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Ordination of Deacons 2018

by Michael Ford last modified 03 Sep, 2018 01:15 PM

The Revd Richard Carter preached on 'Living the Beatitudes' on behalf of the Bishop, Sunday 1 July 2018.

I come like a beggar with a gift in my hand
By the hungry I will feed you
By the poor I make you rich
By the broken I will mend you
Tell me which one is which?

What is the Gospel for us today? What is the Good News? The Gospel you have just heard read to you was the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes which is really like a song of God’s coming kingdom. The Beatitudes are nine blessings of God and yet for many of us listening to them they may not seem very much like blessings at all, more a kind of manifesto of deprivation- blessed are the poor in heart, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the persecuted for righteousness sake- are these things not to be feared? There is not much confident self-assertion in this list. Not much obvious management potential. Not the kinds of things you would put on an application for a new position advertised in the Church Times demanding a list of superhuman “proven leadership skills.” Are not these Beatitudes the way of unhealthy self-sacrifice- put up with everything, now and your reward will be in heaven? Is this not what makes the thought of Christianity so out of touch with a society whose advertising message is that to be is to have?

In the Good News Bible they translate the word “Blessed as “Happy”. Not misery but joy and hope at the very heart of our Christian ministry. Jesus is not blessing the poverty of deprivation and oppression, he is blessing a poverty of Spirit which makes room for God and allows space in our lives for us to discover the promises of God. Clear a space in your life, let go of all that is counterfeit or misleading you. Let go of the pride and the selfishness of spirit that keeps you prisoner in order to discover the wonder of our inheritance as sons and daughters of God. The Beatitudes are a song of liberation and that is our calling to sing that song and live out those blessings.

I remember going to a gathering with old friends shortly after I had been ordained a deacon and was still feeling somewhat uncomfortable in a stiff dog-collar and out of place in my new role. “What’s wrong? you look a bit awkward standing there” said one of my friends who I knew to be highly critical of the institutional church- “Yes" I said, "I haven’t yet worked out how to be a deacon in public” as quick as a flash my friend replied “Be yourself that’s the one God called,” St Francis de Sales put it this way “Be who you are and be that well.” Peter Brook the acclaimed theatre director writes that “A true actor has to forget making an impression, he has to forget showing, he has to forget fabricating, he has to forget making effects, and in its place he has to open himself to the notion of being the servant of an image that will always be greater than himself.” The words Brook comes back to time and time again is truthfulness and transparency. In a word we are learning to unmask rather than mask. We are discovering how to be truer to a deeper humanity. How true this is of all who are called by God. Beware of idealised self-images. Beware of thinking it is you who can save. Remember that hypocrite is a Greek word that simply means someone who plays a role rather than being real. But God’s calling is the opposite of this. It is a call to take off disguise, it is a call to open ones hands and ones heart. To let go of the fear and defensiveness that prevents you answering. True humility is not demeaning, quite the opposite- it enriches all that you are, by making space for God within you. This is what it means to be a deacon- a servant of the servant Lord. That calling will need continual prayer, it will need constant mindfulness of the presence of God in all people and all things and it will need God’s mercy. Think of David- he is only the shepherd boy- he is the youngest and in many ways the least likely to be chosen and anointed and yet this is the one God chooses. Think of how when he goes out to fight Goliath they try to weigh him down with armour, but he takes it off. He goes as he is- so he can be nimble and light of foot, placing his trust in God alone. Think of yourselves today not as weighed down or burdened but freed for God’s service, freed to love, freed to be merciful, freed to be with those who grieve or mourn, within you a hunger and thirst for a righteousness which brings life and hope that heals and restores. What greater vocation could anyone be given than to be freed to love God and to love ones neighbour. That’s your job description. You have been given a vocation to love. To bring joy. To allow Christ to increase. How wonderful is that. Just think of the moments of real blessing in your life- were they not too moments of mercy, and generosity and love-moments where you realised life was so much more than self.

But can these beatitudes, these blessings be lived out in a tough competitive modern world? Indeed in a church demanding success, management skills, and strategic plans for growth?

These beatitudes the means to true Christian growth. When you witness those who live the Beatitudes Christ is instantly recognisable. As Mahatma Ghandi said- if Christians really lived according to the teachings of Christ they would convert the world. I wonder if you can remember a time in your life when amidst the weight of our anxieties and contradictions you glimpsed within yourself what it is like to live in a place of simplicity and light, glimpsed the possibility of Christ’s freedom and authentic love? Can the Beatitudes speak to the modern world? Well here is just one example.

A few years ago at St Martin-in-the-Fields we were asked to stage the Templeton Prize which is a bit like the Nobel Peace Prize for religious leaders. Stage was the right word. The guests were all sent the most beautiful invitations and the VIP guests were directed to assigned seats. The front of the church had been converted with a raised stage area that looked a like a television studio, all high spec, with the most amazing autocue system that telescoped up into the air every time someone spoke. Around the church were cameras and flat screen monitors. Everyone had been invited to come in formal attire. The introduction to the ceremony set the scene. We were told how Sir John Templeton’s vision had been to identify “entrepreneurs of the Spirit- those who devote their talents to expanding our vision of the intangible and deeper realities of human purpose.” It was a highly polished professional performance- but it has to be said that until that point it felt a bit like we were about to witness the release of a new Apple iPhone.

Up until the point that is that the recipient was helped to the podium. John Vanier is founder of L’Arche Community, living for most of his life alongside those with intellectual and physical disability. He is very elderly now, tall and quite gangling. Despite the formal dress of everyone present he himself was wearing an ordinary open neck shirt and old anorak- he wrapped his large frame around the lectern and looked around the audience with a smile that lit up the church. And without any notes or autocue or affection he told us that each of us have to learn that every single person is important. This realisation he said had to come to him through the privilege of sharing his life with those with physical and mental disability. While disability had in the past been seen as a thing of shame- to him and many others, it was so called disabled people who had shown him the way to a relationship with God. You see he said if you become the friend of the rejected- you are changed- you learn to live a life that is no longer a prison or a fortress, or a locked upper room but a belonging which opens us up- a belonging which is a becoming. It is a belonging that opens up your own vulnerability- and it is here that God makes his dwelling. What we have to do in our world, he said, is to rediscover that each person is precious and sacred- that people are beautiful. Those who rise up in anger or hatred have a story of humiliation that has never been heard. What we need to do is to build relationships of trust and love from the bottom up. “It’s not what we do or what we have, it’s how we discover in relationship- who we truly are.”

And then as by way of example members of L’Arche Community began to hold up huge red hearts. We had not noticed them mixed among the formal suited guests but now they stood up and the Holy Spirit seemed to be breaking loose and a song began
I come like a beggar with a gift in my hand
I come like a beggar with a gift in my hand
By the hungry I will feed you
By the poor I make you rich
By the broken I will mend you
Tell me which one is which.

It was a parable taking place in our midst- they started to fill a table with bread and fruit and grapes and then they began to dance up the aisle without affectation or embarrassment but with joy. Jean Vanier held by his hands and dancing in their midst surrounded by those of all types of ability and disability and we in our stiff formal attire felt our own inhibitions and disabilities dissolving and perhaps longed for the same Spirit of the beatitudes which opened up a life of God’s call- the possibility, in short, of becoming more human. And so too shy to dance we did that formal English spontaneous thing- we clapped- clapped as loud as we could because we had heard and seen a truth that had come without invitation into our upper room and changed not only the rules but if we were really honest, the meaning of life itself.

We are about to celebrate the Eucharist. And at the last supper our Lord in the Spirit of the Beatitudes gave us an example to follow. He washed his disciples’ feet. We must not forget that the action is two way, it is reciprocal and that’s what makes it an act of liberation. The disciples had to allow their feet to be washed. Living the Beatitudes is not a top down process it is a circle in which all are included. The giver the receiver, the receiver the giver. Living the Beatitudes is about realising that in serving, you too are served and trusted and loved. You are going to be the deacons of this becoming.

You see our Gospel speaks, it says
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven,
Humility is a greater freedom that pride.
Nothing is as strong as gentleness and nothing so gentle as real strength.
Mercy is a greater blessing than hatred and accusation and malice.
It says purity and truth are more beautiful than deception and greed.
It says that peace-making is what it means to be a son or daughter of God.
It calls us to blessing not to curse- do not be poisoned or overcome by criticism, humiliation, or persecution. Answer hatred with love.
The Gospel is true.
Live the Gospel and you will see.

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