It was a joy to welcome back Andy and Nikki Coates, and Simeon, when Andy came to be our preacher last Sunday.
His sermon was so good I wanted to share it with you in Jottings
Readings: Matthew 13:1-9, Romans 8:1-11 and Isaiah 55:10-13
May I speak in the name of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
It’s such a pleasure for Nikki, Simeon and I to return to Hornsey Parish Church. Nikki and I remember our time here with such fondness and are so grateful to Fr Bruce and to you all for your continued prayers and support… I’ve just finished the second of my three years of training for ministry at Westcott House in Cambridge or as it’s becoming known, ‘Hornsey Parish Church in exile’, given the number of ordinands there known to you all! It’s also great to see Mthr Anna now in post here as your curate. She will be much missed at Westcott but her return to Hornsey is this church’s gain!
A couple of weeks ago we attended the ordination of deacons at St Paul’s to see Anna, along with 28 others, ordained into God’s church. It is a service of extraordinary celebration. Those of you who were able to attend will remember the enormous fanfare of the organ, as those to be ordained enter through the great West door of the cathedral, opened in full I understand only for the Queen and for Ordinations. It’s something very moving to witness. Those who are called to proclaim the gospel in word and deed, as agents of God’s purposes of love, are greeted by hundreds of family members and friends to mark the beginning of their public ministry.
The liturgy of ordination declares that these deacons, who are scattered right across London, are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and the weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless. They are to reach into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible. They are to be faithful in prayer, expectant and watchful for the signs of God’s presence, so that they may reveal his kingdom among us. So no pressure on you Anna or me, God willing, next year.
I want to suggest that this liturgy of the ordination mirrors powerfully the spirit of our gospel reading this morning. The parable of the sower might well be one of those more familiar to you, with its evocative imagery of a seemingly careless farmer who scatters his seed all over the place. Jesus starts with a good dose of realism to his audience.
Everyone in the crowd nods their head as Jesus describes the trials of traditional first-century farming. Try as they might to prepare the ground, their efforts are a far cry from modern farming techniques which mean the soil is cultivated, with just the right Ph balance, and the seed injected into the ground. It’s no surprise to Jesus’ listeners that this scattergun approach results in some seed falling on hard soil, some on rocky ground and some among the thorns and weeds. The parallel with Jesus’ own ministry would have struck a chord with Jesus’ followers. The seed of his teaching has fallen on thorny ground. In earlier chapters, the disciples lose faith during a storm at sea. The Pharisees want to choke out his message. Jesus is soon to experience the hard soil of his own hometown where he will not be well received. He does not just tell this parable but lives it in word and deed.
And so the gospel message, to be proclaimed by all those deacons ordained in St Paul’s, is, like the seed, to be scattered widely and not just in those places where a warm reception is assured. The ordination liturgy reads that they are to serve the community in which they are set, bringing to the Church and to God the needs and hopes of all the people.
It’s an ethos which runs counter to some of the arguments in the debate about the future of ministry in the church today. If you want to plant a church, be sure to plant it in a carefully scrutinised, sure to grow neighbourhood. Craft the message for a promising demographic. Be strategic about location. Determine your target audience and communication strategies or so goes some of the advice. In this context, the parable of the sower makes an appalling business case – fling the seed anywhere on the off chance some will take root. And yet of course the gospel needs no business model. The servant ministry of a deacon does not sit comfortably within a framework of modern styles of leadership or growth strategies.
The more the church is treated as an organisation, the more its mission becomes focussed on techniques designed to maximize output and productivity. There’s a danger we become obsessed with quantity instead of quality or that the church becomes a managed machine, with its managers judging performance by growth-related metrics.
For not everything that counts can be counted; and not everything that is counted, counts. Counting ‘members’ or the hard, inner-core of congregational attendees is critical and we all want them to grow but it will never quite tell the whole story. It will not be a priority of the poor and weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless to become just another church statistic.
The mission of the church is to serve communities, as the liturgy of the ordination for deacons so beautifully captures, not just convert individuals into members. The liturgy ends with instructions from the Bishop to the deacons to always remember with thanksgiving the people among whom they will minister. They are to pray that their hearts may daily be enlarged. And so perhaps the Church must be cautious about recasting clerical models of leadership in seemingly more successful secular moulds. The essence of Christian ministry, and the wider ministry of the church, cannot be captured in quantifiable skills but involves a kind of loving which cannot be calibrated. Fr Bruce will be the first to admit to you his lack of expertise on twitter and yet he perhaps more than anyone is responsible for my journey towards ordination.
If any of you have been watching Sean Bean’s wonderful portrayal of a catholic priest in the tv series Broken, you might share the sense that the national talk about church growth, critical as it must be, does not always seem to value or reflect a lot of what deacons and priests spend much of their time doing. Fr Kerrigan is haunted by his failure, exhausted at the end of a long day, to pick up an answerphone message that could have saved the life of a mentally ill young man. He makes mistakes. He carries his own demons. And yet he is there, in a life-giving way, for the mother with the mentally ill son, the policeman under intense pressure at work, the children whose mother is suicidal. Time and again he lights a candle ‘to remind us that Christ is here’. There can be no growth-related metric that captures the quality and depth of his relationships with his parishioners. Here there is a story to tell of the church’s ministry, that witnesses to the truth of the gospel in those places where the ground is rocky, where there isn’t fertile soil and where there are thorns aplenty.
The sower does not know in advance what is beneath the soil’s surface, whether the ground is hard or shallow. And yet it is the purpose of the sower – the preacher, the deacon, the missionary, the priest, and the whole church per se – to sow, ever trusting that it is God’s work that yields an abundant harvest.
Words from TS Eliot’s poem The Rock, written for the creation of the London 45 Churches Fund to build new churches in London’s suburbs, captures this focus: ‘Take no thought of the harvest but only of proper sowing’.
And so ordination exemplifies something for us all as we all participate in this sowing. At the beginning of the ordination service, the Bishop reminds the entire congregation that God forms us into a royal priesthood to declare the wonderful deeds of Christ. The congregation declares that it will uphold, pray for and encourage those to be ordained. We are all to share and participate in the work for the coming of God’s kingdom. Through bringing a neighbour or friend to church, through helping at the Church’s foodbank or by engaging with the activities and witness of prayer that so characterises this church.
This is all of our task as children of God. Of course, this isn’t always easy but the ending of Jesus’ parable assures us that our hope for God’s kingdom is not in vain. Even in the face of rejection and the hard reality of this world, Jesus knows the abundant ways of God whose mercy is sure and whose love is everlasting. Words from our first reading remind us that God’s kingdom will bring forth wonders we can but glimpse in our worship of him and our love for, and service to, one another – the mountains and the hills shall burst into song, and the trees of the fields shall clap their hands as God accomplishes his purposes. In the name of that God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Andy and Nikki have one more year left at Westcott House. In a year’s time he will be ordained a deacon and move to a parish where he will be curate. Please pray for them both, and for Simeon, and for the forthcoming birth of a new brother or sister for him.
With the assurance of my prayers