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.

 

 

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