Thursday, 28 January 2021

Raising Nain

A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation,
the online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

7th February 2021

Resurrection of the Widow's son from Nain,
altar panel by Lucas Cranach the Younger,
c. 1569, in the Stadtkirche Wittenberg.

1 Kings 17:17-24  
Luke 7:11-17   

You may not know the term, but the word ‘Theodicy’ is used 
to describe the problem of how to believe 
in the goodness and justice of God in the face of evil.

It’s an argument that is often cited
by people who want to discredit the idea of faith.

You know the way this goes:
‘How can you believe in God when this kind of awful thing
happens to this kind of innocent person.’

Interestingly, for me this has never proved a problem,
because I’ve never had a faith that believes God rewards faithfulness 
with health or prosperity, 
or that God responds to prayer by ‘fixing’ our difficulties in life. 

For me, a belief in resurrection is not a conviction that God cheats death,
or that those who follow Christ get to do the same.

But a belief in resurrection is still at the heart of my faith. 

The capacity for new life to emerge from the destructive efforts of death, 
whether that be physical, spiritual, or emotional death, 
is for me a revelation of the nature of God. 

I don’t find my faith challenged by nature red in tooth and claw, 
rather I see God’s resurrecting nature at work 
in the constant rebirth of goodness, love and hope, 
despite and in the face of suffering.

Which brings me to our two passages for this morning, 
one from the first book of Kings,
and the other from Luke’s gospel,
which tell very similar stories.
Both narratives feature a widow;
            a woman who has lost her husband, and along with her husband,
                        her financial security and her status within society
In both stories, the widow’s only hope for the future
            rests with her only son.
These, you understand, were patriarchal days…
            women didn’t normally work for money, at least not honourably,
            and so they relied on their husbands or sons to provide for them.
The life of a widow with no son was no life at all;
            she would be at the mercy of the charity of others,
                        alone in a hostile world.
And in both our stories, the only son of the lonely widow
            falls sick and dies.
The death of a child is always a terrible tragedy,
            but for a widow in ancient Israel,
                        it meant more than personal grief,
            it meant economic destitution, and social rejection.
Both these stories, tragic though they are,
            were also stories of normality.
Widows were not uncommon,
            childhood illnesses were not uncommon,
            lack of food was not uncommon
            teenage death was not uncommon.
A widow whose son dies was not uncommon.
            Tragic? Yes. Heartbreaking? Yes. Uncommon? No.
And yet, in both these stories,
            the unexpected happens.
The oh-so-predictable outcome of the story is subverted,
            the future is re-written,
            the certainty of death is confronted
                        with the unforeseen intervention of resurrection,
            and suddenly everything is different.
Let’s start with Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath.
The context here was Elijah’s lone struggle
            against the Baal cult
            which king Ahab had introduced into Israel.
At Elijah’s proclamation, the Lord had sent a drought on the land,
            to provoke Ahab into repentance.
But the drought was affecting everyone;
            from the King, to Elijah himself, to the poor widow and her son.
By rights, they should all have been at death’s door,
            and Elijah had only survived this far
                        because he had been miraculously fed by ravens.
He then turned up at the house of the widow,
            who was about to prepare her final meal for herself and her son
            so that they could eat one last time before dying together.
But of course, it wasn’t their last meal,
            because God intervened again in the story,
                        to bring unexpected life from a situation of certain death,
            miraculously sustaining them
                        through what I can only think of as
                                    the ninth century BC equivalent
                                    of a bottomless cup of coffee!
This story clearly has something of the tone of folkloric myth about it,
            and it’s probably best not to get too hung up on the historical questions
            relating to being fed by birds,
                        or poor widows doing Jamie Oliver style cooking
                        using jars of food that had gone all ‘magic-porridge-pot’.
The point is clear: death does not have the last word
            when God gets involved in the story.
But death does still have some cards to play,
            and the good news of the miraculous food
quickly gave way to the tragedy of illness
            as the young man succumbed to a sudden sickness.
The widow-mother’s response was typically human,
            as she blamed Elijah, God, and herself in quick succession.
But then, again, God intervened,
            this time through the direct actions of Elijah,
And the child who had died was restored to life, and to his mother,
            giving her back not only her son,
            but also her hope for the future.
And again, the point is clear:
            death does not have the last word,
            when God gets involved in the story.
Which brings us to the gospel of Luke,
            and to his account of Jesus’ visit to the Widow of Nain and her son
The set-up for this story actually occurs a few chapters earlier,
            in the passage we looked at a couple of weeks ago,
when Jesus was invited to preach in the synagogue at Nazareth,
            and took the opportunity to deliver
            his now famous exposition on the Isaiah scroll.
To start with he read from Isaiah:
Luke 4:18-19  "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,  19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
And then, in his sermon on this passage, Jesus said the following:
Luke 4:25-26   the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land;  26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.
In his sermon, Jesus took the words of Isaiah,
            which the Jews of his day had interpreted as applying to them,
                        and to them alone,
            and he re-interpreted them
                        as applying to anyone who was in need,
                        whatever their ethnicity, class, or gender.
He pointed out that Elijah, the great prophet of Israel,
            was sent not to the aid of Israel,
            but to the aid of an impoverished gentile widow.
And through this and other examples,
            Jesus’ sermon directly challenged the dominant protectionist mind-set
                        that sought to preserve the privileges of history
                        for the heirs of the powerful.
Jesus provocatively pointed to examples from Israel’s history
            which demonstrated that God’s concern had always been
                        for those beyond the boundaries of the chosen nation,
            and never simply and exclusively for those in Israel.
His sermon was, in effect, a manifesto for the overturning of the old order,
            and his visit to the widow of Nain’s house,
                        which Luke narrates in language
                        that deliberately echoes the visit of Elijah to the Widow of Zarephath,
            was a visible enactment of the point he was making.
The old order decreed that women could not work,
            the old order decreed that widows would be impoverished,
                        the old order decreed that the sick would die,
And to a world where the old order had reigned unchallenged,
            Jesus brought the challenge to end all challenges.
This wasn’t some idealistic preacher,
            exchanging his pulpit for a soapbox
                        whilst expounding a utopian vision of equality.
Rather, this was a man of God who lived the message he proclaimed,
            and went to the widow of Nain,
            just as Elijah had gone to the widow of Zarephath.
And the point, again, is clear:
            When God gets involved in the story,
            death does not get the last word.
The boy had died, and should have stayed dead.
            The widow’s world had ended, and should have stayed ended.
But Jesus disrupts the old order,
            bringing new life, new hope, new beginnings…
The message of resurrection is here and it is clear:
            When God gets involved in the story,
            death does not get the last word.
So, back to the story…
Did you notice the crowds?
            No? How could you miss them?
There are two large crowds in Luke’s story!
            Listen to the first couple of verses again,
            and see if you spot them this time…
Luke 7:11-12  Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him.  12 As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town.
One crowd are following Jesus and his disciples,
            and the other crowd are following the dead body of a young man.
One crowd are following life,
            and the other crowd are following death.
There is no doubt, death attracts a crowd.
            And the sudden and tragic death of a young person can attract a very big crowd.
It was ever thus, and the media frenzies of our own day,
            which feast on the memory of recently deceased celebrities,
are merely the latest manifestation
            of the common desire to gaze on death
to experience vicariously the grief of the bereaved,
            and to begin the process of collectively immortalising and appropriating
            the memory of any person taken by cruel fate.
But life attracts a crowd as well.
            The overturning of the old order is compelling,
            the good news for the poor,
                        the release of those held captive,
                                    the restoration of sight to the blind,
            these are good news if you are poor, captive, and living in darkness.
The promise of new life where death appears to reign supreme
            is good news for those facing death,
but it is challenging news
            for those who stand to benefit from the on-going regime of death.
It pulls the rug from under the feet of those
            who might seek to control the narrative of death.
It deconstructs those who might find it expedient
            to take the story of a recently departed person
            and re-tell it to their own ends.
The new life to the widows of Zarapheth and Nain
            was good news for them
but it was profoundly disturbing news
            to those who had a vested interest in creating a history
                        which maintains the belief that the God-given privileges of society
                        were for a small group defined by those who were inside that group.
The crowd surrounding Jesus when he preached his sermon in Nazareth understood this;
            and tried to kill him by taking him to the top of a cliff and throwing him off it.
It’s that crowd again, you notice?
And which crowd are we in, I wonder?
            Are we in the crowd that follows the dead boy,
                        feeling oh-so-sorry for the victims of tragedy,
                                    whilst remaining thankful that it’s not us, that the tragedy affects?
                        Re-telling history to our own advantage
                                    where the survivors are the winners
                                    and the winners take it all?
            Or are we in the crowd that follows life?
                        The crowd that confronts death head-on
                        and refuses to allow the narrative of death to have the final word.
Because if we are in the second crowd,
            if we are in the crowd that follows life,
then we are part of the crowd that is called to challenge the dominant order of the world;
            we are part of the crowd that refuses to accept the status quo
                        where the poor, the destitute, the sick, and the dying
                                    are simply to be pitied;
            we are part of the crowd that is committed to joining with Jesus and Elijah
                        in going beyond the boundaries of the acceptable
                        as we seek to bring new life
                                    to those whose life-stories are dominated by death;
            we are part of the crowd that knows that when God gets involved in the story,
                        death does not have the final word;
            we are part of the crowd that sees the importance of benefits for the poor,
                        of help for the destitute,
                                    of healthcare for the sick;
And if we are part of the crowd that follows life,
            then we are ourselves called to become agents of resurrection
            in a world that continues to believe and invest in the narratives of death.
To a world that says one death must be punished by another,
            we say that forgiveness and restoration are more important than retribution.
To a world that says the poor deserve their lot,
            we say that the poor are dearly loved children of God.
To a world that says those who are not like us
                        do not deserve equal rights in our society
            we say that Jesus has called us to go beyond the barriers of ethnicity and culture
                        with messages of hope and new life.
To a world that says equitable distribution of global resources
                        is an unrealistic objective
            we say that it is not acceptable that 1 in 8 are dying of starvation
                        whilst many in the Western world are dying of obesity.
To a world that wrings its hands at the suffering caused by climate chaos
                        whilst continuing to plunder the planet for profit
            we say that there is a different way of being human
                        which rejects the dominant narratives of consumption unto death.
To a world that says death is the end,
            we say that it is not the end when God is part of the story.
To a world that fears death,
            we say that death is not to be feared
            because life itself finds meaning in the resurrection of Christ.
We are those who have died with Christ and been raised with Christ,
            we have been baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection,
and we are those who live and proclaim this message of life,
            we are those who live and proclaim the gospel good news of new life.
Resurrection is not about where we go when we die,
            it is about so much more than this.
It is about discovering life in the midst of death,
            it is about plundering hell and bringing the lost to new life,
it is the good news of the gospel of Christ,
            who calls us to follow him
and to share in the establishment
            of his in-breaking revolutionary kingdom.

Keeping the Sabbath

A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation,
the online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
31st January 2021

Luke 6.1-16

Listen to the sermon here:

If I’m honest, arguments about Sabbath-keeping haven’t really been particularly significant in my personal understanding of Christian discipleship. When I was 13 I began working on Sundays, starting off doing a daily paper round and then graduating to working in the papershop, starting at 5am and leaving just in time to make it to church for band practice before the morning service! And as a minister, ‘working’ on Sunday’s comes with the territory, as it does for many other professions from healthcare to the police to farming to retail…

I remember well the ‘Keep Sunday Special’ campaign of the late 1980s, as various Christian groups got very hot under the collar about the proposals to allow shops to open on Sunday, but most of the Christians I knew were just glad they could pop to the supermarket on the way home from church.

I did have some contacts in the Strict Baptists, who took an altogether different approach to keeping ‘The Lord’s Day’ - no TV, no work, and intriguingly no cooking. The wife, and of course it was always the wife, would have to get the food for Sunday cooked and prepared by midnight on Saturday, so that it could be heated through and served on Sunday lunchtime.

But the reality for most Christians I’ve encountered is that, although in theory we like the idea of there being a ‘day of rest’, Sunday isn’t it, because Sunday is the day we are all on rotas at church!

The shift of ‘The Lord’s Day’ from the Jewish Sabbath, which is celebrated on a Saturday, to the Christian Sunday, occurred fairly early in the Christian tradition, when many early Christians were also Jews. These early Jewish Christ-followers would observe the Saturday Sabbath, and then gather for worship on a Sunday. This set the practice for the day of Christian worship being a Sunday, and as Christianity shifted from being a Jewish sect to a Gentile religion, the theology of Sabbath shifted to Sunday as well, with Sunday becoming enshrined as the ‘day of rest’.

And despite various Christendom attempts to enshrine the idea of a Christian Sunday Sabbath in law, we are in reality a long way from the religious and cultural context behind our reading today from Luke’s gospel about the disputes Jesus had with the Pharisees over the keeping and breaking of the Sabbath.

And there’s something we need to be especially careful of here, as we read this text and those like it. All too easily we can find ourselves using it to reinforce anti-Semitic tropes, and in the week where we’ve marked Holocaust Memorial Day, the importance of avoiding such easy othering is especially visible.

You see, the point of this passage is NOT that the Sabbath is bad; and neither is it that the Jewish leaders are stiff and legalistic in their opposition to Jesus. It’s very easy, and very tempting, to read these stories of dispute over Sabbath-keeping as presenting the legalistic Pharisees on one side, and the libertarian Jesus on the other; and to then translate onto that dichotomy a narrative of legalistic Judaism versus the libertarian Gentile world.

But this is not about Gentiles versus Jews, even if that is the way Gentile Christians have often read it. This isn’t an inter-religious debate. It’s an intra-religious debate. This is a dialogue between Jews, over the true meaning of the Sabbath. Jesus and his disciples are Jewish, and their transgression of Sabbath laws is not some symbolic protest about Jewish legalism to be celebrated by the Gentile heirs of Christianity.

And, intriguingly, neither are the Pharisees the villains here that they are often made out to be. I’ve said before, and will say again, the Pharisees get an unnecessarily harsh time of it in the interpretive tradition of Christianity. In fact, I’ll go a bit further than this. I think the Pharisees are the Baptists of first century Judaism! What I mean by this is that in many ways they are seeking to do for Judaism what Baptists, and other nonconformist and protestant groups, have sought to do for Christianity.

Judaism in the first century was highly dependent on the Temple. Herod the Great had rebuilt and restored the Temple, and by the time of Jesus’ ministry it was more magnificent than it had been at any point since the Babylonians destroyed the first temple of Solomon, six centuries earlier. And whilst Judaism had already proved during the Babylonian exile and the early years of the return to the land that their faith could survive without a temple, the economic and social pull of Herod’s temple in Jerusalem had led to people increasingly looking to the priests and the sacrificial system as their primary route to divine encounter.

The Pharisees rebelled against this, and promoted a form of Jewish piety that didn’t need the priesthood and the temple to mediate between them and God. In many ways they were democratisers of religion, focussing instead on personal piety and devotion, and on the importance of taking personal responsibility for your soul’s state before God.

The echoes of this in the protestant reformation’s break with the priestly systems of medieval Roman Catholicism are striking. But, just as Baptists have often ended up idolising the Bible even as they claimed that the Bible freed them from idolatry, so the Pharisees’ attempt to offer a means and mode of devotional practice that could be followed by anyone, also became in its turn a form and means of oppression.

The issue at stake here, as we all know, the regulations surrounding the celebration of the Sabbath. What’s not quite so clear on first reading is why this matters so much? If it’s not just a pure addiction to legalism, why were the Pharisees so obsessed about keeping the Sabbath laws, and why were Jesus’ disciples so set on breaking them?

Well, the first thing to understand is that Sabbath-keeping was, and to an extent still remains, a transgressive act. Sabbath keeping was not about compliance, it was about rebellion. Sabbath keeping was one of the things that marked Judaism as distinct from the world around it, because it was a practice that, like the idea of Jubilee to which it is so closely tied, disrupted the economic regimes of oppression that otherwise were free to dominate humans without limit.

Then, as now, the economic systems of the world slept for no-one. If you were a land owner, it made no sense to give your workers a day off, when instead you could have them working seven days a week. And this is precisely what land-owners did. Labour was cheap, lives were cheap, and if you worked people to death by the time they were forty, it didn’t matter because you could simply work their children in their place.

The Jewish command to have a day off each week, was an act of economic resistance. And it spoke of God’s gracious intrusion into life, disrupting the systems of servitude that were otherwise free to oppress without restraint.

Like the Victorian labour laws, or the rise of the Trades Union movement, Sabbath was supposed to be a means of grace to those who were poor, and certainly not a means of obligation on those who were already otherwise oppressed. It guaranteed people a window of time so they could rest: on the seventh day because God rested on the seventh day. And so the Pharisees’ defence of it wasn’t some attempt to impose ridiculous regulations on people for the sake of it, it was a desire to protect something that made God’s grace real in the world, that brought freedom to those facing financial enslavement. It was an echo of the Exodus.

In which case, you might well ask, why was Jesus so set on disrupting it?

Well, here’s the thing. Even the best intentioned disruptions of the rhythms of oppression, can themselves function as tools of oppression if they become the end, rather than the means.

The Sabbath was good, and the Pharisees’ defence of it was good; but when the very thing that was supposed to defend the poor and the vulnerable became instead a reason to deny feeding the hungry or healing the sick, it had gone very wrong.

So Jesus isn’t opposed to the Sabbath, rather he wants to take it back to its original, God-given intent. Jesus isn’t challenging the Sabbath intrinsically, rather he’s highlighting the oppressive function that it has acquired.

Jesus says, ‘ The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath’. And in the person of Jesus we see God drawing near, and we realise that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, bringing healing and wholeness to any who need it; and any system which opposes that, however well-intentioned it may be, needs to be challenged.

The in-breaking kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven, should always be about the renewal of life, the giving of life to those in need. And meeting hunger and dispensing healing are essential characteristics of God’s presence. So any approach to Sabbath-keeping which takes it away from its emancipatory origins, prohibiting the life-giving good news of the kingdom to those who are vulnerable, is no longer fulfilling its original intent.

Well, where does this leave us?

We may not have a particular issue about Sundays, but I do wonder what traditions we may have that, whilst perfectly good in their intent and origin, can be in danger of becoming an end in themselves, rather than a means of grace.

My hope is that the suspension of all our activities during this last year of lockdown, provides us with an opportunity to reflect on our interrupted traditions, and to plan for a future where we don’t just carry on doing things, because we’ve always done them that way.

So much of what had seemed essential, unchallengeable, has had to stop. And I hope that as we plan for the reopening of society, our lives, and our church over the coming months, we won’t simply seek to regain the familiar, defaulting to our preferred rituals of living, worship, and service.

From our congregational life, to our compassionate engagement with the needs of the world, to our commercial activity, to our cultural impact; we need to hear the challenge to live and rebuild according to our values and vision, and not to assume that we must re-start things as they were when we closed them last March.

These four C-words: congregation, commerce, compassion, and culture, are a helpful way of us envisaging the life of our church; and the Deacons have been using them to think about how we can build a sustainable, effective, future for our church, where our congregational life, our commercial activity, our compassionate ministry, and our cultural impact work together to bring life and hope to being in the world, in the name of Christ.

At this afternoon’s church meeting, we’ll be spending some time reflecting together on our congregational life, one of these four strands, and thinking about how we can embody our values as Christ’s people, in ways that are true to our calling.

This requires courage, it necessitates risk, it calls us to an openness to change, and to a prioritising of the values of the kingdom of heaven.

Thursday, 21 January 2021

Busy Cleaning Nets

 A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation,

the online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church

24th January 2021


Luke 5.1-11

Listen to this sermon here:

I have a friend who has, over the years, occasionally invited me to go fishing with him;

            telling me of the excitement of the catch

            the thrill of the chase, and all that!


            He’s shown me some of the many photos that he has round the house,

                        of him standing proudly displaying yet another record-breaking carp


            and he speaks eloquently of the wonderful peacefulness

                        that comes through sitting for hours in God’s creation

                        with time to think and reflect and receive from God


Well, I have to say I can’t see it myself!

            I may be speaking from a position of ignorance,

            but it all sounds to me like a lot of time

            and not a lot to show for it.


Certainly, this had been the experience of Simon, James, and John

            fishing partners incorporated,

                        Sea of Galilee, Founded 18AD.


They had spent the best part of the last decade

            learning their profession as fishermen.


Night after night, they would set out in their boats,

            making their way into a sea brim-full of fish

            in the hope of bringing home a reasonable catch.


Their nets were always carefully cleaned,

            and the holes were just the right size:

                        big enough to let the tiddlers through,

                        but small enough to catch the fish worth catching.


They had years of theory behind them

            gleaned from their own personal experience

coupled with a careful study of

            “The theory and practice of deep sea night fishing” by Rabbi J.R. Hartley.


These guys knew their stuff:

            they had the kit,

            they had the theory,

            they had the lake.


What they didn’t have, on the morning Jesus came along,

            was any fish.


Doubtless they had had a wonderful time

            communing with the God of creation,

and they had been deeply spiritually blessed

            by a night on the lake and nothing to show for it.


But they still didn’t have any fish.

            They could bask in all the tranquillity they liked

                        but with no fish to show for it

                        it was all a bit of waste of time.


And then along comes Jesus,

            and he’s brought a crowd with him,

            who are all longing to hear him speak to them.


But the problem is, there isn’t really anywhere to stand

            where he can make himself heard.


So when he spots Simon, James & John

            sitting on the shore, some way from the boats

                        cleaning and mending their nets after their hopeless night’s fishing,

            he asks Simon if he can borrow his boat.


And having put out a little way from the shore,

            Jesus takes the opportunity to teach the crowd.


After he’s finished teaching the crowd,

            Jesus turns to Simon,

            who by this point must be exhausted:

                        He’s spent all night fishing

                        he’s cleaned the nets

                        and he’s sat through a sermon

                                    he wasn’t expecting;

            And then Jesus turns to him,

                        and suggests that they set out into deeper water

                        and have another go at the fishing.


Bear in mind, this is Jesus the carpenter

            Jesus the teacher and preacher,

            not Jesus the fisherman.


And here he is telling Simon, who has been fishing since he was a child,

            to give it another go.


You can just imagine the thoughts that went through Simon’s head…

            It’s time for bed

                        The fish are all hiding today

            Who does this know-all think he is?

                        My nets are just nicely clean,

                                    if I let them down again now I’ll have to clean them again,

                                    and then I’ll never get home for lunch!


So actually, when you think about it,

            Simon is quite diplomatic.

            (Although it is entirely possible that Luke has exercised

                        some degree of censorship over Simon’s language here)


Anyway, Simon politely points out to Jesus

            that they’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.


I imagine then a very long pause,

            before Simon gives in with a huge sigh

            saying, despairingly, “if you say so, I’ll let down the nets again”.

            Subtext: “what a complete waste of time this is going to be!”


And we all know what happens next:

            the catch is so huge

                        that the nicely cleaned nets start to break.

            So Simon shouts for his partners on the bank to come and help,

                        and then the catch is so heavy that it starts to sink the boats


We’ll come back to Simon’s reaction

            to this incident in a little while.


What I want to do now, is to think for a minute about

            what lessons we might take from this passage.


I said at the beginning

            that I’m not a great fishing fan.

But in many ways, the image of fishing

            can be a useful metaphor,

for us thinking about why we exist as a church,

            especially with regard to how we relate

            to the world around us.


As with all metaphors,

            we need to be careful not to push it too far

We’re not talking here about an evangelistic policy

            where we try and snare unsuspecting people

                        in order to use them for our own purposes,

            or so we can keep records of the size of our catch.

That would be to push our interpretation of scripture too far


However, there are many parallels

            between the story of Jesus, Simon and the catch of fish

            and our own situation as a church in the world


The key to understanding the parallel,

            is to think of the fishing boats

            as a metaphor for Christian congregations.


And boats can either be safely moored at the bank,

            protected from harm, and nice and easy to get in or out of.

Or they can be out at sea,

            where violent storms may occur, and danger lies round every corner;

            but where they are also surrounded by millions of fish.


And so it is with Christian congregations.

            who can either be the kind of church

                        which safely protects itself from the snares of the world:

                                    never running any risks,

                                    never putting themselves on the line,

                        the kind of church that it’s easy to opt in or out of…


            Or the kind of church which is out in the world

                        facing the storms that may threaten from time to time, taking risks,

            but also engaging with the culture of the world

                        surrounded by the millions of people

                        who have yet to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.


And don’t forget,

            the crowd on the shore in our story wanted to know Jesus:

They were queuing up to hear him,

            crowding round him in their desire

            to have their spiritual needs met.


But before Jesus could minister to them

            he had to get into the boat

            and put off from the shore.


And we are never going to share in Jesus’ mission

            to a world that is still desperately in need of his good news,

if, when he gets into our boat

            we remain moored safely on the bank.


One of the problems we can face here, though

            is that sometimes we fall into the trap

            of thinking we know more about the task of the church than Jesus does!


I mean, let’s face it, we’ve been at this game for a while now.

            Between us, we have a lot of experience of how to do church.

And we’ve certainly invested in having all the right kit:

            we have an amazing building,

                        on which a lot of money has been spent over the years,

                                    to keep it in good order,

                                    and make it look and feel such a lovely place to worship.


            Compared to many churches around the world, in boat terms,

                        the Bloomsbury yacht wouldn’t look out of place in a harbour regatta!


And we’ve also got the theory

            I mean, forget Rabbi JR Hartley,

                        we’ve got a long tradition of preaching,

                        and we’ve got Bible studies, home groups, and personal devotions.

            We know our stuff…


And we’ve also got the lake: London is a huge sea of opportunity.

            Millions of people with spiritual needs,

                        yet to encounter the joy, and peace, and love

                        that a relationship with Jesus can bring into their lives.


But what we don’t have,

            and don’t take this the wrong way

            is all that many fish.


We might have a wonderful time in our wonderful boat, communing with God,

            and being deeply spiritually blessed by the time we spend here

But it’s not worth a lot if at the end of a night’s fishing

            we don’t have many fish to show for it!


And we can’t live our lives

            on the memory of successful fishing trips in the past.


That wouldn’t have kept Simon, James and John in business for very long

            and it won’t do for us either.


We can’t exist on mere memories


George Carey once famously said

            that the church is only ever one generation away from extinction.


If we stop being a fishing church,

            if we spend our time thinking about our successful catches in the past,

and if we moor up at the shore and get out and start cleaning our nets,

            eventually, we’re going to die through lack of fish.


‘Church-growth’ is not a dirty word,

            it is the business of the kingdom of God.


And I think we need to ask ourselves the question:

            of where are we now, as a church?


Are we out in the middle of the sea

            with all the dangers and risks and excitement that involves:

casting our nets into the deep,

            waiting for Jesus to fill them with a catch?

Persevering even beyond the point

            where it looks like we’ll get anything?


Or are we moored comfortably by the shore,

            nipping in and out of the boat as it suits us,

                        spending our time cleaning our nets,

            making sure that we look all nice and tidy,

                        tinkering with our own internal structures.


Have we forgotten what it’s like to actually put out into the sea?


Many churches spend much of their time anchored in the shallows

            Perhaps not at the stage where the boat has grounded on the bank

                        and all the people have got out

            But not out in the middle of the sea either


Most churches in the UK, I would suggest, are anchored in the shallows.

            Catching the fish that come their way,

                        hauling on board those people who come along actively seeking Jesus

            But still close enough to the shore

                        for people to splash in and out as they see fit


So if we get a situation where if people don’t like something

            If the boat starts to rock a bit, off they go…

            to find a boat that’s more to their taste.


Does this ring true?


The thing about being in the middle of the sea,

            is that it requires absolute commitment

            from the people on board.

No ship is going to put out to sea with a crew that can’t really be bothered,

            and would rather have the option of nipping ashore

            if things all get a bit awkward.


And, of course, sometimes storms do indeed come along,

            it’s never all plain sailing.


And it may well be that fear of the coming storms

            keep us from setting off too far from the land

            in case it gets too difficult to get out.


It may well be that it is fear of risk-taking

            that keeps churches anchored in the shallows.


There’s a sweet spot of comfort,

            which we need to be aware of:


Far enough out to catch just enough fish

            to ensure that we don’t starve and die,

but close enough to the shore

that if the weather looks threatening,

            and the boat starts to rock,

we can jump ship, splash to the shore,

            and find somewhere more comfortable.


But there’s another problem with putting out into the sea:

            the problem with going out there and letting our nets down

            is that we don’t know quite what we’re going to catch!


You see, if we’ve got our nets are all nice and clean,

            and our church is just the way we like it

                        because we’ve spent a long time getting it that way,

            and we’ve spent a lot of time discussing how we can make it even better

then the problem with chucking our nets into the sea

            is that they will get dirty again,

            and they might catch lots of dirty fish!


And the problem with dirty fish in our boat

            is that they might just muck it up,

            so it’s no longer the way we like it.


Many congregations decide that it’s much easier to wait in the shallows,

            taking the fish on one or two at a time,

            cleaning each one carefully before letting it on-board.


Look at what happens in our story from the Bible


Simon sets off with Jesus on board

            and goes out into the deep water.

He lets down his nice clean nets

            that he’s put so much effort into,

and Jesus gives him a catch


But the catch starts to break the nets.


I should think at that moment Simon was furious:

            His nets were his livelihood,

                        without them, he couldn’t catch anything.


He was quite happy catching a few fish here and there,

            enough to keep the business going.

He certainly wasn’t prepared for a catch

            so great that it threatened to wreck his nets!


And then it got worse, and the boat began to sink

            under the weight of the fish


So he called his partners, James and John,

            and they came over to help ,

            and Simon’s catch threatened to sink their boat as well.


Simon was no longer worried about keeping his catch for himself by this point,

            he was more concerned about keeping afloat

            and getting back to a place of safety.


So at the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity,

            we might consider how willing are we to work with other churches?

How prepared are we to see ourselves

            as part of a greater fishing partnership in the cause of the gospel of Christ?


I think we need to put division and dis-unity behind us,

            and to recognise that in the task

                        of reaching the community around us

                        with the good news about Jesus,

            we will need to work in unity with other churches,

                        and indeed with those of other faith communities,

                        and those of no faith.


This is what our partnership with London Citizens is all about,

            working with others to bring good news to our city.


And it can all seem very threatening, can’t it?

            I mean, what if they steal some of our fish?


Are we willing to take these kinds of risk with our boat?

            The boat we’ve spent so long cleaning and tidying,

            the nets we’ve spent so long getting pristine.


Are we willing to obey Jesus,

and risk everything for the sake of the catch?


This poses for us a fundamental question:

            What do we gather together for?

            Why do we exist as a church?


Is it to clean our nets, and make our boat look great?


Or is it to risk everything,

            to cast out from the place of safety into the deep

            and to be ready for whatever catch Jesus sends our way?


Are we prepared to take the risk of doing things differently?


What we’re talking about here is the nature of our church community


Are we an inclusive or an exclusive place?

            Do we truly welcome, or are there occasions where we still exclude?


Are we willing to take the risk

            of welcoming the stranger amongst us,

even when doing so threatens to break the nets,

            and sink the boat.


Part of the problem of course, with setting out fishing like this

            is that we have no control over who Jesus sends us.

And we only have to look at the gospels,

            to see the type of people Jesus said he came to save


If we take this risk,

            of being an inclusive and welcoming community,

                        casting our nets into the deep,

            and taking on board whatever catch Jesus sends us,

what is to stop him sending us people we will find challenging???


I ask again, what type of community are we going to be?


If we simply come to church because we like the product,

            and if we’ll stop coming the moment someone dares to mess with it,

then we are condemning our church

            to remaining anchored in the shallows,

because no ship can put out to sea

            with a half-hearted and non-committed crew.


Or, are we prepared to trust the security of the boat to Jesus,

            to be more concerned with fishing for people,

            than we are with painting the boat and cleaning the nets?


So how will we respond?

            Maybe, like Simon, we will initially respond

            with a “Tried it before, it doesn’t work”.


But eventually, hopefully,

            we come to a realisation of our own sinfulness,

we come to see that we’re actually no better than anyone else,

            that we have no moral high ground on which to stand,

that we are just sinners saved by grace,

            and that all our net-cleaning is irrelevant,

because already we’re just as in need of cleansing,

            as anyone else God may send our way.


So, will we join with Simon,

            in confession and a sense of our own sinfulness?

            and a profound awareness of the grace of God

                        who has called us to be part of this crew, of this ship,

            so that through us, Christ can set out into the world

                        and bring many more into his kingdom?