A Sermon preached by Clare Heard on Sunday 13th September
This week, James and I went to the installation and licensing of 2 friends of ours, a husband and wife, being installed and licensed as vicar and associate vicar of a church near Reading.
It was a wonderful service in many ways, not least because it was full of people wishing them well and full of joy and hope about the future.
But the part that stood out for me was the vows. They pledged themselves to care for the community, to share God’s word and work of ministry, to celebrate sacraments and to encourage others in their discipleship. The same vows James made, when he was licensed here 2 years ago. And if you think about all it involves, it’s a lot to promise!
But this is not all they did. They also pledged their allegiance to the Anglican church, the 39 Articles, the Book of Common Prayer and lastly, to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second.
They were very powerful vows, made all the more poignant because it was the day before Queen Elizabeth 2nd became our longest reigning monarch.
Becoming Queen 63 years ago at just 25 years of age, the Queen also made some vows….vows she has kept to this day:
- to govern the Peoples of the Commonwealth
- to cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in her judgements
- to maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel, and
- to maintain and preserve the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof
It’s quite something to swear to and must have been incredibly daunting to the young monarch embarking on this path of leadership.
Today’s Epistle adds to the sense of trepidation that comes with the making of any significant vow of leadership. It warns that not many should become teachers (or in today’s terms, those in positions of leadership, authority or influence).
It speaks very clearly of how easy it is for us to say the wrong things, and how this is particularly true for teachers. When people are in authority, have positions of power or influence, we tend to expect more from them, and perhaps rightly so. But can anyone live up to these expectations? All too often, we see in the press, famous figures being built up one moment and torn apart the next. Sometimes, people really have abused their power, other times, they’ve simply made a mistake. As Abraham Lincoln said:
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power”.
It is difficult to be any kind of role model for the simple reason that none of us are perfect – we all sin and fall short. The only perfect role model was Jesus. Very few of us are able to curb our tongue all the time, say the right thing, all the time!
Yet St James clearly calls out how wrong it is to speak words of encouragement, teaching and love one moment and then curse others the next, and he exhorts us not to do this.
It makes me remember my licensing service here at St George’s. I remember vowing at the service to promote peace, and within a couple of days, was screaming at the children (of course I can’t remember why) – and then feeling incredibly guilty because I was about as far away from promoting peace as it was possible to get!
Does this sound familiar? We come to church Sunday by Sunday and leave full of good intentions to speak no evil, and then life happens.
I do think the Queen sets a great example of managing NOT to say the wrong thing. I certainly have never heard of any slips of the tongue during her reign. She appears to have managed to stay polite, and more importantly wise enough not to say things that shouldn’t be said, to be discreet – at least in public! But many of us do not manage to be quite so wise.
St Peter is a great example of this. In the gospel reading today, he says exactly the right thing, he declares that Jesus is Christ, the Messiah. However, moments later he is telling Jesus off for speaking about the path that he will take – he gets it completely wrong.
And we see this so often, in the gospel, in teachers and authority figures, in all of life. We can get it really right, and then we get it wrong. And so we need God and we need each other.
The Queen has always recognised this. On her 21st birthday, prior to her coronation, whilst in South Africa she gave a speech and said:
“I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great Imperial family to which we all belong, but I shall not have the strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in with me, as I now invite you to do. I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.”
This is why, in all the vows we make in church, for baptism, for ordination, during installations or licensings, even during coronations, the response is always “with the help of God, I will”. Not in my own strength, but with God’s help.
The Old Testament reading reminds us that God does help us, he is with us. And this gives us hope about being able to make vows, in the knowledge that the grace of God will cover over our failures and help us to journey forward.
In fact, in many cases, it is from the failures that growth comes. The Times journalist Matthew Syed has just released a new book called Black Box Thinking. In it he examines how failure is critical for future success. Our willingness to embrace failure and learn from our mistakes, rather than denying it, allows us to grow and move forwards.
He quotes Andrew Stanton, director of Finding Nemo and WALL.E, who says:
“My strategy has always been: ‘Be wrong as fast as we can’ … which basically means, we’re gonna screw up, let’s just admit that. Let’s not be afraid of that. But let’s do it as fast as we can so we can get to the answer. You can’t get to adulthood before you go through puberty. I won’t get it right the first time, but I will get it wrong really soon, really quickly.”
Basically - lets get on with being wrong so that hopefully we can be right more quickly! And I think this also applies to developing as people. We learn the social no-no’s from making a mistake. How many of us have done something really embarrassing and never forgotten? – we’ve vowed never to do that again. We learn to behave in a loving way by not doing so and then regretting it afterwards – and making more of an effort in the future. I imagine the list is endless. Syed’s basic message is that we need to treat failure as something to be learnt from, not something to hide and ignore.
This is something that the Christian church has always captured within the concept of grace. God is able to bring amazing things from our failures, our pain and our bad experiences. They make up a part of who we are and if we are willing to face the bad stuff, deal with the pain and offer it up to God, then we are slowly transformed.
This is true of us as individuals and it is true of us as a community. We will get things wrong, we won’t always work together effectively first time, but we need to keep trying, as we learn from our mistakes - together. We need to be generous in our forgiveness of others, and willing to receive their forgiveness when we get it wrong. If we are to move forward in life, to grow, then we need to admit our mistakes and learn from them.
Going back to my friends’ installation last Tuesday, the Bishop of Reading, Rt Rev Andrew Proud, preached on the fact that in spite of all our weaknesses, our brokenness, our idiosyncrasies and our faults, we all have something to offer to God and God’s family. He illustrated beautifully how each person brings something different to the community by speaking of various people he knew – none of whom were perfect, but all of whom had something to offer and something to teach others.
So at the start of this new term, lets look for what others can offer, lets encourage one another to admit our failures as a church so that we can learn from them and grow. Let’s love one another enough to trust that we all have something to bring, and let’s pray for the grace of God to be with us as we journey along the road of failure and growth together.