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.

1279 words

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.

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!


This is a supplemental post to my sermon of 5th December. It is converted from a HTML web page, one of several that I created after our trip to India with Tearfund in 2006.

Tearfund’s principal Indian partner is the Evangelical Fellowship of India Commission on Relief (EFICOR)

We had been told to look forward to this event all week: instead of just a group of us from the UK visiting yet another village, we would be part of a much larger gathering to celebrate the official handover of the 104 houses that EFICOR had built in two villages after the tsunami. These had been among the worst hit villages in the area. The new houses have been built 1km from the sea in a wooded area. In this instance, EFICOR were not involved with replacing fishing boats – another NGO did that.

Revd Dino Touthang (right), Director of EFICOR

Everyone then made their way to where a podium had been set up in fromnt of rows of chairs with an awning to keep the heat off. Most of the speakers at the ceremony spoke in Tamil or Malayalam, but Dino Touthang, the Executive Director of EFICOR, spoke in English. He spoke to the community of the need for them to take responsibility for the maintenance of their new houses, and that it was also their duty to build families in joy and peace and free from violence (we had been told in many places that domestic violence is a major problem in Tamil society). He spoke of the benefits of many NGOs working together.

Design for the new houses

After the speeches, representatives of the supporting agencies were presented with awards, and Phil Bamber accepted one on behalf of Tearfund. Our other leader, Katy Hands, was given the opportunity to cut a ribbon to declare a house open – the householder’s name was Caspar. One of the householders was presented with a large mock key to symbolise the handing over of the properties to the people.

Dedication plaque

Levelling up the household

Sermon for St Peter’s, Bramley, Leeds, 5 December 2021 (Advent 2)

Readings: Ruth chapter 2; Luke 3:1-6

Come with me to an event I attended in India several years ago.  The Christian charity EFICOR had built a whole new village, Singaravelan, to replace one that had been swept away in the tsunami of Boxing Day 2004. On this day, the new houses were being officially handed over. There were garlands and decorations everywhere, a smartly dressed youth band to lead the procession, and a stage set up for speeches.  Dignitaries included the District Collector, senior clergy, Directors of the charity and village leaders.  Some spoke in Malayalam but the Director spoke in English. He told the community to cherish and maintain their new houses, to build families in joy and peace.  Then came the punchline.  “I want this to be a village where husbands no longer beat their wives …(dramatic pause) … and where wives no longer beat their husbands”. 

Everyone laughed, but it was a serious point to make.  Would he have spoken of people beating their partners if that had not been going on before?  He wanted this new village to be a place where families would make a new start, free from violence.  And that’s the theme of our service today, as part of the annual worldwide campaign against gender-based violence. 

In our reading from the book of Ruth, she is working in the fields, not as a paid farmworker, but as Jewish law allowed, a poor person picking up any bits of grain that the reapers had missed. Boaz, the farmer, was a relative of her mother-in-law, and knew he had to protect her from harm as part of the family.  So he says, “I have ordered the young men not to bother you.”  Again, at the end of the day, Naomi says, “It is better that you go out with Boaz’s young women, otherwise you might be bothered in another field”.  ‘Bothered’ is translated in some Bible versions as ‘molested’.  Just as in India, would they have mentioned this unless it was common for the men in the fields to molest the women?

Israel around 1000 B.C.   India in 2006.  These things happened long ago, or in poor communities far away.  But they don’t happen here and now, do they.  Do they?  Here’s the story of one married woman from the charity Refuge.  They call her Isobel.

When I met my ex-husband, I had my own business, my own flat, supportive friends and family. I was confident and self-assured and independent. Domestic violence was not something I ever thought would happen to me.

He was controlling from the beginning. I was constantly walking on eggshells. I was undermined and humiliated in a million different ways. But whenever I tried to leave, he would reel me back in, telling me that he would change and that he wanted us to be a family. One day a normal conversation suddenly turned into a frenzied attack. He punched me to the ground, kicked me in the back, and then threw me across the room – all in front of our two children. I called the police, and eventually they put me in touch with Refuge.

One of Refuge’s outreach workers, Anna, began supporting me. We talked about everything I had been through and she helped me to understand that Ben’s behaviour was a deliberate pattern of control. It was not my fault.

Now things are so much better. It isn’t easy to break away from a violent partner; I don’t think I could have done it without Refuge’s support. Refuge saved my life.

Charities like Refuge tell us that one in three women in Britain today will experience violence or controlling behaviour at some time in their lives. The chances are, several of you here today will have suffered in this way. The offender might be a boy at school, a stranger in a dark street or a work colleague.  But more often it happens at home: a father, brother, boyfriend or husband.  And of course as the Indian charity director’s speech reminds us, it can be the other way round – sometimes it is a woman who is violent to her partner.  Ruth was lucky, she was the boss’s young relative and he made sure she was left alone.  But most of us aren’t so lucky. 

In this Advent season, the theme of our readings and prayers is around asking Jesus to come and put problems right, to take back control of this broken world.   That’s what John the Baptist meant when he prophesied that Jesus was about to appear, quoting an older prophesy of valleys and mountains being levelled up.  We might understand that applied to personal relationships as saying that those who have a natural advantage, those who are physically stronger or have the power in a relationship, will be brought down, and those who are weaker or feel themselves trapped in the bottom of a valley will be lifted up and set on their feet. The crooked – the crooks of this world – will be brought to justice and helped to ‘go straight’ as we say.

Also in the reading from Ruth, Boaz says this to Ruth: “May you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge”. That image of God as a bird, perhaps a mother hen, protecting her chicks under her wing, is one that Jesus used as well.  God is on the side of the victim.  He hears their cries, offers protection from harm, lifts up the downfallen and deals with the offender. 

But as we are often reminded, Christ has no hands but ours.  Boaz in the Bible story is called Ruth’s ‘Redeemer’, the same title we give to Christ, and it carries the sense of offering protection. As Christ’s body on earth, it is we who are given the task of carrying out that ministry of redemption in practice. And as Jesus also said, much is expected of those to whom much has been given.  The powerful person, the head of the household, has a particular responsibility to protect those in their care from harm.   The challenge for us, particularly us men, is to be the protector of the women in our lives, not to dominate them.

But those who have been harmed do need support as well. In our next hymn we will ask God to provide “Refuge from cruel wars, havens from fear, cities for sanctuary, freedoms to share”. It is often Christians who volunteer to offer counselling, work for the police or probation service, run refuges for women fleeing violence, or just keep an eye out for neighbours. In our prayers today you may wish to name someone silently to God and ask him to show you how you can help in setting them free.

A last word: we do of course have safeguarding policies in the church, and if you see or hear anything that concerns you, please have a word with the Vicar or safeguarding officer.  And if you yourself are that person in the bottom of the valley, feeling that there is no way out, or if anything else you have heard today disturbs you, again, have a word in confidence with one of them.  God’s protecting wing is here, our Redeemer is among us.

The seed of faith

Text of my sermon for Bramley St Peter, 21 November 2021

Jesus said,
‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’
Mark 4:30-32 (New Revised Standard Version)

Pilate … summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’John 18:33-37 (New Revised Standard Version)

We started this morning’s service with one of the shortest of the stories that Jesus told. No people feature in it, just – a mustard seed, something very small indeed.   I don’t have mustard seeds here, but I do have apple seeds…  Each one of these seeds, if you plant it and look after it properly, can become a tree itself.  An apple tree can live for fifty years and produce over a hundred apples each year, each with about eight seeds in it. Just imagine how many trees you would end up with if they all got planted and grew into trees themselves!

Today, as you might have realised, is Christ the King Sunday, and so we have the gospel reading in which Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, asks Jesus if he is a king. Jesus responds ‘you say that I am’ and explains that his kingdom is not from this world. What he meant was, that what people can expect from him is not what people expect from a king. But what do you expect a King to do?  [ideas…?]

We expect a king to be in charge of his country, don’t we?  But there are different ways of doing that, different ways of leading.  The idea of Christ the King Sunday originated with the Pope in the 1930s.  He wanted the Church to show a deliberate reaction against the Italian government of the time.  Where the earthly power was concentrated in the hands of a dictator who could command a top-down approach to society and impose restrictions on groups out of favour with the regime, he wanted Christians to understand Christ as the sort of king who uses his power to enable others to flourish, not to control them. 

Before he met Pilate, Jesus had already explained to his followers the sort of King that he was, or rather what sort of kingdom he wanted to be in charge of.  He often used short stories like the short one about the mustard seed, or the longer one about the farmer sowing seeds in different places.  In just a few words, these stories gave a memorable picture of tiny seeds growing into a tree or a useful crop. 

Through these parables, we understand that the task of the Church is to plant seeds of hope in people’s lives, which God can then grow into fruitful activity.  It’s a bottom-up, ‘grass roots’ approach to transforming society, totally at odds with the controlling tendency of many worldly governments.  In the words of a hymn that we will sing during communion, The world belongs to Jesus, but he turns the word upside-down.  Not a top-down ruler, but a bottom-up enabler.

Example 1 – A place to sit

What might that look like in practice?  Here are two local stories.  The first is very local.  You will all know about the benches in Bramley shopping centre.  Everyone who used them was angry when the management used their control to take them away.  What did they do?  It started with a few people bringing their own seats to sit on.  The idea spread, a Facebook page was set up. and now dozens of people gather every Saturday. Local councillors are involved, and St Peter’s school.  Over a thousand of us signed a petition, and our own Jo Herbert spoke to the Council.  The Council have now told the managers of the centre that they shouldn’t have taken the benches away, and it’s even been on BBC news.   The seed of an idea of a sit-in has grown into a tree-sized, peaceful protest.  Let’s carry on praying that the benches will be put back. But in addition, it has grown links in the community that will strengthen us to do other things.

Example 12– The Eden Team

Here’s another story that appeared on the diocesan website this week, from a parish in Bradford, only six miles from Bramley.  West Bowling is one of the most deprived estates in England, with 25% of children living in poverty. St Stephen’s Church have had an Eden Team working alongside them since 2019.  The Eden Team is a few people living among those people in poverty, seeking to bring hope, through youth work, community projects, evangelism and discipleship. 

Their leader Luke Owen said, “There is a lot of need in the area and we want to come alongside people and meet those needs but most of all we want to see people know the love of Jesus and have a personal relationship with God.  There are areas of real darkness that we want shine a light on; drugs trafficking and gangs, low educational engagement, people of all ages feeling isolated and not part of a community. We know God can bring transformation in these areas”. 

Again, a few people with an idea of what to do in the name of Jesus have drawn many others to work with them to bring real change.  Might this be the sort of thing we could see happening when the church plant comes to Bramley? 

As well as being Christ the King Sunday, today has another name in the church’s calendar.   Does anyone know what that is?  … [Spoiler alert – there’s a clue on page 12 of the service booklet!]   Stir-up Sunday!  It was traditionally when mums would stir up the Christmas pudding to give it time to mature.  But the name really comes from this prayer where we ask God to ‘Stir up our wills’.

When Pilate heard that Jesus was being called a king, he was worried because he thought Jesus was a revolutionary, “stirring up trouble”. In fact, Jesus was a revolutionary in the sense that he came to “stir up” people: to make them think afresh what it means to live for him.  And just as the mustard tree (or apple tree!) will bring forth fruit, so we ask God to “bring forth the fruit of good works” in us. So as a parting thought, has God stirred up in you the seed of an idea, and the faith to plant it with prayer, so that it might grow into a tree bearing good fruit?

Having an appetite for Jesus

(John 6:35-51)     

Sermon preached at Bramley St Peter, 8 August 2021
this can also be viewed as a video on the parish Facebook page

If you were here last Sunday, you’ll remember we heard the story about Jesus feeding five thousand people with rumbling tummies. Did that make you feel hungry?  Who’s got an appetite for food right now?  What do you fancy – a full English brunch (I’ve got some baked beans here) or something healthier (gluten free crispbread)?

I read recently of a man who had suffered a heart attack and his doctor asked about his diet. “Burgers, chips, pizza, and ice cream” were among his answers. The doctor told him to change: Low fat, low salt, vegetables, fish, grilled chicken and rice.”  His first reaction was, “This is going to be absolute torture!”  Later he told his friends, “At first it all seemed tasteless, but after a while I thought: ‘This isn’t so bad.’ I felt better, and I had more energy.  I don’t miss burgers as much as I thought. My whole appetite changed after about two months.” [1] His point was that while hunger is natural and unavoidable, appetite can be controlled. Change your diet and you will change your appetite. Get used to eating healthy food, and you will desire it.

Jesus seems to be saying something similar here. He’s using bread as a symbol because we all know what it is to be hungry, to have an appetite for food, and he had just settled the rumbling tummies of that crowd of followers. But he’s really talking about our appetite for God. Jesus says that when he satisfies this hunger, you’ll never be hungry again.  He’s still talking picture language, so he means that if we have our fill of him, we won’t be hungry for God.

But what is it like to feel hungry for God?  It’s something very personal so no two people will describe it exactly the same.  This is my experience. The first time that I heard someone describe the hunger for God was when I was about 16, the speaker was actually the school headmaster talking about having our spiritual emotions aroused.  That rang true with me and made me realise that some of the emotions I had, the sense of there being something more to life than I had already experienced, were in fact a desire, a hunger for God.  I started asking Christian friends about their faith. They took me along to church, and that was the beginning of my own Christian journey. 

A much more famous Christian, St Augustine famously wrote of the heart that is restless until it finds its rest in God.  I still experience that.  This sense of “feeling restless for God” can also be explained as “feeling hungry for God”. It takes the form of being unable to relax, even though there is nothing I could name that is causing me any anxiety or pain. Once I have spent time in prayer or praising God, then I can relax more easily.  

As with physical food, there is spiritual junk food – the time-wasting activities we can easily slip into – and spiritual health food – praying, listening to Christian music, reading the Bible.  As with the man who went on a healthy diet, the more often I spend time doing those things, the more spiritually healthy I am, the more I actually want to spend time with God, and the less attractive spiritual junk food seems.

Ideally, I would be praying and praising constantly, but as I’m not a monk, that’s not really possible.  The main thing is to realise when I feel that appetite coming on, and to know it means to turn back to Jesus to have my hunger satisfied. With him the fridge is never empty.

Your own experience may take a different form.  What matters is that we can feel this spiritual appetite for God when it comes, recognise it for what it is, and know that God will provide the spiritual food in Jesus to satisfy our hunger.

[1] Illustration – Colin S. Smith. UnlockingtheBible.org

Noah the novice boat builder

Text of a talk for the Diocese of Leeds ‘Creation Salvation’ course on the subject of adapting our church buildings to a changing climate, 16 June 2020.

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, ‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’

Genesis 9:8-17

Noah’s ark and the rainbow after the flood is probably one of the best known of all Bible stories, and not just because it lends itself to children’s songs and activities.  This tale of disaster and recovery comes to us from the mists of time, long before Abraham. So it’s not specifically a Christian story, or even a Jewish one, it’s a legend of unknown origin that found a place in the Hebrew scriptures because it speaks to us of eternal truths about God and his creation and our response to it. 

Yet it is a Christian story in that Noah is in some ways a saviour figure, a prefiguring of the Messiah.  What can we learn from this legend of a good man who saved not only his family, but the world, from the wrath of God, and received a new covenant by which we should live?

Firstly, Noah understood nature and read the signs of the times.  The story begins by telling us that “God saw that the earth was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth”. It’s not clear precisely how things were corrupted, but Noah was a righteous man and understood that corrupted they were. The Bible calls him a ‘man of the soil’ – a farmer. He understood ideas of sustainability and biodiversity – even if his language had no words for those concepts.  He understood by a prophecy that God was going to destroy all living things that he had created and he didn’t want that to happen.

Secondly, he responded by taking practical action.  He could have just resigned himself to his fate, but for the sake of his descendants and for all the animals around him, he decided to do something about it. Noah, let it be said, was not a boat builder by trade, he was a farmer as we have already seen.  But he was also a man of faith. When he understood the solution was to build a large ship, he and his sons set about doing just that.  They would have built wooden houses and barns before, so it was a matter of adapting the building skills they already had to new purposes for the benefit of others.   

It cost them, of course – it cost them the price of many trees’ worth of wood and cartloads of pitch, not to mention the value of the food they could have sold. How long was Noah on the ark? The ‘forty days’ is only how long it rained, starting on the 17th of the second month.  But they did not leave the ark until the 27th of the second month of the following year.  Much of the ark’s lower decks must have been taken up with food and fodder!  Peoples around the world whose land gets flooded today as a result of climate change will understand the implications of a year without sowing or reaping. But what is money for anyway, when the very future of life on earth is under threat? This was an investment of time and money in a sustainable future when the climate was at a tipping point – or rather, a tipping-it-down point.

Thirdly, as a farmer he understood the rhythms of life. When Noah’s family emerges from the ark, God promises – to use the words of John Bell’s paraphrase – “while earth remains there’ll be seed-time and harvest, summer sun and winter moon, the dead of night, the bright day”. Part of the rhythm of life for farmers is that of gathering in and sending out.  The harvest is gathered into barns, and the food, hay or silage is then distributed throughout the year to people and animals as they have need.  The ark fulfilled the same function in a unique way, gathering in pairs of animals against the coming deluge and keeping them safe and fed until they could be sent out to repopulate the earth. 

For us in the Church, our buildings have the same function – gathering people in from our community to experience the saving love of God, feeding them on His Word, and sending them out to fulfil God’s mission in the world. As we face a climate and biodiversity crisis no less drastic than that of Noah’s day, may our buildings be made as climate-proof as Noah’s ark, and likewise be the means by which the world can be saved anew through these rhythms of grace.