Saturday, March 30, 2013

Ministry without Armour

A sermon for the Chrism Eucharist, 
Diocese of Derby, Maundy Thursday 2013.

It had been a hard Lent.  The APCM, the annual church meeting, had not been able to ask a question about the flag we flew in the churchyard without it feeling to me like it had been asked using a baseball bat.  Then, on Low Sunday, I was speaking with a friend of a friend, a retired priest who knew something of what had happened.  “You need to cultivate the skin of a rhinoceros”, he told me.  I think it was possibly the worst piece of advice I was ever given as a parish priest.

Our first reading this morning tells us of David being unable to function in the armour of King Saul.  ‘I cannot walk with these’, David complains, ‘for I am not used to them’.  Saul’s armour was good armour.  It protected the king, it identified him as king and conveyed his importance.  Saul’s armour was of no use to David as he prepared to take on Goliath.  It prevented the most basic acts.  Wearing Saul’s armour, David could not even get onto the battlefield.  David had to shed that armour. 

Beaten up, blood dribbling from thorns gouging his head, and covered in a fine robe (clearly not his own), Jesus is presented to the crowd by Pilate.  Pilate presents Jesus as a broken, wounded and comical figure.  ‘Behold the man!’ he cries, with deep sarcasm.  Yet St John in recording this, finds that, like Caiaphas’ prophesy that it was better for one man should die for the people, Pilate has said something true without meaning to.  Here we see presented the true human being.  In the midst of bruises, blood and humiliation we can see true humanity.

All of our ministry, as readers, deacons, priests, bishops, is founded in Christ’s ministry.  It is Christ’s ministry in which we share.  All of our ministry is then, founded in being truly human.  To be good ministers, we need to be good human beings.  And this is where it gets hard, for so much of what we do as human beings and as ministers, is designed to hide our humanity.  We are too good at wearing armour that protects us, but that distorts us at the same time.  Jesus shows us what it is to be truly human. David, in refusing Saul’s armour, teaches us to refuse that which prevents us from being human, that which prevents us from walking.  As time went on, and as we read on in the Scriptures, David began to fit Saul’s armour all too well, with disastrous consequences for him and for the people of God.  That too has things to teach us.  Saul’s armour, we should note, was probably made by the Philistines who controlled all the blacksmiths (1 Samuel 13.19).  And so, taking my cue from our first reading, I want to suggest three pieces of armour that we should refuse in our ministry.  Remember always that Saul’s armour was good armour, but it left David unable to walk.  So too our armour derives from good things, but prevents us from walking the way of Jesus.

The first piece of armour to refuse is that of the thick skin.  To be a minister is to be vulnerable.  There will be no shortage of people who think that they can do the job better; no shortage of advice; no shortage of criticism, sometimes administered with an astonishing absence of tact.  It is also worth saying that we hear criticism far more intensely than we hear praise.  The need for a rhinoceros skin would seem an obvious requirement for ministry.  But it is armour that should be rejected.  With David, we need to say that we cannot walk in it.  Thick-skinned ministers will not show the humanity of Christ to anyone.  To allow a thick skin to absorb all the hurt that is thrown at us will not help the people who we serve.  It is not honouring of them to allow them to think that bad behaviour is acceptable.  A thick skin will prevent us from hearing the kernel of truth that we need to hear in the torrent of unfounded criticism.  A thick skin will warp us into people who seem unaffected by painful and hurtful situations, and our humanity will be chipped away.  It is alright to be hurt by things.  A thick skin would suggest that we simply accept whatever is thrown at us.  The American pastor, Bill Hybels speaks of a man who made a personal attack on him in a public meeting.  Hybels quieted the meeting, stopping them shouting him down, and then asked his critic to restate the question in a kinder way, promising to answer.  This was no thick-skinned minister, but no doormat either.  Hybels honoured his critic by listening to his criticism, but by also requiring him to be kind in delivering it.  Hybels could then hear what he needed to hear.

So let us refuse the armour of thick skin.  And let us refuse the armour of anxiety.  Anxiety can take a number of forms.  There is the anxiety that comes from the never-ending to-do list.  This is anxiety that makes us busy.  There is the anxiety that comes from the people that need our compassion and our attention.  This is anxiety that makes us solve problems.  And there is the anxiety that comes from the communities that we serve.  This is anxiety that makes us constantly present.  Tasks, people and communities are not bad things, far from it.  Nor are business, problem solving and presence.  But under the influence of anxiety, they become the places from which we derive our identity.  And this is disastrous.  Like our ministry, our identity derives from Christ, not from our ministry, nor from the demands it makes, the people we encounter and the communities we serve.  We live in turbulent times, both within and without the church.  There is a huge quantity of anxiety around, and anxiety is infectious.  As ministers, we need to be a non-anxious presence, in the midst of this.  And that is hard.  We need to understand where we end and the tasks, people and places begin, to distinguish ourselves from them.  Without this distinction, we can never challenge or change the anxiety of the communities and people that we serve.  We need boundaries to keep ourselves and others safe. It is far easier to polish the armour of anxiety, calling it busy-ness, care or compassion.  Whatever we call it, the reality is anxiety.  We must learn the art of stopping, of saying no, of not being needed; the art of knowing when we have done enough.  The art that Jesus knew, of walking away, going somewhere else. 

We must refuse the armour of thick skin, and we must refuse the armour of anxiety.  Finally we must refuse the armour of being nice.  One writer on ministry suggests that ‘an automated priest with a perpetual grin on his face, everlastingly wandering around the parish and automatically “mouthing” … a small repertoire of platitudes, would meet the vast majority of needs’ (Nick Stacey, Who Cares).  Let us be clear, ‘nice’ is not a Biblical word.  Readers, priests, deacons, bishops are called to be many things, but the word ‘nice’ will not appear on anyone’s license, nor is it found in the ordinal.  Nice is easy, it gives us a smooth ride.  It certainly meets the expectations of regular congregants and occasional visitors alike.  But it doesn’t actually do anything to meet their needs.  Nice doesn’t help anyone, ourselves or those we serve.  Christians are called to be like Jesus, called to become more and more fully human.  We look for that day to which the first Easter morning points, the day of all our resurrections, when we will be re-made, re-created, when all of who we are will be given to us. Jesus appearing to his disciples on that first Easter is unrecognisable, yet indisputably himself.  So it is for us, we do not yet know who we are.  And that is frightening.  As ministers, we are called to lead God’s people into becoming fully human, becoming fully themselves.  And there is nothing nice about it.  Rowan Williams, speaks about our fear that ‘we might have to change our lives unrecognisably, in order to become who we are’ (Choose Life, p. 19).  We have to follow this path, hearing again and again the message of the Bible ‘do not fear’; and we have to lead others on that path.  Love, compassion, challenge, comfort, all these and more are what we are called to give.  We are nowhere told to ‘be nice’.  Nice is a piece of armour that is really our fear about our own change.  It is a refusal to become more human than we are.  It is worse than useless in helping others down that path.

We gather this morning to renew our commitment to our different ministries as bishop, reader, priest, deacon.  We also gather this morning for the blessing of the Oils.  The oil of Chrism for blessing on ministry; the oil of initiation, for the signing of the cross on those to be baptised; the oil for the sick, for the healing and wholeness of the world.  We are called and committed to ministry.  But first of all we are called as disciples of Jesus, the truly human one, to be human.  And our humanity and our ministry is in the service of the healing and wholeness of the world.  We cannot do these things, we cannot walk the path of ministry, if we are wearing the armour of a thick skin, the armour of anxiety or the armour of being nice.

May God 
who has given us the will to undertake these things, give us also the strength to perform them,
that he may complete that work that he has begun in us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

The Chrism Eucharist is a service of renewal of commitment to ministry and the blessing of the Oils.
Given in Derby Cathedral, 28.3.13


Anonymous said...

Thank you, plenty to think about there if not all to agree with...can you replace thick skin with resilience, or absorption maybe?
'Nice' is not a biblical word. Well said. I realise this sermon was for your fellow priests, but it's good to see what thinking goes on.

Helen said...

Thank you, Simon - thought-provoking as ever.