Sermon: Fifth Sunday of Easter, 24 April 2016, St John the Divine

Preacher  The Revd Neil Summers

Today is when we look back over the year since the last ACM in April 2015, picking out just some of the many facets that make up the life of St John’s – though in no particular order!  So a different sort of sermon slot today, and a bit longer than usual, but it will save us some time at the ACM after this service!

Let me tell you first about last Friday, a not untypical morning, doing administrative work here in the narthex – my weekday office – with the doors open, and a number of people coming in.  A few came to look around the building, or to sit quietly; others to light a candle, say a prayer or put a prayer request on the board in the Lady Chapel, and then left.  One person came in en route to a therapy session at the Richmond Royal Hospital.  They talked about the regret of a bad decision they’d made in the past and the ongoing psychological and emotional consequences.  Then a professional worker in the welfare field wanted to talk confidentially about a client who’d been a victim of human trafficking.  After that, a teacher came in who is finding life in school more than a little challenging.  Now, one of the key aims of our MAP is to put our churches more at the centre of the community, and these are just a few examples of what can happen here on any ‘ordinary’ day.  None of this necessarily puts bottoms on seats on a Sunday morning.  Indeed, some of them aren’t very ‘religious’ at all, but the open door and the ministry of presence does, I think, help people to encounter the pastoral care of the church in a broader sense and on a level they hopefully can find useful at this particular moment in their lives.

On numbers generally, though, there has been a gradual increase in average attendance, though Richmond can be quite a transient community, because it is so expensive to live here, so people come and go quite regularly.  It is good to report, however, that numbers at both Christmas and Easter services were up considerably this year.

Last summer, you may remember, a stowaway fell from a plane from Johannesburg to Heathrow and landed on top of the NOTHS.com offices over the road.  St John’s, for a whole weekend, became a centre of media interest, with numerous interview requests from TV, radio and newspaper outfits, phone calls and emails from around the globe, and slots on news programmes and in the daily papers.  And all because the doors were open.  It was pleasing that so many of them mentioned in their coverage that SJD was holding prayers for all involved that same evening.  (Ironically, one that didn’t was the Church Times, for which I had to reprimand the editor!)  At Christmas, The Guardian carried a substantial piece of investigative journalism detailing the victim’s background story, and again requested a comment from us.

I am conscious that this ministry of presence in its broadest sense is not the preserve of the priest, least of all here at SJD.  You’d be amazed at the number of people who come in and remark on the beauty of the building and the fact is it obviously so well cared for.  And that is the case because a number of committed and hardworking people make it happen – some of whom are paid for what they do, but many more who do it for free.  Today is a day to pay tribute and to say thank you to those who faithfully care for the building, maintain its beauty and complement that ministry of openness to the community.  Also, we celebrate the progress made in the Restoration Project in the Lady Chapel, now in its final stages.

This year, we have sought to make coming into St John’s more attractive by renewing our exterior noticeboards and publicity, with welcome posters, promotion of the main Sunday morning service and regular weekday services and events, one-off concerts and a monthly schedule of Sunday services detailing celebrants, preachers and music.  Now that David has left SMT, the short daily office of Evening Prayer is held here in the chapel at 4.30 on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

New people have joined the rota of intercessors, joining in a preparation session before taking up this crucial ministry in the Sunday services.

Mark Laflin was appointed as our Director of Music last autumn, after a lengthy vacancy.  We appreciate Mark’s contribution here and also in the wider parish at Team services.  And we celebrate the great contribution of our small but loyal choir to the worship here.  It is good to have this rather unique organ under the regular care of Harrison and Harrison, who carry out regular checks and maintenance, and who have produced a comprehensive report with recommendations for the organ in the future.

At this point, I’ll ask Mark to say a brief word about music and the choir…….

There have been many home visits to parishioners – sometimes, in the case of illness or incapacity, including Home Communion.

The Vineyard lunches have continued, spearheaded by Gill and Mary, and supported by a number of helpers, for the benefit of some of the more vulnerable and isolated members of the local community.

We are gradually enhancing our links with the Met. Police next door and I’m working my way through the quite complex process of becoming volunteer chaplain to the station and training centre.  Already, a monthly community drop-in happens here; trainees come in to practise crime scenarios; parades sometimes happen in the forecourt and individual trainers and officers frequently pop in for a catch-up.  Jonathan Osborne, Senior Chaplain at the Met., will be preaching at our Patronal Festival in a couple of weeks.  We have also had more connections with our other neighbours at SPEAR, and are glad to see St John’s Lodge providing a home for a SPEAR project for females.

Our Sunday School and work with young people continues, thanks in great part to the leadership of Fiona Morgan.  This year saw a number of baptisms, three children – Hiab, Tarek and Rufael – receive their First Communion, and one – Sened – prepare for confirmation.  I hope many of you will come to support Sened at the confirmation service on 22 May.  We’re grateful also to those who give time and energy to our Eaglets group for babies, toddlers, parents and carers on Tuesday afternoons.

We should, in the next few weeks, be appointing a Children and Young People’s Ministry Leader for the Team to enhance our work with the younger age group in all three churches, and also in improving school and community links with young people and their networks and organisations in the area.

Twenty people joined in the Lent Study groups this year, focusing on the transforming nature of the Christian faith.

We said farewell to our oldest member, Phyllis Bromham, a couple of weeks ago and earlier, in January, to Barbro Bunnage.  We rejoiced with Effie and James at their wedding last autumn – never to be forgotten!

On fabric, the Nativity crib was restored last summer by a professional carpenter called Valentine (who so far has submitted no bills, despite being reminded!) and our ex-verger, Daniel.  They put in many hours in the evenings to complete the task, and it looked wonderful last Christmas.  More prosaically, Storm Katie blew down some stonework the other week, hence the scaffolding currently round the back.  There are plans to upgrade the toilets this summer.

Today, we elect our church wardens, PCC members and SJD Committee members for the coming year at a brief meeting after the service, so please do stay to demonstrate your support for them.  Despite advertising the church warden vacancy since before last Christmas, we’ve hardly been inundated with candidates, so I am especially grateful for those who have put their names forward.  Talking of which, St John’s – like many churches – is constantly in need of volunteer help in a whole range of ways.  It can be very hard to persuade people to volunteer for anything these days, but we have to be aware that we cannot rely continually on the same relatively few people doing virtually all the work that needs doing: it is too easy to take them for granted.  We all have a responsibility, if we are able, to make a contribution to the ongoing life of the church.  That will relieve burdens for some and freshen things up by enabling others to be more involved.  So I encourage you to speak to me, Mary or Martin if there’s something you feel you can contribute to any aspect of our church’s life.

As I draw to a close, I pay the warmest tribute to Maureen Robinson, our long-serving church warden, as she stands down today after eight years, but who has done a truly remarkable job during her time in office.  Many of the improvements to the building and facilities are down to her, and she has loyally carried out this role in spite of challenging health issues of her own in recent years.  We will want to express our gratitude properly in due course, Maureen, but, for the moment, a simple but heartfelt thank you.

Finally, I encourage you to pray for St John’s and its mission in the coming year, and for the wider Team Ministry.  There will be yet more changes in the parish this year, and a number of new appointments.  They begin tomorrow, as our new verger, James Nicholson, starts work.

There are four Anglican churches within a stone’s throw of each other in Richmond.  On one level, that’s crazy, yet each of them brings their own individual gifts to the Anglican melting pot in the town.  St John’s, I think, has a distinctive atmosphere, tradition, ministry and liturgical style: not better – but distinctive.  I’m sure we all want to see that continued, enhanced and handed on to congregations yet to come, to the glory of God and to embody the kingdom of love, mercy and generous embrace seen in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

About Revd Neil Summers

Revd Neil Summers served as a non-stipendiary minister in the Team between 2000 and 2014, whilst continuing his work as a lecturer in further and adult education. In October 2014, he was licensed as full-time Team Vicar of St John the Divine. He has particular interests in the literary and poetic aspects of scripture and theology, the rational case for faith and belief in an increasingly secular culture and the strengthening of links between the local church and the community in which is it set. Among his spare time pursuits are travel, literature, theatre, dance (only as a spectator!) cycling, singing in a local community choir, and gardening.
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