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Evangelism, God's Love and Fig Trees

Third Sunday in Lent: 28th February, 2016
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Ex 3:1-8a,13-15; Ps 103; 1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12; Luke 13:1-9

It is almost exactly seven months since Bp Stephen Cottrell led our Parish Mission, the first such Mission at St Peter's in twenty years. It was a mountain-top experience for us as a parish, and since then I imagine each one of us have been trying to live out the insights and inspiration we gained over that week. The Parish Council certainly has been working hard on a Mission Action Plan to help us grow and move forward as a parish.

As you can see in your handout, at the centre of our thinking is a term that Bp Stephen introduced and brought to life for us: "Catholic Evangelism." Let's refresh our memories of what that actually means. In the opening chapter to his book, From the Abundance of the Heart: Catholic Evangelism for All Christians [Darton, Longman and Todd, 2006] Bp Stephen doesn't talk about increasing church attendance, or stewardship campaigns, he talks first of all about prayer. A living relationship with God is the backbone of Catholic Evangelism. Bp Cottrell notes that in his work as a missioner he would often go to a church to talk about evangelism, sit down with the parish council or another group, and after ten minutes stop talking about evangelism and start talking about prayer instead. "To put it bluntly," he writes, "you can't give what you haven't got. How stupid of us to think that we could ever be effective in evangelism unless it arose from an authentic and lived spirituality" (p. 3).

Our attempts at Catholic Evangelism, as individuals and as a parish, will be useless unless our relationship with God is growing and deepening. So, at the heart of our reflections on Mission Action Planning is another phrase: "Growing in God's Love." It is something to ask ourselves: are you growing in your faith? Are you making the time to attend a Lenten group, or the Quiet Day, or Confirmation class, or the Mass each week, or confession on Fridays? Are you praying, in secret, just you and God; inviting the Holy Spirit into your life? If not, well, don't feel guilty about it; equally don't ignore it; just make a new start today, now. Recommit yourself to the Lord. In the quiet and prayerful parts of the Mass today, perhaps you could say that simple and ancient prayer of invitation: veni Sancte Spiritus; come Holy Spirit.

"Catholc Evangelism: Growing in God's Love" these concepts are the bedrock of our planning and our ministry at The Hill, and by God's grace we are starting to see them bear fruit:

  • "Ashes to Go", our annual outreach to commuters as they arrive at work on Ash Wednesday, is a small way we have been taking our liturgy out into the City.
  • The Coffee Cart social enterprise is another small way that we as a church are living the Gospel and proclaiming Christ's priority for the poor.
  • This month we have begun building our Children's Ministry team at the 9.30am Family Mass, sharing the load and inviting fresh ideas and approaches.
  • Our Pastoral Care team has been growing this month also, with two new people joining the home-communion group.
  • At Parish Council it was heartening to see in the Treasurer's report that parish offertory giving has increased by more than 12% over past four months; thank you all for your generosity. And as part of our commitment to better stewardship of resources, we are moving the current Parish Office into the old Maynard Office soon, which will start to generate an additional $23,000 p.a. from next year for the parish, once we have paid off the costs of the move.
  • The Liturgy Committee, Clergy, Servers and Musicians are all working hard to make sure our worship continues to draw us together in Christ and lift our hearts in praise.
  • And we are blessed by so many learning opportunities to deepen our faith and discipleship: ISS, Lenten groups, a contemplative prayer group, the Cell of Our Lady of Walsingham, and so on.

Thank you to everyone in parish leadership, and to all the volunteers who are making these and so many other important things happen at St Peter's. We have not yet arrived, but there are certainly clear signs of growth.

While it is important to give thanks for progress and signs of growth in our parish, we should also take heed of St Paul's word in today's Epistle: "if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall" (1 Cor. 10:12). In our gospel Jesus is verging on the Bible-bashing preacher end of the spectrum: "repent, or just like victims of Roman oppression you will perish; repent, or just like those who died in that terrible accident you will perish."

Spiritual growth is a gift, it is fruit of the Spirit, and not something that we can force or expect or will in our own strength. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2834, has a quote that I often think about, attributed to St Augustine: "Pray as if everything depended on God and work as if everything depended on you". That says it all.

The story of Moses that we heard in our first reading is based on this truth. The young Moses had become sensitised to the injustice of the Hebrew people, but he first tried to respond in his own strength, and ended up in exile having murdered an Egyptian soldier. From the dizzy heights of power in Pharaoh's court, he became a humble shepherd to his father-in-law's flock far from the city. In today's reading, from that place of humility and the wisdom that comes from it, we hear of his encounter with God at the burning bush. This time he will act in response to God's call, rather than out of his own strength. Yahweh, the great "I AM", will work through him to redeem the people of Israel.

Our Lord's parable at the conclusion of the gospel reading delivers a similar message. The barren fig tree is saved for one last year. The gardener will do all he can to feed it and care for it, but after all the work is done, ultimately the fruitfulness of the tree is in God's hands.

One final story to close; a true story. Outside the Vicarage in my last parish there was a fig tree. It was barren. Around its trunk was an old car tyre that had once protected the young sapling. As a mature tree the tyre was now strangling it. I couldn't cut through the tyre and had decided rather to cut down the old barren tree, but Ree suggested asking our friendly neighbour in the tyre shop over the road to tackle the job. He came over, took a look, and fortunately had the tools to remove the tyre without damaging the tree. The next year there was an incredible abundance of strawberry figs, far more than we could cope with at the Vicarage. The parishioners took away fruit, the friendly tyre-man took away fruit. And the barren fig tree was renamed "The Community Fig Tree".

The Lord be with you …


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