December 15, 2019

Passing on the baton – 10 am – Revd Sally Bedborough

Passage: St Matthew 11 vv.2-11

One of my most cherished memories is of a relay race in which I ran the second leg; I ran with both my legs of course, but I was the second runner of 4 runners, each of us running 110 yards…because this was a long time ago! My stretch was the back straight. And I well recall the hours spent training and perfecting the crucial handing over of the baton; that light tube of aluminium that was passed from one runner to the next. This handing over had to happen within a ‘box’, which was a marked out stretch of a few yards on the track in which the handover had to happen. If the baton wasn’t handed over within the box, it was instant disqualification for the whole team. So practise was essential so that we got it right. This was the method: when the first runner reached an agreed point, I began to jog – not too slowly or the speed of the first runner would have mowed me down; and not too fast or I’d be leaving her behind….but I had to be moving.

For this handover, I had to run with my right hand extended behind me and my palm uppermost so that the baton could be slapped with certainty into my hand and then I would take off, switching the baton to my left hand so that I was ready to slap it into the palm of runner three. The practise paid off – our team won and there was no better feeling.

This image of passing on the baton came to me as I read this passage of scripture. Here we have John the Baptist, now in prison, and Jesus. There are questions about both men: was John who he said he was – the forerunner to the expected Messiah who would save God’s chosen people? And if he was, was this Jesus then, the Messiah?

In answer to these kinds of questions, Jesus urges the questioners to take a long hard look at what has been done and said by both men – John the Baptist and Jesus; we might say nowadays ‘wake up and smell the coffee’…watch and notice what is going on; draw conclusions based on the prophecies of the bible. Jesus explains that John was the prophet who would prepare the way for the Lord. And then he says something quite outrageous; he gives John first rating – Jesus describes him as the greatest person ever born of a woman and then he says this greatest one will be like the very least one in the kingdom of heaven. That is not to say that John was yesterday’s man, history, over and done with; it was to say that all those who followed in the new kingdom that Jesus was bringing in, would be greater even than the greatest. That doesn’t take anything away from John, but it does bestow upon us, the disciples of Christ, a huge honour.

This has very relevant implications for us. The relationship between John and Jesus is one of preparation for the one who is greater. John fulfilled that role by living a life of frugality, penitence, and simplicity. The things of this world were considered to be unimportant next to the value of spiritual preparation. John’s life and his message removed barriers that interfered with hearing and receiving the message of Jesus Christ. John handed over the baton to Jesus. John had done his part of the race, he’d fulfilled his purpose and calling. He’d done a great job but now all the attention was on Jesus, the son of God; God in the flesh.

And in a sense, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; through the giving of the Holy Spirit to continue and develop the life of Christ within the Kingdom of God, we now have this baton passed on to us. That is both a huge privilege and a huge responsibility.

There are many ways we could take this image to make it relevant to us today. But the one I want us to focus on is that of our finances. Dd you know, for instance, that St Peter’s has an anticipated deficit of some £37,000 this year? It takes money to keep this church in shape. We who come here value the building, the beauty of our worship, we value our singing tradition and our administrative support. These things cost money in paying salaries, in paying our parish share, in providing a safe presence and a ministry to so many.

The good news is that we can turn this deficit around and what better time to do this than at this so-called time of giving? Your giving can mean the continued functioning of this church. We want to hand on the baton to the next person who walks through these doors in spiritual need, to the next generation of children, to those who are nearing the end of life, to those who want to seal their marriage vows in church, to the lost, the lonely and who to all who need hope and peace.

So I want to suggest a way to focus us in this. It’s very simple. Earlier, I said that Jesus advised his listeners to ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ and that is just what I am going to suggest to you as a way of passing this baton on. Let us all wake up and sense the value of what we have here: beautiful worship, choral tradition, high church that lifts our hearts and spirits to God. Smell the coffee. Now, coffee may not be your chosen drink, you might prefer tea, wine or beer….but coffee can serve as symbol of what we might do to turn this situation around. The cost of a coffee varies but the average is apparently £2.50 or so. It might be that you’d think nothing of having a couple of cups of coffee in a week. Why not decide today to give the equivalent sum – say £5 per week to the work of this church? If you already give by standing order, thank you; but please if you can possibly do so, increase the amount you give by £5 pw or more if you wish. If you don’t have a standing order to enable you give regularly, then please consider setting one up. Your PCC are standing shoulder to shoulder with you and are taking a lead on this by increasing their giving.

I know circumstances change. I’ve been on the receiving end of that myself. When I was working in the hospice I dropped my hours from 4 days a week to 3. As my hours changed I scaled down my giving accordingly. Last year, I retired but I didn’t qualify for state pension until last month, so I’d stopped my contributions over this past year. At a recent meeting of the Standing and Finance Committee – the sub-group of the PCC that deals with these kinds of matters – we had a rep from the Diocese come to help us in our thinking about finance and he was so positive. He acknowledged that this is a difficult situation but he gave us hope that we could turn it around. It inspired me and I am certainly going to reinstate my giving and support this church that I love.

How about you? I make no apology for speaking about money today because it is the oil in the machinery. It is not the be all and end all, but it will be the end of all if we continue to spend more in keeping this church afloat than we gather in upkeep from you, the congregation.

You might say to me but Sally we do have money, and yes, we do. But much of our money is tied up in trust, in restricted funds, meaning we can only use that money for certain purposes and those don’t include everyday payments. We are fortunate to have some money kept in trust for us in this way because that is our down payment on a vision of reordering and making this building fit for a new leg of the race. We are stewards of that money and if we can keep things healthy by giving realistically and generously, we will be in fit shape for the next phase of our ministry here. We will be moving forward, ready for the hand over rather than sitting passively waiting for a new someone to come and start from a stand still.

Today we can be inspired by John the Baptist, the one who did without many material things so that he could prepare the way for the Lord. Will we be prepared to go without a small weekly treat if we need to? Or might we keep our small weekly treat and also give a weekly treat to this church? On this 3rd Sunday of Advent we can begin the journey of turning our finances around, of paying our way in a healthy fashion, and of being fit for purpose for the next phase of life and ministry here at St Peter’s. Amen.