Friday, September 15, 2017

Servants of the Servants of God

Today, I’m going to take the unusual step of entirely ignoring the readings of the day.  For today is a special day, indeed.  Today, of course, we welcome among us two new deacons!  This is then a jolly good opportunity to reflect a little on what a deacon is.

Perversely, though, let's start with what a deacon is not!  A deacon is not a sort of 'baby priest' - or a priest in waiting -  a priest with training wheels if you like....although there is something of that in David and Vickie’s situation, because we fully hope and expect that they will be ordained as priests within a year.   Being a deacon, is actually at the heart of what it means to be a minister in the church today.  And its worth remembering that no priest ever stops being a deacon.  Even a Bishop is still a deacon...something that Bishop Christopher demonstrated very powerfully yesterday by washing Vickie & David’s feet.

The word 'deacon' comes from a Greek word, diakonos - which meant 'servant', 'waiting man', 'minister' or sometimes 'messenger'.  Deacons, then, are ‘ministers’ in the full sense of that word – but not in the way that the world of politics uses it.    In that world ‘minister’ is a word which sometimes vacates its meaning altogether.  Government ministers – of any political party – have a tendency to perceive themselves as superior beings, demanding that they should be treated with the respect they feel their office deserves.  Believe me, I know.  I used to work in Westminster!  The meaning of the word was even more corrupted with the introduction of the phrase ‘Prime Minister’ – which legally speaking is still only short hand for the post of First Lord of the Treasury.  A ‘prime minister’ should be the greatest servant of all – but they are often the most power-crazed of all ministers! 

But holding and exercising power over others, is very far from the original meaning of the word minister, or deacon.  The first deacons were appointed by the Apostles, who found that during the early days of the church, when everyone was eating together, they were spending too much time waiting at tables, and in general administration.  They were neglecting their primary call to be the theologians, leaders and teachers of their community.

So a deacon – a minister - is first and foremost a servant.  It is the call to service of others which underpins every deacon.  And of course, as you well know, service is something to which every Christian is called.  In many ways, all of us in this parish have diaconal ministries.  We all serve one another, and the world around us, in many different ways.  Welcoming people into church, cleaning and maintaining buildings, sitting on committees, organising events, singing, bell ringing, visiting the sick, serving at the Altar...all of these (and many more) are diaconal roles. 

But David & Vickie, as well as Bishop John, Father Richard and I have all been called – first and foremost among any other roles we may have - to represent that diaconal role in particular way.  We are called to model it as a way of life to which all Christians are called.  We are, in a sense, called to be icons of service to the whole community. 

An icon is any image, or representation, which speaks to us of a deeper truth.  An icon of Mary or Jesus, like those in our Lady Chapel, are not actually Mary or Jesus – but they point us to the deeper realities which Mary and Jesus are.  So when you see one of us with a hand down a U-bend, or lugging tables, or painting a wall, or making the coffee, or filling out the endless paperwork of the Anglican Church!...we're being deacons - called to a ministry of service, just like everyone here.

But as ordained deacons, we are also 'set aside' by the church for some particular ministries.  We have been given rather expensive training for particular specialist servant tasks...especially the tasks of preaching and teaching and leading this community, and its worship.  Ordained Deacons are 'set apart' from some of the day to day servant-tasks of all the people - because communities need leaders, and teachers, and experts in that all that is said and done in our worship can be of the highest standard possible. 

Ordained deacons also have another particular role in the worship of the church.  Deacons come from the people, called out of the people. They speak on behalf of the people, and to the people... calling the whole congregation to confession, calling them to share peace, calling them to declare their faith, and encouraging them to go out at the end of the Mass to love and serve the Lord.  They also lay and clear the Lord’s Table, as a reminder of the tasks of the very first deacons - who waited at the tables of the first Jerusalem church.

I hope that helps a bit - to understand something of what all of us up here in the fancy clothes are attempting to do with our lives as we respond to the call of God.  It's something we desperately need your prayers please pray for us, and especially for David and Vickie, as they take up this vital task. 

Pray too for Jake and Freddie, as they get used to seeing David and Vickie walking round in strange collars!

David & Vickie’s collars, by the way, like mine, are also a important symbol.  The clerical collar – not a dog collar! - resembles the collar of a slave....a ring of steel round the neck.  It's a collar which is meant to remind all of us who are deacons that we are called to be servants of the servants of God.  All Christians are the servants of God...that is your calling.  Remember that wonderful hymn:  “Ye servants of God, your Master proclaim”.  So all of us are servants, but we are called to be your servants!  It's pretty mind-blowing, really!  We attempt to serve you by offering you gifts of leadership and teaching. 

I have often said that the Kingdom of God is an ‘upside down’ place.  Almost everything you can think of about the Kingdom is the opposite of what normal human society looks like.  In the kingdom, forgiveness is given instead of revenge.  In the kingdom, love is offered instead of hate.  Generosity, instead of greed.  Donations, rather than receipts.  Community, instead of loneliness.  And the true calling of leaders is no less topsy-turvy.  In the world, leaders are perceived as those who climb the greasy pole – they seek advancement and enrichment for themselves.  In the Kingdom, leaders descend the ladder of servant-hood, seeking to gain only more opportunities to serve. 

That is why, incidentally, church processions, are the opposite of worldly processions.  It’s why the Bishop, last evening, came at the end of the procession – whilst the Cross was carried at the front. It’s why the ‘president’ of the Eucharist walks at the rear of the procession.  That is the opposite of the way a royal procession takes place in the world of humankind - the opposite of what happens when the Queen processes into Parliament or Westminster Abbey.  In a church procession, the most humble servant – the Bishop – comes last.  For he, or she, is called to be the servant of the servants of the servants of God.

Incidentally – I have to tell you that this can make for some funny conversations when groups of clergy are lining up for a procession.  You effectively find that folks are debating who is the humblest among them.  Does a Rural Dean go before or after a Cathedral Dean?  Is a Canon more lowly than a Reverend?  It can get very confusing, I can tell you, as everyone jockeys for the lowliest place!

So, Mother Vickie & Father David, Reverend and Reverend Morgan, welcome to your new lives as servants of the servants of God.  I pray that the rest of your ministries will be characterised by the serving qualities that you have already shown as lay ministers, but deepened and broadened to yet new joyful depths of servant-hood.  I pray that whether you both become, one day, Vicars, Rectors, Canons, Deans or even Bishops, you will never forget – as I know you will not – that today you were called and set apart for lives of service.

And may their calling, and their example, inspire us all to new and ever deeper and more dedicated lives of service to all.


Friday, September 8, 2017

When two or three are gathered...

Matthew 18:15-20
Have you ever found yourself at a church meeting with only a couple of other people?  You know what it’s like - you have organised a venue, booked the room, bought the coffee and biscuits, planned an agenda...and only two other people turn up.

At that point, in most churches I've ever known, someone will usually say "Oh well...when two are three are gathered....".  The rest of the group will smile, weakly, and draw some comfort from the fact that Jesus did promise to be with even the smallest of gatherings!

But is that really the point?  Did Jesus make that promise because he knew that there would be many times that small groups of Christians would gather in dimly lit, scruffy rooms on plastic chairs?  Well perhaps he did.  But I think there was something rather larger going on...

Jesus' statement raises a question.  If it takes two or three of us to gather together in order for him to be present, does that mean that he is not present when we are on our own?  It raises the question of 'where is God?'

There is a tendency among certain missionary Christians to talk about 'taking God' to a certain place.  They talk about 'taking God out into the community' or 'taking Jesus into Africa' - or India, or to the Muslim world or wherever.  In other words, there are some Christians who seem to believe that until God has been taken into a given situation, he is not there.  

But isn't that a bit wrong-headed?  God isn’t some deity that we carry around in our pockets.  There is no-where that God is not.  Psalm 139 sums this up rather beautifully:

Where can I go from your Spirit? 
        Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there; 
        if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn, 
        if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me, 
        your right hand will hold me fast.

Our task, as people who have encountered God already, is simply - no more and no less - to help other people to encounter him too.  Not by 'bringing God to them' but by helping them to recognise that God is already among them.   You and I - we are the window-cleaners...the people who remove the accretions of the years, polishing the glass so that others too may glimpse the Infinite.  It is our task to point out to people that the creative, life-giving God is already among them.

That is just what the Apostle Paul did - as we've been reading in our mid-week readings recently.  He went to Athens, and there he saw that the Athenians had built many altars, to all sorts of Gods.  But he spied one altar which was labelled simply 'to the Unknown God'.  It was probably the Athenians way of making sure that if they had not yet learned about a certain God, he wouldn't get miffed at them!  But Paul saw an opportunity here.  He told the learned philosophers and teachers of Athens that he had come to tell them about this 'unknown God' - the God whom they already recognised was among them, but whom they didn't yet know.

Many people that I meet already have a clear sense that God is among them.  They have recognised the hand of God in the beauty of nature, or the smile of a friend, or the laughter of a child.  They are unable to conceive of a world of such complexity and beauty as ours which could simply exist by chance.  In those circumstances, my task is often to simply act as a guide...

Have you ever been on a guided tour?  My family and I were in Rome a few years ago - and we rather reluctantly paid an awful lot of Euros for a guide to take us round the Coliseum.  We were jolly glad that we did.  That guide was able to tell us all sorts of things that we would never have worked out for ourselves.  They had learned all these facts and figures about the Coliseum - just by living and working there day after day.  And we were able to tap their knowledge...and begin to grasp something of the story of the place.

Christians are called to be a bit like that Coliseum guide.  We are people who have absorbed something about the reality of God.  We've lived with God - through the good times and the bad. And we have gained some insights into what God is like, and how God operates; insights that some other people haven't yet got.  It is our task, our duty, our joy and privilege, to share our knowledge with those be their help them find their way along the paths of God.

But there's another dimension to this statement of Jesus' as well - this idea that when two or three are gathered together he is in the midst of us.  I think Jesus is pointing us to another vitally important principle...and that's the idea that Jesus, and therefore God, is most easily found in community.

That's also what the service of Holy Communion is all about.  Did you know that, according to the church's laws and doctrines, I cannot celebrate communion on my own?  The church believes that the transformation of the elements - the transformation of the bread and wine into the spiritual body and blood of Jesus - can only take place when there is more than one person present.  Communion is all about coming together, in community - in communion with one another and with God.

May you and I continue to discover Jesus in our midst, whether there are two or three, or 70 or 80 of us.  May you and I be alert to the signs of God around us, and in us, and through us.  May you and I be guides for one another - showing each other the places we have found God.  And may we never stop coming together for this vitally important task of being in community - in communion - with one another and with God.   Amen