Homily by Rambling Rector at Robin Trotter’s first mass, 22 June 2019.
Proper 7: Isaiah 65:1-9. Luke 8:26-39
Isaiah 65:1-9, my précis based on The Message:
I’ve made myself available to those who haven’t bothered to ask. I kept saying ‘I’m here’, but they ignore me. They get on my nerves. They make up their own religion, a potluck stew. They spend the night in tombs to get messages from the dead, eat forbidden foods and drink potions and charms. They say, ‘don’t touch me. I’m holier than thou.’ These people make me sick. But the Lord says they’ll get their comeuppance—actions have consequences.
All clerks in holy orders can sympathise with the prophet as they deal with people who appear to have ears but hear not. Robin, you will need fire in your belly and steel in your spine if you are to minister as priest to the wayward group of individuals that make up a church.
You will need fire in your belly and steel in your spine if you are to do as you promised yesterday: to teach and to admonish, to resist evil, support the weak, and defend the poor. Note the word admonish. This is more than warn, or premonish as the Book of Common Prayer has it; you are to rebuke, to challenge bad behaviour—and there is plenty of that in churches.
Did you notice that people in tombs feature in both readings? In Greek, tomb is mnema, which gives us memory, memorial, mnemonic. People living in the past, people who moan constantly that the solution to all the church’s problems is to have things as they were when they were young—it’s piffle, of course, because things never were as they imagine. There is plenty of that in churches.
The priest is to pull people out of the tombs they live in. It is often said that the Lord loves us where we are, but loves us too much to leave us festering there.
The things I want to explore in the rest of this homily are demons, like those driven into the pigs as we heard in the Gospel—in our world today, addictions, obsessions, fixed false beliefs.
The three demons that afflict us, and that do untold damage to us as priests, are those that we hear of in the Lord’s wilderness temptations:
- the demon that incites us to seek personal gain;
- the demon that incites us to want to be worshipped;
- the demon that incites us to be in control.
Desire for personal gain. This isn’t likely to affect you much, Robin, since, quite frankly, you’re already pretty long in the tooth—OAP soon—and anyway there’s nowhere for you to go. It would have afflicted me had I been ordained younger. I would have hankered after promotion of some sort, for that was part of who I was. But ordination at the age of 56 meant, thanks be to God, it was too late.
Desire to be worshipped, to be known, “look at me”. This afflicts so many clergy. They want to please people, they want to fix people—like you used to do when you were a GP. They don’t challenge bad behaviour. They can’t cope with being wrong. They certainly don’t admonish. As a result, they leave behind them a trail of dissatisfaction and resentment, for they never actually do what they say they will. I know such a bishop, now retired.
Rather than aiming to be worshipped, priests must cultivate an air of detachment. They can’t afford to be too friendly with any group of parishioners, for then they will be seen as being partial. This will be difficult for you, Robin, having being known in these churches for 30 years and more, but you must work at it. You need to have friends who have nothing to do with church or religion. They will ground you in reality rather than in the la-la land that the Church of England has become. My own experience is that it’s easier to be open with non-church people—and vice versa—than with many church people who have expectations of what the Vicar should be, and I don’t meet any of them, thank God.
Desire to be in control. This is a truly evil and pernicious beast. It leads you to think that you should fill your diary, that you are very important, that you should pursue success (see how all the demons merge into one another?). It leads you to underestimate the value of masterly inactivity, the solution to many problems in life as in medicine. After all, if what they say is true, this is God’s church, not yours, not mine, not even the wardens’, and no amount of flapping around like a demented hen will achieve anything of value. If in doubt, do nowt.
Embrace incompetence. Theological training prepared me for critical study of scripture and introduced me to the riches of speculative theology, but it did nothing for me liturgically (being an organist did that); it did nothing to prepare me for wedding legalities, building maintenance, fundraising, financial management, being an entrepreneur … the list is endless. It certainly did nothing to train me, or even interest me, in managing flower arrangers.
I am an incompetent priest. I stand at the altar celebrating the holy mysteries aware of my selfishness, hypocrisy, uselessness, fickleness, laziness, arrogance, and yet there I am, not ashamed but accepting of all this, just me. I may have 26 letters after my name, but not one of them means anything of value. A priest is a doorway between the terrestrial and the Divine. My imperfections gather up those of my people and point them to the Divine—and vice versa: made like him, like him we rise.
In words of, I think, Chesterton, if a job is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly. Indeed, Robin, if you don’t think you are rubbish at priesthood, then you haven’t properly understood it. A former Director of Ministry, now an Archdeacon, said “I used to tell ordinands that if they didn’t find a tension between the job they were asked to do and their personal integrity, they were brain-dead.” You are not brain dead. You will find that tension. It will hurt.
Finally, don’t be tempted to think that things are either right or wrong. Polarisation is hardly ever appropriate, not even in science, not in cosmology or particle physics, and not in pastoral ministry where either/or is actually both/and.
From Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai:
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
Priesthood is that ruined house in which is a wellspring of Divine grace.
Spurn success. Embrace incompetence. And may the Lord be with you.