Our themes in recent years – of which all are ongoing projects - have been:
2007 – STEPS
2008 – Just Walk Across The Room
2009 – Dealing with Strongholds
2010 – Building Bridges
I would like to explain Building Bridges by reference to something that happened early in the church’s history.
Acts 10 – Peter & Cornelius
Peter was having some deeply held, socially assumed, lifelong beliefs challenged. The church at this point, only a short time after Jesus’ death and resurrection, was almost exclusively made up of Jews who had decided to follow Jesus. Here, for the very first time Peter was being told that he should Walk Across The Room to someone who wasn’t a Jew.
Eventually he negotiated that social and religious taboo and crossed the room, or rather walked up the coast, to shake hands with Cornelius.
This is one of those stories where God intervenes and completely changes someone’s way of thinking.
Hearing Susan Doyle – making assumptions until she started singing.
Realising that AIDS is not contagious by touch when Lady Diana shook hands with the HIV patient.
Or the first time you really notice and believe when someone says “I love you”.
God sometimes messes with our heads. He challenges us to change our way of thinking, to change our lifestyles and to put in place structures that connect us with all his people, his family, without favouritism.
In this story God built a bridge between two previously separated groups of people. He was at work on both sides of the divide.
I want to come back to this story a little later. But, on this first Sunday in 2010 let’s reflect on the past and look forward to the future.
Do you remember New Year’s Eve 10 years’ ago? Don’t know where you were but we had our usual extended family party and at midnight we walked out into the garden to light our own fireworks and wondered at the way the sky lit up over Leeds as though the Royal Armouries had been visited by Guy Fawkes.
We had hopes then didn’t we? Launching into a new millennium longing for world peace, a solution to HIV & cancer and an end to world poverty. We know that the world will not come fully right again until Jesus returns but we still had hopes of a better world. But then terrorism, natural disasters and economic collapses have left us with what the Archbishop of Canterbury recently called a terrible and gruelling decade.
And just in our own community in the last year we have seen loss of life, loss of health, loss of jobs, relationships breaking down.
The future doesn't belong to those who have avoided collapse or scars or pain but to wounded healers who have experienced it all & choose to give again (Alan Scott on Twitter).
That’s why New Year’s resolutions are such hard work, because we enter a New Year not with a blank sheet but with a very coloured-in one. Promises made, habits set, consequences following.
On the other hand we can look back and celebrate some wonderful things; just in the last year we have seen new life; both babies being born and people coming to faith in Jesus, being born again. We have seen people healed and given wonderful jobs and financial blessing. Many of us enjoyed Ashburnham and were excited by Citywide Alpha and we rejoiced in our 10 year Anniversary Vine celebration and the baptisms there.
This community of faith has grown in both numbers and effectiveness. We have new housegroups and opportunities to meet together morning and evening every Sunday. We have able to increase the numbers of our Acts of Kindness resulting in thousands of people being blessed and told that God loves them. We don’t keep track but I think that between you, you will have Walked Across The Room hundreds of times to share Jesus’ love with someone.
I don’t rehearse this to blow our own trumpet but just to remind us that God is at work in us and through us and that is so exciting!.
In the bigger picture I have observed that the church generally, the Vineyard in particular and this Vineyard too have, over the decade, increasingly turned their attention outward, to the community around us – to the poor and lost. Both in sharing good news and helping in practical ways.
For 2010 I think the Lord would have us set about Building Bridges.
We could look at the difficult, painful things and freeze, we could look at the threats to our hopes and dreams and pull up the drawbridge. Or, by taking advantage of our society’s reliance on the church to care for the disadvantaged and by using the world’s openness to communication and the mixing of culture and society, we could set about Building Bridges to connect us with people who deserve a better future, who need to know the presence of Jesus in their lives.
By Building Bridges I mean going beyond the personal challenge of Just Walking Across The Room towards establishing long-term ministries which enable us to connect with people in different communities. To serve them and to share Jesus with them. I think there are many ways in which we can do this. Things we can do which build on the Reach Out work we have been doing for the last few years and which make a substantial kingdom impact in the communities around us – near and far.
- We have a biblical encouragement;
- We have a Vineyard legacy of compassion;
- We have here a community of people who follow Jesus in a radical way;
- We have the opportunity to make a difference…so…let's Build some Bridges
Cornelius and Peter show us 3 stages to go through to get to Building Bridges.
Stage 1: Personal - Changing hearts and minds - Repentance
Zechariah 7:8-12 (ESV)
And the word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying, "Thus says the Lord of hosts, Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart." But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear. They made their hearts diamond-hard lest they should hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets.
This is what Peter was challenged with. The Holy Spirit spoke powerfully through an extreme dream to redirect his thinking toward a people group he had never considered before. As a result, Peter had a choice. He could have stayed as he was, turned a stubborn shoulder or he could step way outside his circle of comfort and walk across several class-social-political-religious rooms.
I think in many ways this is the most profound stage to deal with in building bridges. Are we listening to the Holy Spirit’s nudging? Are we willing to repent, think the unthinkable? Take big risks, talk with different people, be thought of as an idiot, be rejected by our own group?
Them and us
One of the dangers of this language – Building Bridges – is that can imply a patronising “us” and “them”. Here we are on this side of the river, and we are OK. There they are on that side of the river and if we are really sacrificial and generous we can let them have a taste of what we have got over here. Isn’t that good of us?
The “us” and “them” language was definitely there in Peter’s mind but God wasn’t playing the same game. He was listening to the Centurion’s prayers and working through him already – all the way across the other side of the river. God doesn’t need a bridge – we do.
Instead, I prefer the language often used by Archbishops – I first heard Bishop Desmond Tutu talk frequently about how God loves all his “children” – even gay men with HIV. These days you often hear Archbishop Sentamu using similar language – about how God loves all his children.
On New Year’s Day, Archbishop Rowan Williams’ message was about how we are all part of one family,
In a world where risk and suffering are everybody's problem, the needs of our neighbours are the needs of the whole human family. Let's respond just as we do when our immediate family is in need or trouble. We may be amazed by the difference we can make.
What he meant was that as we become ever more aware of others in need, we should think of them as we would a member of our own family – not “them” and “us” but just “us”.
There are people in this great family, all these children beloved of God, whom we have a tendency to judge and disparage, “they just need to get a job, work hard, show more discipline, drink less, get off drugs, stop sleeping around, stay over there…”
I think, if you want to be a Bridge Builder you may need to take care and not turn a stubborn shoulder, or make your heart hard.
Sometimes it will be God challenging your mind clearly like he did Peter. At other times He will simply break your heart – God will give you his heart for some group or situation. I know that’s happened to several of you here. You can’t not do this because a fire of compassion burns within you, tears for the poor and the lost are never far from the surface.
Stage 2: Personal - Changing Personal Lifestyles
The 1st stage is repentance, a change of hearts and minds. That leads to us having to make lifestyle choices. Evidence of repentance.
Sometimes it is simply a change of attitude following a change of heart and mind. Going back to the language of children and family, learning to look at someone who is very different from you and know that God loves that precious child too. When God looks at that threatening young man in a hoody, he smiles with affection over something you may not see. When he looks at that woman in her Harvey Nichols outfit driving a top of the range Mercedes, he smiles with affection over something you may not see.
As part of the process of learning to raise teenagers we had to spend quite a lot of time in Skate Parks with Skateboarders – you know those hostile, hoodies making that awful racket on their boards. After a while we discovered that most of them were really normal kids who just assumed we didn’t like them. But God does and so can we – and we can adjust our lifestyle to accept them – and their boards and noise and obsession.
Peter had a lifestyle of: defiance against the Roman occupation and avoidance of anyone who wasn’t a Jew. He had to make a big change to trek up to Caesarea to minister to Cornelius. Sometimes, after God has done work on our hearts and minds we have to deal with some changes:
Dealing with our personal lifestyle may involve sacrifice. Career, reputation, financial security, personal safety. Giving up precious sleeping hours to minister friendship and hot drinks to the prostitutes in South Leeds; giving up Saturday morning to give food & drinks and prayer to the street guys in Leeds City Centre. Putting aside personal preferences to take in foster children or working in challenging jobs teaching children in deprived areas. Reaching into wealthy communities where behind the mask of affluence lies loneliness, hopelessness, relationship breakdown and addictive behaviour. Some, like Alison and me, will go church planting.
James 2 says very clearly (Message):
Dear friends, do you think you'll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, "Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!" and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup. Where does that get you? Isn't it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?
We need to pray that the Lord will help us to see every other person as a child of God, dearly loved by him and when they hurt, we feel it as for our own child or parent. And we do something about it. Which brings us onto Bridge Building.
Stage 3: Community - Organising Practicalities around our Priorities
After Peter’s mind and heart were changed, and after he had adapted his lifestyle, he then had to figure out a way of making this work permanently. Back at Head Office in Jerusalem he persuaded the rest of the leadership team that a Bridge needed to be Built.
The early church immediately changed their strategy from then on. Whereas before they had only gone to Jewish communities to tell them about Jesus, they now went to non-Jewish communities too. In other words, they recognised that God was at work amongst other groups of people and so they set about Building Bridges across to them in order to share and support what was going on.
The Apostle Paul describes the strategy and his part in it in his letter to the
They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.
The poor can mean many things: it can mean the rich who are desperate (Tiger Woods), the hungry, the sick, the businessman who has gone bust. Whoever the poor are, it isn’t “them”, it’s “us”. We are to think of them as our own family. Children of the same heavenly Father.
So, as the Vineyard here grows we need to consider carefully how we structure and organise ourselves to make it possible for God to prompt us not only to Walk Across The Room but also to expand our Reach Out programme to Build Bridges that connect us for the long term with other communities. Bridges that enable us to walk across into other communities and people there to walk into ours. Whilst being wary of the “them” and “us” language. Bridges that enable us to establish community around the bridge itself – which is what usually happens with bridges.
The first of the Bridges which we planned to Build was with TLG (The Lighthouse Group). Unfortunately, the terms of that particular partnership have changed and after careful consideration we have had to pull out.
Nevertheless, from talking with many of you since we launched our first STEPS campaign 3 years ago and having begun to put the Vineyard Centre to good use, I know that there are many who are itching to Build Bridges. God has put a passion in your heart and a skill in your hands and an opportunity in your imagination.
I really want to know what those ideas are.
Whatever we end up doing, whatever Bridge we decide to Build, I suspect it will cost us money and so in February/March I will be coming to you with a new STEPS campaign. An opportunity for you to make a one-off additional gift or loan so that we can put in place the resources and facilities to support Bridge Building. However, until you respond with your ideas and suggestions we don’t know whether that will mean buying a building or investing in training or something else entirely.
Looking ahead to 2010
I think a lot is going to happen in 2010:
- Alison and I going on sabbatical
- Ben & Kate acting Senior Pastors
- Citywide Alpha
- Building Bridges
What do I need you to do?
Use the week of prayer and fasting - about what the Lord would have you do, would have us do. What you can offer – skills, time, energy, money? Is there a Bridge you would like to help Build? Where does your passion take you?
Email or post your thoughts to Erik on one side of a piece of paper.
- What is your idea for building a bridge?
- What is your passion and gifting for this?
- What is your availability to lead, give, serve and put energy into this?
- Have you done the Leadership School?
Be ready to do something when the time and opportunity presents itself. Clear some space in your diary, re-evaluate your priorities, review your finances.
Shall we set ourselves some targets for 2010?
- That the Lord will again break our hearts for the poor and the lost and the lonely;
- That we continue to Just Walk Across The Room (200X52=10,000);
- That we will have launched at least one major Bridge Building project and have others waiting to be launched;
- That people who don’t know Jesus will be drawn into his presence and experience his grace at the Bridge.
Being able to Build Bridges means – repentance - change of heart, change of lifestyle, building our practicalities around our priorities.
Why do we do this?
Last year we finished with this poem from Howard Thurman. I think it still applies today and explains why,
When the song of the angels is stilled
When the star in the sky is gone
When the kings and the princes are home and back with their flocks
The work of Christmas begins
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
Te release the prisoners
To rebuild the nations
To bring peace among people
To make music in the heart
Shall we seek God’s heart and mind?
Shall we change our lifestyles?
Shall we build bridges together in 2010?
3 January 2010