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Licensing and installation of the new Vicar of St Aidan's, Claudelands

Who are you? Why are you here?

On Sunday evening (February 26th), the Rev'd Peter Sampson was licensed and installed as Vicar of St Aidan's, Claudelands, a role he will share with being Mission Pastor at Anglican Action.  Bishop Helen-Ann preached this sermon:

Matthew 25.31-46

One of the advantages of time-off is the opportunity to indulge in reading fiction novels.  It may not surprise you to know that your bishop spends a good deal of time immersed in theological tomes (that is, when I can get to one!), so spending a few weeks in January reading fiction was for me, wonderful.  As is so often the case, sometimes the most profound theological reflections are found not in books that purport to be about faith, but rather in those that dabble in the seemingly trivial and mundane.  Much like the unwieldy divide in our reading from Matthew's Gospel: the sheep and the goats; the boundaries of what is real and what is fiction can seem quite blurred.  And after all, we now live in the era of post-truth, or 'alternative facts'! 

Appropriately enough for this evening's Gospel reading, one of the best books I read over the summer (or winter given my physical location with family in England) was called 'The Trouble with Goats and Sheep.'  Written by Joanna Cannon, the book begins with the following: ‘Mrs Creasy disappeared on a Monday.  I know it was a Monday, because it was the day the dustbin men came…’  Welcome to a sleepy cul-de-sac in 1976 England.  I grew up in a cul-de-sac in Sunderland, and although I was only 3 in 1976, I do remember the 1970s, and the adventures that I got up to with my best friend who lived two doors away, and who was only 4 days older than me!  Although we have since lost touch, the two of us were inseparable as children growing up.  Like the author I am an only child, and adventures dreamed up in my imagination were usually enhanced if my friend and I were together!  The novel tells the story of Grace and Tilly who set out to discover just what has happened to Mrs Creasy, and in so doing the secrets of the cul-de-sac’ occupants are gradually revealed.  But what really charmed me about this book was that Grace convinces herself and Tilly that everything might go back to normal if they can find God.  Pretending to be Brownies trying to gain a skills’ badge, they visit neighbour’s homes in the hope that they might find God.  I won’t tell you what happens, I recommend you read the book! (The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon, Harper Collins Paperbacks).  But look closely at our reading from Matthew’s Gospel: at its heart is a story of discovery and revelation.  Much like Grace and Tilly go on an earnest journey to find out the whereabouts of God, so in Matthew we are forced to stand with the righteous asking the question of Jesus about when exactly did we see him as a stranger, naked, sick, and in prison?  The answer is uncomfortable, and it’s meant to be.  Peter as you begin your new role here, you are charged with bringing discomfort; while caring for those under your oversight you are asked to challenge complacency and bring this community into a new place in collaboration with Anglican Action.  This is a bold and courageous adventure, and people of St Aidan’s thanks be to God for your willingness to be part of this new initiative!

As you begin this new season, it is worth asking two questions:
Who are you?
And why are you here?

These two questions resonated strongly with me earlier this month as I made my way back to NZ after visiting family in England; firstly before I even got to check in at Heathrow I was asked about my nationality; second, in transit through Los Angeles, a very aggressive immigration official shouted out the question 'why are you here?' to each and every person waiting patiently in line; such is the changing landscape of the politics of immigration that the shift in US politics has created; the anxiety two days after the executive order was palpable, equalled by the crowds of protestors outside the airport.  Since I moved to Aotearoa, I've become acutely aware of my passport; people occasionally remind me that I'm foreign, I'm not from here.  I offer this to you not to engender sympathy, goodness knows my skin is thicker than that!  But to reflect that our own perceptions of otherness and foreignness can sometimes affect people who are literally on your own doorstep.  Questions of identity go far deeper than name-calling and assumptions about what a person does or doesn't know simply because they haven't spent their entire life in one place.  Questions of identity are ultimately about how we reflect the light of Christ to one another, nothing more, nothing less.  When we see Jesus naked or a stranger, how do we respond?  With compassion or with disdain?

So who are you? And why are you here?

Discipleship is all about living faithfully to God's promises to us in Jesus - that because of Him we are bound to enable both ourselves and all whom we meet to live life in all its fullness.  When a sister or brother is diminished for what ever reason, then we all suffer.  The Gospel holds out nothing less than love, hope and mercy to all who turn to Christ.

'If you are more fortunate than others, build a longer table not a taller fence' so reads a quote from a billboard at the Canadian Memorial Centre for Peace.  Christianity is inherently about building tables for hospitality not about walls and fences that keep people out.  While that can at times be difficult, nonetheless we must always remember the Eucharistic table around which Jesus invites us to join with him in ushering in the Kingdom of God.  I have a photograph tucked away somewhere in a photo-album that I took 20 years ago standing on the Mexican side of the border in Nogales.  This is a town divided in two by a corrugated iron fence; you literally stand in streets of poverty looking over the fence at relative affluence.  It’s stark and deeply uncomfortable.  

In Joanna Cannon’s novel, Grace and Tilly listen to the local vicar deliver a sermon on our reading from Matthew.  The girls are very perceptive in that they conclude that it is not easy to tell who belongs in which group; ambiguity abounds and as always, appearances can be deceptive.  ‘It’s the small decisions, the ones that slip themselves into your day unnoticed, the ones that wrap their weight in insignificance.  These are the decisions that will bury you’ (quoted from the novel).  The homeless person in the street, do we walk by, or not; the stranger, do we ignore, or not; the foreigner, do we embrace or do we reject?  These are the markers of discipleship, the invitation to each one of us.  How would we feel if we were hungry, naked or lost?  Interestingly the author of this book writes about her experience as a psychiatrist that led to the story she published.  She writes, ‘working in psychiatry, I meet a lot of people who ‘unbelong.’  Those who live on the periphery of life, pushed by society to the very edge of the dancefloor…There is a silent herd of unbelongers out there…stitched through the landscape of everyone’s day, walking around supermarkets and standing in bus queues…’ (from the author’s website joannacannon.com).

Peter as you begin your ministry here, may you with others build a table of hospitality around which all may gather.  May this table be strong and wide, with room for all.  May it offer the fruits of God’s kingdom in abundance; may it be a place of welcome, not judgement, and may you see Christ in the face of all who take a place around it.

I close with these words by George Herbert, whose day is observed tomorrow in our Liturgical Calendar:

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.
‘A guest,’ I answered, ‘worthy to be here.’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.’
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
‘Truth Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat:’
So I did sit and eat.

(George Herbert, Love, 1633).

Story Published: 26th of February - 2017

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