APCM 22 April 2018
1 John 3:16-end and John 10:11-18
Last year the gospel reading at the APCM service was the story of the road to Emmaus, and we thought about how hard it was for the disciples to recognise Jesus – how they were almost too close as they walked, and too sad, and too bound up in their own ideas of what had happened. The faith that Jesus is beside us in good times and difficult ones, even when we don’t recognise or feel his presence is a source of strength, but it requires us to admit our weakness and dependence, and we aren’t always very good at that..
This year our “APCM gospel” tells us again how we are cared for, loved, protected – Jesus says I am the good shepherd. The image of the good shepherd was always associated with the kings of Israel as well as with God, so it would have been familiar to Jesus’ listeners. But I wonder if their familiarity of the idea completely blinded them to the connotations which, if we too stop to peer through our own familiarity, are not particularly flattering to God’s people.
Sheep… famously not the brightest animal on the farm, prone to follow one another into trouble, get caught in brambles, fences, streams… Sheep: stubborn, reluctant, needing a shepherd and a dog… carrot and stick style. Sheep thinking they know best – I’ve always thought the parable of the lost sheep started with a very slightly brighter sheep thinking it could find the greener grass over the hill…. and that wasn’t wrong, because the love and perseverance of the shepherd did make it safe to explore….. imagine the comfort of being found and carried home – and having such stories to tell the other sheep tucked up in the fold at night…..
Earlier in today’s chapter Jesus uses another image – I am the gate for the sheep. A gate is a way into shelter and also a way into the world… into excitement and adventure, even danger …. and Jesus offers his sheep freedom to go out and come in and find pasture.
Can we think of ourselves in this way, recognising the characteristics that we share with sheep – needing to be protected and led and encouraged to find the nourishment that we need? It certainly takes a humility many of us often lack! We value our freedom, in faith as in all things, and as the lost sheep may have discovered, we learn from our mistakes as well as our successes, from bad times as well as good ones.
Our freedom is a gift from God, our security comes form God. Famously in John’s gospel Jesus uses a series of images to describe himself – bread of life, light of the world, true vine – good shepherd, gate for the sheep. And each of these hangs on the same assertion of Godhead – I AM… God’s holy name for Jews down the ages. I am your God, and this is what that means for you….. sustenance, freedom, light, protection… the way, the truth and the life.
This is the truth for each one of us – we are loved and held and encouraged by God to use all the gifts God has given us – to have life in all its fulness, to become the people we were created to be. I haven’t quoted Irenaus for some time, but here is his great saying, a good one to think about as we review the year that’s gone and look ahead…. the glory of God is a human being fully alive.
We often explore what that means for us personally – and in our work to discern and develop a vision for the parish we are asking what it means for us as a community, here in this place, now in this time. Sandy will say more about it in the meeting – but let’s look back on the last year.
A year ago, as a parish, we were just beginning to get used to the new service pattern, alternating between the churches. We recognised that it was good to worship together, but the sacrifice involved for those of us who are deeply attached to a particular building was considerable. the new pattern was reviewed in the autumn and one major adjustment was made, but this huge change to the way we live and worship as a parish is still bedding down. It came when it did, of course, as a result of Chuks’ unexpected departure, but to take a wider view, what that did was to place us in a situation that’s increasingly familiar across the C of E – too few clergy for the churches we have…. There are currently more people training for ordained ministry than for very many years, but they won’t be enough to replace the large numbers retiring in this 10 year period – many of them men who were called to ordination after Billy Graham’s crusades. I know that there are some in the parish who would like to return to the pattern of separate services in St Bart’s and St Christopher’s, but I do urge us all to come to terms with things as they are, to enjoy the unity we are building, and to work on the welcome, love and witness we offer to our community. As you know, I believe this is the right way forward, but I also know that it is necessary for reasons of resources in the wider church!
Talking of the wider church, A key relationship for all of us, and especially for me as rector, is with our Archdeacon – there are two of these in the diocese and they are helpfully defined in the new diocesan magazine as “senior clergy with a pastoral role supporting clergy, churchwardens and parish officers”. Stuart Beake retired last year after many years, and has been replaced by Ven Paul Davies, fresh from archdeaconing in North Wales. He has already visited the parish informally and will make his first formal visit this evening, to dedicate the new flagpole and flag and bless the poppies at a service which will draw together the community and the church. Paul is going to be an important person for the United Benefice over the next period, in the first instance because our friend and colleague Barbara SP is retiring from Grayswood in September, and the resulting vacancy will need to be managed with help from visiting clergy but mainly by Fiona Gwyn, who as a self supporting minister works only limited hours each week, and by me as Rector. We will be exploring the implications of this over the coming months.
Which brings me, I suppose, to one aspect of the last year which was unexpected, personally challenging for me, and exceptionally challenging for the wardens, PCC and wider parish. Clergy stress is a pretty well worn topic these days – it even gets coverage in the Guardian – but I didn’t expect to fall victim to it, even after a very difficult few years. My absence for 4 months – initially expected to be about 2 weeks! – gave me time to reflect, and also time to unwind and do nothing to a degree I would never have believed possible. I’m still working restricted hours, with the full agreement of the Archdeacon and diocesan HR, and that has meant some rethinking of roles and ways of doing things, enabling me to focus on the things that, as a priest, only I can do and less on admin and “business”. Letting go isn’t easy….. I was and am grateful beyond measure to everyone who stepped into the breach last year. Dorothea and Vic bore the brunt of my absence day to day, arranging cover and plugging gaps and answering questions and generally being wonderful. Robert took over chairing the PCC and has retained that role. The PCC used the opportunity to reflect on roles and relationships within the parish. And I sat on the beach…… A personal thank you to everyone who thought about me and prayed for me during that time, and to the small group of gatekeeping people who made sure I knew as much of what was happening as was good for me – and no more!
Of course, life went on while I was away, including events at the Rectory, which was part of Open Gardens and also the venue for a parish BBQ. The preaching team delivered the planned sermon series on Life in All Its Fullness, with the assistance of visiting clergy. And summer happened – sort of…
Just before I returned in October I went on a pilgrimage to Ethiopia and am looking forward to leading another this October – there are just 4 places left so sign up now if you want to join us!
The APCM papers contain full reports of all that has been going on this year. We are a very busy and active parish, and the Vision Steering Group, led by Sandy, will be helping us to look prayerfully and reflectively at how all our activity forms a part of our life an witness. I want to single out one or two areas for comment now.
We all know how important our provision for families is, to share the gospel and grow the church. Families today are busier than they have ever been and the old patterns don’t apply, so we need to work with them to
discover new ways of being church, of being God’s people. Families@4 is one answer to that, but the decision to end the all age service hasn’t been welcomed by some families…. this is definitely work in progress!
I mentioned the flagpole etc project – a superb example of church and wider community working together…. all credit to RR…. determination and vision. Fabcom – lots of unseen work! Floodlighting at St C…
Our two ordinands, Justin and Sandy, coming to the end of second year. We expect both will be ordained next summer – Justin to serve here as an ordained local minister, Sandy to leave an begin a stipendiary curacy in a different parish. Her departure after so many years working with our families and young people will be a very significant loss – PCC will be looking forward and planning for it.
Time of change in Haslemere churches – Father Irek settling in at OLL but
St Stephens in vacancy after Danny left – short one we hope – ad next week, interviews in June. Jonathan Carter retiring in July after a lifetime leading 3Cs. Local clergy form a supportive community for one another – unique in my experience – will need to see what form it takes in the future especially without Jonathan’s long experience and wisdom.
So there is some uncertainty ahead, and we need the reassurance of today’s gospel – the promise that Jesus is our good shepherd, whose desire is for the welfare of his flock. We can go forward in confidence for, in the words of the epistle, God is greater than our hearts and he knows everything.
And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.
So let’s go forward in trust and love, rejoicing in the freedom God gives us and resolving to use it for his glory and the good of his world.