Sermon: 6th Sunday after Epiphany, 12 February 2017, St Alban’s & St Aidan’s

St.Alban’s Epping and St.Aidan’s West Epping, 12th February 2017

“WHY HAVE A RECTOR?”

Rev. Paul Weaver

(Deuteronomy 10:12-22; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37)

What is the difference between a rector and a vicar? To help me get a clear answer I consulted the very well informed Professor Google, who directed me to a number of websites, all of which seemed to have a slightly different answer to the question. The simplest way of putting it seems to be that a Rector is normally in charge of a self-supporting church, while a Vicar works on behalf of the Bishop, in a church that is supported by the church authorities. However, there are many variations on this theme. In Sydney Diocese, as far as I can see, clergy in charge of a Parish or a Provisional Parish are nowadays all called a Rector.

Of course there are many other names for people in such a position. “Senior Minister” is popular in Sydney Diocese. This emphasizes the ministry aspect of what the person does, and it may or may not suggest that all the congregation are called to ministry. “Parish Priest” is the usual Catholic term, but Sydney Diocese is uncomfortable with the word “Priest”, and has chosen the term “presbyter”, which I suspect communicates very little. Another term is “Pastor”, or shepherd, a person responsible to care for the flock of Christ.

Well, we have a new Rector commencing next month. During his commencement service, Bishop Ross will be reminded of his responsibilities as Rector. He will be called to instruct his people faithfully from the scriptures and to drive away all false and strange doctrines. He will be called to be consistent in his own study of the scriptures and his prayer life. He will be called to faithfully administer the Sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism. He will be called to be a true example of godly living, and to seek to draw God’s people together in unity. He will be called to reach out with the Gospel to people in the parish and beyond. And he will also be called to obey the Archbishop and other senior ministers!

That’s quite a collection of responsibilities. And it’s quite a challenge!

But I was called to do these things when I was a Rector, and it is what is expected of all Rectors.

It can seem quite daunting. All the more so, when I tell you that Bishop Ross is not perfect! He is experienced. He has had a number of successful ministries. He is a nice person. But like every other Anglican, he is a sinner. He will make mistakes. He will get it wrong sometimes.

So what are we to think about our new Rector? What are we to think of anyone called to leadership in the church? Paul opens up some ideas in our reading from 1 Corinthians.

You will have heard that Paul was disappointed with the Corinthians. He would have liked to see signs of spiritual development amongst the congregation, but it wasn’t obvious. Spiritually, they still seemed to be babies. They will still “of the flesh”: their outlook was a worldly outlook, not a truly spiritual outlook.

What was the evidence for this? There was jealousy and quarrelling, instead of mutual Christian love. Competition has its value: it can encourage people to strive for their best, and bring particular forms of satisfaction. But positive human relationships are not based on trying to be better or to have more or to beat others. There is a better way to view our neighbour than as a competitor. That is true also of relationships between countries: I hope that President Trump will learn that one day!

The divisions and tensions in the congregation at Corinth were almost like sporting allegiances. Instead of “I follow GWS” or “I’m a Tigers supporter”, it was “I follow Paul” or “I follow Apollos”. Earlier in the letter, we read of others who said “I follow Peter”, or even “I follow Christ”. It’s a bit like those who pit denominations against each other: “I’m an Anglican”, “I’m a Catholic”, “I’m a Baptist”, as if the church I belong to makes me superior. Yes, we have denominations. Some of us sit lightly on our denominational allegiance. Others of us have strong convictions about our denomination. It is great to appreciate the traditions or the liturgy or the teaching of our church. But there are also things that we can learn from other traditions! And I am not convinced that in the kingdom we shall all be using A Prayer Book for Australia, or even the 1662 Book of Common Prayer! Our denominations have the characteristics, theirs strengths, not to mention their weaknesses. Let’s appreciate what we have, and let’s appreciate what others have when we have the opportunity to experience it. Let’s even see what we can learn from others!

And that’s also true of the different traditions within the Anglican church: whether it is Evangelical or High Church or Broad Church or Anglo-Catholic. We may compare our traditions. But we need to seek to understand before we seek to correct others, let alone condemn others.

And it’s true of ministers as well. Bishop Ross will come to us to be a shepherd. In a sense he will be an under-shepherd of Christ, the true and Good Shepherd. Like a shepherd, his job will be to provide food for his sheep, to guide them along the right paths, and protect them from danger. He will want to help us understand the scriptures. And that Psalm, Psalm 119 of which we said the first eight verses of its 176 verses, is a very extended hymn in praise of the word of God. The Psalmist extols the importance of God’s message, and the important of listening to it, taking it is, and putting it in to practice. Virtually every verse includes a reference to God’s law, God’s teaching, his commands. This is the foundation for our spiritual life.

Bishop Ross will not be the same as Fr Ross or Fr John or even Fr Ian before them. He will have his particular strengths and insights. Because he only a human being, he will not be able to do everything that we might think he should do, or everything we would like him to do. He might even do things we wish he didn’t do!

And if he isn’t perfect, there is no point in hankering for the old days. There is no value in saying he’s better than Ross Weaver or John Cornish, or that he’s worse than Ross or John. We clergy are all different. We seek to make the contribution that God calls us to make. Let’s not spend too much effort comparing clergy, let alone setting up fan clubs. When we discover that Bishop Ross is not a cardboard replica of any other clergy person we know, let’s not be angry or resentful. He will be seeking to serve us as closely as possible to the way he believes God wants. As Paul puts it, he and Apollos are merely servants. It’s not all about them. So it will be with Bishop Ross.

Let’s instead seek to learn what we can from Ross, and allow him to help us grow in our knowledge of the scriptures and the message of God. Let’s remember to pray for him – and for Jenny his wife – in the demands placed on them both. Let’s seek to understand not only what he says, but what he is trying to do, as he tries to see the best way forward for the parish.

Let’s be patient and supportive, not to mention welcoming and encouraging. Like every newcomer to the congregation, they will want to feel that they are welcome, that they can find a spiritual home among us. And let’s stick together: appreciating our differences, rather than using them as an excuse for tension or even an excuse for leaving!

What then is a Rector? Firstly he is a member of the congregation: in fact Bishop Ross and Jenny will of course be new members, finding their place. Let’s help them: whether it is by wearing our badges, by being consistent in presence as far as possible, by our friendly welcome, by our patience as they find their way.

Secondly, he is a minister. A servant of Christ, and our servant. But he is also a servant with us. Bishop Ross will be discovering his role as he goes. Let’s serve with him as we all seek to do God’s work amongst God’s people.

Thirdly, he is called to be a leader. He will always want to take us along God’s path. Sometimes that path can be obvious; sometimes it has to be discovered. Keep praying for him: for wisdom, understanding, strength, and the guidance of the Spirit. And pray for us all: that we would be united and enthusiastic in seeking and following God’s leading.

But he is probably not a miracle worker, so we must realize that effective change takes time, and we need to trust God to lead Ross in helpful directions, even when they might not be what we might have been thinking of. And let’s not spend too much effort comparing Him with anyone else. Let him be himself, and let’s encourage him, learn from him, and serve with him.

We live in interesting times in the parish. I am sure that there are both challenges and good things ahead. Change can push people apart, but it doesn’t need to. Let’s work together and pray together, open to God’s gracious leading, and let’s see where he is leading us as we seek to faithfully follow Jesus as a congregation of his people. Amen.

Paul Weaver

Sermon: 5th Sunday after Epiphany, 5 February 2017, St Alban’s

St.Alban’s Epping, 5th February 2017

“A CITY ON A HILL”

Rev. Paul Weaver

(Isaiah 58:1-9a; Psalm 112; 1 Corinthians 2:1-13; Matthew 5:13-20)

Our vision is to be a Worshipping, Recognizably Anglican, Multi-Racial, All-age, Gathered, Christian Community – “a city on a hill”. These words are at the top of the front page of our bulletin every week.

“A city on a hill”: we heard those words from the lips of Jesus just a few moments ago. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden, he says. Well, our church building is pretty prominent in Epping now, the spire can be seen from many directions: of course, with the prospect of major redevelopment and high rise in coming years, the church building may not be as prominent in the future. But this wonderful and special building is not really what St.Alban’s is about. Ultimately the church is the people, not the building.

And this vision statement is about us, rather than our building. It is a special privilege to take up my appointment as Acting Rector during this significant period, as we prepare to welcome our new Rector next month, and to begin a new era in the story of St.Alban’s. Over the weeks ahead, I am hoping to take up some issues that will be particularly relevant to us at this time. And here Jesus’ words ask us: “Who do you think you are?”

Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount speak to us as individuals and as a church. When he describes his followers as “the salt of the earth” and as “the light of the world”, he challenges us in our own personal lives, as well as our life as a church.

Salt has always been a special substance. In Jesus’ day it was used to bring flavour to food. It made a difference when it was added. It was also used as a preservative. Rubbed into meat and other perishable foods, it stopped things going bad. And it may well be that this aspect of salt was particularly in Jesus’ mind when he used this image.

For the world is God’s creation, the wonderful place he has provided for humans to live. But the world also has a tendency in many ways to go bad: there is so much that is wrong in the world today – and right now that seems particularly evident! Jesus’ followers are called to bring something distinct to the world, and to bring something to stop the world going bad!

Of course, we not only live in that world: we have something of the same characteristic. There is so much that is wonderful about us, as people made in God’s image. And yet, we too have a tendency to go wrong, to do wrong, to fail to reflect the goodness and love of the God in whose image we are made.

But Jesus calls us to be distinct, to be different, from the world around us.

We are called to live by standards that will not be the same as the world around us: and the words of the Sermon on the Mount certainly make that difference clear. We are called to display love in ways which go far beyond what is expected of the people round about us. We are called to bear witness to a message that is often ridiculed and rejected, and regularly ignored, even in parts of the world that once were seen as Christian.

There is one other aspect of salt: it is sometimes used for cleansing and healing purposes. When it is rubbed intro a wound, salt stings. I was reminded of this as I reflected on a large banner displayed on St.Paul’s Cathedral when Sarah and I were in Melbourne last week.

“Let’s Fully Welcome Refugees” was the message on the banner. Of course that message is accepted by many people who do not see themselves as Christians. And that’s good. But there will be many people, including many in positions of authority, who will say: “How dare the church meddle in matters of politics!” Salt stings. And it would be easier for many people if Christians never took a public stand on anything. But it would not be Jesus’ way. The salt is useless if it stays in the saltshaker.

And as Jesus says, the light is not meant to be hid. It is useless if it is hidden and unable to be seen. Jesus calls us, his followers, his community of faith, “the light of the world”. It is an extraordinary description, for in the Gospel of John he describes himself as “the light of the world”.

Putting these two ideas together seems pretty strange. I have long thought that a helpful way of understanding it by comparing it to the light of the sun and the moon. The sun is the actual source of light, while the moon captures and reflects the light. In the same way, we are called to reflect the light of Jesus in our lives by showing up things that are wrong, by making the truth clear, by showing people the way to live and the way to go.

We are to let our light, which is ultimately the light of Jesus, shine in our lives – both as individual Christians and as a Christian community. There is a tendency in many Western societies to see religion as a private thing: “keep it to yourself” is the message. But while faith is to be personal, Jesus clearly does not see it as private at all!

“Let your light shine” is his message. We are to be open about our faith, not to hide it. We are to look for opportunities to bear witness to the one in whom we place our trust. How do we do that? Jesus’ words are very significant. “Let your light so shine before others, so that they will see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

What will lead people to give glory to our Father in heaven? It is our “good works”. Our lives, the way we live, the things we do, the love we show, the consistency in our actions, are to point people to God. Do the people who know us to be Christians look at us and think that our faith makes a positive difference in our lives? Does the way we live suggest that we have found something that is worth taking seriously?

But witness that is only deeds is incomplete. Joe Christian is a really nice guy, kind and patient and helpful, the sort of person you admire and appreciate. But nobody knows that he is like that because he is a follower of Jesus. His faith is a secret. And so people look at his good works and give glory to Joe, not to his Father in heaven. Witness is not haranguing people with the Gospel message, but our lives convey no message if there are never words explaining our faith.

Of course, the words we say must be consistent with Christ’s ways. Our witness can point people away from Christ if we speak them with arrogance, or in a judgemental way. If we nag or lecture, if we make people cringe when we speak, if they want to disappear when we come into sight, we are pushing people away from the Gospel. But if we never have anything to say when the opportunity presents itself, how will people know that the glory goes to our heavenly Father, not just to us? Our deeds, backed up by our words, are the way we point people to the love of God in Jesus Christ. But our words and our deeds must be consistent with each other.

That is why the failures of the institutional church, and the wrongdoing of far too many church leaders, is so serious. I am not only thinking of the appalling abuse of children by priests and other leaders. I think of the ways so many clergy have used their power to abuse vulnerable people, whether it is sexual or financial or a range of other ways. Jesus has taught us to serve, not to use or abuse. And he has made clear the difference between love and lust.

The result of these terrible deeds is not just the personal harm done to individuals and families, but the harm done to the Gospel of Jesus. These deeds, not to mention the church’s inadequate handling of the problems exposed, have pointed people away from Jesus, who is the light of the world. They deny a central part of the purpose of Christ’s church: pointing people to Christ.

Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, of course, sets an impossibly high standard. For all Jesus’ criticism of them, most Pharisees were serious about pleasing God. But even their good deeds were insufficient to get them into the Kingdom of Heaven. That reminds us that we too shall always need God’s gracious forgiveness. It should keep us humble rather than judgemental. And it should keep us moving forward in faith and discipleship, never feeling that we have made it yet!

What do people think when they get to know us? Do we bear consistent faithful witness to the love of God? And what do people think when they visit our church? Do our services help them to understand more of Jesus, the light of the world? Does the welcome they receive express the love of Christ? Does the way we deal with each other and the way we respond to the challenges we face bear witness to the message of the Gospel?

Epping Anglicans: a city on a hill. How clearly is our light shining? Let’s think about it. Let’s pray about it. Amen.