Taking a leap

Genesis 12:1-9
Hebrews 11:1-3 & 8-12
Psalm 91
Mark 1:16-20

This year is a leap year. 29 February is a special day which comes round only once every four years. 29 February is considered
by some as a day to do something out of the usual, such as women proposing marriage to men. Radio 4’s PM programme often does something special to make a leap year. Not so long ago they brought back Valerie Singleton as presenter for a one-off. One year they asked listeners whether they’d be prepared to take advantage of this extra day, to use it as an excuse to do something out of the ordinary.

Some of the challenges that listeners took up included a blind woman riding a bicycle; a 62-year-old woman getting her first tattoo; another listener resolved to speak mandarin for the day; someone took a roof tour of Lincoln Cathedral; one woman chose to have a cervical smear to inspire other women to do so; another finally decided the wording for her late husband’s headstone; any number of PM listeners at last scattered the ashes of loved ones having put it off for years; a woman took up the hula-hoop after more than 50 years; one listener wrote a letter to his estranged brother, while another wrote a conciliatory letter to her sister with whom she had been on bad terms with for many years.

Just imagine all those amazing and exotic challenges! I wonder if Abraham and Sarah felt that way? Was their challenge from God to get up and go to a new country in their old age a welcome opportunity, or a distinctly unwelcome proposal? It’s impossible to be sure from the Bible quite what Abraham and Sarah felt about this challenge – we just can’t tell if they relished it or hated it, but what is clear is that they accepted, even though it was obviously a big risk, and they had a go at it. As it turns out, the risk was worth it and it rather paid off.

And then we meet the would-be disciples, ordinary working men, at least some of them with families, with a reasonable source of income. There were plenty of fish in the lake, and plenty of people who needed to eat. Being a Galilee fisherman in the first century may not have had the job security and pension that we came to expect in the latter part of the twentieth century, but it was as secure as anything, and a reliable source of income. And they walked away from this to follow Jesus. They didn’t seem to take a lot of persuading, so perhaps they were ready for a change and a challenge, but it was still an enormous risk. They were literally walking away from their livelihoods to follow Jesus, without knowing where it would lead them. You can’t deny they were certainly taking a risk for God.

Abraham and Sarah, and the disciples, all found themselves having to take big risks when they were challenged by God. If you like, they were taking a leap into the unknown – and we’ve n idea whether these things happened in leap years or not.

There’s a story told about a water pump in a desert. There was a letter in a baking powder tin, attached to the handle of an old pump that offered the only hope of drinking water on a very long and seldom-used trail across the desert in Nevada: “This pump is all right as of June 1932. I put a new sucker washer into it and it ought to last five years. But the washer dries out and the pump has got to be primed. Under the white rock I buried a bottle of water, out of the sun and cork end up. There’s enough water in it to prime the pump, but not if you drink some first. Pour about one-fourth and let her soak to wet the leather. Then pour in the rest medium fast and pump like crazy. You’ll git water. The well has never run dry. Have faith. When you git watered up, fill the bottle and put it back like you found it for the next feller. (signed) Desert Pete. P.S. Don’t go drinking the water first. Prime the pump with it and you’ll git all you can hold.”

That’s a risk, if ever I saw one. Would you take the risk of priming the pump first, in the hope of getting water? Or would that be too great a risk, and you’d drink the water?

Abraham and Sarah, and the disciples, found themselves taking bigger risks for God than most of have to face.

In 1912 two Irish music hall players were spending an afternoon in a pub at Stalybridge. They were extolling the musical traditions of Ireland when it’s said they boasted they could write and perform a song in the same day. It might have been the Guinness talking, or it could have been genius jumping out of its bag, because the song that they wrote was It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, which was performed that night at the Stalybridge Grand Theatre by Jack Judge and Harry Williams. It was an overnight success that went on to gain tremendous popularity during World War I as an Allies.

Would you have taken the risk of writing and performing a song in one afternoon?

Abraham and Sarah, and the disciples, found themselves taking bigger risks for God than most of have to face.

Perhaps some of you will know the story of the Penlee lifeboat disaster, which occurred on 19 December 1981 off the coast of Cornwall. The lifeboat Solomon Browne, based at the Penlee Lifeboat Station between Penzance and Land’s End, went to the aid of the vessel Union Star after its engines failed in heavy seas. After the lifeboat had rescued four people, both vessels were lost with all hands; in all, sixteen people died including all eight volunteer lifeboat men. The pilot of the rescue helicopter, later reported that: The greatest act of courage that I have ever seen, and am ever likely to see, was the penultimate courage and dedication shown by the Penlee [crew] when it manoeuvred back alongside the casualty in over 60 ft breakers and rescued four people shortly after the Penlee had been bashed on top of the casualty’s hatch covers. They were truly the bravest eight men I’ve ever seen, who were also totally dedicated to upholding the highest standards of the RNLI.
The official enquiry into the disaster reported that:
The loss of the Solomon Browne was in consequence of the persistent and heroic endeavours by the coxswain and his crew to save the lives of all from the Union Star. Such heroism enhances the highest traditions of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution in whose service they gave their lives.

Now those people were taking a far greater risk than Abraham and Sarah or the disciples took, but within one day there were enough volunteers to form a new lifeboat crew.

That’s a whole different level of risk-taking.

Many of us are afraid of things like crashing in an aeroplane, being killed by a burglar, dying on the operating table, that kind of thing. However, they’re highly unlikely to happen to any of us, and if we seriously think that they are then we’ve a distorted view of life’s real perils. The chance of dying in a commercial aeroplane crash is just one in 800,000. You are more likely to choke to death on a piece of food. You are twice as likely to be killed playing a sport as you are to be stabbed to death by a stranger. And the chance of dying of a medical complication or mistake is tiny, just one in 84,000. You take a far greater risk riding in a car. One in 5000 of us die that way. The next time you buy a lottery ticket, bear in mind that you are at least 13 times as likely to be struck by lightning as you are to hit the jackpot. You’re 680 times more likely to die of pneumonia than in a tornado. Other experts can tell you that being poor reduces your life expectancy by two years; and being a single man slashes almost a decade off your life-span (unmarried females are luckier – they lose just four years off their lives).

Psychologists have noticed that death rates for violent and accidental deaths throughout most of the Western world have remained oddly static for a long time, despite advances in our technology and safety standards. What might be behind that is that people tend to embrace a certain level of risk. When something is made safer, they will somehow reassert the original level of danger. For example, if roads are improved with more and wider lanes, drivers will feel safer and go a little faster, thereby cancelling out the benefits that the improved roads confer. Where a junction is made safer, the accident rate invariably falls there, but rises to a compensating level elsewhere along the same stretch of road.

What I want to suggest to you today, is the idea that God asks us to take a risk and do something new – to take a leap and doing something out of the ordinary, but not just for one day or for our own personal edification or satisfaction, but rather in the service of God.

God might not ask us to up sticks and emigrate, like Abraham and Sarah. God might not ask us to leave our livelihoods, like the disciples. God might not ask us to do the frivolous leap year day things like getting a tattoo, or listening to Valerie Singleton. God might not ask us to compose and perform a new song today. God certainly won’t ask us to set up the Farnham lifeboat service. But what leap is God asking you to take? I’m quite sure God doesn’t ask us to stay the same and do what we’ve always done. Please don’t come and tell me that the Pilgrim Project is our leap of faith – that was a decision we made a long time ago – the leap of faith is not about stones and glass and bricks and mortar, the leap of faith is what we’re going to do with the building when we’ve got it.

Abraham and Sarah were old and tired, but were willing to take a risk for God. The disciples had commitments and good jobs, but were willing to take a risk for God. As individuals, as a church, as a part of a community, we’re challenged to listen to God and take a risk for God, as Abraham and Sarah did, as the disciples did, as countless other people have done since then. This leap year, why don’t we use the extra day to take a leap for God? What are you going to do?

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