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Sermon preached by Bishop Tom Butler

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

It’s good to be back in Bradford cathedral and  a privilege to preach on your patronal festival at this Petertide service of ordination. 

Reading the bible you might get the impression that to exercise any leadership of the people of God you either had to be a shepherd or a fisherman.    The Jews were mad about sheep.   Anybody who was anybody in the Old Testament was a shepherd.   Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and all the rest.   Whilst, reading the new testament  it's obvious that Jesus had a soft spot for fishermen, because the first four people he called to be his disciples, Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John were all fishermen.

Peter, your patron saint, must have had a crisis of identity.  At the start of the gospel story we find him a fisherman - at the end we find Jesus telling him that he has to feed the flock of Christ.  What is he, fisherman, shepherd, or both? Perhaps it's a mistake to ask too many questions.

I like the children's poem by Hilaire Belloc  called the water beetle.  It goes like this - the water beetle  here shall teach a lesson far beyond your reach.  He flabbergasts the human race by gliding on the water's face, with ease, celerity and grace.   But if he ever paused to think of how he did it, he would sink.

I suppose that all the water beetle needs to know is that there is something over there worth going for,  nature does the rest.    St Peter wasn't always as wise as the water beetle.   You'll recall the story in St Matthew's gospel when after feeding the five thousand Jesus put the disciples into a boat, whilst he dismissed the crowd & then went up into the hills to pray.

The boat ran into a storm, & between three and six o'clock in the morning, Jesus came towards them walking on the water.  The disciples naturally were terrified, they thought that they were seeing a ghost,, but Jesus called out, "It's me, don't be afraid".   Peter, ever impulsive, with a character like a wobbly rock, shouted, "Lord if it is you, tell me to come to you over the water".   "Come" said Jesus.  & Peter did. 

Like the water beetle he began to glide across the water's face with ease, celerity, and grace.   His troubles began when he stopped to think what he was doing.   Then the storm buffeted him,  he looked down and saw the monsters in the water and he began to sink.   He cried out, "save me lord".  and Jesus caught him and held him, took him into the boat and said, "How little faith you have."

Well that's our story isn't it?   Here we are inadequate and talented women and men.  Called to serve God's world and maintain Christ's church.   We witness miracle and mayhem in the world.   We huddle together in the ark of the church for a little encouragement and peace.   But we find that the church too is buffeted about , this way and that, by storms of life and gales often of  its own making.  

Like the disciples in the boat we too have our sleepless nights when we wake up between three and 6 o'clock in the morning when things always seem at their worst, when ghosts walk in our mind and we find it difficult to separate fact from fantasy.  No wonder that we're cautious when we hear the call to move into an unknown future. 

It takes a lot of faith to trust that there is a future out there calling us to live brave lives.   It takes a lot of faith to believe that the stormy waters of change are strong enough to carry us.   It takes a lot of faith to move out of the safety of the  boat and waltz across the waves, when the monsters snapping at our ankles.   No wonder our nerve frequently fails us and we cry out "lord save us."  and the Lord who commands the wind and the waves, is quite prepared to come into our boat with us for rest and recreation.

But not just for rest and recreation, for ours, like Peter’s, is a working boat, although sometimes it doesn’t look like it, indeed sometimes the local church seems more like a raft.    If you're on a raft, then survival is the name of the game.  You probably feel that you've been in a shipwreck.   You look around for rescue, and in the meantime it takes all your effort to maintain the raft and keep it seaworthy.

Many of our people today experience their local church in that way.  It’s a raft to cling to in the storms of life.  It's better than nothing until rescue comes,   and in the meantime it takes all the energies of the congregation to keep it afloat.

But I believe that our churches should be less like rafts and more like trawlers.   A trawler is a working boat, not a place of rest, recreation, or rescue.   The trawler harvests the sea bed and  provides the food which nourishes the community.   Maintaining the trawler is important, but only because it has work to do, nobody goes on the trawler for the sake of nostalgia.

The Church of England has plenty of work to do.  The work is simple if unglamorous.   It's the work of worshipping God.    It's the work of teaching the Christian faith to the people of this land, and particularly to new generations.  It's the work of maintaining a network of pastoral care in comfortable and uncomfortable places.   It's the work of listening to the word of God in amongst the noise and babble of everyday life.   It's the work of seeing the judgements of God, seeing where the lord of history is saying "No", and where the lord of history is saying "yes" .  It's the work of expecting to have glimpses of a resurrected life.  It's the work of having the courage to walk across the stormy waters to make that new life real and solid.  It's the work of crying "lord save us"  when our courage fails.    It's the work of trusting in the grace of the lord to carry us to safety, when we get things wrong and walk into disaster, or when we get things right, but run out of courage.

Saint Peter, your patron, was an expert at both these alternatives.     In our gospel reading this morning he got things absolutely right, when in answer to Jesus’s question “who do you say that I am?”  He replied “you are the Christ the son of the living God” and  in the story of Peter walking on the waters to Jesus, he got things right, but then he ran out of courage.   Whereas during the trauma surrounding Jesus's crucifixion Peter got things dramatically wrong and so walked into disaster.   He quite simply, denied his lord, not once but three times.

We all do it.  We all edge away from situations or conversations where a word of Christian witness might be embarrassing or lose us respect.   Of course it's easy for bishops.  We're expected to put in a word on behalf of the church.  "Come on bishop.  What's the church's view on this.  You've got 12 seconds".   It can be far more costly for other folk.

Someone was telling me  recently about her teenage son.  She said, "He is a Christian and he used to go to school wearing the fish sign on his lapel.  But he got so bullied and ridiculed that, although he's still a Christian, he doesn't wear the sign."   Isn’t that awful. What kind of a society is it that we've created, where young Christians can't acknowledge their faith without being ridiculed and bullied

Well, I suppose for Peter in the charged atmosphere of good Friday it wasn't just a question of risking being bullied or ridiculed.  It was a question of risking death.   He looked down, as it were, into the stormy waters, saw the monsters getting ready to gobble him up.   So he denied that he knew his lord.  Three times, and the cock crowed, and Peter wept. 

But the good news is, that neither our bravery nor our cowardice can separate us from the love and grace of God and  after the resurrection Jesus sought out Peter, and in an act of obvious forgiveness asked Peter three times to affirm his love for his lord.   The gospel records that Peter was hurt by this.  Well there’s no cheap grace in the economy of God and forgiveness often is painful, but we need it particularly if the lord has further work for us to do, as he invariably has.

The particular work which the lord had in mind for Peter was the care and nurture of the flock of Christ.   "Feed my sheep" was the three fold word of forgiveness and instruction.   So Peter the fisherman was to become Peter the shepherd.  A calling with a quite different range of skills.

A few years ago I ordained a shepherd as a non stipendiary priest.   I preached on the subject of Jesus the good shepherd.    The new priest came up to me after the service and said, "Have you had a lot to do with sheep bishop?"   "Not really" I confessed.   "I thought not."  he said.   "let me tell you that sheep only ever have two things on their mind, how to escape and how to die."

Being a shepherd then is rather different from being a fisherman, as Peter was to find out.      The fisherman goes out full of optimism, fresh every day to where his fancy  and skill takes him.   The shepherd is a more cautious being.   So much can go wrong to harm his flock.   That same ex-shepherd told me that there are six diseases that can harm a sheep for which the first obvious symptom of disease is death.   To be a shepherd means to be always alert to the slightest sign of trouble.

Peter by nature an impulsive fisherman had to learn the patience and the acute observation of the shepherd if he were to lead the infant church, protect them from dis-ease, love them into living courageous lives for Christ,  so that indeed they would then move out with him onto the deep.

Fishermen and shepherds.  Shepherds and fishermen.    The church today as in New Testament times in its ministry needs the skills of both these tough and unromantic professions if the people of God are to be nurtured, protected,  challenged and inspired to live courageously for Christ.   And we have before us the latest ministers to be ordained and called to assist with that task in the diocese of Bradford – Frances and Malcolm, Heather and Joanne, Sandi and Christopher, Beverley and Ian.   

And they, and we, can be of good cheer, for we rely not upon our strength alone,   for like Peter we are in the hands of the good shepherd who knows his flock and their needs.   Like Peter, when we move out of our depth we are in the hands of the one whom even the wind and the waves obey.   And whose grace will be sufficient for us.

I like to tell the story  of when the Spanish sailors first discovered the Amazon river.    They didn't know that they'd arrived.   The mouth of the river was so wide that they couldn't see its banks.  They thought that they were still far out sailing on a sea of salt water.

They were doling out their ration of stale water a few drops at a time, when all the while they were sailing on a river of fresh water.  All they had to do was to lean over the side and scoop the live giving water up in bucketsful.

We inadequate shepherds and clumsy fishermen likewise ration our drops of love, courage and energy thinking that they must last us for a long journey, when all the while we're floating on a river of God's grace, which in worship and prayer and Christian fellowship we can scoop up in bucketsful.

So let us continue to be nourished by that grace as we continue now with our worship, and may you all be nourished by the grace of Christian fellowship as you sail out into the deeps in the year which lies ahead.      May it be so in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit .   Amen.


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