Final Mass at St Alban’s – 4 Sept 2016
May the words spoken be to the greater glory of God and advance of the Gospel. In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Good morning. The passage we’ve just heard from Saint Matthew’s Gospel…The Beatitudes…is about each and every one of us being in the love of God. This is so much more than the promise of good will, or even an expression of care or how much we are cherished by God. Jesus makes it clear by these words of blessing that we are bound up with God no matter what our life situation. His message is that each one of us in our being is different from one another, yet individually, we are equally valued and collectively similar in God’s love.
Being similar yet different was the life example of Jesus. The very inclusion of all those he mentions in The Beatitudes set him apart in contemporary society where exclusion and marginalization prevailed…even more-so than today. In the visual art we are so fortunate to have hanging in church at the moment, we can see depictions of his words on the occasion we know of as The Sermon on the Mount…that time when his moral teaching made clear the inclusive love of God for all. At this time, he also taught how to pray…how we are linked with God in our humanity, how heaven and earth are joined together, in the words we know of as The Lord’s Prayer.
As they say in their brochure for this exhibition, Derek and Patrick haven’t painted the Sermon on the Mount as an event, they’ve taken the Words of Jesus and interpreted them in a visual medium, using contrasting methods of conveyance. This in itself illustrates difference…difference in how each of us might visual these blessings for ourselves.
Thank you both sincerely for this work and for your engagement with us in our parish life…it really is greatly appreciated. For those who don’t know, this is the second occasion when Pat and Derek have exhibited their work here…the first time being two years ago when they depicted each of the Stations of the Cross in their art form.
This exhibition, coinciding with today’s Festival Mass compelled me to step out from our Lectionary sequence so we could listen again to these words of blessing from Jesus and reflect on them. They are intrinsic to the character of his Good News for the world…of finding calm and hope in the knowledge that we are all entirely accepted for who we are in our humanity. This is the Gospel of inclusiveness, where no one is excluded from being in the love of God.
For many, Jesus was being very provocative in these words as he is elsewhere in his teaching. The theme of being different runs right through the Gospels, where Jesus challenges the protocols and rules of contemporary social and religious institutions. But he does so while being grounded in the Jewish Faith and is energetic in his Temple attendance and prayer-filled life. He was being similar yet different.
At this time in our annual cycle of scripture readings we are following events recorded by Saint Luke, where Jesus challenges the norm in terms of religious rules and social practice when they hinder the work of God…the work of God’s love.
As we know, Jesus really got on the wick of the Pharisees and those who wanted to maintain the rules and protocols because for the most part, his proposals for being different threatened their personal positions of wealth and power.
Luke tells of Jesus healing a sick woman on the Sabbath and at another time a sick man, also on the Sabbath, when that would have been considered prohibited work…he broke the rules to do God’s work. He tells the wealthy to invite the poor to their banquet table and for those who believe they should sit in the important seats, to wait until invited…and indeed, to invite others to occupy their favored seat. He tells parables such as finding the lost sheep, illustrating that every individual is precious to God. He speaks of family reconciliation with the father forgiving the prodigal son. And after numerous other examples of forgiveness, in his last moments of life he forgives his executioners. Was he different? Too right he was…and at times he was very forceful in his opinions.
We each have opinions about others…how they dress, what they say, how they live, etc…that’s a very human trait. But judgment of others is another thing. Judgement is for God.
It’s difficult to prioritise but if I had to, I would say that collectively, the non-judgmental nature of this parish stands out in its character. Strong opinions abound but in my experience, no one is judged and no one is excluded. For this Christian living here among many other things, I’m truly grateful…grateful as a personal benefactor of that acceptance and grateful to be part of a worshiping community where all are included in the spirit of The Beatitudes. It’s a point of difference here that I believe is an authentic expression of the Gospel on which we base our faith.
Echoing Andy’s words of welcome, it’s lovely to be sharing the events of today with you all. Tinged with sadness at the end of something, like all happenings when we live in the example of Christ, in hope we can embrace what is new…or about to be new…and trust that all shall be well. For Kathy and me together with the wonderful people of The Coromandel, a new thing has been growing there. Now it’s before us…them and us…challenging us to be different in a different place…yet still intrinsically being the same in our reliance on God to be revealed to the world in Scripture and Sacrament. As the motto of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuit Order) says, “The Mission Continues…”
For the people of Saint Alban’s the Mission Continues here too. There is the anticipation of a new parish priest and inevitably a different way to be, while still being the same. It’s exciting and knowing that all shall be well, we each severally and together, hand ourselves over in faith to God, serving Christ in whatever comes next, in the knowledge of his love, care and blessing.
The support that Kathy and I have had since being here is outstanding. Especially from the dear people of Saint Alban’s but also from the Anugrah Indian Congregation with whom as today, we worship regularly. How wonderful that at least two of the three tikanga of our church can be together here so well. Others have shared our space and worshiped together over my time here…the Tongan Anglicans (also tikanga pasifika), the Serbian, Dionesyan and Eritrean Orthodox…and our neighbours the Russian Orthodox congregation. All have joined in proclaiming God’s presence in this place, witnessing to the faith of Christ.
My personal support from Bishop Ross in particular has been sincere and energetic, especially when at times things were a bit tough. This is also true of Archdeacon Carole and others in the Diocese. Saying “thank you” seems rather a lame couple of words but I do mean it. In the wider church I have wonderful prayerful support internationally from my Benedictine Brothers and Sisters and of course, Kathy and I benefit greatly from the love of our dear family and friends. I can’t begin to mention individual names at this time but sincerely hope you each know how grateful we are for your love and support. Especially we thank the Wardens and Vestry over our time here for their care of me as priest and also of ‘Mrs Vicarage’. Kathy and I are really very grateful for everything.
Suffice to say that we’ve had some outstandingly wonderful times here and together we’ve endured a few pretty rocky times too. The key word there is ‘together’. Floods, roof collapses, leaks, wall cracks and some difficult moments of human frailty…we got through it all in most part because we did it together. On my theme of being different, the wonderful difference for me here, was to be part of a collective motivating enthusiasm to ensure that Christ would continue to be witnessed in this place no matter what. The Mission has continued!
During the difficult times, just as when things have been good, we’ve never stopped our regular worship in the style we maintain as Anglicans in the Catholic tradition. With tears in our eyes at times, we’ve sung our hearts out and celebrated the sacraments, maintaining the ‘bells and smells’ character by which this parish is known and in that respect, is quite different from most other parishes and yet entirely similar in our faith and proclamation of Jesus Christ as Saviour. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Christ’s promise of spiritual nourishment has prevailed.
Today for me marks quarter of a century in ordained ministry. Having previously been in Lay Ministry for 15 years, I knew there would be a difference in my being and my role in the church but how to live out that difference was a very open question in my mind.
Because my ordination coincided with the date set in our Lectionary to commemorate the life and faith witness of Albert Schweitzer, I read up on him to make sure I knew some of the facts…and perhaps find some clues into how I should try to be as people-facing in Holy Orders.
One of his quotes that I found very helpful and somewhat comforting was:
Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.
“Hmm, not too bad I thought”. If happiness brings success I can definitely give that a go. I should mention that my Retreat Director had driven me half-way up a mountain to a dis-used and rather chilly stone church for a few hours to contemplate what was to come. I read this quote and other helpful tid-bits on prayer and ministry while also singing hymns loudly with the help of an old harmonium, in an attempt to keep warm. Not much overt happiness in that wilderness experience I can tell you! My dear friend Father Boyd Wilson cannot be with us today but he has sent me assurance of his prayers…and I’ve almost forgiven him for the retreat experience!
Fortunately for me, as a measure of success I don’t rely upon remarks such as “Good sermon Vicar” to gauge performance but given my happiness here over the past decade, I’ll accept Albert’s proposal and declare myself successful at Saint Alban’s because I have been happy! As with art appreciation though, I’ll leave any further impact views to those of the beholder.
As it happens of course, when we do God’s work, it isn’t always happy and it isn’t always enjoyable…but as a good friend of mine said about himself a couple of days ago, in the example of Jesus, it is the word “joy” within the word “enjoyment” that brings the calm, the stability and the hope that we seek in our lives.
It’s okay to be happy and to enjoy one’s work, especially that for God…but in the context of service to others, to be so with being overly smug or too self-fulfilling.
In other words, to paraphrase my friend, it’s the joy we get from feeling the calm of Christ in ourselves and if that is seen by others, then we are doing his work in the world…and that’s all the success we need to know about. That’s all the difference we need to make. The rest is up to God.
When Kathy and I were in Edinburgh recently we visited Old Saint Paul’s Church, which is where the Scottish Episcopal Church had its beginnings. A lovely old building wreaking of incense, creaking in its bones and in much need of expensive renovation…but with a congregation determined to keep it going…sound familiar?
Anyway, while in that church I picked up the latest newsletter for the Diocese of Edinburgh. By chance and good fortune I found it a few days ago while clearing out some papers in the Vicarage. In it, I read Bishop Armes’ monthly episcopal missive where he was describing his own faith. That in itself was refreshing. Relating to recent violence in our multi-faith world he talks about being different as a Christian and making a difference by proclaiming his faith.
Bishop Armes says this: “As a Christian I experience the overwhelming grace of God through Jesus Christ. By being baptised into Christ I believe that all that is worldly about me is given heavenly purpose – that in the death and resurrection of Christ I find reason to hope that my tendency to mess up, to fall short and to sin, may be transformed into that closer communion with God and with others. This is good news; it changes the way I live. Why would I want to keep it to myself?”
Why indeed? And why would we not make our starting point the words of the Beatitudes and in Christ’s image, strive to live them out in our dealings with others? Wouldn’t that be a good way to begin following the teaching of Jesus who was different and made all the difference, changing the world forever? Wouldn’t that be a giant step to authentically living in the image of God through the person of Christ?
Even if we can’t change the attitudes and perspectives of all we would hope for, we can as individuals and perhaps eventually as the whole church, be faithful to that grace gift we have been given…of being different and yet the same.
To be different, so that in the words of one of my all-time favourite hymns from the days of Catholic Renewal in the church, the world will ‘know we are Christians by our love’…and that means love of and for all…the inclusive love of every individual with our gifts and unique talents and faith…innately who we are, so that we may be everything and all we can be for God…each of us blessed for just who and what we are, as Jesus proclaimed in the words of the Beatitudes. My prayer is for the sameness of that difference finally, to be the norm.
We don’t need to go to church to live this way of course…and as church we don’t need our cherished ‘bells and smells’ liturgy as we affectionately refer to our worship style. Coming to church is about being together…congregating to worship God and give thanks for all that we have and are, in whatever style we find meaningful. Jesus said, “When two or three of you gather together in my name, I will be with you.”
By this Jesus didn’t mean he would abandon us when not congregating but that as the Baptised, we gather together in unity as the Body of Christ. We do that differently here from some parishes, preserving the ancient traditions of the church in Word and Sacrament, as begun by the Apostles in Jerusalem and established by Saint Peter in Rome. The richness of sacramental worship has evolved over time but our roots are in the spirituality of the early church. It’s meaningful to those who participate, the regulars and the visitors, and it is most certainly worthy of nourishment, being integral within the broad spectrum of Anglicanism.
So keep on being different all you saints of Saint Alban’s!!! Be all you can for God in this place. And for each of us here…let us be different as Jesus was different…challenge anything that hampers the work of God. Was Jesus a revolutionary? Yes of course he was, just as we can be when we stand always for good, for self-respect, for the dignity of all people, wishing for everyone to be the best they can in the image of Christ.
Thank you again for putting up with me and my quirky ways. For accepting Kathy and me (and Charlie) as you have done so wonderfully well…and moreover, for your love. This place is such a part of our lives. Five days ago we celebrated eight years since we were married here…or at least we would have done if we had remembered it and were in the same location at the time! That was one of many marvellous memories we will take with us. I will miss my Altar and this Pulpit and we will miss you very much but we are only 60km away as the crow flies and I’m sure in paraphrasing the immortal words of General MacArthur and Arnold Swarzteneggar…”We’ll be back!” But not every Sunday!
So go forth in the Name of Christ. Embrace the meaning of the words of Jesus in the Beatitudes, however you visualise them…and be different to make a difference for God, by sharing your faith in Christ by living it the world.
From this day forward, may God in his great mercy and grace bless you all, every one, in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, AMEN.