|Published on Wed, 15 Jul 2015 10:42|
Sermon for the Patronal Festival of St John’s Waterloo, and First Mass of The Revd Jeffrey Risbridger on Sunday 5th July 2015
Canon Giles Goddard
It’s easy to imagine this scene. It’s very clearly described, in the passage of John’s Gospel which comes just before this one. It’s early on a hot morning in Galilee. We’re on the edge of a lake. The beach is stony, with a few patches of pale sand, on one of which is a small fire built for cooking. The disciples, a motley group of young men, have all been fishing. They were out in the boat, not catching anything, when they spy Jesus on the shore. We can see him easily – there are no clouds, and the early sun is catching the edge of the mountains behind him. ‘Cast your net on the other side,’ he shouts. So they do – they’re used to doing what he says – and they draw in a huge, huge draft of fish – 153, we’re told – so many it’s amazing the net didn’t break.
Peter, the person who this passage is really about, is so excited that he can’t contain himself. Quickly he puts on a robe, because he’s naked, and then he jumps into the sea and splashes through the water to find Jesus. The others all follow, thrilled, delighted; and, after a fire has been made and the fish cooked, they all have breakfast.
So the scene is both mundane – a group of blokes having breakfast by a lake – and extraordinary – a miraculous draft of fishes, the reappearance of the leader of the group, who everyone knew had died, and yet, in some inexplicable sense, is alive, and is here, cooking fish!
In some ways it’s an odd reading to have today. It comes right at the end of the Gospel of John, so it’s valedictory – it’s saying farewell. It’s about closure.
That feels strange, when today is about so much else.
But this story is also a fulcrum moment. It’s a moment when the past meets the future. It’s a time of leaving and saying goodbye, a time of new creation and a time of beginning. So perhaps it’s a good reading to have, because, of course, it’s not really about endings. I want to think about three particular aspects which occur to me from it:
For Jeff, this weekend is the culmination of forty years’ waiting. I found his ordination as a priest yesterday morning, in Kingston, incredibly moving. He was nearly in tears: I was actually in tears, when we welcomed him, when we shared the peace. Because it was so much NOT just about today, or even just about this year; it was about the living out of a dream long deferred, perhaps at times pushed away, perhaps at times forgotten, but a dream which never disappeared.
As many of you know, Jeff had started training for ordination, and was a few weeks into the course, when the headteacher of a school where he’d done a placement rang him up, and said… “we need you! Now!” Jeff went where he was called, knowing, in his heart, that he was giving up the thing he really, deep down, really thought he was called to do. But he followed this new path, and did his duty, and spent thirty years as a wonderful teacher and then a hugely effective head… knowing, always, in his heart of hearts, that there was something else he should be doing.
Today, or rather yesterday, that thing has happened. So perhaps it’s not surprising that today is a quite a production –more of a Pontifical High Mass than a First Mass! But if you’ve been waiting for something for forty years I think it’s permissible to push the boat out a bit!
He is, at last, a priest; and in a few moments he will say the words of consecration for the first time as a priest, and we will all receive communion together, and the Body of Christ will be rejoicing. And after a forty year wait, how can we not rejoice? It makes me come over all Pentecostal. Alleluia! Praise the Lord!
Now, opinions differ about what actually happens when someone is ordained, as opinions differ about all of the things we do in church! I think that’s a subject for another sermon. But what is certain is that something changes. There is a transformation, and he is being called into a new place. As the disciples were called into a new place after this encounter with Jesus, over fish, on the beach. As we are all, in different ways, called to be transformed, if we are willing to take our faith in the God of love seriously, if we are willing to be taken to unexpected places and do unexpected and unforeseen things – like casting the net over the other side of the boat and drawing out a draft of 153 fishes.
So the story is also about risk
I have an image in my head when I hear this reading. It’s of many paths, through a thick and dark wood. Each of them going in a different direction, under fir trees or oak trees or through scrub, some out into open country, others through bogs. We can smell the smell of rain and leafmould, and we can hear the birdsong as we walk. All of us on different paths. And once in a while the paths meet, and perhaps travel together… and then they separate again, and go off in their different directions.
We each of us have our path, and we don’t know where they’re going.
These disciples. Who are they? They’re a bunch of ill-disciplined young men – they don’t even like each other very much – they’re jealous of each other, they don’t understand their roles… they’ve been brought together by their shared passion for Jesus Christ, and for the message he brought; the message of love. What are they doing? They’re following their paths. Which means what?
The path is never smooth, and never straightforward. Take, for example, the role of a priest. Here’s what she or he is called to do, according to the service of ordination:
Priests are called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent. With their Bishop and fellow ministers, they are to proclaim the word of the Lord and to watch for the signs of God's new creation. They are to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord; they are to teach and to admonish, to feed and provide for his family, to search for his children in the wilderness of this world's temptations, and to guide them through its confusions, that they may be saved through Christ for ever. Formed by the word, they are to call their hearers to repentance and to declare in Christ's name the absolution and forgiveness of their sins.
That’s just the beginning of the Job Description Jeff signed up to, yesterday, when he was ordained. There’s a whole lot more. And I think all that is quite seriously scary.
But each of us has a similar calling, whether we are a parent or a child, a banker or a cleaner, old or young; we are called to follow our paths into the unknown – just as these disciples, eating fish on the edge of the lake, were being called by Jesus to go and build his church. It’s a risky business; we don’t know the future. We have to follow our path. With confidence, and without fear; alongside whoever God throws up to work alongside us, be they Muslim or Christian, atheist or believer, irritating or competent… we are called, all of us, Jeff included, to take risks for God.
Risk isn’t easy. It carries fear with it. Fear of change, fear that you won’t be able to do what you’re called to do. Fear that the path we’re following through the wood will give out, will lead us into a thicket or a bog, will get us lost.
And so, my friends, we must never forget the third thing in my trilogy of words. There is something else underlying the risk, something real, something which gives courage and confidence – hope.
Let’s go back to the Gospel. The different paths of the disciples have met, under Jesus, on this morning at the edge of the lake. They have touched, they have joined; they are together. And in due course they will separate again. But for now, they are together – discovering the way together, moving forward as a team.
There is something lovely about the way in which all of this has come together. Today we are celebrating our Patronal Mass as well. St John’s day is actually on 27th December, just after Christmas, when everyone is exhausted or away, so we very rarely get to celebrate it. Jeff and I, when we were talking, thought it would be good to bring together the life of St John’s with the life of Jeff Risbridger; and so we have translated the Patronal Mass to today; so we are celebrating both ST John’s and Jeff’s ordination.
There has been something lovely about having Jeff and Gary with us, for the past year. All that they have brought to the church; their sense of delight and commitment, their professionalism, their love, their generosity. Gary as the Quizmaster of the Waterloo Festival Quiz, using all his classroom skills; Jeff as General Blucher at the Community Dance, feathers on his hat quivering, trying to marshal the Prussian army and help me, the Duke of Wellington, to vanquish the perfidious French!
There is something lovely about our hopes, and dreams, here at St John’s. Our hopes for the congregation, this extraordinary collection of people doing extraordinary things together, trying to learn how to love, how to care. Our vision for the Bridge at Waterloo – our £3m plan for renovating and transforming the church, to provide an even better space for worship and an infinity of opportunities for young people to find jobs, to find their way into work.
There is, above all, something lovely about the way we try to work out our lives, together. Because, I think, all of us share the hope in the Gospel, however differently we understand it. At the heart of our faith is the belief in the perfectibility of the world, of human nature. We journey together, on our separate paths, being transformed and taking risks, into the light. The light of hope, the light of love.
I give thanks, humble and inexpressible, for this time we are called to share. I give thanks for Jeff and for his ordination as priest, for Gary and for all that he brings; for their families and friends, with us today; for the people and congregations of our churches, St Thomas’ and St John’s and St Andrew’s; but above all, for the Gospel of love, lived out in the life and death of Jesus Christ, which has brought us together today and will send us out into the world, transformed, challenged, and full of hope.
For all that has been, thanks. For all that shall be, yes!