Tag Archives: disciple

Servanthood – A Call To Serve

Based on Readings: Acts 11:27-12:2; Matthew 20:20-28

Your first sermon in a new church is always a tricky affair. How will the congregation react? What’s it like up in the pulpit? Is your style of preaching appropriate? Although you may have preached many times before, when you have been doing so in one particular church, in one particular place, to one particular group of people, you know that you have built up a relationship and a rapport over many years. Suddenly, the people looking back at you from your new viewpoint are strangers and this is the first time they have heard your thoughts and are eager to see what the new Curate has to say.

Add to all of that the fact that it’s the church’s Patronal Festival, when the life and character of the particular saint that the church is dedicated to has probably been discussed, dissected and generally mulled over for many years and you feel you have to come up with something new?

Sunday 26th July 2015 saw me climbing up into the pulpit at St James, West End, Southampton, to do just that. Here then is an abridged version of my talk.

May I speak and may you hear through the grace of our Lord; Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Today we are here to celebrate the patronal festival of St James. James the fisherman, not to be confused with James brother of Jesus or James the author of an epistle. He is one of the closest companions of Jesus, alongside Peter and John, and together with them he is one apostle about whom we know quite a lot about his background and character. We know his father was Zebedee, a Galilean fisherman from whose boat James and his brother John answered Jesus’ call, and biblical scholars have reasoned that their mother was Salome, about whom we’ll hear more about in a minute.

I wanted to find out some interesting facts about James, but I suspect that you may have heard them all before… however, they are all new to me and here are a few I found especially interesting.

St James 'Son of Thunder'

St James ‘Son of Thunder’

 James has a nickname… ‘Son of Thunder!’ Whoa, that’s great… ‘Son of Thunder!’ …makes him sound like he should be in an Avengers movie. Apparently he got this after John and he asked Jesus if they should ‘call down fire from heaven’ to destroy a village and its inhabitants who had been less than welcoming. Needless to say his offer was declined.

You may have also wondered why there is a scallop shell on the church logo. Well, I hope that today you will all be going home to dine on Coquilles St Jacques à la Provençale…no?

This delicious dish of scallops, white wine and mushrooms is traditionally eaten on St James’ feast day, a reference to the saint’s appearance at the battle of Clavijo in the 9th century, riding on a white horse and adorned in scallop shells. On that occasion the Christians were able to defeat the Moors and the rallying cry of the Spanish troops, from that time became ‘Santiago!’

In our New Testament reading, we hear of James’ violent death at the hands of Herod Agrippa. He was the first of the apostles to suffer martyrdom, just over a decade after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. However, the Spanish have a special place for St Iago, as James is translated, as they believe that his remains were buried in Compostela, having been transported there in a stone boat by angels, a place that has become the third greatest place of Christian pilgrimage after Jerusalem and Rome.

Some really interesting facts and stories; speaking of a man of great loyalty, fiery of spirit but willing to serve Christ to the point of offering up his life. However, in our gospel reading he and his brother have to stand by and watch as their mother tries to secure a favourable position for her boys in the new earthly kingdom she believes Jesus is bringing about. In Mark’s gospel this incident sees the brothers themselves asking for this advantageous position, but Matthew, writing some 25 years later, distances the disciples from this overly ambitious request and chooses their mother to press their case. Interestingly, it’s possible that this was because of their family relationship, as Salome is identified by the gospel writer John, as Jesus’ mother’s sister, making her his aunt and the brothers his full cousins.

What it shows is that the disciples were still thinking about personal reward and distinction without personal sacrifice. Jesus, however, knows that the kingdom he is to bring about is not about earthly values, and that whilst he doesn’t doubt their faith and commitment, it will be the Father’s decision as to what that looks like in the long run. You can imagine what the other apostles, said to James and John afterwards, perhaps some of them chastised them that their mother had spoken out in such a way or they were annoyed that the brothers were trying to gain extra favour. Whatever, it was they were angry about, Jesus points out that being one of his followers is not about human leadership values but instead true greatness comes through servanthood.

I wonder though what we think of when we are called to become servants or even as Paul puts it slaves. I suspect we could have a vision of Downton Abbey and life downstairs, although this particular portrayal is certainly a rosier picture than what it was actually like for many servants. But it’s not really about being powerless at the mercy of others. Instead, we should think about what servants do… they serve… Only three weeks ago at my ordination service the role of serving was emphasised time and again throughout the service. Let me read just one bit from the declarations that we had to make – first the bishop read out the job description.

They are to serve the community in which they are set, bringing to the church the needs and hopes of all the people. They are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely, and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, so that the love of God may be made visible.

This then is the role of a deacon, to be a servant and what my title is for this first year. However, I don’t stop being a deacon after the year’s up, in fact you never stop being a deacon. Thomas is still a deacon; Bishop Tim is still a deacon and Archbishop Justin is still a deacon*. Once a deacon always a deacon, but despite it being a clerical title every one of you here could also be called deacons.

We are all called to serve in a variety of ways. We are called to serve in the worship life within this church building, whether as ministers or choir members; as servers or sidespeople; as cleaners or flower arrangers for example – everyone offering their gifts and time to build up the church community. But we are also called to serve and to be available to our wider community finding out ways in which the church as a body can meet their needs and be a beacon of hope. The great thing is that we are not called to do it alone as individuals, but to work with and support each other, being proactive as well as reactive. Then, as we serve we will become the visible signs of God’s love to all his people.

Deacons scarf blogOne of the visible symbols of being a clerical deacon is that I wear my stole slightly different to Thomas, who has been priested and I know some of you wondered why. Again it is to do with servanthood. During the Last Supper Jesus removed his outer robe and tied a towel around his waist in order to wash his disciples’ feet. In the ordination service it was the bishop or in my case the abbot who did just that to me.

For Christ it was a way of showing the extent to which he was prepared to humble himself to take on the form of a servant. He was demonstrating to us that we have to set the needs of others before our own. When we remove our outer pride and clothe ourselves in humility then we too can bow down in readiness to serve others

To some people in our society nowadays that seems like an alien concept, where self-satisfaction counts for more than self-giving. Surely by becoming a servant we also make ourselves vulnerable to abuse – we become doormats rather than open doors. I would disagree – if we are serving God and actively seeking how we can bring about justice and mercy for the vulnerable then we will have opened the doors to Christ’s kingdom.

Perhaps we should all consider how we can become more like those visible signs of Christ to those around us. Are we prepared to offer everything so that God’s kingdom can be brought about both on earth and in the future? It’s certainly a challenge and not an easy one. Jesus knew this, but he had trust in his followers. He never doubted that James and John would maintain their loyalty; he knew they had ambitions and their faults, but they didn’t turn away from him – they were prepared to give their all. In the same way he has trust in all of us.

For those of us who were here on my first Sunday, we sang the words ‘Brother, sister, let me serve you; let me be as Christ to you; pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant too’. We have all been called to serve in this place. God has placed us here for a purpose; to serve him and to serve one another. Unquestionably, in doing that we cannot fail to become those visible signs of Christ’s love.

Amen

*Reverend Thomas Wharton (Priest in Charge, St James, West End); Tim Dakin (The Right Reverend The Lord Bishop of Winchester) and Justin Welby (His Grace The Lord Archbishop of Canterbury)

©The image used at the top of this blog is copyright and permission to use it has been sought from and granted by the artist. For details of how you can purchase a copy of this or of any of Debbie’s other artworks please visit https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/DebbieSaenz

 

Children Should Be Seen And Not Heard!

Children should be seen and not heard!

Children should be seen and not heard!

A lot of my ministry so far has been with children and young people – whether at home, through the church or through my work with primary schools. So when I was told that I would need to do a 5 minute presentation on a topic of my own choice for BAP (Bishops’ Advisory Panel) I thought that the persistent attitude that some churches have towards children could be a good place to start

Topic chosen – timings……difficult! My original piece came in at 12+ minutes. Editing is easier said than done. How do you cut out words, yet alone sentences, that you’ve spent ages choosing so that they say exactly what you want them to say and still make it have the same impact? Nonetheless, repeated attempts at timings certainly do get the contents into your head, you can work out the parts you stumble at each time, and eventually you get it down to 4 minutes 46 seconds – give or take a second – and you hope with a fair wind and barring a complete meltdown that you’ll get through it.

The piece below is an amalgam of the original and final version just in case you think I delivered this like the actor John Moschitta in the FedEx adverts!

Children Should Be Seen and Not Heard

Children should be seen and not heard… a phrase that was actually coined by a 15th Century clergyman called John Mirks; originally intended to refer to young women, possibly echoing Paul’s exhortation in his first letter to the Corinthians, but now simply meaning young children. It is said to emphasise that you think children should behave well and be quiet. I’m fairly certain however, that this phrase is still very much on the lips of many in our church congregations – those who complain about children talking during the sermon, stares given to parents of fidgety children and God forbid that they should be allowed to run freely up and down the aisle!

Children should be seen and not heard – in fact we’re not too sure that they should even be seen in some cases. Nothing may be explicitly said – although sometimes it is – but this attitude definitely lurks close to the surface. A disingenuous attitude bearing in mind the concern shown about the falling number of children and young people in their congregations, and witnessed by the large number of adverts in the jobs section of the Church Times calling for ministers that will build up ministry to families and young people. The dreadful irony is that the thing that people are asking for may very well turn out not to be what they actually want. They want to see more children; they don’t truthfully want to engage with them.

Somewhat reassuringly, in many churches children’s ministry and youth work are given high priorities and their youth ministry flourishes, but even here this is often done as a separate entity building up the church body but not necessarily building up the body of Christ.

The concern that churches are in decline, particularly where young people are involved is not a new problem. The Church of England’s 2004 report Mission Shaped Church pointed out that ‘We are becoming a nation of non-churched people in terms of Sunday school contact’ – and I use ‘Sunday school’ in its loosest form to represent children’s ministry. The report goes on to say that ‘Even by the end of the First World War, the majority of children were not in Sunday school. Those who were 10 years old in 1950 are now fast approaching retirement, and of them 70% did not attend a Sunday school. That means that the majority of even the elderly are non-churched.’ By the year 2000 figures showed that only 4% of children attended some form of church activity.

Conversely, the church is not attracting 96% of the younger generation. Furthermore, the majority of those who do attend church regularly with their parents, or take part in church workshops, have already decided by the age of 9 to leave, and this is happening not only in the more traditional churches but with evangelical congregations as well; although here the age of decision seems to be higher. The reason for this is that they often feel that they are not engaged by the church, seeing it as yet another form of schooling where they are talked at and not to.

Hence the recognition that young people need to be ‘seen’… because quite frankly if they are not ‘seen’ then for some churches, within as short a period as one generation, there will not be a church for them to be ‘seen’ in.  These congregations are looking for new generations to replace the existing one, members to follow on rather than walk alongside. The trouble is that they want children to be ‘the church of tomorrow’ rather than the church of today.

If we truly believe that God loves everyone without exception and that children can experience God, then churches need to become places where this happens. They don’t need another programme; they need people who are going to make a difference in their lives, who respect their spirituality, allowing them to witness not only in church, but in their own families and beyond. They need to be ‘heard’

How is this to be done? Well neither children nor adults should instruct each other by telling them what to do – it’s never about who can shout loudest or longest to make yourself heard! However, children can still teach adults even without verbal communication. Adults basically need to look at what they ARE – and learn. Look at what they DO – and learn even more

We know from the Bible that God uses children as well as adults to work out his purposes … consider David, Samuel, Josiah – even a young teenage Mary giving birth to Jesus. Moreover, the business of learning from children is one that Jesus himself demonstrated and emphasised.

‘And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.Matthew 18:2-3

By doing this he was saying look at the qualities this young person can teach you. He wasn’t asking them to regress to childhood, but to see how the natural humility, honesty, vulnerability and faith of the young are what will ultimately make the difference.

It’s true that churches have been aware of this dilemma and the need to do something significant about it for some time. Programmes like Kidz Klubs and Godly Play were introduced in the late 90’s, and huge investments have been put into youth ministries. Yet the majority of pioneers from these initiatives, now in their 20’s, have left the church in droves and this age group is at an all-time low. Where have they gone? Why are they failing to carry their faith into adulthood?

Recently Messy Church has come to the fore, recognising that if you simply wait for young people and families to step over the threshold on a Sunday morning you could be waiting in vain. Instead it very successfully attracts large numbers of families and young people with no pre-conceived agenda about converting them to ‘bottoms on pews’. Its sponsors, the Bible Reading Fellowship, state on their website that it ‘has deliberately chosen to have a ‘non-controlling’, ‘hands-off’ approach in the way it promotes Messy Church in the hope that this will give God space to grow his church as he wants to, and that it will give everyone encouragement to experiment and innovate’.

If churches are to have children in them, then those children and their parents need to feel welcome just as they are. You need churches where parents feel comfortable; not ashamed or nervous. Worship services where children are free to be … well, children. Even if that means that sometimes they will be loud, will move around, will play and fidget…because that is what children do. Children should not be mini-adults, fulfilling an adult agenda.

It’s about creating experiences to help them to be part of building the Kingdom… because it’s often in the experience that it’s glimpsed – where Kingdom values are not only outwardly expressed but inwardly nurtured as a compass for life.

It’s about providing opportunities for children to be transformed and discipled… where people of all ages gain wisdom from each other; older to younger and younger to older; because you never know the effect that a conversation, an encouraging comment, a ‘get alongside you’ activity will have on the child in a day, a month, a year….. surely every single one of Christ’s disciples needs to be seen AND heard!

P.S. I did manage to remain upright and came in at 4 minutes 54 seconds