SERMON: Small is beautiful

SERMON: Small is beautiful

Andrew McKearney’s sermon for Sunday 3-August —

The scandalous way in which our banks have been behaving is still being uncovered. Until we fully know just how low they have sunk, trust won’t be restored. But getting to the truth of what they’ve been up to is only part of what needs to happen. Banks and banker’s bonuses have just got too big. So other remedies are needed – tougher regulation, banks being broken up, bankers’ bonuses curtailed – and there’s a lot of talk about the culture of banking needing to change.

The culture of an organisation is interesting.

There was an article by a psychologist that I read recently which was arguing that in any group, organisation or society, you only need a few people to act ethically for the whole to be influenced for good, with the converse also being true – that you only need a few people to act immorally for the group, organisation or society to become corrupted.

Saint Paul, possibly quoting a proverb of his day, used the image of yeast in a lump of dough to make a similar point, pointing out twice in his letters “Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?” (I Corinthians 5.6, Galatians 5.9)

The power of small things to have an influence much greater than their size, is also referred to on occasions by Jesus in his parables.

Only last week in our gospel reading we heard Jesus using the example of a mustard seed which, he points out, is one of the smallest seeds when sown, “but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matthew 13.32)

And in this week’s gospel, we heard how Jesus responded when faced with a hungry crowd in a deserted place. The disciples wanted him to send the crowd back to the villages to buy food but instead Jesus suggests to the disciples that they give them something to eat. Incredulous they reply: “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” It’s a Parish Lunch gone wrong! And I’m afraid if there’s no food on our tables a little later on I’ll probably be doing as the disciples suggest and sending you back to your homes!

This story of Jesus feeding a great crowd in the wilderness is one of the most often repeated stories in the gospels. It’s told by all four gospel writers, and in two of them, Matthew and Mark, it’s told twice! It was clearly one of the stories that lodged itself in people’s memories and was kept alive and retold because of its significance. Why else would Mark, for instance, whose gospel is quite short, repeat the story with just a few variations, unless he wanted to be sure that we, his readers, had “got the message”.

So what is the message? There are variations in the way the story is told which may or may not be significant. Was the crowd 4 or 5 thousand? Were there 5 or 7 loaves? 7 or 12 baskets of scraps? 2 or just a few small fish? Those details are not, I suggest important, when compared to the central features of the story:

  • Jesus finds himself in the wilderness.
  • He has with him a great crowd of followers.
  • They’re hungry.
  • The only food available is a small amount of bread and fish.
  • He takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks the bread and gives it to them.
  • They eat and are filled.

I’ve spoken before about how this echoes the big story in the Old Testament that is set in the wilderness of Moses, leading the children of Israel out of slavery to freedom in the Promised land. There too the people get hungry, there too they are fed.

There’s another story of the prophet Elisha, feeding 100 men with a few loaves of barley (2 Kings 4.42-44). So Jesus is fulfilling the law and the prophets, Moses and Elisha, by also feeding a great crowd in the wilderness when few resources are available.

Then there was another moment of great significance in Jesus’ own ministry on the night before he died when he took bread and after giving thanks, he broke the bread and gave it to his followers. The actions of Jesus at the last supper are described in just this way (Mark 14.22).

So for the first Christians, this story of Jesus feeding a great crowd in the wilderness, looked back to Moses and Elisha, but also reflected their current experience. This action of taking, blessing, breaking and giving the bread was a characteristic gesture of Jesus’, one of the ways they recognised Christ’s presence with them – in the breaking of bread.

And so it is for us.

Last Monday Bishop John came to spend the evening with the group in the parish that has been meeting during July and studying his book ‘Living faithfully’. They ended the evening celebrating communion with Bishop John. One of the participants described to me how special the evening had been by saying: “It was as if we were in the upper room with Jesus and his disciples”.

That’s exactly right! When we come together as Christians one of the characteristic things that we do is take a very small amount of bread and just a sip of wine and eat and drink in remembrance that Christ died for us – but what an impact this small amount of bread and wine has on our lives! Jesus’ whole ministry was a staggeringly small event, lasting just three years in an obscure corner of the Roman empire. He had only 12 disciples, one of whom betrayed him, another denied him and fled, leaving him to be crucified by the Roman authorities. God’s way seems often to be the way of small things – 5 loaves and 2 fish – that, surprisingly, is enough!

We have to be constantly reminded of this. It seems we’re almost programmed to look for the big, to go with the popular, to think that if everyone thinks it’s right then it must be – and that’s been part of the problem with the culture of our banks.


God’s way seems often to be the way of small things.


Perhaps small is beautiful!