Sermon at St Mary Hadlow Trinity 5 – Call to ministry – 26th June 2016
1 Kings 19 vv 1 -16, 19 – E – The call of Elisha
Luke 9 vv 51 – end – Samaritan opposition. The cost of following Jesus
- Introduction. I am not much given to calling down a lightning strike on either my personal enemies or the enemies of the Christian Gospel. Neither was Jesus, when James and John suggested calling down fire from heaven, which is just another way of describing a lightning strike. The two disciples were mindful of the action of Elijah, when Ahab, King of Israel, sent a captain and 50 men to arrest him, after Elijah had arranged the killing of the prophets of Baal in the great contest on Mount Carmel. Elijah could see that the honour of God was at stake and so was the whole future of Israel under the heathen influence of Ahab’s wife Jezebel. He said ‘If I am a man of God let fire come down from heaven and consume you’. The Samaritans were the remnant of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, despised by the Southern Province of Judea, the true Jews. Aptly had Jesus, when he called James and John to follow him, named them Boanerges, that is, sons of thunder. Jesus knew well the background of the Samaritans and as so often had a heart of love for the poor the despised and the outsider. He showed a non-confrontational way of dealing with the situation, namely moving on, to stay in a village that would accept them.
By a happy coincidence, in the way God plans things, I have the privilege of presiding at this service and preaching on the 40th anniversary of my ordination in Rochester Cathedral by Bishop David on a very hot day on 27th June 1976. That is why I have chosen today to wear my 40-year stole, without chasuble, just to mark the occasion. I actually designed the stole some years back to mark 40 years in authorised ministry, including the 14 years for which I was a Reader – in 6 dioceses, including Rochester Diocese, at Christ Church Chislehurst.
On one side is a lightning flash with the reference to Job 37 v 3, “God sends forth the lightning flash”. A considerable part of my work continues to be in lightning protection, both of buildings and people. It is my purpose to see that lightning strikes are brought down to ground in a safe manner without damage to buildings or harm to people. I will just say one thing about risk to people. Most, but perhaps not all, of you will know that it is dangerous to stand under an isolated tree in a thunderstorm. Yes, it is very tempting when it is pouring with rain. The safest place is inside a building (preferably one that is protected) or inside a car, but otherwise curl up in a ball and get wet rather than get killed or seriously injured.
The other side of my stole is based on Isaiah chapter 40 ‘Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings as an eagle (v 31).’, associated with my ministry as a chaplain in the Air Training Corps, from which I retired in 2011 after 30 years.
It is my purpose this morning to say something of general value about authorised ministry, both lay and ordained, with something of my own experience to illustrate what I am saying.
- Need. Firstly there is a great need to increase the number of ministers, especially ordained ministers, in view of the large number of full-time clergy due to retire before long. A quarter of all stipendiary clergy are in their sixties or older. In this, rural Deanery of Paddock Wood, with 8 benefices and 12 parishes, we have at present 3 vacant benefices with a total of 5 parishes. It may be that patterns of worship will have to change somewhat with a greater reliance on Readers to conduct services. I am speaking fairly generally now, without specific reference to Hadlow. When I was a Reader in the 1960s and 70s many churches had Book of Common Prayer Morning and Evening Prayer services on most Sundays, with an occasional communion. Readers often had a full responsibility for conducting services in rural parishes. As Elijah came towards the end of a very full and demanding role as a prophet in Israel there was a need for a successor. God told him to go and anoint Elisha to take over from him.
- Variety. If there is one thing that one can say about those whom God calls to serve him in both lay and ordained ministry it is that we come from a great variety of backgrounds. Elisha was a farmer. When Elijah came to convey God’s call Elijah was ploughing with 12 yoke of oxen, i. e. 24 oxen. It seems that he had quite a sizeable farm. Our last curate, Clifford, was an engine driver. Our Vicar Paul was a solicitor and uses that background particularly as a magistrate. I was an engineer when God called me first to be a Reader and then to the ordained ministry. In the Church of England we now have men and women and have of course had the benefit of Gwen Smith as Vicar. 27% of Church of England stipendiary clergy are now women. This percentage is slowly increasing. However the proportion of stipendiary clergy from a black or minority ethnic background rose only slightly from 3% in 2012 to 3.4% last year. Such people are still very under-represented.
- Call. You may wonder though how God calls people and how people discern that call. In a number of ways. It may help if I just say something of my own experience. It was in 1956 when, as a university student, I came to Bidborough as a member of a team in that parish, part of a mission based in Tonbridge. After I had given the talk at a children’s service, the clergyman leading our team, the Rev Ken Prior, said to me, “Christopher, you should consider becoming a Reader.” This seemed to me right and what God wanted me to do. In due course in 1962, in Ely Cathedral, I was admitted and licensed as a Reader. From 1965 -68, whilst working at the Ministry of Defence, I was licensed as a Reader at Christ Church Chislehurst. After I had been preaching there one Sunday, a member of the congregation suggested I should be ordained. I insisted that being a Reader was not a stepping stone to the ordained ministry. I jealously guarded my amateur status. I was not paid to preach the Gospel! Subsequently I was stationed in Bahrein from 1968 to 1970. I was active as a Reader at our station Church at RAF Muharraq and St Christopher’s Church in Manama. On Easter Day 1970, after I had been assisting our chaplain at the Easter communion service, his wife said to me “Christopher, have you thought about being ordained?” On that occasion I felt a strong inner conviction, which I believed was from God, that it was the right way forward. The first hurdle to overcome was to share this conviction with Julia! In 1967 she had followed family tradition as the fourth female Inglis, to marry an RAF Officer and now 3 years later he was saying he wanted to be a clergyman! I have to say that she was very accepting and I am tremendously grateful for her support during the past 42 years of training and ordained ministry. Of course in a formal sense the Church has to discern whether ministry, lay or ordained, is the right path for a person. A call therefore involves, God, the individual and the Church.
- Cost. Finally there is a cost involved in committing oneself to lay or ordained ministry even more so than the commitment of being a Christian. Although the latter part of today’s Gospel reading applies to any person who would follow Jesus, it is particularly applicable to those who would serve him in recognised, authorised ministry. Jesus at this stage was of ‘no fixed abode’ dependent on the hospitality of good people in the places where he preached and ministered. As a rather nice juxtaposition we have ploughing in both readings. Elisha was called from literally ploughing his farm to metaphorically ploughing a furrow for the Kingdom of God. Jesus in calling people to committed discipleship and ministry doesn’t want those who are looking back to their earlier life and rather regretting what they have left behind. Although ploughing is somewhat different now to earlier years, with the tractor and ploughman being in front of the plough, one still has to keep one’s main attention on where one is going, with but brief checks to see that the plough is working correctly and at the right depth. I have to say that when I committed myself to ordination I was giving up two things that I loved. Firstly life in the RAF, albeit I had had 20 years in the RAF and was perhaps ready for a change anyhow, and engineering. From an early age I was taking things apart to see how they worked and only later on in life being able to put them back in working order! However having made that clean break, I found in due course the Lord graciously gave back to me both those aspects of my former life, albeit in a different form. In my 30 years as a chaplain in the Air Training Corps I had a strong link with the RAF. For the past 30 years or more I have become quite heavily involved in lightning protection, a different, very interesting, field of engineering. These two aspects of my life are associated with the two depictions on my green stole. I have to say that I could not have gone forward to ordained ministry without the full support of Julia, who throughout has been and still is so supportive. Are you ready to consider God’s call to lay or ordained ministry? Could you be, like the clergyman who suggested to me becoming a Reader or the Chaplain’s wife who suggested my being ordained, a vital link in someone else’s call? I have never regretted the change of life in middle age. The Diocese has produced three leaflets about both types of ministry. If you think that this might be right for you then ask me after the service (I think that there no more left on the table), and if you wish, talk to Paul or me about the next step.
- Conclusion. Whether to specific lay ministry or ordained ministry or to following Jesus in your daily life and work, Jesus invites you to put your hand to the plough in the service of the kingdom of God.
1830 words Christopher Miles