Facing a difficult choice

Sermon for Bramley St Peter, 1 May 2022
Readings: Acts 9:1-6 / John 21:1-19

Once upon a time there was a man walking in some remote mountains, many miles from any road or town. He got lost and didn’t know which way to go. It was a hot summer and all the streams were dry, so after two days of walking he ran out of water.  He knew he would die if he didn’t find water soon. So he prayed that God would send him water.

The next morning he saw a small hut or bothy and walked towards it.  The door was open, but there was no one there. In fact, nothing but an old water pump set into the floor.  Ah! He thought, there must be a well under this hut. So he started pumping – up, down, up, down, up, down – but no water flowed.  After a couple of minutes he gave up and sat down on the floor crying, thinking he was going to die of thirst.

Just then, he saw a bottle in the corner.  He went over and picked it up.  It seemed to be filled with water, but there was a handwritten note tied to it.  “Use this water to prime the pump”, it said. “Don’t forget to fill the bottle when you’re finished.”

Well, that gave him a whole new problem.  “What do I do?” he thought. If I follow the instructions, how do I know the pump will work?  The well may be dry, and I will have missed my last chance of a drink.  But If I drink this one bottle, that will be the last drink I ever have.”  He closed his eyes and prayed.  After a few minutes he thought he heard a voice say “Read and act.  Read and act”.  So, with trembling hands, he opened the bottle, opened the top of the pump and poured the water into the priming chamber.

Up, down, up, down, … drip, splash. Up, down, and the water started pouring out.  With a huge laugh of relief he looked up and thanked God, and drank his fill of water. He had a good night’s sleep, and drank more in the morning.  Before leaving the hut, he refilled the bottle, put it back on the floor and added a note at the bottom for the next visitor: “believe me, it works”.

Source for story: https://moralstories26.com/man-lost-in-desert-leap-of-faith-story/ (altered)

We all have choices in life.  Some are trivial: what colour shirt to wear, what to eat for dinner, where to go for a day out.  Some are more important and will affect our future life: what subjects to study at school, which job to apply for, where we live. 

One particular type of choice that we have as grown-ups is our vote – which politician we want to represent our local area.  I hope that all who have the vote this week will use it to elect one of the Bramley councillors.

In all these cases, we have a genuine choice. We might listen to different people’s advice and opinion, but we have to make our own mind up.  Just occasionally, though, we find that although we may seem to have a choice, there is really only one thing we can do.  It might be that the person you love most asks you to marry them, and the only answer is – (yes, yes, yes)

The two Bible stories we heard today are both about people who faced an extremely important choice. As important as the one the thirsty man faced.

Saul had been very doubtful about Jesus.  He didn’t believe that Jesus really was the Messiah, the saviour the Jews had been waiting for. So after Jesus was crucified, and his followers started going all round their country and beyond telling people that Jesus was alive, Saul was angry.  Not content with arguing with them, he started threatening them and having some of them sent to prison. Then came his encounter on the way to Damascus in Syria.  Hearing a voice that said it was Jesus, condemning him for this persecution, because every time he hurt a Christian he was hurting Christ himself. 

In the blindness that followed, he was faced with the most difficult choice of his life.  Either he tried to ignore what had just happened and carry on as someone who opposed and hated Christians, but maybe that would mean remaining blind for the rest of his life.  Or accepting that he had been wrong, that Jesus really was alive, and that he had caused real sorrow to Jesus and real injury to his followers.  What that would lead to, he could not know.  But over the next few days, he came to realise that it was really no choice at all.  When God sent the prophet Ananias to him, Saul was ready to accept Jesus into his life, and his blindness was at an end.  He had started a new life with a new name – Paul.

Peter was faced with a similar choice.  Unlike Saul, he realised while Jesus was still alive that he was the Messiah, the Son of God. But then he messed it up by running away when Jesus was arrested, then denying three times that he even knew him. Like Saul coming to realise what hurt he had caused to Jesus and his church, he was a broken man.  Even after Jesus appeared to the disciples at Easter, Peter and some of the others went back to the life they had before, fishing lake Galilee. When faced with a big choice, it seems easier to ignore it and fall back on familiar routine. 

But Jesus didn’t let him get away with that. He appears on the lakeside, as he had in the locked room in Jerusalem. Three time he asks Peter “do you love me”, and three times Peter replies “Yes, Lord, I love you”, as it were cancelling out the three denials. Each time Jesus responds with “feed my lambs” or “feed my sheep”, meaning that he was being invited to become the first leader of the Christian church. 

What was Peter to do?  Poorly educated fisherman, could he really take on the responsibility of leading a church that was soon to face persecution?  Would he not be better just carrying on the life he knew?  But the large catch of fish that morning had just shown him that if he listened to Jesus and believed him, he could do more with Jesus’ help than he could ever do on his own.  Like the man in the hut, what seemed like an either/or choice was really no choice at all.  It needed a leap of faith that would transform his situation entirely.

Many Christians can tell of a time when we faced a choice like this: maybe at a youth group or evangelistic event.  Maybe during an Alpha course. Maybe by reading the Bible for ourselves or talking to Christian friends. Whatever the circumstances, we found ourselves with a choice – carry on with life as we know it, tackling all its difficulties ourselves, or throw our lot in with Jesus and his church, declare ourselves his followers and enter on a journey with an unknown ending.   At that moment, often there is no real choice.  The only answer to Jesus is “Yes yes, yes.”

If you haven’t yet come to that decision point in your journey of faith, or if you think that moment might be now, listen to some familiar words of Jesus: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” Listen, and act. And refill the bottle for others.

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The Mayor’s children: Praying for Ukraine

A sermon for St Peter’s Bramley, 20 March 2022

The Ukrainian flag flying over Bramley war memorial

Text:Micah 6:1-9     

Once upon a time…  there lived a man who was important in his community.  In fact he was the Mayor.  The man who could get things done.  And he had three children, Adam, Beth and Charles.  One day, the children found their neighbour’s daughter Sarah in tears.  They asked what was wrong and she told them that her dad had taken all her toys away and started hitting her.  They agreed that this was very wrong of Sarah’s dad, and decided to do something about it.

Adam was the eldest.  He was studying law at college.  So he read up about it and wrote a carefully worded letter to the Mayor, explaining why Sarah’s dad was breaking the law and asking the Mayor to report him to the police.

Beth, the middle child, was quiet and didn’t like making a fuss. But she sat down with Sarah to hear her story and ask how she was feeling.  They she knocked on her father’s door and told him what Sarah had said, and asked if she should give Sarah some of her own toys.

Charles was the youngest child and used to having to speak up to get noticed.  He marched into his father’s study without knocking and spoke loudly: “Dad, don’t you know Sarah’s being beaten?  You’re the Mayor! Aren’t you going to do something to stop it?”

So the Mayor, having heard from all his three children, did as they asked.  He reported Sarah’s dad to the police, and when they took him away, the Mayor took Sarah into his own family where she could play with any of his children’s toys.  And they all lived happily ever after.

Ukraine.  A country that many of us had perhaps heard little about until recently. Now engulfed in the tragedy of war, a tragedy that demands a response. Bombs are falling, churches being destroyed, people killed or driven from their country – many of them Catholic or Orthodox Christians.  Our European neighbours, sisters and brothers in Christ are being persecuted, and what are we to do?

We can of course give money to appeals if we have some to spare.  Some people may feel able to offer to host a refugee, when they reach Leeds.  What we can all do is pray.  But how, and what difference does it make?

In our Lent groups this year we’re looking at different expressions of Christianity from countries around the world.  This week it’s South America, where the Catholic church operates not only through priests and parishes but also in what they call ‘base communities’ led by lay people.  These communities, often in deprived areas, have at the heart of their faith God’s concern for the poor and oppressed people of the world.   To them, prayer is not just a daily habit but woven into all their life.  Prayer is not politely asking God if he would do something, but engaging with God in argument on behalf of the people they are called to serve. 

That’s why the Brazilian church chose this passage from Micah for this week’s study. We heard a musical setting of it before the service.  In it, we hear the voice of God, challenging his people to ‘rise and plead their case’. It’s the language of the law court.  God reminds them of all that he has done for them in the past: rescue from slavery, food when they were hungry, victory in war. Why, then, have they stopped praying to him, stopped believing in him?  God is constantly present, waiting for us to ask for his help. The passage ends with a challenge to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God, or one priest puts it in this week’ study: “Our language about God and God’s revelation is marked by each step, as we walk along. We step with our feet, our head thinks and our heart loves and acts”.

What does prayer sound like in wartime?  There’s no one answer, because we’re all different in our culture and personality.  Some Christians are drawn to that activist style of prayer: praying and acting as we walk through life, responding to circumstances rather than setting aside special times.

Others prefer the model of prayer Jesus presented: go into a room by yourself, sit quietly and pray to the Father who hears you.  A more meditative style. Or you might follow the set prayers of the church, carefully structured, and church leaders around the world have offered us many such prayers to use for Ukraine. But in a crisis, when situations change by the day, and the danger of escalation even into nuclear war is real, perhaps it’s time to pray differently.  To do as Micah says: rise and plead our case, or rather the case of the Ukrainians, with God.  Loud and clear.

Some years ago I met a Christian from Korea, who challenged the mainly English people in our group to pray as they do in his country, not unlike the prayers of the South American communities.  They stand to pray, and each person prays out loud to God simultaneously in their own words.  It’s a far cry from our way of doing intercession where we listen to one person speaking and then say a polite Amen. I’m not suggesting we do that now, as most of us would probably feel uncomfortable. But here’s something you might try at home: praying alone, using set words and praying aloud.  This week, going into my room to pray, I found myself saying the set psalm for morning prayer out loud, and doing so on behalf of the people of Ukraine:

Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people;
from those who are deceitful and unjust deliver me!
For you are the God in whom I take refuge; why have you cast me off?
Why must I walk about mournfully because of the oppression of the enemy?
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.  [Ps. 43:1, 2, 5]

There are people round the world praying passionately for Ukraine right now.  And those prayers have effect, for as Jesus said, where even a few people gather to pray in his name, he is with them.  Here’s just one quote from a pastor in Lviv this week:

“Please tell your people, because of their prayers, God really fights our battles. The rockets disappear in the air without reaching our homes and no one knows where they did go. Enemy tanks run out of fuel, Russian troops get lost and ask our locals for food and direction – that is definitely God because we are dealing with the second strongest army in the world. And this morning Kyiv and other major cities are still free and so are we. In Lviv we do not have to run to our basements.”[1]

At the end of each week’s session in the Lent group we are given a few questions to think about. One of this week’s questions is this: “In this passage we hear of prayer as ‘pleading your case before the mountains and letting the hills hear your voice’. What are you passionate about that makes you turn to God in prayer?”

I will finish by teaching you two words in Ukrainian – they are the same in Russian, and of course we must remember the suffering of Russian soldiers who are only obeying orders, as well as those they are fighting. ‘Gaspodi Pamilui’ – Lord, have mercy. ‘Gaspodi Pamilui’ – Lord, have mercy.

[1] https://ifapray.org/blog/god-is-answering-prayer-in-ukraine/ accessed 18/3/22

The KFL people

A Kingdom Filled with Laughter : Luke 6:17-26
Sermon for St Peter’s Bramley, 13 February 2022

“Blessed are you who are poor, For yours is the Kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, For you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, For you will laugh.”

These are some of the best known of all Jesus’ sayings, yet also some of the hardest to accept or understand.  On the surface he seems to be saying it’s a good thing to be poor, or hungry, or upset.  But that clearly can’t be what he means, because all through the Bible God condemns the injustice that leads to poverty.  Many times, he promises to lift people out of poverty and suffering.  Jesus himself spent most of his time with the ordinary people in society, with all their problems.   The song of his mother Mary – Magnificat – rejoices in the God who lifts up the lowly and fills the hungry with good things. NO, the meaning is deeper than that.

Who are the people Jesus is addressing here? Three groups. His disciples – a great crowd of them.  A multitude of people from Judea and Jerusalem – the Jews.  And from Tyre and Sidon – immigrants.  He speaks to them directly – you who are poor, you who are hungry, you who weep, for that is what has brought them to him, and on them he has compassion.

What Jesus does in these few short sayings is to set these followers off on a journey of faith.  It’s a journey that starts with an immediate change – not ‘the Kingdom of Heaven will be yours’, but ‘Yours is the Kingdom of Heaven’.  Realising that we are actually part of God’s Kingdom now, one of his daughters or sons, is the beginning of the journey of discipleship. 

Poor or not, hungry or not, weeping or not, however you feel at this moment, the fact that you are listening to Jesus means you are in his Kingdom. The other promises look further along the journey.  ‘You will be filled, you will laugh’.  These may look to be hollow promises to someone who is hungry now and weeping now.  But one of the great Christian themes is hope: the trust we put in God that he will change things for the better.

And the way that God changes things for the better, occasional miracles apart, is through us, his church. It is as we realise, individually, that we are part of God’s Kingdom that we come together in fellowship.  We realise that we are not alone, but part of a greater movement. We offer and receive support in each other’s troubles, and together reach out to address the needs around us. 

That much can be said of any group of people with a common purpose.  In the church we have one additional and much stronger bond:  the joy of salvation. When Jesus said ‘Blessed are you, for you will laugh’, he didn’t mean all our troubles would vanish overnight, but that as we receive his Holy Spirit we find the strength to face our troubles and an inner joy that stops us collapsing under their weight. 

Jeremiah gave us a vivid illustration that covers the same ideas when he said “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord … they shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots to the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green”.  The heat and drought and stress will come in our lives, but in Jesus we can stay green.

It seems to me that we can take these three one-word promises: ‘Yours is the Kingdom, You will be Filled, You will Laugh’, and make of them a simple and memorable phrase:  A Kingdom, Filled with Laughter”. K.F.L., if you wish – other three letter acronyms are available.

That phrase from Jeremiah about a tree that is resistant to drought leads me to say something briefly about the big issue of our day: climate change. How are the words of Jesus relevant to that?  Like it or not, life will get harder in the future, for all of us and not just the poor. Rising gas prices and storm damage to houses are just the beginning. The fact that everyone’s life is going to change over the coming years, and our response to that fact, is going to be ever more important.

I’m currently attending a series of online meetings of a group called Climate Action Leeds. Our aim is to bring together action on two fronts: climate justice (meaning, to see that the poor are not hit hardest by the effects of climate change) and social justice (a wider response to inequality in society).  The Church has always ‘done’ social justice: it’s what we are about – feeding the hungry, comforting the sad and so on.  The challenge now is to bring climate justice into our planning and action in future, the two working together.

We know from these readings that we are part of the Kingdom of God, and on a journey of faith that involves change. So we understand that there is more to life than possessions, we have hope that God will fill the hungry, we can know the joy of the Holy Spirit: we, then, are the people who like Jeremiah’s tree will be resilient in the time of drought – and the time of flood.  We are the people best placed to deliver not only social justice but climate justice too. We are the KFL people: the Kingdom Filled with Laughter people. We are the blessed. And our task is to share those blessings with others. Amen.

Year by Year, from past to future

Image courtesy of Freepik.com

At last, we come to the end of this year-long project of singing and blogging about every one of the 330 hymns and songs in the Sing Praise hymnbook.  I have enjoyed the singing, alone or to John’s online accompaniment, and reading the words carefully to find something to write about them.  I have written very nearly 100,000 words in the last 365 days and I hope that someone will find some of them helpful, sometime. I will now ‘unpin’ the explanatory text from the home page, but it can still be found here

For the last one, New Year’s Eve, I picked ‘Year by year, from past to future’ by Alan Luff.  Although not specifically written for a New Year service, its theme is very much about our progress through life one year at a time, which makes it suitable. The first verse talks of worship ‘marking our upward climb’ (in the metaphorical sense of getting closer to God, presumably) and ‘following God’s heavenward calling’.  The Christian should seek to be closer to his or her master with each passing year, though of course in practice we must recognise that it isn’t always so.

The second verse uses a vivid imagery of our life being woven like a pattern on a loom, longer with each passing year, a different pattern for each, and with any mistakes ‘grieved over by the Father, master craftsman’ and showing up as a flaw in the textile.  But a well woven cloth can contain flaws without falling apart, and sometimes it’s only when the piece is complete that its true beauty from start to finish can be revealed.

The last verse uses a different imagery, that of pilgrimage. It acknowledges that our journey on this earth must come to an end in what seems like an abyss, a deep canyon that cannot be crossed.  But in a striking phrase we are reminded that ‘Within the dark are waiting hands that bear the print of nails, which will hold us safe and bear us where the worship never fails’. This is the faith of the Church, that Christ has gone before, has emerged from the abyss and will take us safely across to his eternal home.  It is a message of hope rather than fear, and expressed more poetically than in yesterday’s hymn.

Like the last two days’ tunes, the one suggested here (Eifionydd, a Welsh tune presumably) is in two flats, but my more musically knowledgeable mother realised straight away when she saw it that this is in the relative minor key.  I wondered at first whether that was appropriate, but I think it is.  New Year is often a time of reflection on the past as well as looking to the future. The hymn notes the challenge of getting closer to God, the mistakes we make on the way, and the reality of death.

This year with the combined weight of the continuing Covid-19 pandemic and climate change evident in disasters all around the world, both reflection and looking forward demand a more sombre outlook than usual.  The ‘days of auld lang syne’ may look increasingly appealing compared with what the new year may bring, but however deep the abyss, Christ is beyond it.  Happy New Year, whenever you read this.

Faith overcomes

The hymn from Sing Praise for 30th December was ‘Faith overcomes’ by Christopher Jones.  To be honest I wasn’t much taken with this hymn, and apart from these two words that start each of the six verses, it doesn’t seem to be about our faith overcoming life’s problems, as the title might suggest. The first four verses, at least, are more a form of credal statement, about the eternal God, Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry, his death and resurrection. A creed is important in its own way, but it complements rather than establishes our faith.

The last two verses are more personal, or rather corporate, as a response to this creed. Faith is present in the statements ‘We have not seen, yet now we dare believe’ and ‘we yield ourselves to follow his commands’.

The suggested tune, Highwood, was also difficult to follow, and as I didn’t watch the online video I don’t know whether John used it.  

Ring out the bells

The bells of St Peter & St Leonard, Horbury, recast in 2019
Image © Stephen Craven

I’ve been away from the computer for a few days so now catching up. My choice of hymn for 29th December, as we approach the year end, is ‘Ring out the bells’ by Michael Perry.  The tune ‘Yanworth’ was familiar (but I can’t recall to what words) but John used a different one.

Ringing bells to celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of the next is an ancient English tradition, and probably in other countries too, though only the English have developed the complex art of change-ringing on church bells. In popular culture it has now been replaced by setting off fireworks. I can hear them outside as I write this on New Year’s Eve, but some churches do see in the new year with bells. The hymn looks at the symbolism they bring with them, in four verses.

First is to ‘let the people know that God is worshipped in the church below’ and that prayer is being offered.  This was the first and most important role of the bells, to summon to worship those who could attend, and to remind those who could not to offer up their own prayers instead, as in the French tradition of sounding the Angelus at midday.

The second symbol is ‘to let the people hear, let hearts be open now and faith draw near’. The joyous sound of bells is intended to lift our hearts, wherever we are. The third is to ‘let the people sing through changing seasons to our changeless King’. While one cannot sensibly ‘sing along’ to change ringing (though one could to a carillon), the correct response to having one’s heart lifted is to praise God, whether aloud or in silence.

Lastly, the bells signify ‘that glorious day when death shall die and sin be done away’.   A single tenor (deep note) bell is usually tolled to indicate a funeral, the passing of a human life.  But bells have also been rung, as may as possible, to signify invasion or other national calamity. Together, they form a call to action.  Like the ‘final trumpet’ they can be a reminder that Christ will come again, and we need to prepare ourselves for that eventuality, which for the believer is not a threat but a promise of eternal life.  In anticipation of that final day, we are invited in the venerable New Year tradition to resolve, with God’s help, to live a more Christ-like life.

In the night, the sound of crying

Thanks to John for spotting that hymn 23 in Sing Praise, ‘In the night, the sound of crying ‘ by Martin Leckebusch, is the most appropriate for 28th December, Holy Innocents day.

This is the bit of the Christmas story that rarely features in nativity plays or carol services: when Herod, maybe a year or more after Jesus was born, receives the magi and reacts to the news of an infant king by slaughtering all the young boys in Bethlehem in the hope that Jesus was among them.

He wasn’t, of course, as God had given Joseph warning in a dream and they escaped in time. But as Martin recognises, this cannot have been easy for Mary, forced to get on the donkey and relocate for the second time, now with fears for the safety of her child: ‘Mary journeys on with tears, further from the home she treasures, onward to uncertain years’.

In this fragile family of refugees from Judah to Egypt we can see the situation of millions of others around the world today. The sound of their crying should reach our ears and through our prayers the ears of God.

The third and fourth verses of the hymn refer to the cries of the murdered boys and grieving parents. This is what makes the story so disturbing: why did God not save them by deposing Herod before he could do this? It’s the old question of theodicy, which I won’t venture into now. But the last verse does remind us that through his own innocent death and resurrection, Christ has conquered and will come to reign with the justice for which we cry.

Two tunes are offered, the well known ‘Sussex’ and one called ‘Amplitudo’ which may have been composed for this hymn. Certainly it’s minor key seems more appropriate to the plaintive words, and a resolution to the major for the last phrase ‘comes to reign’.

Who would think?

My hymn choice for 27 December was ‘Who would think that what was needed’ by John Bell and Graham Maule. The theme of the hymn is in the repeated last line of each verse: ‘God surprises earth with heaven, coming here on Christmas Day’.

Those who visited the Holy Family in Bethlehem, whether local shepherds or distant magi, were surprised by what they found there: ‘such a place as none would reckon holds a holy, helpless thing’.

The last verse asks whether our ‘centuries of skill and science’ put us in a better position to anticipate or appreciate the Incarnation. The implied answer is ‘no’, for God still surprises people by coming into their lives unexpectedly.

Like a candle flame

Desmond Tutu.
Photographer Lord Ru, image via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘Like a candle flame’ by Graham Kendrick.  It’s a simple, gentle song of the Nativity, at least at the start – ‘Flickering small in our darkness, uncreated light shines through infant eyes’.  The second verse gives a hint that there is more to come from this miraculous baby: ‘Can this tiny spark set a world on fire?’

The last verse bursts forth in splendour: ‘Yet his light shall shine from our lives, Spirit blazing, as we touch the flame of his holy fire’.  For through Christ’s resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit he not only brings the light of God’s truth and love to the world, but sometimes too the ‘blazing’ of signs of power. 

Those who stay at the manger miss the real implications of the birth. Just this morning we heard of the death on Christmas Day of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and our vicar referenced this in his sermon on St Stephen, the first Christian martyr whose feast day we celebrate.  Tutu wasn’t a martyr in the sense of being killed for his faith, but he did share the martyrs’ courageous faith that meant preaching the truth (in his case, the truth of the equality of black and homosexual people) at a risk to his own job and possibly life.  Here was a man in whom the Spirit of Jesus blazed. 

Christmas Day: Lift your heart and raise your voice

Image: Madonna and child at the top of the Jesse Tree.
Detail of Kempe window, Alfriston St Andrew (dated 1914)
Photo © Julian P Guffogg licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

The hymn I chose from Sing Praise for Christmas Day is ‘Lift your heart and raise your voice’ by Michael Perry.  It’s very much a song for this day (or its eve), as the first and last verses encourage us to lift our hearts and sing praise for the gift of the Christ child, using as a refrain the chant of ‘Gloria!’ often associated with Christmas carols.  The second and third verses refer to Jesus in the cattle stall and the shepherds hearing the angels’ song, then coming to see him.

I can do no better at this point than refer you to the short sketch about the shepherds  that I wrote to be performed to the Christmas morning service at my own church today. You can download it here.

Merry Christmas!