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Disappointment and Hope

Bishop Helen-Ann's Chrism Mass sermon

Chrism Mass 2017

Isaiah 61.1-9
Eph. 4.1-13
Matt. 9.35-38

When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Those of you with good memories may recall that last year, I began my Chrism Mass sermon by reflecting on the possible message of the temporary speedometer that had been parked outside Bishop’s House.  You might remember that I reflected on the need in ministry to be patient, to slow down, to take time to take stock.  This year there is no speedometer but there are 4 traffic cones, a large pile of dirt and great big hole in the middle of the drive-way.  

It all began just over two weeks ago.  It was a Saturday and I was up early because I had a meeting in the Diocesan office to discuss a new process of clergy reviews.  I decided to get ahead of myself and put a wash on.  I sat down with a cup of tea, and had a moment of feeling rather pleased with myself at having ticked off one of the domestic chores for the day.  Half an hour later I went to check on the washing and found water sloshing around the garage.  Several towels, mops and buckets later I managed to more or less salvage the situation, and diagnosed what the issue was: blocked drains.  I couldn’t do much about it at that point because by that stage I was in danger of arriving late for the meeting.  

The Saturday in question also happened to be the feast of the annunciation: and this took on a somewhat ironic tone when the reason for the blocked drains was discovered – it turns out that the ultra-fast fibre that was meant to enable speedy and smooth communication had been thrust-fired straight through the house drain!  I dare say the angel Gabriel may had a few challenges in getting the message to Mary, but blocked drains and dodgy internet cable probably wasn’t on any angelic list of things to watch out for!

A few days after that, I was in a café and spoke with one of the mangers there who I know.  

She told me that she had been having a conversation with her 7-year old son about some decisions she was having to make about their future.  She asked her son what he would do?  He said, ‘Mummy you need to get one of those hats and talk to God!’  Initially confused, she realised that her son was perhaps recalling his uncle’s confirmation in Putaruru and was in fact talking about a bishop’s mitre.  We laughed together at this thought – a bishop’s mitre, an antenna for direct divine communication?!  If only!  But in all seriousness, the young woman told me she wasn’t religious, wasn’t sure about God, but would I pray for her?  Of course I said, and off she went with a smile.

Ministry, to put it crudely, is a mixture of blocked drains and profound pastoral encounter, and this is true whatever our context: ministry unit, school, University, hospital, daily life and work, urban and rural.  Yet how many of us get waylaid by the day to day challenges of maintaining body and soul and fixtures and fittings (and that’s not just personal aches and pains!), so much so that we either forget or have little energy for engagement in God’s mission?  Dwelling on disappointment can block the path to hope if we are not careful.  Equally unhelpful are avoiding critical issues of sustainability, the extent of missional and community engagement, our Tikanga relationships, and the greening of leadership.  

For too long perhaps, we have parked difficult issues and decisions leaving them for others to fix.  This cannot continue; difficult situations of conflict and dysfunction require careful consultation and management for change.  Change itself must be embraced; the Gospel is all about opportunity and growth (however small), not about avoidance and decline.  We have much to give thanks for, much to hope for, and much to lament for, much to repent for, and with all of that, much to live for in God’s grace and mercy.  

In our Gospel reading, one commentator (David Bartlett in The Fourfold Gospel Commentary ed. Andrew Gregory SPCK, 2006 p.31) describes how 'the people who come to Jesus for direction and healing foreshadow those who will come to church leaders after his death and resurrection.  They are to be shepherds for the sheep; they are to be workers for his harvest.  And the first responsibility of the shepherd and the worker is to declare what Jesus, and before him, John the Baptist, have declared: ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’'  The mandate is for us to share the good news of the Kingdom: Jesus Christ is Lord and all are called to be faithful to him and to God’s word in this time.  This requires courage as well as patience.

Jesus also says: ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few.’  It’s easy to feel discouraged isn’t it?

This year our episcopal vision has as its focus: being connected to community.  This third strand is woven together with prayer and discipleship.  In a few weeks’ time we will be starting the Living Faith Today course (LiFT); I am delighted that nearly 80 people across the Diocese have signed up for this journey of learning, formation and discipleship.  I am confident that from this new vocations to lay and ordained ministry may, God willing, flourish.  I am thankful for those who have stepped forward to help, and those who have responded to the invitation to take part.  Just at that point when we start to feel overwhelmed there are glimpses of hope.  But prayer and faithfulness are key if we are going to get anywhere.  

The Benedictine monk and director of the World Community for Christian Meditation, Laurence Freeman writes about his time as a young monk working alongside his mentor in the practice of Christian meditation Fr John Main.  He says this:

‘About eighteen months or maybe two years later, I went with him as a young monk with simple vows from Ealing to start a small centre of prayer in Montreal.  Five years later, Fr John died at end of 1982.  The community was still very small, rather fragile, but it had ut down one very deep root.  It was the root of prayer, and it was a root that began to spread.  It spread to the extent that now what you might call a community of Christian meditators has come into being around the world…that expansion reminds us…that the whole people of God, all the faithful of Christ, are called to the fullness of their Christian experience; that there is a universal call to holiness’ (Laurence Freeman, OSB Why Are We Here? Convivium Press, 2012, pp. 22-23).

Jesus’ call to action is grounded in a life of prayer, the Lord’s Prayer being the key aspect of what connects heaven and earth, divinity and humanity.  And this is a process that connects us with one another in this Diocese, but also with Christians across the globe.  The harrowing news of 44 Coptic Christians murdered by Islamic extremists in Egypt on Palm Sunday is part of our story too.  We cannot ignore their plight, we cannot forget our sisters and brothers who live in persecution at this very moment, nor can we ignore all those who suffer for their faith.  Lord have mercy on us all!

This Holy Week I encourage us all to pray for those who live in fear, whether nearby or far away.  As we walk the journey of the cross let us not lose sight of the simple reality of these words of the former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins who confirmed me: ‘God is as he is in Jesus, therefore we have hope.’  Let us pray:

Thanks be to God for our creation, preservation and redemption.  Strong in his love, may we never forget our weakness, busy about our tasks, may we always remember that God alone enables us day by day.  
We have received so much: may we have grace to give as freely as we have received.

(Prayer adapted from Raymond Chapman Following the Gospel Through the Year, Canterbury Press, 2001)

Story Published: 11th of April - 2017

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