What does the prophet Ezekiel have to say to someone newly ordained and us all in 2020? This was my sermon as Dawn led us in celebrating Communion for the first time.
This has been, for many, a very hard year, and a very disrupted year for pretty much everyone in many parts of the world. One of the many things that were postponed and then significantly changed were the ordination of new deacons and presbyters in the Church of England. This sermon was a response to that.
A new heart and a new spirit; Readings: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-end; Matthew 21:23-32
It’s a privilege to be preaching at this service. Thank you Dawn for the invitation and thank you Becky for giving me this opportunity and your welcome. My name’s Graham and I am now at lecturer at St Mellitus North West, a vicar training college based in Liverpool. But until last summer I was Priest-in-Charge of Emmanuel church in Swadlincote, where Dawn was Reader. It was a pleasure to work with her, to learn from her, admire her shoes, and to support her on her journey towards ordination. And also it was privilege to be able to seek to support her, particularly after the death of her son Kieran.
So, fifteen months ago and a world away, many of us gathered in Derby cathedral and then back here to celebrate Dawn’s ordination as deacon. That feels like an awful long time ago now doesn’t it? It hasn’t exactly been the sort of year that we anticipated on that sunny day at Derby Cathedral or as we ate and laughed in the hall.
It wasn’t quite the same watching the ordination service yesterday morning on YouTube, but it was a lot better than nothing. As you may have seen, Bishop Libby laid hands on Dawn, as did the Archdeacon and Canon Elizabeth, representing all those of us who would ordinarily have lain hands on her as well. And so Dawn was ordained as a priest, a presbyter, an elder, a leader of God’s church. As the bishop laid hands on her she prayed for Dawn to be filled again with the Holy Spirit. And Dawn has been given the authority to lead us as we celebrate Communion, to marry, to baptise, to bless, to declare the forgiveness of people’s sins.
At the start of the ordination service, the Bishop says this:
“God calls his people to follow Christ, and forms us into a royal priesthood…
The Church is the Body of Christ, the people of God and the dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit. In baptism the whole Church is summoned to witness to God’s love and to work for the coming of God’s kingdom. …
To serve this royal priesthood, God has given particular ministries. Priests are ordained to lead God’s people in the offering of praise and the proclamation of the gospel.”
So Dawn has been ordained to lead us, to help us, to support us, and to point us towards God. Although in some ways it’s similar, in lots of ways it’s quite a different role from that of the priests in the Old Testament. That was a role that Dawn would be considerably less suited to, as it involved killing and cooking an awful lot of animals.
But this was the position that Ezekiel inherited. He was a priest, and became a prophet. A priest, someone who led the worship of God and who mediated between God and his people. Who, like Dawn is called to do, was to point people towards God and support them as they did so. Ezekiel was also a prophet, someone who God spoke to, who then spoke for God, who saw something of the world as God saw it.
As Dawn said in her sermon a couple of weeks ago, Ezekiel was called to be a meercat. I’ll let Becky deal with that one. In other words, a lookout, a sentinel, pointing to those things that were going to cause trouble unless they were avoided, unless something was done.
I was going to say in this slightly confusing passage, but that doesn’t really narrow down which bit of Ezekiel I’m talking about, does it? Anyway, in the passage from Ezekiel that we heard read, Ezekiel is denouncing the proverb “The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”. This was being used as a slogan to deny responsibility, to shift blame.
God’s people have been carried into Exile by the Babylonians, leaving the Temple, Jerusalem, and their hopes, as ruins. Many of the Jews have been carried off to what is now Iraq and are trying to work out what happens now. Their hopes and dreams have gone up in smoke, more or less literally.
We might feel like that at the moment. We’re in a form of Exile, whilst having the added pain of having to remain exactly where we are. We are surrounded by reminders of what we used to be able to do, and aren’t sure when we will be able to do them again. And, perhaps, what we should be doing at the moment.
And we might, like the people that Ezekiel was talking to, we might be tempted to give up. Ezekiel’s first hearers were using that slogan to claim that all their problems were those of their parents and grandparents. Were caused by other people, and so they now had to suffer in Exile. They saw their lives as doomed and devoid of purpose. We might feel a bit like that too at the moment. We might be mourning the things we used to do, without a clear idea of what we should be doing now.
Also yesterday, in Derby and behind closed doors, but available to watch live, was a cricket match. The England Women’s cricket team were playing their third T20 match against the West Indies. This will have been, I’m sure, of no interest to Dawn whatever the situation. Nobody’s perfect. However, it was a good match, a bit closer than the first two, and with it, England sealed the series win. Like the church, sport has spent the last few months trying to work out how to carry on in very different circumstances. There has been lots of talk of bio-bubbles, of long stays in hotels, of separation from family, of weddings, birthdays, and other occasions missed. So, a lot like the rest of us in many ways, but with the additional stress of being far from home.
But the fact that we are able to meet, that sport is able to take place, are examples of hope amongst the darkness. Whether you’re here in this building, or watching this on a screen, be encouraged. Ezekiel rejects the temptation to give up, and the temptation to use other people as an excuse for our lack of action. The part of the passage that we didn’t hear was a call to live well: to not steal, to not take advantage of those less well off, to care for the poor, hungry, and needy, to not worship anything other than God.
Part of Dawn’s calling is to help us to fulfil that calling in our lives, to point us back to God, to remind us that Ezekiel’s promise of “get a new heart and a new spirit” is one that is open to all of us. To remind us, as Ezekiel did, of God’s forgiveness, and God’s call to carry on being renewed in the power of his Spirit. All of that is part of Dawn’s call. Which she might find rather daunting. Actually, I hope that she does. Because it is.
Yesterday in the ordination service Dawn was asked a whole long list of questions about what she was going to do and how she was going to do it. And the answer to each one wasn’t “yes”, but “With the help of God, I will”. We can only do these things with God’s help. This is about the Holy Spirit equipping us, so that we can serve. About receiving a new heart and a new spirit. And it’s also about us working together, about using the gifts that the Spirit has given us, about serving in the ways that we can, in the different ways that God calls us.
As Ezekiel makes clear we are all called. This isn’t about just the really keen ones, or the younger ones, or the clever ones, it’s about all of us being called. The gospel reading that we heard underlines the points that Ezekiel was making. Jesus has God-given authority to forgive, to heal, to call and send. Not least because he is God. It is through his death and resurrection that we can receive a new heart and a new spirit. It is through Jesus’ rising to new life that we know that there is hope in even the darkest of times. The death of a loved one. The shattering of things as we knew them to be.
And then Jesus tells the parable of the two sons. The one who over-promises and under-delivers and the one who changes his mind and does the right thing, eventually. Neither of those things are exactly brilliant; both of those have been things that we have seen people do in the last 6 months. But Jesus tells the parable to tell us that it doesn’t matter who you are and what you have done. It’s about what you’re called to do. It’s about repenting, believing, and hearing God’s call.
You’re probably not called to ordained ministry. Although you might be. I’m sure that Becky or Dawn would be happy to talk to you about it if you. More likely, you’re called to ask God, again, for a new heart and a new spirit for where you are. Perhaps to do the same things in a new way at this time. Perhaps to do something new at this moment. To respond to a new part of God’s calling, or to respond to a new need or opportunity. That might be as part of what the church here is doing, or it might be as part of your job, paid or unpaid, or the group you’re in, or for your neighbours, friends, or family.
Before she was ordained, as she may have said, Dawn was an occupational health nurse and manager. God called her to ordination, not because she wasn’t doing a good job and making a difference, not because those aren’t important things, but because he had something new for her to do. That might very well be the same for us, as individuals and as a church. Doing something new or different doesn’t devalue what we have done.
You might not know what it is. So, can I encourage you to ask God. To ask God “what are you calling me to do here and now?” And to carry on asking that question. To carry on asking that question together: “God, what are you calling us to do here and now? And what part do you want me to play?”
Jesus tells the parable to underline that in his God-given authority, he was calling all sorts of surprising people into God’s kingdom. Because they were the ones who were open to God’s call, who knew that they needed God’s love and God’s grace.
Dawn, and Becky, and I, as ordained ministers are given the task in our own different ways of supporting and calling and leading. But that’s only a small part of what the church is called to do. We are all a royal priesthood, called to declare God’s marvellous light in our words and deeds. Called to respond to God’s love for us. Called to know that there is hope even in times like these. Because God’s love, our hope, don’t depend on our circumstances. They depend on Jesus. And he is never-failing, whatever is happening, however we are feeling.
Shortly in this service, Dawn will lead us in Communion. Which, for me, will be the first time that I’ll have received Communion since March. So, thank you Dawn, this is a great way for me to break that fast. Communion is about meeting afresh with God, about taking the ordinary, everyday wine and bread and setting them aside for God. That’s what we’re called to do with the whole of our lives. To set them aside, to make them holy, so that they become places where others can meet with God, not least through what we do. And, just like with communion, we need the blessing and power of the Holy Spirit to make that happen. So, as Dawn leads us in celebrating Communion, in remembering Jesus’ death and resurrection, let us ask God to pour the Holy Spirit on us again, to give us a new heart and a new spirit. To fill us to overflowing with his love so that we can serve him in his power. Amen.