Bishop of Hereford's Sermon - Chrism Mass Sermon 2023

Published on: 5th April 2023

Bishop of Hereford

Isaiah 50: 4, “The sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary.” And yet, as we review the prophetic words of Isaiah, and indeed others, they don’t sound entirely comforting. Elijah is encouraged to have a little rest and some food after his clash with the prophets of Baal and then told to get on with his assignment.  The writer to the Hebrews, a few verses beyond our passage, tells us to endure hardship as discipline.  Jesus himself warns us that in this world you will have trouble, but to take heart that he has overcome the world.


The book of Hebrews in its entirety, is written to a group of Christians from a Jewish background so hard pressed that they were thinking of chucking in the whole thing.  He has spent 10 chapters arguing for the truthfulness and efficacy of the Gospel and its superiority to the Jewish tradition from which it has sprung.  The previous chapter is a mammoth list of great saints and martyrs and the unpleasant and lethal privations they endured rather than giving up the faith. In many cases, they endured persecution for no apparent reward.  I remember a few years ago being given a tour of a graveyard in a town in southern Nigeria.  It was for the first missionaries who went there in the 19th century.  They saw very little obvious fruit from their labours and most died within a year of their arrival.  A modern writer to the Hebrews may well have added them to his list, alongside many other martyrs to the faith.  There were more in the 20th century than all of the previous centuries of Christianity combined.


Our reading from Hebrews pivots to something we might recognise as a pastoral exhortation, although I’m not sure it would pass muster for the pastoral exercise at a BAP conference even so.  Speaking to a group like this a word to the weary, is often what is required, especially in the middle of the demands of Holy week. But not just there when the liturgical demands are heavy and the workload intense.  There is something intrinsically demanding about the vocation to Christian leadership, both ordained and lay. You carry people’s hopes and unrealistic expectations. People project a lot of their own stuff onto you. A vicar told me a few days ago of their wife visiting the doctor’s surgery only to overhear a conversation amongst two others in the seats behind, complaining about the number of people in church post-COVID and blaming the vicar for it.  That sort of thing cuts to the heart of our sense of call. We can too easily take responsibility on our shoulders which is inappropriate.  The vicar in question I know to be exemplary in practice and faultless in dedication.  Such things may be grossly unfair, but they still hurt.


The writer to the Hebrews would have been aware off all of these pressures and many more.  His exhortation is to raise our eyes to a further horizon.  We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.  You may remember the 400m race in the Barcelona Olympics.  Derek Redmond was the great hope for a British medal.  Shortly after the start of the final his hamstring went.  Although he was in agony, he hobbled around the course determined to finish.  The race was long since over, but the crowd rose to their feet cheering him across the line.  Ironically, he got a far greater cheer than the person who won – who incidentally no-one remembers now.  I think this is the sort of image the writer has in mind.  We are part of an eternal community praying for and wanting our fruitfulness. We all know of the home court advantage.  The cheers of the home crowd make a huge difference to the performance.


But there is also encouragement here to attend to our own soul. Throw off everything that hinders, and the sin which so easily entangles. Are there hindrances that tend to beset clergy more than others? I suspect that were our brains to be scanned it would be discovered that clergy have a greater number of mirror neurons than average.  My observation is that you have a greater capacity for empathy than most. The flip side of this is a tendency to avoid confrontation and sometimes even be a bit duplicitous.  Everyone we talk to will think we agree with them; prudent silence often being misinterpreted as consent.  The desire to be a reconciler, whilst admirable, can sometimes stop us having those difficult conversations, or challenging bad behaviour.  We know we should be more courageous, and the cumulative effect of our own sense of failure can wear us down.  Fear can drive us to push things under the carpet and hope they will go away.  We can be prone to cynicism.  I know the tendency of the national church to centralise and churn out initiatives may not help this.  Sincere efforts to help, or suggest different ways of doing things can be greeted with, “we’ve seen all this before.” Even diocesan strategies are not immune from such a response. We can find ourselves falling victim to a secret despair when we see little apparent response to our best efforts, either to disciple our congregations, or engage the wider community with the Gospel.  We combine that with jealousy at the apparent successes of our neighbours – at least the ones they tell us about at Chapter, or put up on Facebook.  The writer to the Hebrews encourages us to cast these things aside, because unaddressed they amplify weariness.  It’s not that we are then prone to give up, it’s just a hollowing out happens, a going through the motions, a biding our time with the comfortable and controlled until such time as retirement beckons. There simply isn’t the energy to do anything differently. The writer invites us to honesty and repentance if that is where we are.


But he doesn’t leave us with a cheering crowd of the church invisible and an exhortation to repentance. His final exhortation is something I say in the liturgical charge at every licencing.  “Fix your eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith”.  For him, this vision of Christ in glory is what enables real perseverance and steadfastness.  As an agricultural advisor 30 years ago, before the age of satellite navigation, I was amazed at the skill of some of my farmers to cultivate in astonishing straight lines, even over large 100 acre fields. The trick was to target one point in the opposite field boundary and then keep that point firmly in the centre of the windscreen, even when minor contours tended to push the tractor off true. If you were distracted by the ground around you, it never worked. If you got that first line right, you could run everything else off it, and the field was sown evenly. Hebrews is of course metaphorical language, but the fixed point is clear for us. His is the ultimate eternal perspective.  For the joy set before him he endured the cross. He is the source of grace for forgiveness if we find we have drifted from the true north.  He is the source of the Holy Spirit to empower, re-envision and re-energise. “Though he was in very nature God, he did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage, rather he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.   And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross*!” His divinity, self-emptied in human flesh, ministered in the power of the same Holy Spirit we received when we confessed him as Lord. His is our role model of courage, perseverance, resolve, hope, power and love. He loved to the uttermost – never an insipid, sentimental type of love, but a gritty, costly, sometimes combative engagement with the self-destructive patterns of relating that kept people in bondage. He never self-protected, but was able to give of himself for others.  He did that within appropriate boundaries of self- care, especially as he guarded his time with his Father. He is the one on whom we need to fix our eyes: our inspiration, redeemer and friend. Such worship combats weariness by reframing our perspective, even in the face of the trials and difficulties of ministry.


Back to Derek Redmond. As he struggled round the track alone, someone forced his way from the stands to run alongside him. The officials tried to push him away, until they realised it was Derek’s father, who was also his coach.  While the crowd cheered, he supported him all the way to the finish line. One of the officials was heard to ask, why he was doing it since the race was long over and he had lost.  Derek’s Father’s reply was simply, “he’s a winner to me!”  If today you need a word to the weary, may you hear that word from God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit to you.

* Philippians 2: 6-8
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