Sermon by Canon Adrian Ling CMP, 25 July 2021
Readings: Ephesians 4.1-6; John 6.1-15
The film The Grapes of Wrath, based on the book by John Steinbeck tells the story of the Joad family who are forced to leave their farm in the dustbowl of Oklahoma during the great depression and journey to California in a heavily-laden truck in search of employment and a better life. It depicts the great misery, starvation and exploitation suffered by these economic migrants. The film shows how poverty can draw out both bad and good in people. On the one hand there is cynical exploitation: gangmasters entice the Okeys distributing thousands of leaflets with the promise of employment; too many people seek too few jobs; and because the gangmasters know the people are desperate they halve their wages once they start working, knowing they have no choice but to accept, even though they will receive not enough to live on.
On the other hand, the goodness of human nature is shown in Ma Joad, who though she barely has enough to feed her own family gives away food from the pot for the starving children in the transit camp. What precious little they have, they are prepared to share.
There is precious little to share in the gospel reading, just five loaves and two fishes. The boy may well have been taking the food out to his father working out in the fields when he got distracted by this great crowd. He would probably have got in trouble from his hungry father for letting go of his lunch. The gospel does not record if the boy gave them up willingly or if the disciples commandeered the provisions. By a miracle of grace those small provisions were surrendered, multiplied, and fed the great crowd of people, and indeed there was even more left afterwards than they had started with.
Sometimes it may seem that we have little left to give, that we have given everything of ourselves, but still there is a need to give or do more. We always have a choice, to give more or to withhold. We must be careful to look after ourselves, we cannot keep going on with low reserves, but there may be times we have to give that little bit more of ourselves. And the times when we think that to be impossible is when we need a miracle of grace, when we must call on the Lord’s spiritual support, that he will enable us to give of ourselves to those need of us, just as he enabled the 5000 to be fed by five barley loaves and two fishes.
The Grapes of Wrath is a grim tale of endurance that shows that when you think things can’t get any worse, they often do. When Tom Joad’s friend Casey, is killed for helping the migrant wokrers to resist exploitation, Tom lashes out and kills a guard, forcing the family to flee the camp to protect him. Ma Joad is a miracle of resilience, she puts aside her own feelings and opinions as this becomes just the latest problem to deal with. Moaning about it won’t help anyone.
We might think we can manage one problem, but when they come in twos or threes or more they can threaten to overwhelm us. Then we need to turn to the Lord and ask for his spiritual help, to help us divide them up and show us how to deal with each of them and not let them become one great insoluble problem.
Ma Joad, bears with her son Tom, because she loves him. St Paul tells us that we must bear with one another charitably, that is, in love. St Paul exhorts us bear with one another, putting our own feelings aside, treating each other tenderly and with patience. Patience is a divine quality that enables us to surmount everything, and through prayer and our communion with the Lord we top up our reserves of patience and kindness that we will need to draw on.
The feeding of the 5000 is a foretelling of the great Eucharistic miracle, whereby our Lord is able to be present in a real way to countless millions of people. His body was voluntarily given up for us on the cross, his body is freely given to us in the Mass. He is not diminished by the giving, but increased as his grace is distributed to those who receive him.
Tom Joad leaves the family by night at the end of the film. He has been changed by his experiences and all he has learned of the degradation of man. His mother is concerned that she will never know if anything bad happens to him, but he says that he will always be around, as though he has not one soul, but a part of one big soul. Her fear is taken away and she is reassured after he tells her: “I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look, wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build, I'll be there, too.”
Just as our Lord, who fed the 5000, is here with us now.