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Thornbury Parish


The Revd Dr Jan van der Lely’s

First Sermon

at St Mary’s Church

Sunday 9th September 2012.

How wonderful it is to stand before you now as your Vicar, and to preach my first sermon in the parish. Its a great honour and privilege and I am very moved to have been called to serve god here.

You will soon discover my usual preaching style, generally I talk about the readings of the day. I will do that at Evensong tonight. But this morning I hope you will forgive me if I speak more generally about starting ministry here.

Recently I came across this little poem which I will read to you. Its called  ‘A Prayer to my congregation’

by Graham Jeffery.

Please use me as a priest and minister.

Tell me how I can help you.

Let our talk be appropriate and seemly.

Do not burden me with talk on church architecture, or church finances.

More vocations have been smothered with trivia,

than have been lost by deliberate negligence.

Build me up.

Stress my good points - no doubt I have some.

Encourage me in my virtues

rather than rebuke me for my vices.

My sin, like yours,

needs to be crowded out by virtue,

not driven out by protestation.

Please help me,

please love me,

and yes...please respect me.

But do not put me on a pedestal;

it hurts so much

when I fall off.

There is quite a lot of scope for thought and even discussion, about the role of the Vicar,  in that little poem! Just a couple of points. First, that bit about church architecture and church finances - obviously there will be talk between us about such things, its unavoidable, with the refurbishment project, and with financial issues. But I think the point is, that such matters should not dominate our talk. Don’t let us allow such matters to crowd out talk on much deeper matters; talk about the Lord; talk about our faith; talk which builds each of us up and helps us along our journey.

‘Let our talk be appropriate and seemly’ - well I enjoy a good joke as much as anyone, so that doesn’t mean solemn talk all the time. There will be much social chat as we get to know each other no doubt. But I also hope and pray that between each of you and me there will also be some deeper, more significant talk. I am here as your priest, your pastor. I hope that you will come and see me, or ask me to come and see you, to talk over the issues on your mind; your joys and sorrows; your questions and doubts; the tough decisions with no clear right path; the anxieties and anything you would like me to pray about with you. Such talk is confidential, of course; but if you share with me from the depths of yourself, I will be better able to minister to you.

‘The poem says ‘Please use me as a priest and minister. Tell me how I can help you’ - I don’t know your need until you tell me. The same applies to others. Sometimes in church you hear people complaining, ‘Mrs Thing has not been seen in church for weeks and the Vicar hasn’t been round’  Mr Whatsit is so poorly but no sign of the Vicar’. I hope such comments are never heard here! But it is worth saying, out loud, and up front, the Vicar does not have second sight - the Vicar is not a mind reader! She needs to be told if someone is sick or would like a visit. So please do tell me, how I can help you, or someone you know.

‘Build me up’ says the prayer, boldly, to the congregation. Hang on a minute - isn’t the Vicar here to build everyone else up? Well, yes, up to a point. Bearing in mind that the Vicar is merely human, and needs encouraging just like everyone else. You know I have a sneaking feeling that a typical experience, in moving from being a curate to being an incumbent - is often that the people, who understand very well how curates need supporting, tend to give less positive affirmation to the incumbent. Now here is a little challenge for you - I am sure Thornbury/Oldbury folk can rise to this one, from what I have seen and experienced already. How good it would be if I could look back after a period of time and say yes, I have had just as much positive affirmation, support and encouragement from the people in Thornbury/Oldbury as I did as a curate in Cirencester. Go for it, Thornbury!

‘Please love me’, says the prayer. I am here to love and care for all of you, and everyone else in the benefice. That’s my primary aim. Now, you have recently been through a traumatic experience; you took to your hearts your previous Vicar who after a few short months was tragically taken away from you. That is extremely bruising; a loss like that makes it all the harder to trust and love and ‘buy into’ a new relationship again. But that is what I am asking you to do. ‘Please love me’ - take me into your hearts. Again, I think you will rise to the occasion. I feel that already.

There was a bit in the poem about virtues and vices. Well, this is not really a vice, but I have a small confession to make. And I may as well get it over with. You will discover this for yourselves soon enough. My confession is that I struggle with remembering names. I get it in the end but I need lots of reminders, especially if I don’t see you very often. If I forget your name it really doesn't mean that I don’t care, so please don’t be offended!  Just keep on telling me.

If you were here on Tuesday at the Induction service, I wonder if you noticed one word that kept on cropping up. Over and over again, on your lips and on mine. The word was ‘Together’. Together - it gets huge emphasis in the liturgy of induction and institution.  We are in this together - this ministry in Thornbury. I cannot do it without you. I think you have been doing rather splendidly without a Vicar actually, but i know that you have been looking forward to a new Vicar to work with, and here i am. Together, united in our faith and in the body of Christ, we will serve the people of the parish and seek to grow in our faith.

The prayer after communion for today takes up this theme; it asks that we will be ‘united in prayer and in the breaking of bread, and one in joy and simplicity of heart’. Isn’t that a beautiful picture, of how a Christian community can be. Lets make it true here among us, together. Amen.