SERMON FOR THE BERKELEY BENEFICE
5th May, 2019, Acts 9: 1 – 6, John 21: 1 – 19
In our readings this morning, we saw two similar aspects of the Christian life.
In Acts, we see the way in which God changes the life of Saul, but only when he has been forced into it. Saul was a Jewish captain who, as a hobby, persecuted and prosecuted and brought to execution great numbers of Christians. He was on just such a mission when God bought him low, blinded him and made him reliant on the forgiveness of the Christian community to not only get back his physical sight, but also his spiritual sight in terms of the right way ahead.
When Ananias is told that he has to assist Saul, he is (quite understandably) dubious about what God is saying - he questions God’s wisdom and doubts that anything good can come from this venture. But God tells him that Saul is exactly the instrument that HE has chosen to bring his name before Gentiles, Kings and the people of Israel. God makes it clear that this privilege will come with suffering, but that nevertheless Paul will be the one who most effectively ‘spreads the word’!
And clearly, God was right! Here we are, over 2000 years later, reading this account and the letters of Paul in every Christian church on the planet, as well as using his sayings and wisdom as a model for our Christian lives.
If I’m being brutally honest with you, there are times when I, too, question the meaning of some of what Paul tells us - that’s why we have to theologically educate ourselves so that we can look at things such as context, meaning and translation when we are discerning what God might be trying to tell us in these texts. Nevertheless, this is who God has chosen.
Isn’t it strange that when we encounter someone in the Church with whom we might profoundly disagree, it is very easy to convince ourselves that they must somehow ‘have it all wrong’, and it is equally strange that we can be under the misapprehension that we have somehow ‘got it all right!’ Neither scenario is true, unless we happen to be infallible which seems to me extremely unlikely - not even Pope Francis would claim infallibility!
Similarly, in our gospel passage, the disciples have to rely on God’s power, in the form of Jesus, before they are successful in their catch.
Even though they do not recognise Jesus immediately because he is in resurrection form - and though we don’t know exactly what this was, it certainly meant that he looked different - they nevertheless trusted and as soon as that happened, they were successful in their endeavours … and we already know from earlier passages that fishing analogies were used for attracting people to be followers of Jesus.
This is also the passage in which we see Peter ‘rehabilitated’ after his triple denial of Christ that we heard about on Good Friday. He had no hesitation in denying Christ three times when he thought that his life was in danger, but now that Christ is asking him three times whether Peter really loves him, he is offended! I wonder how often we have taken God for granted in our lives, but then been offended if our faith has been challenged or questioned?
However, in this case, it is Jesus ‘setting up’ Peter to be the leader of the early Christian church in readiness for when he ascends into heaven to return to his Father.
In the case of both Paul and Peter, great things are possible, but only once they have been brought low and made to really examine themselves and their faith so that they are ‘spiritually ready’ to be leaders and evangelists in the fledgling Christian community.
That is a model for us all - when we, as my novice master in the monastery used to say, ‘let go and let God’, then miracles really can happen. When we let go of OUR vision and instead think about God’s vision and what He would want of us, both as individuals and (perhaps even more importantly) as a community - which in this case means this benefice, then miracles really can happen!
When I refer to the benefice, and I will be doing that a lot(!), it is so that we all remember that when I was licensed on Thursday evening it was not to one parish in preference to any other, but to a benefice! I am your vicar, whichever part of the benefice that you happen to live in - and that will apply equally to those outside the church as well as those who are members of it.
So, keeping God’s vision in mind, what is the way ahead? What is the way ahead for us as a benefice, for the church nationally and internationally, and for those of other denominations and other faiths with whom we share some common identity?
Well, let’s stick to the local picture at the moment and take one step at a time.
In my hand I have a piece of paper! Now, I’m very aware that for those of you who study history those words are already loaded. One of the most memorable times that that happened was when Chamberlain, in 1938, declared ‘peace for our time’ whilst waving a piece of paper that he had negotiated with Hitler. Twelve months later saw the beginning of World War II.
Now, I’m hoping that by waving this piece of paper, it won’t signal the beginning of World War III in this benefice! However, it does point us towards the way ahead for the immediate future. So, what does it say?
Well, essentially it says what I should be doing in my first six months in post, after which I will be meeting with Bishop Robert to discuss what has happened and where things might go from there.
Most of the things that it says seem to be common sense for a vicar - to work collaboratively, to build relationships, to pray, to take care over baptisms, weddings and funerals, to keep in touch with the diocese etc. etc.
But, what it is really saying is that for the first six months I should be watching, listening, but above all discerning what is happening at the moment - in other words ‘where we are’ as things stand. So, if you try and ‘tie me down’ or ‘pigeonhole me’, then you are going to be sorely disappointed.
Similarly, if you are expecting me to work miracles or wave a magic wand and solve the problems of the church, either locally or nationally, then again I have to tell you that you are on a hiding to nothing!
However, me changing nothing or giving little away does not mean that I don’t have an opinion or that things are not going to change. It simply means that they are not going to change yet, because for me to come in and sweep aside what has been here before without discerning with you a right and proper way ahead would be both disrespectful and very short – sighted.
Of necessity, some practical arrangements will have to change for the simple reason that I am one vicar rather than two! Whilst I am very ably assisted by two lay readers (currently) with another in training, and I very much believe in collaborative ministry and consultation, there is nevertheless a limitation to what is possible in terms of communion services and other things reserved exclusively to priesthood.
But please be reassured of two things.
Firstly, that I will be working hard with you and for you to provide the best pastoral care that I can, and of course I am not the only one who provides pastoral care and I am already well aware of the good work done by the pastoral team - but I will do all that I can do to show you love and support and service, taking Christ as my model, in this place.
And secondly, although my Church upbringing was Catholic, my model in terms of decision-making cannot and should not be. Therefore, in discerning the way ahead, I see this as a process and task for ALL of us over the coming six months, so that when I go to see Bishop Robert and report back, I can share with him a common vision that, even though we may not all agree with all parts of it, we are willing for the common good to ‘sign up to’ so that we can move forward in a genuinely open and exciting way as the people of God in this benefice!
In thinking about that discernment, I need to point you towards another piece of paper - this time, written by you rather than by the diocese. This document was put together by yourselves in what is known as a ‘parish profile’. This is what YOU said that YOU wanted, not only in your new vicar, but in terms of YOUR way ahead as a benefice.
So, you said that there was more to be done in terms of sharing resources and working more closely together. You said that you wanted to strengthen links with the local primary schools and build connections with the secondary schools as well as the Scouts and brownies. You said you wanted to encourage engagement with the younger people in the area and to balance the demands of weddings with the wider needs of the benefice. You said you wanted to reach out to some of the smaller communities in the benefice and to encourage more people to share on the Christian journey. You acknowledged that the congregations needed more nurturing, that baptisms needed better follow-up, that relationships needed to be explored (which might be code for improved?), so that we used talents and skills more effectively across the benefice and you also wanted to continue to improve your buildings and facilities.
That’s quite a list! There’s also quite an interesting paradox here.
Often, we want things to change as long as it is not the things that affect us directly! We think that others should change, but that we have ‘got it right’ and so certain things should change, as long as it’s not ‘our bit’ of the church … I’m afraid that it doesn’t quite work like that!
In my previous career, I spent a lot of time teaching young people about world faiths apart from Christianity and I saw wisdom in many of them. In Buddhism, Prince Siddharta, who became Gottamma Buddha, recognised that we all suffer because we often want things to remain exactly as they are and this is in fact going against the reality of the natural world. Things change - we all change - we are all older than we were at the start of this sermon, and if I go on for much longer we will all be considerably older!
So - in seeking to discern a way ahead for our benefice, ALL parts of our benefice, let us do so prayerfully, honestly, charitably, and with hearts and minds that are open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. If we can do that, then a great adventure lies ahead, because with God, anything is possible!
New Year normally happens on 31st December - but in the church it is different. The feast of Christ the King, at the end of November, signals the start of the new church year as we go into the season of Advent. We will therefore have a series of meetings in November after the six-month period of discernment, so that I can go with joy and confidence to Bishop Robert and tell him that we, as a benefice, have discerned the direction in which God is calling us for the next stage of our spiritual journey together.
I will seek to lead and guide you in that journey - I only ask for your help and your prayers as I do that.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen..