FINAL SERMON PREACHED BY FR TONY NOBLE
At St Mark’s, Fitzroy – Sunday September 28, 2003
On this date 19 years ago, though it was a Friday – at 3pm I knocked on the door of the Vicarage. I had arrived to be interviewed by the Incumbency Committee. It had been fairly easy to convince the people of St Catherine’s, Elizabeth Downs that I was going to Melbourne to see the Grand Final J The records show that at Mass here that Sunday there were just 32 communicants. At the end of the interview on that Friday I said: If you ask me, I will come. The rest, as they say, is history!
We have come a long way, you and I. And now it is time to say goodbye. As I stand here, surrounded by so many of you, my friends, looking at this beautiful church in which we have done so much together, with Lindsay’s magnificent flowers & Christopher giving us heavenly music, you might wonder how I can bare to leave. Cardinal Newman entitled his last sermon as an Anglican priest, before becoming an RC, the parting of friends. But this is no parting of friends. For though I may be leaving St Mark’s, St Mark’s will never leave me.
But what to say in my final sermon? And what text to give?
There are 3 texts that come to mind. The first was given to me some 25 years ago by Fr Austin Day– when I was having hesitations about my vocation to the priesthood.
Luke 9.62; The words of Jesus: No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.
In a way these words sum up these past 19 years. Right from the beginning I put my hand to the plow. There was a job to be done, & I felt called to do that job. And what an adventure it has been! Not that it was easy. As I led you in ways that only God knew about I have had to summon all my talents, gifts & energies. Thank God you were there with me, to share it!
As I reflect on this marvellous chapter, I can not help thinking that together we have experienced God’s amazing grace. I have certainly grown as a person & as a priest. And I know you have, too. Joys balanced by sorrows, glories balanced by sins, achievements balanced by mistakes, being Christ-like balanced by being oh-so human.
Thank God we have laughed along the way! You have laughed with me, & we have fell about laughing at Mass & at parties. We needed that humour to build up the congregation to be a strong and vital, quite remarkable parish. We needed it to embrace this community, & to do that great work of the Community Centre, with its ups and downs.
We needed it to cope with that extraordinary ministry to people living with AIDS. What an amazing time that was – so wonderful, & so full of heartache.
And we needed that humour in tackling our greatest achievement – the restoration of this church. Now this is a miracle, amongst all the miracles we associate with St Mark’s. What a superhuman task it was – & everyone thought it was beyond us. And no-one deserved the achievement more than us. Nor the icing on the cake, which is the Harrison organ. Yes, at St Mark’s we can have our cake & eat it too!
This leads me to my 2nd text; Psalm 127.1: Unless the Lord builds the house, their labour is but lost that build it.
In building up this congregation & its many ministries, in persevering with the work of our Community Centre, in doing a courageous & compassionate AIDS ministry & in restoring this church, we did not labour in vain. Because the Lord was with us.
Others have worked & built before us, & others will come after us. That is the sobering reality of my saying goodbye. But thank God we did it. And Thank God he was with us.
And why was this? Because of this parish’s unwavering commitment as a Eucharistic community. With splendid worship on Sundays, & the daily offering of the Mass, this church stands as a beacon. We are different – & we love it that way! In a changing church St Mark’s stands for that great Anglocatholic tradition. It must not be lost. The labour must go on.
So to my 3rd text; Acts 26.19: I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.
That really sums up how I feel about my ministry at St Mark’s. Having vision, & following it through. But it also describes the priesthood.
I have been doing some reflecting on being a priest, as I take up the new work that awaits me in San Diego. As scripture records, it is a humbling and awesome experience to put yourself in the hands of the living God. I still feel humbled & privileged that God called me to be a priest.
Recently Bishop John Broadhurst said The task of a christian minister is to comfort the afflicted; & to afflict the comfortable.
Well I have afflicted the comfortable – both within & outside the church! The diocese never quite knew how to cope with me – & my Roman Rites! Nor did those in Fitzroy who thought the days of the church were now over. And in the parish the pious & hypocritical have often rubbed me up the wrong way!
Hopefully I have also comforted the afflicted.
There is another vision of priesthood that has been central to my life. Words said in tribute to me when I left St Catherine’s, Elizabeth Downs to come here: To stand before God for the people; & to stand before the people for God.
These words are a description of what I have tried to fulfil in my priestly life. It is why the Mass is central to my life. It is why I stand here today. I pray I have not been disobedient to this heavenly vision.
There is also my vision of the Church. I have always worked to make this parish a community of love & joy, a place where Jesus may be encountered, a place where we may be inspired. In short – a taste of Heaven.
You will not be surprised to know that in San Diego I have already linked up with the San Diego Lions Aussie Rules football club! One of the reasons is that it will give me a taste of footy – a bit like an Irish pub. Similarly the Church is meant to be a taste of the real thing.
But when it’s all said & done, it is this Mass today that is really the text for my final sermon. A Mass of Our Lady of Walsingham, concluding with Benediction.
You know how much Mary means to my spiritual & priestly life. It was at Walsingham that I really first heard the call to the priesthood.
And Our Lady has sustained & supported me all these years since. It is to Walsingham that I have returned regularly, to renew & refresh me for the tasks here. Thankfully All Saints’, San Diego has recognised this, & I am probably the only priest who has written in his contract 2 weeks’ leave to go to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham!
And, of course, our devotion to Mary sets us apart from most other parishes. It’s great to be able to brag that we are the only parish in Australia that sings the Angelus at Mass! If only the Archdeacon realised!
Mary is central to this parish because she is central to the catholic faith. She safeguards the truth of who Jesus is: God & man. She reminds us that the Incarnation is at the heart of our Faith, leading to the crucifixion & the resurrection of her son. She also reminds us that the church is called to be a family of love, where all are embraced and welcomed. She acts as a foil against those who are judgemental & exclusive.
Today’s gospel is one of the more interesting stories about Mary. It is the occasion when Jesus changed water into wine, at the request of his mother. There are 2 lessons for us here. Firstly, that Mary will intercede on our behalf – and she does. The 2nd lesson concerns the actual changing of the water into wine. The church’s tradition sees this as a sign of the sacraments, where ordinary things like bread, wine & water become vehicles of the divine presence.
This particular miracle is a great symbol of Jesus turning the ordinary things of this world into something rich and lovely. When Our Lady says Do whatever he tells you she speaks directly to us, & bids us be transformed by her Son. And that is the story of my ministry here. Not only has this church been transformed into something beautiful – but we, the people, have been transformed. And here, for all to see, is a beautiful community of love and faith.
We conclude this Mass with Benediction. The last thing you will receive at this Mass is not my blessing, but the blessing of Jesus himself, present in the Eucharist. We will adore him present on this altar, as we do in this parish.
This is right & proper. It is also the most wonderful way for me to conclude my ministry as your priest. I have, through all these years, only every wanted you and I to adore Jesus, & to receive His blessing for our lives.
So now to conclude. Would you be surprised if I finished with a football story?? Perhaps even a story about Collingwood & their coach, Mick Malthouse? Of course you wouldn’t be surprised!
Some time ago I read a column in which he was quoted as saying: “The time a senior coach devotes to the game is similar to that which a priest devotes to religion. It’s almost a vocation.”
The analogy may come as a surprise to you – but at least someone in Australia knows that it’s a vocation to be a priest!
He said a number of other things that indicated the similarity between a football coach and a priest. And then there was this line: “If your heart’s not in it…you’ve got no place in the coaching box”.
You see it’s about the heart. For 19 years my heart has been here, in it. It has been a marvellous adventure. And I am truly grateful to all who shared the adventure with me. To sum it all up is impossible. But I do so in the words we will sing at the end of Benediction:
Blessed and praised be Jesus Christ, in the Most Holy Sacrament. Hosanna in Excelcis.