive. He’s saying that there’s food that is even more important – in his terms returning to the Lord and doing his will. That is what will give us abundance of life. There’s an implicit criticism here of a life that is spent solely in the acquisition of material goods. Material things are not bad in themselves but they are not what ultimately sustain us. Only God sustains us in any ultimate sense.
On the face of it the feeding of the five thousand is concerned with purely mundane matters. People are hungry. Jesus has compassion on them. Jesus feeds them. The story works on that level perfectly well. But it does have another dimension.
The feeding of the five thousand is one of the few miracles of Jesus that occur in all four gospels. Evidently the early church regarded it as of great importance. And that was because it prefigured and symbolised that feeding that we receive in the sacrament of the Eucharist. We are fed by the presence of Christ in the bread that we receive.
As Gerard ManleyHopkinswrote: ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God’. He meant every single atom. It doesn’t just point to or reflect the grandeur of God. That’s far too pedestrian. The world is charged with it. In a sense the whole of creation is a sacrament, a sacrament being an outward sign of a spiritual reality. The world, the universe, everything breathes the glory of God and his presence, if we could only perceive it.
There is something in matter itself that connects us to the divine. But we lead our lives from day to day and we fail so often to notice it.
In the bread and the wine, that we will shortly receive, we are given a glimpse into another world, if we are attentive.
That small wafer and that sip of wine are charged with the glory of Christ. The realm of the spirit and the realm of matter are seen for what they are for the two are one reality.
Matter is more than just matter.