Starfish Ministry - St Bride's: Reflection

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Well, it has certainly been a momentous week, with the turbulence of an unexpected  election result, the 70th anniversary of VE day, and the continuing saga of the Rectory plumbing (as I currently have water dripping through my kitchen ceiling).  And it is a week that has found me reflecting on a very interesting human phenomenon.

The fact that I have moved around a fair bit during my adult life means that I have, at various times, cast my vote in constituencies as diverse as Wales, Bristol, Cambridge, Oxford, Birmingham and, most recently, here in central London.  And perhaps unsurprisingly, this has meant that there have been occasions when I have found myself voting in seats that were held with enormous majorities by parties whose politics were at variance from my own.

So, although I always vote - and regard it as very important that I do so - I am also familiar with the demoralizing sense that one has when one knows that the outcome is basically a foregone conclusion, and that one's own solitary ballot paper supporting a rival candidate really isn't going to make any difference to anything at all.  So why bother?

To which the answer is, of course, the glaringly obvious one that, any election result is only ever the sum of such individual ballot papers, and, as last Thursday's rather unexpected outcome has shown, one must be very cautious about regarding anything in politics as a foregone conclusion.  In reality every single vote really does count; and really can make a difference.  We just need to be reminded of that sometimes.

But my reason for talking about this this morning is that I think that that can also be more generally true in human life.  Because whenever we find ourselves confronted by forces that feel greater, or stronger, or more powerful than we are, it is so easy to think that 'nothing I can do will make any difference, so what's the point of doing anything at all?'  Or, alternatively, to assume that even if something is morally wrong, if it does not affect me directly, it must therefore be someone else's responsibility to do something about it.  Mindful of the VE Day commemorations this weekend, I am reminded of the words of Pastor Niemoeller, himself a victim of the Nazi regime, who famously wrote:

First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out - because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the communists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out - because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for me - and there was no one left to speak out.

The earthquake in Nepal, has not affected many of us directly - but that does not mean that it is nothing to do with us.

A wonderful story is told by my former parishioners in Edgbaston about how the building of their church hall came about.  The church is a beautiful medieval building, but back in the 1960s it had no modern facilities at all, and was in desperate need of a small hall on the site.  Everybody agreed that it was a good idea, but there was nothing they could do about it, because they couldn't afford it.  'Why can't we afford it?' asked a redoubtable old lady from the congregation.  'Because we would need a special fund to pay for it, and we don't have one' explained the then vicar.  At which point the lady, in exasperation, opened her handbag, pulled out a five pound note, slapped it down on the table in front of him and said, 'There you are, I've just started one.'  And the hall that was built as a result of her response has now been in constant use for nearly fifty years.

Because that is how significant change always begins: with a first financial donation; with the casting of a single vote; with a simple word of peace spoken in a situation of anger or violence.  And Jesus knew the truth of that better than most of us.  Because as we see in the gospels again and again, the point where his ministry was at its most dramatic and life-transforming was always in his encounters with individuals - and frequently individuals who for some reason or other were powerless or excluded.  Because that is how the Kingdom of God works, too - with the transformation of individual lives, often against all the odds.

In today's gospel reading we see Jesus preparing his disciples for the ministry that will be theirs after he is no longer with them.  And what does he tell this small group of simple uneducated men that they have to do in order to transform the entire world?  Basically three things: keep my commandments; love one another; and go and bear fruit.  And that is it.

It used to strike me as very odd that Jesus commanded his disciples to love one another - for the simple reason that I suspect that most of us don't think of love as being the kind of thing that we can be commanded to do: you can command someone to keep off the grass, or to eat their dinner, or to drive more slowly - but can you really command somebody to love?  Because we tend to think of loving as being a feeling that comes over us, rather than something we have any choice in.

But Jesus was talking about something rather different.  What he was saying to his disciples was in effect this: regardless of what you happen to feel about one another, or about anyone else, you are to behave lovingly.  Not like the surly unrepentant child who is forced to utter an insincere apology - but genuinely lovingly.  Even if you do not feel it, do it. Because in the process of learning to live like that their own lives are slowly transformed.  And as we are transformed, so our relationships, and our own little bit of God's kingdom will be transformed too - into a world in which people know that the really important things in life are worth striving for, and fighting for, and in which every single human life matters, and every act of loving kindness counts.  And it is into that kind of life, and that kind of hope, that we have welcomed Ned and Eloise today through their baptisms.  Because the world can be a different kind of place.  We just need to play our part in making it so.

I shall close with another story that is very close to my heart - particularly at those times when the problems of life really do feel overwhelming.

The story goes that a couple were walking by the seaside early in the morning, and discovered to their consternation that during the night, as a result of some freak weather and sea conditions, an enormous number of starfish had been washed up on the beach - thousands and thousands and thousands of them.  And of course, they were all dying - great piles of them.  And the couple were even more taken aback to see a solitary man down at the water's edge, trying to rescue them, patiently picking up one starfish after another, and throwing them back into the sea.  The scale of the task before him was so enormous, that his attempt to help was hopeless - an act of utter insanity. 

They shouted to the man, 'You're crazy - you are never going to make any difference, you know!'  In response to which the man picked up another starfish, threw it into the sea, and said. 'Well, I made all the difference in the world to that one.'


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