Mark Bryant considers the care we owe to one another
So let’s just imagine that tonight your house catches fire. What is the one thing that you are going to save? You have probably been asked that question before. It’s another way of asking what is our most treasured possession. Would it be, if you have one, your expensive handbag or your most expensive pair of shoes or your collection of photographs? Or might be your pet, or perhaps even your partner! I wonder, who or what is your most treasured possession?
I think that tonight’s gospel reading says to us that Jesus’s most treasured possessions are his close friends. On the night before he is crucified, he says to the Father: ‘I have protected them in your name that you have given me, I guarded them and not one of them was lost, except the one destined to be lost. I am asking you to protect them from the evil one.’
It is clear that we are Jesus’s most precious possessions and that he longs, as he says elsewhere, to draw the whole human family to himself. We are Jesus’s most precious possession and Mark, tonight you are called to share in the care of Jesus’s most treasured possessions.
You will, I think, have been to many ordinations over the years, but now, tonight, Bishop Glyn will say to you: ‘Remember always with thanksgiving that the treasure now to be entrusted to you is Christ’s own flock, bought by the shedding of his blood on the cross.’
Those words which Bishop Glyn will say to you tonight—‘We bid you remember the greatness of the trust that is now to be committed to your charge’—are both fearsome and extraordinary. They are fearsome because of the terrible weight of responsibility that it places upon you as a priest, but possibly even more important—quite extraordinary—is that Jesus, the saviour of the world, the son of God, should have chosen you to care for his flock. They are treasure which, in his love and mercy, he entrusts to your tender care.
It seems to me more and more that the great mark of priestly pastoral care—caring for those that Jesus has entrusted to us—is in treating people as individuals. There are people in many of our communities in this diocese, and there will be people in this parish, who have very little experience of being treated as individuals with dignity. There will be people in these communities who believe that their real value lies in their National Insurance number, which they have to give down the phone to the benefit office, or to the council’s housing official.
We need priests who will make it their business to treat people as individuals, remembering that it is as individuals that they are part of the flock bought by the shedding of Jesus’s blood on the cross. And all of us know from our own experience what a difference it makes when we are treated with kindness and with care as individuals. I believe the world needs priests who will treat us as individuals.
I know that when I am ill, I want a priest who will come and give me time and listen to me and anoint me with the love and care of Jesus the healer. I know that when parents bring their child for baptism, they don’t want to get the sense that their baptism is just one of a whole number that a priest is doing. They want to get their sense that for a priest, the baptism of their child is the most important baptism that the priest will do that year. And when the priest gives me communion, I want him to make me sense that for Jesus I am the most important person in the world. The church needs priests who will treat people as individuals, precious to God. Priests who will help everybody they encounter to see that they are part of Christ’s own flock, bought by the shedding of his blood on the cross.
We live in a world where the individual so often seems to be neglected. It is deeply sad that a Government minister has to apologize because in caring for the Windrush Generation, individuals have got lost in Government policy. It is, as I said, deeply sad that there are many in our own communities who believe that their only value is as a National Insurance number. And in that world, the priest is called to take on the principalities and powers that would dehumanize us.
But let me remind you that every sermon at every ordination needs to come with a health warning. This is because it is not just the clergy that are called to treat each individual they encounter with the greatest respect, they are called to do that in order to remind all of us that each time we meet another human being, another human being for whom Christ has died. However difficult they are, and however difficult we find them, we are still called to remember that they are part of Christ’s own flock bought by the shedding of his blood on the cross. And whoever they are, whatever they are like, whatever they have and have not done, they deserve our love and our care and our respect.
Father Mark, tonight as you come to be a priest, trusted by Our Lord Jesus Christ with the care of his precious flock, we are asking you to constantly remind us, both by your words and by your example, of the utter preciousness of every human being.
Mark Bryant recently retired as the Bishop of Jarrow. This sermon was preached at the ordination of Fr Mark Mawhinney in St John’s Seaham in the Diocese of Durham.