Revd Andy's farewell sermon Sunday 16th July 2023
Year A: Proper 10: Genesis 25:19-34; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Wasn’t it a joy to see Michael preside for the first time here last weekend, it was a fabulous day. Michael began his new ministry by talking about the nature of priesthood, and as my ministry comes to a close here and you start looking forwards to a new vicar, a sleek younger Ferrari vicar replacing the clapped-out Austin Allegro, I’ve wondered this week, what is the nature of being an incumbent…I mean what does a vicar look like?
You’re going to say gorgeously handsome aren’t you! Who am I trying to kid? A good friend of mine, John, was my University Chaplain 35 years ago, and he tells a story about a friend of his, who was also a vicar. The friend ended up in hospital having a procedure in a rather sensitive area ‘down below.’ As he lay there with a doctor and nurse investigating ‘down below’ the nurse started making polite conversation. “What do you do for a job then, darling?” “I am a vicar” he replied. The nurse’s head slowly appeared from between his legs with a puzzled expression on her face, “a vicar? You don’t look like a vicar”. John’s friend replied as quick as a flash… “well you are looking at the wrong end!”
What does a vicar look like? What does a ministry look like with the rose-tinted spectacles of hindsight? When you think about your time somewhere I think it is very easy to be drawn into reflecting within the context of this morning’s Gospel reading – the Parable of the Sower. There might be a temptation for me to stand up here on my final Sunday and wax lyrical about all the seeds of God’s love that have been sown and have borne much fruit. It also could be quite tempting to conveniently forget those seeds which fell on the path or more rocky ground and didn’t really go anywhere. Tempting because us vicars deep-down are sensitive little souls, and we over think things…probably because most of us are complete prima donnas as well. Being as we are, the Parable of Sower and Jesus describing to his disciples the realities of ministry, can help ease our own insecurities, ‘you know it is not always the vicar’s fault’. On the surface that’s reassuring, but it is not actually what ministry is about.
One of my heroes as you know is the great Monty Don, I wish I had his green fingers, Becky wishes I had his voice! Growing up in a Christian household, Monty was brought up in the rhythm and ritual of the Anglican church and he wrote once that when you plant something, you invest in a beautiful future amidst a stressful, chaotic and, at times, downright appalling world. That is what I believe God calls us to do, plant seeds of love and kindness in the messiness of life. Now I dare say that even Monty has failures in his garden as we all do. Like vicars, gardeners can be prima donnas too…we get all prickly when things don’t grow, and we tend to define our seasons by their successes and failures. I am no different – there was the year I grew 11 courgette plants and with over 200 courgettes littering the kitchen, I did what any good husband would do…I bought Becky a book of courgette recipes – who said romance is dead. Yet you may remember 2 years ago my tomatoes failed miserably succumbing to blight…and boy did I go on about that. Monty once said that the biggest obstacle to good gardening was the desire to know the answers and not the questions. Ministry is the same, it shouldn’t be about success or failure, nor can it be being frightened of sowing the seeds of God’s love in case they fall on the path and our pipedreams are shattered by reality.
Interestingly the reading I chose for my induction four years ago was not the Parable of the Sower, but it was the Parable of the Growing Seed from Mark, so I sort of feel I have come full circle. In that parable Jesus concentrates not on the outcome of the seeds that are sown, but just sowing the seeds and letting God do the work. Both parables have a commonality and to the audience of Jesus’ time they were quite stark because to a farming community, seed means food, and food means life. To sow seeds with abandon, liberally scattering seed so it falls on paths and rocky ground as well as good soil is inherently and flagrantly risky. But this is what God calls us to do, and what I think our shared ministry is about. It is mirroring the incarnation and God’s ultimate risk-taking in coming to live and die among us.
That’s why a vicar looks like Monty Don, like a trusting gardener. A gardener who as St Paul puts it, trusts in the spirit not the flesh, a gardener who sows the seed and doesn’t worry about the outcome but trusts in God’s capacity to bring new life, because at the end of the day, you never know where seeds of love and kindness fall. Most of you know that with moving, we haven’t sown any seed this year apart from a few broad beans. But a couple of weeks ago I noticed in one of the raised beds a solitary tomato plant growing. One of last year’s fruits must have fallen to the ground, the seed overwintered in the soil and then germinated this Spring. Not a seed I had deliberately sown, but a little miracle of God’s generous and abundant grace, bringing new life. So that plant is coming with us up north in a pot, as a little reminder of what ministry is truly about, and how you can sow seeds of God’s love and kindness without even knowing it.
At some point in the coming months, you will have a new vicar here to lead what is the best parish in the Diocese. Do encourage them to be a trusting gardener and to sow seeds of God’s love and kindness here and in the community; and keep telling them not to worry about how and when and where the seeds grow. I know you will do that, because you will love them, as they will love you.
I said I felt a sense of coming full circle today, and a couple of months ago a friend sent me a quote from T S Eliot. And then yesterday morning another couple of friends (you know who you are) gave me a book of Eliot’s poems. It contains the same quote… ‘We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time’. These four years have been an exploration, gosh what we have been through together, not least two monarchs and too many masks. Becky, Isla, and I come to the end of our exploration here with a deep sense of knowing you, but more importantly loving you as dear friends, friends for life.
So, my dear friends. Forgive me for the times that I didn’t sow seeds of love and kindness; forgive me for the times I have let you down and got it wrong; and forgive me for my excessive caffeine habit – the finance committee are already slashing the coffee budget in anticipation.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart, for your friendship, your forbearance, and your love, and thank you for your support in all the many roles that form our ministry together. You make this parish a place and a family where God’s love is sown and bears fruit.
And finally and most importantly, please keep being yourselves, your lovely selves, keep loving God, loving West Moors and loving each other.
And may God bless you all.