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Saturday, 25 July 2015

Seeking meaning and significance

This was my sermon for last Thursday's Eucharist at St Stephen Walbrook, which can also be heard on the London Internet Church website:

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who is best known for creating a hierarchy of needs. ‘This is a theory of psychological health predicated on fulfilling innate human needs in priority, culminating in self-actualization.’ At the bottom of the hierarchy are the basic needs of human beings; needs for food, water, sleep and sex. Maslow’s model works as a hierarchy because a pressing need must be mostly satisfied before someone will give their attention to the next highest need, which includes our need for our lives to be given meaning and significance.

The stories of the feeding of the four thousand and the five thousand are stories of Jesus meeting the basic needs of the people with him but are also stories about that action having a deeper level of meaning and significance.

The people who were with Jesus had been with him in the wilderness for three days without any significant supplies of food. While some may have brought small supplies of food with them, in essence they had been fasting for much of the time Jesus had been teaching them and, for those of you who have visited the Holy Land, you will know that the Wilderness is unforgiving terrain in which to be without sustenance.

Jesus is concerned for these people and, out of compassion, meets their basic need for food in that testing environment but, just as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests that once our basic needs have been met then our needs for meaning and significance come into play, Jesus’ actions here also have a deeper level of meaning, if we and they are alert to it.

We can see this if we think for a moment about the outline of this story and the extent to which it reminds us of another story. A group of Israelites are in the wilderness and are hungry because they have too little to eat. In response God provides them with bread to eat. That is the outline of the feeding of the four thousand but it is also, in essence, the story of God providing manna in the wilderness to the Israelites when Moses led them from Egypt to the Promised Land. The similarity is deliberate, whether on the part of Jesus or Mark, because through this action Jesus is seen as the new Moses for the people of Israel.

Following the parallels between these two stories through means that the people of Israel are to be seen as being in slavery once again – whether that meant the political oppression of their Roman conquerors or, as St Paul suggests, under the bondage of sin. The Exodus – the salvation of the people of Israel - began with the death of firstborn sons and, in the story of Jesus, our salvation comes through the death of God’s only Son. Jesus leads his people through water – in the original Exodus that was the path through the Red Sea, but, for Jesus’ followers, it is the rite of baptism. They go on a journey through the wilderness – where, as we have seen, they are fed and provided for – and end their journey when they enter the Promised Land – which Jesus spoke about as being the kingdom of God that he initiated but which is still to come in full.

The parallels are plenteous and very close as the people of Jesus’ day were intended to view him as the new Moses. At this deeper level of meaning and significance it is possible, from this one action, to understand the whole of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

God is also at work in our lives to bring and to reveal meaning, purpose, shape and significance to our lives too, if we are alert to this deeper level of life and our not solely focused on the meeting of our basic needs. We all have a need and a desire for there to be more to our lives than simply the survival of the fittest; the scramble to meet our basic needs. As Maslow’s hierarchy of needs recognises, when we are in genuine need and poverty, it is very difficult to think about anything else other than survival. But, when we are in the fortunate position of having our basic needs met, we have the time and space and inclination to look around us to see the way in which God can bring meaning, significance and purpose into our lives; with that purpose including the development of a compassion, like that of Jesus, which sees the needs of those whose basic needs are not being met and responds to that by sharing at least some of what we have.

Your life is not simply about having enough to survive; the meeting of your basic needs. God wants you to see a deeper level of meaning, significance, shape and purpose to your life. Are you open to see the meaning and significance that he brings or does a focus of getting prevent you from seeing and receiving what he is already giving?


Delirious? - Now is the Time.

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