Sound-bites… or sacrifice? A sermon for ‘Pip and Jim’ at Winchester Cathedral – Isaiah 40:27-end John 12:20-26

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In the vestments of Winchester Cathedral (photo courtesy Graham Hartland)

The Dean and Chapter of Winchester Cathedral offer the curates of Winchester Diocese the wonderful opportunity of preaching at Cathedral Evensong towards the end of the curacy. It’s a daunting thing, but a huge privilege, and today it was my turn. Normally, this would be undertaken in ‘choir dress’, but since tonight was the first Evensong of the Feast of St. Philip and St. James tomorrow, they got some of their gorgeous robes out and of course, I had to fit in.

There was also a serious message to share as well, and one I felt was timely in this ‘election’ season:

It is all too common in the media frenzied world we live in, that when some key moment in history is being played out, like the announcement of a General Election, those who live by a well-poised microphone, seek an interview with the key players. Sound-bites are demanded to enable us who feed on the all-consuming media-machine, to discern the so-called truth. The media wants to know ‘who?’, and ‘what?’, and ‘why?’, so they can be first with the relevant ‘scoop’, grab reflections from the most note-worthy analysts, and massage our minds with ‘breaking news’.

The little group of Greeks who plagued the most approachable of Jesus’ followers for an interview with the wandering rabbi who’d just been greeted in Jerusalem like a conquering hero, could well have been the early equivalent of today’s political editors. One might imagine that the ‘who’, ‘what’ and ‘why’ of a political leader on a donkey would make good copy!

However, despite the tendency of those who saw their world in ruins and yearned for freedom from the tyranny of occupation to wish it otherwise, Jesus was no conquering hero, or political leader. He was however someone who sensed the change in the tide, as the welcoming Jews who were fascinated by the miracle of Lazarus’s resurrection fell away at the sound of Pharisaical sarcasm, and were replaced by these curious Greeks. Jesus, the Son of Man, knew that what lay next for him was as much of consequence for these gentiles as for his fellow Jews; so they might as well get their click-bait sound-bite, then they could go away and analyse it as the events that revealed its truth unfolded in the week to come. It obviously worked, otherwise we wouldn’t still be reading it today!

“The hour has come…” sounds like political rhetoric worthy of Winston Churchill; less so a discourse on the germination of a grain of wheat. Yet it is that image that holds the kernel of the message that Christ’s impending death and resurrection represented. The pun is intended, for the kernel of a seed is packed with energy and the building blocks like starch, protein and fat, which allow it to grow through the soil until it reaches the sunlight to make its own food and reproduce. Christ would die to bear much fruit; the fruit of the Kingdom of God that would form from a single, sacrificed grain of hope.

For the exiled people of Israel, reading in Babylon the words prophesied by Isaiah decades earlier, the seeds of their hope lay in the traditions of their faith. Their complaint is that God is ignoring the right of his people to see in their generation the fulfilment of the promises made to the patriarchs. They dimly remember that they were called to be a great nation, as numerous as the dust of the earth (Gen 12:2-3), and a blessing to all peoples (Gen 28:13-15). Yet defeat and deportation have left them too numb to grasp the truth that the power of their creator God extends from their past, through this present suffering, well into the future, in which lies the fulfilment of those promises.  Like the writer of Psalm 25, they are asked to wait for the Lord, not in the insidious doubt that breeds despair, but in the sort of confident expectation that breeds hope.

The exiles in Babylon would eventually find that hope in the restoration of their lands and temple. But their future leaders would again become so hidebound to an understanding of God which they created in their own flawed image, that they would fail to recognise the means by which they would indeed become a blessing to all peoples, and so they crucified their flawless Saviour. It was to this sacrifice that Jesus refers in his response to the eager plea of the Greeks for an interview. It would in fact be they who, at Pentecost and because of his resurrection, would be among the peoples to whom God’s new covenant with all people would be inaugurated.

How much are we like the Pharisees, forming our image of God on the basis of our own flaws? How much are we like the exiles in Babylon, prey to insidious doubts that God perhaps has forgotten us? If it is not us for whom we are concerned, perhaps it is the defeated souls who wash up on the shores of the wealthy west, almost as devoid of hope as they are of the money that bought them a dangerous passage, powerless to battle the bureaucracy of borders? Or perhaps it is the young for whom we are concerned; especially those faint and weary from the constant expectation that everyone can be above average, who fall exhausted into an epidemic of depression?

Have we not known? Have we not heard? That our faith is in the everlastingly faithful creator who has revealed himself to us in Jesus? That it is we who are called to be the grains of wheat who by sacrificing ourselves, our time, our effort, our money, even our political differences, on behalf of others, will be serving Jesus?

The chances are we do know, and we have heard, but making a life of sacrifice and service a reality is much harder than perhaps we would wish. We yearn to change a world that at times seems in ruins, and free it from the tyranny of injustice, yet the work can seem fruitless. Subsuming our own needs and desires into the sometimes unpopular, awkward, perhaps even isolating work of serving others, is tough. Which is why we too need to catch hold of more than the sound-bites of Jesus’ ministry, and pick up again the seed of hope he holds for each of us.

Christ’s death and resurrection, in obedience to his Father’s will, gives everyone the opportunity for a relationship with God that guarantees his presence with us through the power of the Holy Spirit. However much of a struggle it is, if we have faith in Jesus and follow his example, we will find that he is with us. If we wait in confident expectation of his presence among the tasks we do at his command, then we will find our strength renewed for the work we do to serve others, and our lives bearing much fruit in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

 

Let us pray:

We give thanks to you our risen Lord, that in your death and resurrection you offer all people the seed of hope. Help us to be this seed, and growing through acts of love, sacrifice and service, bear the fruit of your Kingdom.

Faithful creator, incarnate through the power of the Holy Spirit, inspire in us the courage to act responsibly towards your creation, that we might not remove the seeds of hope for future generations through our careless abuse of the world’s resources.

Remembering that in your flawless humility you suffered for us, Jesus, work in the words, actions and policies of our leaders and media to offer a fresh vision of truth, justice and the renewal of hope for all people.

We remember from our Diocesan cycle of prayer those who are refugees and asylum seekers, and all who find themselves struggling for hope in the face of bureaucracy, injustice and exploitation. Loving Jesus, give us the courage to work for the right of all people to safety, security and freedom, as we serve others in your name.

Lord Jesus, we know ourselves to be fragile, and many for whom we care to be faint and weary from the cares the world places on them. We remember in a moment of silence those known to us who need to know your comfort, healing, presence and peace…………… and strengthen those who share their own journey to wholeness in support of others.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God,
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, evermore. Amen.

Spending my 100% for Jesus

Slowly the gate is beginning to open, and I can see the view.
Slowly the gate is beginning to open, and I can see the view.

Earlier today I posted about my worries that perhaps I was putting my family before my calling.

Thank you everyone for helping me to work through something that’s been bothering me for some while. A good slap with a sensible stick, or several wet fish, never did a girl any harm at all.

To start with talking through your responses with Graham, we think we’ve worked out where this hang up stems from. We both spent a particularly formative period in our lives being told again and again that Jesus demands our 100% and nothing less will do. Whilst that is true, I think that now we’d all say that only part of that 100% is in the sphere of church life and ministry/leadership, and that witnessing to giving some of that 100% being in the sphere of family, creative, sporting or other aspects of our lives is important too. We’re also back in the issues I’ve encountered before with obedience – too much obedience, too little independent thinking, not the other way around.

I was pretty sure my concern was badly misplaced, but it’s actually talking/blogging about it that has shone the light into some of the cracks in the formational process; both my long term formation as a Christian mentioned above, but also the process of selection and ordination training that I’ve been engaged in more recently. I say that because though by the end we’ll have had discussions about all sorts of difficult theology and situations that we’ll face (I’m on a module described as ‘Interdisciplinary Approaches to Suffering’ at the moment), we’ve as yet (with six months to go in my case) not really grappled with some of these issues that, as I see it, relate to how our calling is going to work out as individuals. Part of this is I admit part of the work of a spiritual director, who in my case will I’m quite sure have read this when I see him next week, but there are wider more universal issues too. From what you say about how we understand the commitment we offer in various forms of ministry, the differences between SSM and stipend ministry, and separately priesthood exercised at what is horribly phrased as ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ forms. Perhaps I’m hitting this too early and it comes in IME, or perhaps it should have been thought through more clearly during selection when I took ‘best advice’, but I suspect more likely it’s down to what we each work out for ourselves as we grow and develop as ministers, and as our circumstances and freedoms to exercise our priestly ministry changes over time.

There is also an element I hope, of me crawling out from under a stone here. Knowing where I will be serving my curacy has sparked some hope after what has been a very low few months going round in circles in some theology books. I’m asking questions of myself, and you, again. There’s another post already lined up for next week which I guess starts to look at some of those boundary issues that Pam and others have pointed out, as I start to look forward once again to the joy of vocational ministry (stipend and otherwise) that Glorious Things and others have reminded me of.

 

Putting the son before serving the Son

From the 'Forest Stations' by William Fairbank, photographed at Lincoln Cathedral April 2007
From the ‘Forest Stations’ by William Fairbank, photographed at Lincoln Cathedral April 2007

When explaining to people some of the circumstances surrounding my forthcoming curacy, I have been beset by a sense of guilt, a fear that people will question my commitment to my calling, every time I explain why it’s panning out as it is:

  • I will be serving as a Self Supporting Minister (SSM, same as non-stipendury, it means I won’t get paid, just receive my expenses). I’m a freebie basically!
  • This means I don’t have to work full time, and have provisionally agreed to be in the parish 2.5 days a week, plus Sunday’s, to give time for the requirements of training and further study. There are logistical consequences to this for family and parish, which will be the subject of my next post, and there will be a nominated day-off, I just don’t know what it will be yet. That’s an issue to be discussed and resolved elsewhen.
  • I will be doing what is known as ‘primary’ Initial Ministerial Education (IME) such that at some point during my curacy I can test whether my calling really is permanently as an ‘assistant priest’ (which normally means you remain SSM) or whether I am in fact called to some form of ‘incumbency’, i.e. will I always help another priest run a parish, or might I one day be a ‘proper’ vicar?
  • Over and above my uncertainty as to which of these contexts my calling ultimately lies in, part of the reason for being comfortable with my selection as an ‘assistant priest’ candidate for ordination was so that we didn’t disrupt our son’s education at a critical point; being a candidate for  stipend ministry from the start would have made us deployable, and we would have had to move house as well as church. We weren’t prepared to allow that to happen when our son is in the middle of his A-levels! Had he been younger or older, the situation would have been different, but parenting has for us always been partly about giving kids stability at critical stages in their lives, and this is one of them.

And there’s the nub of the guilt trip. There are some Christian’s in churches I’ve attended over the years who I think would question my commitment to my calling to the priesthood because as a family we aren’t prepared to move our son in the middle of this critical period of his life. I’m currently preparing to lead some worship based on Philippians 2:1-13, and whilst I would say I am considering the interests of others (the lad’s education and therefore his future), I’m not sure I’m quite living up to the Christ-like attitude of taking a servant nature to the point of sacrifice.

Whilst NO-ONE HAS criticised our decision to restrict my willingness or ability to serve God at his bidding wherever we’re called, this still leaves me with this nagging sense that people are firstly surprised, and secondly don’t always quite approve.

Looking deep within myself, I don’t think God has a problem with us putting family first in this way at this time (he gifted me a loving family before he called me to ordination); if he did I think I’d have found that this journey had stopped long before now.

So I wonder if it’s actually me that has the problem? Is there a sense in which I fear that by putting limits on what God can do in my life, I’ve closed off a little bit of me/us as a no-go area to him for the moment (in a way I didn’t in earlier parts of my ministerial journey), and that this might have impacted on my connection with him? The latter is something I’ve been battling through these formational months, and now on top of it, I wish I could leave the sense of guilt behind. Perhaps it’s invisible scars of the past, I don’t know.

I wonder if others have experienced times when they feel they’ve put necessary limits on what they’ll give over to God, and it’s had spiritual consequences? Or, should I stop worrying and know that God has blessed me with both a family and a calling that help to promote and celebrate the importance of family life?

In the mean-time what I do know is that I feel very positive about the future, and there is a strong feeling of joy welling up within me, as I anticipate being able to engage once again in serving a parish as a minister, and later as a priest.