We reproduce below the text
of some of Fr Neil's sermons preached at Saint Mary's in the last few years.
St. Mary’s Patronal Festival, 2003
Recently we had a PCC away-day. Just out of interest how many members of the PCC actually did as asked, and used the prayer provided on each of the days before the away-day?
Would any one like to say why they didn’t?
I know it’s an unfair thing to ask, but the problem is we make all kinds of assumptions about prayer.
We often pray that our churches will grow – yet when it happens new people can so often become a threat to those who have been part of the church for years. New people bring new ideas, new ways of doing things. Some welcome that quite genuinely, others say they welcome that but clearly don’t.
So when was the last time you said your prayers? When was the last time to actually sat down for any length of time, simply to reflect and to pray?
Last Sunday evening a good number of us went to a service at Christ Church Bootle for the Deanery. During communion time it was quite impossible to pray. People chatting away two to the dozen. For many, the time of Holy Communion was a time to catch up on the gossip. Thankfully no-one behaves like that in our two parishes, or do they?
One of the things which hits you very powerfully when visiting some churches in Rome is the feeling of holiness. Whatever church you enter, you can feel the holiness. People on their knees saying their prayers, candles flickering representing those prayers, it is an atmosphere you almost want to catch and put it a bottle.
Were you hit by an atmosphere of prayer as you entered S. Mary’s this morning, or was it more like waiting for the Bingo to start? When did you last walk into S. Faith’s before a service and see people on their knees praying – or were people busy chatting?
Please don’t get me wrong. I would hate for either church to have something of the atmosphere of a mausoleum about it! We need to make people feel welcome; we need to be friendly, but so much of the chit chat before and during the service actually belongs afterwards.
Many churches have a sign in the porch saying:
Before the Service, speak to God
During the Service, let God speak to you.
After the service, speak to each other.
We all need to make a greater effort to learn how to be still and pray.
There’s so much going on in our Deanery, through the Diocese and in the Church of England, about how to do ministry better together. Churches closing for financial reasons. All kinds of grand schemes suggested. New models of ministry and so on. Many reports are being written, many schemes talked about. How does the church engage in the world today?
When we face the question, what is the church for, the one thing that rarely gets mentioned is prayer.
If you forget weddings, baptisms and funerals, this building is open for about 156 hours a year. 156 out of 8,736 hours. If it was open during the day, how many of you would come for a few minutes each day to say your prayers?
And it’s the same at S. Faith’s.
When I last went to Rome I was struck by the sheer amount of churches there were, some next door to each other. Thinking about the situation in our Deanery at present I couldn’t help thinking that surely they had too many buildings to maintain too?
Yes, but their buildings were full of people praying.
Our PCCs talked recently about the vision we have for the churches. We touched on whether one day we could afford to employ a youth worker.
Imagine if the demand was so great that people wanted to come to our churches each day to pray that we had to employ a caretaker to look after the place? Would people ever want to use our buildings that much for that purpose?
But if we don’t pray each day, how can we commend that practice to others? Surely these buildings we care about are important to us, first and foremost, because they are hallowed places of prayer.
But an atmosphere of prayer such as I described in Rome cannot be manufactured. It comes when people get down on their knees and search for God in the silence. It comes when we make an effort. It comes when we stop our chit chat because some one around us wants to pray and not to hear about Aunty Joan’s varicose veins or some such complaint!
Prayer and holiness cannot be manufactured. Prayer is hard work requiring discipline, requiring stamina, requiring an open heart.
If we cant be bothered to pray because we think someone else is making the decisions regardless or because we feel it’s a waste of time, then there is indeed no need for churches to remain open!
When you consider the enormous task which faced her, the anxiety that would accompany the task, the fear, the normal human feelings of anxiety, how could Mary have possibly said yes to God? It doesn’t make sense at a human level?
It takes a strong person with a strong faith to say yes as Mary did. As our communion hymn puts it (or would have put it if I hadn’t missed that verse out!) “brave, holy virgin, she believed, though hard the task assigned…”
When we are faced with uncertainties, in our personal lives, in the life of the church, it can all seem too much and it is easy to doubt whether God can make a difference to any of it. It’s easy to give in.
In having Mary as our Patron, we see just how wrong that negative attitude can be. We need her faithfulness, we need her trust. We need her sense of duty and service. God needs us, as he needed Mary, to bring the Lord Jesus Christ to the world.
So can we today renew our commitment to being people and parishes of prayer?
Prayer is the key which unlocks so many doors but is the key we so often forget to use.
Churches should have a warning above their doors: CHURCH. ENTER WITH CAUTION. GENUINE PRAYER HAS BEEN KNOWN TO CHANGE LIVES
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us, that we may be worthy disciples
of your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Pentecost Sunday 2003
Over the past seven weeks since Easter we have been celebrating, in joyful manner, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and recalling his many appearances to the apostles. As they recognised his presence, their hearts burned within them and they were filled with comfort, reassurance, inner peace and strength. Today is the feast of Pentecost which recalls the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles in the form of a roaring wind and tongues of fire.
The first reading describes the spectacular baffling effect produced
on the disciples by the coming of the Holy Spirit. The change in their
lifestyle was startling, as the Spirit urged them to be their very best
selves. They threw aside caution, were no longer afraid and rushed out
to begin their mission of preaching the Good News, boldly proclaiming their
faith in a crucified Christ. Suddenly there was no longer uncertainty ,
everything fell into place and made sense. At that moment the church was
born. The spirit of
God had filled the disciples with new hope and courage.
New hope, new vision and new courage is something we desparately need as we face the reality of our situation here at S. Mary’s in 2003. Recently your PCC held and away day and it was a great shame that only 8 members attended given the dire situation we are in at present. Before that the PCC met and as a result of that meeting you all received a letter from me stating that today was designated as a gift day. Although we did this last year we felt as a PCC we had not alternative but to have another Gift Day. It was somewhat upsetting, to say the very least, to hear that following what I said in church two weeks ago, some members said to others: “well I’m not giving a penny more to S. Mary’s. It’s throwing good money after bad”. Somewhat upsetting and somewhat sad. I don’t know who said it, but all I do know is that we only need a few more like that and S. Mary’s certainly will face closure. If only those people had the same confidence as the anonymous person living in our parish (though not attending church) who gave £500 to do his bit to keep his parish church open.
The Bishop of Liverpool has plans for our area. I don’t know the precise details of those plans yet as the meeting is yet to happen. However I am clear about one thing, the decision as to whether S. Mary’s or any other church in the diocese come to that, stays open or not, does not lie with the Bishop. You are the ones who choose whether to be in church regularly or not. You are the ones who contribute financially. If our attendance grows, if we take the money needed to run the parish then the Bishop can do absolutely nothing. It is something I worry about though I have come to realise that the future is out of my hands too. Endless worry will lead nowhere except the Doctors waiting room again!
It would be an absolute tragedy, to say the very least, if our parish was to face closure. However, the future is in your hands entirely.
The first disciples received the power and strength necessary to set off into the world and enthusiastically continue the work which Christ had begun. They weren’t concerned with buildings first and foremost. Proclaiming and witnessing to the Gospel was their inspiration. The coming of the Spirit on that first day of Pentecost was not a once and for all event, but the beginning of his permanent presence in the church. By virtue of our baptism, the Holy Spirit is closer to us than we dare imagine. Wherever there are hearts open to receive him, the Spirit of God is poured out, inspiring minds to undertake their mission as Christ's representatives. This feast brings home to us that God calls us to a deeper relationship with him and wants us to share in his life. It is an invitation to enkindle the fire of love and to stir up the grace of our baptismal calling.
We do not always know when the Spirit moves us, yet we are frequently surprised by the power that drives us into action. When ever we go beyond our own selfish indifference and reach out in genuine concern for people in trouble, then the Spirit of God is at work guiding us, giving us renewed strength to turn upside down accepted human values and the will to move along in anew a direction.
As we celebrate the gift of the Spirit we must pray also with penitence
for the divisions we find in the church. Looking at our own Churches Together
area can we honestly say that 5 Anglican, 2 Roman Catholic, and 2 free
Churches is the best way of displaying Christian Unity. It must pierce
the very heart of God himself that there are so many divisions within the
Church of Christ.
Yet the early church was fraught with tensions and power struggles. People following one leader rather than another. Yes it is human nature. But that doesn’t mean that division is right. Does our vision for the church put our own preferences first or the greater good. Do we indeed have a vision? One of the Old Testament writers says: Where there is no vision, the people perish. That could easily be adapted to say “Where there is no vision, the church perishes?”
As we face trials and crosses and encounter the difficulties and disappointments which can leave our daily lives in tatters, we stand in need of the help of the Holy Spirit, whose presence makes such a difference to our outlook. Christ has promised that the power of the spirit will come if we ask for him. Its essential that in prayer we leave the door of our hearts open to invite him in. Then we become different persons and changed people to the extent that we allow the holy spirit to disturb our complacency, uproot out mediocrity and make way for fresh growth. What the spirit will do, if we permit, is to lead us is joy, peace and love.
On this Pentecost Sunday we thank God for the gift of the Holy Spirit
who works in countless hidden ways to deepen our faith and give us strength
to renew our lives. But only if we allow him to.
Palm Sunday 2005
“So, prepare a way in the desert, a cradle in the hay,
A meeting place in the market place,
A table in an upstairs room,
A cross on a hill,
A grave in a garden,
A throne in your heart as in heaven.
For now again, I will bend down and remember you.
I will answer your prayer, and your waiting will end in joy”
Familiar words? Words used when we appeared on the BBC, and although Advent is the beginning of the churches year those words gives us the context because where we have arrived today is a significant part of the journey which we begin each Advent.
Today is about Hosanna. Welcoming the King of Israel. Throwing palm branches at his feet. But within a few days those shouts of hosanna turn into those of the crowd wanting the crucifixion of Jesus.
Have you seen The Passion of the Christ? Watch it – Holy Week can never be the same again. Some say its too bloody and detailed; its uncomfortable to watch. If it happened, that’s how it happened.
But the more I see that film the more I notice all sorts of detail. Most sadly, the way people were quite indifferent as Jesus carried his cross on the journey to Calvary. It is a story of life today; it’s not just non-church people that see Good Friday as “just another day” – as I have remarked time and time again, Christians are just as indifferent.
Put on a Remembrance Sunday Parade and you are guaranteed a good turn out – I upset the Royal British Legion by saying on one remembrance Sunday – “how many of you will be in church on Good Friday?” Without Good Friday there is nothing to hope for!
The liturgy this Thursday promises to be very poignant and moving as we not only recall the events of the Last Supper but do so within the context of a re-enacted Passover Feast. Do come – let’s at least make the magical number of 12….
Can you not watch with me one brief hour…..? Those words of Jesus are said to us this week? Have you time for me?
The one deeply moving event in that film I mentioned is the way that Mary walked, anxiously and fearfully, accompanying her Son on every stage of the journey. Can we follow the example of our Blessed Patron? Have we her courage? Have we her staying power?
Are you good with books? Or are you impatient. Do you need to know “whodunit?” – do you sneakily look to the last page to see the outcome and gloss over the bit in the middle?
Holy Week can be a bit like that… we come on Palm Sunday, we come again on Easter Day. We skip a few chapters and get to the happily ever after ending. How sad, because if that is what we do, we don’t get the whole picture, the whole story.
I upset one or two people some months ago when I wrote in the St. Faith’s magazine:
“Golf clubs thrive, as do music societies, football clubs, swimming clubs, health clubs, fancy restaurants, posh clothes shops and so on. They do so because people are committed to them!’”
Sad, but true! If only the church saw the same commitment from its so-called dedicated members.
Could you not watch with me one brief hour? That was the question posed by Our Lord, and as we stand at the beginning of another Holy Week, we are asked the same.
Just how much love are we prepared to show Jesus this week? Will we simply select the bits that suit us, or are we prepared, like Mary, to accompany Him on the whole journey?
The choice is yours!
Almighty and everlasting God, who in your tender love towards the human
race sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ to take upon him our flesh
and to suffer death upon the cross: grant that we may follow the example
of his patience and humility, and also be made partakers of his resurrection;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
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