James’s Last Sermon

On a cold night in January 2013, in this building, I was licensed and installed as your priest––Team Vicar St. Mary’s & St. Michael’s.

Bishop Trevor prayed for me with these words:
Almighty Father…
Give him reverence in ministering the sacraments,
faithfulness in proclaiming your word,
diligence in pastoral care,
tenderness in comforting,
power in healing the wounds of Christ’s people,
and humility and self-sacrifice in all things:
that, following the steps of your Son,
he may guide your people towards eternal joy…

I can say honestly that is what I have tried to do.
• But where I have failed to do that to the best of my ability, through lack of confidence or experience, through weariness discouragement or indecision, I ask that you would forgive me.
• In the Bishop’s sermon that night, he asked you to do three things, one of which was to forgive me when I make mistakes. Please do so.

1. After the Bishop prayed for me, I was ‘installed’ – which makes me sound like a heating system, or a new shower.
Archdeacon Stephen took my hand (an Archdeacon taking you by the hand is a rare honour!), and led me to [this stall] to show I was the new vicar here.

2. Then I was taken to the font and addressed you all, saying that ‘we’re fellow servants in the task of proclaiming the Gospel, celebrating the Sacraments, making new Christians, building each other up in the life of faith, and caring for all.’

3. Then I tolled the bell – done for two reasons in a licensing:
1. To announce the start of a new partnership between priest and people,
2. To be heard by the town, reminding us of our task of drawing the wider community into the church fellowship.

Then I poured water into the font, praying that the Lord would pour his love into our hearts, and I sprinkled you all with water to remind you of your baptism!

4. Next, I went to the Lectern and placed a Bible on it.
Praying that 400 year old Anglican prayer, that we would all hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the Scriptures, to grow as disciples of Christ.

5. Then to the Chancel Step, where someone presented me with a vessel of olive oil to remind us of the ministry of healing and wholeness, and to be used for anointing the sick.

6. I took this to the Sanctuary, then placed bread and wine on the altar, to remind us that whenever we share this sacred meal, Christ is present with us in a very special way.

I knelt at the altar rail with the then Churchwardens and Mike our Team Rector, and we prayed together before the Bishop blessed us.

SIX STEPS – that was the route I walked through,
and the sequence of my licensing
as bits of this church were handed to me.
Now, as my time here comes to an end, I want to walk backwards through that sequence of six things,
– to hand back to you the things I received,
– and to give thanks at each point.

Here in the sanctuary (or at the front of St. Mary’s) is the place where I have performed one of the most intimate ministries:
serving you with the bread that is the body of Christ, in your most personal moments of communion with Christ.
– It’s always as if everything else in the world is ‘on hold’ at that moment, when Christ is given to to each individual.
– To bless people at the altar rail, especially the children and babies who don’t yet take communion is a wonderful privilege and always gives me a real sense of how precious each individual is to God.
– I thank God and I thank you for letting me be part of that.

In the chancel, I took the olive oil.
– Anointing the sick is a ministry I’ve conducted mostly in people’s homes or at their hospital beds.
– It reminds me that the things we make sacred in church (whether oil, bread, wine, people) are always meant to go out into the places of need in the world, to bring healing and hope.
– As I think about visits to the suffering people of this parish, I remember pain, tears, laughter, empathy, vulnerability, and moments of special prayer and silence.
– Ministering to people who are suffering––whatever the outcome of their suffering––has stretched me and humbled me.
– I thank God and I thank you for letting me be part of that.

At the lectern I placed a Bible.
– I feel that one of the few things I can do well in ministry is teach and explain what’s in this book.
– It’s been such a huge part of my life since I was 14. I discovered Jesus through this book, and I still have a great deal to learn.
– God often challenges me through this book (today’s gospel reading is very challenging).
– God also inspires me and encourages me through this book: not just reading it myself, but particularly through the work of teaching and preaching it to others.
– It’s very rewarding when I’m able to pass on my passion and see others engage with the Scriptures and grow as disciples.
– I’ve seen that happen with some people here, and that’s been very exciting.
– I thank God and I thank you for letting me be part of that.

Back to the bell – I tolled it 3 times.
– Since then, my main memories of that bell will be Thursday evening, just before Evening Prayer. Nigel goes and rings it a few times; then Malcolm has a go; then Barry comes in on his bike and it’s his turn.
– We’re telling the town that prayer is about to happen in this place, as it has done for hundreds of years.
– The town out there has changed and shifted over those years––in some cases, beyond all recognition.
– But this building has remained a place of prayer. I’m grateful to have been part of that –
– Part of the simple and beautiful Evening Prayer on Thursdays,
– Part of the building’s ongoing ministry as a house of prayer in this town.
– I thank God and I thank you for letting me be part of that.

At the font – at my licensing I poured water in there as I would then do for many baptisms to come (both here and St. Mary’s)
– There have been some interesting baptisms… I’ll never forget the time when about 100 people were here for a baptism then they all left the building at the peace!
– But every baptism is a precious and holy moment… when the child or adult is washed in this water to be cleansed, renewed, reclaimed by God.
– At his own baptism, Jesus knew himself to be embraced by God as his beloved child. Everyone who is baptised shares in that same experience.
– For me, to hold someone else’s child at the font (some are here today) is not only a huge responsibility, but a very happy moment in ministry.
– But I’ve also baptised adults at this font (some are here today), and to baptise an adult who decides for themselves to come and ask for baptism is one of the most humbling and rewarding things.
– I thank God and I thank you for letting me be part of that.

And so, I was installed here as Team vicar.
– Yes I have been your vicar… but in the scheme of things, it’s another name of a list…
– At the end of the day there’s very little a vicar can do without a congregation of people to work with. At the beginning of a Licensing service it’s declared that a new priest is brought ‘to work alongside the many people who are already called to serve in the mission and ministry of the church in this place.’
– That same declaration will be made when the next vicar is licensed here. It refers to all of you––and especially those who you have collectively chosen to represent you: your PCC and you Wardens.
– But there’s very little any of us can do without the help of God. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, ‘What’s Apollos? What’s Paul? Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth… we’re God’s servants working together.’ (3:7,9)
– So this vicar is leaving, but I encourage you to look forward with hope to the next chapter.

The first reading we heard today was from the end of Deuteronomy, and it’s Moses’ farewell speech.
– The people are about to cross into the promised land,
– while Moses will head off into Mt Nebo to die.

Before he goes, he reminds them:
– I’ve set before you two paths: life or death; blessing or curse… “Choose life! Love the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days…(v20).

I can’t think of a better way to end, than to say, with Moses: ‘Choose life! Love the Lord, obey him, hold fast to him, for that means life…’

Sermon by Rev. James Pettit on Sunday 12th February 2017