St Paul's Cathedral Tuesday 9 May 2023
It is wonderful to be gathered here for this service as that spirit of celebration we have lived over this coronation weekend lives on, and as we continue to give thanks for our King and Queen. Yesterday’s activity of ‘The big help out’ continued that emphasis on service lived out in community and relationship– Themes so strongly echoed in our worship today as we give thanks for our clergy who, like our King, are called to serve, and as we give thanks for Clergy Support Trust.
And that word ‘support’ points to the truth that alongside life’s celebration and rejoicing, there is also struggle.
Day by day we are bombarded by messages of crisis; and such headline-messaging can make the anxiety and pain even more acute: Climate crisis, NHS crisis, the cost of living crisis, the crisis of inequality; the crisis in our prisons; crisis in Ukraine, Sudan, Gaza and so on and on. There is struggle and pain and brokenness.
And it’s there in our Bible readings. Hundreds of years before Christ walked on earth, when war was in the air the prophet Habakkuk wrote of calamity and a sense of desolation: No fruit from the fig trees or the vines or the olive trees. No sheep or cattle. A crisis.
And then some 60 or so years after Christ left the earth, come Paul the Apostle’s words written to the church in Philippi. Paul himself is a prisoner, and the gospel work he and his companions have been involved in has been a struggle; and there has been conflict in some of their relationships.
In both these readings there is a sense of living the reality of the now – the present season. Part of my dislike of the media’s repeated use of the word ‘crisis’ is that crises tend to be short-lived but seasons are a reality lived over a period of time.
I’m sure that none of us will easily forget that day just over 3 years ago when we first went into lockdown as the Covid pandemic erupted. It was indeed a crisis – and today as we particularly focus on the clergy I want to say thank you to them for all they carried and held, not least as it soon became clear that the crisis was developing into a new unwanted norm of a long season..
Now we are living this season of reorientation. Life will never be quite the same again, and clergy, along with so many others are seeking to pay attention to the consequences of the pandemic, in the short term and the long term, and for different people of different ages and with different life experiences. And we are seeking to discern how we shape the future. And all of it being lived in the context of current struggles.
And the challenge for the Church, as individuals and together, is how to live the reality of each season with the hope of Christ writ large. We do need to live and lament life’s mess and brokenness and yet live a message of hope, always pointing to a greater reality and the big picture that God is making all things new and that one day there will be no more pain, no more tears, no more dying, and God will dwell with God’s people in a perfect relationship; and a perfect relationship with all creation will be restored.
And it’s that messaging of ‘and yet’ rooted in our God of relationship which I want to focus on. Those words ‘And yet’ are a powerful message amid so much of the bleak messaging of our world. They are both explicit and implicit in our scripture readings. Amid the disaster and pending calamity, Habakkuk declares ‘yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour’. The Apostle Paul, amid imprisonment, struggle and conflict speaks of ‘rejoicing in the Lord always’, and he names ‘the peace of God’. Neither passages of scripture deny the pain and suffering, or the anxiety and the challenges of life, ‘and yet’ God’s love is unchanged. ‘The Lord is my strength’. And there is hope rooted in a relationship with God.
At the core of our present crises and the suffering close to home and far away, is the truth that relationship is broken and diminished.
Whether it is people living in isolation; or conflict and suffering because of broken relationship one with another and nation with nation; or whether it is our failure to live in right relationship with the earth and all creation, again and again we have turned our backs on relationship with God. And yet God chose to come among us and came not to be served but to serve and invites us into that relationship of love. And when Jesus Christ grew up to show us what love and justice and peace looked like with relationship with God at the heart, he was tortured and crucified to death, ‘and yet’ it was about love and forgiveness and reconciliation. At times life’s pain, fear, regret and suffering can seem overwhelming, ‘and yet’ darkness, despair and even death will never have the final word. And so it is that Christ risen from the dead appeared in relationship, speaking people’s names in a burial garden, in a room behind locked doors. And then came Christ’s departure from this earth ‘and yet’ came the sending of the Holy Spirit on his followers that they might be co-creators of kingdom-of-God community, and restorers of relationship rooted in life-giving relationship with God.
It is this message of the ‘and yet’ of God’s love, justice and peace which clergy serving in so many different contexts and settings are speaking and living in relationship and community: across parishes, in hospitals, prisons and schools; in the military, in employment in different sectors of life; as carers in their homes; as pioneers connecting with people and places in new ways – and so on and so on. And in it all being builders of community joining in with God’s transforming work.
And it’s not about a denial of pain and struggle, rather it is about living both the joy and the lament ‘and yet’ always holding the flame of hope. It is what I see and hear in the ministry of our clergy across our communities on a daily basis. Yes, clergy joining in with many places of celebration and joy, and also being alongside people in places of pain and struggle: The grieving parents and school; the isolated elderly; the young people struggling with mental health; the people who feel rejected and forgotten; or the parents worrying about feeding their children; or those wondering about their future; and so much more. And of course there are frequently places of conflict, not least within the Church. And in it all, particularly in this season of Eastertide, the clergy are leading God’s people in living the message of ‘and yet Christ’s resurrection can never be undone’.
And the gift of Clergy Support Trust is the recognition that in all this, the clergy themselves are affected by the same struggles.
It can be tough endeavouring to rejoice in all circumstances, when sometimes immediate circumstances are causing anxiety and stress: circumstances such as living in a cold vicarage faced with high fuel bills, or struggling with illness or disability. It’s not easy when covid has left its mark with long covid, or when holidays or school trips become unaffordable, or it’s your child struggling with poor mental health, and it’s your elderly relative struggling with isolation, and it’s you who are the one who’s grieving. And then comes that unexpected dental bill or car repair. These are not hypothetical examples – they are all things which I have spoken about with clergy in recent months.
And it is in these places that Clergy Support Trust shines a light and adds their voice to the ‘and yet’ of God’s hope, because Clergy Support Trust says to clergy that they might be living struggles and anxieties ‘and yet’ there can be financial support and hope-filled possibilities. Furthermore, Clergy Support Trust lives their work in a place of relationship with those they serve. Thank you. Thank you for your generous work and all you enable.
And once more, Thank you to our clergy who we are focusing on today. Thank you to our clergy who, with our king, have also said ‘yes’ to serving Jesus Christ, the one who came not to be served but to serve.
Today, with them, may each one of us refocus our hearts and minds on the ‘and yet’ of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Amid life’s celebration and laughter, suffering and tears, may we say yes to joining in with living and sharing Christ’s hope and love lived out in relationship, constantly lifting our eyes to the ‘and yet’ of God’s unchanging faithfulness and love, as we continue to pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth as in heaven. Amen.
The Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester