Wakefield Cathedral 25th June 2017
30th anniversary of ordination and celebration of Ministry
1 Kings 19:7-19, Luke 24:28-35
Silence and Sign Posts!
Shortly after 2.00 am on Monday 19th June the alarms sounded in Shoreditch fire station. The engines of the London Fire Brigade were on the road in 90 seconds. The postcode and brief details on the computer screen in the cab of the engine said enough – Grenfell Towers W11 – multiple persons trapped.
Rookie firefighter April Cachia knew then that her first fire ever would be a challenge.
Adrenaline pumped round her body. She found herself muttering: “Get me in there, I want to help, this is what I signed up for.”
Ever since she was a girl April had wanted to fight fires. Little did she know that a nightmare was about to be lived in front of her very eyes.
“Get me in there, I want to help,
this is what I signed up for.”
Vocation, calling, finding the right niche in life can be an exciting, if not tricky business. For some its obvious, for others it’s more opaque and certainly for a good number, they might have thought twice if they knew what would come their way. Even the Royals it seems are not falling over themselves to take the top job!
I certainly remember the rush of adrenalin as 30 years today the procession moved into the great nave of the cathedral in Lichfield. On that day Bishop Keith Sutton laid his hands on my head and prayed that God would equip me to serve the church and those around me.
I recall the nervousness of my first service, the faltering sentences of my first sermon and the nightmare of my first funeral as we sat in a traffic jam on the A5. No mobile phones in those days! I have only occasionally mused on whether another career would have been easier.
Today, is a day of looking back, in total 55 years for Jonathan and myself.
Gazing backwards even with thanksgiving, can be a mixed blessing – rough must go with the smooth.
But today I want it to be a glance backwards with a difference – a ‘creative reminiscence’ which produces an attractive theology of ministry and service for today. A trawling back which secures good theological practice from what for me has been 30 full years.
Our two readings are there to help us. In the Old Testament reading the prophet Elijah discovers that God is more present in the silence than in any other way. Complementing that is the New Testament story of the two travelling disciples who, on the road to Emmaus, converse with the Risen Jesus. They are then confronted with the scriptures and with the breaking of bread as crucial pointers (sign posts) ways of moving deeper into God and His love for them. If you want the posh way of explaining what I’m doing – setting up a dialectic – God both in silence and conversation.
Silence and Sign posts if you like…
Let’s think for a moment about silence. I’m not a great fan of it really. Long periods of silence give me goose bumps -yet I have come to recognise its value. But…I’m talking about a different sort of silence which is more profound than a just an absence of noise.
Elijah feels desolate. There are the usual signs that God is with him – wind, fire and earthquake. But God is not even in them. There is only ‘sheer silence’ to comfort and renew him and send him on his way.
I don’t think that anyone is really sure what phenomena occurred after the fire – some translations seem to want to identify a voice – a gentle low whisper, a still small voice, a gentle blowing, a murmuring.
All things considered I don’t think its any of these things. It’s a purposeful silence. A silence that opens up new understandings.
Christian ministry and service today MUST regularly create and welcome spaces where noise ceases and where it must be acknowledged that God is at work in the silence more than in the words . Some of the most significant moments of learning for me have been when I have shut up or been shut up. Occasionally my training vicar had to remind me to pause and to remember that I was not ‘God’ I only worked for Him!
When Joel and Katherine were ‘impressionable’ teenagers and sometimes pushing the boundaries of what time they had to be home - they got fed up of me telling the story of the funeral that I took of a young man who had a ‘reight good’ night out in Wakefield (probably on Westgate!) , got in a taxi to Dewsbury and never made it home. His body was found at the side of the road 5 miles away in Batley. The mystery was never solved.
What was there to be said to his family, what words would convey the love of God. What words would heal the agony of loss as I sat with them in their front room? Answer – none at that point in time- but a sheer silence in which God was present in their hopelessnessI think also of the funeral of two children killed in a house fire. The time I spent with their mother who had escaped the blaze was punctuated with moments when words were just inappropriate and silence conveyed more than words ever could.
There was a place for words - on the day of the funeral, the press never stopped ringing for comment. Look North wanted not just comment – but a copy of the words of the funeral address. Words, words, and more words.
At the graveside, neighbours, family, friends, fire fighters stood silently. I can only believe that it was in that silence – God came to them.
This is different to being ‘speechless’ – I have had a few occasions of that in 30 years.
It was certainly our experience when we spent our first Christmas in the vicarage at Dewsbury Moor and we witnessed a check-out fight in Batley’s Iceland store between two shoppers because one had picked up the others turkey by mistake!
I am still fairly speechless about being conned into a fundraising event when I had to acquire a bath and fill it with baked beans. The local music teacher donned a very daring swim suit and sunk herself into the mire of beans. People then paid to file passed her, sat there.
Only to be topped in the early days in Shropshire when a bride-to-be rang to check wedding details. I have just a question – will it be alright if I keep the date but change the bridegroom. I’ve fallen out with my fiance and met someone else - it would be such a waste if we cancelled everything now!
So, in pastoral theology or practical theology we must make space for, give permission for, cherish the moment of ‘sheer silence’ as an appropriate aspect of ministry. We must see it as a vehicle from which God makes himself even more present than in words.
Moving on to ‘Sign posts’….
Two disciples journey to Emmaus. They talk only of one thing – Jesus has died and has been buried.
They are naturally devastated until a third figure joins the journey and explains to them that Jesus has risen from the dead. It is, of course, Jesus himself but they don’t know that. Even in their unknowing they are sign posted to the things that will help them discover him more fully –conversation about the scriptures, and then the breaking of the bread.
So we see another pattern for Christian ministry and service – sign posting others to the Risen Lord….learning, theological enquiry, or even better – theological conversation must be about that.
A vast amount of my time has been and still is invested in this. My theological research was inspired by this NT story and it remains my anchor point. I didn’t set out to be a ‘sign poster’ or theological educator as we now refer to them. It just seemed to happen. It is the life blood of the church to encourage good theological enquiry. It has become my life blood.
What an enormous privilege it is to see adults grow and develop in faith and understanding. Good to see students past and present here today.
Recently, its been good to re focus my energies into this work as we bring together our accredited training into one School of Ministry across the new diocese with different centres or hubs. We are certainly looking forward to a bumper crop of new starters in sept. We are refusing to be smug – and asking the question – what will growth mean for us?
12 years ago now I came to join the community of the cathedral. Here daily we ‘sign post’ and converse together - opening the Scriptures and meeting Jesus in the breaking of the bread. Here is a place of sign posts…Here is the bed rock, launch pad.
Sadly I think sometimes we live with a church that has often been distracted from or even tempted away from these anchor points.
Maybe it is the role of cathedrals to put these things back on our C of E map.
In many senses I came from a different end of the church spectrum when I came to the cathedral. And still don’t understand all of what we do – cue list of Wakefield Cathedrals top ten meaningless practices.
I want to pay tribute to Dean Jonathan and my colleagues here who have kept the work of sign posting firmly in front of me.
Jonathan and I are probably classic chalk and cheese - but often hold similar values and arrive at the same point albeit by different routes. Thank you Jonathan for your commitment to the sign posts of God’s life in this renewed building.
In the story of course the travellers journey together... they are maybe a couple, friends, neighbours…
For me today they represent those who have travelled with me – June, Joel and Katherine, colleagues, tutors, bishops, secretaries, administrators, church wardens, teaching teams I have created or belonged to. Students with essays in their sweaty hands.
The story has a sunset ending…
”As they came near the village to which they were going, Jesus walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly saying ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over”
Let me re-translate it in words you will undoubtedly recognise…
Abide with me, fast falls the eventide,
The darkness deepens, Lord with me Abide
This is where the famous hymn comes from – sung in the trenches, sung at funerals, sung on the rugby pitch, sung at the Queen’s wedding
This is where we rest this afternoon – pleading with this God to stay close to us as we travel - so that we never fail to meet him in the silence and, in conversation, discover more of him through the sign posts.
I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter's power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.