SERMON FOR 28th APRIL 2013
The churchwardens, secretary, treasurer and I have been swimming in statistics for the past few weeks, trying to get everything ready for the annual meeting this morning and for the Archdeacon’s Visitation tomorrow. This is a sort of inspection visit that takes place every five years to make sure that we are meeting all the legal requirements that apply to a Church of England parish – it is also, I hasten to add, an opportunity for the Archdeacon to encourage and thank the volunteers who keep parish churches in operation.
But the statistics are a chore. It has been said that you can tell what an institution values by what it measures. In the case of our annual returns to the diocese, the things they want to count are our finances and the numbers of people on our electoral roll and attending our services, and how many people we baptize, confirm, marry and bury every year. No doubt these are important indicators of the health and vitality of a parish church. But they seem a far cry from the criterion that Jesus gave his disciples by which to judge a Christian community. What he said was, By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.
How do we measure this quality? Not by the kinds of information that are required on the annual return. You can’t really do statistics for love. But for this morning’s annual parish meeting many of us were required to write a report. If you read through everything that was emailed out last week – and I would be extremely impressed by anyone who actually read every word – then you would have an idea about how love is put into action at St Mary’s.
There are some obvious indicators. Firstly, for the third year running, dozens of volunteers have come together every Monday evening in the winter to offer food and overnight hospitality to people who would otherwise be sleeping on the street. Secondly, in the past few weeks, a large number of people have made generous donations to keep Jason, our community youthworker, in his post, mentoring and supporting young people who might be in jail or dead without the challenge and friendship that he offers – this is no exaggeration. Thirdly, in the past year, we have worked hard at taking our responsibility to welcome newcomers seriously, carrying out a survey, running a course, changing the way we greet new people and even the layout at the back of church. And other examples of love in action include St Mary’s Befrienders, who have put on a number of events for older people, led services in two residential settings, and under Pauline’s supervision run the SOS prayer group for intercessory prayer.
The annual report mentions by name many people who support the worship and witness of St Mary’s, whether it is by washing, cleaning, serving, singing, reading, stewarding, or coffee making. One often overlooked service is the work of the sacristy, which Becky Selman and Paul Johnson have carried out without any fanfare for years, under the guidance of Linda, who has now finally handed over this role to Roberta. But the many tasks that these wonderful volunteers do are just the tip of the iceberg of our Christian discipleship.
What isn’t mentioned, because we can’t count it or even see it clearly, is the underwater part of the iceberg. What I want to focus on today is saying thank you to all of you for the discipleship of your daily lives. We can be disciples of Jesus by loving one another in all kinds of ways that have nothing to do organizing Sunday morning worship in church. How we treat our colleagues and employees, the way we shop and vote and invest our money, our relationship with our neighbours, the giving of our time or skill or even blood, the character we try to form in our children, our joy in creation, the marathons we run for charity, our concern for the environment and for those who have less than ourselves, the difficult ethical decisions we make – all of these are signs of our choice to live intentionally as people who love one another.
And if that all sounds impossibly holy, then remember that our love for each other is also judged by the way we sin and fail and start again. Do we forgive each other and ourselves? Do we pray for our enemies? Do we keep a sense of humour when we see ourselves in all our pride and folly? The Christian life is all about rising, falling and rising again.
All of us are disciples of Jesus, called to love one another. Clergy and laypeople, by our baptism, are called to the same life of discipleship in the world. That is why Faith at Work is one of the most important initiatives that has ever been launched at St Mary’s. Making connections between our faith and our daily lives is the business of all of us. When our worship ends, our service begins.
What we do in church, then, and what we review this morning in our annual meeting, is simply what resources our life of discipleship. I’ve been on retreat this week, thinking about this. At this annual review, I want to think about what I am for, and ask you to hold me to account in the coming year.
At St Mary’s, we all have a ministry. Many ministers are mentioned in the annual report. Some have specific practical responsibilities, like the churchwardens, PCC officers, Celyn and Jason, whose work enables us to function as a church, pay our bills and do community outreach. Some are full-time volunteers, like Drew and Katja. Some are dedicated to the ministry of music, to teaching Sunday school or to doing pastoral work with the elderly. Some are licensed lay ministers, like Roberta, our Reader, and those who assist with Holy Communion. Some are priests, like Linda, Mark and Lyndon, each of whom will have their own personal approach to what their ministry means to them.
As vicar, my job is not to be some kind of super-minister, still less a super-Christian, but to be the person who makes sure that all of your ministries are resourced. I believe that I have four principal tasks: firstly to gather the church family at the eucharist week by week, where we meet in fellowship, praise and thanksgiving to God. Secondly, to pray for all of you, regularly and faithfully, at the daily offices. Thirdly, to study, read and think, so that I can develop and constantly refresh a vision for our corporate life as disciples of Jesus, and share it in preaching and teaching. And last but by no means least, to be available to you and everyone who lives in this parish as a pastor, listening and serving, and reflecting with you on where God is present in your lives. All the rest of the tasks for which I must give an account to the Archdeacon and the diocesan number-crunchers are very much secondary in importance to these four.
As a Christian in the world, I am like all of you one of the baptized, the laos or people of God, with the same responsibilities as every member of this church to live a life of daily discipleship. But in church, to use a fairly crude analogy, I am the pump attendant of the service station. You are entitled to call on my time, because that is what I am here for. And I will continue to ask for your voluntary help in doing all the tasks that keep a church in the business of showing the world that we are Jesus’ disciples, loving one another as he commanded us to do. Let us continue to pray for each other in the year ahead, that all who look at St Mary’s Primrose Hill will recognize a community that is based on receiving God’s love and sharing it with each other and the world.