Paul Williams asks what we are doing on earth
There is a parent I know who at the end of a very long and tiring day was juggling the challenge of supervising bath time for their toddler while also trying to prepare supper. They only left the bathroom for a few moments, but when they returned they found the child had emptied into the bath the contents of every tube and bottle they could lay their hands on. It was one big mess. And in their exasperation the parent meant to cry out, ‘what on earth are you doing?’ but instead it came out back to front, and they exclaimed, ‘what are you doing on earth?’
It is not a question that many three year olds have given a huge amount of thought to, but it is a very good question. It is probably one of the biggest questions any human being can ponder: what am I doing on earth? What am I here for? What gives my life meaning and significance? It’s also a question that every church should be bold enough to address on a regular basis, and especially on an occasion like this: what on earth is St George’s here for?
There has been a worshipping community in this place since 1888 and before that a congregation meeting in a mission building on Launder Street, founded in 1870 as the St Augustine’s mission. In every generation the congregations worshipping here will have prayed for fresh vision and courage to fulfil God’s purposes in mission to all who live in the parish.
In the church’s calendar, tomorrow is designated ‘Day of Intercession and Thanksgiving for the Missionary Work of the Church’ and then Friday is the ‘Feast Day of St Andrew the Apostle.’ These first two days in a fresh season of ministry for St George’s with your new incumbent may carry their own significance for you as you set out together.
Our reading this evening is one of those appointed for the feast of St Andrew, and they remind us that at the heart of the church’s mission is a glorious invitation flowing from a profound personal encounter: ‘The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “we have found the Messiah” (that is the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus.’
Indeed Andrew’s own journey as a disciple of Jesus starts with a response to an invitation from Jesus to ‘come and see,’ which was another way of saying ‘come and follow me, stay close to me, watch me carefully, and see what you find!’ You don’t need to have your life all worked out, your past all sorted, your doubts all dealt with, your fears all overcome; you just start following close beside Jesus.
This is the mission of the church. This is what St George’s is on earth for: to extend an invitation that is for everyone living in this parish. It does not mean that we fail to listen to people’s own story or struggle, pushing our viewpoint upon them however sincere our intentions. I love the way Madeleine L’Engle puts it: ‘We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.’ If our motivation is truly one of love then we are simply compelled to share the good news of Jesus Christ.
A few years back Pope Francis expressed it in this way: ‘The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known?’
This was Andrew’s story in the Gospels, and like Andrew it is the ministry you share in the Meadows, along with all Christian people. This is why you exist. And we are praying that as you grow you will give yourselves away, to share in the refreshing and renewal of the church in other local communities beyond the Meadows. In this diocese this is what we mean by a ‘resourcing church.’
In the story of St George’s, Nottingham this is not something new, but a rediscovery of your original purpose in God’s plan for his Church in Nottingham. Within three years of this church opening in 1888 three further mission buildings were opened within a mile—St Wilfrid’s, Meadow Hall and St Aiden’s. St George’s had seating capacity for 520 people. In no time there was insufficient room for those who had been invited, but the congregation expressed in its infancy the truth that you can best measure the spiritual health of a church not by its seating capacity, but by its sending capacity.
By 1904 there were 750 attending the Sunday schools within the parish. How on earth did they manage with those numbers? The Holy Spirit raised up a volunteer team of 260 Sunday school leaders. Soon after the Kelham Fathers heard God’s call to come and lead the parish into ever more creative mission, proclaiming the gospel hand in hand with caring for the poor. This courageous and prayerful order of priest missioners led the ministry of this parish for over 70 years, with many also trained and sent out from here to serve in the wider city and indeed across the world.
You receive a priest of gospel vision and prayerful humility. Together with Fr Ian I am confident that you will share in a new chapter of this activity of the Spirit among you and through you which is every bit as creative and courageous as what has gone before. May God bless you in this truly great endeavour by the grace and power of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
This sermon was given at the Licensing of Father Ian McCormack as Vicar of St George’s in the Meadows, Nottingham by the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, the Rt Revd Paul Williams.