Chrism Mass Sermon, Maundy Thursday 2017
Readings: Micah 6.6-8; 2 Corinthians 4.7-12; John 13.31-35.
Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” John 13.34
Later this year we will be marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, taking as its starting point Martin Luther’s posting of 95 theses on the door of the castle chapel in Wittenberg. Helen, my wife, is descended from Luther so we have a familial interest. I love one of Luther’s Sacristy Prayers:
Lord God, You have appointed me as a Pastor in Your Church, but you see how unsuited I am to meet so great and difficult a task. If I had lacked Your help, I would have ruined everything long ago. Therefore, I call upon You: I wish to devote my mouth and my heart to you; I shall teach the people. I myself will learn and ponder diligently upon Your Word. Use me as Your instrument -- but do not forsake me, for if ever I should be on my own, I would easily wreck it all.
Translated by James Kellerman from Dr. Martin Luther’s Werke (Weimar: Hermann Boehlaus Nachfolger, 1909), Band 43, pp. 513.
It’s a good place to start as we gather from across the Diocese to renew our ordination vows, that today we are renewed in God’s service, that God will work through us, even us.
If you are feeling a bit of pressure from the way we have changed Archdeacon’s Visitations, you might feel quite pleased to know that every Diocese now has to do what is called ‘Diocesan Peer Review’, a sort of ecclesiastical Ofchurch. Ours was conducted in February by a Panel from the Dioceses of Bristol, Worcester and London supported by a man from the unbelievably named Strategy and Development Unit at Church House Westminster.
In preparation Bishop’s Council did some very useful work which helped us integrate the Diocesan story and identified our strengths and weaknesses. Lucinda Herklots, our Diocesan Secretary, Bishop Karen and Canon Jane Charman pulled together a suite of documents to be sent in advance to the Reviewers – a Self-Assessment and what we call our Balanced Scorecard (a management and monitoring tool), papers about Renewing Hope – Pray, Serve, Grow, the Diocesan Board of Finance Annual Report and Budget, the Diocesan Board of Education Strategic Plan, Cathedral Annual Report, Church Buildings Policy, Church Planting Policy, our still emerging Strategic Development Bid on growing ministry and mission in the Rural Church and so on.
In Renewing Hope we begin every meeting with a passage of Scripture, prayer and the lighting of a candle. For this full-day Review I began with 2 Corinthians 4.7:
We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
Church is not about success as the world thinks of it but there is not another voluntary organisation in every community and with as many active participants and fellow travellers from across the full width of society; which goes on praying and serving week in week out; is involved in the key institutions of schools, hospitals, prisons and a raft of other chaplaincies; where the finance adds up; and is experiencing a more than 50% increase in vocations to ordained ministry. It might not be easy, but it is amazing. Increasingly I think of the Church of England and the Diocese of Salisbury as one of God’s small miracles, a partnership between God and us, and us with each other, in service of the whole creation God loves so much as to send his Son among us.
Praying Together: a Feast for Lent
Praying Together through Lent as a Diocese has been a shared activity involving about 25,000 of us. Thanks to Ian Cowley and Tom Clammer for creating such a simple format. Each day there is a short passage of Scripture, with an equally short reflection, prayer and suggested action. It has given me a taste for short passages of Scripture, hence the length of the readings at this service. Some days a phrase has stayed with me, as today: Love one another as I have loved you. There have been few days when someone hasn't talked to me about it.
Bishop Michael Perham launched Praying Together on Ash Wednesday. He has been chairing the Pray Forum as part of our diocesan commitment to Renewing Hope – Pray, Serve, Grow. As you know, Bishop Michael has a malignant brain tumour. Almost certainly the sermon he preached here on Ash Wednesday about the feast of Lent and of our accepting joyfully the cross marked on us that day in ash, was his last. The manner of his preaching was at one with the message. He sat in the sanctuary and read his script because he could no longer rely on his brain to make sense of notes from which he would formerly have spoken. It was delivered with grace and not much evidence of the enormous physical effort involved.
The following week I went on retreat. Retreats always begin tired. I got up on the first day for the Eucharist and the priest started talking about the refugee crisis. My heart sank. I wanted a retreat. It was peace and quiet I needed, not refugees. It took a good five minutes and a well written confession to help me arrive. Why on earth was I feeling resentful at these people impinging on my quiet time when they are so desperate that an overcrowded boat in a dangerous sea looks better than the terror where once they lived? I had to learn again how the stranger and the outsider are the source of renewal and hope and the means by whom God re-creates me. Lent is a feast in which we joyfully accept the cross that is given us.
This Lent there is a terrible crisis in the South Sudan where we have been linked for 44 years. It is a part of the world in which there has been relentless conflict. After the hope of independence in July 2011, they have fallen back into violence and there is great suffering. Some 3.4 million women, men and children are displaced from their homes. The economy has collapsed, malnutrition has soared and hunger has taken a firm hold. At least 100,000 people are now facing starvation and a further one million are on the brink of famine. We could not do nothing. So I appealed to the Diocese for urgent help for our brothers and sisters.
One person wrote to say what others must have thought. He said that we have been helping these people for years and it is time for them to help themselves. It was a shock. I nearly wrote back: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” I am glad I didn’t because who am I to judge, and that person might have been making the same journey Bishop Michael must have made to accept his brain tumour as a cross imposed on him; as I made in the slow realisation that retreats are not escapes into fantasy but confront us with reality.
Last night the total raised was just under £54,000 to be given through Christian Aid to feed the starving in Unity State and build their resilience for the future. So thank you and please thank everyone in your communities who has given. Even better, I know of another £30,000 raised for other parts of the South Sudan link during Lent – for Bishop Allison Theological College, for bicycles for ministers in the Diocese of Cueibet, for the Medical Link, and for the Diocese of Kajo Keji… and so on. The money is important and, is still coming in, but what I keep being told is that what gives South Sudanese hope is that we care about them, keep in touch and pray for them.
God’s small miracle of the Church of England; it is what happens when we are open to love one another in the way of Jesus Christ. It is the fruit of our Praying Together.
In the Diocesan Peer Review we did OK. They agreed with us about our strengths and weaknesses. Some things are going very well – such as the cathedral, education, vocations and social justice. Other things that have been strengths for a long time in this Diocese now need a bit of care and attention as the context changes – such as finance and the programme for clergy wellbeing. A few things might usefully be thought about as we could do them better, such as the way we communicate what we are about and why it matters. They suggested we might learn from others in similar circumstances. We would have been more self-critical.
Near the beginning of Lent I heard a programme on the Radio about the Birmingham Children’s Hospital. Seven years ago they were in trouble for being a poor performer. The Chief Executive said they struggled to turn things round. Senior management tried all sorts of initiatives and programmes but nothing worked. What changed things, the Chief Executive said, was when they asked the staff what they would do. All of a sudden the culture, ethos and performance of the hospital began to improve; everyone started to make a difference and now it is one of the best hospitals in the country.
I got a letter the other day from someone who plays a key role in their local church and is very thoughtful about it. “What is the point of the Church of England?” they asked; “What does the Church do for us?”
This sermon is part of my reply.
It would be nice if God provided some people who were better than us, who weren’t so slow to catch on and didn’t fall asleep having promised to pray for just an hour; were people who loved each other and knew how to run a really brilliant organisation.
Instead God has called us. This is it. We are the Church. In the way of Jesus Christ,
What do you pray for?
Whom do you serve?
How will we grow?
In the place where I went on retreat, the daily Eucharist ended with a statement based on the well-known passage from Micah. It has remained with me throughout Lent:
This is what is required of us,
to do justice,
to love kindness
and to walk humbly with our God.
As we renew our ordination vows and go into the great three days at the heart of the Christian year, it sets a standard: that the God who calls us, even us, loves us in the way of Jesus Christ, so that we might seek with all our heart and mind and soul to love God and to love one another.
“By this,” said Jesus Christ, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” It is the only Peer Review that matters.