+ in the name…
“Good Morning Mr. Magpie!”
“Excuse me I am not a Magpie…I am a Priest!”
Well Fr.Vincent does give us some great titles to work with doesn’t he?! (searching for a clue?!)
We all know the rhymes of the Magpie, ‘One for Sorrow, Two for joy, Three for a girl, Four for a boy..’
But did you know that folklore suggests that if you see a solitary Magpie, one should politely doff the cap with a greeting, “Morning Mr. Magpie, and how is Mrs Magpie today?” In other words, making the bold claim that there was surely another bird not so far away… a way of avoiding the ‘sorrow’, the bad luck of the one! (still no clue?)
What I know Vincent also seems to suggest here is that the Magpie might look a little like a Priest too… (I have no idea why!!!).. Certainly a magpie is a focus of superstition and folklore, a herald, a harbinger of blessing or curse… there is something magical around a magpie, in the way that many might perceive a Priest too!
But maybe that’s a ‘good enough’ suggestion for this Realistic Christianity sermon; because part of my training is to take you on a journey with me, to explore the meaning of Priesthood.. what it means for the clergy here, and what it means for the congregation too. It is a work in progress, a voyage of discovery.
In three months time from now I will be whisked away to stand before the Bishop, as a Deacon, and be charged with extra duties of a Priest. Other Priests will lay hands on me to affirm collegiality, (togetherness), and the Bishop will as a sign of apostolic succession all the way from the beginning of the Church in Jerusalem; and I am hoping that many of you here will be able to join me too. I am hoping that this sermon will suggest what being a Priest might mean, and how all of us within this community are connected into it. It’s really not about me!
But this task of becoming a Priest comes with some pretty big questions…
- What does it mean to be a priest?
- Is a Priest different to the congregation?
- Who is speaking for whom?
What does it mean for me to be a priest? What image do we have in our heads of what a priest is?
It seems such an abstract role – to be a ‘representative of G-d’ in the everyday humdrum of life, to be a gatekeeper, (or maybe a steward?), at the boundaries of faith and life, to help people mark through the significant moments in their lives; births, deaths, marriages.
Or to be a leader of people as they nurture their own spirituality.. how to do that with sincerity and conviction? To sustain both passion and realism; to offer signposts, but nothing more.. to avoid dictatorship, to help people grow through experience, and their lives with G-d.
Maybe, it’s simply a job like a Police Officer or a Nurse, ‘the job of being a Priest’; to lead Church Services, to reflect upon the teaching of Scripture and invite others to experience God. Then I could avoid all this hand-wringing and reflection?
Even fellow curates I have talked with have different views, some considering it highly significant, and others, of no significance at all.
But i think, ‘The Priest’ is something different from others within the congregation. Well we are ‘up front’, we wear a clerical collar and vestments; we certainly look different!
But before I start I do want to wave my faded and moth-eaten evangelical flag to affirm the Priesthood of all. Priesthood might well be a role that all have, that is certainly Paul’s vision of the early church, but a congregation of equals still exhibits different gifts.
In the first two centuries of the church, two orders emerged with primary pastoral leadership responsibility: overseers (epis- copoi or bishops) and elders (presbutoroi or presbyters). While the distinctions between overseer and elder were not totally defined until the second century, the central fact remains that these were the ones identified to lead the whole people as shepherds.
Priesthood appears to be a role that is conferred by the Christian community and – in trust – by God. It is a distinct and significant calling, (as is a mother, a cleaner, a business leader, a scientist and an artist.. no more or less). Maybe the Priest’s job is to enable others to find the Priest within themselves?
But how can anyone be worthy of this role? An image was given recently by a fellow Priest who saw herself holding the Host, (bread and wine) aloft, and of her being lifted up by the members of the congregation. They were all in it together; it was a consensual and collective activity to reach towards God, but with hers as a specific role in that. This image suggest a widening circle of participation in the Holy mystery of sacrament and blessing.
The CofE sees Priests as different; the ordination service says;
“Priests are called to be servants and shepherds among the people to whom they are sent. With their Bishop and fellow ministers, they are to proclaim the word of the Lord and to watch for the signs of God’s new creation.
With all God’s people, they are to tell the story of God’s love.. They are to preside at the Lord’s table and lead his people in worship, offering with them a spiritual sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. They are to bless the people in God’s name. They are to resist evil, support the weak, defend the poor, and intercede for all in need. They are to minister to the sick and prepare the dying for their death. Guided by the Spirit, they are to discern and foster the gifts of all God’s people…”
1. Making Space
the Priest can lead people to uncover and explore their own spirituality, to offer signs, and examples of the greatest hopes of humanity – tempered with a realism and recognition of our shortcomings. Through worship, prayer, conversation, community activity, and embodiment, I think the Priest can open doors for people to encounter G-d, themselves, and one another.. furthermore to encounter a spiritual identity that is moved to compassion towards others and the earth.
We see this maybe in the Gospel reading today; this most delicious image of Jesus sitting with the woman at the well. He takes time to listen, to talk, to observe and to offer some insight – even challenge…
“He’s told me everything I’ve ever done, and he can do the same to you..”
“Er.. let me handle this dear….”
Jesus is making space; creating an opportunity to allow something else to happen. The event of God breaks in, shakes things up, subverts, challenge and inspires. And that is – maybe – what the Priest is here to do too. To hold space, to make space, to create sacred space.
Some of our rituals may seem odd and strange. When we enact the drama of the Eucharist here, we are together making a space to dwell, to encounter a mystery which both beguiles us and yet gives ground to the very being of our lives.
It is why there is bowing, and pausing and ritualised ways of acting. The Vestments, the Priests, the Prayers and preaching merge into the drama of the service; hopefully becoming invisible, removing the ego.. allowing G-d the space to move and to breathe. It is a way of revealing the art, imagination, and holy ‘otherness’ in this moment of connection.
2. Giving a Voice
‘Giving a voice’ is about affirmation. Affirmation of the history and the ongoing story of the Church of Christ, a broken muddled group of people, who through grace and beyond themselves have found delight and hope in the G-d who breaks into their lives.
As well as affirmation and positively carrying the story, ‘Giving a Voice’ surely must also mean though giving voice to doubt, or fear or disappointment.
If G-d is known at all, then it is through and within our experience; and so to give voice to our upsets, fears and anxiety is a natural part of being human, it’s a natural part of the relationship that is at the heart of faith. For the Priest to offer the voice of doubt is a difficult role, as there is a danger of appearing weak, indecisive or ‘liberal’. However I think it actually carries more strength, honesty and integrity, to remain faithful to a faith which is often wrestling with angels. I would like to see more lament in Church.
The other question in giving a Voice, is about the role that is given to the Priest by the community she/he serves. Is the Priest offering the voice of the people to God? – I think yes, and to the earth, and to all creatures, especially the vulnerable and the disenfranchised, but is the Priest also giving voice to the Church, it would seem to be implied. Most daunting of all, is the Priest giving voice to God?
When the Priest gives the absolution, or recites the Eucharistic liturgy, what is going on? Is there something special that the Priest is doing that no-one else can? Is the Priest getting in the way of G-d, or being a conduit to G-d? I think The Absolution is a good illustration… is the Priest really forgiving peoples brokenness? Or is the Priest stating that which was already true even before the words were uttered, that the power of love and forgiveness can liberate us – forgive us from all that holds us back.
Is this action G-d forgiving, or us forgiving ourselves; like a Jungian embrace of the shadow? In reality it’s probably all of these things, and G-d works through, and around, and within those… but the Priest’s role is giving a voice to this, and the ritual makes it ‘settle’ in our hearts and minds and lives.
* The true Priest, Hebrews tells us, is Jesus the Christ. The one who comes as both fully human and fully divine. His ‘mediation’ is not a third-party in-between action; it is an indwelling of both heaven and earth – flesh and spirit; he holds both fully, and that is Priestly. It reminds us that our humanity is saturated in God. Then maybe this earthly Priest is both simply—and profoundly—one who carries the rituals of the
mystery all around us; a curator of the sacred, a custodian of symbols which illustrate the connection between God and matter. We are, therefore, all Priests; but the circle continues to widen, and somewhere in the layers of circles are those called distinctly to bear this out in a distinct way. (like an artist).
3. Walking with…
Like the story by the side of the well. The Body of Christ at work in the everyday. Every moment being pregnant with shalom, each person, like the Samaritan woman, contains a unique story telling something that embodies Christ; weak and yet strong, vulnerable and yet full of a ‘resurrection hope’.
The Priest’s ability to work with people, to embrace, and be inclusive is critical. To welcome all to the Church, but also to live a life which reaches out rather than merely expects people to come to us.
To believe in a faith of embodiment, is to be engaged in the physical, messy, difficult world in which we live, I see the Priest as being open, vulnerable and stirred by compassion. To let the lives of others be the conduit through which they see and honour G-d. That also means the symbols of Eucharist, (made real in matter), become more vital.
I believe that it is being with people, sharing journeys, walking alongside people, engaging with doubts and hopes, to offer signs or simply companionship, to dwell with people and to point out those things which we may not at first see… and to be open to that yourself… that the Priest is not only giving or leading, but is learning and growing too in the company, and through the enrichment of others.
4. Working together
Jesus tells his disciples; “the one who plants and the one who reaps will be glad together. 37 For the saying is true, ‘Someone plants, someone else reaps.’ I have sent you to reap a harvest in a field where you did not work; others worked there, and you profit from their work.”
Be(com)ing a Priest is a big deal. It is not about being better than anybody else, more superior or knowledgeable. Hierarchy, Rank? (if I ever, ever give that impression, please do take me outside, remind me of this and then give me a good slap!). We are working together for a common good,
But it is serious. It is about holding together the mystery, the symbols, rituals and sacraments of the church of history and the church of today. It is about carrying the past into today and asking, ‘how does this fit today?’ It is about embodying hope and compassion.
“You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God.”
I cannot do it alone.. it is too vast, too big, too daunting. But I can do it with you. I can herald the presence of God in this place, as you announce the presence of God to me. I can face the absence of God and delight in the mystery if I can do that with you. The Priest is here for the people; serving, loving, provoking and cajoling.
Please pray for your priests.. they are a bit silly, a bit human, need a hug. They are no greater or less – just different!
5. Open the Window – Taste the Rain;
The priest, invites others to pull back the curtains and see a little more of life. This is the task of all the Church, and the natural outworking of all deep life experiences; that the borders are enlarged, that life – full of complexity, heartache and joy, life is the most wondrous gift we share, and within this gift, there is G-d, both present and absent, and present though absence, and absent through presence…
People, incredible brave strong and vulnerable human beings, experience delight, awe and wonder more often than they realise.. The Magpie’s place, (if invited), is simply – and without audacity or presumption – to offer the signposts to recognise that G-d is within all of our lives… that life is a gift to savour – and in so doing we discover the God whose overwhelming fragrance is Love, and who is closer than we dare imagine.
For the Diary – Gary’s Ordination to the Noble Order of Magpies will be on the 24 June, 11am at Reading Minster.
All are welcome!