Your first sermon in a new church is always a tricky affair. How will the congregation react? What’s it like up in the pulpit? Is your style of preaching appropriate? Although you may have preached many times before, when you have been doing so in one particular church, in one particular place, to one particular group of people, you know that you have built up a relationship and a rapport over many years. Suddenly, the people looking back at you from your new viewpoint are strangers and this is the first time they have heard your thoughts and are eager to see what the new Curate has to say.
Add to all of that the fact that it’s the church’s Patronal Festival, when the life and character of the particular saint that the church is dedicated to has probably been discussed, dissected and generally mulled over for many years and you feel you have to come up with something new?
Sunday 26th July 2015 saw me climbing up into the pulpit at St James, West End, Southampton, to do just that. Here then is an abridged version of my talk.
May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Today we are here to celebrate the patronal festival of St James. James the fisherman, not to be confused with James brother of Jesus or James the author of an epistle. He is one of the closest companions of Jesus, alongside Peter and John, and together with them he is one apostle about whom we know quite a lot about his background and character. We know his father was Zebedee, a Galilean fisherman from whose boat James and his brother John answered Jesus’ call, and biblical scholars have reasoned that their mother was Salome, about whom we’ll hear more about in a minute.
I wanted to find out some interesting facts about James, but I suspect that you may have heard them all before… however, they are all new to me and here are a few I found especially interesting.
James has a nickname… ‘Son of Thunder!’ Whoa, that’s great… ‘Son of Thunder!’ …makes him sound like he should be in an Avengers movie. Apparently he got this after John and he asked Jesus if they should ‘call down fire from heaven’ to destroy a village and its inhabitants who had been less than welcoming. Needless to say his offer was declined.
You may have also wondered why there is a scallop shell on the church logo. Well, I hope that today you will all be going home to dine on Coquilles St Jacques à la Provençale…no?
This delicious dish of scallops, white wine and mushrooms is traditionally eaten on St James’ feast day, a reference to the saint’s appearance at the battle of Clavijo in the 9th century, riding on a white horse and adorned in scallop shells. On that occasion the Christians were able to defeat the Moors and the rallying cry of the Spanish troops, from that time became ‘Santiago!’
In our New Testament reading, we hear of James’ violent death at the hands of Herod Agrippa. He was the first of the apostles to suffer martyrdom, just over a decade after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. However, the Spanish have a special place for St Iago, as James is translated, as they believe that his remains were buried in Compostela, having been transported there in a stone boat by angels, a place that has become the third greatest place of Christian pilgrimage after Jerusalem and Rome.
Some really interesting facts and stories; speaking of a man of great loyalty, fiery of spirit but willing to serve Christ to the point of offering up his life. However, in our gospel reading he and his brother have to stand by and watch as their mother tries to secure a favourable position for her boys in the new earthly kingdom she believes Jesus is bringing about. In Mark’s gospel this incident sees the brothers themselves asking for this advantageous position, but Matthew, writing some 25 years later, distances the disciples from this overly ambitious request and chooses their mother to press their case. Interestingly, it’s possible that this was because of their family relationship, as Salome is identified by the gospel writer John, as Jesus’ mother’s sister, making her his aunt and the brothers his full cousins.
What it shows is that the disciples were still thinking about personal reward and distinction without personal sacrifice. Jesus, however, knows that the kingdom he is to bring about is not about earthly values, and that whilst he doesn’t doubt their faith and commitment, it will be the Father’s decision as to what that looks like in the long run. You can imagine what the other apostles, said to James and John afterwards, perhaps some of them chastised them that their mother had spoken out in such a way or they were annoyed that the brothers were trying to gain extra favour. Whatever, it was they were angry about, Jesus points out that being one of his followers is not about human leadership values but instead true greatness comes through servanthood.
I wonder though what we think of when we are called to become servants or even as Paul puts it slaves. I suspect we could have a vision of Downton Abbey and life downstairs, although this particular portrayal is certainly a rosier picture than what it was actually like for many servants. But it’s not really about being powerless at the mercy of others. Instead, we should think about what servants do… they serve… Only three weeks ago at my ordination service the role of serving was emphasised time and again throughout the service. Let me read just one bit from the declarations that we had to make – first the bishop read out the job description.
They are to serve the community in which they are set, bringing to the church the needs and hopes of all the people. They are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely, and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, so that the love of God may be made visible.
This then is the role of a deacon, to be a servant and what my title is for this first year. However, I don’t stop being a deacon after the year’s up, in fact you never stop being a deacon. Thomas is still a deacon; Bishop Tim is still a deacon and Archbishop Justin is still a deacon*. Once a deacon always a deacon, but despite it being a clerical title every one of you here could also be called deacons.
We are all called to serve in a variety of ways. We are called to serve in the worship life within this church building, whether as ministers or choir members; as servers or sidespeople; as cleaners or flower arrangers for example – everyone offering their gifts and time to build up the church community. But we are also called to serve and to be available to our wider community finding out ways in which the church as a body can meet their needs and be a beacon of hope. The great thing is that we are not called to do it alone as individuals, but to work with and support each other, being proactive as well as reactive. Then, as we serve we will become the visible signs of God’s love to all his people.
One of the visible symbols of being a clerical deacon is that I wear my stole slightly different to Thomas, who has been priested and I know some of you wondered why. Again it is to do with servanthood. During the Last Supper Jesus removed his outer robe and tied a towel around his waist in order to wash his disciples’ feet. In the ordination service it was the bishop or in my case the abbot who did just that to me.
For Christ it was a way of showing the extent to which he was prepared to humble himself to take on the form of a servant. He was demonstrating to us that we have to set the needs of others before our own. When we remove our outer pride and clothe ourselves in humility then we too can bow down in readiness to serve others
To some people in our society nowadays that seems like an alien concept, where self-satisfaction counts for more than self-giving. Surely by becoming a servant we also make ourselves vulnerable to abuse – we become doormats rather than open doors. I would disagree – if we are serving God and actively seeking how we can bring about justice and mercy for the vulnerable then we will have opened the doors to Christ’s kingdom.
Perhaps we should all consider how we can become more like those visible signs of Christ to those around us. Are we prepared to offer everything so that God’s kingdom can be brought about both on earth and in the future? It’s certainly a challenge and not an easy one. Jesus knew this, but he had trust in his followers. He never doubted that James and John would maintain their loyalty; he knew they had ambitions and their faults, but they didn’t turn away from him – they were prepared to give their all. In the same way he has trust in all of us.
For those of us who were here on my first Sunday, we sang the words ‘Brother, sister, let me serve you; let me be as Christ to you; pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too’. We have all been called to serve in this place. God has placed us here for a purpose; to serve him and to serve one another. Unquestionably, in doing that we cannot fail to become those visible signs of Christ’s love.
*Reverend Thomas Wharton (Priest in Charge, St James, West End); Tim Dakin (The Right Reverend The Lord Bishop of Winchester) and Justin Welby (His Grace The Lord Archbishop of Canterbury)
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