Unripe fruit

My fruit trees – the apricot, especially, but the plum and the nectarine as well – are covered with unripe fruit at the moment.

We are moving house next Wednesday.  Although we planted these trees and nurtured them, the fruit will almost certainly go to the birds this year.  It is a strange feeling.

It also seems like an apt metaphor for what it feels like to leave a ministry position.  I have done a great deal of work, but the impact of most of it is difficult to quantify.  I cannot point to a sermon which changed the world, or a pastoral conversation which clearly transformed someone’s relationship with God, or a programme which led to phenomenal church growth.  If what I did had merit, much of it is perhaps still like the green apricots in my backyard; awaiting its moment of ultimate fulfilment.  I will probably never know, in obvious measurable terms, much of what I’ve achieved.

That is good for the ego.  It reminds me that the work is ultimately not mine, and keeps me humble.  But there is also sadness in leaving an unfinished story; the story of God’s walk with this group of people in this place.  Although I will know something of that unfolding story through church networks, it can never replace living in its rhythms.

This is, of course, a natural part of the life cycle of the priest.  I must myself go on to new work and towards my own maturity, rather than staying in a training position forever.  In a short time, a new day will lie open before me, with all of its joys and challenges.  But today I find myself wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world, and the inevitable griefs and partings which come with them.

Farewell, with thanks

This is a sermon for the feast day of St. Luke.  The Scripture it references is Luke 10:1-9.  It is also the last sermon I will preach in the parish where I have been for the last three years, before leaving for a new appointment.

I have to say, this feels a bit weird, standing here to preach for the last time, at least for the foreseeable future. So I hope you’ll forgive me if, instead of saying very much about St. Luke, I use this morning’s gospel reading as a springboard for reflecting a little bit with you on my time here.

So, as we heard, Jesus sent out seventy of his followers to go ahead of him and to preach and minister throughout the region. He instructed them that they were to seek peaceful relationships in those communities, to be dependent on them for their physical needs, and that in return they were to teach and to minister healing among those people.

While being a curate in the contemporary church is not exactly the same thing, it has parallels; I’ve been here to teach, and to minister, and I’ve been dependent on you to support me while I’ve done it; not just the material support of money to live – important though that is! – but also the emotional support to be able to learn and grow as I’ve moved from being a theological student, to a deacon and then a priest.

And this is, in part, an opportunity for me to name and thank you for the many things I have experienced and learned from being here. There are so many things St. Mary’s has given me, and I’m sure to forget some, but those which came to mind when I was writing this included:

  • experiencing a style of liturgy which was quite foreign to me, and learning to understand it, to connect with it and do it well;
  • exploring the experience of prayer beyond the limitations of words – in sensory forms, in movement and so on – in the work we’ve been doing with Light Up!
  • going for the first time to the art gallery to try to understand something which is so important to many of you;
  • getting my first passport so I could go to an international conference one of you invited me to go on (and my ongoing connection with the Student Christian Movement because of that conference);
  • being encouraged to recognize how writing a thesis isn’t a self-indulgent intellectual exercise but will actually contribute to making me better able to minister amongst very academic circles,
  • and just being part of your lives week by week and learning how you make connections between what you do here in church, and what your core beliefs are, and how that shapes how you live.

All of these things have been enormously significant to me, and mean that you will send me off to my new role far better equipped, and far more able to serve the people there well, than I would have been had I not had this time with you.

All of the things I’ve talked about so far have really been just about the community at St. Mary’s being who you are. But there’s a deeper aspect worth reflecting on.

When I came here initially as a student, I was very aware that in some ways I was not what you might call “a very St. Mary’s sort of person.” I was studying at Trinity College, yes, but I come from the evangelical-charismatic end of the church; and many of the things I saw and heard here left me puzzled or at a loss. I was worried about what I would have to bring to a community with a very different sort of ethos to what I was used to, and about whether you would really welcome someone who was a bit different.

That was almost three years ago, and I think on the whole we’ve done quite well. But that “doing well” was something which was intentional, and it took work. It took the commitment of Fr. Craig, and of my field committee, to take the time to explain things which were new or foreign to me, and how they functioned in this context; to help me find my way. It also meant that many of you, at various times, have had conversations with me where you’ve helped me understand better where you’re coming from, what’s important to you and why. I’ve also needed help to learn how to take my own very different experiences and understanding, distill what’s essential in them, and then communicate about those things in ways which are appropriate and make sense here. I’ve often said to Fr. Craig that I’ve needed to mentally “translate” how I approach something, and I’ve needed help in learning to do that.

I mention that because it says something about the need for a community not just to be generous in supporting those who come to minister to it; not just to have depth in their faith tradition and be able to share that; but also to be open to dialogue with people who find themselves coming from a different place. In order to be a community which can receive people well, it’s important not to feel that difference is irrelevant or a threat to your distinctive identity, but that difference is the starting point for a dialogue which can enrich your distinctive identity as well as the other person with whom you are sharing.

St. Mary’s has done that well, in my case. And as a parish which prides itself on being a training parish, taking students and nurturing and encouraging others at various stages of exploring ministry, I think it’s important for me to point out that it’s been a key aspect of what’s made this relationship work, and what will contribute to helping the various people who might come after me, as well. It’s worth giving thought to how you make those connections and build those bridges of understanding in ways which are authentic to you and beneficial to the very diverse range of people who might walk through the door.

The communities in the gospel which received the apostles needed to be able to engage in this sort of dialogue, in order to really hear the apostles’ message and begin the process of growing into the new reality of the kingdom of God. Similarly for you, it’s in being able to do be open, to listen without judgement and affirm what is good in what might be unfamiliar, to make connections with your own lives and practice, that together you, the established community, and the people who come to be part of you for a time, might both know more deeply that the transformative power of the kingdom of God has come near to you.

Making connections

One of the ongoing tasks of the faithful Christian life is the work of making connections between our faith – and the things our faith claims to be true and right and good – and our lives as we live them in diverse social contexts.  This week I have been reading Benny Tabalujan’s book, God on Monday: Reflections on Christians @ Work, which explores the relationship between our daily work (whether in formal employment or other contexts) and our walk of faith.

Benny is not a theologian or minister of religion; he is a lawyer who has spent decades reflecting on how to make the connections between his work and his Christian faith.  As such, his claim that “spirituality and spreadsheets can mix” is one made on good authority.

I found his book and its reflections on personal identity, integrity and intentionality in our working lives helpful, as I think through the issues that many of us face in our working lives.

These are matters which are relevant to all of us; I wonder what might help you to explore and deepen the connections between your faith and your to-do list?