Sermon for Leavers’ Service 2015

Westcott’s Vice Principal, Will Lamb, gave this sermon at  the Leavers’ Service on 12 June 2015. 
The Windows
Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?
    He is a brittle crazy glass;
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
    This glorious and transcendent place,
    To be a window, through thy grace.
But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story,
    Making thy life to shine within
The holy preachers, then the light and glory
    More reverend grows, and more doth win;
    Which else shows waterish, bleak, and thin.
Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one
    When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe; but speech alone
    Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
    And in the ear, not conscience, ring.
George Herbert
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
If you cast your minds back, some of you will have first visited Westcott on a candidate’s visit and found yourself sitting in my study at 5 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon listening to my sales pitch for Westcott House, and – in spite of it – you still decided to come! 
But you may also remember that in describing the life and ministry of Bishop Westcott, I often refer to the stained glass window on the north side of this church. It includes a roundel depicting Bishop Westcott intervening in the Miners’ Strike of 1892.
But just to the right of Westcott is another image, an image of George Herbert. It’s an image that always reminds me of this poem that you have on the little card which was distributed with your Order of Service.
 ‘Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?’ – not a bad question to wrestle with when you’re wondering what to say to people as they embark on the extraordinary adventure of ordained ministry. Reflectin on the precariousness of the whole enterprise, Herbert describes the preacher as ‘a brittle crazy glass’. It’s a powerful and suggestive image. 
Glass is an extraordinarily versatile material. For those who have stood drinking cocktails in Cloud 23, enjoying panaromic views of Manchester and Salford, while risking the vertigo of looking down through the glass floor at the streets below (it would be enough to drive anyone to drink if they weren’t so expensive), you can see that glass is an incredibly strong and resilient material. But it is also delicate, brittle, and fragile. 
And so when Herbert uses this metaphor to describe ministry, he is reminding us of our resilience and of our fragility. And he reminds us that in spite of our weakness, indeed sometimes because of our weakness, we can still be a means of grace to others.
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
    This glorious and transcendent place,
    To be a window, through thy grace.
But how can this be? The second stanza offers us a clue, while at the same time using a rather obscure word that may occlude rather than illuminate our thinking. ‘But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story’ – the word ‘anneal’ describes the technique for burning colours into the glass. It is also a word which means ‘to set on fire’ and ‘to inflame’. 
‘Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire and lighten with celestial fire’ – these words of John Cosin, which we will sing at the end of this Eucharist, are often used in the ordination service just before the ordination of deacons and priests. ‘But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story, making thy life to shine within the holy Preacher’s…’ Through the gift of the Spirit, our lives are sealed with the fire of God’s love. That is the grace of orders.
The readings from scripture which we have heard this evening invite us to reflect on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. John reminds us (an important lesson this for those who are leaving a place that you have called home these last few years)… John reminds us that God will make his home in us. We know in John’s Gospel that Jesus is the new Temple, the dwelling place of God. But as Jesus and the Father come to dwell with us, we too become the Temple of God, the place where God lives.
And the only way we can discover this mystery is through the gift of the Holy Spirit: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” I find those words rather comforting. Jesus tells us that we have hardly begun to comprehend the wonder and the mystery of God’s love for us. However partial our knowledge and understanding may be, however fleeting our faith may be, the Spirit will help us to discover again and again the breadth and length, the height and depth of God’s love for us. 
And discovering the reality of God’s love in the complexity of our lives is possibly an essential antidote to some of the institutional anxiety that is manifest in the Church of England at the moment. For as St John reminds us, it is love that casts out all fear and anxiety. 
The reality is that there has always been uncertainty about the future but maybe never more so than at present and the consequent temptation for the Church to retreat into survival mode or to engage in hyperactivity, is strong. Yet neither survival nor hyperactivity have been recognised as Christian virtues. We commit ourselves not to work for the survival of the Church but to join in the way of Christ, which is a journey of death and resurrection. 
The truth is that we do not know what the future holds other than the certainty that it will include both death and resurrection. The future Church may be numerically larger or smaller than at present. It may enjoy prosperity or endure persecution. Christendom may return in all its glory or the catacombs may beckon. These possibilities are the raw material of speculation but what is certain is that the future will include both death and resurrection.
What sort of deacons and priests do we need for such a future? 
The Church will always need preachers and teachers, pastors, strategists and administrators, leaders, visionaries and prophets. But whatever gifts and skills are required by deacons and priests in the future, whatever creativity and imagination you will need to respond to the challenges and demands of ministry, remember this one thing: the most important gift is the gift of prayer. 
In St Anne’s, Carlecotes, one of the five churches in the Penistone and Thurlstone Team Ministry, the congregation always sat on the north side of the church. The south side was reserved for what was still referred to rather quaintly as the ‘Estate’, in other words the residents and tenants of Carlecotes Hall. Even though the estate no longer existed, the congregation persisted in sitting on the north side. There was no organist at St Anne’s. I would announce the hymn and then charge to the West End to play the organ. This little Victorian church was what one might be describe as ‘dinky’ – it wasn’t very big, and when I returned to the East End, to preside at the altar (facing east), I would look directly at a stained glass window, a depiction of the crucifixion. 
I often found myself meditating on this window, because something had gone wrong with the firing process when the stained glass was made. With the combination of damp and a succession of wet Pennine winters, all the detail had been completely washed away. So all you could see was the outline of the lead, the change in colours, and where the face and torso of Jesus would have been on the cross, there was just a blank, an area of plain glass: ‘watrish, bleak, and thin’.
It’s a symbol perhaps of what can happen when we forget that it is through the gift of the Spirit, that our lives are sealed with the fire of God’s love. If we do not attend to our relationship with God, if we do not continually stir up the gift which is within us, if we do not take our journey into God seriously – because we are so busy and so absorbed in other things – then we may find that the beauty and likeness of Christ within us is diminished.
Do not forget – and I’m preaching as much to myself as to the rest of you – that the people of God must ensure that their priest makes time for God and not insist that the priest be so busy as to have little or no time for prayer. An overtired priest does not pray well nor work well. Jack Nicholls, the former Bishop of Sheffield, used to say that ‘rather than more plans and strategies, most parishes need more prayer and more parties’. 
Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one
    When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe;

But I have said enough, ‘speech alone’ will not suffice. I pray that as you leave this place, God’s spirit will stir up the gifts that are within you, and that you will bear witness to the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection not only in the things you say but also in the lives you lead: … but remember, more prayer and more parties.

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