A Sermon preached by Fr James Heard at St George's Church and St John the Baptist on Sunday 5 July 2015
Over the last week or so ordinations have been taking place across the Church of England – forty or so deacons were ordained at St Paul’s Cathedral yesterday. And, of course, Fr Peter was recently ordained priest and celebrated his first mass in fine style at St John the Baptist on Monday. What a wonderful service it was. Fr Kevin Morris from St Michael and All Angels Bedford Park, Fr Peter’s sending parish, preached a very good sermon.
One of the great things about this time of year is that it encourages us as a community to reflect upon the nature of the church and the work of a deacon/ priest. I wonder what your view is of a priest? And how was it that you came to that perception? Is it shaped by the priest you knew growing up, literature, popular culture or (even!) reading theology. Or has your view been informed by Anthony Trollope novels, Graeme Greene’s fallible whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory, or more popular presentations of priests on television: Father Ted, the Vicar of Dibley, or the most recent series Rev.
I’m sure you’ve heard the joke about priests only working one day a week. I enjoyed reading Anthony Trollope Barchester novels a few years ago and about the machinations that went on in church life in c.19. Some things never change! He wrote about absent priests in Barchester Towers: Dr Stanhope living at Lake Como in Italy, employing several deacons on a very meagrely stipend back home to carry on his work. Until Bishop Proudie arrives to the diocese. Or, rather, until his evangelical wife arrives and things change! Dr Stanhope actually has to return to his parish to work.
Fr Kevin invited us - amongst other things - to examine the life and work of a priest and suggested that a priest is - or should be - an Easter person who ministers in a Good Friday world. Of course, this isn’t just for priests - all of us exist to show something of the nature of the Risen Lord to a broken and bruised world. The Diocese of London have set a target for increasing the number of ordinands – a target of 50% more ordinands by 2020. That means 70 people. So in case you wonder whether you might have a vocation, here are a few things that being a priest entails… not to put you off but it contains a strong health warning to anyone thinking of ordained life:
· In this calling, you should expect to have people project their fear, anger and sadness on to you, but you try and love them anyway.
· When you first get ordained you have to get used to wearing unusual clothes. It takes quite some getting used to. You discover that some people show deference upon seeing a dog collar; some are indifferent; others become hostile. It also means that you regularly get approached in the street by, well, some very unusual people. How best to respond?
· Expect to have thrown at you the question ‘Why’ as you sit beside dying children, spouses, parents, and you’ll have absolutely no idea whatsoever why, but you will stay beside them anyway. And your staying will be a sign of God’s abiding presence and love.
· You will have more demanded of you when you are utterly exhausted and drained, but you will continue to give of yourself anyway.
· You should expect that you will be required to continue to pray and minister the Sacraments when all you want to do is curl up in a hole somewhere, but that you will continue to do so because you’ve been sent.
But there’s another side to this vocation:
· Young parents, full of wonder, will bring you their new born child, and you can help them celebrate the spirituality of this miracle in baptism.
· Men and women will bring their hope and joy and excitement as you prepare them for marriage.
· Through your presence, your prayer and your faith you can help to ease the burden of grief from the shoulders of the bereaved, and can help them fashion their grief into prayer and celebration of a life in the funeral.
· You will feed people who bring their lives week by week with the bread and cup of the new kingdom, and you can see that they are fed, nurtured and transformed by worship.
· You will have the privilege to listen to the outpourings of the despairing, the angry, the pained and the doubtful, and be able to encourage and nurture those who have an inarticulate or dormant or lost faith.
· You will be part of a process that sees children growing up familiar with good, generous, healthy religion. A religion that’s not fearful or defensive but one that is always open to surprises, and one that is willing to discover new things.
Then you will know the truth. That this the best job in the world, that no priest is worthy to attempt it, but that for better or worse God has set our feet on the road, that with fumbling and stammering words we try to sketch the love and the mystery of God.
Fr Kevin also mentioned the loneliness of being a priest – of being present in places – sometimes very dark places with people – and that results in loneliness. St Paul experienced this – compared to some other apostles that were around, people found his personal presence distinctly underwhelming.
I wonder if Jesus also felt this, returning to his home town. Some of Jesus’ family thought he had gone mad. He had return to his home town with a reputation for teaching, healing, casting out demons, and raising the dead. He does what he has done in other places, and goes straight to the synagogue to teach. In his hometown Jesus is rejected. They try to take custody of him – section him, in today’s language. They thought he had lost his marbles. John writes that his brothers didn't believe in him.
The villagers said he was insane and demon-possessed. Their failure to receive what is selflessly offered sends him and the twelve away to the surrounding villages. A much deeper and painful rejection will soon come from this closest followers. Its rather sobering that Jesus himself, the true icon of God, is rejected. And a priest might expect too, which is why we need words of encouragement, words from the ordination service: ‘In the name of our Lord we bid you remember the greatness of the trust that is now to be committed to your charge. Remember always with thanksgiving that the treasure now to be entrusted to you is Christ's own flock, bought by the shedding of his blood on the cross. It is to him that you will render account for your stewardship of his people.’
You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God.’