Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Baptism of Christ - Last Sermon to The Parish of North End Portsmouth Team Ministry

Last week, during our midweek Mass, we heard the story of Jesus walking on the water.  Today has a watery theme as well, with the story of the baptism of Christ.  Both stories remind me of the cartoon that I saw on Facebook this week.  It was a religious cartoon…but not of the prophet Mohammed.  Rather, it showed Jesus as a toddler, standing on the water of his bath-tub, while his mother Mary pointed to the water and said ‘in’!  I hope no-one decides to shoot the comic who drew that cartoon!  Je suis Charlie!

Today we celebrate the Baptism of Christ, which for Jesus marked the beginning of his public ministry.  The irony of the moment is, of course, that at the same time we are marking the conclusion of my public ministry here in this parish.  Now, don’t get me wrong – I am not equating myself to Jesus!  One of the stranger facts about his baptism is that Jesus chose to be baptised despite being sinless – so there’s definitely no comparison with me there!  Why did Jesus choose to do this?  Why go through a ceremony which implied the washing away of sin, to mark the beginning of his ministry?

Baptism was then, and is still now, a symbol of new life.  It was one of the ways that a gentile could convert to the Jewish faith.  It was, and still is, a powerful symbol of making a fresh start, and of starting along a new road of faith.  I think Jesus wanted us to see him as someone who is prepared to walk that same road with us.  By subjecting himself to baptism, Jesus identifies with us.  He declares that he is our brother, and that he will walk along faith’s road with us.

As I look back over the last six and a half years, I am in no doubt that Jesus has been walking along our road of faith with us.  Today is a good day to give thanks to God for all he has accomplished among us as he has walked with us.

We might give thanks for lives sustained and needs met through the community café, or through our pastoral visiting team.  We might give thanks for the music and laughter we’ve enjoyed together at countless social events, barn dances, quiz nights, choir concerts, and Songs of Praise.

We might give thanks for the funds we’ve raised together to touch the lives of people beyond this parish – some of whom will never know we even exist.  Just think of the funds YOU have raised for
Christian Aid,
the Children’s Society,
Isubilu’s work with sex workers in Zambia,
Bungokho’s rural development work in Uganda,
the Portsmouth Women’s Refuge,
the tons of food you’ve gathered for the Portsmouth Foodbank,
the Roberts Centre,
the annual appeal for vouchers for Churches Homeless Action,
Bishop’s Lent Appeals,
and latterly, the work of the church in Ghana.

Incidentally, Bishop Matthias was hoping to be with us today…but problems with his Visa have prevented it.  It comes to something when a Bishop of the Anglican Church struggles to get to England, doesn’t it?  I wonder if we are becoming just a bit too paranoid about foreigners coming to our country?  Bishop Matthias has asked me to send you his love and his greetings – and his promise of prayer for you in the coming months as my successor is identified.

But let’s get back to fundraising.  The list I just read is really only scratching the surface and of course it makes no mention of the regular sustained, committed giving and fundraising that you have done to maintain our three churches as beacons of the Kingdom in this area.

We might give thanks for the growth in faith that we have seen among so many lives.  All around us, Christianity is under severe attack.  A tide of consumerism, mixed with secularism, atheism and apathy has led to the closing of many churches.  In this parish, with the exception of the Roman Catholic church and the tiny Quaker meeting house…every other major church denomination is gone.  Our Anglican neighbours on either side are struggling…numbers have been falling at every neighbouring church.  But we have been blessed.  Across our parish, we have managed to maintain and even grow our congregations, and our finances are in good shape.

Yes…my friends.  We have much to be thankful for.  How many parishes of our size could maintain three church buildings and four community halls, with plans well advanced to bring a fifth hall back into use?  How many parishes of our size could run:
a daily community café,
and a Pre-School nursery,
and a music group
and a robed choir,
a Grade one pipe organ,
and a messy church,
and a café church,
and a monthly Evensong,
and fish & chip lunches,
and Ladies Breakfasts
and The Rock,
and two 8am communions,
and four midweek services,
and regular study courses?

How many parishes of our size would have so many organisations linked to them? –Everything from Alcoholics Anonymous, to the Brownies and the Scouts, martial arts training, a male voice choir, a line dancing class and five slimming and weight-watching classes!  This parish is a truly remarkable place – and we have so much to be thankful for.

What’s more, I am certain that God has amazing things yet in store for this parish.  Thanks to the help we’ve been receiving from our Bishop and Diocese, not least in helping to pay for Dave, our Parish Development Officer, there are some really exciting new plans coming down the pipe.  There is the very real prospect of a redevelopment of much of the St Nicholas site, with a new hall and refurbished church to ‘Connect Copnor’.  At St Mark’s, there are concrete plans taking shape to ensure that ‘every square inch’ of the building is used effectively for the mission of the church – and that the dreadful ramps finally consigned to history!

Last year, at our Annual Meeting we set a vision for ourselves…a vision summarised on a noticeboard in each church.  Our vision was intended to guide us in five key areas:
1) grow deeper into our spiritual foundations,
2) grow younger by reaching out to the next generation.
3) tell God’s story with more passion and clarity,
4) serve our local community with even more love and devotion, and
5) provide even better buildings as vibrant signs of the Kingdom.
That’s the vision that you agreed last year, and it’s a vision I encourage you to keep on following.  Keep reminding yourselves of it…LOOK at the noticeboard from time to time!

Let’s get back to our reading!  This Sunday, this Feast of the Baptism of Christ, can be a baptismal moment for us too.  Today we remember how in a simple act of ritual washing, Jesus symbolically embarked on the most vital period of his ministry.  We too are about to engage in a simple ritual act together…around this table…the act of receiving God’s gift of spiritual food for our spiritual journey.  Let’s make this act of coming together an act of commitment to God, to one another and to the future.

My personal journey is leading in a different direction – something that I am both excited about, but also sad.  There is sadness because I’ve grown deeply attached to so many of you…and I shall miss you.  Sad, because I won’t get to experience first-hand all that I know God has in store for this parish in the coming years.  But I also leave with gratitude in my heart.  Gratitude for all that God has taught me here, about myself, and about the kind of priest I’m called to be.  But gratitude to so many of you too.

So thank you, for all that you are and all that you have been.  Thank you for the hours of rehearsals or administration, or cleaning or gardening or maintaining, or sitting on committees or serving in the Café.  Thank you the prayerfulness, and for the companionship you have given to so many parishioners in their homes and over tea-pots and toasted sandwiches.  Thank you for your unstinting faithfulness in fundraising and in caring for one another.  Thank you for being steadfast in worship, and in giving.  Thank you for being hopeful and joyful.

I am certain that God has so much yet in store for North End.  I wish you joy in his service.  Amen.  

Friday, January 2, 2015

Epiphany 2015 – Last Sermon to St Mark’s Congregation

Epiphany 2015 – Last Sermon to St Mark’s North End

Matthew 2: 1-12

Matthew is our only biblical source for the story of the Wise Men – and he doesn't tell us very much. Even their names are handed down to us by tradition, not from Matthew’s gospel. Neither do we know how many of them there were. They certainly weren't ‘we three Kings from Orient are’.

Matthew calls them 'Magi', from which we get our word 'magician' - but that's not the full meaning of the word. The Magi were, as far as we can tell, learned men from another culture. They studied the stars, and no doubt studied the ancient texts of many religions too. They put that knowledge together came to the startling conclusion that a new King of the Jews was being born.

Actually, they were wrong. Jesus never was the King of Jews...despite the ironic poster that Pontius Pilate had nailed over his Cross.  In fact, according to John's Gospel, when Pilate asked him point blank whether he was the King of the Jews, Jesus replied "My Kingdom is not of this world".  No, the Magi were wrong. The stars were not predicting the birth of the King of the Jews.

Another accident of the Magi was in their timing. According to Matthew’s account, they actually arrived up to two years late. Matthew notes that Herod enquired of the wise men when they had seen the Star appear.  Then, based on that information he slaughtered all the boys in Bethlehem under two years old.  It’s also notable that Matthew describes the wise men visiting Mary and the child in the house where they were staying, not in a stable.

So, the ‘wise men’ were perhaps not all that wise. They failed to correctly predict the timing of the birth of a new King of the Jews - and they were two years adrift even of Jesus birth. Their coming seems to have been a happy accident…and example of God using a crooked stick to draw a straight line, as God so often does.

So, to those who say that our future can be read in the stars, there is a warning here. The stars do not foretell our future, any more than they did for the Magi. We would be wise not to place our future in the hands of star-gazers – and especially astrologers - too.

And yet...and yet...

The Magi embarked on a journey of faith. They thought they knew where that journey would lead. They assumed it would lead them to a royal palace in Jerusalem.  But God has a way of using the journeys we plan for ourselves, and turning them into something much different, much more profound.

You see, wise men (and women) are open to what the Journey will bring. Wise men, and women, embrace the possibilities for change and growth which arise whenever we put our journey in the hands of God.  And some of the best journeys are the ones we take with other companions …those who travel with us along the road.

Over the last seven years, I have been blessed to have had some very special companions on my own journey.  I feel that I have learned a lot about myself while being your priest… I now know far more about what gives me joy, and what makes me stressed…even to the point of a heart attack!

I've also learned something of how God works in some of the most surprising places and people. God has spoken to me through homeless people, and people with fragile mental health – as well as through sublime music and liturgical beauty.  I've rejoiced to see some people embracing faith and the profound healing it can bring.  But I've also cried and worried over those who have given up on the challenge of the journey…those who have been lost along the way.

There is something profoundly challenging about the Christian journey – or ‘the narrow way’ as Jesus called it.  I have lost count of the number of new people who have been warmly welcomed to St Mark’s…but also, sadly, of the number who have drifted away again after some months or years.

This has saddened me…but it has not surprised me.  No journey with God is easy…and we should not be surprised when it proves just too difficult for some.  It was not easy for the Magi, who traipsed across deserts and mountains to find Jesus.  They had to give up their home comforts, their family life, the things they wanted to do in favour of the things God was calling them to do…the journey God was calling them to make.  Our journeys are no different.

God calls us to give up our warm comfortable homes, our favourite TV programmes, our comfortable familiar surroundings in order to belong to something greater – the community of people called the Church.  In that community we are called on to sacrifice – to give up on the calls of our own desires, wants and even our own egos, in favour of the desires of the whole community.  We are called to journey from The Self, and into the Great Unity of God, expressed through the people around us.  Some people are just not ready for that kind of radical self-giving.  They need more time for the Spirit of God to strengthen their resolve, and to call them again back into community, and away from the transient, fickle Self.

My own journey will soon take me in a different direction.  And I know that for some of you that is a scary prospect.  But let me encourage you to take heart.  Among those of you who have stayed the course, throughout the last seven years, I have seen some remarkable changes.  In the past, some members of this congregation were at logger-heads with each other.  I've seen such people learning how to give up the demands of the Self, and learning instead the power of forgiveness, reconciliation and community.  I've seen others who used to spend most of their days at home alone devoting themselves to the community around us, through the Café.  I've seen people learn new skills, and take up new challenges.  In conversation with many, I've seen new and exciting theological ideas begin to take root and grow.

So, my encouragement to you this Epiphany is to continue to be open to the journey.  Make a new year’s resolution, right here, right now, that you will be more alert, more open to what God is doing in your life as a person, and in your common life as a church.    Make a pact with God that you will listen to him more, search the scriptures more, worship more, give more, receive more.

God led a bunch of mystics across deserts and mountains to encounter the living Lord Jesus.  God can certainly do the same for us, whether we are called to North End or Havant.

But we have to be ready to go on the journey.     Amen