To start with some some good news and some good and sad news. This will probably be my last Sunday sermon at St Peter’s for awhile. My new work was going to commence in seven weeks, but I’ve been asked to start early. So tomorrow I will begin my job as the chaplain to the Bishop of Wangaratta, and in 47 days (and about 25 minutes) on the 4th of December, The Rt. Rev. John Parkes will - God Willing - make me a deacon, with ordination to priesthood hopefully to follow in the new year. There should be prayer cards around soon, and please know you are very welcome to both these celebrations.
This has all happened very quickly and slowly too: ordination is an option, a door I’ve looked at often for over 40 years, even knocked on somewhat softly in the past, and in the last three months the door’s opened wide and, with some fear and trembling, and a lot of delight, I’m walking through! The work in Wangaratta will involve education, pastoral ministry, even school chaplaincy; plus living and doing ministry in our sister parish, Christ Church, Beechworth (So come on up, Sunday’s at 10:00!). But the main work’s the Bishop’s Chaplain, and I’ve been looking at what that means. Michael Brierley, an English priest who served as Chaplain to the Bishop of Oxford, describes the job in this way:
“Like parish work, it's a job of great variety: first and foremost is prayer for the bishop...; then office-based administration; assisting the bishop with pastoral work, with research, and on some social occasions; representing him on some bodies; and acting as liturgical chaplain, and also as his driver.”
Then, quoting the Bishop of Salisbury, he adds this: 'Each of us needs to have an idea of what being a deacon and a priest [or Bishop] are about. I see it this way ...' God in Christ does two things: he shares our life and he changes it. This... is what every Christian is called to do: to share people's lives, and to change them... people are made deacon to emphasise the sharing side, and [consecrated bishop and] ordained priest to point to the transforming side.”
Michael Brierley finds that “a helpful model for thinking about the 'cure' of the bishop's 'soul'. Much of the work is 'diaconal', quietly sharing the bishop's life and supporting him by doing what needs doing. But there is also a 'priestly' (and I would say Episcopal) side to it, saying or doing something that offers the possibility of changing situations (hopefully) for the better.”
And that connects with the Gospel for today. Listen to what Jesus says,
“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
It’s interesting advice. I think he’s calling for a balancing act in an arena where we might often veer dangerously from one side to the other. To balance with both the wish to be great, to be on top, as well as the desire to serve, to slave, to sacrifice ourselves to the right cause. We know more about the excesses of heroism and ambition, but C.S. Lewis writes (I think in The Screwtape Letters) that if we realized how much trouble unselfishness can cause we wouldn’t recommend it so often. He speaks of the subtle tyranny of those people who “lives for others,” adding that you can often tell the “others” by the “hunted look”.
But it isn’t just an either/or situation; there is even room for trouble in the middle. One of the aspects of life in Australia that I love is a deep and humerous suspicion of the top dog, the tall poppy. Though sometimes it seems downright un-American, it is quite healthy. The other side of that is the idea that, “Jack is as good as his master,” the spirit that says, “I am as good as anyone here.” But the danger of this middle way might be what one of the apocalyptic angels in the Revelation to John calls being lukewarm, people who are neither hot nor cold, who are in danger of being spat out for their excessive moderation. So, going back to the Gospel (if you want to lead, then serve; if you want to be greatest, then be the least); maybe the solution is to allow both sides now, embrace the desire to be both the greatest and the first and the slave and the last? It is still quite biblical, for there’s some good scriptural ground found in walking with this wide possibility.
Remember: Jesus says that we are as Gods, we are the light of the world, a city on a hill, the very salt of the earth; and that’s good, we’re good; and that very goodness, that glory, that gift of God in our lives needs to be shared with the world. So taking on the stewardship of giving your own gift means taking a chance to be a person with authority, an overseer, a bishop. It doesn’t have to mean you’ll be a fascist, it means to share the gifts you were born with, that delight and desire have sharpened and honed over the years. This little light of yours and mine, each of our particular epiphanies, should shine, because they are, in God’s good creation, essential. In God’s eyes your delight matters, and must make a difference! As the writer and chaplain, Frederick Buechner put it: "The place where God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." That’s our vocation!
For there’s a lot of hunger out there. People are in need, and Christ’s mandate is that people need to be served, cared for, must be honored, and our lives must be shared. We need to have and to be saints who are willing to be servants, deaconos, whose perfection is yoked to mercy and service, blessing the meek, meeting the poor, celebrating in solidarity the very fragility of humankind.
Listen to this again, you know the words:
“we offer ourselves to you
as a living sacrifice
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Send us out in the power of your Spirit
to live and work to your praise and glory.”
That when I love the church the most, when we move out, all of us together, Bishops’, Priests, Deacons, Laity, all the people and places of God, taking on and being each and every one of the sacramental signs that fill this place, fleshing out that wholeness and holiness in the midst of this good-beyond-belief world. For this amazing church, St Peter’s Eastern Hill, with all the words and music, all the history and hope, all the smells and bells, with all of us gathered here (and those who have gone on) are all a sacrament, a sign, a bright reminder, of the holiness of the whole world. That is why we’re here! We get washed up, confirmed, ordered, married and buried, we bring our sins and illnesses, find forgiveness for ourselves and our neighbors, get touched for healing and hope, we get well fed and we take this meal on the road, so that we can be sacraments ourselves in this world of deep gladness and deep hunger. We come to believe that this place is holy so that we can come to know and live and act with the faithful conviction that the whole world is holy, and in great need too: worth changing, worth sharing, worth serving; worth wonderfully overqualified servants doing very simple things extremely well, dancing God’s discipleship all the days of our lives.
Let me end with this from the American Prayer Book. It comes in the middle of one of the Eucharistic prayers and it’s been on my mind this last week.
We praise you, we bless you,
We give thanks to you,
And we pray to you, Lord our God.
Do you hear the hight and breadth, the freedom, the humility and the hope here? That’s what and where we’re called to be, all of us, overseers and servants, bishops, priests, deacons, laity, people of God’s Good News.
And let me paraphrase those words for my own farewell:
Dear people of St Peter’s
I praise you, I bless you,
I give thanks to you, for the many mercies and ministries you have shared with me in the last 8 years,
And I pray with you to the Lord our God. Amen.