5th Sunday in Lent – Evensong & Annual Parochial Church Meeting – St John the Divine

Readings: Lamentations 3.19-33Matthew 20.17-end

Last Tuesday I was on a course about how to be a Team Rector. A colleague there said that when he first came into the Diocese of Southwark he had asked our last Bishop of Southwark, ‘Why team ministries?’. Answer: they made things more manageable when the money got tight (some truth there). A second colleague then chipped in another thought from our former Bishop: letting clergy (and, we presume, their churches) go it alone, he said, could be ‘fraught with competitive hazard’.

Mind you, Jesus had a team, and that was no bar to competitive hazard, as we see tonight. The New Testament reading about the sons of Zebedee appears in both Luke’s gospel and Matthew’s. In Luke, it’s the boys themselves who lobby Jesus, ‘When you come in your glory, could you just see to it that we get the best seats in the house?’ Matthew, as we hear tonight, transfers the plea from the boys to their pushy parent. (It would never happen in Richmond.) Either way, Jesus will not use his influence to get them a cushy internship in the Age to Come. All he can offer them is the cup that he will drink, blood, toil, tears and sweat. And when the other team members get cross with these wannabes, Jesus spells out what their common life is about – it is about service, not celebrity.

And what is our common life about? I have been Team Rector for six months now. I am struck by how much more complicated life is in a three-church team, how sometimes there always seems to be one more person to consult. And what does all this complication do for us? For me, it brings more colleagues (lay and ordained) to think aloud with; and until last Sunday that included Cate, whose contribution to the life and work of our team we celebrated exactly one week ago; it brings comprehensiveness, not three little parishes with chunks of Richmond but one parish, trying (with our friends at Holy Trinity) to serve one town. It also makes manifest something that’s always true of the church but often forgotten: there is a counterpoint between, say, a meeting solely about St Matthias, St Mary’s or St John’s, and another that is parish-wide; each informs the other, so you never go for long without being reminded (on the one hand) that the body of Christ exists not just within local churches but in the bonds between them, and (on the other hand) that ‘the church’ means nothing until it is embodied in particular people gathering in particular places to say and do particular things, as we do tonight. There are moments of – difference (a common life without conflict is no life at all) but I’ve not really found a competitive spirit; which is not to say that we aren’t or don’t need to be accountable to one another .

But what is the point of all this? I heard a quote yesterday from Fr Timothy Radcliffe’s great book, What is the Point of Being a Christian? The point of it, he says, is God, who is the point of everything. Our point, the thing we exist for before all else, is worship, for it is here that we acknowledge that God is and who God. All that we are begins and ends with that. And in between comes action: ‘Why do you call me Lord, Lord,’ says Jesus, ‘and don’t do what I say?’ Those who worship in spirit and in truth are changed by it, it gives direction to their lives, it makes them want to do things.

Our team lives or dies by the devotion of its paid staff and its many more volunteers; and if you want a sign of that devotion, look around you, at this stunning interior; think of all the work it represents before a single brush was dipped in a paint pot. But I’m also struck by how many people in the team give of themselves to local politics, schools, charities, amenity and pressure groups, as well as to our internal life. There have been recent developments, however, that should stop us being complacent. When I applied for this job, I said it seemed to me that the team was well placed in Richmond to show that Christian faith – and the critical, inclusive faith which our traditions espouse – can be a confident presence in what we call ‘the public square’. So let’s think about three developments that are going to affect how Richmond sees the church.

First, Street Pastors. Street Pastor schemes put local church members in town centres as a friendly presence when the night economy is in full swing. For years it was talked about for Richmond but now it is off the ground. Second, the Vineyard Project, created over thirty years ago for people who find themselves homeless, rootless or vulnerable, and given impetus by the remarkable Penny Wade. It is on the hearts of many people, and many have been dismayed by the news of its funding being cut. The local paper a fortnight ago spoke warmly of the churches ‘rallying round’, and the Vineyard Church, who have provided the space for the project, are indeed committed to this task. They have plans to refurbish the place and extend its work. It will be different in tone, though, from what has gone before, with what has been described as more of a ‘Christian distinctive’ in its ethos. Third, Love Richmond (which I’m sure you do), the working title for an idea that has sprung out of the Street Pastor and Vineyard developments: to have an umbrella body for the churches in Richmond to sponsor and nurture various initiatives for the common good of our town and borough.

What links all these is that the drive has come largely from our brothers and sisters in the more Evangelical churches of Richmond and Twickenham. Just as in recent years some liberal churches have woken up to the need for evangelism – to make new Christians – so Evangelical churches have seen more and more that the mission of the church is bigger than that; in the terms of our reading, that we don’t just recruit, we serve. So there is much here to salute. On Street Pastors, we are in the swim, with at least two Richmond Team people involved in setting it up and a few in training, or about to be. On the Vineyard, I’ve got the feeling that rather more Team people were involved in the past than are involved now. And Love Richmond (if that’s the name that sticks)? Well, it’s up to us how much we want to help shape it. I’ve received nothing but welcome from colleagues, who know that my or our stance on some issues is not going to be theirs.
Our response? It’s a big question for a church that calls itself inclusive: how willing are you to embrace other Christians who do not fully agree with you? There are several other things I might have mentioned, but if we are serious about our place in the common and public life of Richmond, these are prominent among the big games in town at the moment. And going it alone may be ‘fraught with competitive risk’.
‘Gosh,’ you may say, ‘that all sounds exhausting, and just when (with Cate’s departure) we are a woman down.’ This is a test of how well our team works: how far does it consume our energies in maintaining its inner life (and it’s bound to do that a bit), and how far does it remove duplication, spark imagination and so release energy for pointing beyond ourselves?

That is a question for us all, and especially for the officers and committee members whose elections we ratify tonight, and for whom we pray. How well we answer depends on how well we see the direction in which God intends to lead us in the coming year. As Jesus came out of Jericho (says Matthew) he met two people. ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked. ‘Lord, they said, let our eyes be opened.’

 

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