11th April 2022, Chrism Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh
Isaiah 61.1-9; Luke 4.16-21
Many have been welcomed this year into new ministries in the diocese and some are moving on. And, as we know to our cost, there have been other more final farewells – in recent weeks two priests have left the party far too early – Ruth Innes and Margaret Pedersen. Their wonderful services of farewell were filled with thankfulness for duty done joyfully and, whilst they were very different people, they shared a stubborn delight in serving God and a powerful sense of vocation. ‘Purple Ruth’, of course, was well known to us over many years – how could she not be – and her ministry in different parts of this diocese offers a role model to many, even if, in truth, she was inimitable.
Forgive me, however, if I focus for a moment on Margaret, who was less well known. For, although her ministry was cut short by illness, there is one aspect of her life which I believe offers us a living parable of what Christian ministry is about. Born in the UK, she raised her family in Australia before returning to Scotland to be closer to her ageing mother. I first heard of her as a woman who had conceived a bizarre and inexplicable desire to restore a former church building in Morebattle. This was no small chapel and it had, moreover, suffered for some years as a lorry garage before being left to rot. Margaret’s vision was to transform it into a place of rest and refreshment for pilgrims on St Cuthbert’s Way.
Surely this was a project completely beyond the resources of two largely unskilled people. Yet Margaret and her then husband, Richard, set about the task step by step. The garden was cleared, the roof fixed, then the windows and, although the original grand vision was scaled back somewhat, visitors began to drop into the coffee stop.
In the end it was all too much – even without Margaret’s encroaching illness – anyone could have told her that; and many did, I’m sure. Eventually, she passed the project onto others and when she left us the job was unfinished. What a puzzling thing to give yourself to! Batty, one might almost say. Surely, we have enough church buildings without taking on another one. What a waste of time and energy!
Yet, I remember Margaret sharing with her fellow curates (back in 2019 I think) what she thought she was about. And as she spoke of pilgrimage and welcome her words somehow evoked the spirit of that rich young man, Francis, who set about restoring a ruin in obedience to the divine command to ‘rebuild my church’.
A living parable of Christian ministry? Let me be clear, I don’t offer this story as a commentary on our actual church buildings – that’s a wholly different conversation. But St Francis soon discovered that the church God wanted him to rebuild wasn’t San Damiano, it was a church not made with hands – a church made with living stones. Isn’t rebuilding this church our constant task too?
Do we also wonder, or at least find others telling us, that all this is a waste of time and energy, that our bizarre enterprise is doomed to failure, that it is all too much for us? We answer God’s call and find we’re picking up where others have left off, sometimes having to repair damage they’ve caused, and when we leave, long before the job is finished, we wonder whether our contribution, for all its worth, has done more than scratch the surface of the Great Commission to preach the gospel to all nations or to build the Kingdom of Heaven.
We don’t get to make the church according to our own master plan, we don’t start with a blank sheet, we get what we’re given and hope that our meagre offering, five loaves and two fish or whatever, may turn out to be sufficient. And if we can’t control the church, far less can we control the intrusions of the real world, of which we are also a part. Life has a habit of writing our agenda for us. And why not? For, like it or not, this is the life, this is the world in which we’ve signed up to serve God, the world in which God is incarnate.
Yes, pandemics and climate crises, European wars and spiralling energy costs may well interrupt the smooth flow of church life and spoil our careful planning, but it’s precisely here, amongst all this disruption and tragedy, that today’s two readings come to life. Here are the broken-hearted we are called to heal, even as our hearts also break, here are the captives we are asked to liberate, even though we too find ourselves imprisoned by our own limitations. The task of rebuilding always calls us out beyond ourselves, the task of ministry calls us out beyond the confining walls of church to offer sustenance to others on the pilgrim way and to walk alongside them to realise Isaiah’s vision of a God with special compassion for the weakest and most oppressed; of a longed-for world where all shall know peace, joy, justice and where ruined cities (a poignant image this) are rebuilt. To affirm the strange and wonderful paradox that, with all its terrors and uncertainties, this year too is the year of the Lord’s favour, this year too is God’s good news to us.
History, Western history at any rate, has its cycles, its changes of mood. Edwardian optimism shattered first by the slaughter of the trenches then by the horror of the gas chambers. Post-war confidence of the 1960s, the end of the Cold War, the end of apartheid, slowly crumbling as 9/11 and the fear of difference brings us to a new age of demagogues and Putin’s war in Ukraine. We find these moods reflected in Christian theology too – reflected in our own convictions.
Yet, our faith requires us to be neither utopian nor nihilistic – to believe not in the perfectibility of humanity but in the goodness of God, not in the ultimate destruction of all things, but in the promise of God’s transforming mercy. And we endure, not because we can see the end or because we have any evidence to support us other than the apparently futile and obscure death of a young Nazarean who told us he had good news for the poor. That, and the stubbornly persistent belief that ultimately God’s purposes will win through for us as they did for that young man. That our apparently pointless adventure has meaning.
Perhaps we are batty to keep on doing all this until we die in service and pass it all on to someone else to make sense of. But our commitment to ministry which we renew today is an expression of our trust that, even when the evidence says otherwise, the future is God’s and that one day the work of rebuilding will be complete.
You may know words often attributed to Bishop Oscar Romero. They were actually written in 1979 by Bishop Ken Untener in celebration of departed priests. I read them now, and dedicate them to those faithful ministers of the gospel, amongst them Ruth and Margaret, who have gone ahead of us, leaving the work of rebuilding unfinished.
‘It helps, now and then, to step back and take the long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts; it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water the seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something and to do it well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.’