Where were you when you heard that President Kennedy had been shot? That question used to be a standard opening gambit in conversation. Fewer people nowadays can answer it on the 50th anniversary of his assassination. I am probably one of the youngest people who still has a very clear memory of the day. Imprinted forever on my mind is my fourth-grade teacher Mrs Unkefer walking swiftly into our classroom after lunch with a face as white as snow and saying abruptly, “The President’s been shot.” We all filed into a neighbouring classroom that had a television and stood like statues for the next hour as we watched the news unfold and heard the shocked commentary of Walter Cronkite. For American children at least, the world changed on that Friday afternoon.
The hopes that had been invested in John F. Kennedy were extraordinarily high. The White House was referred to in the media as Camelot. A young, glamorous, idealistic leader with a military hero’s backstory and a beautiful, enigmatic wife were the ingredients for a fantasy that everyone wanted to believe in. When JFK faced down the Russians in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 – a time when our family had actually built a bomb shelter in the cellar in preparation for Armageddon – he became the president that even die-hard Republicans like my parents now trusted and revered.
After his death, the legend was unstoppable, despite the revelations of Kennedy’s chronic ill health, drug-taking, lying and philandering. The human desire to idolize our heroes is as deep-seated as the human need to demonize our villains.
It was a long time after Kennedy’s death when I learned that my favourite author, C .S. Lewis, had died on the same day. He was a writer who became my personal idol for many years through adolescence and young adulthood. Lewis, like Kennedy, was a man with many human flaws, but he had no desire to be anyone’s hero. His books, whether they were written for children like the Narnia stories or for adults like his science fiction trilogy and his works of apologetics, all pointed towards the One who alone is worthy of our worship. Many an adult Christian today has come to love Christ by way of Aslan, the embodiment of goodness, grace and majesty. I am one of them.
Today is the feast of Christ the King. That means that here at St Mary’s Primrose Hill we are an outpost of the kingdom of God, citizens who acknowledge the rule of Christ. If Jesus is Lord, then no one else is – no other gods, no institutions, no earthly powers, no politicians. But neither are we the masters of our own fate, the heroes of our own stories. Instead we live in Christ: we acknowledge that God has initiated a relationship with us, and we are members of God’s family, bound to one another in love.
Sometimes it seems that we are a pretty small outfit to make such a claim. We live in a geographical parish of over 8000 people, and only a couple of hundred gather in this church week by week. But when St Paul wrote his epistles to the young Christian communities, he was writing in each case to a house church of only a couple of dozen committed members. By the end of his 25-year missionary career, the number of Christians in the whole Roman Empire was probably only around 2000.
Size is not what counts. A Christian community is flourishing if it shows the fruits of the Spirit – love and joy and peace, mutual forgiveness, generosity and kindness and all the other signs of a healthy family. The first verse in today’s reading from Colossians describes well what that looks like: being made strong with all the strength that comes from the Lord’s glorious power, prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father.
Today I want us to celebrate the signs of spiritual health in our little local outpost, because I think we have been made stronger in all kinds of ways over the past year. There are many signs of health, but they have a common theme, and that is an increasing confidence in the ministry of all the baptized. This was the focus of the parochial church council’s Awayday this year. We studied several biblical passages that emphasized how each one of us is challenged by Jesus to follow him as a committed disciple, living and sharing the good news in our daily lives. The focus at St Mary’s has been gradually shifting to a model of lay leaders having real responsibility and autonomy, rather than a structure of the clergy leading and everyone else just supporting.
I want to list some of the signs that that is happening, without naming any individuals. First, our welcome has improved beyond measure, thanks to the work of a small group who attended a training course and now serve as welcomers on Sunday mornings, in partnership with stewards and the coffee rota team. After-service fellowship and follow-up involves a great many people every week.
Faith at Work is going from strength to strength. Its coordinators have organized a stimulating programme and they facilitate a tremendous system of mutual support. In their thoughtful feedback to the PCC they have requested more resourcing for Christians to feel confident about their faith in the public arena, and some new ideas about this will be tried out in 2014.
The community youthwork programme is on the up and up. Members of the congregation chair and serve on the youthwork committee, prepare publicity, make films about Jason’s work, communicate with the congregation, and apply for external funding. I am delighted to say that a grant to cover Jason’s salary for the next three years has just been secured, allowing us now to work on expanding the programme to reach more young people at risk of social exclusion.
The Men’s Group is now firmly established under lay leadership and regularly invites members of the congregation to share the astonishing range of work that they do.
One huge development this year has been the revival of the Friends of St Mary’s, who hosted a really wonderful evening in October for the local community and are now running a series of attractive fundraising events to support our outreach. The summer lectures and the Designer Sale, now under the banner of the Friends, continue to be organized expertly by volunteers.
The cold weather shelter is now running smoothly for the fourth season, with many new volunteers joining the old hands to provide a really hospitable place of welcome for our guests, many of whom are young and all of whom are vulnerable.
Other kinds of service by laypeople continue away from the limelight: the Primrose Tearoom every Thursday morning, regular visits to Compton Lodge and Mora Burnet House, links with St Paul’s School, the quiet but constant work of the Befrienders, the faithful production of the parish magazine, hosting and leading Advent, Lent and book groups, officiating at contemplative prayer and the daily office.
One lay-inspired initiative that has really inspired me this year is the Bible Challenge which fifty of us will embark on in a week’s time. There is still time to join us! Just sign up at the round table near the King Henry’s Road door.
Now here is the thing. None of these activities would be happening if the faith community of St Mary’s weren’t here. It is because we come together as Christians, responding to the call of Jesus to follow him, that we are able to work together and do all these things. Because laypeople maintain the building, pay the bills, sing in the choir, run the sacristy, lead prayers, read lessons, serve and clean and wash and polish, we are able to gather in this church every Sunday morning to be fed at the table of the Lord and renewed for service.
The institution enables the service, and we are all custodians of the institution. In the notices today you will hear from laypeople about the renewal of giving that is needed every year at this time so we can budget for the coming year. The ordering of our priorities is determined by the kingship of Christ. If we are gathered in his name, then his work is our work. May we be made strong with all the strength that comes from the Lord’s glorious power, prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father.