A Sermon from Sherborne

God’s calling

This will become a sermon, I promise you, but it is starting as a statement as – with very mixed emotions – I announce today my retirement as the Rector of the Sherborne Team Ministry. The announcement has been made across the Benefice at all services. Two weeks ago I turned 69, and the official retirement age for stipendiary clergy is 70. Ten days ago Sandra and I completed on the purchase of a very pleasant house in Sturminster Newton, just 12 miles away.

 

Knowing that these landmark events were shortly to happen, I was in conversation before Christmas with the Bishop of Salisbury. He and I agreed that the ideal day for my last Sunday with you, and the termination of my official duties, would be Easter Day, Sunday 12 April. On what better day could a priest hope to retire than the most important day in the Christian calendar, the Day of Resurrection?

 

Bishop Nicholas has generously agreed that Sandra and I might remain at the Vicarage until we have completed the second of the parish pilgrimages to Oberammergau and the Passion Play, from which our group returns on 8 July. However, in practice we hope to have moved from the Vicarage by the end of May.

 

This means that I will have been your Incumbent for some 27 years (though at Longburton officially only since 2006). The Benefice – and especially, of course, the Abbey – has therefore been my life for over a quarter of a century. I regard myself as hugely privileged to have ministered here for so long. Equally, I am very conscious of the debt I owe to my colleagues, ordained and lay, down the years. But the time for expressions of gratitude is not yet. Suffice it to say that leaving Sherborne will be a huge wrench for both of us. Sandra and I hope you will pray for us over the coming weeks, just as we will be praying for you all.

 

God’s call can come in many forms. Sometimes it is a deep personal conviction: this is what he wants me to do. Sometimes it comes from other people, who become, like Gabriel, God’s messengers, his Ἄγγελοι: ‘Have you ever considered ordination?’ ‘I think you’d make an excellent churchwarden.’ And if you not only hear but register that call, and ponder on it and respond to it, then you will discover that the Lord will stand by you and give you strength, so that through you the message might be fully proclaimed.

 

Forty five years ago, in 1975, I was preparing to become a student again and go up to Cambridge to read theology at Trinity College and train for ordination at Westcott House. I was due to be married the following year, so had one bachelor year in Westcott itself. My rooms were directly over the college bell, which hung in the cloister. At first that bell and I were not the best of friends. It woke me at six. It summoned me to chapel at seven. It continued to send messages throughout the day until it called me to Compline at ten o’clock at night. But we became better friends when I learned a little Greek and could decipher the bell’s inscription. πιστὸς ὁ καλῶν it read, a line from Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians: ‘Faithful is he who calls’ [5:24]. That bell rang true, and I have never heard its note waver: faithful is he who calls.

 

Today’s Gospel reading tells of the call of Peter and Andrew, James and John, to leave their nets and follow Jesus – to become, as Jesus put it, ‘fishers of men’. They heard a gentle voice. Saul, intent on persecuting the followers of Jesus, needed a more dramatic jolt to his system: a blinding light on the Damascus road, and a voice from heaven. All were to spend the rest of their lives proclaiming the Gospel, the Good News. St Paul was to tell the Christians at Rome, ‘My priestly task is the preaching of the Gospel’ [Romans 15:16].

 

Over a hundred years ago, in a famous book entitled Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind [1907], P. T. Forsyth spoke eloquently of preaching as a highly sacramental act. Just as the bread of the Body of Christ is broken at the altar, he said, so too the Word of Christ is broken in the pulpit. At the altar the Body of Christ is made visible. In the pulpit the Word of Christ is made audible. As your Incumbent for very nearly 27 years, Word and Sacrament have been at the heart of my ministry: I truly believe God called me here to be a pointer, pointing to God and the things of God. And faithful is he who calls.

 

There comes a moment for all new priests, new incumbents, new archdeacons, new bishops – when that calling causes us to feel full of our own importance. It is then that we need to remember that we are not the Master. We are only the Master’s voice.

 

I do not ask
That crowds should throng the temple,
That standing room be at a price.
I only ask that as I voice the message
They may see Christ.

 

I do not ask
For churchy pomp or pageant,
Or music such as wealth alone can buy;
I only ask that as I voice the message
He may be nigh.

 

I do not ask
That men may sound my praise
Or headlines spread my name abroad.
I only ask that as I voice the message
Hearts may find God.

 

And so I have always tried to remember that in every part of my ministry I have been called to be a steward of the mysteries of God, and that faithful is he who calls. Ordination did not give me a different spiritual ticket from yours. I have remained a flawed and sinful human being, just like you! But in my preaching I have been the beggar who can tell others where to find bread, and in the Eucharist I have the awesome privilege of breaking for you the bread of life, the bread of heaven. And all the time I have tried to point beyond myself to God himself. I and my ordained colleagues are not the important ones. God is, and you are.  Those who will have the challenge of being ministers of Word and Sacrament during the interregnum will need your support, your encouragement and your help in their ministry as messengers, stewards and pointers. For they offer this ministry not only to you and for you but also with you. Because it is up to all of us, all of Christ’s church, each and every one of you, to make it possible for the Lord to enter into the hearts and minds of those who hear his voice. Many will not hear. Many will not understand. But it could be their sermon or your sermon which will help them.

 

Your sermon? Oh yes – didn’t I make that clear? In the end the clergy have the easy job. We have to preach sermons people can hear, but you have to preach sermons they can see. And what people need to see in you is honesty and integrity, kindliness, courtesy and consideration, a generosity of spirit and, above all, a clear witness from Monday to Saturday that your faith matters to you, that it makes a difference to how you live, because you walk with Christ, and all of life is a sacrament of his presence in the world. Long ago St Paul put it better than I ever can, in his second letter to the Christians at Corinth. It is perhaps the finest summary I know of our calling as Christian priests and Christian people, Listen, ponder, and make it your own:

 

‘We recommend ourselves by the innocence of our behaviour, our grasp of truth, our patience and kindliness, by gifts of the Holy Spirit, by sincere love, by declaring the truth, by the power of God. We wield the weapons of righteousness in right hand and left. Honour and dishonour, praise and blame, are alike our lot: we are the imposters who speak the truth, the unknown men whom all men know; dying we still live on; disciplined by suffering, we are not done to death; in our sorrow we have always cause for joy; poor ourselves, we bring to wealth to many; penniless, we own the world.’ [2 Corinthians 6: 6-10]

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 26/01/2020
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne