In the sort of literature that is the Gospels, the first words of the ‘hero’ are significant. Everything that follows is to be read, interpreted and understood in the light of those words. I have written of this before now in relation (particularly to Mark 1:14-15).
Although I don’t often use a full text for sermons, it seemed wise to write one for my enthronement (being put into my seat of pastoral care, authority and teaching) in Bradford Cathedral yesterday. I guess these ‘first words’ matter as they are the first things heard in my public ministry here. Although they are intended to be heard (in context) and not read (as text), I put the sermon up here in its entirety – whilst noting that I changed bits, added bits and forgot one or two bits in the course of preaching it. It is quite long (and audio, photos/explanation of the service can be found at http://www.bradford.anglican.org/bishopscroft/index.php?PageID=enthronement) …
ENTHRONEMENT SERMON, BRADFORD CATHEDRAL, SATURDAY 21 MAY 2011
I am glad to see you all here today, especially as we had been warned by an American pastor that today was to be the Day of Judgement, the moment of Rapture and the end of the world. Well, all I can say is: if it happened, and we are all left behind, we’d better start worrying. Although, I couldn’t hope for better company in whatever counts as ‘the other place’ where the ‘raptured’ obviously are not. I am particularly grateful to those who decided – in the circumstances, courageously – to take the risk of travelling long distances to be here this afternoon.
Joking apart, some people have travelled a very long way indeed. Bishop Saman from Northern Sudan – a country that will soon be divided into two, but with an Anglican Church that is determined to remain one church in a commitment to mutual service. Bishop Weber, the German Co-chair of the Meissen Commission has come here with his wife and I am extremely grateful for his support, encouragement and friendship as we work together on the Commission to pursue unity between our churches and common service of the Gospel in Europe. Other friends from Germany are here – Silke and Christoph Römhild – who manage to check the German texts of my sermons without laughing. Our guests from Erfurt are also wonderfully welcome. And Bishop Neff Powell has travelled from our link Diocese of Southwest Virginia, and I am grateful for his fellowship and encouragement.
Friends and colleagues from the Diocese of Southwark, where I served for the last eleven years, have clearly come to check that it is true beyond contradiction that they have finally got rid of me. In coming here today they show the love and encouragement that has characterised my time in that diocese south of the Thames. I am deeply grateful. Members of our families have travelled from Kuwait, France, Nottingham and (breathe deeply) the other side of the Pennines to be here today.
But, these wonderful people have not come here today out of mere curiosity. They have not strayed onto our small island and ventured north of Watford simply to attend a mere service in a church. They represent what is too often ignored even by those of us within the Church: the fact that we belong to one multi-coloured, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-lingual community in which we are united in and around Jesus Christ. Called to serve in different contexts and in different places and cultures, yet we belong together and serve one God… whom we see in Jesus Christ who laid down his life for the sake of the world and whom death could not hold.
I am also grateful for the generous attendance and accompaniment of civic leaders, Christian ecumenical partners and representatives from other faith communities in and around Bradford. We have a common interest and a common accountability for how we serve the people of our communities. And this we need to do with honesty, integrity, mutual commitment and humour.
Here in Bradford – a place many here today are visiting for the first time – we might well take the opportunity to think through, briefly, what we are about and what you might expect from the new bishop. For we live in challenging times – on many fronts – and we face serious questions about where our priorities lie. We can allow ourselves to get side-tracked by relative trivia – a form of what I often call ‘distraction therapy’… thrashing around in the murky darkness – or we can choose to unite in obeying the call of Jesus Christ to be people who bring light into the world, with all that implies. And I want to think about this call – this challenge not only to the churches in Bradford, but also to those elsewhere where the cultural dressing may be different, but the essence remains the same – and I want to think about it in terms of confidence.
But, first let me tell a story. A man went to the doctor for some medical tests. When all was finished the doctor looked at him sadly and said: ‘I’m sorry Mr Jones, there’s nothing we can do for you. You’ve had it.’ ‘Nothing you can do?’ asked Mr Jones? ‘No,’ replied the doctor, ‘I’m afraid there’s no hope.’ ‘No hope?’ replied Mr Jones. ‘No hope?! Look, I want a second opinion.’ ‘OK’, said the doctor, ‘there’s no hope… and you’re ugly.’
Now, I am not recommending that as an example of good pastoral method, but it does make the point that a second opinion can sometimes be essential. In his first words in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus quietly opens the possibility of a second opinion about God, the world and us. Not the opinion with which everyone was familiar: the tired old certainties that those who obeyed the rules got God’s favour and those who didn’t didn’t. Not the sad opinion that you just had to accept the way the world is and hope God would one day make it better. And not the tediously self-serving opinion that God was on the side of people with a particular ethnicity or national identity. No, Jesus was inviting people to look and think differently about God, the world and us… in order to live differently in that world and make a difference to the lives of people who make up that world.
We actually live in a world that hasn’t really changed much since the time Jesus sat on a hill and started to talk to whoever wanted to listen. Open to being misheard and misunderstood (as in Monty Python’s epic Life of Brian when the people at the back heard him say ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers’ and went on to guess that Jesus must have been referring in a non-discriminatory way to manufacturers of all dairy produce…), Jesus suggested that we don’t have to accept the lazy assumption that ‘the way the world is is the only way the world can be’.
Is it inevitable that the powerful always dominate and get their way? That the rich and independent should be both secure and happy – especially at the expense of the poor? That those who lose or grieve or don’t – what’s that awful phrase? – ‘believe in themselves’ are to be pitied? Are those who ‘win’ in life really to be admired and valued? Or is there another way of seeing – another way of thinking and, therefore, living in this world? Jesus suggests there is… and it revolves around himself. (No wonder they nailed him in the end.)
According to these revolutionary words of Jesus, those who have lost everything – health, family, things, hope, prospects, beauty, and so on – have nothing else to fear losing; so, they are liberated to live freely and to take whatever comes their way. They don’t need to be told of their need of grace, of redemption or of salvation: they swim in a pool called ‘freedom’ and they are blessed by being free not to have to pretend or to keep up appearances or the empty rhetoric of false glory.
And that is why Jesus tells his friends that they must shine like lights on a hill – not hide away for fear of being found out or for lack of confidence that the way they see and think and live won’t hold out. They are to be as recklessly free as the sort of salt that gets mixed as fertiliser into the soil or preserver into the meat: losing their own shape and substance in order to let the soil become fertile and the meat to feed the hungry. It’s about generosity and giving away and laying down and challenging the values of a world that is bound by its own insecurities, its deep fears, and the violence that instinctively erupts where hope has dissolved into the chaos and void of fatalism and destructiveness.
Which is why I want to speak of confidence. Confidence in God; confidence in a Church shaped by this Gospel, this good news that sounds to some people like bad news; confidence in our context.
Along with brothers and sisters of other faiths, I am confident in God. Why? After all, the Richard Dawkinses of this world would have us believe that I am actually confident in the airy-fairy subject of a fairy story. But, the Scriptures tell us that God is in the business of bringing order out of the chaos of life and lives. From the beginning onwards (which is the whole point of the Genesis narrative), God offers to bring healing and order out of the messes and pain we suffer. This is the God who in Jesus Christ looks us in the eye and dares us to believe that death and destruction do not have the final word – whatever Hollywood or fearful dictators think.
Christians need to be confident in God and in the call of God to reflect his life and face in the world of today. This means that the Christian community in Bradford and our diocese right up into Lancashire and the edge of Cumbria should look and sound and feel like the Jesus we read about in the Gospels. That is our vocation. And we can be confident in this God who calls us simply because he has a track-record in getting stuck in to the reality of the world and, through those who bear his name, offering transformation of both individuals and communities.
This is the God who loves his world so much that he refuses to exempt himself from it and all that it can throw at him. In Jesus he opts into it. And he calls his people to be like him – to do the same. Get stuck in – whatever the cost – and be so grasped by the generosity of God that we cannot but live generously with our neighbours. This is not, then, about point scoring or domination; rather, it is about confidence that the God who calls us has promised never to abandon us as we dare to take him at his word. He is the God who, in the words of the Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann, brings ‘newness after loss’ and dares us to hope and not despair.
But, secondly, confidence in God has to be earthed in a growing confidence in the Church. You might think this is a rather forlorn task. The Church is ridiculed in much of our national press, uncritically stuck on the easy dartboard of comic caricature, dismissed by lazy observers who simply filter out any good or local stories that don’t fit the prejudice of decline or despair. For such observers the facts of growing or changing churches are an embarrassment, as is the sacrificial service of huge numbers of ordinary Christians who give their lives not for the sake of the Church as an end in itself, but in order that the Church can obey its vocation to serve the world in which it is set. Yet, this state of affairs sometimes has a corrosive effect on Christians who can wonder if they are wasting their time maintaining worship and witness in their community. It can be hard to counter the negative rumour.
So, I want to encourage us to deny the naysayers and contradict the miseries with a confidence not only in God, but also in the Church itself. Don’t knock it! I was once asked on national radio what is the point of the church. Put on the spot like that, I had to come up with something quickly – and this is how I answered: the church is called to create the space in which people can find that they have been found by God. OK, that’s just one description of what we exist for. But, I want to go further. Different churches and denominations celebrate the fact that God is not boring. There are different ways of worshipping and serving him and different ways of organising how we do so. Good ecumenical work must always revolve around the purpose of our calling and not simply around organisational tidiness or uniformity. But, I want to affirm the particular vocation and responsibility of the Church of England in that context.
The Church of England is very public and, therefore, open to scrutiny. We are rightly regarded as public property, but this brings with it great responsibility for using the opportunities for service and proclamation that are unique to us. We believe in being present in every community and engaged in the life of that community in order to bring light and life to all. Sometimes we fail disastrously; sometimes we succeed gloriously; mostly, we just get on with it in a rather muddly way and we don’t always find it easy to tell our stories. But this vocation is ours and we need to believe in it, give ourselves to it and ask our Christian brothers and sisters of other churches to pray for us as we pray for them in their unique vocations. It is not a competition; but it is about being accountable to the God who calls us and accountable to one another.
Yes, the Church faces change and uncertainty – especially in the light of proposals to dissolve three Anglican dioceses and create one new, larger one. But, we have always faced change and uncertainty; it is the one certain feature of God’s pilgrim people from the moment Abram left Ur of the Chaldees and started walking into the unknown, with only the call of God to hold on to. He didn’t know the destination or what might happen along the way. But, none of that stopped him from going. The debate will carry on, but we must not be distracted by the engineering and lose sight of the purpose of the enterprise itself (which I described briefly earlier).
It will come as no surprise, then, that confidence in God, worked out through confidence in the life and mission of the Church that is supposed to resemble the Jesus of the Gospels, is not an end in itself. No. Thirdly, our being grasped by God’s generosity and invitation brings us together with others who share that mysterious condition, but in order that we might be a blessing to the world and that part of it in which we are put. And that means having confidence in our context: Bradford and its rural hinterlands, full of beauty and challenge and opportunity.
Let’s be honest: the rumours about Bradford and its particular challenges are not hard to uncover. Last Friday we were filming in the city centre and I found myself stopping random people, asking them what it was like to live here. The answers were interesting. They began with the inter-communal differences and tensions, but ended with an affirmation of their own personal life here. I wondered afterwards how we can most effectively change that rumour. I know that our parishes and communities are pregnant with creative celebrations of Christian presence: from arts festivals to interfaith partnerships, from faithful worship to community projects. Presence and Engagement is more than a slogan (or the title of a church initiative) – it captures our confidence in Bradford and its environs. Not blind wishful-thinking, but confidence that the resources for human flourishing and positive development of our society are already here in the people who are prepared to escape the confines of their own narrow interests and make it happen for the good of all.
Christianity is not airy-fairy. It is rooted in a God who deals with particular people in particular places. In Jesus he plunges into the real world at a particular time and in a particular context. And we are called to do the same. Which means loving our communities, nurturing the common good in Bradford, Keighley, Ilkley, Skipton, Dent, Settle and everywhere else. It means working together for human flourishing in all these places. And it means being confident about the potential for where we live, not colluding in the running down of reputation.
Confidence in God and the Good News of Jesus Christ for the world including the communities that make up the Diocese of Bradford. Confidence in the Church and its unique vocation to be grasped by God and to live in response to that love and mercy. Confidence in our context – a confidence that commits us to change the rumours that so demoralise and inhibit our communities from thriving.
As your new bishop I promise to work with all who seek the common good in these places. I promise to commend unashamedly the Good News of God. I promise to build up and not knock down. I promise to do my best in keeping focused on the call of God and to using my best endeavours – in body, mind and spirit – to work together with all who refuse to hide their light or leave their salt in the cellar.
Let’s change the rumour, for God’s sake.
CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
“Jesus ruft nicht zu einer neuen Religion auf, sondern zum Leben.” (Gedicht an Eberhard Bethge, Tegel, 18. Juli 1944 – ‘Das Ausserordentliche wird Ereignis: Kreuz und Auferstehung, S.63)