Bishop Ruth's sermon from the Chrism Service

Bishop Ruth's sermon from the Chrism Service at Coventry Cathedral on Thursday 28th March 2024.

Sisters and brothers, thank you! 

Thank you for all you have given during this past year, in ministry and service for God. 

Lay and ordained, thank you for being faithful to your calling and vocation as followers of Christ. 

And thank you for ‘smelling of the sheep’!

At his Chrism Mass 11 years ago today, just after his election as Pope, Francis urged his clergy to be like ‘shepherds who smell of the sheep’.  I was reminded of that quote as I reflected on the passage we read from 1 Samuel. 

Samuel the prophet was in search of a new leader for Israel.  He was feeling sore because of the failure of Saul as king.  Initially he had been resistant to all thoughts of a king but Saul had given the appearance of being the perfect candidate, standing head and shoulders above the rest, literally.  But fear and insecurity got the better of Saul and he began to place his trust in people and things other than God.  Hence God’s direction to appoint someone else.

And so here we find Samuel responding, using his powers of discernment in a similar fashion to the last time he was asked to do so.  Seeking out the most obvious, the eldest, the strongest…

Many of us have been involved in processes of discernment, either on the receiving end, as we have sought to listen to God’s call on our lives, or in encouraging people to use their gifts well.

God’s word to Samuel is that ‘the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’

The irony of course is that Samuel notes that David, the chosen one, is in fact good-looking!  But there was something different about him.  He smelt of the sheep.  He had to be fetched from work, to be a part of the family gathering.  The stench of sheep poo would have still clung to him.

This morning we gather here in the Cathedral for this special service.  One in which we recommit ourselves to the service of God and to the ministries to which He has called us.  For some of us it may have felt an interruption in a busy week, time that perhaps we feel we can ill-afford.  For others it will be a moment of pause and retreat, when we can remind ourselves once again, how God sees us.

Some of us will feel confident in our vocation, clear as to what God requires of us.  Others will be more uncertain, even wondering what next?  Today we have the opportunity to bring ourselves before God, carrying the smell of the sheep of our community, to be anointed for the task ahead.  To allow the Spirit of the Lord to come upon us, fill us, and overflow from us, to others.

Whether, like David, we are just beginning on the journey of service in God’s kingdom, or some way down the road, we will have experienced moments of self-doubt and lack of clarity for the way ahead.  Imposter syndrome is a common dis-ease for all of us and that becomes even harder to manage when we struggle to see where God is at work.

Brothers and sisters, we are in good company.  The early church in Corinth had much the same challenges.  A church that often found itself tied up in knots over its purpose and direction.  One moment finding itself caught up in the charismatic fervour of spiritual experience, and the next, swayed by all sorts of theological conundrums.

Our New Testament reading brings helpful focus as Paul speaks to the people of God about the Spirit, that ‘where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.’ 

It can be hard to tell sometimes where God is.  Sometimes it feels that we find ourselves and the churches, schools, chaplaincies and communities in which we serve, to be experiencing more of the apparent absence of God rather than his presence.  Such feelings are not to be despised.  Christ himself felt like that…

 In the Garden on this night, before he was betrayed. 

On the cross as he sensed the abandonment of his Father.

As a parish priest I often felt that our community experienced more of the anguish of the garden, the pain of the cross or the deathly silence of the tomb rather than the joy and triumph of the resurrection.  I resented those who shared testimonies of great blessing and growth as a result of their ministry.  It didn’t seem that simple to me!  I often felt I was hanging on by my fingertips. 

As time has passed, that feeling has not gone away.  The fragility of life and circumstance has only increased.  The human tragedy of the terrible destruction of life in Gaza, Ukraine, and so many places, is brought into sharp relief through our digital devices.  The events of the past week in Russia and Baltimore evidence the sudden finality of the unexpected.  The personal stories of suffering and hurt which we all hear in the course of our ministry often seem to become heightened as we approach Easter. 

Over the years the practice of slowing down on the journey through Lent and engaging fully in Holy week, has helped me to understand more, the reality of the encouragement of these words to the Corinthian church.

Freedom comes as we allow the transformative power of God to reveal his glory within us.  It’s the light that shines out of darkness rather than anything inherently attractive in ourselves.  It’s the treasure that spills from the ordinary earthiness of the everyday, that makes the extraordinary impact that causes people to see Jesus.

This week I spent an afternoon and evening in prison.  It was wonderful to see the chaplaincy team going about their work and sharing in the story of Easter.  Much of their time, quite literally, is spent in locking and unlocking doors.  And that metaphor spoke clearly to me as the evening progressed. 

A hundred or more of us sat to eat together as the Passover seder meal was explained and one of the prisoners read the blessings in Hebrew which he had decided to learn whilst locked up.  Table hosts served the 6 or 7 guests, fellow inmates, gathered round their table.  The band, led by a cruise ship singer, sang worship songs to us as we ate, with a passion I have rarely experienced. 

As I spoke to the men I met, I discovered stories of freedom within a community where people are not free to leave, or to make the choices that we take for granted.  The story of the Passover which brought liberty to an enslaved race, came alive in that moment for me.  Here were men who had found freedom in the message of the cross that gave them hope for a life that some would end behind bars.  These men had discovered mercy where society showed them little. 

Paul tells us in the letter to the Corinthian church that it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in such ministry and that is why we should not lose heart.

There will of course continue to be days when we feel the weight of the cross we are called upon to share in carrying.  There will be moments when it all seems too much.  That is the nature of ministry, of discipleship.  The smell of sheep will cling to our clothes and cause us to think about changing our job.  David moved from shepherd to king after all!  Yet the call on his life, and on our ours, remains the same.  To share in building a kingdom which is not of this world but is God’s.

At our meal in the prison, I was struck by Ozzie at our table who had wheeled Richard from his wing to join us.  He fetched his food for him and ensured this elderly man had what he needed.  Unlike most present, he wasn’t a chapel goer, this was his first experience of something like this.  And yet his attitude opened up for me, the words of this morning’s gospel. 

As the disciples argued over their own significance, so Jesus calls them back to a recognition that true greatness requires us to become as the least, to be like the youngest, to see ourselves as just starting out on the journey with Christ. 

Some of us this morning, are marking many years of ministry since ordination.  For others, we are just beginning.  For all of us, whether ordained or lay, our calling is to be one who serves.

First published on: 28th March 2024
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