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Leaving Service Sermon – Revd. Paul Cowan

Sunday 22nd January 2017
Article posted on 22 January 2017 Leave a Comment

Isaiah 9.1-4
1 Corinthians 1.10-18
Matthew 4.12-23

3rd Sunday of Epiphany

My goodness, where on earth to start? Last week I preached for the last time at St John’s and focused very much on our journey together at St John’s over the last few years. To the congregation of St John’s who are here, please forgive me, as in this sermon I speak more so to the congregation of St George’s.

I don’t think it’s possible in these few minutes here from the pulpit to in anyway succeed in reflecting or summarising the past decade. We arrived here as a family in August 2006; Samuel was 5 and Joel 3, Hannah and I were… ten years younger than we are now! From day one, you warmly welcomed us into the St G’s community. St G’s and Wash Common has been a wonderful place for us to be as a family.

I know that we as a family will always look back fondly and with gratitude for our time lived with and amongst you here. So that’s my first thank you. Thank you for your love and welcome of us both as a family and individually.

We have met here in this place for ten years; we have celebrated the annual cycle of the Christian seasons and festivals, we have sought, prayed to, and worshipped God. We have been fed in word and sacrament. And you have, with amazing tolerance, sat where you are right now, and listened to me preaching week after week. With St John’s, I have preach about 400 times. So my second thank you is a thank you for our shared worship together, and for your forbearance in listening to me all this time. I have always tried to be kind to you and to keep the sermons short. Craig Brown has ‘kindly’ timed me most weeks. Do you remember the time I was trying to preach about Easter, hope and new life and foolishly tried to include talk about my mother’s death? I instead ended up standing here in floods of tears unable to speak? Thank you for all the faithful acts of service that make our worship happen – music, prayers, reading, cleaning, flowers, serving and the list could go on.

It has been a blessing to have new people joining us year by year. We have grown in number and got younger… as an average age of course rather than some miracle of eternal youth! And then there are all the events, activities, outreach and fundraising – pilgrimages, cocktail parties, Holiday Clubs, quiz nights, men’s group, murder mystery plays, parties, art exhibitions and the list could go on and on. So my next thank you is a thank you for all the fun and times of celebration together. Thank you for all the hard work that puts all this together and thank you for the enormous amounts raised to help run this church and of course to raise the funds for the Renewal Energy Project.

Our first reading from Isaiah talked of God giving his people, through Jesus, as Matthew highlighted in our Gospel, light, joy, harvest and freedom. God has certainly blessed us with more than our fair share of joy and harvests to celebrate.

That brings me onto the project. Last year we celebrated its completion and we reflected on that epic shared journey then, so I’m only going to dwell on it briefly now. Frustratingly the GSHP is still not working as it should. It’s the benefits of gas that you’re enjoying this morning. I hope and pray that the problems are able to be remedied soon. My next thank you is a thank you again for your incredible commitment and perseverance through the highs and lows of the project. As you know, there were times when I felt totally beaten by it, but it was this community that kept the project and me going.

I know the project has a habit of grabbing the headlines and is what the wider local community sees that we’ve been up to, but I genuinely don’t think that it’s been the core of what we’ve been about. It was always a means to an end. Although less quantifiable, we have also grown spiritually and numerically. We have served this community, shared faith, nurtured faith, and welcomed people to join us. Being a community is not easy. The problem is that communities are made up of human beings, and as you well know, there’s nought as queer as folk!

It was clear from our second Bible reading that things were far from rosy for the early Corinthian church community. There were divisions and factions going on, and as we heard, Paul’s is pleading with them for a deeper unity,
10 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you should be in agreementand that there should be no divisions among you,but that you should be united in the same mind and the same purpose.

I am deeply grateful for the unity we have shared together. That is my next thank you. Thank you for the unity, the fellowship and the peace we have shared despite our diversity. We are a community of broad churchmanship and we are a community with very able people and some strong personalities too, including me of course! Not everything that we do or how we worship is everyone’s ideal. There have been many times when I’ve led things poorly or we’ve made decisions that wouldn’t have been your choices. Thank you for your forbearance with me, and your forgiveness of my failings. And not everyone has felt at the centre of church life and I know that for some, the struggle to feel that you truly belong has been painful. If there is a stubborn nut that I feel I’ve failed to lead us to succeed in cracking, it’s this one – everyone having a sense of belonging. Beyond the genuine warmth of welcome at the door, may I encourage you to continue to struggle for a deeper sense of belonging for everyone who joins you?

Organising our worship, running events, nurturing faith, building work, always things to repair, and managing finances, all of this takes loads of communication and meetings, and as many of you work in the day, evening meetings. I reckon that I’ve been involved in, chaired and / or hosted over 1,000 meetings in my time here. I did a rough calculation of how many emails I’ve sent over the past ten years and I reckon it’s heading towards about 46,000! My next thank you is a thank you for coming to all those meetings, giving up so much of your precious time and thank you for putting up with so many emails and requests from me. We have done so much together and this brings me to my core thank you. Thank you for the trust you have placed in me, and thank you for the love you have shown to me and to Hannah, Samuel & Joel.

Over the last year or two we’ve been taking steps towards a more intentional focus on looking outward and on the sharing and nurturing of faith. That is rightly the focus and next steps, for both St George’s and St John’s. Last week the Gospel reading was the invitation to the disciples to ‘come and see’; to journey to seek and to meet Jesus. This week, it’s the same message but told by Matthew rather than John. As we just heard,
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Repent is an old fashioned word, but it’s about changing direction. Jesus meets ordinary people, fisherman on the shore of Galilee and says simple but life changing words if responded to,
‘Follow me, I will make you fishers of men’…I think that’s women as well by the way! ‘Come and see’; ‘Follow me’; becoming or learning to be ‘Fishers of Men’. These are at the heart of the next steps for St George’s and indeed St John’s.

Like last week for St John’s, I would like to end my sermon with some words of, as it were, a commissioning of you as a church community. They are pretty similar to what I said last week. So, let me end with that…

Whilst you have breath, never be fully satisfied with where you are as a church community; do not stand still or become comfortable with the status quo.
Remain faithful in gathering here for three purposes,
– firstly, to be fed in word and sacrament,
– secondly, thirst for more and travel deeper, through a commitment to fellowship in prayer and the study of scripture together
– and thirdly, having been fed by God and nurtured in faith, continually search for ways to say to those around you, ‘Come and see, the kingdom of Heaven is nearer at hand than you realise’.
…or in other words, love God and love your neighbour.
Continue to do what the wider church tragically fails to do, be one, be united as one body.
Your unity is as important as your journey.
…or in other words, love each other.

May God bless you as you continue your journey as a pilgrim people.


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