Bishop John’s Maundy Thursday sermon

THE SHAPE OF MINISTRY

It’s always interesting to see a film about the period when you were young. So in my case it’s been good to see the film Noah come out recently. It seems the film does it’s best to play down any embarrassing appearances by God, so there’s just a faceless ‘Creator’ who’s only ever sensed by Noah in nightmares and who encourages Noah to consider sacrificing his own family. Clearly another DVD to store alongside Mary Poppins….

But at least movie-makers try to engage with the big stories. They’ve done a lot of ‘end of the world’ stuff and now they’re doing origins. That’s good. There’s a whole arc of ‘creation-to-eschaton’ in that range of great stories, and that gives life a setting and a trajectory. It has both a Source and a purpose. The arc of existence covers Genesis to Revelation – it’s the ultimate Big Story.

And we’re now deep within another arc of great significance for our Christian lives. We’re in the arc from Palm Sunday to Easter day, a trajectory that describes the shape of our Christian ministries. It’s the arc of living, dying and rising again. As we come to re-commit ourselves to these ministries let’s look at that repeating shape of our calling – living, dying and rising again.

So first, living. At the final conference eucharist at Swanwick I suggested that the job of a priest is a kind of loving, a loving that prays. And I encouraged us to go home and love the people that God has given us. Easier said than done, I know, but if we don’t see that as central to our ministry then how are we following the first shape of our calling, living close to the way Jesus lived? Loving needs to be second nature to us because it’s the first nature of God. And it’s fun!

In Rowan Williams’ latest little book Being Christian he has this lovely passage: ‘When reading the gospels you sometimes get the impression that if anywhere in ancient Galilee you heard a loud noise and a lot of laughter and talking and singing, you could be reasonably sure  that Jesus of Nazareth was somewhere nearby. Jesus created fellowship wherever he was.’

Living, loving, laughing – it’s all part of the shape of our ministry, living in God’s world in God’s way with God’s help. I hope we’re all devoted to that kind of living.

For those of you who like useless statistics the Times told us not long ago that during a 90-minute Premiership game each footballer is in possession of the ball for an average of 53.4 seconds. The rest of the time it’s with someone else, or in the air, or in the back of the net if you’re Sunderland. So if you’re earning £100,000 a week it matters very much what you do with those 53.4 seconds. You need to use them well.

Our calling is to respond lovingly to those fleeting moments of opportunity that come our way, and they’re similarly crucial. Thomas Merton said, ‘I trust God will put in my way ten million occasions for doing acts of charity and if I’m smart maybe I’ll catch 17 of them in a lifetime before they get past my big dumb face.’

So the first shape of our ministry is living lovingly, following the way of Jesus.

But the second shape of ministry is dying, or at least facing the pain. We all know that dimension of ministry, the dying part. Sometimes it’s our dying, the dying of dreams of how we were going to be, what we were going to do. We all come singing and dancing into ministry, feeling the thrill of making that which has been most important to us, into a life, as well as a job. Ministry is full of possibility, a huge white canvas; what colour shall we put on first? But the angry PCC, the letter of complaint, the intransigence of the choir, the pile on the desk – and the glamour soon gets tarnished. It’s the first death. And there are other deaths as repetition overcomes originality, banality sets in, and hope recedes. That’s life in ministry sometimes, and it takes resilience to handle it. We have to stay close to Jesus.

And dying also comes as we accompany others on tragic paths of loss and despair. Where’s the power of prayer, the great escape, the sunset ending; where are the chariots of fire? A young friend of ours is told she has a very short time to live. She’s 38 with children of 5 and 2. We’ve known her since she was three; I took her wedding; now she’s in a wheelchair with a child on her knee. We all know these situations. This shape of ministry, this dying, is hard, and dry, and tastes like stone. We find we’re absorbing the pain of others like blotting paper, so we have to place ourselves in the secure embrace of God, who takes that pain from us. We have to pray.

And some dying comes from a culture that takes it for granted that God is no more, that the rock on which we build everything is puerile, long gone, irredeemably naff. That’s a tough way of dying too. What have we given our lives to follow and serve? ‘My God, my God…’ Sometimes we have to lash ourselves to the mast of faith and shout our belief defiantly into the wind.

Dying is the second shape of ministry and we can’t shimmy past it.

But there’s a third shape to ministry and it’s that miracle we call rising again. Living, dying, and rising again. I was once on retreat and the retreat conductor sat at the front – I can see him now, his white hair and black cassock – and he said to us: ‘In your ministry never let the sorrows of this world disguise from you the joy of Christ risen.’ I’ve taken him at his word. The joy of Christ risen is just as Tolkein said, ‘a joy beyond the walls of the world,’ a glimpse of the ultimate shape of life. That’s what I return to time after time. It’s a kind of discipline of joy.

I’m a northerner and we don’t get over-excited about much except football. And Mr Wrigley was a northerner. He was one of the sidesmen in the church in Blackpool where my father was vicar. Mr Wrigley was a quiet, no-nonsense Lancastrian. He didn’t say much; he just got on with his job. But once a year he came into his own.

On Easter morning Mr Wrigley would walk purposefully down the length of the church to the vicar’s vestry – it was a long journey in a thousand-seater church. He would stand in the doorway of the vestry and he’d say to my father, ‘Christ is risen, vicar!’ And my father would reply, ‘He is risen indeed, Mr Wrigley!’ And Mr Wrigley would nod – satisfied – and set off for the back of the church again for the rest of the year.

I used to love that exchange. Here was this undemonstrative sidesman bearing witness to the basic belief that sustained him throughout his life, and kept him giving out hymn books, and loving his wife, and following his conscience, and giving to charity, and doing everything else he held dear.  Mr Wrigley didn’t live a spectacular Christian life – he wouldn’t have known what that meant. But he knew what he believed, and it was simply this: Christ is risen! And so everything else would be all right.

Believing in the resurrection is a bold step in today’s sceptical culture. But it’s what literally billions of people are celebrating this weekend all over the world. Not a watered down version of the Easter message, but the whole nine yards. Jesus was raised from the dead. And so everything is possible. Our ministry is wide open. The glow of resurrection lies over everything we see. Believe it, my brothers and sisters. It’s the deep magic that redefines reality.

Living, dying, rising again. That’s the shape of ministry, yours and mine. We’re in the midst of the week that made it so. We’re deep in the narrative of living, dying and rising again. In a moment we’re going to reaffirm our different ministerial vows in a ministry with that repeating shape. So be it. It’s the best job in the world. That Government survey told us just the other week didn’t it? We’re the most content and fulfilled of all the 274 jobs surveyed.

Living lovingly, following the way of Jesus.

Dying to our false dreams, and with others in their tragedies, and with the scepticism of our time.

But rising again.  Always rising again. That’s the secret, yours and mine.

Always rising again.

Maundy Thursday 2014

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