Sermon for 26th April 2015 – APCM Sunday
It is good to be back with you after my Easter break. It is tempting to start in with stories of visiting Peru, from the stunning sight of Machu Picchu to the dusty slums of the Lima shantytowns, but I am going to keep those in reserve at the moment. Because today we have our Annual Parochial Church Meeting, when officers of this church take up and lay down their responsibilities. It is a day for us to reflect on how we have seen God at work in this parish over the past year, and to think and pray about what we might want our new Parochial Church Council to be focusing on during the year ahead.
This has been, I am sure you will agree, a very fruitful and encouraging year. Several things stand out for me. First, the ministry team has grown with the ordination of Timothy to the diaconate and the admission of Miriam to Reader ministry. And six new chalice assistants were given permission from the Bishop to serve at Holy Communion: Ellen Gilmour, Rebecca Drake, Casey Okezie, Judy Greengrass, Roddy Monroe and Peter Symonds.
Secondly, our financial situation began to turn the corner at last, thanks to increased giving in the stewardship scheme. We were able to pay for the installation of our new heating system. The youthwork committee, through extremely hard work, found funding that lifted the burden from the parish budget of maintaining our outreach to young people at risk, and we have in this past week been able to appoint a full-time youthworker as an assistant to Jason. We have also benefited from the good work of Roberto, our office apprentice who has been assisting Celyn. Various maintenance jobs have been carried out thanks to better cashflow. Though we are still not financially secure, we can begin to do just a little more planning for the future.
Thirdly, the money season, spearheaded at St Mary’s by Mark, has been a resounding success. We had Bible study of Nehemiah last autumn and a wonderful Sunday morning of responding to David Barclay’s money talk. As a result of our discussions, we signed 50 people up to the local credit union and even got Mark’s photo in the local paper in a Father Christmas suit. The PCC voted to affiliate with London Citizens and campaign with other organizations for social justice issues in the local area. We are looking into training in order to signpost people to financial advice. Throughout Lent we discussed Anglican teaching about the Common Good. Awareness of the ethics of money is now in our collective DNA.
There are many other signs of hope that I could point to, but I want to finish by mentioning one outstanding development. Several dozen members of St Mary’s accepted the Bible Challenge on Advent Sunday 2013 and completed our reading of the entire Bible just a few months ago. Many of us have now committed to continue daily Bible reading using the Anglican lectionary, and we meet regularly to compare notes on how it is going. From these Sunday meetings have sprung other discussions – notably a grill-the-clergy Q&A session and a sceptics group that meets occasionally after church for lively debate. Timothy has also introduced Preaching & Pints, another way at tackling the challenging parts of the Bible, and recently we had a rabbi give a Jewish perspective on the story of Noah.
In the view of the clergy team at least, and I hope you agree, the engagement of this congregation with the Bible has been transformational. Many other parishes have become interested in the Bible Challenge and we expect to launch another challenge as part of a much wider programme across north London this Advent. The change that has taken place is the growing awareness that prayer, Bible reading, study and social action are not activities that can be left to the clergy. Every baptised member of the Body of Christ is called to active discipleship and to a personal encounter with the scriptures, in all their complexity.
It seems that the more we do, the more ideas people have about new things to do. I haven’t even made mention of the cold weather shelter, Faith at Work, men’s group, book club, Primrose Tearoom, Thursday parent & carer drop-in, Sunday school, welcome teams at 9.15 and 10.30, church maintenance volunteers, sacristans, coffee makers, servers, launderers, church shop managers, charity collectors, stewardship team, youthwork committee, magazine editors, flower arrangers, church musicians, readers and intercessors, cleaners and polishers, lecture series committee, bar staff, organizers of the Designer Sale and Santa Lucia, and the Friends of St Mary’s. There is one thing I want you to notice, though: every one of those thirty activities is led by laypeople.
We are a church in which people take ownership of our corporate life and our outreach. The church is a building that we are glad to open to the local community, and it is also our collective identity. What is it that motivates us, that makes us different from the countless community clubs and residents associations that flourish all around us in Primrose Hill?
Our readings today give us the clue. By what power or by what name have you done this healing? the religious establishment asks Peter. And the answer is, by the name of Jesus.
The first epistle of John says, We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us. And
Jesus says in John’s gospel, I know my own and my own know me.
We are different because we are gathered and empowered as a community by the love of God shown to us in the risen Christ. It is fitting that our annual meeting takes place in Eastertide, when the power of the resurrection began to flow out from the bewildered band of disciples into the city of Jerusalem and then across the Roman Empire. And how did it happen? Not through Jesus coming on clouds of glory, but through the faithful witness of ordinary people whose lives shone with the light of Christ.
Last Wednesday we had another visit from Marek Zabriskie, the founder of the Bible Challenge. This time he came to lead a seminar for clergy who would like to introduce the Bible Challenge in their parishes. He said to us that a burger bar is expected to sell burgers. So when churches don’t talk about God, they are failing in their essential role. God, after all, is the only interesting thing about religion. People come to church to be nourished in their faith, to get to know the scriptures, to pray, to be in fellowship with other Christians, and to be empowered to be witnesses in the world to the love of God.
We may have a multitude of activities, but they are all based on the love of God made known to us in Jesus. That is what makes us different from any other club in the neighbourhood. We come here on a Sunday to see each other, of course, but also to seek the face of God, to hear God’s word, to be fed at God’s table, and to be strengthened for God’s service.
When we do this, we put ourselves in the place of an amazing explosion of energy. You know the old saying, Light the blue touchpaper and stand back. That is what it feels like just now at St Mary’s. Who knows where the next great idea is going to come from? Who may offer to take up a new role or start training for ministry? What might the new PCC come up with at the awayday in a couple of weeks? It is exciting to say that I have no idea, and I really look forward to finding out.
At our vestry meeting after the eucharist, we will elect churchwardens for the coming year. After five years of tireless service, Malcolm Craddock is stepping down from this office. You may or may not realize that the office of churchwarden is one of the most ancient in England. It dates back to the 13th century, and is therefore one of the oldest forms of lay ministry. Churchwardens are legally responsible for the church building and its contents, and they are the local officers of the Bishop. The public duties of the clergy are easy to identify, but the work of the churchwardens is largely invisible. The life of the church would be impossible without the faithful, voluntary service of these officers. It is right for us to give thanks for them and to pray for them in the exercise of their duties. So we thank Malcolm today for his years of service, we thank Steve Reynolds for being willing to continue in this office, and we pray for the new churchwarden who will be elected to serve alongside him.
The short vestry meeting is followed by the annual parochial church meeting at which the parochial church council, the PCC, presents its annual report and accounts to you, the members of our electoral roll. Please try to stay for this. It won’t take very long but it is the occasion every year on which the members of the church have the opportunity to hold their governing body to account. It is also the meeting at which a third of the PCC steps down and is replaced by new members whom you nominate and elect.
All of this may sound very dry and institutional, but in fact it is a celebration of the ministry of all the members of this church. The structures of governance exist simply to enable our corporate life to flourish and to release the leadership gifts of every Christian. They exist to help us follow our mission statement of making Jesus Christ known. And we do that because we are first known by him, our good shepherd, who calls us to himself in a fellowship of loving service.