How Many Loaves Do You Have?

Friday 4th March 2011
Methodist Church, Hurstpierpoint
Women's World Day of Prayer

Last week, we were all moved by the devastation caused by an

earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. We were particularly moved by seeing the tower of its cathedral topple and, of course, our grasp of the situation was helped enormously because we share the same language, enjoy much of the same culture, and play rugby and cricket with each other; indeed, some people say that although it's geographically the farthest place from the UK, New Zealand is the closest to us of all our far-flung former colonies.

What you see is a country of rugged mountains and volcanoes, of rushing rivers and gentle lagoons, spanning the latitudes from the Antarctic to the tropical; a country of variety and extremes; and Chile, too, is such a place. Its long, thin land mass runs from the Atacama Desert to the Antarctic. If you drive through it, as I have, you pass from the intense heat of the North, through vineyards, and then through a forest down to a lake district like Bavaria, including beer and cake, but with snow-capped volcanoes; and then the barren scrub with spectacular pea green, emerald, navy and grey lakes; and, finally, Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire amid ice.

Like New Zealand, then, Chile is a country of extremes with spectacular landscape but with the underlying danger that creates that landscape; Chile is a land of perennial earthquake. People live their lives on the edge.

Perhaps that is why the Chileans are extreme in so many other ways: they lurched from Allende to Pinochet; their mining disaster and rescue showed them at their worst and at their best; and, wherever you look, you see extreme beauty tarnished by environmental vandalism; Christian compassion flawed by an apparent indifference to social justice; and a general disconnectedness between the full, rich experience that is Chile and the limited number of people free to enjoy it.

It's somewhat presumptuous of us to count the loaves of Chile but it has so many: natural beauty, a rich multi-racial culture, a deep Christian commitment, a proud tradition of independence and self-help; and, as we have seen, great courage and hope in the face of adversity. Because of his charismatic status and, again, the use of English, Nelson Mandela and his Truth Commission is well known to us; but Chile's reaction to the overthrow of General Pinochet, after his career of mass murder, was characteristically moderate.

It's hard for us to say anything to Chile that it has not already said to itself. We might want to encourage its people to break their loaves and to share them; but who are we? We might think that their political system or their arrangements for social justice fall short, but who are we to protest when  there is so much squalor and degradation in the shadow of our own great prosperity and comfort?

So if I have a criticism of the title for the day it is that there's a good deal too much loaf counting in our world and not enough loaf breaking. I understand the sense of the title that we should be grateful for the loaves that we have; but loaves are for sharing; breaking bread is, fundamentally, one of the activities which underlies our humanity and it is no accident that Jesus chose such an act of universal fellowship, solidarity and good cheer in which to embody his very self. And, equally to the point - parodying the Beatles at the end of Abbey Road - the more bread you break in the company of Jesus the more bread there is left to break.

But breaking bread, to use a contemporary phrase borrowed from the Sermon on the Mount, as if there was no tomorrow, is a risky business. In our green and pleasant land we are seduced away from risk by the very gentleness of where we live; but in Chile there is a sharp edge of risk. The fire in the ice in Chile reminds me of that phrase in the Book of Revelation where Jesus, through John, is talking to the Church of Laodicea, a passage read unforgettably by Beryl Trant in Saint George's Cathedral, Jerusalem, during a lull in the Israel/Palestine conflict, where Jesus says: "You are neither hot nor cold". Whereas we run the danger of being like Laodicea, there is no danger of  that in Chile; they live in a natural, industrial, social climate that can veer wildly from one to the other: fire in the ice; bravery in the mines; tumult in Parliament; squalor beside grand villas. There are times in the lives of the poor when they do precisely what the Widow of Zarephath did; and because we experience such a crisis so rarely, we cannot say what we would do.

And yet, we do not need to feel guilty that we are not driven to the extreme. There is much that we can do for Chile and places like it through prayer, encouragement, listening, and through all the different aspects of good fellowship. But we should also remember that our world is now one, not in universal sisterhood as we would wish, but in impending catastrophe. If we want to know how to govern our lives, to carry out our earthly stewardship, remember this small story: our hotel looked out over Largo Gray, with its popsicle-like blue mini icebergs, and when we sailed on the lake I heard a piece of the glacier sheer off and fall into the lake; and I thought: "we did that."