21st October 2012, 20th Sunday after Trinity, St Mary’s, morning

Readings Isaiah 53.4–end, Mark 10.35–45

Preacher The Venerable Stephen Roberts, Archdeacon of Wandsworth

Welcome of Ruth Martin as Reader and Licensing of Alan Sykes as Honorary Curate

Ruth Martin was licensed as a new Reader by the Bishop of Southwark in the Cathedral last Monday and today is an opportunity to welcome Ruth into her new role and to mark the beginning of her ministry as a Reader here at St Mary’s and in the Richmond Team.

At the same time we mark the end of Alan Sykes’ four years of training as an Assistant Curate. And what a four years it has been! One Rector bade a fond farewell and another was warmly welcomed, to the sound of trumpets as I recall. Throughout, Alan has been wonderfully present. He has simply been there and has risen to the challenge of whatever has faced him. In fact, part way through his curacy Alan took early retirement in order to be there simply more often.

Alan’s licence as a training curate is time limited and has now come to an end after four years, so I am here to relicense him as your Honorary Curate, because he wishes to remain here, and you wish that too. I suppose you could say that this service is an opportunity for him to throw away his L-plates – he’s not a learner driver anymore – but the truth is Alan has shown himself to be a quick learner and anyway there’s never a time when you stop learning, as Alan would be the first to say.

So this service is a celebration of vocation – that sense of knowing yourself to be called – often unlooked for, but nonetheless a tangible reality when it comes. You just know you have to pursue the possibility, come what may.

For Ruth and Alan there are no financial benefits, the only reward is the priceless fulfilment that comes from knowing that you are doing and being what you are meant to do and to be, ‘Costing not less than everything’ (as T.S. Eliot, says in Little Gidding).

My father was a cabinet maker and as a boy he taught me how to plane a piece of wood. He placed his hand on mine and gently ran it over its surface.

Can you feel it?

Yes, what is it?

It’s the grain – it shows you how the tree grew, slowly, layer after layer.

When you use a plane and sandpaper you have to go with the grain, not against it. If you go against the grain, you finish up taking great chunks out of the wood and damaging the blade of the plane, but if you go with the grain, the surface becomes smooth and beautiful and you can shape it.

Taking your vocation seriously – feeling for the grain – is not just a matter for clergy and Readers, it is something for us all, working away at what it means for us to be and to do what we are meant to be and to do.

The church exists to provide space and encouragement in which to do so, likened by R.S. Thomas in his poem Emerging to a laboratory – a ‘laboratory of the spirit’.

He writes:

There are questions we are the solution
to, others whose echoes we must expand
to contain. Circular as our way
is, it leads not back to that snake-haunted
garden, but onward to the tall city
of glass that is the laboratory of the spirit.

Ruth and Alan have needed to spend a good deal of time in the laboratory of the spirit. It is space where you can join them, if you’re prepared to.

I love that idea that there are questions we are the solution to, others whose echoes we must expand to contain. It’s the most wonderful description of exploring a sense of vocation, that some questions by their nature need us to expand in order to be able to approach a solution.

Alan and Ruth have been affirmed by the Church in the exercise of what is called a representative ministry.

Ministry is not a solitary pastime, good for whiling away the hours. Without you there is no ministry. They need your yes – about them, to them, for them – before anything else is possible, and it needs to be an ongoing yes, which is why this service is important.

What they do they do because they are one of you, like you, not different from you, by God’s grace set apart for a particular calling of teaching and leadership and service, but never fundamentally different from you. Through the waters of baptism we come to belong together in the same body, on equal terms – nothing of that is changed by being ordained or commissioned or licensed. As St Paul says in 1 Corinthians: Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. They need you, the People of God.

To have a representative ministry is to show, to re-present, truths about ourselves as a Church. In ordaining or commissioning or in licensing Alan and Ruth the Church is saying: “We want to be able to look at you and be reminded of what we have all been called to be”.

I’m reminded of that beautiful quotation from St Irenaeus (the second-century bishop of Lyon) who said: “The glory of God is a human person fully alive”.

The true calling of the Church, the true calling of the minister, is to express and to enact the life of Christ in the world.

The People of God are (as the Letter to the Ephesians puts it): to come to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

Alan and Ruth are called to animate the People of God in this process of becoming. Crucial descriptions: to express, to enact, to animate. Because of this, a representative ministry is and should be costly, because being true to being the People of God is and should be costly. And anyway, is an un-costly call worth having?

In today’s gospel James and John, the sons of Zebedee, ask Jesus if they can sit in honour at his left and his right in his glory, but Jesus questions if they know what they are asking and then faces them with the most penetrating of questions “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?”

After I was ordained, my father came up to me – as blunt and as practical as ever – and asked me “Do you feel any different?”

That isn’t how it works! Success at being a Reader or a priest isn’t like success usually is. Often weakness and failure are more useful to God. “When I am weak, then I am strong” wrote St Paul, “because through my weakness Christ’s strength can be seen”.

As long as I can remember that what I do isn’t done in my own strength, as long as I can grasp that ministry has nothing to do with my own merit but is the gift of Christ, then in my weakness Christ can be strong.

Sometimes this means feeling helpless, but there are worse things to feel. So many descriptions of ministry are bound up with doing, roles you fulfil: teacher, preacher, pastor, administrator. But if we’re not careful something risks getting lost. If your calling – Ruth and Alan – is to express and enact the ministry of the whole People of God, then never forget that sometimes you will need to stand and stare, or kneel and wait.

As Reader and priest, in the exercise of this – your representative – ministry – at the altar here, you will hold the cup, you will lift it up for others to drink from and you will drink from it yourselves, down to the dregs.

May you continue to drink from his cup, the cup of one who came not to be served but to serve, and may you continue to be richly blessed in his service.

And may we, in our turn, be prepared to be true to our own calling, or at least be prepared to think about it – to feel for the impressions of God’s grain in our own lives – knowing how, as the poet says:

There are questions we are the solution to, others whose echoes we must expand to contain.

Amen. 

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