One of the joys of being Vicar here at St Matthew’s is that we are designated a training parish – which means we are responsible for nurturing those who are newly ordained. Such as Judith with us now. This has been such a blessing because it keeps me on my toes at all times, called to account for the way I do things and how I use my time.
But I do also derive some pride when I hear about former curates doing well after they’ve gone.
Those of you who have been coming to St Matthew’s for five years or more – will remember Sharon. I was delighted to hear that she has been appointed Dean of Ministry at St Melitus theological training college where she will be responsible for training and nurturing those setting out in ministry.
Back in the days of old normal – all the curates and their training vicars would meet together to share how things had been going in their parishes. And I well remember one such session when the curates had to say what was the best thing they had learnt from their vicar and people were saying how their prayer life had been deepened or how they had been encouraged in their preaching – and it came to Sharon – she said
“I have learnt from Fr Andrew all there is to know about being the backstage props girl at the parish pantomime”. I’m not sure what the Diocesan worthies made of that – or for that matter what I make of it – and I wonder in her new role how Sharon will refer back to her time here to those she’s now teaching.
In our reading this morning we encounter Philip who had every right to feel a bit disappointed with the way things were turning out for him. From the nerve centre of Jerusalem where all sorts of great things were kicking off, he was sent by the spirit to walk a desert road in the middle of nowhere where nothing was happening.
This story is sandwiched between two other accounts of new disciples who might similarly have wondered about what they were doing.
Before Philip’s story, we meet Stephen a follower of grace and power we are told and yet he is assigned the job of waiting at tables in what might be described as the first ever Foodbank where Hellenist widows were being missed out in the daily distribution of food. Was that where it was all leading?
And after Philip’s story we meet Ananias – an unremarkable follower living in Damascus, a place under threat from a rumoured visit from Saul – who was persecuting and imprisoning and even murdering anyone who proclaimed Jesus and the Lord tells Ananias to seek Saul out, and lay his hands upon him, for he had become blinded – but now converted to join the ranks of those he had once opposed.
Now Ananias was not up for this! How did he know Saul had really changed. To go and minister to a notorious tyrant – was that where it was all leading?
In our Gospel reading we have the lovely imagery of the vine and the branches and how if the branches are to produce fruit – they need regular pruning – cut right back so they can grow again and put out new feelers in a completely new direction.
Much was cut back in the vicarage garden over the winter until it looked almost respectable, but now the branches and the brambles are taking off again – winding themselves about the place – going this way and that – attached to the roots but determined to ramble far from it.
The stories of our three unlikely characters were completed in extraordinary ways.
Stephen the waiter – became such a powerful preacher that he became the first Christian martyr.
Ananias – the reluctant pastoral visitor offered the prayer of healing to Saul who became the Paul who took the Christian message far and wide, and from whom we read in the majority of the epistles.
And Philip – as he was going down that lonely road in the middle of nowhere encountered a chariot in which sat a minister of the Ethiopian queen, reading what he could not understand. Philip turns aside to help him translate what he had before him – a text of the prophet Isaiah – and they find some water and there and then the man is baptised. This man is thought to have taken the faith back to his own country and spread it far and wide in Ethiopia.
Each of these three used the unpromising settings they found themselves in to bring glory to God. They used the modest props along their way and put them to good use for the Gospel.
All Philip was given was – a desert road, a chariot containing a strange tourist and a place of water.
So it is for us – identifying our props is the way we can each be a good evangelist.
But beware because we talk of something being a prop – we can take it in two ways.
A prop can be something that just keeps us going in the same old way and as long as we have it to cling to – maybe we won’t topple over. But we don’t grow.
Or a prop can be something around us that we can use as a way of seeing something afresh – bringing a new angle to something that might be a turning point in the life of another.
So I wonder what are the props you have – the backdrop to your lives at present – that the everyday routine things around us might be the sacraments we are called to work with, the God given gifting right in front of our eyes.
Look at the difference a sliver of bread and a trickle of wine has when placed in the hands of Jesus, or a basin and a towel, or a boat on the sea, or a place set at table, or a breakfast by the beach – see how Jesus used the props of his day and brought them alive both in the actions he took and the stories he told.
This is our calling, surely it is!
Whilst we have been in lock down – the scale of our journeying has been severely restricted – as branches we have not been able to stretch very far, and we have all been pruned severely.
Now, God willing, we may soon be able to reach out again – and it might not be in the same predictable directions of the past – anymore than the branches in the garden will keep the same shapes as the previous year.
Such a thought is both exciting and daunting.
I’ve been in touch with Sharon in recent days and she sends all her love and best wishes to all who remember her and she was very kind in saying how her time here was important in what she is now going to be.
I didn’t mention about being the pantomime props girl – but I wonder if she will reflect on that…
From what I remember she had a table set up at the side of the stage which was always well ordered. She knew what everyone needed for each scene and mainly got it right.
Is she the only curate to have ever said to her Vicar “Fr Andrew don’t forget your truncheon in the next scene”.
Not so very different from what she’s doing now – just different props for different people in different places.
Same thing for her then , as for Jesus the vine, Philip the desert trekker, Stephen the waiter and Ananias the faithful prayer.
And is not the Lord saying to us – newly pruned because of this pandemic – don’t forget your props – for they are the means of blessing.