A lesson from John the Baptist…absolutely final sermon for St Mary’s Whitkirk.

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Sermon for evensong at St Mary’s Whitkirk – as I leave my curacy post…

Sorting through my study over the summer, I came across this, which I must have hung on to last time we moved.

It’s obviously from my classroom scrap paper drawer, since it’s got maths on one side. It’s been made into a card…with a picture of my classroom…and these words: ‘To Mrs Batty, you have Been the Best teecher in the howll world.’ The spelling and random use of capital letters might suggest otherwise…but it was a lovely thought.

I remember exactly when it was made – it was the final day of the school year. Walls and trays had been cleared, and we were filling a last afternoon with what we loved best. The floor was covered with construction toys, the tables with paper, pencils and craft odds and ends. The children were ‘choosing’.

We were comfortable with each other, happy for the coming holidays, but a little sad at parting. So inevitably we remembered the good times and successes we’d had, any problems forgotten as we spent one last afternoon together.

I’ve hung onto this bit of paper not just because it’s nice to re-read. I also remember a day, early the following September when I met the same child and asked “How’re things?” “Brilliant”, he said, “Mr X is the best teacher”…

Since my move to Adel was announced, people have said many kind things…the words ‘outstanding curate’ have even been uttered…

I’ve gained enormously from this this community, so I hope I have given a little back. But I have this bit of paper to remind me that…like teachers, the best curate ever is generally the one who’s just leaving.

And this isn’t me being modest…I think it’s quite important. My response in recent days has been ‘you still have the best vicar in the diocese’. Now I reckon that may actually be true – but he’ll move on eventually too. Don’t panic – I don’t think it’ll be soon – but like curates, vicars come and go.

They come with their own personalities and ideas. They’re called to provide leadership – they invest in the parish, and the parish invests in them – but in the end what matters is not the clergy, but the sharing of the good news and the love of Jesus Christ in this place.

It’s rather wonderful that tonight’s reading is about John the Baptist – patron Saint of Adel church. A coincidence perhaps – or proof of God’s sense of humour…whatever; it’s a great reading for today.

I’m pleased Adel church is dedicated to John the Baptist – because apart from sharing my lack of fashion sense – he’s a great role model for a new incumbent. He must have been a compelling figure, a pretty good preacher judging by the crowds…but after calling for repentance the main point of his teaching is that he is not the Messiah. He’s not there for himself – but to point people to the Messiah.

In our recent Pilgrim group we looked at a slightly earlier passage – where John first points out Jesus to his disciples. The thing I love about Pilgrim is the insights we get when we study scripture together. This time it was a question – “why didn’t John become a disciple of Jesus?” It made me look at John afresh.

He tells of the coming Messiah – saying, “I am not worthy to untie his sandal.” He points to him saying, ”Look the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”…but he doesn’t rush to follow. Surely he wanted to…surely he would have loved to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn.

But John knows what he’s called to do. He’s to be the ‘voice crying in the wilderness, “make straight the way of the Lord”’. He’s to attract people…by his preaching and call to repentance…maybe by his strange dress…but they’re not his followers. He’s only there to point them to Jesus.

Tonight’s reading suggests a few of his followers haven’t quite grasped this. They’re clearly ‘John the Baptist’s men’. Perhaps they’ve been taunted because John’s people are deserting to follow Jesus.

But John hears the news with joy – the joy of a job well done. He says of Jesus, ‘He must increase but I must decrease.’ This is why he’s such a great patron saint to have. He’s a reminder that the message is the important thing. He’s a reminder to clergy and congregations that it’s not all about the vicar, or the curate – but how they help further God’s work in this place.

I know that what you’ve encountered in Matthew means you trust him and his ideas and suggestions. But although he does it in his own special way – what matters is that it’s about Jesus. It’s very easy to mistake the messenger for the message.

Recent world events show us the mess we get in when politics becomes about personalities rather than policies…and it’s no different in the church. If it’s all about the clergy – what happens if they go astray? Even if they’re marvelous – what happens when they leave?

Of course there are some roles unique to clergy – but the lay conference last year recognised the vital importance of the people who are rooted in a place, there for the long haul as followers of Jesus; the importance of the whole congregation investing prayer and discussion in what Christians are called to do in that place.

About a month into our plans for FISH – Matthew asked what was going to happen when I left. It seemed a bit much – when we hadn’t even had a meeting yet, but he was right of course. What matters is not that I can run a group – but that Whitkirk has a space to nurture young Christians.

So while it’s good to appreciate your clergy – to trust and support them. It’s also good to pray and consider as a church – what following Jesus means in this place at this time.

I hope you will miss me – a little, but what really matters is that together we have grown as Christians. That together we’ve built something to make the love of Jesus known in this parish.

 

 

Of curates and coffee…a final sermon for St Mary’s Whitkirk.

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Words for my final Sunday morning at St Mary’s Whitkirk – with thanks for nurturing a curate.

6 years ago, in September 2013, I began ordination training. Along with all the obvious subjects…biblical studies, theology, liturgy…the word ‘formation’ was mentioned. This, it seemed, was a mysterious thing that was not taught, but would happen to us.

Some were skeptical…perhaps seeing training as just providing the tools for the job. Others – like me – were only too aware of how much change was needed. But nobody really explained how we would be changed – what this mysterious formation was.

I’m sure some of it took place at Mirfield…but alongside my teaching job it all passed in a bit of a blur. However, here at St Mary’s, with time, space, advice and encouragement, I think I’ve worked out something of what ‘formation’ is.

So this morning I’d like to tell you a story…of the formation of a curate…and since this is Matthew’s curate…you won’t be surprised to find that it’s also a story of coffee.

In July 2016 I arrived, a shiny new deacon…perhaps somewhat like the coffee I drank (instant). It is coffee (despite what the vicar might say) but perhaps only just.

So, I had the collar and the robes; I was up here and on the preaching rota…but it was, like this coffee, a bit shallow – lacking in depth. And I was trying to be ‘instant’ too. Busy, rushing from task to task, doing everything now – trying to squeeze all I had to say on the subject into my first Advent sermon…

This (coffee beans) is, of course, what I’m aiming to become. The real article (‘dark chocolate – dried cranberry sweetness’)…not just wearing the clothes and saying the words…but the weird and wonderful thing that is a priest in the Church of England.

And I have been ‘formed’. By being part of the life of St Mary’s…watching so many competent volunteers…sharing the joys and sorrows of your lives…and leading worship with those on my heart. In learning from Keith, David, Norman. In wise advice from Lawrie, including the reminder “there will be plenty more Advent sermons”

…and most of all from Matthew…so generous with his time and his wisdom. All those supervisions, invariably starting with the ritual of coffee making…a pause to share family news, ask about each other, and teach me to appreciate good coffee.

Formation has come through the cycle of prayer, scripture and worship. Through spending enough time with Jesus to become a little more like him.

‘Formation’, I’ve realised, is mysterious because it’s not something I do, it’s something God does. I had to learn the basics of weddings and funerals…but then I needed to allow the Holy Spirit to guard and guide my words and actions.

Like making decent coffee, this means putting time aside for preparation…of myself…time to let God in. Like making decent coffee – the extra time taken results in something better.

And I’ve come to realise that this priestly ‘formation’ is just a peculiar example of the Christian pilgrim journey. That it’s something for you as well as me.

Of course, you’ve already been on your own ‘coffee journey’ over to the Brown Cow and back…from instant to tasty – and ethical – ground coffee. And you’re all on a journey with Christ.

I think becoming a Christian is a life’s work. But each time we come here to worship there’s the chance of God working in us. We hear the scriptures, often familiar, often challenging…and week by week we’re confronted with the radical love of Jesus.

We need the repetition because it’s counter intuitive to our selfish natures. But if we let it, that constant drip of a different narrative will change us…the good Samaritan…the prodigal son…the unforgiving servant…today the warning against self-importance…and the challenge to do good without any thought of reward.

You’re lucky here – you get some of the best preaching I’ve heard…but if it doesn’t speak to you, ponder on the readings yourself during the week…think about what they mean for your everyday life. Make space for a bit of formation.

Another thing I’ve realised about formation is the importance of other people. Which is why Faithbook, Pilgrim, Lent courses are a vital part of parish life. They give the opportunity to explore our faith together…to put our ideas next to others and see how they are both enlarged. I treasure the insights I’ve received from people who have come to Faithbook or shared the Pilgrim journey.

And I think those people would agree that giving time to our faith, like giving time to coffee preparation, results in a deeper more satisfying experience. It contributes to our formation as God’s people.

If I can stretch my coffee analogy a bit further without it collapsing completely…the thing about coffee beans is that every bagful is different. Curates are given a training incumbent to…well, train them. I’ve been learning from the best…but it’s never been about trying to become another Matthew. Curacy has been about finding my voice…becoming the best priest I can be.

So there’s chocolate with cranberry sweetness…or chocolatey depth with apple, walnut and fig complexity…I’ll leave you to decide who is which…but the point is: training might be about producing competent priests…but formation has involved giving time for God to uncover and mould the particular priest he wants me to be.

So I leave St Mary’s no longer able to drink instant coffee. I suspect I’ll never reach the dizzy heights of Matthew’s coffee making – which now requires a stopwatch – but my morning coffee involves a cafetiere, and a pause – time for quiet, or a chat.

I leave St Mary’s having been formed into a priest ready to go to a new parish. My formation will continue there…as long as I keep engaging with the scriptures and spending time in prayer…as long as I am open to the actions of the Holy Spirit through those around me, through silence.

And I pray that you too will continue to be formed as the people of God in this place…through the weekly readings and sermons…by giving Faithbook or Pilgrim a go…by joining Matthew at morning or evening prayer…by sitting down together with a good cup of coffee.