A sermon at the Ordination of Deacons by Brother Samuel SSF, Guardian, The Friary, Dorchester
on Sunday, 29 June 2014
So this is what Jesus did. He took a towel and water and washed his disciples’ feet. And, as we shall hear in the continuation of the gospel reading later, he told the disciples to wash one another’s feet too. And just to press home the point, Bishop Nicholas, Bishop Graham and Bishop Edward will, themselves, kneel and wash the feet of the new deacons. Jesus gives us a model of serving, of ministering, of ‘deaconing’, for these new deacons to follow.
And serve you they will in your parishes, in your congregations and in your homes. This is their task – not only to minister to you but also to minister with you, alongside you in the community, sharing, supporting and encouraging your ministry as the People of God. For there is a huge amount of generous service undertaken by Christians every day in the community – in schools and colleges, in hospitals and care homes, in prisons and government service, and of course in countless small, hidden, acts of neighbourliness; service modelled on the one who said, ‘As I have done for you, you must do for each other.’ These eleven women and men are being ordained to remind us that we are called to be a Servant Church following our Servant Lord. They are here to remind us that service, public service, service for the common good, service which is an expression of generous self-offering rather than the profit motive, is not only honourable but true, true to the ministry of Jesus and true to the nature of God.
Such service can and should unite us with others, not just with fellow Christians but with all who hold a vision of the common good. For our Muslim brothers and sisters this weekend marks the start of Ramadan, a month of fasting from sunrise to sunset – quite a challenge at this time of the year! With the fast goes faithfulness in prayer - and service. During this month Muslims are especially committed to acts of kindness, compassion and generosity. Here is service in which we can find common ground. In shared service we can grow in understanding and can receive and share the gift of community.
An area of service which is today increasingly drawing together people of all backgrounds and faiths is the service of creation. We are beginning to remember once again God’s command to Adam in the book of Genesis to ‘till and keep the earth’. The Hebrew word for ‘till’ also means to ‘serve’. We are called by God to serve the earth and all that is in it, to care for it as a precious gift upon which the human race and every other species are utterly dependant. We are beginning, thank God, to wake up to the realization that creation, with all its creatures both animate and inanimate, is not just a giant warehouse of stuff for our human convenience, use and exploitation, but that we belong together with the rest of creation, that we are made of the same stuff. St Francis said that we are brothers and sisters with all creatures because we are part of the same family, which comes from the same generous Source. So creation urgently needs our care, our love, our service. You deacons are being ordained to remind us of this, to help us serve the earth as well as people.
It’s very significant that it is our bishops who will, after they have ordained these men and women, be also washing their feet. For a bishop doesn’t cease being a deacon when he (and, pray God, soon she) takes the purple. His own ordination into servanthood still stands. He remains a deacon, as does as priest, however high up the ecclesiastical greasy pole he or she may rise. I have a vision - perhaps more a fantasy – that those who sit on the boards of the great banks in the City of London should be required to spend one day a month sweeping the streets and emptying the bins of the borough of Tower Hamlets (and of course at the street cleaner’s rate of pay!). Also that senior medical consultants and hospital managers should be expected to commit a day a month to cleaning the wards; that government ministers do a compulsory day’s labour in the fields, picking vegetables alongside immigrant workers; and that Premier League footballers spend a day a month away from their training, or from whatever else they get up to, in care homes, serving people with dementia. And bishops? Well, of course, they would carry on washing feet!
I can already hear the howls of protest from these professionals about how hard they work (which they often do), about the preciousness of their time and how the services they perform are much too important to set aside even for a single day. But I wonder. It would help them to keep in touch with their brothers and sisters in the human race, to understand how life looks from below, and maybe it would enable them to recognise the value and the dignity of humble, mundane, manual service. And it would be following the pattern of Jesus Christ, who, ‘though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave’. Christian service, the service into which these men and women are being ordained, should always follow this pattern, the pattern of the incarnation, the pattern of humility and vulnerability. Too often service from a position of strength and security becomes an exercise of power, and in the Christian vocabulary power is a word that should carry a health warning.
When I was at school, some of us, as an alternative to one afternoon a week’s square bashing in the Army Cadet Force, joined what was called the ‘Social Commandos’. In practice this usually meant digging the gardens of elderly ladies, of whom there was an abundance in the Eastbourne of those days. Facetiously, we called it ‘granny bashing’. Some forms of service can leave those being served feeling a bit bashed. That is not the way of Christ. The model that Jesus gives us involves getting one’s own hands dirty and the risk of becoming a bit bruised oneself. When Jesus took up the towel and water it was at the moment of his greatest powerlessness; it was on the night on which he was betrayed that he washed the disciples’ feet – including those of Judas Iscariot. Jesus kneels before the feet of his betrayer and gently, tenderly washes them.
Pope Francis has said this about his vision for the Church – for the Roman Catholic Church, but it will do for us too: ‘I prefer a Church that is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the centre and which then ends up being caught in a web of obsessions and procedures……….More than by fear of ourselves going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within the structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: “Give them something to eat”.’ (from Guadium Evangilii – The Joy of the Gospel)
God bless Pope Francis. God bless our foot-washing bishops. And God bless you, dear deacons, as you grow in the way of The Servant.