SermonSt Margaret of Antioch, Toxteth
26th June 2017
Following the ordination of Fr Ryan Cook as Deacon
St Paul in his letter to the Romans, chapter 13: verse 4, in the Authorised version:
“For he is the minister of God to thee for good.
But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid;
for he beareth not the sword in vain.”
I expect like me you have come equipped today with cards and possibly even gifts for Fr Ryan. Perhaps you have been to a pious bookshop, the sisters on Bold Street, or one of the Cathedral giftshops.
I thought long and hard about what might be appropriate gifts as Ryan continues his public ministry in the church of God. I thought I would share them with you as signs of what I think this ordained ministry is about.
(Hand first gift to Fr Ryan to be opened. A working lightsaber (as in Star Wars).)
“Be afraid” wrote Saint Paul, “for he beareth not the sword in vain.”
I doubt there are many in ordained ministry who don’t, like me, feel that one of the greatest blessings of ordained ministry is that it is as close as we could get to being a Jedi Knight.
Star Wars appeals because it is a story of the conflict between good and evil, between the Force and the dark side. Because it acknowledges that there are choices to be made and injustice to be righted. But it also acknowledges that the darkness is never far from the light, that the choices we make are often ambiguous, we find ourselves compromised. To be a hero is also to be weak, and true heros know that there is no pure land, no abiding home, that like Jesus we are wandering teachers.
All around the country and in fact all around the world men and women have been ordained this week or will be next for the ministry of the church as priests and deacons. All will have been tested, accepted and trained, all will be ready to go out to defeat injustice and inequality.
The world needs those who are serious, heroic and brave. Who fearlessly look for new ways of building the kingdom of God.
This year there are 17% more ordinations in the Church of England than last. We know that this is just the start if we are to re-new the church.
When I trained as a teacher over thirty years ago my favourite book was called Teaching as a Subversive Activity.
My message to Fr Ryan and to all those ordained, is Ministry as a Subversive Activity.
You are not ordained to maintain the church as it is, to leave the world the same; but to change, transform and renew the church and the world.
Those who are called to priesthood, as God-willing, Fr Ryan will be in a year’s time, are ordained deacon first because servant ministry must underlie all ministry. Tonight’s gospel paints a vivid distinction between those who are seeking their own glory, their own needs, and those who serve others.
The ordained are called not simply to be servants but slaves. Those who have no citizenship, who stand on the edge and serve the needs of others.
Ryan has moved from his home country and left family and friends behind. Like Abraham, like a Jedi knight, like Gandalf he has come to a strange land.
In Teaching As A Subversive Activity, the authors call on schools to develop in pupils effective crap-detectors. The ability to see what is real and true and distinguish it from what is false.
Being a crap detector is not easy. It involves careful seeing. Which brings me to my second gift for Fr Ryan.
(Second present given. A large magnifying glass.)
I drive through the city centre here in Liverpool many times, often many times a day and I regularly see Fr Ryan on his way to somewhere or other. One of the interesting things as I see him is that he is always talking to someone. Often someone who looks like they could be a student – that is, after all, his job. But often someone who is pretty clearly not; a seller of the Big Issue; an elderly Chinese lady, or a middle aged woman with her wheely bag.
To be a servant is to be someone who pays attention. What are the needs of the person in front of me? What do they desire? How can I serve them? How, like Jesus, can I speak a word of life to them.
But a magnifying glass is not just for noticing the detail. It is also for looking up clues.
(Hand Fr Ryan the Deer Stalker hat).
The ordained minister is called to be one who reads the signs of the times. Who, like Sherlock, interprets the information. Not just to the guilty, to change lives, but to understand what has happened; and in understanding to have one’s own heart enlarged and to be able to preach a life giving word.
But there are two further ways I want us to understand the magnifying glass:
A sacrament, like today’s sacrament of ordination, is the Book of Common Prayer tells us, ‘an outward sign of an inward grace.’
A magnifying glass is an intensifier. I believe there is really only one sacrament. The sacrament of the death and resurrection of Jesus, baptism, in which we become united to, one with, consubstantial with, Jesus. All the other sacraments flow from this.
In these sacraments what already exists for all the baptised is intensified, made large, magnified in ordination.
For Fr Ryan, as for so many of us ordained in ministry, the call was identified early, when he was five years old, that call was recognised by Ryan’s previous ordination, and now we too recognise it in our little corner of the Church that is the Church of England. Ordination is an intensification of who Ryan is. The jedi identified young, the preacher who lives on the edge, the Gandalf who creates change and transformation.
As you prepare the table of this altar at this Mass tonight, Father, you are doing nothing other than when you have prepared your table for your family and guests in the vicarage next door. It is not different, not more sacred, just more public, intensified.
But there is a final way in which a magnifying glass is a good sign for this beginning of Ryan’s ministry as a deacon in the Church of England. When I was a child I loved magnifying glasses – not because they made things bigger, but because of something else they can do.
A magnifying glass can start fire.
We need the fire of passion for the gospel, passion for justice, passion for Jesus.
Perhaps now more than at other times we know that fire is dangerous. The fire of the seraphs bringing the live coal to the prophet to touch his lips, to sear and seal his lips is dangerous.
The fire of the ordained life will touch those around you Fr Ryan: Chantelle, Judah, Anna and Grayson, those you love and care for will feel its heat.
The trick to survive is to ensure that, like the Burning Bush, you are not consumed by it. Everything that you desire for self will be consumed and burned, what you do as servant and slave will be left. Your service to your family, your wife and children is what will save you – and your relationship with them. Our God is a consuming fire but when we are most truly ourselves then God is most truly himself and who we are as persons is taken and transformed.
Those of us who share in this public, ordained ministry are humbled by the vows you have made today.
Honoured, by your embracing this ministry.
Challenged, by your enduring the compromises we make.
Privileged, to share in the commitment of all the baptised.
Jesus is the most fascinating person I know. In today’s Gospel he refuses to be caught in the question the disciples ask; it is simply not his to answer. He is the ultimate crap detector.
So my prayer for my new brother in the diaconate, is simply this, to be like Jesus; that you continue to subvert the dark forces of this world, that you burn brightly for the good news of Jesus, that you make those who meet you a little afraid, that you bear not the sword in vain