Author: Michael Hopkins

Wisdom

1 Kings 3:15-28
Ephesians 3:8-13

There was once a young prince whose distant uncle was king of a great empire. The prince was carefree and happy, neither very rich nor very poor. One day, a great disaster struck. The king, his uncle, was killed in an earthquake, and all the senior members of the royal family died with him. The prince was solemnly informed that he, now, was to be king. The prince remembered the stories he had heard of young kings in days gone by. He knew at once what he needed: wisdom.

Like King Solomon, David’s son and heir, he needed to know instinctively the best way of resolving a difficult situation. He needed to be able to see to the heart of the deepest and most subtle issues. The big picture and the little details; the well-pondered great questions, and the sharp, incisive practical judgment. That’s what wisdom was all about, and he determined to seek it and make it his own.

There’s a book called ‘The Wisdom of Solomon’, probably written about the time of Jesus. It’s in what called the ‘apocrypha’, that is Jewish books which were valued by Jews of the time, and by the early church, but not considered part of the Old Testament. One of the main themes of this book is a message to pagan rulers: what you need is wisdom! And the place to get this wisdom, according to the book, is in respecting the one true God and the people who honour him, in other words, Israel’s God, and the true Israelites. This can, of course, be turned around as a message to Israel itself. Your task, this message says, is to worship and honour the living God, whatever the pagan nations may do to you. Eventually they will realise that true wisdom consists in respecting and honouring this God, and you are to be the sign to them that this is so.

There are several passages in Paul’s writings where he seems to show knowledge of ‘The Wisdom of Solomon’, and this is one of them. The heart of today’s reading is verse 10, which is one of the New Testament’s most powerful statements of the reason for the church’s existence: the rulers and authorities must be confronted with God’s wisdom, in all its rich variety, and this is to happen through the church! Not, we should quickly add, through what the church says, though that is vital as well. Rather, through what the church is, namely, the community in which men, women, and children of every race, colour, social and cultural background come together in glad worship of the one true God. It is precisely this many-sided, many-coloured, many-splendoured identity of the church that makes the point.

God’s wisdom, Paul is saying, is like that too: like a many-faceted diamond which twinkles and sparkles with all the colours in the rainbow. The ‘rulers and authorities’, however – both the earthly authorities and their shadowy heavenly counterparts – always tend to create societies and social structures in their own flat, boring image, monochrome, uniform and one-dimensional. Worse: they tend to marginalise or kill people or groups who don’t fit their narrow band of acceptability. The church is to be, by the very fact of its existence, a warning to them that their time is up, and an announcement to the world that there is a different way to be human.

This, then, is what Paul means by ‘the riches of Christ’. He’s referring to the richness of this new life, the new way of being human that has now been unveiled in and through Jesus, together with the future hope that it contains. The phrase will sound strange to many, both Christian and non-Christian, who have forgotten, or perhaps never known, that what can appear from the outside as a tedious or humdrum religious existence – all that going to church, people say, all that saying of prayers and trying to be holy! – is in fact meant to be a delighted exploration of untold and inexhaustible riches. Being a Christian is meant to consist of going from room to room in the king’s palace, relishing the beauty and splendour of it all.

Part of Paul’s task is to help people see that they are called to share in this inheritance themselves. He was by now a past master at exploring the treasury of wisdom and insight, of spiritual joys and hopes, which are there in Christ. He regarded it as a major element in his own vocation that he should invite others to share it as well. The newly established churches around Asia Minor needed to find out for themselves what was rightfully theirs ‘in Christ’. If they did so, they would be well on the way to maturity, to being able to go forward – with or without an apostle to guide them.

Central among the treasures given in the Messiah is of course free and confident access to God himself. The Messiah’s faithfulness to God’s saving purpose has opened the door of the heavenly throne-room itself. That open door reveals not an angry or capricious god, one who might be favourable one day and scowling the next, the young Christians Paul is writing to knew plenty of gods like that already, but the loving father who welcomed them all as beloved children into his presence. Access to him is everything one could want.

All these rich benefits should mean that the church can look at Paul’s imprisonment without worrying, but why does Paul describe his sufferings as their ‘glory’? The answer is surely that he is suffering precisely because he is pioneering a way of life that challenges the sovereignty of the rulers and authorities. The fact that he is in prison is a sign that the Christian way is indeed posing a decisive threat to the rule of evil in the world. The questions this passage poses for us, then, are:
Are we learning to explore the riches of Christ? Or are we content to stay in the outer hallways of the great palace?
Have we imagined that the inner rooms are too boring to claim our attention?
And are our churches, in the sort of life they lead, posing the kind of challenge to the power of evil which provokes a reaction?

Love is…

There was a newly married couple who arrived very late indeed at the hotel for their honeymoon, after a terrible journey.  It was really late, and the couple were so tired after their horrific journey that they just wanted to go to sleep.  They were shown to their room, and it was smaller than they were expecting.  They though they’d booked a decent room, and this one only seemed to have a large wardrobe and a sofa bed.  However, it was so late and they were so tired that they just dumped their cases in the corner, and fell asleep on the sofa bed.  In the morning they were somewhat concerned that the room was not what they had booked and paid for.  However, when they complained, the hotel staff came up, and opened the doors of the wardrobe.  It turned out that it wasn’t a wardrobe at all, but was the doorway into the main room, which was large and luxurious, and the couple had spent the night in the lobby.

 

We miss out a great deal when we only look at things from one perspective.  How much that couple missed out on that night, by assuming a door was a wardrobe.  We can miss out on a great deal in life because we only look from one perspective.

 

Imagine a big diamond.  Her’ll have to imagine it, because I haven’t got a big diamond to show her.  Imagine a big diamond, it has many different faces, all different facets, and the diamond looks quite different, depending upon which face her’re looking at.  We heard in that reading from the first letter to the Corinthians that famous poem about love.  What I want to say this morning to suggest to her some different facets of love, some different ways to look at love.

 

Here’s a story about love: on 2 May 1962, a dramatic advertisement appeared in the San Francisco Examiner: “I don’t want my husband to die in the gas chamber for a crime he did not commit.  I will therefore offer my services for 10 years as a cook, maid, or housekeeper to any leading attorney who will defend him and bring about his vindication.”

 

One of San Francisco’s greatest attorneys, Vincent Hallinan, read the ad and contacted Gladys Kidd, who had placed it.  Her husband, Robert Lee Kidd, was about to be tried for the murder of an elderly antique dealer.  Kidd’s fingerprints had been found on a bloodstained ornate sword in the victim’s shop.  During the trial, Hallinan proved that the antique dealer had not been killed by the sword, and that Kidd’s fingerprints and blood on the sword got there because Kidd had once toyed with it with a friend when they were both out shopping.  The jury found Kidd to be not guilty.  Attorney Hallinan refused Gladys Kidd’s offer of 10 years’ servitude.

 

Here’s another story about love: during the 17th century, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, sentenced a soldier to be shot for his crimes.  The execution was to take place at the ringing of the evening curfew bell.  However, the bell didn’t sound.  The soldier’s fiancé had climbed into the belfry, and clung to the great clapper of the bell to prevent it from striking.  When she was summoned by Cromwell to account for her actions, she wept as she showed him her bruised and bleeding hands.  Cromwell’s heart was touched and he said, “Herr lover shall live because of herr sacrifice.  Curfew shall not ring tonight!”

 

Here’s another story about love: Princess Alice was a daughter of Queen Victoria.  Her children were all ill with diphtheria.  The doctors told the princess not to kiss her children because she would endanger her own life by breathing the child’s breath.  In the end, her son was so distressed that without thinking of herself she kissed her son.  She got diphtheria and some days thereafter she died.

 

Here’s another story about love: a medieval monk announced he would be preaching next Sunday evening on “The Love of God.”  As the shadows fell and the light stopped coming in through the cathedral windows, the congregation gathered.  In the darkness of the altar, the monk lit a candle and carried it to the crucifix.  First of all, he illuminated the crown of thorns, next, the two wounded hands, then the marks of the spear wound.  In the hush that fell, he blew out the candle and left the chancel.  There was nothing else to say.

 

Here’s another story about love: during the American Revolution, a Minister called Peter Miller was a friend of George Washington.  Michael Wittman was an evil-minded sort who did all he could to oppose and humiliate Peter Miller.  One day Michael Wittman was arrested for treason and sentenced to die.  Peter Miller walked seventy miles on foot to Philadelphia to plead for the life of the traitor.

“No, Peter,” General Washington said. “I cannot grant her the life of herr friend.”

“My friend!” exclaimed the old preacher. “He’s the bitterest enemy I have.”

“What?” cried Washington. “Her’ve walked seventy miles to save the life of an enemy? That puts the matter in different light. I’ll grant herr pardon.” And he did.

Peter Miller took Michael Wittman back home, no longer an enemy but a friend.

 

All these stories are different examples of love, and today we have an even clearer example.  In Aria we can see God’s love at work.  Baptism is a sign and seal of God’s for Aria, for all to see.

 

Aria is unique, special.  Of all the people who have come and gone on the earth, since the beginning of time, not one of them is like her.  No one’s hair grows exactly the way hers does.  No one’s finger prints are like hers.  And just like her fingerprints, her lips have little markings on them, little grooves in the skin … and everyone has a different pattern, so no one’s lips are like hers.  No one smells just like her.  And no one’s eyes are just like hers.  No one is loved by the same combination of people that love her – no one!  No one before, no one to come.

And if she did not exist, there would be a hole in creation, a gap in history, something missing from the plan for humanity.  Treasure her uniqueness.  It is a gift given only to her.  Enjoy it and share it!

 

So many people these days feel like they are nothing more than a number on a computer card somewhere in a government file.  But God says she is more than that.  She’s a special design.  Because that is the way God created her.

 

She is different.  She is not just a number.  And because she’s different, she is important.  Maybe not important to the government but she is important to God.  Because He is the one who designed her.  He is the one who made her different.  He is the one who made her unique.  (Along with her mummy and daddy of course.)  Scientists have only just recently discovered how unique and special each one of us is — how special she is.  But God has known this all the time.

 

I recently learned that all zebras are unique.  Each zebra has different stripes so mummy and daddy zebra can tell which is their baby in a crowd of baby zebras.  Each baby zebra is unique and special, like Aria is unique.

 

Bubbles are also unique too.  There are no two bubbles the same.  Each one is a different size or shape or colour.  Each is special.  Each is unique.  Just like Aria.

 

This love that we can see in Aria, God’s love for her, for you, and for me.  May it be so.

Is there an app for that?

Ephesians 2:11-22

The last time I watched a soccer match it was West Germany versus the USSR, so I’d be lying if I told you that I followed the World Cup. Indeed, having grown up in Rugby, and attended Rugby School, I really should say that I don’t accept the heretical breakaway version football that uses a round ball and no hands.

Apart from the football, of course, what would put me off going to Russia is the language, or rather my lack of understanding it. I managed to get by in France with a little bit of dog French remembered from school, and I managed to just about get by in Italy combining that dog French with some very rusty Latin from a long time ago, but Russian doesn’t even use the same letters. It might as well be Chinese. Or Greek. Or Japanese.

I was reading that this World Cup was described as the “Google Translate World Cup,” because the translation technology brought people together like nothing else. Google Translate is an app on smartphones, which translates anything from one language to another. Across Russia fans and journalists were using translation apps for everything: asking for directions, chatting with taxi drivers, getting slightly nerve-racking haircuts, checking into hotels, making friends, even flirting. The app’s camera function — which can scan and translate text — allowed visiting fans to decode menus, decipher signs, and read the names of subway stations, even if the Cyrillic alphabet remains a mystery to them.

“It really helps,” said Rodrigo Ferreira, a Brazilian fan from Salvador who had been in Russia, with his brother Arthur, for almost two weeks. “It’s good for everything. We try to speak in English, too, but it’s been useful in bars, in restaurants, for meeting women”. Google expected a surge in people using the app, but traffic has been twice as heavy as usual for this time of year. It didn’t matter if you were rooting for Croatia or France, Germany or Sweden. It didn’t matter because everyone needed Google Translate. The app turned out to bring people together as much as the sport did.

I do think there might some value in suggesting President Trump considers using Google Translate. Sorry, I mis-spoke there. I don’t think there’s any point whatsoever in suggesting Trump uses Google Translate, since it can only translate recognised languages. Only the other day, trump was giving a press conference about apprenticeships, and while he was delivering it, he realised that the words apprentice and apprenticeship were connected. It’s the intellectual cutting edge of leadership, folks. If only, though, there was an etiquette app, which would remind Trump not to be late for the Queen, and not to walk in front of her.

Well, it’s easy to score a cheap laugh from Trump, especially as the only alternative is crying, but the point he seems to be a centre of division and discord. Senator John McCain, from the same party of Trump, called Trump’s joint news conference with Putin “one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.” Will Hurd, a Texas Republican and former undercover CIA officer, said, “I’ve seen the Russian intelligence manipulate many people many people in my career, and I never would have thought the US President would be one of them.”

It’s not just Trump who can divide people. There are countless ways to sort people into categories. I sometimes think that we’re more divided than any other time in recent memory. Some people look British, and some don’t – or so people assume. Too many are too quick to assume who is an immigrant and who is a Muslim, and that either of those might not be a good thing.

It is worth noting that we have always been divided. There are plenty of villages on the east coast who don’t talk to each because one didn’t want the other that the Vikings were coming. The Normans harried the north of England, which was made the divisions of the Industrial Revolution look simple. Where I grew up in the Midlands, which villages looked to which other villages had a great deal to do with who was on which side in the English civil wars. And now we’re vehemently divided into Remainers who won’t take no for an answer, and Brexiteers who won’t take yes for an answer.

If only there were a similar app to bring people together around other topics. Citizen versus non-citizen. Christian versus Muslim versus Jew. White versus black. Men versus women. Straight versus gay. Our divisions are deep, and we need an app to bring us together…or a Redeemer.

The thing is, God’s love for us is so great that it lies within every human being, however much they might try to hide it, or not to acknowledge it. Every human life begins with God’s love for all of us. Where we see differences, God’s grace can be a force for unity. We can either resist that movement, or become part of it. It’s always tempting to resist, after all why should we join with someone who’s not as skilled, or as smart, or as special as we are? And yet God offers this starting word that all of our human-created divisions don’t matter. In God’s love, all of us share the same place.

In the reading from the letter to the Ephesians, Paul says that the change that Jesus brings to our lives makes us all a part of God’s love. Whatever we were, all of our cherished labels, Paul says, are now erased. Jews and Gentiles have been made equal in God’s sight, by God’s work through Jesus. The change in us, through Jesus, is so great that all of our former divisions become meaningless.

Paul is talking about unity, not uniformity. One group does not fall under the power of the more dominant group. God in Christ has made one humanity. Bridging this huge gap, which defined everything about daily life in Paul’s world, is not something that human beings have to work on. God has already done it, Paul says. If this were our job, I’m sure that we’d grow weary, or give up, but this is God’s work.

What is our job, though, is to live with this transformation. To live in the kind of spiritual community that reflects this unity. Our transformation is a gift from God, and we’re challenged to pay it forward with lives full of welcome for other people, reflecting the welcome we have received. We are no longer strangers to one another, but people who share a family.

What a challenge! How can we live with division? Do we despair and give up? Or do we seek out the common ground we do have? When Paul is writing to the Ephesians, he’s already assuming that they have some common ground. As citizens of a divided nation, might we seek the same kind of shared purpose? Surely God can bring us together? Surely we should be proud of our country for having many different beliefs? Are we not challenged to reconnect with each other? Should we not be striving to improve relationships with each other? Could we, dare we, learn again to listen?

Am I not challenged to take enough of an interest in soccer, to make common ground with the people who follow it? Not to agree with them, but to understand our shared place in humanity. Am I not challenged to make more effort to understand people who speak different languages to me? Not to agree with them, but to understand our shared place in humanity. Am I not challenged to make an effort to understand those who support Trump? Not to agree with them, but to understand our shared place in humanity. Am I not challenged to look beyond the labels that I have created, and look into the eyes of the person behind my labels?

Sorting people into categories and treating them accordingly is very simple. Finding the unity we have with one another takes energy. Fortunately, Jesus has gone ahead of us to do the work of creating unity between us and people on the other side of any divide we can imagine. Now our calling is to live with that unity, to bring it to light, to honour it in our shared life. There’s no app for that, but we have the power of Jesus on our side.

The choice

Ephesians 1:4-10

It’s been another ridiculously hot day.  The room you’ve been in all day was too hot and airless.  The bus was rammed full of people, only marginally less hot than the Bakerloo line which was the ante room of hell, hotter than a sauna at seven in the morning.  You get back to Waterloo and discover the trains are in chaos because of the wrong kind of sunlight and a shortage of drivers.  Trains are being cancelled and delayed all over the place, but it’s all okay because an automated computer announcement makes an insincere apology at regular intervals.  Of course, trains on the Alton are cancelled far more often than any others, but eventually far too many are crammed onto a train that’s too full.  And its smelly because not everyone understands personal hygiene in hot weather to the same extent.

 

When you eventually get home, you are not at your very best.  But when you tell your family about the journey you find you’re also telling them a larger story.  Everybody knows that the trains aren’t running properly because the present government has allowed them to get worse and worse so that they can have an excuse to introduce a new scheme of their own.  But there’s an election coming soon, and then you’ll be able to vote out this government and put in another one that might at last get you a decent train service.  After Mussolini got the trains to run on time, didn’t he?  So, as you talk about your anger over this evening’s train journey, you’re actually talking as well about your anger with the present        government.  And as you talk about how things could be better with the train you normally catch, you are talking as well about how good things are going to be with the new government.  There is a larger framework, a larger story, within which your own smaller stories become more interesting and important.

 

And this is the point of what is essentially Paul’s prayer at the start of today’s reading from the letter to the Ephesians.  What we have is essentially a celebration of the larger story within which every single Christian story, every story of individual conversion, faith, spiritual life, obedience and hope – is set.  Only by understanding and celebrating the larger story can we hope to understand everything that’s going on in our own smaller stories, and so observe God at work in and through our own lives.

 

It’s in that context of seeing and understanding that bigger picture, I’d like to focus on what Paul says about being chosen.    The fate of the children separated from their parents at the USA border continues to be a matter of grave concern.  Individual stories are a cause for tears of both anguish and joy, and even US Senators criticise Trump’s administration for the lack of progress.  There are more tearful and joyful reunions as the Thai football team boys were rescued from their cave ordeal, after a dangerous and complex rescue operation.  Meanwhile feelings ran high at the NATO summit, and during Trump’s visit here.

 

In some of the stories that didn’t come so prominently in the news headlines this week, one adoption charity announced support for birth parents.  An exhibition at the foundling Museum, one of Britain’s oldest adoption charities, is based on the tokens left by mothers with their babies so they could be identified if they were ever reunited; and there is further controversy in the Social Work community as the new Working Together to Safeguard Children guidance is published.

 

In our reading, Paul talked about being chosen, which is a bittersweet concept for anyone connected with adoption and fostering.  The heart-rending little tokens – scraps of fabric and engraved coins – left by birth mothers at London’s Foundling Museum are testament to the pain of separation that is one part of the adoption choice story.  So, it is good to see support for birth parents, who have often made a heart-wrenching choice to give up a child, in order to give that child the possibility of a better life.  Adoptive parents will of course be thankful for the choice to adopt, while about 2,000 children in the UK are on the adoption list, still waiting to be chosen.

 

Being chosen isn’t a quick fix for the problems of a traumatic childhood, of course.  Adoption UK recently launched a campaign for better support for adopted children in education, after their research revealed school for many is a daily struggle, where many face bullying and fail academically.   While social workers are concerned the new guidance means that they may be left without managers’ support when making those critical safeguarding decisions behind most adoption stories.

 

The migrant children and parents separated by recent change in the USA border practice know that bitter-sweet taste of separation and reunion; as do the families of the Thai boys football team, thankfully rescued from their dangerous ordeal.  Does the joy of reunited families give us a glimpse of God’s joy at choosing us?  And what does it mean to us to be chosen, adopted into God’s family?  How much does our own family story impact on how we experience God’s adoption?  Is it a joyful reunion or a painful reminder of past separations?  What are our expectations of God, and what is expected of us?  Adopted and fostered children can struggle with a sense of responsibility in their new family; should they be grateful?  Do they have to be on their best behaviour?

 

Individual relationships and unions, of course, are the base of international ones.  Trump’s behaviour and comments as an individual risk threatening the political unity of NATO and the European/USA alliances.  How does our behaviour, in social media and in real life, promote or threaten unity?

 

Chosen means an awful lot of different things in the situations in which we can find ourselves, all part of a bigger picture of how God is at work in the world.

 

Later in the reading, Paul goes on to tell the story of the cross of Jesus in such a way that we can hear, underneath it, the ancient Jewish story of Passover.  Passover was the night when the angel of death came through the land of Egypt, and the blood of the lamb sprinkled on the doorposts rescued the Israelites from the judgment that would otherwise have fallen on them.  The word often used for that moment was ‘redemption’ or ‘deliverance’: it was the time when God went to Egypt and ‘bought’ for himself the people that had been enslaved there.  Now, once again in fulfilment of the old story, the true ‘redemption’ has occurred.  Forgiveness is ‘deliverance’.  Telling the story like this — the story of Jesus the Messiah, and the meaning of his death, told in such a way as to bring out the fact that it’s the fulfilment of the Exodus story — is a  classic Jewish way of celebrating the goodness of God.  For Christians, we tell the story of what God has done in and through Jesus, and this is the big picture in which all our choices sit.

 

I end with an extract from a poem by G.A. Studdert Kennedy, aka Woodbine Willy:

I have to choose. I back the scent of life

Against its stink. That’s what Faith works out at

Finally. I know not why the Evil,

I know not why he Good, both mysteries

Remain unsolved and both insoluble.

I know that both are there, the battle set,

And I must fight on this side or on that.

I can’t stand shiv’ring on the bank,

I plunge Head first. I bet my life on Beauty, Truth,

And Love, not abstract but incarnate Truth,

Not Beauty’s passing shadow but its Self.

Its very self made flesh Love, realised.

I bet my life on Christ–Christ Crucified.

Behold your God!

…I see

All history pass by, and through it all

Still shines that face, the Christ Face, like a star

Which pierces drifting clouds, and tells the Truth…

So through the clouds of Calvary–there shines

His face, and I believe that Evil dies,

And Good lives on, loves on, and conquers all–

All War must end in Peace. These clouds are lies.

They cannot last. The blue sky is the Truth.

For God` is Love. Such is my Faith, and such

My reasons for it, and I find them strong

Enough. And you? You want to argue? Well,

I can’t. It is a choice. I choose the Christ.

For the children

Mark 6:14-29
Amos 7:7-9

I did think I’d begin with the dance of the seven veils this morning, but you’ll be relieved to know that I thought better of it. We have this wonderful story which has been painted, made in to a play by Oscar Wilde, and the famous opera by Strauss with the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’. But if we’re taken in by that classy façade, then it dulls our disgust at this cacophony of incest, lust, greed, and the vilest injustice. The tabloids would have had a field-day!

Today’s Herod was the son of Herod (the Great), and Phillip was his half-brother. Dad Herod executed some other brothers and gave orphaned granddaughter, Herodias, to half-uncle Phillip as a wife. They had a daughter, Salome, then Herodias left Phillip and moved in with half-uncle-cum-brother-in-law Herod (today’s Herod), and that’s when John the Baptist stepped in.

John the Baptist calls out this morally-corrupt rat’s nest and winds up in prison for his trouble. Herod liked to listen to John, but was too in love with his position of power to act on what he heard. Then he throws a massive party and brings out his young and luscious step-daughter-cum-great-half-niece-cum-zeroth-cousin-twice-removed for everyone to drool over. Testosterone takes over, and he makes a showy and rash promise. Then instead of having the guts to admit he’s done something stupid, he gives in to the vengeful scheming of his wife-cum-sister-in-law-cum-niece, and murders John to save his pride.

It’s a sorry tale of all that is worst in humanity. And all that John’s friends can do is mourn. Sometimes things really stink. But there’s nothing new under the sun. Every day there is injustice. People get away with stuff they should not get away with. Other people suffer for things that are not their fault. It’s not right and it’s not good, but it’s how it is in our broken world.

We can see this all too easily, when political principles now seem almost non-existent. Amos’s plumb line seems to be needed now as much it was in his day. Not just Donald Trump, but in our own government, when heads appear on platters for all manner of reasons.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight against all that is wrong in the world. It takes someone else to wipe every tear from our eyes, to make a world with no more death or mourning or crying or pain. And that will be so. Meanwhile, in this world, sometimes things really stink. So, we must do what we can to make a better world for our children.

One way to do that is to celebrate what makes the world a better place. This past week it has felt like the whole world, whatever our differences, has been united around our shared hope that the Thai children and their coach could be rescued from that cave. I call the source of the shared unity, that shared energy, “God”.

17 days.

Mission impossible.

I was certainly conscious of them constantly, praying for them, checking the numbers out, praying, conscious of others praying, however you think intercession works, however you think God works. Last Sunday, at the General Assembly, in our Sunday worship, it was my job to watch the then emerging news, and discreetly relay to the chaplain what he needed to pray for in the prayers of intercession.

There was the waiting for news before they were found, as the story began to increase in profile. There was the first encounter, so seemingly understated, with boys as young as 11 who had been there for ten days, in the dark, with no idea if anyone was even coming.

There is the shock of Saman Kunan’s death, a volunteer, diving to lay oxygen tanks and running out of oxygen himself.

There is the bravery of all involved, and the endless volunteers for all the necessary tasks from the most mundane to the most complex.

There is the international cooperation; the various languages.

The leadership of the divers, and of the whole operation in such a humble, never a “look at me” way, all the way to Chiang Rai province’s acting governor, Narongsak Osatanakorn.

There is the amazing group of parents.

There is the creation of an agreed plan.

There is the actual grueling, terrifying physicality involved, squeezing through a flooded 37 cm (14.5 inches) gap where you have to bend and turn and divers have to take off their own tank.
It intrigued me how the media responded: on TV and on the radio, presenters regularly spoke of “crossing their fingers”, “crossing everything”, but I didn’t hear any mention of God or prayer. In our place and time, crossing one’s fingers is clearly more scientific, more 21st Century, than God or prayer.

Then there were the stories of the coach having spent a decade in a Buddhist monastery, and the understanding that this gave him the resources to help the boys in a culture where spirituality and meditation are ubiquitous. Certainly, the first images were of young people peaceful.

The value of each human life has been dramatically illustrated. May this realisation enable us, motivate us, to put shared energy into other situations, less dramatic it may seem, where we can save and enhance a life.

The words of John Volanthen, the lead diver who was one of the two to finally discover them alive: “I dive for passion and always wondered if it would have purpose. Last two weeks was what I prepared for my entire life.”

Do we want to a community, a nation, with values and behaviours like Herod and Herodias? Or can we see Amos’s plumb line? Are we not challenged to follow the example of those who rescued the Thai boys from the cave, to use our gifts and talents, to stretch ourselves to the limit, to make the world a better place for children like Salome, our children, for all God’s children?

Even a tiny scrap of hope

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27
In this reading we hear about David’s grief at the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, which leads to a poetic lament, which is a tribute to the fallen father and son. What surprises me is the fact that David eulogises so eloquently about his arch enemy Saul, who wanted him dead. I think that’s because what we see here is Saul from a completely human standpoint, the one who was so significant to Israel over the years; providing leadership, national unity, security and prosperity. Saul and Jonathan dying looks like a disastrous defeat for Israel and our reading ends on a note of despair with no hope for the future. Yet, even so, David, despairing in the loss of a friend and the defeat of a nation, rises to become the greatest of kings. It seems that God can use even the tiniest scrap of hope.

Psalm 130
This psalm begins with a heartfelt cry to God from the depths of alienation. We don’t know who wrote, when, where, or the context. It moves quickly from intense desire to humble confession and repentance, to confident expectation and finally joyful expectation for the writer and for the nation. It starts off individual, and ends up community, and there’s an appeal for hope with the certainty of God’s unfailing love and redemptive power. It seems that God can use even the tiniest scrap of hope.

2 Corinthians 8:7-15
This passage focuses around Paul’s collection of funds for the Jerusalem church. The money would meet economic needs among the Jewish congregations, which tended to be less wealthy than their Gentile counterparts, but it would also emphasise unity between the two. These verses not only encourage readers to think about how we use our resources of time, talents and money but about how our actions might reflect Gospel values. The Corinthians are urged to give generously in the knowledge that God has already provided abundantly for them. Christ gave up everything so that others might receive the wealth of God’s grace. In the Corinthians passage we learn that the smallest of gifts can reap riches if given in the spirit of Christ, who gave all that we might inherit the kingdom. It seems that God can use even the tiniest scrap of hope.

Mark 5:21-43
It looks like we’ve got an interruption here. On his way to heal Jairus’ daughter Jesus heals a chronically ill woman, and then goes back to Jairus’ daughter. There two stories of come together to illustrate powerfully the role that Jesus’ has over life and death. In the healing of Jairus’ daughter, Jesus is revealed here for the first time as having power over death. At the same time, in the story of the woman with persistent bleeding, Jesus allows himself to be defiled (in the eyes of the law) in order to make her clean and offer her new life. Here we are reminded that not only do we worship a God of infinite power, but one of immeasurable compassion and tenderness who is sensitive to our sufferings. It seems that God can use even the tiniest scrap of hope.

All four of our readings tonight use very different stories to remind us that God can use even the slightest thread of hope to do more than we can imagine. David, despairing in the loss of a friend and the defeat of a nation, rises to become the greatest of kings. The writer of the Psalm moves from anguish to certainty by trusting in God who keeps promises. In the Corinthians passage we learn that the smallest of gifts can reap riches if given in the spirit of Christ, who gave all that we might inherit the kingdom. In our Gospel passage, we see how words of simple faith – or perhaps desperation – transform lives. Our faith does not need to be refined, eloquent, or shaped in the traditional wording of the creeds to be worthy of notice. We can be rich or poor, have everything or nothing, be distinguished or destitute, still God hears every sigh, every deep and heartfelt longing as prayer, even if it comes only because we have nowhere else to turn. Thank god that god is a God of hope.

Servant Leaders

You might remember that Boris Johnson said that he would chain himself to the bulldozers in order to stop a third runway being built at Heathrow Airport. And you might have noticed that this week, when parliament voted on whether there should be a third runway at Heathrow, instead of voting as he’d said he would, Boris was in Afghanistan. A friend of mine who happens to live in the prime Minister’s constituency said that he’d offered to drive the bulldozer for her, as it would solve a number of her problems.

When we think about leadership, we often think of national leaders. It’s very easy to score cheap points off them, but what do we ask of leaders?

Herbert Hoover was one of the most competent business executives, full of intellect and energy. With a handful of assistants, he put together a series of relief operations that saved millions of lives during and after World War I. He was familiar with Latin and proficient in the principles of mining and metallurgy. Yet his Presidency of the United States was a failure. Poor judgment and high tariffs and taxes did him in.

Following him was Franklin D Roosevelt, whose managerial style was the antithesis of Hoover’s. He often put off making decisions. He didn’t respect lines of authority. He would deliberately give different aides similar assignments. He incessantly played his officials against one another. Internal battles were constant and bitter. FDR was devious. He was never confrontational, using indirect methods to get this way. You rarely learned where you stood by having a face-to-face meeting; the President was usually congenial and unspecific. Many thought FDR’s methods were inefficient and chaotic, but most political scientists have concluded there was method in his seeming madness. The chaos enable him to prevent anyone from accumulating too much power or blocking him from information. He was incontestably the master of his government and the dominant figure of 20th-century American politics.

FDR had to work hard to persuade Harry Truman to be his running mate in the 1944 presidential election. Truman wanted to go to the Senate, but incumbent vice-president Henry Wallace was unpopular, so Truman was approached, and accepted the job with extreme reluctance. On April 12, 1945 he was summoned to the White House. There he was shown into Eleanor Roosevelt’s sitting room, where she told him that President Roosevelt was dead. After a moment of stunned silence Truman asked her, “Is there anything I can do for you?” She shook her head. “Is there anything we can do for you?” she said. “For you’re the one in trouble now.”

What we expect of leaders is immense, and sometimes those we expect to be good leaders are anything but, and those who don’t seem auspicious come up with the goods. As we heard in today’s gospel reading: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Jesus came as God, as the most powerful, capable of “flinging stars into space”, but he came to serve. From the first moments of his ministry he threw himself into teaching, healing, and feeling with especial compassion for the weak, the vulnerable, among them women, the poor, the lepers, the possessed, the dying, and in our reading today children. Yet Jesus was a leader, undoubtedly a leader of men and women and of course of the disciples. Jesus was a servant leader which is a paradox all of us need to explore.

The world’s most admired leaders: Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, and Nelson Mandela all had the certain knowledge that they were to serve those they led, to love and to guide them toughly and tenderly. These people did not sit and argue with others about who was the greatest, as did the disciples in our Gospel, nor did they imagine themselves as perfect; Ghandi in particular always regretted his failures as a father to his son. No, they focussed on grace and truth and serving the people.

This is difficult to sustain in our status conscious society; to be a leader, unfazed or tempted by the trappings of office. The media would have you be an iron man or an iron lady, to be always right, never to change your mind, never to admit that you might be wrong, and always to lead from the front. Sometimes, those being led want these things too. I always find very hard to realise that my bright idea is actually a load of nonsense, or to admit that I’m wrong about something. I think many of us don’t like losing face.

John became the managing director of an important company in Glasgow. After six months the leader of the trade union came to see him to make a complaint, nothing unusual about that he thought, except that the complaint was that John was only driving a Ford. “You have to have a Jag,” said the man from the shop floor. “All our other managing directors have driven a Jag, people won’t respect you else.”

Jesus’ world is very different to this one, all around us are examples of leaders who have not embraced this paradox, who wage war on their own people, who abuse their employees and exploit their colleagues, who want to be sitting at the table rather than serving at it and who want to be at the head of all processions.

You have probably noticed that geese fly in a V formation. As with most animal behaviour, there is a good reason for including that in their instincts. As each bird flaps its wings, it creates uplift for the bird following. In a V formation, the whole flock adds at least 71% more flying range than if each bird flew alone. Whenever a goose falls out of formation, it suddenly feels the drag and resistance of trying to fly alone. Like geese, people who share a common direction and sense of community can get where they are going quicker and easier than those who try and go at it alone. When a goose gets tired, it rotates to the back of the formation and another goose flies at the point position. If people had as much sense as geese, they would realise that ultimately their success depends on working as a team, taking turns during the hard tasks, and sharing leadership. Geese in the rear of the formation honk to encourage those up front to increase their speed. It’s important that our honking from behind be encouraging, otherwise it’s just honking. When a goose gets sick or wounded, two other geese drop out of formation and follow it down to provide protection. They stay with the unhealthy member of the flock until they are able to fly again. Then they launch out with another passing flock or try to catch up with their own.

Here in Farnham URC, in our forthcoming Spire Church, we are blessed with people who quietly and steadily lead our activities and our work, who keep our church flourishing in many different unsung ways; people who have understood this paradox and who have the quality of gently serving others. Today you’re asked to recognise and affirm this in Belinda, David, Fran, Howard, Janet, Nick, and Sue. Their task as Church Leaders, along with Conrad and me and Methodist friends, for our new church is not easy, but they do with our love, our support, and our prayers. Remember them, and say thank you to them.

The world around us is desperately crying out for leadership, but not seeing it. Let us, in the church, be a model of leadership to world. Let us show the world the message of Jesus, let us make a difference, for his sake, in this community.

So, I end with some words by Martin Luther King, who knew a bit about leadership:
Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.

The significance of questions

Job 38:1-11
Mark 4:35-41

There is a story about a monastery in Europe perched high on a cliff several hundred feet in the air. The only way to reach the monastery was to be suspended in a basket which was pulled to the top by several monks who pulled and tugged with all their strength. Obviously the ride up the steep cliff in that basket was terrifying. One tourist got exceedingly nervous about half-way up as he noticed that the rope by which he was suspended was old and frayed. With trembling voice, he asked the monk who was riding with him in the basket how often they changed the rope. The monk thought for a moment and answered brusquely, “Whenever it breaks.”

One of the most unhelpful ideas about Christianity, indeed about faith in general, is that doubt is the opposite of faith. It is not. Certainty is the opposite of faith. Doubt is an intrinsic part of faith, for by definition faith is about making a commitment and a decision about matters that cannot be proven in measurable ways. Certainty can only live when things can be proven beyond any doubt. Certainty is much than a balance of probability, much more than beyond reasonable doubt. Certainty can only be when things can be proved. Certainty is the opposite of faith, and doubt is an integral part of faith, not something challenging or competing with faith.

Certainty is not what you’ll find in our reading from Job, this is filled with questions. In fact, it’s nothing less than a barrage of questions from God to Job. God is asking Job if he was present at the start of creation? Where was |ob when God laid the foundations of the earth? Does Job understand how and why God made the earth?

Why is God asking these questions of Job? Job’s story begins with Job as a good man, for whom life was going well. He had plenty of money, a thriving business, and a good family. Job is faithful in his religion. The perfect follower of God. Then things go wrong. His children die. The animals that are his business are stolen. He becomes ill himself. Unsurprisingly, as many of us would, he keeps asking the question, “why me?”. Job is then visited by his three friends, Job’s comforters, who tell him everything’s his own fault. Job rejects his friends and stands by God, but still asking questions.

That was thirty-seven chapters I’ve summarised for you. God responds to Job with what we heard read from chapter thirty-eight, by asking if Job was present when the world was created? Where was Job when the foundations of the world were laid? Where was Job when the earth was built, when the stars were set in the sky, when the sea first flowed? The purpose of these questions was the way that God said to Job that he would be unable to understand everything in this world because he was only able to look from a human perspective, and you need to be able to see from God’s perspective in order to understand everything.

So, a passage of questions is telling us that the underlying message from God is that we cannot understand unless and until we can see things from God’s perspective, so certainly not this side of eternity. We are clearly in the realm of faith and doubt, and definitely not certainty.

What, then, of our gospel reading? Jesus calms the storm. Like our reading from Job, we need to know the background context to make proper sense of this. In the Hebrew Bible, which was the Bible in the time of Jesus, the sea stood both for chaos in general and for all the disasters that can befall us. So, Jesus is not just saving the disciples in a storm, there is a much greater significance of Jesus commanding order over chaos. He is clearly not just someone who can calm a storm, but someone who can bring order out of chaos in the whole of creation. Not just a clever person, but God himself.

There are, of course a great many other questions about this passage. The fishermen would be well used to the lake. What kind of storm would it need to be that even they were frightened of it? And if it was such a storm that they really were so terrified, then how did Jesus stay asleep? Above all these questions, of course, is the overarching question of the disciples, “who is this man that the wind and waves obey him?”

So, we are left with questions. Both passages leave unanswered the ultimate questions, putting us in the realm of faith and doubt, not in certainty. There is a beautiful symmetry in both of today’s readings. In response to Job, God asks the question: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?’, and at the end of the Gospel reading, the disciples echo the Lord’s phrase, ‘Who is this,’ they say, ‘that even the wind and wave obey him?’

Neither God’s question to Job, nor the disciples’ question, requires an answer. It is enough that the question is asked. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Do you not care that we are perishing? Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?

Perhaps it’s unfortunate that as we grow up we leave behind the infant’s capacity for asking endless questions. Modern educational experts all stress the importance of asking questions, and although, in previous generations, some parts of the church have not been keen on questions, to be true to ourselves and to God we need to affirm that asking is questions should always be positively encouraged in church.

Questions, though, can be unsettling. A cartoon I once saw has someone asking, “Sometimes I’d like to ask God why he allows poverty, famine and injustice when he could do something about it”.
“What’s stopping you?”
“I’m afraid God might ask me the same question”.

Questions might be very unsettling, but they are good things that need to be affirmed and encouraged. Scripture teaches us that there are a great many questions, many ultimate questions about life, and that we cannot know the answers, at least not this side of eternity.

But it doesn’t stop there. The message is not simply we have to live with questions. God does not leave us alone. Like the disciples in the boat, we have the living Christ with us to re-assure us, support us, encourage us, heal us, and save us; through the presence of his Holy Spirit, living and working in us, and in this and all of God’s church, and all of God’s world. One reminder of this is in our Holy Communion: as we break bread and share it together, as we share wine together, Christ is present with us through the Holy Spirit, turning this into a celebration meal of a living presence. We are not alone.

There are many ultimate questions, to which, in this life, we can never know the answers. But we are not alone, because Christ is with us through the Holy Spirit. Indeed, Christ himself enters into our questions alongside us. There is a South American theologian, Leonardo Boff, who said that, “God does not answer our questions, but, in Jesus, God enters into the very heart of our questions”. God does not answer our questions, but, in Jesus, God enters into the very heart of our questions.

Protect the children

You may have noticed that the Bible made the news headlines this week. The United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted Romans chapter 13, which is about obeying civil authorities, to back up the Trump administration’s immigration policy, in particular the hotly disputed policy of separating children from their parents. That Bible verse was often used to justify slavery.

Almost 2,000 migrant children have been separated from their families at the US border over the last six weeks. Following a Trump administration crackdown on illegal border crossings from Mexico, adults are being detained, meaning the children with them are removed from their care, and on Thursday Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted the Bible to defend this.

It seems that the adults entering the USA are being charged with a crime, and therefore automatically detained, and so the children that travel with them are being separated and classed as unaccompanied minors. Figures from the US Department of Homeland Security show that 1,995 children were separated from 1,940 adults who are being held between 19 April and 31 May. The children are passed into the care of the US Department of Health and Human Services. Some parents have been told that their children are going to be given baths, which you will recall sounds far too much like people being told to shower in Nazi death camps. The Bible is no justification for this. The United Nations has called on the US to immediately halt the separations.

Perhaps everyone does this? I did some research, and found that no other country has a policy of separating families who intend to seek asylum. In the European Union, which faced its worst migrant crisis in decades three years ago, most asylum seekers are held in reception centres while their requests are processed. Even in Australia, which has some of the world’s most restrictive immigration policies, including the detention in controversial offshore centres of asylum seekers who arrive by boat, there is no policy to separate parents from their children upon arrival. “What the US is doing now, there is no equivalent,” said Michael Flynn, executive director of the Geneva-based Global Detention Project, a non-profit group focused on the rights of detained immigrants. “There’s nothing like this anywhere”.

What really brought it home to me was a report posted on the internet on Friday by a flight attendant of their experience that day. I found it utterly chilling. I’ll read it to you:

“Through all the adversities we faced last evening with computer outages, cancellations and delays, nothing prepared me or my crew for 16 passengers. Sixteen. All dressed in black and gray cheap Walmart sweat suits, quietly boarding the 12:30am flight.

Children! Thirty-two scared eyes looking straight forward dazed. We try to speak, yet none speak English.

During the beverage service, one of the crew comes to me in tears. They can’t face these children that have been ripped from their families with a smile.

These children were probably ranging in age from 11, to the most adorable little girl maybe 6 years old. At 2:30 in the morning, deplaned here in Miami not knowing if they will ever see their loved ones again that they were separated from in Phoenix.

Those sweet innocent children, dressed as criminals silently deplaned with the same fear as our initial meeting. Except for the little girl. She looked up at me as she turned left for the main cabin door, with tears of fear streaming down her face. I’m not sure the protocol, but I leaned over hoping to offer some hope, she hugged me, which was returned – much to the scowl and comments from the adult escort.

I pray that these 16 scared little souls, as well as all the other thousands, find their way to reuniting with their loved ones. We are trained yearly in hundreds of possible scenarios as attendants. Something like this isn’t remotely one of those. I had only met one of my crew a few years earlier, the rest never. Thank God, we had one another to lean on to not only get through the flight, but also maybe some glimmer of hope for those babies.”

How on earth can we respond to these children, taken from their parents, quite possibly with the telling of lies, and flown over 2000 miles away? How can Christians respond to this?

Surely we must condemn any assertion that migrant children should be separated from their parents because of ‘orderly and lawful processes that protect the weak and lawful,’ a Biblical statement used to justify U.S. immigration policies. Mr Sessions quoted Romans 13. I’m going to quote Psalm 106:
“Still, when God saw the trouble they were in and heard their cries for help,
God remembered his Covenant with them, and, immense with love, took them by the hand.
God poured out his mercy on them while their captors looked on, amazed.”

Are we not once again standing at the brink of a moral precipice in our society? The question before us is will we choose to act in covenant with God on behalf of God’s people, or will we sacrifice our soul? Are not all Christians challenged to support all human beings in intolerable and unsafe living conditions? As people of God committed to the sacredness of all creation and the sanctity of every life, are we not compelled to heed the cries of families now being violently torn apart for political expediency and profitability? Such violent acts are unnecessarily punitive and place at risk the physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and developmental stability of hundreds of families who now find themselves separated, caged, and commodified in a strange land.

As the psalmist said, God hears the cries of his people. The plight of families whose children are ripped from their care cannot be the policy of any civilized land. Such behaviour leaves an indelible mark of evil that can only be redeemed by a conscious act of spiritual repentance and repair.

We must resist the evil of dehumanisation enacted upon the vulnerable. We must condemn the dismantling of families, and the caging of those whose only crime is to seek shelter from harm. How we treat those who seek shelter in our midst is a direct reflection of how we treat God. In a few days’ time it will be World Refugee Day, on Wednesday June 20. Are we going to stand up for people who cannot stand up themselves? Are we going to contact our elected representatives, asking them to stand up to these brutal and inhumane American polices? In less than a month president Trump is due to visit this country? Will we be protesting? Will we be making it clear what we think of his regime’s attitude to vulnerable children? There is a law that supersedes partisanship and political bantering, and that is the sanctity of all people of God.

Mr Sessions quoted Romans 13. I’m going to end with some verses from Matthew’s gospel, which remind us of the need to be true to the message and the work of Jesus, Matthew 7:21-23:
‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”

Making the best of things

1 Samuel 8:1-22

Her father was an alcoholic. Her mother worked most all the time. She had little choice. Her brother had recently been killed. Things were chaotic at home. She felt she had to get out. So she decided she could finish school later. After all, the guy she was dating had asked her to marry him. She was sure that he didn’t really mean to hit her. He said he was sorry. He promised that it wouldn’t happen again. He’s positive that he’s going to get a job. His luck isn’t running too well. It’s decision time for her. What will she do? Will she make the worst of a bad situation?

Another true story: Two sixth formers are both contemplating going into pharmacy and opening a pharmacy in the small community in which they live. One young man has been promised by a wealthy businessman in the community that he will build for a pharmacy for him, and also mentor him in the details of running a small business. Here is success. Here is security. But the young man has a gnawing feeling that God wants him to be a minister. A minister? What kind of security is that? Think about all those years of college. It’s decision time. What will the teenager do? Will he go for the goal? Or will he go for the gold?

Another true story. The church has served its downtown community with a vibrant ministry for over one hundred years. But, now it is landlocked. It has no room for additional parking. The sanctuary is over one hundred and fifty years old and beyond repair. Growth is an impossibility; maintenance is a faint possibility. The people are leaving and moving to the suburbs. What will the church do? Will it move to the suburbs? That is where a church can grow. Or will the church remain downtown? Eight acres of prime property are available. The only problem is that the available property is downtown. Will people drive past dozens of other churches to come downtown to perform a ministry that no one else will if the church leaves? It’s decision time. Will the church move to the suburbs or will they continue in what they perceive God has led them to do? Will they be true to their mission? And where is that mission?

It was decision time for the nation of Israel in that reading from the first book of Samuel. Crisis was upon them. Samuel was now old. This great man of God who had led the people through countless crises now could not cut it any longer. Adding to the crisis was the fact that Samuel’s sons were ill equipped to continue in his stead. Abiah and Joel were pale imitations of their father. Serving the sanctuary at Beersheba, they had accepted bribes and perverted the very justice that their father had worked so hard to establish. Increasing the nation’s sense of decay was the fact that Israel’s external enemies were becoming more of a threat. The Philistines to the west and the Amorites to the east were becoming stronger and more aggressive. Things didn’t look good for God’s people. What were they to do? It was decision time.

The elders gathered to consider their plight. While their diagnosis was correct their prescription for its remedy was catastrophic. “We want a king. We no longer want God as our King. We want a king we can see – like the other nations.” With this wish, Israel was choosing nothing less than a radical change in its foundational commitments to and relationship with God. Their wish to be like the other nations was to some degree a rejection of their identity as God’s chosen community and the governing relationship that God had desired. Israel was making the worst of a bad situation.

Needless to say, God’s spokesperson, Samuel, was displeased. Perhaps Samuel thought to himself, “Why can’t we shore up the old system? Yes, the old theocracy has a crack or two in its foundation, but do we have to reinvent the wheel? Why can’t we work through the problem instead of casting aside the old system entirely?” Isn’t it worth consideration? Why throw out the baby with the bath water? We didn’t cast aside democracy because of the parliamentary expenses scandal. We don’t throw away the concept of marriage because some couples choose to separate. “Throw it away,” they said. “We want a new system. We want a king!”

Sometimes we can see the need to change. I know I don’t like things changing, when I get comfortable with them. So often, many folk say they find it hard when things change. That certainly wasn’t the case for the Elders of Israel. They were amazingly flexible. “Out with the old and in with the new! Give us a king.”

You might very well be thinking I’m going to say that their desire for change was a good thing, and we should try to be better at making changes that we’re perhaps not so keen on. But I’m not. I think the Israelites had lost the plot. Ancient Israel hadn’t been a monarchy or a democracy, but a theocracy: a gathering of tribes loosely ruled and reeled by God through spokespersons such as Samuel. God was Israel’s king, God’s unique people. Israel didn’t need a king. Israel had God. That’s why God responded to the prophet, “It’s not you they’ve rejected, Samuel, but they have rejected me as their king”. Israel had rejected its intimate and unique relationship with God. Israel wanted to be like everyone else. Israel didn’t want to be different.

“Mr. Speaker, I want to address the house as I have done so many times before,” said an MP. “I appreciate the opportunity to say a word about what the honourable members has suggested. ow I know it sounds wonderful, but let me ask you: If we stop manufacturing weapons and started growing crops to feed the hungry nations of the world, what kind of security would that give us? We would give away our future. I know it sounds good and I know the people are hungry, but it is a little bit idealistic, don’t you think?”

Being different is hard. We want to be like everyone else. We want to get on the current bandwagon. We want a king we can see, said Israel, and God said, “Samuel, them what they want.”

We have to be careful what we pray for because we just might get it. Israel ended up swapping one form of slavery, the slavery they knew in Egypt, for another form of slavery, the slavery they came to know under their kings. They rejected the God who drew them and brought them out of slavery. They rejected the God who sought to be not just their deity but their loving Heavenly Father who spoke to them before they needed to hear the word. We have to be careful what we pray for because we just might get it. It’s called making the worst of a bad situation.

What did God do? God gave Israel a king. He didn’t exactly approve their choice, only permitted it; but then went on to help them find a king. Isn’t that just like God? God is always trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that some things don’t start off well. I’ve lost count of the number of times I started some sort of DIY project full of an inflated sense of own abilities, and before very long I’ve cut the wrong bit of wood, or drilled a hole in the wrong place. I once thought changing a lock was a simple matter of unscrewing the old one, popping the new one in, and screwing it back up. Hours later, unable to even close the door, let alone lock it, I had to ask Steve Tremain to rescue me, and he sorted it very quickly and easily. Just because something doesn’t start well that doesn’t mean that God cannot help to make the best of it.

The point is that it doesn’t matter whether we begin poorly, or whether we start well and mess up along the way; God is there to help us make the best of a bad situation. God loves us too much to leave us to deal with our poor choices.

Mother Teresa was once asked by a reporter, “Do you still go to confession?” “Yes, every week,” she answered. The reporter said, “God must be awfully demanding to demand of you that you go to confession.” “It is like this,” she said, “When your child does something wrong and comes to you and says, ‘Daddy, I’m sorry,’ what do you do? You take that child in your arms and hug him and kiss him because that is the way you can show that child that you love him. That is what God does for us.” Whatever we do, God forgives us. God loves us, and helps us to make the best of a bad situation.

I mentioned a young lady at the beginning of the sermon. She left home and married the young man. He never got a job. After a few years she finally said, “I’ve had enough. I’m tired of the abuse and the laziness.” She left him and limped back to her parents. But she found another partner, and they raised three beautiful children. She and God made the best of a bad situation.

The two teenagers, the would-be pharmacists? One of them became a pharmacist in the small community in which he grew up. He became very successful and prosperous and a strong leader in his church. He used his wealth and influence within his church and community to make it a better place. One does not have to be a professional minister to be true to one’s calling. The other teenager? He rejected the wealthy businessman’s offer to build him a pharmacy and became a minister.

And the church? It relocated, but remained downtown and became a model for inner-city ministry.

We all make decisions, some good and some bad. We all mess up. Possibly to admit that is a good place to start in making the best of a bad situation.

The congregation was milling around at the end of the service, and the offering plate filled with money was lying on the communion table. Only the minister saw five-year-old Sam take a five pound note. The minister put her hand on Sam’s shoulder and said, “Sam, don’t you think you ought to put that back?”

Sam looked frightened and, “I’m so sorry. Please, please don’t tell my daddy, he’ll kill me.” Knowing that the punishment would not be quite that severe, the minister did tell Sam’s dad, and he immediately responded, “I’m going to kill that child.” The minister said, “Wait a minute. I’m sure there were times in your life when you took something that didn’t belong to you.” “Yes, you’re right,” replied the dad. “I was sent to town by my mother with two dozen eggs to sell. I told her that I dropped and broke one dozen, but I really sold them and kept the money. I was about the same age as Sam. I’ll talk to her.”

Sam’s dad told her that he knew she had taken the five pound note. Sam cringed, expecting to be banished to prison for the rest of her life. Then her dad began to relate the story to her of how he, too, had stolen something. Then, in a mutual moment of love, they hugged each other and Sam exclaimed, “Oh, Daddy, I’m so happy. We’re both thieves!”