So here we are at my not quite last sermon but nonetheless farewell sermon.
It is an interesting day for leave-taking, this third Sunday in Advent. For one thing it is known as gaudete Sunday or rejoicing Sunday. It is possible that some might be rejoicing to see the back of me, but I hope for many there are more positive reasons for rejoicing today as we celebrate what we have shared in the past 14 years. Rejoicing is one keyword for today.
There is a second and contrasting theme for this day, as it is focussed on John the Baptist, whose role, as you know, was to prepare for the coming of Jesus by calling people into the wilderness and offering them a baptism of repentance. So repentance is a second theme.
And the repentance and the rejoicing come together in the context of this my almost last celebration of holy communion with you - and communion is my third key word.
Let's begin with repentance. This is an occasion for repentance from me. In the course of 14 years, I have got many things wrong. What weigh most heavily on my conscience are the sins of omissions - the opportunities I did not take, the things that should have been said and I didn't say, the relationships I neglected . For some of you I was not the Rector you needed me to be and I am truly sorry for that - and perhaps that is an apology that should be directed in particular to those people who are not here, who left this church or never became part of this church for that very reason. But repentance is not just about owning up to our past failings, it is also about setting out renewed and refreshed in a different direction. And although I am really sad to be going, I am also excited about the possibilities of St Margaret's being renewed and refreshed . It feels that our that going now is God's timing, that it is not too soon and not too late, and that as surely as God is calling Sandy and me to Caister, so too God will call to St Margaret's a man or woman who will bring different gifts and open up new possibilities, and lead you in the next stage of your journey.
So much for the repentance. On to the rejoicing. I want to rejoice in you - you have been a delightful community to be with - kind , accepting, patient and open. Most parishes have one or two difficult crabby customers who could almost put you off church. If you have people like that here- then I don't know where you have been hiding them. I arrived not really know how to be a Rector - and you were patient with me as I O so slowly learnt. And you have journeyed with me as we have grown as church community, grown in faith and love, grown in spirituality, grown in our awareness of and openness to God, grown in hospitality - Friday coffee morning, Wednesday lunches, the special lunches for harvest or when the Bishop comes. I could go on and on and I would still not be able to put into words all the things there are to rejoice in, all the things I have to thank you for. And lest we become big headed of course all these things we are rejoicing about are not about us, but about God in us, they are marks of what God can do in a community that is open to God's spirit and nurtured by God's word and by the sacraments.
Communion. That is something I need to cling to today,because there is a real ending and a real separation to cope with. When a Rector moves on, the convention is they don't come back to minister in their old parish, certainly not for many years. They should not accept invitations back to conduct weddings or Christenings or funerals. They are encouraged not to hang around their old patch, and so unless you fancy a trip to the seaside and make the journey to Caister, then we will sadly see very little of each other. That makes saying goodbye really hard but we can take strength from the fact that we do so in the context of this celebration of holy communion. Part of the mystery and the power of this sacrament is that it connects us to God and to each other at a level so deep, even death cannot end it. And if death cannot separate us from each other then I don't think 30 odd miles of the A47 can do so either. At that deepest level we will we will never be separated. You will always be part of me, the 14 years I have shared with you have shaped me as a person and as priest and all my ministry from now will be coloured by what I have learnt here. It is a wrench to leave you but although we will be living and worshipping and working in a different place and with a different group of people, nonetheless we remain one in Christ Jesus and we will be present to each other, connected to each other, never more so than when we come to the Lord's table.
Heavenly Father, we rejoice in all we have shared together as your church in this place. Now on this day of farewells, be with those of us who leave and those who stay; and grant that all of us, drawing ever nearer to you, may always be close to each other in the communion of your saints. All this we ask for the sake of Jesus Christ, your Son our Lord, Amen.
This is the Sermon from 25th December - Christmas Day
Christmas is a time for story-telling. On Boxing day I'm going to see the latest Star Wars . It's no coincidence that sagas like star wars or the Harry Potter films are often released at Christmas. We need good stories at this time of year - long before there was television or film, people would have gathered around the fireside in this season to hear stories told. As the world gets darker and more threatening and nature is at a low ebb, stories are a welcome distraction, but more than that they reassure us that darkness and chaos and decay will not win, that there is a pattern and meaning to life even when in midwinter gloom that is hard to discern. At the very moment when life seems to be falling apart, the storyteller weaves things together and gives us courage to keep going.
In the beginning says St John. In the beginning, once upon a time - this is a storyteller's opening - but what follows is not just one more story, but the ultimate story, the story behind all the other stories, the story that makes sense of everything else. In the beginning was the word and the word was God and all things came into being through him. God in other words is the author of this ultimate story, the universe and all its creatures were spoken into being by his creative word and that story is still being written - as it says in the letter to the Hebrews, God sustains all things by his powerful word. So God is the storyteller, bringing light and life and meaning into the world and we are characters in the story God is telling. Does that make sense? Can you see yourself as characters in a story where God is the author? You might object that this makes our lives unreal, turning us into pawns forced to follow a predetermined path scripted for us. But if you listen to human authors speaking about the process of writing, they say that often characters take on a life of their own, and surprise the author by the path they follow. And if that is true of the products of our limited human creativity, how much more will it be true of the products of God's boundless creativity. So we can be characters in the story God is telling, whilst still being entirely real and entirely free. As though that wasn't difficult enough to get our heads around, St John tells us something even more extraordinary: the word became flesh and dwelt among us. The word, the author, the creator of life , becomes a character within the story they themselves created. It is as though you turned the page in a Harry Potter story, and suddenly there is a character called J K Rowling talking with Harry and Hermione.
In the miracle we remember on this day, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, God became truly, fully present in our world and part of our story. God crossed that seemingly unbridgeable divide between the creator and the created, between the author and the characters. The author of all life put himself on a par with his creatures, walking with them, laughing with them, weeping with them, entering fully into our lives in all their messy difficult complexity. Why? In order that we should recognise him and recognise his Love for us because once that happens, then we will be able to live life in a different way, with the freedom that comes from trusting the story we are part of, even when the plot seems obscure, even when we can't see a way ahead. We may not understand the plot but we know and trust the author. In case this seems a bit abstract let me ground it with a real example. This is my last service in this church, and when it's ended I will close the door and walk away to begin a new ministry elsewhere. And I find that really hard. I could explain why I am doing it in practical terms about it being good for the parish to be refreshed by a new minister, and good for my ministry to have a new challenge. But I find those reasons rather flat and discouraging. The only way I can find the strength to to do this is by saying that Sandy and I are leaving because that is what God is calling us to do. And in saying that, in speaking of God's call, I am saying that our going now is part of that big story that God is writing in our lives and in your lives, and when I see it like that, then I know it will be OK. Painful, but OK.