A sermon for the Commissioning of Mother Jane Trigg as the Parish Priest of the Parish of Branxton, Greta and Lochinvar
“I feel like I live with one foot in the past and one foot in the future.” That’s how a man who came to see me a few days ago described his life. He went on to tell me about events of the past, lost opportunities, wounds, and regrets. There was an emptiness about him. He sounded trapped and imprisoned by his own history, things that had been done and things that had been left undone.
After that he talked about the uncertainty of his future and what might or might not be. He was scared. There were a lot of unknowns in his life. Even as he listed his hopes for what might happen and the way he wanted his life to be, he had to admit these were things he could neither control nor predict.
Of course his story, can so often be our story. With one foot in the past and one foot in the future we straddle and then completely miss the present. When I am brave enough to admit it, it describes some of the more underwhelming moments in the story of David Battrick. Perhaps that might also be true for moments in the story of the Diocese of Newcastle and maybe even the story of the Parish of Branxton, Greta and Lochinvar.
The risk is that we are focused on the past, focused on the future, and absent to God, others, and even our selves. We can be unavailable – here and now – to those we love, to the needs of the world, and to the fullness of life that God offers. We can become captive to what was, frightened by what might be, and blind to or distracted from the gift that is today.
As I was reflecting on this very question yesterday afternoon, I received a telephone call from our local nursing home, to let me know that one of our parishioners was dying, asking if I would come to bring the Last Rites of the Church in blessing and assurance for her. Ten minutes later, there I was face to face with our beautiful 99 year old Dorothy, with her family and the staff around her bedside. Catapulted from reflections on living in the moment, (in the comfort of my study), to being in the moment, as Christ, for Dorothy and her family, on behalf of his Church.
Here we are this evening, in this moment, this wonderful moment of worship and commissioning and celebration as we open ourselves to God’s possibilities for us, and as we become one together through the Sacrament of the altar. There is so much to distract us from being here: from being present and alive to this moment. We hope that Mother Jane won’t preach sermons as ponderous as this one! Do we have enough supper for everyone who has turned up this evening? But at the last commissioning we did it this way… It is as simple as that, we are so quickly somewhere else, in the past or in the future.
This short Gospel encounter between Jesus and his disciples focuses our attention on this very predicament, tonight, on the happiest of nights as we celebrate Mother Jane’s presence amongst us, as we give thanks to God for his faithfulness to his Church, as we pray for the Body of Christ in this place.
We have been well-prepared for this short encounter from the Gospel of Mark. Over the last two Sundays our lectionary, through the good news of Luke’s narrative has got us to the point where this evening’s “sending out” takes place. Jesus has been baptised by John, driven into the wilderness, has been preaching and teaching in the local communities of Galilee and getting a name for himself as someone who is worth listening to, as he listens to others; and finally he has returned to his home town, to Nazareth, where he has taught that the prophecies of old that longed for a messiah are to be fulfilled in him.
Then in Luke’s Gospel his own people have taken him to try and kill him, but he has evaded them; and in Mark’s Gospel Jesus appears powerless because of their response to him. After the drama of his visit to his home community, Jesus gives his disciples, as we heard, authority and sends them out to minister his Gospel. To be present with people, where they are, for as long as it takes.
It is a wonderful encounter for us to focus on as we come together tonight to celebrate the commissioning of Mother Jane as our new parish priest, and to re-commit ourselves to serve Christ under her leadership and alongside her across this Parish. In one sense Jesus’ instructions are terrifying. “Do not rely on anything else but me.” Don’t find security in taking things with you, don’t have a schedule for how things will work out. Take nothing for your journey, stay where you find yourself for as long as you need to.
I think about that man, my new friend, who visited me the other day. One foot in the past, one foot in the future. I learnt a lot from him. I wish that I had had the wisdom to share this Gospel story with him. He is desperate to change the past. I know how he feels, I would love to change the past. You can’t change the past. He is desperate to have certainty about the future. I know what that is like, I would love to have certainty about the future. You can’t have certainty about the future. That’s what Jesus says in this evening’s Gospel reading. Forget about the baggage, forget about the timetable. Don’t take things with you, stay where you get to as long as you need to stay there. Live in this moment. Find me in this moment.
At the heart of our Christian faith is the extraordinary realisation that God refuses to be God without us. It is not that God can’t be God without us. I am not suggesting that at all. But the pattern of the incarnation is this: Jesus refuses to be Jesus without his disciples. God refuses to be God without his Church. Despite our utter need for God, and the fact that he has no need for us. This is how God has chosen to do things. He has chosen to be limited by us. He has chosen for the revelation of himself in creation, and in the longing of our hearts to be announced by, and shared with others, lived out with others, through us. He doesn’t need us. But he chooses to use us. God refuses to be God without you, without me, without Jane. In this moment. In this parish. In the lives of the people around us. For the sake of humanity, and in the name of his Son.
The affirmations that we make in this Commissioning liturgy, that Jane makes, that the congregations of this Parish make, are not about success, they are about faithfulness. They are about being open to God, present for God, present to others, not limited by the past and not knowing the future. Faithful in the nurturing of relationships that – through the power of the Holy Spirit, lead to new disciples. Faithful to expecting that God will speak to us through his Word and nourish us through his Sacraments, even when we think we have heard and seen it all before. Faithful in striving to be one to glorify Jesus.
Living by faith, living in this moment, for this moment, is not to say that we leave behind what we have learnt from the past – both the good and the bad. Jesus sends out his disciples in pairs as an extension of his own ministry, and he doesn’t say to them “go as if you haven’t learnt anything from me!” They are disciples, disciples learn and then do as they have been taught. Neither is it to say that we should throw the Mission Action Plans in the bin, forget about budgeting, act as if there aren’t goals that we want to achieve.
When the removal truck arrived a few days ago it was clear that Mother Jane and her daughters, and the dogs and the cats did not come here empty handed. Just as Jane brought her treasured possessions with her, she brought her experiences of life in Christ too, which will be as treasure for all of us. Jane is not commissioned this evening into a vacuum. Jane joins a community of faith that has been here for many years before her, and will be here for many years after her.
But there is something extraordinarily provoking and challenging in the instructions that Jesus gives to his disciples. “Take nothing for your journey except for a staff; (well the Bishop has supplied that one this evening), “no bread, no bag, no money – basically just take yourself”. It is a vision of our total reliance, total dependence on God.
“Don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air. Are you not of more value than they?”
Of course all of us have our favourite baggage that we can bring with us for this new chapter of our journey. What we are going to allow here, what priests are supposed to do with their day, what we are willing to do with ours. Some of the parishioners where I serve love to tell me about the many priests that they have seen pass through, some good and some bad. I try to remind them very gently that all of those priests have seen parishioners pass through as well – in the same way, some good and some bad. Choosing to leave the baggage behind is not to say that it is not important, but it is to know that we will, nevertheless, have a better journey without it.
What is the plan? “whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place.” That is the model, that is the plan. But how long shall we stay? And what will we do next? And when will we know that we have finished? Be present in the moment. Stay until it is finished. Stay until you leave.
“You did not choose me, I chose you and sent you out to produce fruit, the kind of fruit that will last.”
Mother Jane, help us to be present to God and to each other. Keep us from an endless repetition of the past, help us to learn with you how to find and serve God in each moment here in Branxton and Greta and Lochinvar and Windella and Huntlee, that we may be faithful to Jesus.