Fr Michael's Farewell

A sermon preached by Fr Michael Fuller at his farewell service in the United Benefice, Tuesday 26 June, at St George's

There is one great sadness to add to the sadness of leaving and that is the absence of Bishop Kenneth. Having said that, it is amazing to see so many of you here this evening.  It also gives me an opportunity to speak with you about what I have learnt in the 17 years I have been here.

I am sure you have heard the phrase, "When all else fails, follow the directions." It seems we humans are a bit stubborn when it comes to asking for help. We are simply too proud to ask others for assistance.

Isaiah in our Old Testament reading was speaking to people who weren’t following directions. Their religion had failed to live up to their high calling of service, ministry and love. They were more eager to obey the laws and practices of their religion rather than help their neighbours.

I asked my long standing friend Lee to read this lesson because as a Jewish person he is the one person I know who truly lives up to the injunction of Isaiah to live a good life. He has sacrificially supported others and has lived his life always mindful of the needs of those less fortunate than himself.

June read from  the book of Acts, which describes the early church trying to work out how to live as a Christian community.  June has worked out how to live in Community as a Christian. Moving from a successful career in PR she had devoted herself to fund raising in the charitable sector, working with such organisations as the British Legion, National Arboretum and a major cancer charity.  She is also a trustee of a significant theological college.

The book of Acts says that there were certain things the members of the early church committed themselves to – things like:

Telling others the Good News of Jesus Christ; worshipping God. Working together for God’s glory; serving God and others.  And it says God blessed them and “added to their number” because they were seeking and following His will for their church.

We need to be looking at these so we can get a vision for how we can take steps to commit ourselves to these things, and do our part towards making the Benefice  of Holland Park the Church God wants St Georges  and St Johns to be.

Let’s Be The Church God Wants Us To Be.

I always like to think that  The Wizard of Oz is an interesting analogy for the modern Church.  We – and here I am talking not only about St George’s and John’s, but the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion and the greater Christian Church world-wide – often find ourselves living drab, colorless lives without any real purpose. 

We go around, day after day, like Dorothy and her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, just doing the tasks that need to be done, having no vision or desire for anything of greater significance; anything huge and outside ourselves.  Sure we keep the lights on.  We clean the place and conduct services when and how we’re supposed to. 

We teach Church doctrine and talk about the Kingdom of God.  But what if the Holy Spirit comes; what if we are confronted by the ruah, the pneuma, the animating wind of God? Then our world can be transformed, if we are receptive to the power of the breath of God and if we are not too afraid to let it blow us where it will.

But if Jesus gave the Holy Spirit to be with the Disciples when He left, and if the Holy Spirit empowered each of them – if we proclaim the power of the breath of God at each of our baptisms, then by definition, the Holy Spirit is already here.  So what do we do to open up and let God’s ruah run wild in our lives?  I’ve got a three-point plan for us all.

First, read Scripture. Read the Bible so that you can make informed decisions about how God works in the world. Read Scripture so that you can say, “No.  That’s not what I understand it to say.”  It doesn’t require that much time, just commitment.   

Second, pray.  Again, it doesn’t have to take a lot of time.  God just wants to be in communication with us.  We have that communication through prayer.  There’s no magic formula, just talk with God – even if it’s all done silently.  God will hear you.

Finally, every day, try to do something thoughtful for someone else.  Loving your neighbour as yourself means wanting good things for your neighbour.

By doing that which God has requested of you, you are opening yourself up and making yourself available to the animating spirit of God.  You’re opening the gate and saying, “Come Holy Spirit and fill me your power.”

Lastly, however I must address the question I have been asked many times over,  “What made you decide to go to Vancouver?”

Many of you will know the story of the deciding factor that enabled me to make a decision to leave the Commercial World. It all had to do with a bookmark found in the cabin of a steamer half way up the Yangtze River in the centre of China.

Now I don’t have a superstitious feeling about faith. But there are times when there is a synchronism in the life of a Christian that makes sense!

It was the 15th July 1985, I had been saying my morning prayers at that time. trying to make some decision On the reverse of the bookmark is written:

“I have decided to follow Jesus,
Though none will go with me I still will follow,
The world behind me the cross before me,
No turning back, no turning back”.

During the following years many such synchronous experiences have occurred.  One very significant moment was when I was invited to come to St Georges for three years, some seventeen years ago. I loved being at All Saints, Fulham, a vibrant and beautiful church.  Why leave it?

I went to one of my favourite places in the world, the Church of Sant Luigi, de Francesca in Rome. There, in those days, in the corner of the church in a tiny side-chapel, gloomy and unwelcoming and lit only by a bare bulb was the Carravagio painting of The Call of Matthew. In that painting we see Christ at Matthew’s place of work, he is beckoning to him. Matthew looks startled in in turn is pointing to himself as if to say, ‘who me?’

For three days that question remained within me, ‘Who me?’ Finally I went to the Sant 'Agostino, church along the road and stumbled across another Carravagio painting of ‘Mary of the Pilgrims’ where Our Lady is greeting those strangers and pilgrims. That was it. I knew where God was calling me.

So when the invite to to come to minister in Vancouver came I waited for a positive indication of God’s will for me. I was really not convinced. Who would want to leave Holland Park? Who, at the age of 66 would uproot and move half way around the world?

I fell back to St Ignatius who taught that the process of discernment, determining God’s will, is the choice between two positive options, but the process entails and struggle, loss, disappointment and even pain, desolation.

On my second visit to Vancouver I was very anxious not to say uncertain. I was staying in a lovely neighborhood hotel overlooking English Bay.  There I met a lovely young woman in the restaurant called Kirsty.  Turns out she was a young mum, with twin baby girls whose partner had left her after the birth.

She worked with enormous enthusiasm to ensure all her tables were well cared for, she worked enthusiastically as she depended on the gratuities to provide for her children.

One morning I rather light heartedly asked her if the twins had been baptised. She explained that when she told her priest she was not married he refused to baptise them. Now I know there are some who would like to say that God visits the sins of the parents until the third or fourth generation.

Well for me that’s just crap and I want nothing to do with such a God as that. I believe in a God who loves to bless and blesses love.  Who in return simply asks us to do justly and walk humbly.

Kirsty looked at me and said, “I know; when you come to Vancouver, you can baptise them”. What more does one need to be convinced that God works in a mysterious way?

You see, in spite of all the new church movements whether they purport to be fresh expressions or just plain messy; in spite of priests who can’t wash a dish or replace a lightbulb ministry is all about people. Meeting people. Coming alongside people.

That’s what Jesus did. From the manger to the cross he met with people and it did not matter if they were grubby shepherds or thieves on a cross and everything in between.

He met with people, high and low, good and bad, rich and poor, male and female.  Like the thief on the cross He loved them into the Kingdom.

Love your families, friends and neighbours into the Kingdom, let them see by your life that the living Christ dwells in your heart and guides your life.

So it is with this in mind I set out on my journey. I leave this United Benefice in God’s hands reminding God’s people of two things; ‘Christ has no hands but YOUR hands, to do God’s work’ and Jesus said, ‘get up off your backsides and get out into the whole world and tell them of my love’.

Let me leave you with that great prayer of St Ignatius:

Lord, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labour and not to ask for reward,
save that of knowing that I do your will.  Amen