Farewell sermon offering three words for pilgrims: alongside, listen, kindness

Peter Seal, 15 August 2021

Isaiah 61: 10–11; Galatians 4: 4–7; Luke 1: 46–55

It’s a strange feeling to realise that today is the last time I will preach for you as your rector. At the same time I have a deep sense of thankfulness for the privilege of preaching here these past two decades. Thank you for being such attentive listeners. I remind myself often that sermons usually do more for the preacher than for anyone else! Julia remembers the first time she heard me preach, nearly 38 years ago.

Today with the worldwide Church we give thanks for Mary, the mother of Jesus. Her story is deeply rooted in the New Testament. She’s a biblical figure of huge importance. It was Mary who experienced the most extraordinary conception of a baby within her womb – what we call the Immaculate Conception. It was Mary who gave birth to the one who we proclaim as Lord and Saviour, no less than God’s Son. Mary is theotokos, God-bearer.

Mary took the newborn Jesus in her arms, suckled him at her breast and held him close during those, his early years. I picture her holding him close at other times too, during his growing years, comforting him when he was sad, and laughing with him at the things they surely both found funny.

During his adult life she surely continued to ‘hold’ him when she knew he was having a tough time or was particularly tired. And then at the end, after he had been killed on the cross – a brutal, painful form of execution – again we picture her holding his dead body in her arms and weeping.

For me the word ‘holding’ has become increasingly important in my understanding of our relationship with God. I’m thinking of our prayers, and in particular our prayers of intercession – by which I mean, those times when we bring before God our needs, the needs of others and the needs of the world, including today the terrible, horrific shootings in Plymouth. It seems to me that an authentic understanding of intercessory prayer is rooted in the word ‘holding’.

So, when we pray for anyone you could say that what we’re doing is holding them before God. Lifting them up, if you like. For me this is the most we can do. We embrace the one we’re praying for in a loving, kind, gentle, understanding, open embrace, and say something like: ‘Hello God, here I am praying for X. I’m holding her in my loving attentiveness before your loving attentiveness, knowing that you love her, that your purpose for her is best described as beauty, truth and goodness.’

Hello God, here I am praying for X. I’m holding her in my loving attentiveness before your loving attentiveness, knowing that you love her, that your purpose for her is best described as beauty, truth and goodness.

And then, as it were, saying: ‘Lord, how this praying works, what it does, remains a deep mystery, but I know it’s worthwhile and that it makes a difference’.

Mary, Jesus’ mum, prayed for him throughout his earthly life, at his death and during those resurrection days. In heaven they are close to one another again and Mary continues her ministry of praying to the infinite Godhead which we describe as the Trinity: God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I encourage you to continue to be faithful in your praying as you hold before God your loved ones, all in need, and, of course, this your church family. And now I want to offer you three words which may perhaps be memorable and help you along the way in the coming months.

The first is alongside. As you, the church family in this place, journey together I want to encourage you to continue to be alongside one another. That is, being there for one another, as pilgrims, and walking in the same direction. It’s well known that some of the best conversations take place when people are on a car journey or walking; it’s interesting that some of our deepest conversational connections take place when we’re not actually making eye contact.

Countless pastoral phone calls during the pandemic bear witness to this. I encourage you to seek out ways of having these sorts of ‘alongside’ conversations together. They will bear much fruit. They will keep you strong in a united purpose. I’ve spent a huge amount of my time trying to keep people in the parish connected with one another, in touch with one another, aware of one another. Being alongside each other, moving in the same direction, will be a great strength.

As you journey alongside one another, my second word is listen. Again, this sounds easy, but it’s actually very hard. Listening is an art form, something to be worked at and practised. We all know those rare times of feeling that we’ve been really listened to, and what a positive experience this is.

Really listening to someone affirms and accepts them, and takes them seriously at the very deepest level. Similarly, when we experience being really listened to we feel affirmed, accepted and taken seriously. Attentive listening hears the music behind the words. Really listening to one another in the coming months will save lots of possible misunderstandings and again bear much fruit.

And thirdly, kindness. We know from personal painful experience what unkind words and actions do to us, sometimes at a very deep level and possibly for a very long time. Like me you may remember your mother saying something like, ‘If you can’t think of anything kind to say, don’t say anything at all’.

Words rooted in kindness will necessarily be affirming and positive. They will be designed to build someone up rather than knock them down. Sentences like: ‘I really like the way you …’ ‘Thank you for your special gift of …’ ‘I realise just how hard you must be working …’ I go on discovering that all our human relating, and particularly as members of a church family, is profoundly simple, and at the same time requiring all our efforts of sensitivity.

So finally, and in conclusion: dear friends, keep on saying your prayers – that is, holding each other before God. And three words for pilgrims on a new stage of our respective journeys: alongside, listen, kindness.