Sermons from St
Those steps are much steeper than I remember them. When I last ascended to these dizzy heights, I probably took them two at a time – but not any more! The spirit may be willing – but the knees most certainly are not.
Thank you for inviting us back today, and for the invitation to preach on St Faith’s Day. It is a real joy to be here.
Now, not only do I remember climbing the pulpit without a second thought, but I’ve also spent quite some time recently looking back and realised just how much of my later ministry was formed here in those early years. And to my great surprise, sermons are a significant part of those memories.
One of my early memories is that of preaching – though it was probably more like a recurring nightmare at first. I never thought of myself as a natural preacher and well remember spending hours on Saturday trying to come up with an idea and then laboriously writing it out by hand before reading it through several times to try to make the delivery a little more fluent. In those days, if you made a mistake, it had to be crossed out and started again. Mercifully, computers came to my aid.
But I learned a lot from preaching. Some of the sermons I heard in those days were quite profound, and I tried to follow suit. It wasn’t me, though I only realised it when I found myself down to preach at a family service. I vaguely remember doing something about hands. There was a visual aid; it was short, and had just one point. After the service, several people made a point of saying kind things about it – comments I’d never had when I’d tried to be clever.
Since then, I’ve come to the conclusion that some of the most able apologists – not just clergy, but lay people too – are not the ones who baffle with complexity, but those who relate to their audience, as it were.
That, I suspect, brings me nicely to some of the people I heard preach. One sermon, in particular, made a real impression on me and I’m going to make Fr Dennis blush by saying it was one of his. It must have been the Fourth Sunday of Advent and the reading was that of the Annunciation and Mary’s willingness to do the will of God, even though she clearly had no idea of what she was agreeing to. It lasted barely five minutes – I’d not even properly dozed off before he started “In the name of the Father…”
So possibly I should stop there, but you don’t get away that lightly! Fr Dennis’ short and illuminating sermon too was a valuable lesson. Sometimes, we fall into the trap of talking too much when really we should be listening. Sharing our faith is a delicate balance between speaking and listening, and perhaps we say too much when we’re nervous. Far better, I’ve come to believe, that we listen more and let the Spirit guide us in what we say.
I also remember Bert Galloway – apologies if you weren’t here in those days. Bert was the Senior Industrial Chaplain when Industrial Chaplaincy was a real force in the Church. He also worshipped here when he wasn’t preaching elsewhere. Bert was a man whose faith underpinned everything he did. There was nothing precious about Bert – he could join in the banter with the best of them – but in his dealings with senior management and shop stewards, with bosses and workers, and even congregations, it was the application of his faith to everyday situations that made him stand out. The lesson was patently obvious – that we can’t say one thing and act in a totally different manner. If we do, people will soon see through us and find no credibility in what we claim to believe. In fact, I suspect that we can talk till we’re blue in the face and it won’t make any real impact on most people. Some of you will remember Elsie Bell who quietly got on with living the life of faith and made a huge impression on family and neighbours, as well as the rest of us.
One final thought about sermons. Another memory relates to moving on from St Faith’s and being told, kindly I think, that this person who will remain nameless never quite knew when I’d finished my sermon. I’ve tried to improve, and hopefully make a better job of it now than I once did. But again, I’m reminded that our journey in faith never comes to an end and if we are true followers of our Lord, we should try to use every opportunity we are given, no matter whether the steps can be taken two at a time, or rather more sedately, as they are now in my case. Faith isn’t only for Sundays – do you remember Bert Galloway telling us about the God on Mondays project? Nor is it just for the young ones. Discipleship is for life – in every sense.
What else do I remember? We have many happy memories of our time here at St Faith’s and it’s simply not possible to mention everyone who took us to their hearts and made us an integral part of this worshipping congregation. So another thing that has always been important to me is the sense of belonging we all enjoyed. Faith and worship is essentially a communal experience. Being part of a church makes it easier, especially at times when we are going through difficult times, and it also enlivens our worship of the living God. I learned a great deal from everyone here. Often it was off-the-cuff comments or one liners which revealed a profound truth. There were house groups and study groups, and more often than not, I learned a great deal from those who were in the room with me. People came to church because they wanted to be there. I’m sure that is just as true today.
Since we were here, and as congregations have grown older, I’ve often wished that the Church could be less British and more willing to tell other people what we actually get out of belonging to the church. Even though it is important to us, we seem reluctant to mention it to other people in case they think the worse of us. But it’s just possible they will think more of us, if that’s to be our measure, because of the faith we hold dear.
So what of the future? I think it was Peter Cavanagh, who kindly brokered my curacy here at St Faith’s, who apparently used a text from Genesis in his final sermon. He told the story of Lot and his wife fleeing Sodom and Gomorrah and Lot’s wife turning to take one last glimpse and turning into a pillar of salt.
For a curate moving on, I suppose he was saying that there’s no looking back. For a church, though, I think there is some value in celebrating the past, and certainly in learning the lessons of bygone times, but we mustn’t let them stifle us from moving forward.
The Church is very different now to the Church I joined over thirty years ago. Or perhaps I should say that society now is very different to the way it was then, and if we are to fulfil our calling as disciples of Christ, we have to find new ways into the wider community that is possibly more apathetic, rather than antagonistic, to the gospel.
Today’s gospel might seem alien to us today. Unlike a significant number of Christians around the world, we are unlikely to suffer hardship and persecution for our faith, or even the martyrdom that St Faith embraced. However, I guess the Church at large, and local congregations like this one, will still agonise long and hard over the future and have some tough choices to make in the next few years.
Some years ago, a group of you went on pilgrimage to Conques, a village on the pilgrim way, where St Faith is thought to have been buried and her reliquary survives, I’m told, to this day. I re-lived that pilgrimage through Jenny who joined you for a most memorable pilgrimage. Reading about Conques, it seems pilgrims invoked the intercession of St Faith before undertaking new and important tasks.
As disciples, as followers of our Lord, the task is to share his love with the world in which we live. For me, that means putting into practice the lessons I learned while I was fortunate to serve here.
* It means being relevant. If we don’t meet people where they are, we’re unlikely to succeed.
* It means living our faith as well as speaking about it; of listening more and being open to the Spirit in our response. Be true to yourself rather than try to be something you are not.
* It is a calling to which we should never lose heart nor be discouraged, but to continue steadfastly, no matter how hard it might appear.
* Above all, remember that it is a shared task and a shared responsibility. We are far more likely to succeed if everyone works together as the Body of Christ, taking strength from one another and sharing the load.
Be assured of our prayers in the weeks and months to come – and invoke the prayers of St Faith who will guide you in all that you do.
And in case you hadn’t realised – I’ve finished – but your work is ongoing!