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!

Ready or not…

The last few months have been taken up preparing our son Rowan’s book for printing. the PDF is already available, but each time we go over the ‘final copy’, we realise that it is not quite perfect. There’s a full stop missing, or a slight inconsistency, or something which could be strengthened… Many tiny details, all being polished to make the book as good as it can be.

I started wondering whether we are like books too. As Christians, do we hesitate to let ourselves be released onto the world until we are perfect? Do we wait until we have all our ducks in a row before we feel we can share our faith with others? Well, we are none of us perfect. And we never will be, so why not live dangerously, let ourselves be unleashed on the world, imperfections and all. If we are too perfect, we will be like a smooth glass wall, with no toeholds for a climber. No little edges and inconsistencies to use. We will be impossible to relate to, because of our smooth façade of non-human perfection. BUT, if we allow others to really see us, faults and all, there will be toeholds, chinks in the armour, where they can get to know us. The real us, not the shiny one. Just like a jigsaw puzzle, it’s those bumps and knobs which lock us together with other people.

Many Christians try to be good – and that’s not a bad thing – but they use it as an excuse to not engage. We can use the metaphor of a jigsaw puzzle again. When we are looking for pieces to fit in, we can try and see what is the same – all the sky bits in one pile, for example. or all the yellow bits. In a church context that would be like trying to find those who we really identify with. Those who are the same. But there’s another way of progressing a jigsaw puzzle. How about looking for the places where the texture changes? The edges between the sky and the land? The bits that contrast? These will help the jigsaw get filled in , and if we use this principle with people, we look for the differences between them and us. We don’t judge these differences, but we use them to create a bigger picture.

This New Year, may you embrace the different in your life, remembering the vast originality of each person as the Creator’s handiwork.

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: Doubt and Faith.

Last week we celebrated the great feast day of Easter, when the highlight of the story is Jesus’ resurrection. This week our readings look at some of the witnesses to that resurrection, and their reactions too.

Our Gospel reading tells us simply that Jesus came and stood among the disciples, saying Peace be with you. He appeared even though the door was locked! This is a clue to the nature of his resurrection body – there is something different about it. It is not the same as his earthly body. And yet he was still physical, still made of flesh. He showed the disciples the wounds in his hands and side, establishing that it really was he that stood with them. Unfortunately Thomas wasn’t there, and had trouble believing the story that the disciples so excitedly related to him. Let’s wind the clock back a couple of weeks where we met Thomas before, in the story of Lazarus. You may remember that it was Thomas who urged Jesus and the disciples to go to Lazarus, even though Jesus had just told them that he had already died. Thomas believed that Jesus could raise Lazarus from the dead, at that point. 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:Temptation

Matthew 4:1-11

Temptation. This is traditionally the theme of today’s reading. There are many things that are tempting in life, but let’s pause and consider why they are a problem. If we are tempted to follow the fleshly path, such as desiring food, safety, power, as Jesus was tempted, these things can become idols. Yes, it’s important to look after our bodies, but putting needs like food, safety and power at the top of our list can become a bit compulsive if we let it. If you have ever been on a diet you will know what I mean – when I was trying to lose weight many years ago, on a strict regime, all I could think abut was food, and how I would spend the extra calories I was allowed each week. I would plan all week, which cake to buy at the bakery. It had become an obsession, an idol for me.

No, Jesus tells the devil. God’s word is more important than those other needs. If we are tempted to worry too much about the world of ourselves, we can follow Jesus’ example and go back to God’s word in scripture.

As we get older, our physical needs change. We may no longer be tempted in ways that we were earlier, but the desire to have functional, painfree bodies becomes important to us. This scripture challenges us – and it is a hard challenge – to trust God for those things, and not to think of looking to the flesh and the devil for solutions. Maybe this means not being tempted to unhealthy ways in order to distract us from pain. One of the temptations as we age is to try everything in order to regain mobility and function, and there are many ads on tv for various supplements and vitamins that promise all sorts of benefits. What’s the harm in that? you may ask. Good question, and it’s fine if you can afford it. But that’s the problem. Many of these things are unproven and are very expensive – a single trip to the chemist for a small bag of potions can cost upwards of a hundred dollars! People who spend this money risk losing their financial security as they spend money they need for other things, like food and heating.

Jesus’ message for us here today is to trust God, no matter how tough things get. No matter how hungry, lonely, or hurting we are. Jesus had to trust his heavenly father to care for him in the wilderness, and we can trust him too, to be there for us, no matter what is going on in our bodies and our lives.

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.

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,300 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Nowhere to stay

I was listening to Luke 2 today, describing the journey Joseph and Mary made to Bethlehem. Several things struck me – and one may be the result of the other. They were going to his own town, his ancestral town. Surely there would have been relatives in Bethlehem who could have given Joseph and his pregnant fiancée a bed? What had gone wrong in his family so that the important codes of hospitality were not being observed? Maybe all Joseph’s relatives were no longer alive, or had moved elsewhere, and like Mary and Joseph were looking for accommodation too. Or maybe there had been some terrible disrupt in the family – many families today have problems where one person is seen as the ‘black sheep’, where no one will give them the time of day, let alone open their house. I urge you, if there is a problem like that in your family – and many families have issues – please try to forgive, and to let yourself be forgiven, and open your heart to your own family, no matter how awful they have been.

It’s entirely possible that Joseph and Mary were rejected by their own relatives. Why? Another part of Luke 2 gives a hint – Joseph was engaged to Mary, who was heavily pregnant. They were not yet married. There had been rumours about the coming baby which would float around for years, and maybe the relatives just couldn’t bear the thought of an unmarried couple with a baby nearly there contaminating their house.

As Christians we must guard against this attitude. Many Christians are very judgemental about people who live together, have their families, buy a house, a dog, a trampoline – in short, set up a family, without the legal status of marriage. Is it any of our business? A resounding NO! If it’s good enough for God to be born to an irregular couple, it’s good enough for us to accept those as a couple who regard themselves as one. The Bible continues to surprise us with the sort of people God uses to further the Truth, and human judgementalism and rule-making, which is unfortunately very noticeable in the church, can get in the way of God’s work.

This Christmas, let us welcome those we have rejected, and those who have rejected us. And let’s give thanks for families of all shapes and sizes – if they love each other, that’s a God-thing!