Being John the Baptists

IMG_7179I hope you will allow me a moment of personal reflection alongside our patronal festival this morning. Twenty-five years ago on Wednesday I was ordained as a Deacon in Canterbury Cathedral. It has been quite a journey over a quarter of a century and one which actually fits rather well with celebrating John the Baptist, our name saint, today. In some ways the job of the church fits rather well with John the Baptist, not least in the social context in which we find ourselves. John the Baptist prepared the way for the Lord, he called people from where they were, linking with their spiritual aspirations and desires, and got them ready for the Christ to appear. As a churchwarden said to me in my first incumbency, it has been our vocation to be John the Baptists – to move this place to where it can flourish more fully in the future. And with all the emphasis in the church on growth and mission, we mustn’t forget the vital role of John the Baptists in the stages of faith development and moving people on in their questing and journeying; preparing the way of the Lord, making the path straight for that journey to continue one step at a time.

So twenty-five years ago I arrived at the town centre civic church in Maidstone as the new curate with our newborn son. It was a whirlwind of a fortnight – James was born on Tuesday, I moved house on Friday, went back to Lincoln on Sunday, brought Sue and James back down to Kent on Monday (with the dog wondering what we’d put in the car by mistake as the horror dawned on him that this bundle was here to stay) and then went on ordination retreat on Wednesday to meet up again in the Cathedral on the Sunday! Not a sequence I would recommend and certainly not over that timescale!

I think ordained ministry is the greatest privilege in the world. It brings access to people and despite all of the scandals and shocks of how some in the church have behaved, we are still trusted in a way no one else is. People say things to us they have never said to anyone else. And breaking confidences is a serious matter, because without trust we have nothing. A lot is expected of those who wear this collar. Some of it is un-meetable, some of it reminds us of the serious responsibility given to us. As the bishop says in the ordination charge, ‘remember the greatness of the trust committed to your charge’. All of it points to the deep longing people have for there to be people who bring light, integrity and hope to birth. So when clergy mess up it rocks a community so much more deeply and it can pollute the waters for many years. I know this because I’ve had to deal with the legacy of predecessors who have not behaved well.

And the access which ordination gives is to everyone. That includes those at the top table, wherever that is, and those who are not even in the room: the homeless, the Lord, the business chief and the cleaner, celebrity and the notorious prisoner, those celebrating, those crying, those unable to cope and those whose decisions affect many people’s lives and they know they carry a great weight. It is a ministry of service, which remembers that people, whoever they are, are first and foremost souls before God. All are loved and cherished and all matter equally. Being a deacon is where clergy start, and the word ‘deacon’ is the same as servant or assistant. With so much emphasis on leadership, that is actually what cuts it with people. Showing an interest, listening, being there. And there are times when I become aware that ‘being there’, showing up is what matters most. It is a ministry of presence and all that brings. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t, sometimes the competing demands crash against one another. We are not airbrushed, as this community is not, it is a real community and we are all real people who bump along. To be an inclusive community means we are not airbrushed.

And one of the things I have learnt over the years is that there are times when I run out of capacity. Sometimes I am over tired and need to rest. Sometimes I am not fit to be allowed out in public, not until I’ve a little nap and regrouped. And this is a reminder that everything does not depend on me. In fact it doesn’t all depend on you. It depends on God. As I saw the other day in a post somewhere online, it is God who calls and moves, all I have to do is love. And that is what I’ve also learnt, that the requirements aren’t actually that difficult. They are to do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God. I have a strong conviction that this is God’s church and if we are faithful in prayer, service and commitment to make a difference around us, the faith will rub off and be attractive. A lively faith community is infectious and anyone coming through the doors can smell it instantly. They know if this is a place that prays. They know if this is a house where they can find love and acceptance. They know if the lives have been touched by grace, which is not the same as being airbrushed by the PR gurus. Despite all the fakery around, ours is a culture that longs for the genuine – the real deal. Sometimes people don’t know what to do when they find it, but they know they want it and can recognize it a mile off.

There have been times when I would have run away from some of this ministry, it has just felt too difficult. Sometimes it is hard and feels without reward, not least when it feels fruitless. Of course it is not fruitless, we just don’t see it all the time. If you do gardening you can see the result of the work straight away – beds dug, shrubs pruned, lawns mown. In this ministry, you see nothing most of the time and then years later you might get a glimpse of just how something has helped or made a difference. But when I am feeling particularly sorry for myself I usually find a serious pastoral matter comes to mind – anointing the dying, listening to someone whose life is in bits – whatever it is and it is a sharp reminder of just what matters most. It is holding lives before God, sitting alongside in the praying and the struggling, reaffirming hope and resurrection life. It is to be touched by grace when grace is most needed.

So today we come here to celebrate the saint after whom this church is named, St John the Baptist. It is a day to reflect on the gospel of hope that lies at the heart of this community of faith, of what is in our title deeds. John the Baptist does that well, because he is the forerunner. He is not the main deal himself and does not draw people to follow him. And neither do we. That would be idolatrous, placing ourselves in the place of God and therefore egotistical. As St Paul reminded us a few weeks ago, we do not proclaim ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves in his service (2 Corinthians 4:5). And that is what a deacon does. Proclaims the love of God in Jesus Christ and calls on all of us to live lives dedicated in his service – in word, prayer and deed. It is what this church is called to do and to be.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Patronal Festival – St John the Baptist, 24th June 2018

About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough and Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral in the Church of England Diocese of Peterborough. He served as Rural Dean of Peterborough for 5 years. Prior to moving to Peterborough, Ian was in Leeds for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian was born and grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon and is a former head chorister at Shakespeare's Church - Holy Trinity. He studied in Canterbury, Lincoln Theological College and has a Master of Divinity degree from Nottingham University. He is married with two sons. Publications include three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His most recent book, 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus', was published by Sacristy Press in 2017. There is a hymn based on this 'Christ the Saviour'. He has been writing online since the mid 1990s. Ian is a keen photographer and these frequently appear in his posts and on social media.
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