Ups and downs, a spiritual rhythm

About a year ago, I decided that I was going to take daily walk. Whenever I could, whatever the weather – within reason, I would go for a twenty minute march. It’s been good for me – helps concentration, often I meet people. What’s been a really lovely bonus is seeing the changes in the natural world.

One day it is all bare twigs, the next catkins are in flower. The bullocks in the field are lively when they are first let out, but as they grow they settle down. A few days of dry weather and the little stream becomes cracked mud. Over the year I’ve observed a rhythm to the seasons, a pattern of growth and change, variation held within stability.

The same is true of our own lives. We live within time, and to exist in time means change. There is a natural fluctuation, a rhythm. Sometimes the reasons are obvious – weight goes up when you eat more cake. Sometimes the reasons are less clear – moods go and up and down without necessarily having an obvious cause.

This happens in our spiritual lives too. As we continue our sermon series on prayer, this week we look at the joys and the sorrows, the agony and the ecstasy that comes in following God and particularly in our prayer lives. Do you know what I’m saying? Do you get that variation too – the fact that some days prayer is easy and I want to spend time with God, but other days a Facebook feed or an old magazine is all it takes because I half want to be distracted? One week we’re keen to find God’s will for our lives, another week following him feels like a burden.

That rhythm is natural. What goes up also comes down. And vice versa. So after a great spiritual event, like an ordination, it’s inevitable there will a period of just getting on with it. But those more challenging times are very important. Those are the times when God teaches us self-discipline. We learn to follow Him, not like a dog which gets a treat every time it performs, but as free individuals who know what’s right.

So it you make a great step forward in your faith and then run into a difficult period, don’t despair. It’s not a sign that your faith is weakening – far from it, this is designed to help you grow. Keep praying, keep living for God. However don’t acquiesce to the change and accept it as the new norm. Don’t lose your ambition. For it won’t last forever. And when you emerge from the desert, you’ll be stronger.

Few people knew this better than St Paul. He had been through immense challenges, and also some incredible high points. If anyone had met with triumph and disaster, it was Paul, and he describes it in the reading we heard from 2 Corinthians 12 v2-10.

It’s not immediately obvious what’s going on. It seems that the people in the church at Corinth had an issue with Paul: they felt he wasn’t particularly impressive, not the charismatic leader they wanted. The Corinthians knew of ‘super-apostles’, people who’d had interesting spiritual experiences – and talked about them. So in this passage Paul is pushed to defend himself. He doesn’t want to, he seems quite diffident about it. He starts talking about ‘another person’ who’s had a remarkable spiritual odyssey – but it becomes clear this man is actually Paul himself.

He says he was ‘caught up’. In other words, a spiritual experience is a gift. Whenever we have a particular insight or moment with God, a sense of his presence, it is a grace from him. Not something earnt. Techniques of prayer can help open us up to the way God wants to meet us – but nothing forces him to act. Prayer is not an ABC checklist that always leads to a particular result – it’s a relationship. Remember that.

In verse 2 Paul talks about the third heaven – traditionally there were believed to be seven levels. And in v.3 he’s not sure whether he went ‘in the body’ or not. In other words, it can be hard to describe a spiritual experience. Is it a vision? A dream? Are you physically there? This difficulty can actually be a sign of what is genuine.

Whatever it was, Paul saw and heard things that ‘he is not permitted to say.’ We don’t know why, but Paul is not allowed to go into any detail about what he’s heard or seen. This is important. Real spirituality is like this: humble, consistent, doesn’t show off. There were many alternative spiritualities around in Paul’s time, just as there are today. Gnosticism, Mysticism, Kabbala, the Occult. Their practitioners went into great detail about what they thought they had seen. They tried to draw people in with the promise that you too can share in this secret knowledge.

Fake spirituality makes much of revealing secrets, of boasting about special experiences, giving techniques to the initiates. But Paul says true spirituality is rooted in Christ. If we’re given an experience of God, it’s there to encourage us. To build faith in him. Not to be an end in itself.

Spiritual experiences help give substance to our hope. They inspire us, encourage us, as we put our faith in Jesus. But the point is: our faith is in Jesus. The experience points to Christ, it is not an end in itself. So be wary of any spirituality which seeks after experiences for their own sake. Don’t be always chasing the latest high.

For faith is meant to make us love God and serve others. And sometimes faith is strongest when we are most challenged. Paul ends by saying that it is not the visions and ecstasy that he boasts of. Rather, he boasts of his weakness. For it’s through his weakness that the power of Christ is shown to be strong.

The English phrase ‘thorn in the flesh’ comes from this passage. We don’t know what it was Paul suffered from – an illness? A temptation? Three times he pleaded with Lord to take it away, but the Lord replied ‘My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness.’ It is the grit in the oyster that produces the pearl. So in v.10, Paul is ‘content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities for the sake of Christ, for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.’ In other words, it’s the challenges that reveal and strengthen faith, as much as, if not more than the high points.

We can see this in the gospel reading too. The disciples did amazing things. They healed people and preached to crowds, but Jesus anticipated that they would be rejected, because he was. When Jesus returned to the village where he was brought up, the response was not pride at the local lad made good, it was ‘Who does he think he is?’

That’s why Jesus could do no miracles there. It wasn’t that his power was limited, it’s that people had closed themselves off to him. Don’t believe those who say ‘You’re not healed because you haven’t got enough faith’. That’s wrong. Jesus can work wherever there is any faith – even a tiny amount. Remember the man who said ‘I believe, help me in my unbelief.’ If we’re willing to work with God, he can work with us, no matter how small our faith. But those people had closed themselves off, they refused to accept him.

Even today it’s hard to establish your own identity if people think they already know who you are. But it’s crucial that those who are growing in faith are given the space to develop, the freedom to try things out, the liberty to succeed or fail in a supportive environment.

Looking out for one another is key. For as we’ve heard in the Christian life there are great joys. Closeness to God, blessing, times when what we do is effective. Yet there are also times where, despite faithfully following God’s will, we experience challenge, opposition, spiritual dryness even apparent failure.

We’ve thought about the reasons for this. The natural ebb and flow of our energy. External forces beyond our control. Our openness to God. But sometimes the reasons are not obvious – and maybe those times of challenge strengthen our faith through perseverance and learning to trust God when we can’t see the way ahead.

So in those times we should be aware of what’s going on, take care of one another, make the challenges a subject of our prayers, and also rejoice in what God is able to do with us.

For God is with us in the triumphs and the disaster. God is in the agony and the ecstasy. One day the set-backs will fade, never to return. And we will be in his presence for ever.

 

 

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Listening. Acts 8:26-end

I wonder what makes a holiday complete for you? For a lady I know, whatever the weather, it’s essential to find a café and have a cream tea. For me, it’s building a dam. Holiday isn’t complete unless we’ve been to a sandy beach with a stream and dammed it, enclosing a vast pool which you can then breach creating a wave of water rushing to the sea. It’s great because I can spend the whole afternoon dam-building and still say ‘Look, it’s for the children, honest.’

I soon found out that if you’re building dams you have to work with the natural features of the beach. Use the contours to shape your pool, build where the rocks are already restricting the flow. You have to see where the water wants to run and work with it.

Working with God’s Kingdom is like working with water. The stream of the Holy Spirit is already flowing in the world. God was active long before you or I arrived. We don’t do well if we then start building somewhere completely different! If we dig where the Spirit isn’t, if we try and channel God into our plans, little happens. Often the first step in our task if we want to grow the Kingdom of God is to listen, observe and see what God is doing. If our church wants to serve God well we need to ask: What is God calling us to do?

Where does he want us to join in? We need to listen – and the Merlin exercises many of our churches have been doing are all about that. Discerning God’s call. I’m being constantly reminded how important it is to pray about this. That’s why we’ve got the Grace prayer meeting on the last Wednesday of every month. That’s why we’re gathering to pray for children’s ministry on May 15th. That’s why there’s a 24 hours of prayer on Fri 11th and Sat 12th May. It’s so good to be listening to what God is doing so we can join in.

For the church doesn’t take God into the rest of the world – it is his world and he is there already.

This is what Philip found when he met the Ethiopian in the story from Acts.

Now, if everything was going well for you in your job, if you were overcoming challenges, recruiting people, meeting success everywhere how would you feel about being posted to the middle of nowhere to start again from scratch?

That’s what happened to Philip. Before our reading, in v.5 Philip went to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, many miracles were done, evil was overcome. It was great.

But then in v26 the angel of the Lord appears to Philip and tells him to leave this wonderful successful ministry, walk 66 miles across the hills, not stopping at Jerusalem, down to the wilderness road that goes towards Gaza. And then when he sees a chariot God tells him to run, in the heat of the desert, and catch up with a trotting horse!

I’m struck by how amazingly open Philip must have been. Open to God guiding him in different ways. When the Early Church created deacons, they intended them to be administrators. People who would ensure food distribution went smoothly. The deacons’ job was to wait on tables so the apostles could get on with evangelism. Yet very quickly deacons like Stephen and Philip were preaching the gospel. God had a plan for them, and the early church allowed them to follow God’s call.

And then, when all the facts on the ground suggested he ought to stay in Samaria, Philip recognised the nudging of the Spirit and responded obediently. He was open to the possibility that he might be needed elsewhere. Open to sacrifice. Trusting God though he had no idea how it would turn out.

How do we trust God? Often we do that by straightforward Christian obedience. Most of the time the things God wants us to do are obvious.  Right in front of our noses. Doing our work well, being loving to the people we meet, taking the opportunities to share our faith. We don’t have to agonise in prayer deciding whether to do this stuff. All the guidance to do these essential things is in God’s word. But sometimes the Holy Spirit nudges us to do something particular.

Just the other day I was heading off to say Morning Prayer in Stanton church. I had a nudge from God – a thought popped into my head that I ought to take my church keys. I don’t need to do that – Hilary always unlocks the door each morning. But, I thought, maybe something’s happened to her so that she can’t get in. So I put my keys in my pocket.

When I got to church, the door was unlocked. I thought no more of it until, just before we were due to start, the electricity meter man turned up. And where’s the meter? In the vestry, behind a locked door!

At a time when there was a lot on my mind and I was worried about lots of things, it seemed that God was telling me something. He knows everything. If he can sort it out so I don’t have to head back home to pick up a key, and the meter man doesn’t have to hang around; if God can give me a nudge to sort out a tiny thing like that – then surely he can guide me and direct me through the really important things in life!

That’s a pretty small example – but God likes to build our faith. He starts by giving us a nudge to do something small – and if we respond we’ll find that’s faithful. Next time, it might be something more challenging. Ways you or I can be part of someone else’s solution. God does this when we are listening – and we develop the habit of listening through prayer. When we spend time with God praying, when we hold others before him by name, when we sense God’s response and guidance, we learn how to listen to him.

So if you sense that God is prodding you, pray it over, and if you think it is God, you may not know why but pluck up your courage and act.

When Philip does so, the guy he meets is an Ethiopian. Obviously interested in the Jewish religion, perhaps even a convert, but Gentile background nonetheless. At this stage in the early church, God had begun widening out the good news to other nations – first including Jews, then Samaritans who were kind of heretical Jews, now a Gentile proselyte. But this man was also a eunuch. Someone who was banned by Old Testament law from worshipping in the temple. What can God do with him? Philip might well have thought.

I once said to a colleague: ‘Isn’t it good that Charlie has started coming to Evensong’. ‘Naah,’ said the lay reader, ‘you’ve got mixed up. Charlie’s lived in this village for 70 years, only ever come to church for a funeral.’ Next week he came up to me ‘God’s amazing. Charlie was at Evensong!’ It’s so easy to think ‘So and so won’t be interested.’ Let’s not write people off, but give them the opportunity to find God.

Charlie was pretty amazing too – it’s not easy to change your habits when everyone in a small village knows who you are.

I’m struck by how open the Ethiopian eunuch was. Here is an important man: the Chancellor of the Exchequer of a foreign power. He is riding along in his official chariot when some sweaty bloke turns up, jogging alongside and asks ‘Do you understand what you’re reading?’ Many people might have told Philip where to go, but not this official:

In verse 31: ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ He doesn’t understand and he’s not afraid to admit it. For him, a lack of knowledge is not an embarrassment but an opportunity. If he doesn’t get it, he will seek help so he can. What a wonderful attitude to have! So often I meet people who are ashamed they haven’t read much of the Bible, or keep their doubts and questions securely under wraps. Which is sad, because if we were open and honest about our needs, we could address them.

If that sounds like you then don’t be embarrassed. Why should you have all the answers? Ask questions. Talk to someone!  Admit when you don’t know – you can bet that someone else won’t either. Just the other week I was in a training session and the facilitator asked: ‘is there anyone who’d like that explained a bit more?’ Somebody cautiously raised a hand – and the rest of us breathed a sigh of relief – thank goodness they’d raised it, we were too shy to!

Philip’s openness shows as he draws alongside the chariot. He listens. He hears the man read Isaiah. Philip then starts a conversation with an open question: ‘Do you understand what you’re reading?’ And when the man answers ‘No’, Philip listens to the question. ‘Is the writer of Isaiah talking about himself or someone else?’ Seems obvious it’s someone else, but Philip takes it seriously as an honest question. I’ve had all sorts of strange conversations with people about spiritual stuff they’ve read on the internet, aliens and what have you, and however daft you think the question is it’s important not to be dismissive.

We can only connect with people if we listen to them. Good listening means being able to respond, appropriately. One very important thing is to be aware of the reason behind the question. For instance if someone says ‘if there’s a God how comes there’s so much suffering in the world?’ – is that a question for philosophical debate? It might be. Or are they asking because they’ve recently been through the mill? Rather than jump in with an answer, a listening response might be ‘that’s a good question, can you tell me how it’s important to you?’

We can see that Philip has listened. He starts where the man is. And he shows the man respect by pointing him to Scripture and speaking about Jesus. Philip would not have done the Ethiopian a favour if he said ‘Who’s it about? – well that’s up to you. The answer is whatever you make of it’ The Ethiopian would not have gone away any the wiser if Philip had said ‘If it works for you then it’s true’. Instead Philip shared the good news with him.

That’s important because the Bible explains God’s purposes. Jesus gives the context that makes sense of faith. In Jesus we have answers for life – so let’s not hide them away or back off if people ask us.

So the Ethiopian trusts God and decides to get baptised. This is the last we hear of him, but one of the most ancient churches in the world is the one in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Coptic Christians link their origins to this man, who shared the good news in his home country. Through Philip’s obedience a whole country was eventually led to Christ.

God led Philip to the Ethiopian, and now the Holy Spirit takes Philip away again, dropping him in Azotus where he continues to preach the gospel. It’s like that with serving God – we’re called to play our part, and leave the rest with God. It’s not down to us whether someone responds to God – that’s between God and them. We’re not ultimately responsible – God is.

I find that incredibly liberating. It’s a great encouragement to join in God’s work. God is already active in people’s lives. He calls us to join him in what he’s doing. He asks us to listen – to listen for the wind of his Spirit, to listen to those we meet, to listen to Scripture and tradition. Let us listen act and speak faithfully, open to God’s leading and rejoicing in the privilege he gives.

Walking on water

Everything seems peaceful as the gospel story begins. It’s been an amazing day – Jesus has fed the 5000. But now everything is calming down. It’s a lovely evening on the Sea of Galilee. After the excitement, Jesus goes off to pray and the disciples get into their boats. But Galilee is infamously treacherous. Desert air rises, storms sweep in from the surrounding hills. Wind and waves batter the boat far from land. Jesus walks out to them. Now the disciples panic – is it a ghost? Jesus reassures. Peter goes out to meet him. He doubts. It all goes horribly wrong. Jesus reaches out his hand and catches him

It seems to be calling us to faith – to be like Peter, to step out in faith – to keep our eyes on Jesus and not to be distracted by the storms that come our way. Yet if the tempests of life should overwhelm, Christ is alongside, able to rescue us when we call out to him

I remember seeing this story in a French seaside church on the Ile de Re. The painting covered an entire wall, with life sized figures. The theme’s been done a thousand times. But this one was different. I was deeply moved by it. For the disciples were real people

You know the kind of art you get in churches, where Jesus’ followers are identikit middle aged men with plain but well balanced features, and costume out of Victorian central casting. Instantly forgettable. These guys were real, they had lined weather beaten faces, individual hair, craggy features, warts and all. St. Peter particularly could only have been a portrait. I’m prepared to bet that someone in that village had paid for the painting. Perhaps it was a fisherman giving thanks for salvation after a storm. Perhaps we might see him walking down the street. Someone there was saying ‘I was Peter’.

 

I wonder. Have you been Peter? Have you have felt solidity vanishing under your feet? Have you seen everything you trusted in giving way? Have you felt yourself slipping beneath the surface, when the pressures of life overwhelm? Have you reached rock bottom, where all you can do is cry out ’Lord, save me’?

If so, then maybe you will have known also the hand of Christ. Sometimes we only find him when we have nothing left to cling to and there’s no alternative. But when you turn to him, he holds on to you. You may feel his strength keeping you up. You may not feel anything – but he is there. He will not let go of you

I’ve certainly felt like that at times this past year. With so much going on: the media campaign, being Area Dean, it can at times feel overwhelming. I cannot do it in my own strength. But God’s strength supplies all that I need. I just have to learn to be out there in the deep end, trusting in God.

Maybe you’ve known that love of God. That sustaining power. Or maybe you need it now. Don’t forget that Christ is there, that he loves you. Don’t be afraid to receive his help. Don’t leave it to the last minute to call out. Bring your needs to him in prayer

This has become a much loved miracle, speaking to many people.  What we can forget though is that this wasn’t some great misfortune which happened to Peter. He got himself into it. He was the bright spark who thought it might be a good idea to jump out of a wallowing rowing boat in the middle of a storm. He thought he might be able to walk over water. In verse 28 he said to Jesus: ‘Lord if it’s you, command me to come to you on the water

What amazing faith! Peter says ‘Lord, if you want me to do the impossible, I’ll do it. In fact, that’s the way I’ll know it’s you, because only you would ask me to

Do we see amazing things? Do we challenge God to call us further? One of the things I really like about our churches is that people do step out in faith. Someone said: Let’s reorder the North Aisle and start a new service.. Let’s hold a stewardship appeal as we’re coming out of the worst recession in decades

‘Let’s employ a children’s worker.’ It happened. The grants came in. Do you know that during the time the charity that has been supporting our children’s worker donated about £50,000 to the project but investment performance mean their reserves have only gone down by about £10,000. God is good

Bonkers? Or faith? All those things were thought about carefully. All of them were prayed through. The difficulties may have seemed vast, but people stepped out in faith.

If you want to see great things happen, then be like Peter. Throw down the gauntlet to God. Here I am Lord, send me. Let me know what you want and I’ll do it. I believe Lord that when you call a man or woman you give them what they need

In verses 29-30: So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on water and came to Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind he became frightened, and beginning to sink he called out ‘Lord save me’.

Initial enthusiasm is great. Then you must keep going. Once he’s far enough from the boat to be alone, Peter begins to waver. He gets into trouble. It often happens when you set off in faith. I remember well when after five years planning the church reordering quotations came back. Even the lowest was twice what the PCC expected. Suddenly we were in trouble. We had to turn to God again

Living faith can be like that. We set off; full of enthusiasm, strong in the strength Christ gives. But once out of the safety zone, problems arise. There may be opposition, resolve falters. Then we need to turn to Christ anew. We need to learn through experience that he will provide. Perseverance despite opposition grows our faith.

When he saves Peter, in v.31, Jesus says ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ Why do we doubt? Because when the waves grow high, when the darkness clouds us in, Christ seems hid from view. Or is he?

Is it like Peter in v.30? Is it that we notice the strong wind, we focus on the problem, and we forget the Lord?

I’m not criticizing. I’ve been there. I remember when the time came for me to leave my curacy, you have a year to try and find a job. Sounds plenty! But I was young, inexperienced, in those days no-one wanted to take the risk. It was beginning to get really worrying and I started applying for ever more unsuitable posts. I’d forgotten that God was alongside me, that he had a plan. He often leaves it to the last minute. But when it came it was what he’d been planning all along.

The wind and the waves are so distracting. The problems can be like little goblins gibbering away in your face. You have to put them to one side. You have to make a conscious effort to focus on God. To look to him first, and then to lay down the problems at his feet

Now someone may be thinking: wouldn’t it be a lot easier to stay in the boat? Perhaps it would. But think what you’d be missing! What you wouldn’t achieve. How you wouldn’t grow. How much of knowing Jesus you’d miss out on. To be able to walk on water you have to step out of the boat

Christ calls us to follow him, wherever he goes. But we should be aware that getting out of the boat is only the beginning. We need persistence and the ability to keep fixed on Jesus. Even if we do get into difficulties – and if we try and do anything worthwhile, there will be problems – even if we do get into difficulties, Christ will save. 

He can do this because he is God. And I think that is the main point of the story. Although we tend to identify with Peter and the imaginative use of the story, nevertheless, Matthew’s emphasis is clear. Right at the end, the disciples are overwhelmed. They say: ‘Truly, you are the Son of God’. That’s what Matthew wants us to know. And it’s the same for the other Evangelists. Neither Mark nor John relate the incident with Peter – the main point for them is that Jesus walked on water. It is, pure and simple, a proof of divinity. The miracle was yet another piece of evidence that Jesus is divine

That, incidentally, is why you can’t explain away the miracle. Granted, it’s not an easy one to believe. And apologies if you’ve been sat here throughout the sermon thinking, ‘yes but did it really happen?

There have plenty of attempts to rationalize the miracle. For instance:  some say Jesus only appeared to be walking on water – he was actually walking by the lake! Going for an amble on solid ground. Or: Jesus wasn’t walking on the waves, there was a handily submerged mudflat, just so deep beneath the surface! As if it’s possible to walk securely on a submerged mudflat in the middle of a storm! Today, you too can walk on water. You can go to Lake Galilee, and for a few shekels you can wander about on a plastic sheet suspended in the lake. Hey presto, walking on water!

It’s bonkers! The gospel writers were not crazy. Those experienced fishermen would not have been fooled by Magic Circle tricks. When the gospel writers recorded this, they believed there were describing a miracle. They weren’t daft, they knew walking on water doesn’t happen unless it’s God. It’s evidence that Jesus is divine.

We can take it or leave it. We could believe it because if he were God then he could do that. Or some people disbelieve it and I suppose they have to say the evangelists made it up, created a myth with a spiritual meaning. The problem with believing it’s a just symbolic myth is that you end up with a spiritual meaning disconnected from physical fact.

But what you can’t do is water it down and take the meaning out of it. If you do, you end up with something that probably didn’t happen like that anyway, wasn’t what the Evangelists intended and is still pretty incredible.

The point of the miracle is that Jesus saved Peter. He saved Peter and was able to do so because he is the divine Son of God. He can intervene in our lives because he is the Son of God. And so we do all become Peter. Our own lives, our trials and tribulations are reflected in that dark and stormy night. Each one of us is the willing but fallible disciple. We too are full of enthusiasm one moment and doubting and fear stricken the next. And each one of us is also the disciple saved by Christ – the hands of Jesus reaching out and taking hold of us. So we too can know the wonder and love of the disciples. We too can exclaim with renewed faith: ‘Truly you are the Son of God’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For this moment

Of all the Remembrance Sundays that I have been involved in, this is the one where I feel most anxious about the future. I’ve led Remembrance in the aftermath of 9/11 and the London bombings, at times when British forces have been at war on two fronts, yet at no time has the future seemed as uncertain as it does today.

Traditionally we give thanks for the blessings that we enjoy, and commemorate the sacrifices made by many so that we could be free. Yet it seems that the progress in made in rebuilding society in the aftermath of the second world war is going into reverse: barriers are being raised between nations, economies are becoming defensive, outsiders are viewed with suspicion, and demagogues are once again rising to power.

For those of us who have placed our hope in a positive view of human nature, in the triumph of reason over prejudice, in the ability of different countries to work together for the common good of all creation, these are deeply worrying times.

As I have prayed – for Donald Trump as he takes up the presidency, for the Brexit negotiations and climate change talks, for Iraq and Syria – as I have prayed I have also sensed the need to repent. I have felt God calling me back to a more Biblical faith in him.

I have sensed that I have put too much faith in our human ability to address our problems – despite our great sinfulness – and have not fully accepted that the Kingdom of God comes in God’s time and through his leading. Like many I have trusted that our society will steadily progress from good to better – whereas our Gospel reading (Luke 21:5-19) speaks of a great crisis before Jesus is revealed in glory.

Times like this can be a wake-up call, an opportunity to reflect on where our Christian values have become absorbed by the values of the world. Has Christianity in the West become too closely identified with a particular form of government, a certain philosophical view of historical and scientific progress?

As our Epistle reading (2 Thess 3:6-13) shows us, Christians have lived and thrived in societies which were profoundly undemocratic and unjust. All around the world today Christians bravely contend with great difficulties. Our privileged lives may be taking a step closer to theirs. We are still called to be salt and light, to transform the world around us, to give of ourselves sacrificially so that others may know Christ. We are called to make a difference in our world, not to give up on it, nor to see it as the ultimate end. God calls us to place our hope in Christ and to wait, with faith and action, for the coming of his Kingdom.

Don’t worry, be happy

Matthew 6:25-33 and Psalm 126

Don’t worry be happy. In every life we have some trouble. When you worry you make it double. So sang Bobby McFerrin in 1988. It was such a happy song that you couldn’t help but smile. It managed that rare trick – to stop you worrying by telling you not to worry.

Doesn’t always work like that though. I heard of a poster displayed outside a church which read ‘Don’t worry it may never happen.’ But what does that say to someone to whom it has just happened?

A few months ago I was very anxious because I had to go up to London and make a case in a legal hearing. I got really nervous about it, all these questions were going round my head. What will I say? What if I get torn apart by cross-questioning? What if I dry up? I don’t often travel into London – how early do I need to leave to get there in time? What if I turn up late?  The worry kept on like a voice in my head – it was hard to sleep at night.

When you’ve got a real worry, a big worry, what do you do? Just being told to pull yourself together, get over it or it will all be fine just doesn’t cut the mustard. On the other hand, someone with the time to listen is a great gift – someone who doesn’t interrupt much but just listens and lets you unload. Someone who doesn’t try and offer solutions instantly but acts as a sounding board can be an immense blessing.

For as you talk it through you begin to get a sense of perspective. Your thoughts become more ordered, perhaps even form a plan. You begin to realise that you can only do so much, and after that leave it in the hand of God. Your friend may not even need to say ‘God will look after you’ because by giving you their time and listening well they make the love of God real.

What a blessing it is to be able to receive that gift. And what a blessing to be able to give it back as well! For any of us can learn how to do that. The principles are: Give someone who’s anxious the time and space. Listen well. Ask a few open questions. Be sparing with your advice. And you’ll be amazed how often they come up with answers themselves. They’ll say thank you so much for your help, I feel so much better – and you think, well I didn’t really do anything. You did it all!

So when Jesus tells us not to worry, there are two reasons why he says it. Firstly, he knows that worry doesn’t achieve anything. In v. 27 ‘Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his span of life?’ It’s absolutely true: worry can’t make you live longer. In fact, I found a study which said chronic worry and stress increases by 20% your chances of illness and dying young. Now that’s something to worry about!

Jesus says there is no point in worrying. And it’s absolutely true. Of course worry is different from reasonable preparation. When Jesus said ‘Look at the birds of the air, they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them’, he wasn’t saying it’s wrong to sow, reap and store. The Jesus who told so many parables about farming surely can’t have believed that! No, he then goes on to say: ‘How much more valuable you are than the birds’.

In other words the birds don’t sow or reap yet God looks after them. You are much more valuable than the birds, and you can prepare for the future. Don’t worry therefore, but trust in God. Now if we can see possible hazards on the way, it is right to prepare for them. It’s sensible to put money into a pension and save a bit in case the car breaks down. And once you’ve done what you can, lay it at God’s feet. Be at peace that you’ve prepared for reasonable risks. Don’t continue to fret.

Because the second point Jesus makes is that we can trust God. In v.28-30, God provides for the lilies of the field. How much more will he provide for us! So seek first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you.

Let’s be clear about what this is saying and what it isn’t. It’s not a promise that we won’t have to work – in 2 Thessalonians 3:10 Paul writes that if someone won’t work, he shouldn’t eat. We need to be responsible for ourselves and one another… It’s not a promise that we can go our own way – Jesus says seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.

It’s not a carte blanche to feel entitled to whatever we want. The examples Jesus uses here are food, drink and clothing. The essentials of life, not a big house and a fast car. Don’t worry, you will have what you need says Jesus – not necessarily what you want.

And at this Harvest we might also think about how God keeps his promises. How does our food reach us? Through the hard work of farmers and distributors – other human beings. Those people who don’t have enough food, why is that? Almost always it is because of other human beings – because of war, profiteering, injustice, skewed trade or discrimination. Maybe our generosity, our political influence, is part of God’s solution to other people’s worries.

Nor does Jesus promise here that there won’t be troubles ahead. In the very next verse he says ‘So don’t worry about tomorrow because tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.’ In effect, being a Christian does not mean we shall sail through life unscathed. We only need to reflect on our own experiences to realise that faith is not a shield against harm. Far from it – we may even pick up persecutions on the way. But Jesus does promise that God will hold us through whatever happens, and that he will bring us safely to himself at the end.

That’s the point of the reading from Psalm 126. It was written when the people of Israel had been in exile for many years, separated from the land they loved. Now at last they have been allowed to return. Joy at the homecoming is mingled with sadness as they see the broken down homes and the overgrown fields. They have so much work ahead.

I wonder if we can think of analogous situations today? Of refugees fleeing Syria, arriving in safety with tears? We should pray for political will amongst the world powers so that those people can one day return home and rebuild their lives.

In the Psalm they go out to sow corn. But doing so is a great sacrifice. They only have a limited amount of seed. Those grains of wheat must cover their meals and their sowing. Every handful cast for the next crop is another handful that you cannot eat. They sow with weeping because they feel hunger and yet they have no choice. God is faithful, and at the end of the psalm the reapers return with joy, carrying sheaves of corn. Under God they are making for themselves a new future.

It is full of hope because God has been faithful. God kept his promises and now they are free. It will not be easy – there will be much hard work ahead. Perhaps there will be trouble too. But they can trust in God because he is faithful. They can trust in the God who keeps his promises. They can have faith in the God of the Harvest who gives us what we need. May we too at this Harvest be free from worry, and trust in God. Amen.