“And now, the end is near, the time has come, the final sermon…”
If someone had said to me in 2018 that I would have to sing in public (I admit, badly!), then I don’t think I would have even continued talking to William about priestly ministry. I don’t sing.
And yet here I am, and William I am sure remembers perfectly well my horrified reaction when he told me I would have to sing at the eucharist! “Sing” of course is a strong word for my efforts… I do heartily apologise to the amazing choir for my noise! I am not gifted in the vocal department, but thanks so much to Mike and Simone for giving me a few lessons, and helping me to lose the immense fear I had.
This is my last regular Sunday at St Marks. But I’ve learned that in God’s hands, never say never. I said goodbye to Moscow in 2018, only to end up back there in 2021. I’m not ruling out, however unlikely, another return…though I fear it will be a long time before anything changes in that situation.
Since I left Russia, it’s been an adventure. I arrived in Primrose Hill in March 2022, a little lost and confused, but equally slightly excited. I felt totally cared for, and that is credit to William and Beatrice, and the church, who really did welcome the stranger at short notice!
Though William doesn’t believe it, I spent 3 genuinely lovely months in his basement. Then 3 equally lovely – though very hot – summer months with Judy, who kindly opened her house to me. I woke up every day thinking “how on earth did I get to live in Primrose Hill? I’m so blessed!” And finally I found a bit more stability in an office block with some rooms attached to it, near Westbourne Park.
And on top of all that, I also got to attend the Lambeth Conference, spend 4 months studying in beautiful Annecy in France, visit Geneva, do some training in Cologne (and Woking!), get priested, and – oh yes – get engaged to be married!
If ever I thought joining the church would be nice boring tea parties in the garden of a village vicarage, that idea is long gone…
I’ve been trying to think what the key takeaways are – what have I learned? Of course, I’ve learned so much about vestments – chasubles, dalmatics, stoles, maniples, burses and copes. I could go on. But what has been the real, more deeper learning?
First, I like that sparrow in today’s reading. God knew where I was, where I fell. And God saw, and God cared. And God said, “in this difficult time, I will test you. But if you respond well, you will grow so much!” I really think, in all the experiences of life, it is how we respond that makes us. Every situation offers a choice: humbly continue to love, try to care, be honest and open; or attack the other person, be selfish, cynical and self-seeking, and blame everyone else.
Adam and Eve: eat the apple, or obey God. Abraham: obey or disobey God’s request to sacrifice Isaac. Would he trust that God knew best? Joseph: stay with the Potiphar’s wife, or do the right thing and run. The Bible is full of key moments where how we respond is what makes us.
I’ve done some stupid things this last year, but also some good things, and I know its the challenges I have embraced that have made me a much better person.
Some of you are aware as well that I have been working part-time for the Anglican Communion, the global network of Anglican churches across the world. This has been fascinating. But the key issue facing us all is one of unity.
There are movements in the global church to separate from the Communion because of disagreements over practice and theology. I completely agree that these things are important, but do disagreements really mean we have to start a new denomination? Cannot we continue to sit in the same room, the same family, and do the harder work, of continuing to talk? I can’t get rid of my cousins – they are my blood family! I might not speak to them, but the genetics mean they are always my cousins.
The same with our faith: if we still hold to Jesus Christ as central, as the Way, the Truth and the Life, and if we still stand in the footsteps of our Christian ancestors, knowing that the path of following Jesus is not the easy way – it will produce difficulties for us if we do it rightly – then surely we can support and encourage each other rather than going to sit in different rooms!
Our gospel reading today talked of this: if we are disciples, we are not above our master. We must realise that God is holy and all powerful: fear only him, not people! Because yes, this world will mock us.
And if we are disciples, then that can have a deep personal cost. The gospel reading says if your family reject you because you follow Jesus, you ought to choose the harder choice of staying with Christ. Discipleship can be costly.
But the gospel says continue to worship God, for he alone can destroy body and soul in hell. Think on that: it is an amazing bargain for us! All we do is say before temporary, fallible people, that we belong to Jesus – and we get claimed before almighty, eternal, infallible God! It’s a bargain!
And who are we to judge? Jesus calls us to humility. Ought we not to worry about our own sins rather than those of someone else? God is the judge of the other person, just as he is the judge of you and me. It’s like the sheep and goats: in the Middle East they all look similar, but God knows the difference. When time is called, God will separate them and he will decide who is truly his, and who is not. It’s not our call to judge one another! If we do, we steal God’s job!
So let us not argue, judge and fight. We have that in Parliament every day – and have you ever seen a Labour MP eviscerate a Conservative and the Conservative respond by saying “Oh, you are right! How silly I was, I will change my mind”. Of course not! Attacking and blaming does not work!
Real change comes from dying to our own desires, and learning to walk together, listening to the other, and learning to trust.
So they are my two take aways from the year, two ways I have been formed. Embrace the strange challenge of the new. Thuribles, chasubles, choreography around the altar – for me it was all new. I could have said “no!”; I could have offended lots of people being stroppy, sticking to the comfort of what I knew from my limited experience. Instead I have mostly tried to learn, and what a reward it has been. Thank you to all of you – even in your weak moments, you have taught me!
And stick together in love. Yes we will disagree, but the world is full of people who disagree. The church ought to be different, saying loudly and clearly “we disagree but we are still committed to each other!”
And Yes, you might be right; but Jesus never asks us to win arguments; he calls us to serve him, sacrifice our lives to his goals, and to serve each other. Find your life to lose it; lose your life to find it.
I went to Russia to a life I knew; I lost it. A new life was given to me here – and I feel like I have found so much. So, to all of you, thank you.