Sermon by Rachel Noel, St Mary’s Fordingbridge & Sandleheath Church, 3rd September 2017

May the words that I speak and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our Rock & our Redeemer. Amen

In case we’re ever lulled into the thinking that being a Christian is a nice, cosy, comfortable place to be – that we can just gather with our friends, with like-minded people to sing hymns and say prayers, and then go about our lives feeling reassured that we are OK… this passage from Matthew is a massive challenge to those illusions!

Sometimes it’s easy to choose to only see one side of a person… and I think this is particularly true of Jesus.

How many of us grew up with the Sunday school poster of Jesus standing near some trees, with animals all around him, looking very peaceful & gentle? (For those of you familiar with the Disney pictures of Snow White, also standing in the trees, surrounded by animals… there’s something vaguely familiar!)….

And this gentle Jesus image is reinforced by some of our songs – some of you may be familiar with Charles Wesley’s hymn – Gentle Jesus, meek and mild …. lull me, lull me, Lord to rest…. I shall life the simple life, Free from sin’s uneasy strife, Sweetly ignorant of ill, Innocent, and happy still..

(it’s OK, I’m not going to make you sing all 14 verses of it!)

Today’s gospel reading  is a wake up call… it’s a challenge to each and every one of us.

Jesus is talking with his disciples and trying to tell them what was going to happen. He’s shown explaining to the disciples that he must be killed and on the third day raised.

Peter is upset, and he responds-  “God forbid it, Lord. This must never happen to you.” (This seems like a perfectly reasonable response, when someone very close to him has just said that he is going to be killed!)

Is this just Peter’s concern about the personal loss of Jesus?

As well as the personal loss… could this also be Peter responding to his idea of what the Messiah must do… and for the disciples, they’re not yet ready to accept that it must mean death.

And Jesus reply here: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Wow…. I’m not sure this is the sort of language we might be tempted to ascribe to Jesus… especially the gentle Jesus in the woodland with the animals… if we were thinking about him as a leader of this small team of disciples…

Today… would he be hauled up in front of HR for bullying? “Get behind me, Satan!”… those are strong words… (it was only last week that he was proclaiming that Peter was the rock on which he was going to build his church.)

I’m guessing the disciples would have to be pretty resilient!

Each time they think they’ve understood… they’re suddenly silenced and made to realise that they’ve still not really got it.

 

Then we’ve got a selection of sayings from Jesus:

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

 

These are probably familiar words to you… we’re used to hearing them…

but I want to stay with them for a little bit this morning.

 

These words are so counter-intuitive… to the disciples then… but also to us now.

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

We live in a society focused on the now, on the individual, on success.

If you read any self-help book, or listen to documentaries on the telly – self-denial is not the in thing.

The world at the moment seems to be built on social media, on the story of ‘self’… it’s filled with pictures, with selfies… showing success

Only this week, Louise Hay has died…the lady that wrote a lot about the power of positive thinking… that all we have to do is think positively… boost our self-esteem and all shall be well.

Jesus call here to his disciples… and to us… is not about joining in this game of self-esteem, of promotion of self.

However we have to be careful too, it’s not about self-hate here either… just giving up things also won’t make us Christian either.

This call to lose their lives… is a call to change our orientation – it’s not about self… it’s about turning to God.

A call to life, that isn’t about self… that’s radical… it’s completely & utterly lifechanging.

” For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

 

This is the whole gospel in a nutshell… and yet it’s so hard… as hard as a camel entering the eye of the needle!

 

Thomas Merton talks about the true self and the false self.

I wonder if part of the life we have to lose, is the impression, the illusion of ourselves that we have.

The False self is the person that we want ourselves to be… that we would choose to show other people, or kid ourselves that we are.

This false, private self is a projection… and for most of us, we spend most of our lives trying to maintain this image of ourselves.

And our sin comes from this false self, as we feed our self with our own selfish desires…. we fill our lives chasing pleasure and experiences that will build us up… we crave the feeling of feeling loved, of being special…

but in chasing that false self, in maintaining that false self…

sometimes it is really hard to let go of that illusion, of that image

to discover who we truly are.

 

This passage has got particular resonance for me, this year. As you know, I’ve had to live with some intense mental health problems.

At the height of the mania, I had become an extreme, intense version of my usual self… sometimes not being able to hold onto thoughts long enough to speak a whole sentence. (in contrast to now… where you may wonder if I have too many words!)

In that time, Thomas Merton’s True Self/ False Self took on new meaning for me, as I could no longer rely on my intelligence, my capability. Any competence or confidence that I would usually put on is lost to me.

But…In the quiet of night, stripped of all my defences, I had such a strong sense of God, of light and life, of peace… and all I could do is be,

is be who I am.

I couldn’t even rely on Descartes ‘I think therefore I am’… I couldn’t trust my thinking, or what I was getting from my senses…even that, I had to let go.

After Bishop Jonathan, Christine & Phil had taken me to hospital, I wondered if I’d said goodbye to all those that I love. In the darkest moments, I couldn’t even tell if I was alive or dead… is this what is meant by dark night of the soul?

And yet there was also such a gift of this mental health journey. In the intensity of the situation, there was also such peace, such liberation in those moments too. All the trappings of life, of status, of ability… they’re meaningless in those moments of life and death. All I can do is be present, be open to the moment, to choose life.

For me, those moments have been such a gift… a momentary insight into what these verses mean… as I had to let go of my own abilities, my own capabilities… my own sense of self and how I could solve the situation…

I had to let go of all of that… and in that vulnerability… to be open… to let God.

And there was such peace in that moment… of knowing that I am loved by God, I am accepted by God… even when I can’t do anything… that all I can do is bask in that love

 

I’m not suggesting that each of us should be looking to go through mental health problems….

but I think Jesus can use any of our experiences in life… and sometimes it’s the really tough experiences…

that in those times…we can see glimpses of him, and his calling to us.

 

I’m reassured by the role of the disciples in this story… these are the people that had been closest to Jesus for several years, travelling around with him, listening to his stories, knowing him as a person.

They’ve been sent out already, preaching and healing in the towns they come to…

And they’re still learning… learning what it means to be a disciple.

I’m reassured… because they don’t always get it right… Peter, who was called to be the rock, the foundation of the church… still gets it wrong… and he goes on to get things wrong again… but he keeps getting back up, and responding, following Jesus.

This is such encouragement to me… and hopefully to all of us… even the disciples got it wrong… they made mistakes… they fell, they turned away…

This life of discipleship can’t be learned in advance, from a manual…

We’ve got the bible to help us…

But our faith, our lives… can only be worked out as we live

As we live through the joyous times…

but also as we live through the difficult times…

each of us is called by God…

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

 

Will you choose that life?

Amen

 

Sermon by Rachel Noel, St Mary’s Fordingbridge, 27th August 2017

“Come Holy Spirit, bring us light, teach us, heal us, give us life. Come, Lord, O let our hearts flow with love and all that is true.” Amen (Hymn 408, v2, Margaret Rizza)

I’m really excited by our readings this morning, there is so much to think about from within these two short passages. (I will try not to get over excited and talk all morning!)

In our reading from Romans, we’re at the transition point in the book of Romans. Very crudely, the first 11 chapters address doctrine, and the next few chapters relate to ethics… how we put this into practice.

The first two verses of our Romans reading are really rich, dense Paul writing – and they set out a theme that Paul will unpack in various ways.

“I appeal to you, therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God – which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

There’s something really tangible about this… we are to present our bodies as a living sacrifice…. and that is our worship… This isn’t just about thinking holy thoughts, or turning up to our holy club on a Sunday morning… he’s talking about sacrifice.

We are to present our whole persons to God, living real people, in a particular place and time… presenting ourselves to God, our whole selves.

And Paul tells us that this offering of ourselves is holy and acceptable to God… in other translations it puts this even more positively, not just acceptable, but pleasing, or well-pleasing to God.

And Paul repeats this in the next verse too, that our renewal, our offering of ourselves actually brings pleasure to God…. in earlier chapters he reminds us that as we are remade, restored in God’s image, that is pleasing to God.

Wow, how amazing is that! As we come together today, as we offer our whole physical selves in worship to God, that brings pleasure to our almighty God.

And that’s just verse 1!

Verse 2 is also packed, helping to start off this new section of Romans, with verse 1 emphasising the body, the physical; here in verse 2 it focuses on the renewal of the mind.

JB Philips translated this as – “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould.”

But this isn’t just about putting up barriers and resisting the pressure from outside… we’re not called to find some unsullied world within… that would echo various strands of gnosticism, the discovery of a hidden spark that just needs to be uncovered…

Paul is stronger here

In chapter 1, he reminds us that the natural state of the mind & heart are rebellious.

We are not called to simply live authentically and resist external pressure… there is far more action here, we are called to be renewed, to be transformed

so that what proceeds from the transformed mind does indeed reflect the image of God. (New INterpreters Bible Commentary, p705)

Paul is offering us hope, hope of a renewed mind, able to think for itself what will please God.

These two verses walk a fine balance between sacrifice and fulfillment, between an ethic of self-denial and one of self-discovery… we are invited to walk this path, of transformation and discovery of the new self that we are called to become in Christ.

We have the whole gospel in a nutshell, as grace fulfills nature… – but only by putting it to death – the living sacrifice… and then by bringing it to life again – the renewing of the mind. It is the pattern of death and resurrection laid out for us throughout scripture…

taking up the cross is the way to life

 

and no matter how long we’ve been following Jesus, for a day or a lifetime…. this is never easy… we keep having to make the choices, to offer ourselves before God, to give up ourselves, to give ourselves away, to be transformed in body, mind and spirit… knowing that God is at the heart of everything.

We’re reminded of the command to love God with all our heart, our mind, our soul and our strength… and that as we do this, it brings delight to our loving Creator.

 

(Jane Williams, Lectionary Reflections) Karl Barth, the great twentieth century theologian, in his commentary on Romans describes Christian ethics as – ‘the great  disturbance.’

This isn’t meant to be some nice, cosy advice from Paul, that allows us to continue living our lives unchanged – and perhaps just point the finger at others…

Discipleship is about presenting our real, physical selves to God… Present your bodies…

Paul isn’t asking us to present some idealised version of ourselves, with all the weaknesses hidden away…

He goes on to remind us that we all have strengths and weaknesses, and that they need to come together in Christian community. We don’t each have to have all these virtues… thank God!

Paul is saying that the whole community is to be shaped by the Messiah himself

We are called together, to help each other out. No one is called to be more important than any other, there is a unity in believers – and he then goes on to show how this may work itself out with some different gifts.

 

I wonder if this theme of Great Disturbance also applies to what is going on in our reading from Matthew.

Peter and the other disciples have been constantly having to revise their opinions of themselves, of others and of God… as they live in the unsettling presence of Jesus.

And now Jesus is putting them to the test..

He starts with the easy question… – what are other people saying…

Everyone’s always happy to chip in with that one – what do other people think… and the disciples all join in with the theories that they’ve heard about Jesus.

But then comes the crunch question

Who do you say I am?

(Jane Williams – Lectionary Reflections) It isn’t really a fair question. After all, the disciples are demonstrating, by their very presence, by all that they have given up, what they believe about Jesus.

Why is he pressing them now to formulate it? Jesus response to Peter gives the answer.

To know who Jesus is is vital…. that question is still just as important to us today… who do you say Jesus is?

It is not enough to believe that he is very important. It is not enough to believe that he is like the other prophets and messengers of God.

When Peter declares “You are the Messiah”, he is saying what has to be said. Jesus is the key to the whole of God’s relationship with what he has made.

And it is on the basis of that confession, that Peter is made the rock on whom the Church is built.

That’s huge… this is to be our defining characteristic – our knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Does that seem an adequate foundation for the church? Don’t we need more rules?

How odd that Peter’s sole qualification for the job – apart from the gift of a big mouth! – is that he can recognize the activity of God when he sees it.

And funnily enough, that’s what Paul is working for too… his call to the Romans… his call to us.

Be transformed, – body, mind, heart and soul –  so that you may discern what is the will of God.

Be transformed, so that you may discern what is the will of God. Amen

 

(Many references from New Interpreters Bible Commentary and Jane Williams Lectionary Reflections)

 

A Sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church, Breamore on 23rd July, 2017, the sixth Sunday after Trinity.

‘Broken’ is the imaginative title of a recent BBC1 TV drama starring Sean Bean as a Catholic Parish Priest in a downtown suburban parish of Liverpool. It was a very brave piece of TV because it unashamedly depicted some of the ugliest features of the church and humanity to such powerful effect.

The main character, Fr Michael Kerrigan, is haunted by memories of being bullied and abused at the hands of a grubby priest who taught him at school. The flashbacks keep assailing him just as he is at the most solemn part of Mass, the consecration of the bread and wine, making him stumble and freeze.

He is assailed by doubts: “I’m not a priest, I’m an imposter,” he groaned in the final episode. The irony is that we know, from everything we witness him do over the series, that Fr Michael is in fact as terrific a priest as any community could hope to have. Fr Michael has a hugely conflicted conscience as he battles with the demons of his past and engages with the demons of his often disturbed congregation.

A TV journalist writing about the programme, identifies the dilemmas, “What’s the right response if you discover one of your poorest parishioners (Anna Friel) has concealed her mother’s death in order to keep claiming her pension – a victimless crime if ever there was one? Fr Michael works it out. If a woman comes to you and calmly confesses she plans to take her own life, how do you react? Should you break the bond of the confessional to save her? Again, he steers a compassionate course through choppy ethical waters.”

There are scenes of Fr Michael raging against the iniquity of the local betting shop because of its dire effect on some of his poorest parishioners. The consequence shows scenes of his parishioners armed with baseball bats smahing the betting machines. He pulls no punches of the how the church has failed people over abuse and other gross acts of disorder.

Jimmy McGovern, the writer of the series, depicts the church at its worst and its best. At its worst a church beset by sexual abuse; at its best a church which can act as place of refuge, compassion and solace for the broken. The final scene is so poignant of the whole series. After considerable pressure from his family Fr Michael is officiating at the funeral of his dear mother. One by one the broken members of his community file before their broken priest as he offers them the sacrament of holy communion, broken bread, ‘The body of Christ’ he says to each, to which they individually reply, ‘Amen. Wonderful priest!’ Somehow in that moment of receiving the broken body of Christ they mutually recognise each other’s brokeness and vulnerability.

They recognise that they are each ‘wheat and weeds’. The parable of the wheat and the weeds is a powerful story of how each of us, the world at large and the church in that world grows both wheat and weeds. It would be easy to look at that parish of Fr Michael and point the finger: look at how the weeds are tarnishing the lovely wheat of the those who consider themselves as good wheat.

Thinking about such things is natural; acting upon such things is dangerous.  We are beset with unrealistic expectations which only lead to discouragement, despair, even cynicism.  That would be bad enough.  But the expectation that the Church is only for the good and the holy has led people to embark on some very misguided projects throughout history. We have only to mention the word ‘crusades’, ‘inquisition’. And for other religions currently, ‘the holy jihad’, to know how dangerous it is to pursue a fundamentalist, and black and white view of religion or politics.

Jesus’ own example should have prevented these errors.  First of all, Jesus himself was criticized by the Pharisees for dining with the unclean.  He accepted tax collectors and sinners as disciples.  He knew the flaws in Peter, Judas, and the others, but he chose them anyway.  And just in case his own actions weren’t enough to get his point across, he told the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24ff) which forms our gospel reading this morning.

Beware, we are in danger of identifying the wrong people! The people the Jews condemned were the outcast and sinners of his day. Clearly they were considered beyond the scope of God’s redeeming love. Weeds! Not so. The gospel is unequivocal in its inclusion of all worthy of that love. Jesus says, suspend your judgement, God is the final arbiter of the kingdom of God, not humanity.

At the moment I am greatly exercised at the direction of the Church of England with its addiction to running the church like a buisness. At times I want to shout ‘this is wrong’. However, I must leave God to be the final arbiter. ‘Let them both (i.e. tares and wheat) grow until the harvest..’

And what for you? About whom are prejudiced? Who do you unequivocally declaim as wrong? It has been popular in the history of the church to separate the sacred from the secular. If you start from the premise that God’s love knows no bounds then the mystery of God pervades the whole of creation, all peoples at all times without discrimination of race, creed, colour, sexual orientation, ability, gender. The church was never set up to be the arbiter of who is in and who is out.

The explanation of the parable needs to be read with caution. There are images from current belief at the time of Jesus which speaks of fire, sin, evildoers, weeping and nashing of teeth. All a trifle alarming! However this is not be taken literally! The images would have currency then as signs of the end of time when God would suddenly return to earth in judgement. They are not part of our world view in the 21st century.

The parable of the wheat and weeds bids our forbearance of difference, and places all humanity on a level playing field. Our trouble is we can be spiritually short-sighted and in so doing the church has made and does made some pretty large blunders in the name of Jesus and God. We are called to trust the mystery, keep our hearts and minds open to all possibilities, and let love be the litmus test in all our thoughts, feelings and actions. Fr Michael knew himself to be ‘broken’, a weed.  Because we also ourselves are flawed and broken, we shall get it wrong, horribly wrong, as we have in the past.  We need to continue trusting that our loving God is working among our wheat and weeds and that it is at harvest time God who will be the final arbiter of our redemption.

John Towler, Assistant Priest.

Rural Church Sunday – first fruits (a different sermon to Godshill!) preached at Ellingham on 16th July by Mark Ward

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.

 

Rural Church Sunday – first fruits, a sermon preached by Mark Ward at Godshill on Sunday 16th July

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’.

 

Amen