The Bishop of Burnley’s Chrism-Mass sermon
My old parish in London was round the back of the main stations, and bad things happen round the backs of stations. The streets at night were filled with dubious characters – and that was just the clergy. The hotels booked rooms by the hour, and service at the local restaurants was suspiciously fast. There were also some very strange shops. One that intrigued us particularly must have foreshadowed our Diocesan Vision, because it was called ‘Transformation.’ On the shop-front there were two life-size photographs. One showed a huge, muscle-bound man dressed in a rugby shirt and jeans. The second showed the same man but this time dressed in a pink, sequin-studded ballgown. A man puts on a frock: that is transformation in the eyes of many. Skin-deep, cosmetic, pathetic.
If you want to see real transformation, look around this place of worship this morning. At the Chrism Eucharist we bless three oils which set before us a radical, God-centred vision of transformation. In a Europe still splattered with the blood of Belgium’s dead, where mourners weep and governments look on bewildered, and where communities grow more divided than ever, we dare to bless the Oil of Healing. We have a vision of a world in which relationships are healed, in which people live together in harmony and mutual love, in which communities cohere and inter-mingle and respect each other, and in which bodies and minds are made whole.
For a people who have forgotten their purpose, who no longer know what human life is for, and who think they can find happiness in greed and consumption, we dare to bless the Oil of the Catechumens, for use in Baptism. For we know that human life can only find its point and purpose in relationship with Jesus, and that – through the life-saving power of the Cross of Christ made accessible to us through the waters of Baptism – it is given a value that is utterly transcendent.
In a nation of shocking inequality, where the poor and disabled subsidise tax-cuts for the rich, where benefits-sanctions punish parents by starving their children, where the richest 1% of the population own more than the poorest 55%, we dare to consecrate the Oil of Chrism. For we have a vision of a Kingdom where the poor come first, where the hungry are fed, and where men and women live in harmony with God’s creation.
In this place we see transformation. We see the Kingdom Jesus describes. We see the world as God wants it to be. We see our own indescribable beauty and preciousness as those for whom Christ has died. And then from this place we are sent out: because we are a people who have a project, and that project is nothing less than the transformation of a nation. We are not sent into the world to tinker at the edges, but to change it utterly. God’s call to Isaiah is to build a wholly renewed humanity under God where the captives are set free, the mournful are comforted, and the poor hear the Good News. In Luke’s Gospel Jesus calls us to turn the world’s values upside down as we invite to the banquet those whom the respectable despise and ignore: the poor, the blind, the lame. This is nothing less than a new creation. Our call is to live that future Kingdom now – to build God’s world now. Our task is transformation.
All too easily, we forget the dignity of that calling. Our vision becomes clouded. We let the mundane things of daily living, or personal ambition, or petty rivalries, or the demands of an institution, or money, or respectability, or embarrassment, or heritage, or the anachronistic furniture of establishment get in the way. We allow the local church to be led astray by countless distractions, or become more a private members’ club than a movement for change. We have taken the life-saving Gospel of Jesus Christ and turned it into a jumble sale.
So how do we return to our purpose as those called to the task of transformation? There are many who would say that the answer is novelty. We’re told that priests need to re-invent their ministries and become executives who manage people rather than pastors who care for them. We’re told that laypeople need to do even more for even less. We’re told that we need to re-invent what church is, what the Gospel is, what we stand for as Christians. But we don’t need novelty. We have all we need – we have contemporary relationship with Jesus in the Holy Spirit, we have the Scriptures, we have the Sacraments. We have the pearl of great price. What we need is not innovation, but renewal. We need to learn to be God’s people once again. We need to recover the heart of a New Testament identity.
For priests – who today have the privilege of renewing their vows of Ordination – that means taking pride in the priestly character. It is fashionable today to blame all the Church’s ills on her priests. We are told we are doing the job in the wrong way, or that we are holding back the gifts of the laity, or that we are an expensive luxury that can barely be afforded. The result is levels of stress that are simply unacceptable as the majority of clergy drive themselves into the ground by trying to do three or four full-time jobs at once, and feel that they have ended up pleasing no one.
Those of you called to the joy of priesthood – recover the heart of the vocation that is yours. God made you to be a priest, and your purpose on this earth is to serve His people by ministering to them the Sacraments of life. Take pride in that calling. Live it out to the full. Model a style of leadership that is above all priestly. Be first and foremost people of prayer, for without daily intimacy with Christ nothing good can ever happen. Tend to your own well-being: make sure you have space to feed your mind, and delight in the company of those you love. Don’t be afraid to abandon those things that distract you from Kingdom work. Don’t be afraid to resist cultural expectations that take time but are fruitless. Remember that your task is not to be the people of God. It is to serve the people of God. So, as you have been called yourself, call others to service and trust them once called.
Preach simply, clearly, and confidently the Good News of Jesus in a way that answers the questions on people’s hearts. Above all, be ambitious for the Kingdom. Think big. Week by week you hold in your hands and show to God’s people bread transformed into the Body of the Living Christ. That is your task. It is transformation. Remind yourself each day of that call.
And for all of us, lay or ordained – we need to recover the heart of what it is to be baptised into Christ. In other words, we need to go back again and again to Jesus. This Chrism Eucharist takes place as part of our preparation for the great events of Holy Week. Tonight Jesus will wash our feet: so return to Him through generous service of the needy and vulnerable. Tonight Jesus will reveal Himself to the world under the forms of bread and wine: return to Him as you show forth Jesus with your words and your lives. Tomorrow Jesus will be nailed to the bare wood of the cross: return to Him who holds you so dear that death must be destroyed so that He can be with you for ever. On Sunday Jesus will burst forth from the tomb: return to Him who has transformed all creation and opened up the path to eternity for those who follow Him. The most complicated problems have the simplest solutions. We can transform lives, we can transform communities, we can transform a nation. And we can do so when we stay close to Jesus.
So be bold, stay close to Jesus, and remember the dignity of your call. Your task is transformation. ND