Tuesday, 6 August 2013

The First Sermon for St John The Divine

Well, this is it, my opening sermon.  Don't get too excited, it won't win any preaching awards, nor lead to revival in BC, but I wanted to be clear and straightforward for my first Sunday serving in this place....

It will be available as a podcast soon (oooh, I hear you say, or maybe not)

Warning, I may have used the opening story before....
Eat Drink and be Merry ?

A priest takes up his new role as rector of a parish. All seems well during his first Sunday service and as people start leaving the minister says goodbye at the door and has the usual 'lovely sermon', 'thanks for joining us', 'welcome', 'glad to have you on board' etc from those leaving, until about ten people along a dishevelled looking man says 'long winded', and 'dreadful voice' and then wanders off back into the church. A few more folk shake hands and say farewell with 'thank you for your words for today', 'good to have you here' etc and the same chap returns saying 'boring', 'what have we done?', 'dreadful sermon'.

It happens two or three times, a dozen or so of the congregation come by offering welcome, with this chap returning and saying very negative things. At the end of the welcome following the service the new minister goes to the vestry and the Associate Priest asks 'so how was your first service, then? To which the priest answers 'it was great, though there was this one guy who seemed very strange.' “Oh, says the Associate, don't worry about him, he just goes around repeating what other people are saying.”

Hope I don't that kind of reaction....

I should say 'hello I'm Alastair and I will be your Rector for today... and hopefully a number of days to come” It is a huge privilege to be here, and to have the responsibility for serving you as your Incumbent, and to support you all in your ministry to this local community, and to the city of Victoria. It is a joy for me to be able to share worship with you and to offer some thoughts and teaching to you. In short, I am very pleased to be here, and I look forward to getting to know you and to being your minister.

So, you are probably wondering what your new Rector has to say for himself. I did wonder whether to hijack this sermon and take this time to say something about myself, but actually I want to start as I mean to go on and to offer some thoughts from the Scriptures set by the Lectionary for this Sunday. Also, you have plenty of time to hear about me, and you will discover that sometimes this pulpit, or the front of the dais, or wherever can take on something of a confessional aspect on my part – because I am sharing this journey with you. I am not standing here as the expert with all the answers, but as a fellow pilgrim on this strange, wonderful, disturbing, exciting, hopeful, life giving journey which is following Jesus, on being a person who is struggling with, celebrating and embracing the life of faith. So you`ll get to hear plenty about me. I look forward also to hearing your stories in these coming weeks and months.

When I read the lections for this week, and as I started to really think about how I might start my preaching ministry with you good people of St John the Divine I had a couple of reactions. One was oh yes, what a great set of readings, the second was that if I wasn`t careful I could easily come across as somewhat negative and grumpy as I tried to share something about these passages, particularly the Gospel reading for today.

What I mean by that is, for instance, that when Jesus is asked to sort out a problem for a person in the crowd – when he says tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me – Jesus says no, I am not going to do that for you. It would be too easy to apply that to a discussion on the role of a new Rector.

It`s true that I don`t come to sort everything out and I am not a miracle cure to what we might feel ails the Church! I heard Larry`s excellent last sermon ( http://podOmatic.com/r/lEywnE)  and this passage fits beautifully with the idea of the rescuer, victim and persecutor. The kind of game playing, as Larry called it, that Jesus refuses to join in with! I could take that as foundation for my thoughts today and say that I won`t be the rescuer, should anyone feel in need of it! This may be true, but firstly you had a very good sermon on this two weeks ago and secondly what I am sure you would want to hear is what we are going to do, not what isn`t going to happen.

So what I want to do is ask some questions. Questions that I hope will characterise our life as a Church, and our own individual walk as Christ followers.

My first question is `where is God in this` I don`t mean in a simplistic `God turns up at the end of the parable`kind of way – but to ask something which we should ask about every part of our lives. In what way is God active in the whole thing, and in what way do we include God in our activity.

It strikes me that before the shocking denoument of this parable, where the `rich fool` as he is often called is struck down by a God who challenges the man`s self obsession – before that moment God is quite obviously, and deliberately, excluded from the story. In sharp contrast to last week`s passage from Luke`s Gospel where Jesus teaches the prayer we call `the Lord`s Prayer`, the rich man is not content with `daily bread` but stores up treasures for himself. He is concerned not just with fulfilling his needs but with getting as much as he can. He way well have done this through wise stewardship and thoughful planning, though it seems much more likely that is was just `luck` as the passage says `his land produced abundantly`. For this provision there is no gratitude, just a consolidation of the man`s own wealth. And in response to this bounty is not to give thanks to the giver, nor to use it in provision of others, but for this rich man to turn inwards.

`I will say to my soul, Soul you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry`

One writer, Robert Hamerton-Kelly says this turn of phrase is no accident. The word translated `soul` is the greek word `psyche`- the man – with almost comic effect -formally addresses his own ego! There is no acknowledgement of a world beyond himself, but only of his own self-sufficiency, and a sense of self congratulation and, indeed, selfishness!

The result of this, in Jesus` parable is God`s direct, even vengeful, intervention. And a word of condemnation `You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be

So where is God in all this.

God is there in the challenge to us, as we engage with this scripture, to consider whether we include him in our lives – not just in our church, but in our attitude to the things we own, to the things that fill our lives, our time, our families.

God is the there in the challenge for us to look beyond ourselves, both in the sense of being ourselves open to the need to engage with the other – in the form of neighbour, colleague, friend and stranger and in the form of the God who wishes to be a part of our every day. Another recent lection, the Gospel for July 14th just gone, sums up this outward looking attitude. Luke 10.27, a young man`s summary of the law to Jesus
`Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and love your neighbour as yourself`.
In that summary we have balance between loving God with all that we are – intellect, emotion, soul, alongside loving our neighbour, and having an appropriate love for self! It should not be one at the expense of the other. But that may well be a sermon for another time!

But as we are challenged to look beyond our own internal world, we are challenged also as a church community to do the same. And this is my challenge to myself and to each one of us at the start of my service here in Victoria!

There is a phenomenal amount that St John the Divine can be pleased about in the way that this Church community engages with the world around, in the care and compassion that characterises so much of the activity and life of this parish. There is much to celebrate and give thanks for in the shared life and spiritual growth that this parish Church has obviously enjoyed over some years. This is much that is good in St John`s. There is so much going on that I find inspiring, exciting, and I have no doubt enjoyable too! Enjoyable is good, fun is good, inspiring and exciting is good!

But we cannot as a community, as the pilgrim people of God afford to rest on our laurels, to consider ourselves a `successful church`. I know there are things which we want to address and explore as a church in the coming weeks and months. I know there are issues, ideas, concerns and hopes. I`m glad I can be here to share these things with you, as you will all no doubt – as is says in investment advertisements - `past performance is no guarantee of success` we cannot just look to the past, to what we have achieved before and what we have done – but together we will, I hope, discern where God is leading us as his people serving downtown Victoria and one another in this body of Christ.

I believe that God is calling us together to continue to engage with our faith in worship, prayer, learning, wrestling with and understanding Scripture. I believe that God is calling us to engage with one another in this community and to continue to be a place where all are welcomed, embraced and have a place in our life together.

I believe that God is calling us to be a people who share our bounty with others. Who continue to reach out to the people beyond our walls and who help the needy, speak out for the oppressed and powerless, and seek the welfare of all.

I believe that God is calling us to challenge ourselves to grow, to be faithful, to be loving and to be willing to follow where Christ leads. And in all of this I believe the Spirit of God will be the life affirming, live giving inspiration that will help us do and be these things.

And so I will say again that I am very pleased to be a part of this next stage of the life of our Church of St John the Divine, Victoria. I look forward to being with you, to sharing all that is to come, and to laughter, life, love and faith held in common and enjoyed.

May the love of Christ dwell in us richly, and may we Christ indeed be all and in all for us.