On this Passion Sunday, I wonder - what are you passionate about? What is your vision? I have spent the last 6 months or so asking the clergy of Hemel this question as part of some work I am doing for Churches Together. The responses have been varied and inspiring and including: mission & evangelism, the transforming power of the Gospel & building community in various forms. I also asked the ministers to answer the same question as if their church members were answering. Again the answers have been interesting & not necessarily the same as the respective minister! They include: the quality of our worship and being community of disciples open to God.
This work has made me reflect though on how I might answer the question? I would answer in part with a quote - a blind person once asked St. Anthony: "Can there be anything worse than losing your eyesight?" He replied: "Yes, losing your vision."
The this year has been marked with me/us regaining our vision. I was privileged and thankful that the diocese & you gave me the opportunity to take Sabbatical leave the this year. During my time off, I spent time with churches that gather around the Eucharist that are growing - seeing what God is doing with them, & seeing if there are any common themes. I also read much about church growth and strategic planning under God. The time was a gift & I thank you for it. I returned with some renewed priorities and fresh vision. Since my return we have begun work on a big piece of work - our Mission Action Plan which is a direct outcome of my time away. My time off also helped think much about the importance of helping all of us grow in Christian faith and have seen some great opportunities for us each to do that & to that end I am delighted that we have now run an Alpha course. The feedback we have had from those who have been on the course is that it has developed new friends & deepened faith in God. This personal re-visioning for me personally has continued as I have attended some very worthwhile training events including a 3 day workshop on change management with 20 colleagues from the Eastern region’s dioceses, an Old Testament study day, & I am 1 of 30 30 clergy from the diocese selected to attend The Weddings project training.
The other big new responsibility that I have undertaken this year, is that I have become Vice Chair of Churches Together in Hemel Hempstead. I am committed to working with other Christians to see God’s Kingdom revealed. The fruit of that work has been a better working relationship with of churches, and a mutual support in ministry - several local churches helped with our Alpha course for example.
Much of this year’s work has been consolidating & building on God’s work in & for our growing church, much of it unseen by the church per se, but all of it enriching and revealing something of the love of God including supporting the key groups and their leaders with a quarterly round of house communions with each group for support and prayer in the context of worship, an increased level of personal pastoral work with a number of individuals in the community, a significant increase in ministry to the dying - I have prayed the Last Rites in the last 6 months more that I have in 11 years of ordained ministry. We have also seen the start a new group for men in the church which has been well supported.
In the last 12 months or so, I have become a member of our Diocesan synod and have and have continued my involvement with the Diocesan Board of Education, focussing on how we support our church schools best and most effectively.
Speaking of education, we have continued to strengthen our links with Leverstock Green school - I am leading worship there once a week and conducting 4 services in church for the school. As Chair of Governors I have a particular responsibility to ensure the school moves from strength to strength and to ensure that the Christian faith is experienced implicitly and explicitly in the life of the school. We are an Outstanding church school and are a leader in the Diocese in terms aspects of our life such as discerning the Christians values that underlie every aspect of the school (love, forgiveness and respect) & working to introduce a quiet space in each classroom for prayer and reflection. It has been particularly challenging year and the Head has required some particular support which it has been a privilege to offer & to give. Involvement with the school has provided the opportunity to walk alongside people in other ways through funerals and baptisms especially.
Talking of baptisms and so on, the number of occasional offices that I have officiated at this year has gone down - there were only 6 church weddings this least year for example and a similar number of funerals in church or the crematorium and baptisms. There are always peaks and troughs in these things. Things are already looking up on that front though with 13 booked for 2011 with a good number for 2012 already. We have also seen the sad deaths of some long standing church members in Sandy Walker, FLora Parr and Sara May. It has been a privilege to know and be known by them & together with them, to know the love of God.
Looking ahead over the next 12 months and beyond must be about, to borrow the living God’s Love headings, going deeper into God - there will be many opportunities for us to do this through bible study groups, our planned quiet day, and a planned Walk through the Bible event; making new disciples - we have a good number of adults expressing interest in being Confirmed in November this year and plans will be laid for another Alpha; and asking God to enable us to transform our communities - I hope for a full and imaginitive review of our childrenswork and plans being laid to provide for the needs of our growing church including the launching of a new service plus continuing to work in partnership with people as diverse as Leverstock Green school and the Leather Bottle pub. Another high will be the completing & acting on the God-given priorities identified in our Mission Action Plan. An exciting year indeed!
We heard in our readings today of a God who offer of new life in the face of death. This hope, says Jesus to Martha on their way to Lazasus’ tomb and to us, is not set at some fixed point in the future at the end of our lives, but the power of God breaks through in the now, subverting our expectations and surprising us with joy. The heart of this morning’s Gospel is not as such the raising of Lazarus but the intersection of three lives with that God in Jesus - and God’s power at work amongst them. At work amongst us today.
Jesus, on this Passion Sunday as we turn our faces with towards the cross, what are you passionate about? What is your vision? No mention of mission and evangelism or the transforming power of the Gospel or beautiful worship. His answer is revealed in the tears he cries at the starkness of the death of his friend Lazarus prefiguring his own death and ours; and in the vision of God to Eziekiel of the long dead warriors of Israel - that the hope, the love, the life of God is at work amongst ordinary people and for ordinary people like us, in tragedy and joy, and in both and in the intersection of our lives with Him, He offers both the power of God in resurrection and life in all it’s fullness. Amen.