Readings: Isaiah 6: 1-8; Psalm 29; Romans 8: 12-17; John 3: 1-17
Preacher: Revd David Gardiner
May the words of my lips, and the meditations of all our hearts, be forever pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
I want to take today’s sermon slot as an opportunity to introduce myself and begin the process of building the trust and collaboration that are essential to the functioning of a church.
So the first question that may be on your minds is just who I am. You’ve read a bit about me of course, and some of you may have heard about me from North Cheltenham people who were here at my licensing, and I’ve spoken with some of you. But you may still have questions. Questions about what has brought me here; questions about what brought the interview panel to select me; questions about just what kind of priest I am.
Well, a great deal of my understanding of my ordained ministry comes from my background, which is fairly varied.
I was brought up in the Church of Scotland, where some like to think they are not liturgical; this is not true, however: they are simply so familiar with what will happen that a written order of service is unnecessary. I like liturgy. I like formal liturgy and informal liturgy. I like worshipping God. I like the multisensory approach to liturgy that is found in the catholic end of the Church of England: colour, robes, bells, music, chant, incense, using bodily posture; it’s an incredibly rich way to worship.
With such a varied background, I’m not really a great fan of labels, yet an attraction for me about Richmond was the description of this church family as inclusive and liberal. Yet both these words are open to abuse. Some hold that those who call themselves inclusive are actually exclusive of traditionalists.
Well, I have come to you from a team with parishes that included traditionalists who could not accept the ordained ministry of women. I would be lying if I said it was easy ministering to people whose theology differed so greatly from my own, but our Isaiah reading sees Isaiah coming to God as an imperfect servant, and our Gospel today speaks of God as offering life to all. I was a priest and pastor to those people, and my calling there was to understand and embrace them in my ministry, not to force them to be like me, or to ignore them if they did not.
Nor will I distance myself from anyone here who may disagree with me on anything. I hope you will not distance yourself from me. As Paul writes in his letter to the Romans: “All who are led by the Spirit are children of God.” If we are all children of God, then we are brothers and sisters of God, and have a duty of care and love for one another.
What about Liberalism then? Just as there are some who would argue against the inclusivity of inclusiveness, there are some who hold that being a liberal means disregarding the Bible. There are even some liberals who think this of themselves. To me, liberalism rests on the concept of freedom. Not freedom from the Bible, which course robs us of a wonderful record of God’s love for his creation, but freedom to read and understand the Bible, unbound by others’ interpretations.
Chris Cocksworth, now Bishop of Coventry but formerly the principle of Ridley Hall in Cambridge, wrote that a priest needs to be both Catholic in having a world-wide view of the church, and Evangelical in having a love of scripture. Despite disliking labels, I embrace that advice whole-heartedly. I love the Bible, even when parts of it might be hard to understand. Sometimes those parts can be the most rewarding to explore.
I don’t think it’s infallible, because it’s written by people, not God, although God did inspire those people to write it. And it wasn’t written in English! I think it’s the best guide to the Christian faith and life, but one that needs careful study to make sure we’re not misunderstanding it.
I love it, because it’s a big book, and I like epics. I love it, because it is complicated, and let’s face it, we’re all pretty complicated ourselves. I love it, because it tells me that God loves me so much that he became incarnate in the person of the Son and gave himself up to death for my sins. I love it, because as a cheesy daytime movie once put it, “It’s a love-letter from God.”
So that’s a bit about my theology as a Christian and a priest. I can say more, but perhaps better for you now would be some thoughts on me as a priest, a vicar and leader. I feel a close affinity to the models of servant and shepherd. The servant leader that Christ modelled at the Last Supper was about enabling the disciples in their own ministry, and that is what a parish priest must do as well.
The interview for this post asked me to prepare a presentation on the subject: What is the heart of the Gospel, and how will it influence your work among us? I said that the heart of the Gospel is this message of love for all that we have presented here in our readings today: in the Psalm for those who are outcast or in pain, in Acts for the foreign eunuch, in First John for every brother and sister, whether we’ve met them or not. This is the love that gives life, as Jesus said in John chapter 10 verse 10 “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
As for how this will influence my work here among you? I decided to change the question. It will not direct my work here in Richmond. It will influence how we will work together. In the Eucharist we will share together in Christ’s life and love for us, and then I will send you out into the community saying “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
I want to end by considering a key pair of verses from our Gospel reading. One of the earliest memory verses I remember being taught at Sunday School was John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.” This is in itself good news, but even better is the sentence that is often missed out, the one that comes next: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
We know the world is weighed down by death and fear, but we know also that on Easter morning Christ’s tomb was empty, and that God says “do not be afraid.” What are we going to do about it?