My oldest grandchild, Jacob, is about 5½. Halves are very important at that age. He likes playing games but he does not like losing. He’s getting proficient at counting so we are sometimes to be found playing snakes and ladders. He laughs uproariously when I go down a snake but strangely he doesn’t do the same when his counter does the same. He likes being first. When we are on the beach in Lincolnshire and he races his sister Hannah, 3½, he always wins because he’s bigger than she is, but I wonder what it will be like when he starts to race against people of his own size.
Cast your mind back to competitive times in your own life – did you enjoy being second – most of us don’t do we?
I’ve just had an experience of that. The Chief Executive of The Trussell Trust left and a consultancy firm was brought in to find a replacement. I had been asked by the trustees to look after the job in the gap between the last one leaving and the next being appointed. I’d rationalised that in all honesty I was about the only person in the organisation who could do so was me, because I was in effect the most senior person left and I understood how the whole thing ticked, but when asked if I wanted the job full time I said I didn’t think so. In fact no I did not.
Then one of our major donors sent me an email and said he would be backing me for C.E.O. at which point I had to tell him I wasn’t going to apply. He then rather forcefully, but at the same time, gently suggested I had come to the wrong conclusion and that I should go away and reconsider until I came up with a different answer. So what – you might say? If I tell you that he is the ex-chairman of Disney Worldwide, that might also explain why I went away to think about it. At about one minute to twelve on the appointed day I sent my application in. Well I was accepted for interview, I put a suit on, I even put normal-ish black shoes on, and off I went. It went really, really well, and I, who hadn’t wanted the job, began to think how it might turn out. Well it turned out that my trustees wanted a new face from outside who had already been a C.E.O. so in reality I was never going to get the job.
Let me take you back to the start – I didn’t want this job but now I felt like Jacob who had been on square 99 and was now at the bottom of the snake. It wasn’t fair, why interview me, why make me feel good and then push me down the snake, back to where I’d started. My sponsor, who it turns out had written a reference in my support was incandescent about how badly I had been treated and on one Saturday morning I spent half the morning calming him down and persuading him not to do a number of incendiary things he had threatened to do which I had reasoned would take me off the snakes and ladders board entirely. Strangely the process of calming him down brought me back to reality – I’d never wanted the job in the first place, so why was I so wound up about it now. And given they had now chosen someone else what could I do about it. I had two options – leave or try to keep the show on the road ready for my new boss to arrive in February. I’m currently attempting the second!
As far as I know, John the Baptist had no such ego to overcome. He knew his place in the world. He knew he was not the Messiah, but he also knew that he had been chosen for a task – to make ready for someone else, who was far greater than he. But that didn’t mean John was insignificant, it didn’t mean that God hadn’t favoured him, it simply meant that he had been chosen for a purpose which God knew was the right purpose for John. It was John’s purpose to challenge the people, it was his purpose to line all the ducks up ready for Jesus.
We have an image of John which may be more to do with bygone painters than reality. Robbie Coltrane’s portrayal of Hagrid in Harry Potter seems to conjure up the picture we have of John – wild hair, huge beard and some less fashionable clothing than was the current. I’m not sure he was quite that caricature but clearly he was different because he lived on the outside of society, according to an ancient rule whereby he lived away from people in the desert. He was undoubtedly different. We tend not to take notice of people who are the same as us if they start to say controversial things, but we do at least listen to those who are different to us, even if we don’t believe them. Take Donald Trump for example! It has to be said that Luke paints a rather more fearful picture of John than Mark. Luke says he called the people snakes and he told them that trees that did not bear good fruit would be cut down and thrown in the fire – did they realise he was referring to them? He told them they had to start to look out for one another – if you have two shirts, give one to someone who hasn’t got one. He came to tell them that if they were to be ready for what was to come they had better sort their lives out, they had better put the wrongs right.
I’m in the middle of page four and this is the point where I always do that annoying thing where I say – so is this just a story from 2000 years ago which we can go home and forget because in 15 days we will all be cooing about a baby, stuffing ourselves with turkey and trying to look happy about the pairs of socks we have just been given? Well I’m hoping the last bit comes true for me otherwise I’m soon going to have to paint my feet, but you get my point – the challenge in today’s Gospel is for us too. And it’s a challenge in two parts.
The first is that we have to realise that we are not often chosen to be first. Most of us here, in fact all of us here are servants of God and servants of those around us. It is my place to serve you, it is my place to do whatever is called of me, whether it’s standing here or doing the washing up at a fundraising event. We haven’t been called to sit on the throne, by coming here we have accepted that the greatest thing we can do is to come second, because by being second we can do something for others in Jesus’ name.
The second thing we are challenged to do is to set the road straight before he does come to us. So here’s maybe a bigger challenge – is there someone you need to pick the phone up to and right a wrong, is there a grudge you hold that you need to get rid of, and is there something you should have done that you haven’t? I bet we all have something standing between us and God. I’m clearly not John the Baptist, in fact I’m probably far too well known to you to make you take any notice of me, but all he was, was a messenger sent from God, and in my own small way I hope I am too, I hope we are all messengers to one another. But it’s the message that’s the important bit and so I hope you hear it rather than me. Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his way. Amen
Today is Rural Church Sunday. I wonder what image that conjures in your mind. Do you see the idyll of the English countryside, thatched cottages, the village green, the thwack of leather on willow, horses in the paddock, a blue, blue sky and tea and strawberries on the lawn?
Or do you see vast fields, huge machines, backbreaking harvesting, up at dawn, to bed after dusk, perhaps way after dusk, endless paperwork and possibly a huge loss, or being stuck in a tied cottage with poor plumbing, rotting windows and being paid a pittance, out to milk the cows in the depths of winter or to feed the sheep way up in the hills in 2 feet of driving snow?
They are of course both possible as listeners to Ambridge will be well aware – the big profit farm with its new techniques, the traditional farm with a bit of machinery gone wrong costing thousands to fix and even the foodbank as well of course as wife-beating and a court case which kept Margaret and me on the edge of our seats for the whole of our holiday in Pembrokeshire last September and now a female revolt in the cricket team.
The church used to celebrate the rural way of life much more than it currently does. A few years ago I celebrated the whole rural year with the parish of Hale & Woodgreen. In January we stood in the car park of the Horse & Groom on a very cold day and celebrated Plough Sunday. A few months later we beat the bounds, and then at the beginning of August we celebrated Lammas – the first fruits of the harvest and then of course Harvest. Somehow it put us back in touch with the agriculture that gives us our daily bread and far more.
But when I was growing up in Grantham in Lincolnshire our harvest festival was celebrated by the local businesses bringing up what looked like huge Tonka toys because the town in those days made enormous dump trucks and other agricultural gear built on its heritage of Ruston & Hornsby who had been the original manufacturers of mass produced traction engines and steam ploughs. We didn’t sing “we plough the fields and scatter”, we sang “we plough the field with tractors” because that was the reality. I was also privileged to live within the confines of a Welsh hill farm for several weeks a year for some years and on the coldest, snowiest days Ivor the farmer would reassuringly appear up in the hills where our cottage was on his tractor to feed the sheep. When I started work we soon moved to the Lincolnshire fens. Our house was surrounded on 3 sides by fields and they grew bulbs and gladioli, so in the spring we looked out on a riot of colour.
It all feels quite comfortable doesn’t it? But in that same Lincolnshire where the sky goes on forever and the sunsets are spectacular, there were then people who were almost slaves working for gang-masters who subcontracted the harvesting. It is a bit better now but not much and everyone speaks Polish, Bulgarian or Romanian now instead of English – but it is a hard exploitative life.
Jesus lived a pretty rural existence – Jerusalem was really the only big place in his life but most of the time he spent wandering from village to village, hamlet to hamlet, meeting the subsistence farmers of his time, scratching a living from the land whether it be crops or sheep or goats. So I guess when he met that vast crowd we were reminded about in that oh so familiar gospel story this morning, they were out in the countryside. They must have travelled from miles around to hear him. Most I suspect had little more than what they wore and scratched a living. They were after something more and this Jesus appeared to offer it to them.
I often wonder what happened – did Jesus do something extra-ordinary himself and somehow create all the food and the 12 baskets over from nothing – it’s reasonable to suppose he did because he was and is capable of anything, or could it have gone like this:
The boy has been sent off for the day by his mum with the two fish and the 5 small loaves – was he with anyone else or was he alone – did he go to listen to Jesus or did he just get swept up in the crowd? Naively he sticks his hand up and says – “I’ve got my packed lunch”. I guess those around him laughed at his stupidity, but Jesus saw something in the boy no-one else had offered – generosity. Once Jesus acknowledged it could it have been that a few more people admitted they had their lunch too, and some enormous bring-and-share meal suddenly happened. I don’t know. Maybe not but it’s a fantasy I have about this story. How often do we hear about people who share everything they haven’t got? We saw it after Grenfell Tower, the mainly poor local population cleared their own wardrobes and cupboards to provide so much that the surplus has had to be stored for the future – I know this because some of my Trussell Trust vans came down from Coventry to pick it up and take it to be stored until it can go back as people are rehoused. – Generosity.
Let me remind you of the first reading – take some of the first fruits of all you produce from the soil of the land and put them in a basket. Then go to the place that the Lord your God will chose.
And for me that’s what Rural life is about – how ever hard it is, the rural shares its bounty with the rest of the country, and now the world just as the boy shared and a miracle occurred. But we have to still acknowledge that for some life is hard and so as the rural church we must also show great generosity.
I was asked to contribute to a diocesan film recently and the question I was asked was “what does being generous mean” and I said “it means not just giving away what is easy to give, but giving a bit more so it hurts”. Maybe you think that’s trite but it’s really easy to give away what you don’t need – it’s less easy to give away what you think you might need or even what you do need. I hear lots of grumbling about the money the church takes from us and when I do I often say – well don’t give it then, because if you give it grudgingly it’s no gift, but if you give it because you want to grow the kingdom of God here on earth giving it will feel so much better, even if it does hurt a bit. Hurting for many of us here might be one less meal out – when the poor give out of generosity it often hurts much more. I wonder what the widow did for a meal after she gave away her last pittance? And what did Jesus give away – his life. And notice this, in that first reading it doesn’t say – give away to God the stuff you have left, the manky bit that’s mis-shaped , he says give your first fruits – that’s the newest of new potatoes or the first picking of peas – the best.
On the assumption you are here today because you want the kingdom of God to thrive in this place, then I guess you too see something in Jesus just as that mass crowd did. Our challenge of course is how do we respond – can we be like the boy – generous and share willingly what we have, even if it does hurt a bit, I hope so. Amen.
It would be something of a doddle for me to preach about the feeding of the four thousand or the five thousand given what I do daily for a charity which last year provided almost 1.2 million food parcels for people in this country. It isn’t the reading for today as set in the lectionary but it was one of the two that were suggested when I adapted this service from one provided by the Arthur Rank Centre, which provides Christian support to farmers and a whole host of other rural Christian resources.
I kept the reading and the Old Testament one for good reason. One speaks of “first fruits” and the other of a small boy with five small loaves and two fish. The boy is in danger of becoming the centre of a huge joke when he offers his packed lunch to share with others. But notice this, innocent though he may be he is the only one who does offer anything up amongst the very large crowd.
I’m someone who is very happy to believe Jesus did the seemingly impossible just as I’m willing to believe that God created a big fish which swallowed Jonah and spat him out a few days later unharmed, for God can do anything. So it may well be that Jesus did turn those fish and loaves into a banquet for many thousand. On the other hand it may well be that having seen the boy offer up his packed lunch, many others decided to offer up theirs too which they had been hiding in their bag and the sum total, as is often the case, was that when it was all added together there was more than enough for everyone. But whichever scenario happened, the person who started it all was one small boy, one small boy who even the disciples dismissed as irrelevant.
We don’t know what Jesus would have done if the boy hadn’t offered his lunch but the fact is he took what was offered and he used it for God’s purposes. The boy was the first fruit.
Now, looking around us you might think we are not first fruit given our relative ages. There are few spring chickens amongst us – but just like the boy we are here and we have offered ourselves up. If we were to walk out there and tell the world we were the start of a new Christian revival it is possible that the reaction of others would be similar of that to the boy, they may well ridicule us.
And of course if we were acting just in our own power then they may have a point, but we have a miracle worker to call on. Ah – you might say, miracles only happened in the bible, but is that really true? I personally think that if we could believe more, we would see more miracles. Jesus sent the twelve out to heal the sick and do miracles in his name so clearly he expects it to happen through the use of normal mortals like you and me.
But back to us few here just for a minute – when we go to the supermarket we see perfect fruit and veg, no scabs, no marks, no funny shapes, but that’s only because all the other stuff has been rejected and often thrown away or ploughed back. My allotment grows potatoes with extra bits, forked carrots, slightly nibbles radishes and bendy leeks. They all taste as good as the perfect stuff from the shop even if they do look a bit odd and inside they contain just as much, in fact possibly more goodness because they haven’t been ripened out of the ground and stored for months. Which is a bit like us really isn’t it? I’ve got an ear that works intermittently, someone else will have a bad leg, someone will wish they had done better at school or had invented something amazing. Despite all the stuff that we can’t do, or which holds us back, God is there in our midst and he uses what he has. Would anyone starting as revolution have chosen those 12 disciples on purpose – well given their faults you wouldn’t have thought so, but Jesus did because he knew with his guidance we can do anything.
So like it or not, you and me – we are it, we are the church in Godshill, and Sandleheath, and Woodgreen and Breamore and Hyde and Fordingbridge. We are the ones clinging on to keep the church alive in our rural communities alongside 10,000 other small communities across this land.
But what makes us first fruits? We are the first fruits in this diocese of a plan to raise rural church from being on its knees. When I went to the first Bishop Tim Diocesan Conference in 2012 and we began to explore 4 strategic principles, one of which was to do church differently, I had no idea that 4½ years later this benefice would be chosen to be a beacon project of the diocese supported by funding from the Church Commissioners. But here we are, we are now that small boy, with seemingly not much to offer, and we have been chosen, called out from the whole of the southern archdeaconry of the diocese to lead the revival of rural church.
If we dare to dream, and dare to trust in God, could we end up with 12 baskets overflowing?
So what’s it all about? In October we will start to plan this three year project. Fortunately the funds from the Church Commissioners will provide us with some expert help, including that of the Arthur Rank Centre up in Stoneleigh so that we can rethink how we do church. I have no idea what that will entail but the idea is to make ourselves much more visible to the wider community and to make it simpler for then to find out what we offer and I hope for us to find out what we could offer them that we don’t right now.
Will it mean new technology – probably, but we shouldn’t be frightened about that. We tend to have an aversion to things we don’t understand don’t we but usually it’s because we are fearful of it. When I was a boy I lived over 200 miles from my only set of living grandparents and neither they nor we had a telephone in the house. I saw them at Christmas and perhaps twice a year other than that. It was my only contact with them. I live between 190 and 250 miles from all my 5 grandchildren but I see them and speak to them all every week because of Skype. We sit at our computers, press a couple of buttons and suddenly we are together, talking, showing each other things and so I’m closer to my grandchildren than I ever was to my Grandparents much as I loved them.
So new things, difficult though they may appear to begin with, can make huge positive changes to our lives – we just have to have the courage to give them a go. I’ve said this before but what if we could have a big screen here, and at 9am on Sunday all the people who would love to be here but who can’t get here through ill-health, could join us so we could see them on that screen and they could see us on their TV screen. What if one of them could read the lesson from their armchair?
What if we had a clever screen in here which when you touched it, it helped you find out how to get married here, how to find the Puddle Ducks group in Fordingbridge or that there is a Taize café church next week in Woodgreen. What if you could ask for prayer and that prayer could be said in every one of our churches. The possibilities are endless even though at the moment it might feel like we have 5 loaves and two small fish.
So we are the first fruits and we have a great opportunity. Yes some of the things we do won’t grow. Some may start to look healthy and then die off, some might look very strange shapes to begin with but we may just hit on something which works in abundance. But we have to be prepared to stand up like the boy and offer. And notice – he only offered what he had. Jesus used what he had and did something amazing with it. And then we can say, repeating our first reading slightly amended:
“Now we have entered the land that the Lord our God has given us as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, we will take some of the first fruits of all that produce and put them in a basket. Then we will go to the place that the Lord our God has chosen as a dwelling for his Name and we will say to the priest in office at the time, ‘We declare today to the Lord our God that we have come to the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us’.
The Mission Matters group recommends two books you might like to read over the summer:
“God’s Smuggler” by Brother Andrew. The 60th anniversary edition. Given to St Mary’s by Open Doors, the organisation he founded, which has been supporting persecuted Christians for 60 years. Pat says “I read it years ago, but found it as gripping second time around. Difficult to put down.”
“Nevertheless” by John Kirkby: ‘the incredible story of one man’s mission to change people’s lives’. A story of ‘victory over adversity’, as John, the founder of Christians Against Poverty, tells his own story. This is a real page turner and you spend a lot of time thinking “no John don’t do it!” as he puts his own life at risk for others (Mark W).
Both available to borrow.
There is a view that faith and politics don’t mix but I find that an argument which really doesn’t hang together in a country which has a national church, where the Head of State and the Head of the Church are the same person, and where the bishops from that national church sit as “Lords Spiritual” in one of the two law making chambers of our government.
Of course using the pulpit as a platform to canvass for one particular brand of politics would be completely wrong. I was taking a service in one of our churches when the Labour Party was looking for a new leader to replace Ed Miliband and I prayed that they might find a new leader, the same as I might have prayed for peace in Syria. At the end of the service I was roundly attacked by one person who shouted at me “how dare you pray for the Labour Party, this is the trouble with the clergy in this church, you are all raving lefties”, with which they marched out of church. The rest of the congregation rallied round and assured me that I hadn’t prayed for the Labour Party, but simply that they might find a leader of the opposition. Well someone must have given the person a talking to because a couple of weeks later I got an unreserved apology!
So let me stress that what follows is NOT a party political broadcast in any form. But should the church be interested in politics and as WE are the church does that mean we should be politically active or not? Did you vote last week? Maybe you did, maybe you didn’t – but here’s the first hurdle. The week before the last general election I admitted to the same evensong congregation that I hadn’t voted for quite some time in a national election because I didn’t feel that anyone out there represented my position and that if I did vote for anyone else than the sitting candidate it was most unlikely my vote would count. For me everyone’s vote should count in some way which with our current system isn’t the case. I argued that there should be a place on the ballot paper where I could vote but in a box which says “none of the above” because the only option I have as a protest is to spoil my paper. The response was quite strong, “our parents” they said; (which actually included mine) “didn’t fight a world war to give you the option to not vote”. I could see their point but I don’t think they appreciated mine that I just couldn’t bring myself to vote for someone who would do some things I was happy with, but might equally do some things I was very unhappy with, or that if my vote was to have no possibility of counting then what was the point.
As it happened I did vote in that election so the congregation forgave me, but it doesn’t mean I will always do so.
And then there is this issue of – do you vote for the lesser evil? How many positives outweigh a negative? Or do I vote for the party which I think will stand up to tyrannical behaviour in the world because another won’t?
And what if the party I vote for then does something terrible in my name, or changes its position for political reasons?
So the question is – what would Jesus do? My answer is “I don’t know” but I’ve tried to think it through.
Number one – would Jesus vote at all? Of course he didn’t have the option as his earthly life was spent under the rule of a foreign dictatorship but when asked if people should pay their taxes he told them that they should, so he clearly felt that community was important. Our local elections are usually about community – those who seek election often appeal to us about very local matters and in some way making a choice is easier. I think Jesus would have said – well vote for the person who appears to be an upright citizen with some kind of track record if they are saying they want to benefit the local people and that benefit really is a good idea.
But would he have voted on June 8th? That’s a harder one to answer. Jesus was clear that the world was much bigger than the land of Israel and that his care was for the whole world so he would have been very much interested in the wider picture. Well that’s about as far as I can get with an answer to this one.
So maybe we should bring it down to issues – where would Jesus have stood on race, or poverty or inequality of wealth? These issues are perhaps much clearer – we know that his mission was to feed the hungry, to cure the lame and to ask those who may have been looking after number one above everyone else to reconsider – just think of his visit to Zacchaeus.
But of course he also might have weighed up the personalities involved – do we vote for parties or people? Well some of us do one and some of us the other. I can remember being very impressed by certain individuals who may have been from a party I wouldn’t support, and I have been very impressed by the conviction of some people who I have admired for that conviction even if their position on the cause was opposite to my own.
I was in my teens, living in Grantham, in Lincolnshire when Mrs Thatcher became leader of the Tory party and at the time I remember thinking she was probably a good leader, but as time went by and she and Mr Tebbit restyled the country to persuade us all to get on our bikes and look after ourselves first, I have to say my opinion changed and I gradually grew to dislike what she stood for more and more.
Equally I thought Mr Blair was a breath of fresh air, but in the end I wasn’t so sure.
Of course we can only judge the matter at hand, we can’t guess what will happen in the future can we? Things change – just look at what happened to Jesus a week before Easter and then a few days later, hailed as a mighty king and a few days later murdered on a cross – we change.
If I’m sure of anything though – Jesus would have challenged those standing for election to tell the truth – how many times did he respond to a question put to him with “I tell you the truth” – I haven’t counted – but plenty of times – and why was he saying that before answering – because others were not telling the truth.
If he was to come back now and David Dimbleby invited him onto Question Time I suspect Jesus would spend much of his time asking people to stop spinning the issue to suit themselves, to stop simply slamming the person with an opposite view and to be as truthful as possible.
Clearly at the moment our government doesn’t have enough money to do all the things it needs to do. When I started work in 1980 the rate of income tax was 30% – half as much again as it is now. I don’t recall my parents being outraged that they were paying 30% and from memory we had a reasonable standard of living even though my mum was a teacher and my dad a postman. So I think Jesus might say – well if it is going to cost this much to do it, and it’s morally right, then tell the people that’s what you will do and let them choose, and oddly I think many of us would choose that option because we care about people.
I watched a small part of a TV debate when I got home after I had been here last time, because one of my colleagues was on the programme to talk about Universal Credit. A professor said that we need to pay more tax and a straw poll of the audience showed that at least half of the audience were willing to pay more if it meant that families didn’t go hungry and the health service and social care would work.
Jesus set out his viewpoint very clearly – follow me and I will give you eternal life, follow me and I will give you “my peace” which is the Holy Spirit, which will sustain you through the hard times. It won’t be easy. In fact it might be downright hard at times but it will be life affirming and it will be for the good of all.
The trouble is of course he isn’t here to vote for so we have to do what we think is right and make up our own minds, but maybe we should pray about it over the next few weeks before we go next door to cast that vote, or maybe like me before we even decide if we are going to make the trip at all.