A sermon preached by the Revd Richard Carter
And I will trust in you alone,
And I will trust in you alone,
For your endless mercy follows me,
And your goodness will lead me home.
It is a huge privilege for me to preach at your ordination today as priests, to have been with you all on retreat, and have had the chance to meet such a diverse group with so many gifts to offer the church. I feel at home in this cathedral- because of your Bishop Nicholas who has been such source of wisdom, and support for me in my ministry as he has for many others. I also recognise these doves flying through your cathedral as a sign of our great longing for God’s Spirit of peace for our world- they also flew through our church of St Martin-in-the-Fields and indeed some of them may have been made by refugees and homeless people from our church in London as well as your community here. But this cathedral also has a very special meaning in my life because it was where my father trained for his ordination. Like many of you, I have always thought it the most beautiful of cathedrals, as though like the new Jerusalem it has just come down from heaven and settled here so gracefully on the grass uniting both rural England and God- God’s transcendence in the midst of our ordinary yet extraordinary lives.
My father died in 1999 but many of the things I know about being a priest were imbibed from him, growing up in various Vicarages. I learnt from him the deep humanity, gentleness, breadth, and graciousness of the Anglican Church- the generosity, eccentricities and character and dedication of those it attracted, its endless hospitality, church halls and teas and cakes and later its abundance of cheese quiche, its Sunday School, choirs and youth clubs and church hall pantomimes, it winter fates and hobbies and handicrafts exhibitions- the beauty of the Book of Common Prayer that I can still recite by heart like: “Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him. Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”
I can remember kneeling at the altar for the preparation for 8.00am Holy Communion, still half asleep, and the Lord’s Prayer beginning almost as a whisper in the heart. Above us the beauty of a church, made goodness knows how, speaking to me of the mystery and wonder of God. Perhaps one might say that all this has changed- and this memory of our church is just nostalgia. But I don’t think so. Go across the country, indeed across the world and you can still find these familiar primordial actions and deep rhythm of prayer linking us with the one who is the cornerstone of our lives and so many of those who have gone before us. The one thing I have never ever forgotten is that this church is our sheepfold, where you can go in and go out, and which will always be our common home. For you will always be known by Christ by name.
It seems important to remember that in the age of institutional anxiety where like the high street shop the church as we knew it sometimes seems under threat and we search for new model of ministry and being church. How vital it is that the church does not give up on its primary mission- to be present. To provide a sense of home and belonging where people can come in and go out and can be known by name. To provide a meeting with the mercy and love of God. Immanuel the God who above all says “I am with you” My brothers and sisters being ordained today, never forget this, God calls us to come and see Christ face to face- to abide, to dwell, to stay, to steadfastly be with.
It strikes me that the church has more than ever an incredibly vital role to play- for it is to the church that people return in times of crisis and uncertainty and when issues and the mystery of our lives are at stake. It is here at the centre of the community- so whether it is a terrorist attack in London, or the tragedy of Grenville Tower, or the trauma of the Salisbury poisoning, or coming to terms with a loss, or searching for new ways of belonging, or welcoming an asylum seeker from Syria or another country of the world, or a homeless person, or a friend struggling with depression or parents seeking to give thanks for the birth of their baby, or visiting the elderly and lonely, sometimes forgotten by their families- it is the church which is still there- generous, compassionate, welcoming. The community that can call us each by name.
And an expression of this being present to God and the world is our prayer. You can almost feel and imbibe the sense of prayer as you walk through the doors and smell the prayer books, the timber and the hassocks. These are places steeped in prayer. Today more and more people are searching for that sense of the sacred and belonging. It has all sorts of names- they talk of spirituality, meditation, mindfulness, community, the beauty of creation, or art, architecture or music like Bach and Handel, they pile in for Advent, Christmas or Easter, they want to light candles and to sit and soak up the place or leave prayers on the prayer board and experience those powerful elemental signs of light and darkness. The church is here for us. Here in the community. It is the best possible sacred space. Yet it is not a shrine, museum or a private club- it is the body of Christ. And you are all part of this body- bearers of its love. Today here in Salisbury, I walk across the grass lawn for Morning Prayer in the Cathedral. I sit in silence united with those who have gone before, all that is now, and the kingdom of justice and love and peace I long for the future. On the way back an elderly gentlemen whispers to me- “It sets me up for the day this prayer doesn’t it? An unknown day opens up infused by this meeting with God and humanity. Herbert’s vision of the meaning of his priesthood- “Teach me my God and King, in all things thee to see and what I do in anything to do it as for thee”
The church is not like the hired hand that runs away. It is the place where we are called to be there for our neighbour come what may. Of course we have sometimes got it wrong. Like Judas Iscariot or indeed the Apostle Peter we have betrayed that trust, and we have all seen the painful consequences of such betrayals and the wounds it causes. We are a community only called and only possible because of the mercy of God. Sometimes of course you may feel it would be better to be like the hired hand with proper wages and prescribed hours. Who wants at the end of a long day to go in search of another lost sheep? And yet what an incredible privilege too- to be there with people at the major events, and turning points and celebrations and the heart breaks of their lives but also there, every day. To realise that this Good Shepherd is not just a distant parable- the Good Shepherd is the shepherd of our own lives- the one who gives his life for us. Don’t underestimate the importance of this calling in a world where the very values of compassion, and care for the vulnerable and justice for the poor and peace for those facing violence, are so much at stake.
You will need to listen carefully to discern the voice of the Good Shepherd. There will be other competing voices too. Telling you that you’ve got it all wrong. And that the voice of God is a delusion. These other voices will of course promise you the world, just as they tempted our lord with the world too. The voice of the wolf pretending to be the shepherd. We have plenty of those. The thief comes to steal, kill and destroy. Beware of the thief, never forget the power of the thief to divide and hurt and destroy- and that temptation even present in your own life. We only have to look around at a world to see the power of the wolf within us and its mouthpieces around the world- preaching fear, propagating prejudice and inciting the wolf pack to attack the scape-goat. I am reminded of the Cherokee story of the young man who asks his elder- “There is a fight going on within me between two wolves. One is evil, he is anger, envy, jealousy, false pride, hatred, resentment, lust, and greed. And the other wolf is good- he is joy and peace and serenity and compassion and peace and love, but I am worried he will be torn to pieces. Tell me which wolf will win. And his elder replies simply “The one you feed.”
Our Gospel today tells us the most incredible truth- the truth that God loves us so much that he will lay down his life for us. You have been given an incredible calling Somehow God has seen in you, amidst all your human frailty, indeed a call planted in the very midst of that frailty- the person he wants to be a shepherd to his sheep. “Why me-I am not worthy- to which Christ responds “Do you love me? Do your really love me? Then feed my sheep” It won’t always be easy, at times you too will want to run away, you will need courage to confront the injustices, brutality and greed of our world. But remember The Lord is your shepherd, and though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death you need fear no evil.
Last week I said those same words of Psalm 23 to a woman who was at the very end of her life having been part of the church for more than 90 years. “The Lord is your shepherd. You shall not want…Goodness and mercy shall follow you all the days of your life and you will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. And as I said these words, her son whispered to me the two things she loves most in the world- her family and her church. And as we held her hand her breathing grew fainter and then stopped completely and she had indeed made that final journey. Yes she was with her family, with her church and with her God. What an amazing grace to serve a church there at the beginning of life and will also there at the end of life and all the way through- too. Face to face into eternity. The Lord has indeed laid a table for us today in this cathedral and we too are promised that we can dwell in the house of the Lord forever. What greater grace could you ask for, what greater service than to bring others to this table where all our journeys meet, what greater love could be laid out for us? The God who is with us at the first, with us at the last, the Alpha and the Omega- the One to whom all things belong.