Sermon for High Mass – Trinity 2 Sunday 25 June 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses, Vicar
Readings: Jeremiah 20.7-13; Psalm 69.7-10,16-18; Romans 6.1b-11; Matthew 10.24-39
“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master, it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master.”
This afternoon, instead of a leisurely read of the Sunday paper or a nap before Evensong, I will be going to St. Luke’s Chelsea for the ordination of some new priests. One of those being ordained is Sarah Lenton, who has a long connection with this church as well as her home parish of St. Michael’s, Bedford Park.
Then, on Saturday afternoon, together with a couple of thousand others, I will be in St. Paul’s Cathedral for the ordination of 30 or so new deacons for the Diocese of London. One of them is for our neighbouring parish of All Souls. Jonny Dyer spent some time with us here at All Saints – seeing how the other half worship! And it has been a privilege to accompany him on his journey to ordination. That same weekend, with a combination of jazz and liturgy and champagne, we will be celebrating the silver jubilee of Fr. Michael’s ordination as a priest. There should be something there for everyone.
The Diocese of London, along with the rest of the Church of England, is seeking to encourage more vocations to the priesthood. In part this is because a large proportion of its clergy – my generation – will retire over the next decade – although priests never retire completely and most of us will go on helping out somewhere for as long as we are physically and mentally able.
It is, too, a recognition, that if the life of the church is to be sustained, and even more if it is to grow, however much we rightly develop the ministry and witness of lay people, it must have priests; and in an increasingly diverse city, priests who reflect that diversity.
When the armed forces set about recruiting, their advertisements stress the adventure and excitement, sport and travel, the opportunities for learning skills which will be of advantage not just in uniform but in civilian life. Perhaps understandably, nothing is said about the physical and psychological costs of combat in places like Iraq and Afghanistan to which we have sent young men and women in recent years.
When people come to see me because they think they might have a vocation to the priesthood, they are I suspect, sometimes rather surprised that I do not immediately leap up and down saying, “Wonderful! When can you start?” They probably think I look and sound more like the prophet Jeremiah in today’s first reading: “O Lord, you have enticed me, and I was enticed, you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughing-stock all day long; everyone mocks me,” or like our Lord addressing his disciples in what is known as the “Mission Sermon” in St. Matthew’s Gospel of which we’ve just heard part.
When I was ordained, we knew that many of our contemporaries, friends and members of our families, thought we were odd or mad; throwing our lives away for a faith and an institution they regarded as dying, irrelevant, slightly comical perhaps and ineffectual, when we could have had successful careers in the secular world. What we could not know was the burden, the cross of scandal and shame which Fr. Michael wrote about in this week’s parish email, that we now have to bear because of the sins of our fathers and brethren; an abuse of power and betrayal of trust made all the worse by being clothed in piety.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Jesus comes, he says, and make no mistake, this is a hard saying, to bring division even among families; those closest to us. He echoes the prophet Micah who saw such divisions as a sign of the coming of the kingdom.
To grasp what Jesus means, we need to understand the place of the family in the ancient world, and as it still is in some cultures today. It was an institution which demanded absolute loyalty. It was not simply a social institution – one on which you relied for support and without which you had no identity; to be without family was to be a non-person. It was also a religious one – so to reject the family religion for another would lead to exclusion, excommunication. As far as your family was concerned, you would be dead.
When Western Christians, especially evangelical ones, speak glibly of converting Muslims for example, they often have no real understanding that for most converts this would mean being treated as dead by their families; and in Muslim states being sentenced to death for apostasy.
Jesus speaks on other occasions of respect for parents – he is not anti-family – but he sets it in the context of loyalty to the kingdom, obedience to the will of God. He has come to establish a family in which all who hear the word of God and obey it are his mother and brothers and sisters. In fact, when we see parents and children and others in the light of the love God, we are enabled to love them more not less. There is not a limited amount of love to go round. The love of God is limitless, so in that love we are able to love more.
When I am preparing people for the sacrament of holy matrimony, I point out that the marriage service is short on romance and long on realism: all that “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death us do part.” Love is about sustained care and attention and fidelity to the one who is loved – day-in-day-out and not just when we feel like it – in bad times as well as in good.
So, too, I tell those thinking of ordination, something of what they are likely to encounter in the ministry: that compulsion to speak the word of God which Jeremiah knew in his bones, that compulsion to preach the Gospel of which St. Paul speaks, even when it will not be what those we minister to want to hear; what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “the cost of discipleship.”
I speak to them of the spiritual disciplines needed to sustain the long haul of a lifetime of ministry; in good times and in bad; when you stand with a couple burying their child, or hear someone’s story of abuse or betrayal by someone they trusted, or of their own failure and shame; the times when their vision of what the church should be and do is met with blank incomprehension, sullen resistance or downright hostility; the dark winter mornings when the consciousness of our own failures and shortcomings seems to outweigh any good we might have done.
I speak to them of what it is to be a sacramental person: the embodiment of the one who “came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many,” not the incarnation of arrogant clericalist superiority and careerist status; of the one who came to “seek not the righteous but sinners,” not that fearful and antiseptic separation from people which makes of clerical dress a suit of armour, a defence to keep people at bay, rather than the sign of availability. I speak of the need for boundaries in relationships; of discretion in what they say and how they act with other people.
It is right that the day of someone’s ordination, like a wedding day, should be a special and joyful one, and I am not such a killjoy as to want to take that away from anyone, but “those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
At the heart of all Christian life is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “Do you not know,” Paul says in the epistle, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Just as baptism unites us with the death and resurrection of Christ, and the Eucharist renews and deepens that union, so the mystery, the sacrament of matrimony unites those who are married to the self-giving love of Christ; and the sacrament of holy orders binds those who are pastors of God’s people to the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. That is why the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice should be so much at the heart of a priest’s life. But, as we are reminded by the prayer we say together after Communion, it is also at the heart of all Christian lives as we offer our souls and bodies as a living sacrifice.
In stern and uncompromising language, Jesus warns the disciples: “Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
They and we are to “fear” God – not a fashionable idea these days – it seems somehow to undermine our dignity. This is no “gentle Jesus meek and mild” but the one who says, “Of those to whom much has been given, much will be required.” This is the God who treats us as morally responsible beings; as grown-ups. That is our human dignity but it comes at a price: “So every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”
But then he goes on to speak of that one whom we are to fear as the Father who cares for us:
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
For all of us, ordained or lay, it is in the life of worship and prayer, of scripture and sacrament, of fellowship and mutual care in the family of the Church, that we find that “blessed assurance,” that knowledge that “our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin”; that sense of being “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” which alone can sustain us in ministry and witness, in companionship and friendship, in the ordering of our lives and relationships, in the carrying out of our duties and the use of our gifts; in recognizing Christ’s presence in others and in making him known.