Friday, 8 October 2021

Enough is Enough!

A sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
10 October 2021


John 6.25-35

Did you know that we have a ‘just in time’ supply chain in the UK?
            For food, manufactured goods, and of course petrol.

Much has been written about the effect of Brexit
            on this system of manufacture and delivery,
creating bottlenecks of labour shortage
            that make it vulnerable and fragile to changes in customer demand.
What struck me as I was preparing for today’s sermon on Manna in the wilderness,
            is that the recent petrol supply problems were caused by a change in behaviour,
            with the average re-fill of a tank jumping from 24 litres to 29 litres.
People got worried by news reports
            that they might not be able to get petrol tomorrow,
so they quite understandably decided that they had better fill up today,
            to ensure they had enough in hand for the journey they had planned tomorrow.
This sudden average increase of just 5 litres per petrol transaction
            led to the situation many of us have found ourselves in,
of experiencing empty fuel stations and long queues,
            as the bottleneck of driver availability
                        led to an inability in the supply chain
                        to respond to the increase in customer demand.
Well, you may be wondering quite what this all has to do
            with the biblical story of Manna in the wilderness?
And I want to suggest this morning that what we have here
            is an ancient parable of economics,
that can speak powerfully to two interconnected issues
            that affect our lives today.
I think these two areas are encapsulated
            in the example of the recent petrol supply problem.
So firstly I want us to think about politics,
            and secondly I want us to think about our environment.
The supply chain problem speaks to the world of politics,
            the way we choose to order our society;
and our ongoing reliance on fossil fuels
            speaks to the way we relate to environmental concerns,
            particularly the climate crisis.
These to concerns are also encapsulated
            in two current rounds of political meetings;
firstly the recent party conferences,
            and secondly the forthcoming COP26
            United Nations Climate Change Conference.
So: politics and the environment,
            two of the defining issues of our time.
Let’s dig back now into the book of Exodus
            and see what ancient wisdom we might hear for ourselves and our world.
If you were with us last week,
            you will remember that we were with Moses on Mount Sinai,
            encountering the call of God in the burning bush.
By the time we re-join the story in today’s reading
            Moses has led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt,
                        through the waters of the Red Sea, and into the  wilderness of Sin,
            at the start of what will end up being 40 years of wandering
                        before they find themselves at the entrance to the Promised Land.
And when we meet them here in Chapter 16,
            the people of God are complaining.
They are finding the wilderness hard,
            and are indulging in nostalgia for what have suddenly become
            ‘the good old days’ of slavery in Egypt.
They are hungry,
            and they remember with longing the flesh-pots of Egypt,
quickly forgetting the crack of the whip and the sweat of the brow
            of their generations of enslavement.
I think it is significant here
            that the context for the gift of the Manna from heaven,
            is the people looking back with nostalgia.
There is something about us, as humans,
            that tends us towards and idealisation of the past,
and this can seriously hamper our ability
            to take good decisions about the future.
The people of Israel at this point would rather have turned back to Egypt,
            than they would continue their journey
                        through the uncertainty of the wilderness
            in the hope of a better future.
And we do this too, both collectively and individually.
At a national level, our political discourse is dominated
            by populist resistance to change.
Whether the issue is immigration, education, or taxation,
            those who promise to recover the glories of the past do well at the polls,
whilst those who offer a less certain road to a different future
            are ridiculed and side-lined.
Just look at the way the prophets of our time,
            people such as Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai,
are belittled and silenced by those who speak
            in defence of the status quo.
And yet we ignore these prophets at our peril!
If we do not find a more sustainable way of ordering our society,
            and of living with our planet,
the cost in terms of human suffering will be immense.
But we also indulge in nostalgia at a more parochial level too.
            We do it in church life!
How often have you heard someone say
            how much better it used to be?
Like the Israelites in the wilderness
            we too can look back with rose tinted spectacles,
                        to a now-past golden age,
            to the church as it was when we first fell in love with it.
But I’ll guarantee you this:
            if you went back to that point in time, and listened carefully,
                        you would hear someone saying
                        how much better things were in ‘the good old days’.
The truth before us is the same truth
            discovered by the people of Israel in the wilderness:
            we have to stop looking back and start looking forwards.
This is true of our society,
            it is true of our approach to the climate crisis,
            and it is also true of our church.
At our church meeting in a couple of weeks
            we will be praying and discerning together
about how we will rebuild our congregational life
            as we emerge from the pandemic.
And we will have to be honest together
            about what has been lost.
In some ways it feels to me like we are emerging from a time of war.
            We have been in survival mode for the last 18 months,
                        as the bombs of COVID-19 have fallen on us and our society.
            We have worked hard, pulled together,
                        and kept the show on the road.
But now we are taking stock and realising
            that much of what we previously valued
            about our church community life together
            has been destroyed.
For better or worse, we have passed together through the waters of the Pandemic,
            and now we are in the unknown territory of the wilderness on the other side.
We cannot go back, no matter how much we might want to,
            and looking back with nostalgia will not help us
            in our new vocation of looking forwards.
And this is where God comes into the story,
            where faith starts to take shape in our lives,
                        our community, and our society.
Because what the people of Israel in the wilderness had to learn
            was that the provision of God in the present
            doesn’t necessarily look like it did in the past.
The nourishment of God’s people is not an eternal supply of Christian quiche,
            and we will need to discover together
the new ways in which God will feed us, nourish us, and strengthen us
            for the journey ahead.
The things that sustained our community in the past
            may no longer be possible in the new normal of our present,
but God has not abandoned us,
            and God will continue to give us all that we need
            to be the people of God in our time and our world.
Sam Wells, from St Martin the Fields,
            suggests that churches look to what they have,
            not to what they don’t have, or no longer have,
because all the resources we need
            to fulfil our calling as God’s people are already given to us.
The manna for today, sufficient for today,
            is already there on the ground before us,
            waiting to be picked up.
For too long churches have seen themselves as communities of strength,
            either in terms of numbers or wealth,
and they have acted out of their accumulated abundance
            to minister to the needs of the needy.
The lesson of the manna is that it is the daily dependence on God’s provision
            that builds the people of God.
We are not called to do things to others from our position of strength,
            but to act with others to build justice in the world.
This is why our partnership with London Citizens is so significant,
            as we act alongside others,
to bring about ‘the world as it should be’
            from the ashes of ‘the world as it is’.
And so we lift our eyes from our own concerns as a community of faith,
            to the wider issues of politics and the environment,
and we discover that the lesson there is that same:
            the economy of God is an economy of sufficiency.
The prophetic word we bring to society,
            and which we live into being in our lives,
            is that enough is enough.
The parable of the manna directly challenges
            the ideology of free market capitalism.
At the Conservative Party Conference last week,
            the Prime Minister said that the UK has
                        one of the most ‘unbalanced societies and lop-sided economies’
                        when compared to other richer countries.
He went on, ‘It is not just that there is a gap
            between London and the South-East
            and the rest of the country;
there are aching gaps within the regions themselves.’
And of course he’s absolutely right.
The rich are getting richer,
            and the poor are getting poorer.
The stories John told us earlier about the plight of those in prison
            demonstrates this so very clearly.
The rhetoric of ‘levelling up’,
            based on a commendable aspiration to address poverty and inequality,
is predicated on creating opportunities
            for those living in disadvantaged areas to improve their lot;
through economic growth, job creation,
            and attention to health and wellbeing.
In other words, it is based on creating a context
            where the poor can themselves start the process of accumulating wealth.
Whether this will work or not remains to be seen,
            and I hope that much good will come of it.
But I also hear the words of Jesus
            that ‘the poor you will always have with you’;
and I hear the lesson of the manna
            that the economy of God is an economy of sufficiency,
                        where everyone has enough;
and I wonder what the reality will be
            for those whose experience of exclusion and deprivation
                        reduces their capacity to grasp the new world of ‘levelling up’ opportunity
            that will, apparently, open before them.
Last year I preached a sermon the idea of Universal Basic Income,
            using the story of Manna from heaven,
and I still think we need more radical policies of wealth redistribution
            than simply creating opportunities.
Will it be the fault of the poor if they remain poor?
I fear for the victim-blaming rhetoric
            that can so easily creep into our national discourse,
and I remain convinced that the problem of inadequate provision at one end of society
            can only be solved by addressing the exorbitant consumption
            and accumulation at the other end.
And as Christians, as the people of God in the wilderness of this world,
            we have a role to play in modelling a better way of being human,
of embodying in our communities the economy of God,
            and of using our public voice to speak prophetically to our society
                        that enough is enough,
            and that unregulated accumulation by the few at the expense of the many,
                        is a deficient vision of human society.
This isn’t just about who you vote for, although it is that;
            it is about how you, how I, how we,
                        relate to the resources in our lives,
            how we spend our money, how we use our time.
Can we inhabit together the economy of God,
            which understands God’s gifts of nourishment and sustenance as sheer gift,
            to be held lightly, given generously, and shared fairly?
Can we become those who work for justice
            in ways that build collaboration rather than hierarchy,
            co-operation rather than dependency?
The manna of God’s provision speaks of a world
            where accumulation is resisted, and resources are shared.
And this is where we come to the second strand I want us to consider today,
            the way we relate to our environment.
Hopefully on the way in you saw our wonderful new banner,
            which I find both beautiful and terrifying in equal measure,
as it shows how global average temperatures
            have risen over nearly two centuries,
with the stark band of deep red stripes
            showing the rapid heating of our planet in recent decades.
Manna was a gift that fell from heaven;
            and bread is made from wheat that grows as it is watered by the rain.
All that sustains life is a gift given to us
            by the planet we inhabit.
Scientists tell us that there are enough resources on this earth
            for all to be fed, and live well, and to do so sustainably.
But the reality of our situation is that many starve
            whilst others accumulate vast resources.
We are where we are because we have constructed
            unsustainable patterns of consumption,
            and created mechanism that promote hoarding.
If we can recover the notion of gift
            in our economic models and systems,
this will subvert those practices predicated on taking.
If we can learn the lesson of the manna that enough is enough,
            we can offer a vital challenge to a world
                        that needs to change, and change rapidly,
            if the worst outcomes of climate change are to be avoided.
We can’t go back,
            and once again nostalgia and denial are no help to us here.
But by faith I believe that it is true,
            that God has already given us the resources
            to address the demands of the present.
A better future is, by the grace of God, still a possibility;
            and never has the world needed the people of God
            more than it does right now.
Jesus’ description of himself as ‘the bread of life’,
            spoken in the context of the feeding of the 5,000 in the wilderness of Judea,
invites us to see him as the manna from heaven,
            as the gift of God that comes by grace alone,
who calls people to lives of generosity and justice,
            care-full of all that has been made.
It also invites us to understand our calling as the people of Christ,
            the body of Christ bound together by his Spirit,
to be the embodiment in this world of the new humanity.
We are called to be those who respect God’s creation,
            and who live lives resistant to the sin of hoarding.
Can we discover, with the Israelites in the wilderness,
            that the economy of God invites us into a world of sufficiency,
                        where enough is enough.
And can we then join with others
            to proclaim the God-given truth to our world
            that there is a better way of being human?
This is why I am so proud of this church’s participation over the last year
            in the Just Transition campaign through London Citizens,
in which we engaged with the Mayor’s commitment
            to make London a Zero Carbon city by 2030,
successfully challenging him to create 60,000 good green jobs
            and upgrade 100,000 fuel poor homes by the end of 2024.
And it’s why we are teaming up, again through London Citizens,
            with other churches across the West End,
to challenge every church in our area to set their own house in order,
            by getting their own buildings to zero emissions
            through the Eco Church accreditation scheme.
For faith to be meaningful, I believe it must take shape in action,
            in ways that are transformative of our world.
This is the calling of the people of God,
            to say, loudly and clearly, to ourselves and all humanity:
            that enough is enough!

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