Sermon for priestings (part II)

In a sense therefore the Ordination promises which we will hear in a moment take us to the very heart of the Christian experience of God. They remind us that the whole dynamic of Christianity is one of rescue. Rescue of the helpless in the first instance – as we acknowledge that we can do nothing to put right ourselves or our world; only God can do that. Then rescue of the struggling as we see how weak our response always remains towards the generous and undeserved love of God. We are promise-breakers, all of us. Full of good intentions and great ambitions but highly inadequate in fulfilling any of them. By contrast God is a promise-keeper, always hurrying to meet us in our confusion and compromise, and offering to trust us and affirm us no matter how many times we stumble and fall and disgrace ourselves.

None of the promises you hear uttered today will remain unbroken. There’ll come a time when these new priests will falter; every priest does. And a time when they fail completely; every priest does. But those times will also be marked by God’s grace – by the reality of God’s forgiveness and forbearance. Because God is totally constant and consistent He will meet them from the other side of the promise and when their resources run out God’s never will. This is what Paul is proclaiming in 2 Corinthians 5 v 14 when he says ‘The love of Christ compels us’. The Greek behind ‘compel’ is ‘sunekei’ and means ‘to drive forward’ – sending us outwards towards people; but it also means ‘to hold fast’ – giving us a sense of the strong reassuring love of Jesus Christ for each of us.  And what is true of priests can be true of anyone. All of us can experience the remarkable love and compassion of God, coming to us when we feel empty and lost and filling us with a peace which passes understanding.

In that context - the presence of a gracious and healing God – promises, even promises that falter - are worth making. They are given expression with no illusions of grandeur – but with a humble awareness of God’s unfailing love. Even so, I want to add a further word about how we transcend the moments of failure in the priestly life and keep trusting in God’s grace.

One of the temptations we face when things go wrong and we find that we have compromised our best intentions is to go in on ourselves. Or just as bad these days, to go in on our computer. Whichever form it takes, we start to live in an introverted way and we become preoccupied with our own concerns. But that is a recipe for disaster. And the anti-dote lies in the promises we make today.

The word ‘promise’ comes from the Latin ‘promittere’ which means ‘to send forth’. To resolve something or intend it is to be involved in an inner and hidden process but to promise it means to be involved in a commitment to another person or persons. It is about an outward movement, a sending forth of the self and becoming no longer self-centred but other-centred. I want to suggest priests need to look outside themselves in three ways.

First, in God’s praise. Worship is not about how we feel but about God’s worthiness to be praised. It is about expressing gratitude for God’s grace. It is about seeing beyond the present moment and looking out towards the vistas of eternity. It is about celebrating the unerring purposes of God made known in Jesus Christ. And priests in saying their Daily Office and regularly attending the altar for the Eucharist are pointing themselves and others to the over-arching love of God. In administering baptism or marriage they are highlighting God’s delight in sharing our human journey; in officiating at funerals they are gently but firmly proclaiming that not even death can separate us from the love of God. All the time they are putting God, not self, at the centre – moving outwards even when it is costly and sacrificial to do so. A missionary priest returning from India after twenty years was asked ‘What was the most difficult thing about being in India?’ ‘Rising at 5 am to say the Morning Office before the day began’ he replied. It’s that kind of tough  commitment that priests need to show regarding God’s praise – and my experience has taught me that it begins with the Daily Office.

Second, in God’s people. Members of the church set great store by their priests. They want them to make God real by the lives they live and the teaching they give. To neglect regular study and attentiveness to the Scriptures is to short-change the congregation committed to your charge. And indeed to short-change yourself. Hoskyns a great New Testament scholar said ‘I have often buried my head in a lexicon and arisen in the presence of God.’ Such study never produces instant results but is never wasted. But also to hold back from visiting people and really getting to know them is to rob them of the care they deserve. To be inattentive or even indifferent to those who want to unburden themselves at the church door or over the telephone – because you ‘have more important things to do’ is to put selfishness before Christian compassion. And the effects will show. ‘Endue thy ministers with righteousness’ says the old versicle. ‘And make Thy chosen people joyful’ is the response. Where there is joy among God’s people you can be sure that the priest is doing his or her job.

Third, in God’s parish. When a priest becomes an incumbent they are not described as the Vicar of  let’s say St Peter’s Church but the Vicar of Rickerscote. They engage with the whole community, not just the church community. And that is vital. They  become Parish Priests. The word ‘parish’ comes from two Greek words ‘para oikos’ – which mean ‘alongside the house’. So part of a priest’s work is to be responsive to the needs of people who live ‘alongside the house of God’ – who may have little or no inkling of what Christianity is about - but who being made in the image of God and lying within the reach of Christ’s outstretched arms on the Cross are included in the scope of God’s love and deserve the time and availability of their priest. As an Oxford student I took part in a parish mission and one afternoon a man stood with me on a fork in the road. ‘See that road?’ he asked. ‘It leads to the middle class area of the parish’. ‘Now see this road – it leads to the Council estate. Know the difference? You’ll often see the Vicar’s car going up the first road but never up the other.’ We must strive to be inclusive in our outreach and not simply go to those who are like-minded or supportive.

Promises, then, are about the sending forth of the self. They invite the priest to put aside any temptation to be self-indulgent and to become instead other-centred whether that means centred on God, the Christian congregation, or the parish community. But not just the priest. What we have learnt about promises could apply to any one of us, ordained or non-ordained.

So let me finish by reiterating the facts about human promises – the kind of promises we will hear in today’s service.  Human promises are fragile and easily broken. But God can restore and renew us. Are there promises you and I have made in the past which now desperately need God’s healing and help? They might be the promises of baptism or confirmation. They might belong to a marriage. Or they might be part of a family history or a significant friendship. Whatever their original setting if those promises have been broken then we will know it. And maybe this afternoon as we hear other promises made in humble confidence that God will help, we may want to whisper a prayer for help too. We may need God’s forgiveness or the forgiveness of another person. We may need God’s strength to stay true to a demanding promise. We may need to renew our commitment to a promise made long ago.

Whatever it is, let today be an occasion when new priests make their promises and when all of us take stock of those promises we have made or need to make – trusting in God to uphold us and bless us in our best endeavours.  Amen.

Paul W. Thomas