Sermon: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (B) – 2nd August 2015

St Aidan’s Anglican Church, West Epping  8.30am

Readings:   2 Samuel 12-13; Psalm 51; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:24-35

“WHAT KIND OF RECTOR?”

We have been praying for some months now for our Parish Nominators, and for the appointment of a new Rector. I guess most of us have been wondering how long we will have to wait, and who it will be, and what he will be like. Meanwhile we keep praying, and no doubt many of us are keeping our ears open for any news, or even hints of news.

A Rector is literally a ruler: the word implies power or authority. Once upon a time a rector directly received the people’s tithes, whereas that was not the case with a vicar. However, nowadays the diocese has its own rules to ensure that its appointed clergy are provided with an appropriate stipend to provide for their financial needs: the aim is that they can focus on their ministry, rather than have to run around trying to get enough money to live on.

Any person in a position of leadership has some form of power or authority. It may be some official appointment, or something much more informal where you have a recognized role: it might even just be your role as a parent, or your place in the family. But power has its dangers.

We have been hearing about King David, a great hero of the Bible, but a man who certainly had feet of clay like the rest of us. David had power, success, wealth, and no doubt popularity. He had a palace and a harem. And then he saw Bathsheba bathing. “I’m king. I can do what I want! I can have her. So what if she’s married? I’m king: I don’t owe anything to her husband.” We know it well as a sense of entitlement. And what did David do afterwards when Bathsheba reported that she was pregnant, and he realized that he might be found out? He had her husband killed! “I’m king: I can do it.” But he was still answerable to God. And it took Nathan the prophet’s message to get him to admit the evil he had done: Psalm 51 with its heavy words presents David’s expression of shame and repentance, and reminds us that we too are people in need of God’s forgiveness, which comes to us through Jesus, who is the bread of life. Sin and evil bring death, but reconciliation and eternal life come through Jesus Christ.

Of course, we are not unfamiliar with the idea of people in power having a sense of entitlement. Our politicians have recently been given something of a serve, particularly over travel allowances. “I’m an MP, I’m the Speaker: of course I can have this, of course I can do this! Of course the rules allow it – more or less!” And although Bronwyn Bishop has been getting most of the attention, it seems pretty clear that the attitude is not uncommon. No wonder both major parties keep very quiet when it is suggested that the rules on travel allowances should be tightened, or even clarified!

However, that same sense of entitlement – or a separation from moral realities – has also been evident with leaders of the church. Over the centuries, many Popes behaved in ways which had nothing to do with the moral standards taught in the scriptures. They used violence to achieve power or to strengthen their power, and, in the name of the Gospel, they used violence and torture supposedly to persuade people to join the church or to admit their heresy – whether or not it was heresy! Of course, the Protestants weren’t much better! And more recently we have seen clergy use their power to abuse children, or to manipulate parishioners into inappropriate sexual relations, and then somehow to justify their actions or to excuse such actions.

Parish clergy can also use their power to put people down, rather than to build them up, because of an inflated sense of their knowledge and wisdom. Too often I have heard of clergy who come into churches, convince themselves that major surgery is needed, and try to remake the church in their own image. They put little effort into knowing their people, listening to them, understanding them, and instead they ride roughshod over them. Anyone who disagrees with the Rector is clearly resisting the work of God, and the church is supposedly better off without them. So they are pushed out.

People are badly hurt, many leave, and often the church suffers. I am reminded of the famous words of an American officer during the Vietnam War, who explained: “We had to destroy the village to save it.” A church, no doubt with its own set of problems, goes down: sometimes a new church might replace it, but is the human cost worth it? And is this the way of Christ, who came to serve, not to be served?

Paul has some significant things to say about ministry in our reading from Ephesians. He describes what he sees as a life “worthy of our calling”: a life which involves humility, gentleness, patience, love, seeking peaceable relationships. These qualities ought to characterize our lives – they certainly did with Christ’s life – but they also are to be reflected in the life of the church.

In Ephesians, Paul says some wonderful things about the significance of the church. He makes it clear that to be a Christian believer, a follower of Christ, means that we are members of his family, members of his body the church. And while we express that membership as members of a particular church, we are also members of God’s universal church, and ultimately of the church as it will be in his kingdom. Church exists here and now, right here at St.Aidan’s, but what we are here is an expression of something much bigger, something wonderful, of which we are also part.

There are many churches: congregations, parishes and denominations. There are many church structures and traditions and styles, but all followers of Christ are ultimately part of the one church. With all our differences, we are still one family: those differences should enrich us, rather than be excuses for division. Of course at that level too we are to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”.

Paul writes here about God’s gifts to the church. When he does this in a famous passage in 1 Corinthians 12, he talks of things that people can do, enabled by the Spirit, and the ways they can contribute to the life of the church. But here in Ephesians 4, Paul thinks of people themselves as God’s gifts to the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.

These people are used by the Spirit to enable people to hear and understand the message of Christ, and to come to grips with what it means and how it is to be lived out. Pastors and teachers in many ways have a similar role in the life of the church to our rectors and clergy today: they in particular communicate and explain God’s message, and they seek to guide and lead people along the path of the Christian life.

One word that is sometimes used to describe local church leaders or clergy is that they are “ministers”. Of course they are, but Paul sees one other aspect of their roles. They are to “equip the saints for the work of ministry”. In other words, we are all called to be ministers, serving in our different ways. And one of the things that our clergy are called to do is help and encourage us all to fulfil our ministries within the church and beyond. As we all play our part in the life of God’s church, the church will work more effectively and fulfil God’s purposes.

One of Fr John’s strengths was his trust in parishioners to fulfil their ministries: he gave people space to do things, and encouraged them to try things if they had an idea or a vision. And he was willing for people to be themselves, not demanding that they see things exactly the same way as him or do things exactly the same way. Another strength of Fr John was his recognition of the need to express that unity of the church in relationships between our various local churches, and his encouragement of ecumenical contacts and events. I must admit that part of my hope and prayer is that our new Rector will follow in his footsteps in these areas.

A Rector is there to lead, but not to dominate or to use people for his own purposes. He is a servant: a servant of Christ, a servant of Christ’s people. Our new Rector will not be perfect, but our prayer is that he will be the person of God’s choice. Keep praying for the nominators and the process. Keep praying for our Rector when he starts and long after.

But watch out: I hope he will value all that is good in our parish. But he will inevitably see things that will need to be examined and reviewed, and no doubt he will see things that may need to change. Let be ready to think and work together, and especially to see ourselves as ministers making our own contribution to the healthy life of our Parish. And let’s be ready to receive the challenges that will no doubt come as we go forward led by our new Rector, and to share and serve together as fellow-members of Christ’s family and fellow-servants of Christ. Amen.

Reverend Paul Weaver