Deacon School

Last week I had the privilege of attending the National Deacon School, ably run by the Ven. Anne Russell-Brighty. It was a gathering of deacons from all around NZ, about 26 for the weekend reunion, and 12 of us continued for the next few days. It was an opportunity to learn, but also to let off steam. One of our number has written a paper about all the negative sides of being a deacon, and I thought I would explore this side of it a little. First, there are not many negatives about serving as a deacon. Not, that is, when you consider the vast privilege of washing people’s feet, showing our world how Christ would want them to live. But it’s not the calling itself that is frustrating. It is the misunderstanding of that calling in the wider church. The Vocational Diaconate is fairly recently arrived on the scene, having been revived from the 1960s. That is, unless you count the way the church operated  in its first 4 centuries or so. Nowadays, the church is very priest-focussed, very hierarchical, and people don’t know what to make of deacons. The understanding of the role is also muddied to some extent by experience of the Pentecostal church, where the Pastor has a combined role of priest and deacon.

Often the priests don’t know what a  deacon does, and congregation certainly don’t. Many of us have been asked when we’re going to ordained ‘properly’, or we are commiserated with for ‘missing out’. On being priested, that is. Maybe we should express our sorrow that someone has been ordained priest, and isn’t allowed to stay a deacon… Now I’m being naughty. That raises another point though. Many in the church have the understanding that a priest is still a deacon, but that is not the case. These priests had a year as transitional deacons, where they were being trained for the priesthood, with a nod at what a deacon is. The roles are very different. In the ordination service, candidates are asked if they are called to the work of a deacon, and those who are to be priested later blithely answer ‘yes’, although they have been discerned as priests in training. Our ordination services do not adequately reflect the different roles of Vocational Deacon, and priest-in training. It should not be called Transitional Deacon. This is where the frustration lies.

Being a deacon is not a way to have a glorious career in the church, adding more titles to your name, and more fancy copes each procession. We get to lead the processions in the cathedral, clad in our albs and crossed-over stoles. We stand apart for that reason, but we are also ready for action. Our stoles don’t flop all over the place when we are trying to do something. In a liturgical setting, we may be assisting with  the ablutions, or pouring the wine. We don’t need to be worried about our vestments. That’s a good reason why our stoles are tucked away. In the community, most of us are not robed, although wearing a clerical collar is always useful when you are trying to visit the hospital outside of visiting hours!

Most of us receive no payment for our work as vocational deacons, but that gives us freedom of hours and places where we can minister. Being a deacon is not about working in a particular place at a particular time – eg on a Sunday morning in a building with a cross on top of it. It’s much broader. Whenever we are present with people, we are doing Christ’s work. And we are called to be infectious, encouraging others to join us, loving and serving the Lord in our communities.

There is a different personality-type that seems to attract deacons too. It has been described as the grit that irritates the oyster, so that a pearl is formed. We can be a bit annoying, a bit in-your-face, a bit challenging. That’s part of our job – to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. It’s not always an easy fit in the political world of the church, but I seem to recall a certain Carpenter who was a bit challenging too.

The wider church has a treat in store as it discovers more of the potential of the Vocational Diaconate. Several deacons in every parish would make such a difference to the world!

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Ten thousand reasons

Today my blog received its ten thousandth visitor – someone form the United States was looking at my essay on the New Zealand prayer Book.

Ten thousand reasons is a great song to sing in worship too – meditate on the words as you sing it.

Thank you to all of you who read my blog – you may have noticed that the content has changed a bit as I have now finished studying, and most of what I am writing is for sermons, either at our Sunday morning services in Whitby and Porirua, or at our local rest home.

What else am I doing? Working as a deacon in Whitby, and our priest-in-charge is leaving soon, so I may be getting busier. I have also had problems with sick children. My daughter Rachel has been struggling with anxiety recently, and as part of helping her to recover we have acquired two new feline members of the family – Jacko is Rachel’s cat. He is a young, playful boy, black with white markings and lovely green eyes. Sylvia is the family cat – a mature lady, with torotiseshell markings, and the softest fur you ever felt. She sits on knees and purrs.

it’s been a few years since our last cat died, and I had forgotten about their capacity for food. Don’t you love the way a cat will you plaintively up at you, from its empty bowl on the kitchen floor, and makes the faintest, most pathetic miaow, as if it’s too starving to even miaow properly? And how about the way the next sucker to go into the kitchen gets the same treatment? Several times I have been about to feed a poor starving creature, too faint to miaow loudly, when Kevin hears the cat biscuits box rattling, and calls out – I’ve already fed him!

I think we should be like cats too, not hungry for excessive food, because that would not be good, but hungry for God’s Word, and for God’s justice, and for God’s love. If we were like cats, we would take advantage of every possibility that we might be fed – whenever we have time to read the Word, or to talk abut God, or to pray, if we could be hungry always, just like a cat. And when we have had enough of one sort of food, there’s always room for something else. Just like the cat who wants a drink of milk is quick to let you know, we too can seek after more nourishment.

Jesus said, ” My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” (John 4:34) May this be our food too.

 

Same-sex relationships and the Anglican Church in NZ

Archbishops’ letter       Motion 30

Over the last week our General Synod have been sitting, and debating, amongst other things, the response that the Church should be making to same-sex couples. While it is still early days for a real change, some very significant things have come out in the report.

the Church is “both affirming the traditional doctrine of marriage, exploring the recognition of those presently in life-long monogamous same-gender relationships, and seeking a process and structure to enable the possibility of a rite for blessing life-long monogamous same-gender relationships for those who wish to offer this rite.”

The Church is also apologising to those of the LGBT community who have been unfairly treated in the past by church decisions.

Well this is good, but just as pulling nails out of a piece of timber doesn’t leave it pristine, so apologising can never erase the hurts. Forgiveness can though, and there is a fertile field for this here. Continue reading

Sermon: Flesh and Spirit

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Sermon 6 April 2014 St Mary’s Whitby

Ezek 37:1-14,Ps 130, Rom 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

Today’s readings all deal in some aspect with life and death, with flesh and the spirit.

I like watching medical programmes on TV, and one of my current favourites is ’24 hours in A and E’. I was watching this last week, where someone had been wheeled into Resus, when I noticed the sign for the Resus department on the wall. R.E.S.U.S. It’s only one letter away from Jesus. This got me thinking – is Jesus our Resus?

In our culture we are so frightened of death, and our medical protocol often involves lots of technology to prolong life – the image of the paddles charging up, the doctor calling clear! as the patient’s heart is shocked into life is very familiar from our TV dramas. (I’m thinking maybe I watch too much TV?)

There is a finality about physical death that we all rail against, wanting life to be resuscitated no matter what the intervention.

No one wants to think that physical death is the end of the story, and every society and religion over many thousands of years has had some sort of understanding that life goes on after physical death. Continue reading

Sermon: False and True Worship

 

sermon St Mary’s Whitby 9 Feb 2014

Isaiah 58:1-12, Matt 5:13-20

The title, or quick guide, to today’s Isaiah reading is False and True Worship.This is a very challenging idea – both for the Israelites and for us.Isaiah tells his people that they are very quick to follow the outward forms of worship, almost competing with one another to see who can be the best, most religious, worshipper. Their motives are good – they delight to draw near to God. But what happens? They fast, but end up fighting.

Now, any of you who have children will know what I have been slowly learning the hard way – you just can’t expect decent behaviour if they’re hungry. For our family, that means that I need to have something substantial, that they will eat, ready at afternoon tea time, and with school going back this week, we’re all readjusting to the timing of eating! If the kids have no food in their tummies, they are grumpy and make bad choices about what names they call each other, and what they do with their hands. Or fists.

It would have been the same for the Israelites. They had a good motive to fast, or so they thought. They were doing it to draw nearer to God! But if God didn’t want them to do that, they would not have had the Holy Spirit’s help to fast in a God-honouring way. There’s no point feeling virtuous for fasting, thinking you’re super-religious, if the Holy Spirit isn’t part of the deal. It will only lead to grumpiness and fighting. 

The Israelites have another idea – we should be humble and lowly and bow down our heads, covering ourselves with ashes. Well, there isn’t much point to this either, as Isaiah tells them. What they’re really doing is making a public show of being humble, of doing nothing but looking so dejected that they really must be religious… Maybe?

No, God has a better idea. Service to God, service that really counts, is service to God’s people.It’s interesting that feeding the hungry comes a little way down the list- it isn’t at the top. First we have the context for this serving -“loosing the bonds of injustice,undoing the thongs of the yoke, letting the oppressed go free,and breaking every yoke.

Now, lets pause at this point. If we take this small passage as a guide for how God wants us to live our lives in community with each other, we need to do some thinking, and work out the meaning for ourselves and our world.

Loosing the bonds of injustice. That’s a really broad idea isnt it, but it contains hope. It tells us that we can do something about injustice.Often our society encourages us to have a sort of fatalistic attitude to the world – things are unjust, there’s not a lot we can do about it. In fact, when Iwas a kid, my dad, who was a GP, had a quick rejoinder for any kid who whined that things werent fair. “Life’s not fair, get used to it”. I find myself saying it too.But surely here Isaiah is giving us from God an encouragement that we can indeed do something about injustice.It binds people up, but we can help. We can loosen those bonds. Maybe we can’t break them entirely, maybe we cant completely resolve the situation, but we can loosen the bonds. And when the bonds are loosened just a little bit, it will be easier for them to be finally cast aside by the one bound up. In fact, the next part of our reading guides us – after we have loosened the bonds of injustice, only then can we untie the thongs of the yoke, removing the heavy burden from the oppressed. We can let them, and us, go free, and not only that, but break every yoke, so no one else can be oppressed by it.

How can we do this in our world? We’ve seen an example recently on the news, where the police have broken a child pornography ring. The bonds of injustice have been loosened by the investigators putting their information together, the thongs have been untied as they have been able to find who is responsible, the oppressed are set free when the children are no longer abused in this way, and the yoke is broken when it is harder for these sorts of horrible behaviours to happen again.

When we look at bondage to sin though, we must be careful not to be too black-and-white. We must avoid a them-and-us mentality. In a situation like child pornography, it is not only the people in the photos whoare in bondage. It is also those whoare addicted to looking at, and thinking about, those images. Loosing the bonds of injustice will break many yokes, both of those who are victims of other people, and those who are victims of themselves.

The next portion of our reading is a bit more straightforward really – we are encouraged to share our food with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into our house, cover the naked, and not hide ourselves from our own kin.This sounds like straightforward charity doesnt it? But again, it isnt easy. We have to put ourselves out if we are to care for the poor. We have to share, to put our own needs second. Well, NZ is a great nation for charity, we areoften told. Street appeals do well, we arevery generous. But putting your loose change into a collector’s box, rattled under your nose outside the supermarket, is all very well, but it’s very impersonal. I believe we are challenged as Christians to get much more deeply involved. To get to know people. That means giving of ourselves. Bringing the homeless poor into our houses – oh dear, what if they’re smelly? What if they pinch stuff? What if they swear? Does God tell us to look after respectable‘ people only? No. And as for not hiding ourselves from our own kin – there’s a whole sermon just in that sentence!

Now, our country is organized very differently from ancient Israel. We have a social security safety net, so if we pay our taxes there should be support available for people who are hungry, poor, homeless. But there are times when people struggle to access these services, and we can help. Again though, often we need to really get to know the people we are helping, not just send them to the WINZ office with their form filled out. And do you know what? The blessing is a two-way street. We have an elderly neighbour who is struggling with life, and he’s often over for a coffee, or to borrow something. Yes, he always smells as if he’s smoked a packet every hour, and my hay fever flares up after he’s been. But he blesses us. He cares for us. When there was an earthquake recently he popped over to see of we were all right. That was really touching.

Isaiah tells us that when we treat God’s people kindly, our light will break forth like the dawn! Two weeks ago I preached here about the people who walked in darkness seeing a great light. Here we have the same image – the light of the presence of God in our lives and in our communities.Isaiah underscores the point with a similar passage of what we can do, which will again be rewarded by our light rising in the darkness.In this second group he has some more guidance for us – verse 9 jumped out when I was reading this passage earlier in the week –If you remove the yoke from among you,the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,(and there’s another bit about feeding the poor )– then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

This is an important point to consider. The yoke among us of pointing the finger and speaking evil. Yes, it is a yoke, one that can be loosed and broken. We have a choice how we regard other people. Pointing the finger, singling people out because they’re different. In our culture people who stand out are quickly noticed, and not usually in a good way. It’s called the Great NZ Clobbering Machine. Kids at school are ridiculed for tiny differences, be it in the type of lunch box they have, or what is in it, or when I was at school, it was for wearing old-style shoes. Kids are quick to point the finger. Adults are too, often point it in blame. ‘Speaking evil’ – that’s another word for gossip. Very tempting I know, but is it helpful? Does it build the kingdom? If we want our light to shine out like noonday, we can turn away, make better choices.

Some of you may be saying, yes, that’s all very well, but Isaiah wrote these words a long time ago. What relevance do they have? Well, Matthew’s audience certainly knew them. There are several times in the New Testament when Jesus is quoting from Isaiah, and Matthew, who was writing for a Jewish audience, reminds them, and us, that what Jesus had to say was in no way a replacement for the prophets of old. Jesus talks of salt and light. These are familiar images – light crops up a lot in this year’s set of readings. How about salt? It’s a bit out of favour if you have to watch your blood pressure, but try eating home-made bread without salt. It’s revolting. Just a teaspoon in the dough makes a huge difference.

And I think that’s a helpful image for us. If we are wondering how our small contribution to life around us could possibly make a difference, think about that tiny bit of salt. That little pinch that you put on your fried eggs. That sprinkle on your tomatoes. Just as it only takes a small bit of salt to bring out the true flavour of many foods, so it can take only a little bit of love to make a difference in someone’s life. Be encouraged by this – don’t think you can do nothing. Even a smile at someone, a kind word, an offer of help, a prayer, can start the ball rolling to loose the chains that bind.

As a deacon, when I give the dismissal, I say, “Go now to love and serve the Lord”. Be encouraged that when you leave the church today, you can indeed go to love the Lord, by serving other people, by being that salty flavour that brings life. The last bit of the dismissal is “Go in peace”. Don’t go feeling like you’ve been given an impossible task. Go with the peace in your heart of knowing that you can love God, you can serve God, and it’s not too huge. Just one sprinkle, one pinch of salt at a time.

Message: Baptism

In Matthew’s Gospel, at the end of chapter 3, we have  read the story of Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan. This is traditionally a time for new Christians to be baptised too, and last Sunday at St C’s we welcomed a little one into the family of the church.

I want to think a bit about baptisms. When Jesus was baptised there was a voice speaking from heaven over him – this is my beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased. In the first century, when a tradesman wanted to introduce his adult son, apprentice-ship finished, to his community, these are the words he would say. This is my beloved son, in whom I am well-pleased. Jesus’ earthly Dad, Joseph, who had trained Jesus as a carpenter wasn’t around – perhaps he had died. Imagine then hearing God speak these words from heaven!

We may never have heard God speaking over us in that way – if it sounded out in our church everyone would be looking to see who was being silly with the microphone!

But I truly believe that it does please God that we come for baptism, and that we bring our children too.

Christian baptism isn’t limited in time – once we have been baptised and joined the church, we are members for life. Our commitment, or that made on our behalf if we were christened as babies, is for all our present life, and extends into eternity.

Baptism is about intention. Intention to follow God no matter what, to renounce all evil, and to let Jesus be our guide. This doesn’t stop when we retire. It doesn’t stop when we can no longer care for ourselves. It doesn’t stop when we no longer remember who we are. Just as we acknowledge God in our baptism, God acknowledges us. and no matter how frail and forgetful we are, we are still God’s beloved child, in whom God is well pleased.