Blessings. A Sermon preached by Bishop Humphrey Southern at the Parish Eucharist at All Saints’, Cuddesdon on 4th October 2020, Trinity XVII. The Silver Jubilee of Mark Chapman’s Priesthood.
Philippians 3. 4b-14. Matthew 21.33-46.
‘Preach to us,’ said Mark, ‘on the vanity of anniversaries’. And it is a beguiling invitation. Reading all that stuff from St Paul in today’s Epistle about his wonderful credentials as a Hebrew, a Pharisee, a zealot against heresy, righteous in all things, one could be well encouraged to preach vigorously against vanity.
Yet, tempting though it might be to develop the theme, vanity is not what this celebration is all about (and not what Paul was engaging in either, by the way). For anniversaries are not about achievement (celebrating which can so easily become vainglorious), so much as about blessings. At anniversaries we count our blessings: birthdays, years married or partnered or (as in today’s case) years in priestly orders, which (as it happens) is largely about blessing. Pronouncing blessings and absolutions, consecrating bread and wine and sending people out – whether at the end of the Eucharist, or in the context of a wedding, or having heard their confession, or even at the end of life – sending people out blessed, renewed and reoriented in their relationship with God and freshly conscious of their preciousness to God, and the implications of that fact for them.
This is what priests do – they bless. It is their primary purpose, our greatest privilege.
So this anniversary is not about achievement, it is about blessing: the countless blessings Fr Mark has ministered over twenty-five years and the countless blessings that through the same actions Fr Mark has received over twenty-five years. It is wonderful for us to be part of such a celebration.
Of course, in the Epistle passage Paul undermines his own vanity (if, indeed, it was vanity, which I doubt) and he does so in a way that is also very important for this (or any) anniversary.
All that Paul has achieved – or been blessed with, as it may be better to say – he ‘regard[s] as rubbish’ when compared with the greater aspiration of knowing Christ. That is the great goal, the blessing to encompass all others. And the point is, of course, that the fulfilment of this promise, the dénouement of all blessing, lies ahead, in the future. ‘I have not already achieved this…’ – knowing Christ and his resurrection, says Paul – ‘but I press on to make it my own’.
And so this must be the watchword for our celebration of anniversary: it’s not about the past! Far too often we get this wrong at these sorts of celebration: we look back, which is fine and proper, dutiful and suitably grateful, but then manage to get stuck harking back; the blessings, the good times, becoming somehow exclusively located in a golden age gone by, when some of us had more hair and Mark’s beard was black.
Not so, says St Paul in his reflection on blessings. Not so, says the Christian promise. And not so, we must insist as we keep jubilee today. The best – the fulfilment of the promise – is yet to come, to be aspired to and looked for and worked towards in God’s impossibly rich tomorrow.
This, too, is what priests are here to proclaim and model and live out. The tragedy is when they – we – become merely guardians of shrines, caretakers of some fading tradition endlessly looking back (as congregations and churches are too often wont to do) to a mythic yesteryear when God’s blessings were allegedly more real and more palpable.
No. Like Paul, and encouraged, cajoled and challenged by our priests, we need to be ‘…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead… [pressing] on towards the goal… the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.’
The historian in Mark may be somewhat concerned about ‘forgetting what lies behind’, but the priest in all of us must live in the moment and for the future: blessing for today and in all our tomorrows in which the Kingdom comes and God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven.
So we are celebrating blessing – blessings received and blessings ministered – and, greater than these, blessings yet to come. These must be the characteristics of this priestly celebration. Remembering, too, that ‘priestly’ for us means not just clergy, but the whole people of God, this very congregation included. For we are together, as the Body of Christ, called to be priests and priestly, to be a blessing and forward-oriented for the communities in which we are set and which we are called to serve.
But this is not all. The Gospel passage set for today also has something to say on this anniversary as we celebrate priesthood and blessing.
It, too, is future-oriented, and a pretty terrifying and alarming future it looks forward to, at that! The parable tells of a disrupted and violent future when the owner of the vineyard returns and repossesses his property, banishing and putting to death those who have usurped it.
The fulfilment of the blessing – that to which Paul aspires and we are caught up in, the promise to which every blessing pronounced and received testifies – is one to bring upset and overthrow to settled order, to the corrupt, compromised and unjust ways in which the world has come to be ordered under our stewardship of it.
This, too, is what priesthood is about, and what priests minister. Bread is broken and wine poured out, not merely as reminder of an event long past but in enactment of the cataclysm of cross and resurrection which judges the whole world and all of us within it, especially those who are rich and comfortable, like us.
St Francis of Assisi, whose feast it is today and whose feast it was when Mark first broke bread and poured out wine as President at the Eucharist twenty-five years ago, is someone who offers sharp judgement – deep and uncomfortable prophetic witness – against unjust structures and personal vainglory alike.
This is priestly ministry: the ministry of proclaiming good news to the poor, liberty to the captives
and freedom to the oppressed which must of necessity involve woe to the rich, upset to the powerful and judgement on the oppressor. Priests – and the priestly people they serve and lead, which means all of us, of course – cannot be always people of peace. There is conflict and revolution, too, in the ministry of the Kingdom.
So let us celebrate with Mark his priesthood and ours as the people of God, sharing in the priestly calling to be the Body of Christ: to be blessing for those around us, encountering and sending them out with renewed consciousness of their preciousness to God; to be future-oriented, looking forward to the fulfilment of God’s promises to us and to all; and to do this conscious and resolute that this future to which we aspire and witness (and in which we – in a sense – are already living) is inevitably at odds with much of the world as it is.
Mark’s priesthood, and ours, being rooted and grounded in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, the great High Priest, to whom be all honour, glory, might and merit, now and in the age to come. Amen.