Ordination sermon – by the Venerable Karen Gorham, Archdeacon of Buckingham

Sermon from the ordination service at Christ Church Cathedral on July 4 2015:

I begin with a poem, written by R S Thomas

Prayers like gravel

flung at the sky’s

window, hoping to attract

the loved one’s

attention. But without

visible plaits to let

down for the believer

to climb up,

to what purpose open

that far casement?

I would

have refrained long since

but that peering once

through my locked fingers

I thought that I detected

the movement of a curtain.

R S Thomas, who died in 2000, was a priest and a poet, described as lacking charity and patience, and known for his crabbiness, his poetry however captures some of the realities around about life and faith, about pondering some of the deeper things of life, as we do in a service such as this one.

I wonder whether you have had a Romeo or Juliet moment?  Balancing gravel in your hand, throwing it up at a window, wondering if it will be heard? Maybe it actually happened for you, the window really and literally opened and someone responded to your voice. Or, maybe sometime in your life, you have called out, perhaps in prayer, just wondering if anyone is there at all.

The poem is an illustration of faith in most of our lives today, some of us detecting the slight movement of a curtain, be it a hunch,  a mysterious coincidence or a curious inquisitiveness to push at the door, or throw that stone up at the window, just to see what might happen.

Today, that curtain has moved that bit more noticeably for all of us as we observe faith in action.  As these candidates  respond to God’s call on their lives by being ordained.  25 being ordained in services here today, and of many hundreds being ordained across the country over the last few weeks.

Calling is both a very personal and a very public thing.  Recognised within and without, it brings our past together with our present and catapults us into a future.   It is mystifying and definite, perplexing yet simple; Our readings today, take that theme, beginning in the Old Testament book of Samuel.  Where we hear that God had been almost silent, maybe going back to R S Thomas’ poem, the curtain had not moved for a long time and the prayers had stopped.   Samuel was the much longed and prayed for son of Hannah, who according to custom, at around the age of three had been presented to be cared for by the priest Eli, being given to God for a lifetime of service. As a child he ministered at the Temple.  Today we have heard how Eli, the experienced Priest was growing old, his eyesight had begun to dim so that he could not see, Samuel, his young apprentice was with him in the temple, it was the end of the day, the tabernacle lamps were burning according to custom and the lamp of God had not yet gone out.

I don’t know whether you have seen those survival programmes, but one of the first lessons to learn is how to create a spark, a spark means hope and life, blown in the right way it can be kindled into a flame,  and so it is with God.  God may have been silent but the lamp had not yet gone out.

The call for Samuel began.  ‘Samuel’, ‘Samuel’ God whispered, so real, so audible that he thought it was Eli calling him. ‘Here, I am’ he said running to his master.  But checking it out, he realised he was wrong. ‘The third time Eli, encouraged Samuel to respond to God.  Not his earthly master but his heavenly one.   ‘Samuel, Samuel’ God was calling and this time Samuel answered ‘Speak Lord, your servant is listening.’ From then on Samuel was himself engaged, fully signed up,  in the work of God.  Bringing transformation wherever he went and becoming a significant person in the story of God’s people.

The movement of the curtain, the lamp still burning, the gentle whisper of our name. Signs of God’s presence in a world pre-occupied by so much other demanding our attention.  And from Samuel onwards, God continues calling, throughout his Word in times of peace, and in times of unrest, men and women, young and  old, to leave, to go, to do, to be.  And throughout the New Testament Jesus does the same – follow me, come to me, be transformed then go and be my disciples.

About once a year, I take a week out of my day to day role to spent time as a Bishop’s Adviser, all those being ordained today will know what that means!  We are the ones who recommend, or not, as the case may be, individuals to proceed to training for ordination.  I consider it a real privilege to sit down with each individual and hear their stories. My faith is increased significantly, as each story echo’s something of the call of Jesus to those early disciples.

Stories of those who grow up determined to enjoy the good life, then God arrives and turns lives upside down. Stories of those who have full lives, yet when each day is over, lay awake feeling achingly alone. Where is the joy?  Where is the peace ?  where is the love?

Stories of people, for whom on hearing Christ’s call find his words get under their skin, sharpening a discontent, a hunger of something better awakened by Jesus, which refuses to go away.

Stories of familiar voices inside saying ‘Don’t do it. Don’t give up everything you’ve worked for.  Yet another voice whispering ‘This is everything you have craved for. Move, follow, be a disciple.’

Stories of no regret, of receiving in return something more precious and enriching than anything the world could offer. Spiritual riches, the wealth of divine love, so great that it needs sharing.

Stories of how eating at the table of the Master, with nothing spread there but the most ordinary gifts of bread and wine, is sharing in a feast which makes royal banquets seem like nothing.

Stories of transformation and family and friends here today I am sure you will recognise some of those stories, as you have stood alongside those you love, and seen God’s call to service become more and more compelling.  Many here will have stories of your own.   Changed hearts and lives.  As a church we may have many plans and programmes, however the greatest impact will be made in the sharing of what God has done in our lives.

Throughout history that still small voice of God, or that sudden command, or that jolt out of the blue continues to draw people into a life of purpose and adventure with God.  Some do not leave much behind, others have to make huge sacrifices; but whatever the cost that call is so powerful it takes an individual hunger for meaning and places it within a community of service to bring about transformation.

When Jesus sent his followers out he made sure they knew what was to be done. It was not a hide-n-seek game. It was not to see if they had grasped the unwritten rules. Jesus made his intentions clear.

A business had relocated and was having a grand re-launch party; And one of the friends of the owner of the new business;  Wanted to send him flowers for the occasion so he phoned a flower shop and left suitable instructions.  When the owner of the new business received the flowers; he was surprised by the  accompanying card which read: “Rest in Peace.”

The owner was angry and called the florist to complain. After he had told the florist of the obvious mistake and how angry he was, The florist replied, “Sir, I’m really sorry for the mistake, But rather than getting angry, you should imagine this:  Somewhere, there is a funeral taking place today, and they have flowers with a note saying,… ‘Congratulations on your new location”.

Christ’s instructions were clear. Towards the end of his time on earth, whilst the lamp of God had not gone out, Jesus demonstrated powerfully what that calling looked like, as Samuel faithfully served, so God himself in Jesus Christ served his friends.  This is the upside down kingdom, where the unexpected, that which flies in the face of social norms and customs, becomes the norm. This was more than R S Thomas’ movement of a curtain, this was the opening of the window and the letting down the plaits.  Christ amongst his people washing their sweaty, dusty, soiled feet, the tenderness of God in those simple actions, caring and loving selflessly, personally and unashamedly – the servant King.  Meeting their needs, kneeling before them, cleaning them up, It was so unexpected, that Peter, like Samuel, couldn’t quite comprehend.  It was almost too much for him to bear. ‘For I have set you an example, says Jesus, that you also should do, as I have done for you.’

That simple call to service, which we have before our eyes today, a call to all of us, yet contained significantly in the office and work of a deacon.  A human response by these ordinands to that God of love, who still speaks in our hearts, nudges our lives.  Who takes who we are and have and does amazing things, using our service to bring transformation to the world.   A life of risk, underwritten by secure and abundant love.

I have spent the last four days with these great people about to be ordained deacon. Already their lives are about following and serving, and from today they will do that as clergy – ministering, guiding, praying, modelling.  None of these individuals know the complete picture of what is before them, and on their retreat they have been given some insights to help them on their journey, all they know that it is a journey of service walking alongside those whom God places by their side and inviting them too into God’s kingdom. A challenging call, for which they will need all your support and encouragement.

As we read our newspapers today, and think about our world, we return to that imagine in the Poem with which I began, many of us are probably pelting the gravel at the window in prayer and faith, longing for God to open it once more and for the plaits to be lowered down to us. Today we can see God at work, that movement of the curtain in the call of God upon the lives of ordinary people.  We can hear stories from long ago echoing in stories that are real, today, testifying to the fact that God’s work of transformation goes on, that reassurance that the lamp of God has not gone out.

For you being ordained today, never forget your story and what has led you to this moment, step out in faith in the full knowledge of God’s call on your life, aware of all those who have gone before you, take your place alongside others, and begin the work that God has called you to.  Yesterday I gave each of you a bag with five stones  inside to act as markers on your way, today you can also connect them to R S Thomas’ prayers like gravel flung at the sky’s window, reminding you to pray and demonstrate faith for others as you serve.

However, this ordination service is something in which we are all involved and the challenge of faith is that God is calling all of us, by name, from where we are now to something far far deeper and vastly more meaningful, think about what that might be, who should hear your story?  Who should be part of it?  And those here today, who may be questioning, maybe bemused, maybe sceptical, maybe even a bit inquisitive about all that is going on, I invite you to give God a chance.  To take a small step of faith.

Later in this service we will all be invited to receive Bread and Wine.  That feast, I mentioned earlier that for believers makes royal banquets taste like nothing. here is a wonderful invitation to Communion from the prayers of the Iona Community, a Christian community in Scotland, something for ordinands and guests alike with which I end:

This is the table not of the Church but of the Lord.  It is to be made ready for those who love him, and who want to love him more. So, come, you who have much faith and you who have little, you who have been here often and you who have not been for a very long time, you who have tried to follow and you who have failed.  Come, not because it is I who invite you: it is our Lord. It is his will that those who want him should meet him here.’

The lamp of God has not gone out. Today let us all step out in faith and service, be part of the greatest story ever told and in doing so bring transformation to our world.

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