I hope you will indulge me and allow me to speak quite personally, because 40 years ago tomorrow David and I were ordained and I’ve been reflecting on the readings for today in light of all those years in ministry culminating in this anniversary.
I was 24, David was 25 when we were ordained. Mere babies! We’d met as undergraduates at Durham University in 1975, and we got married in 1979, a year after graduating, and went straight to seminary together. For the first year there I was the only female seminarian, with about 50 men. In my second year another woman joined us. Women were not permitted to be ordained priest or deacon in the Church of England back then, so although I received the same education and training as the men, I was to become a deaconess, which was considered to be orders but not holy orders.
So on Sunday June 28, 1981, David and I, along with the other ordinands, walked down the aisle of the one thousand year old Norman cathedral in Durham, I in my royal blue cassock and the others in black cassocks and white surplices. We knelt and made our commitments to serve in God’s church, and the bishop laid his hands on our heads. And then we began our first ministry – in a former coal mining community a few miles North of Durham, working together as curate and deaconess in a busy parish with an energetic and inspiring vicar.
We worked there for three years, and learned a tremendous amount which still continues to be foundational for me. In 1984 we emigrated to Canada so that I could be ordained priest, and since then I’ve served in four parishes and in two university chaplaincies.
40 years on from when it all began, I can say that it’s been a joy, a privilege, and a constant challenge. At times it’s heartbreaking and soul shattering. At other times it’s enormously rewarding and fulfilling. And always I’ve tried to remember one verse from the book of Zechariah, chapter 4, verse 6, which the principal of the theological college gave me on a bookmark when I graduated:
Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.
Christian ministry, whether you’re an ordained person or a layperson, is about following Jesus and relying on God’s Spirit at work. We can’t do it by our own power, no matter how qualified or clever or charming or determined or influential we might be. And by the same token, you can be ordinary, poor, not well educated, not important in the eyes of the world – but with God’s Spirit at work in you, and following in Jesus’ footsteps, you can be a faithful and effective disciple. It’s not about titles and positions and personality; it’s about discipleship. We all, each one of us, have good news to tell and good news to be. And we do it not by might, not by power, but by God’s Spirit.
Let me outline a few things I’ve learned, that I think apply to all of us as ministers of the gospel and disciples of Jesus. (And these are not necessarily in order of importance.)
1. Be humble. It’s not about me and it’s not about you. The first disciples knew that they didn’t know. We often see them dumbly following Jesus, just watching what he’s doing and listening to what he’s saying. And often they’re quite clueless. And that’s OK. Our calling is to follow Jesus and to serve God’s world, empowered by God’s Spirit at work in us and in all situations we could possibly encounter. Be humble, which means being grounded not in ego but in God.
2. Take risks. The people in today’s gospel took enormous risks in their desire for healing: Jairus risking his prestigious position in the community by falling at Jesus’ feet and pleading for help for his daughter, and the nameless woman with the hemorrhage risking condemnation for coming out and touching Jesus while ritually unclean. They took risks and they were changed. I’ve often found myself in situations where I have no clue what to do, and I know I need help. Taking the risk to ask for help, to fall at Jesus’ feet or reach out to touch him in prayer, going beyond my comfort zone, has made all the difference. I’ve grown in faith and trust, so that the next risk isn’t quite so scary.
3. Be with suffering. We live in a broken, painful world. From the environmental crisis to our nation’s genocide of Indigenous peoples, there are deep scars and open wounds. It’s tempting to try to avoid the pain. But Jesus is in the very midst of it, and carries it right to the cross where he bears it all. And as disciples we’re called to follow even there. The gospels say that most of his disciples ran away from the cross, though some of the women and perhaps John stayed. It’s hard, it’s heavy, it’s heartbreaking. I think of the caregivers in long-term care homes, and the medical staff in ICUs, during the tsunami of death in the pandemic. I think of Jesus going repeatedly to the places of sickness and suffering, and bringing new life. That too is part of our calling as disciples – to be with those who suffer.
4. Be in community. One of the great things about Christian ministry is that you don’t do it alone. We’re not meant to be lone rangers, but part of the Body of Christ. Jesus was constantly drawing his disciples together into community: often the twelve, sometimes just three, sometimes much larger numbers. He shared meals with them and invited others in. He called them to follow as he travelled. We need each other, and we often find Christ in each other, sometimes when we least expect it. The communities I’ve served in have always been a gift to me – not always in easy ways, but as places where I’ve learned and been loved and made mistakes and been forgiven. So many people have shaped the priest I am today, the Christian I am today – including you. And for that I give thanks to God.
5. Pray. And by pray I don’t just mean asking God for help – though that’s important – or saying prayers in church or from a book. I mean taking time to be quiet and alone with God, listening to the whispers of the Spirit in silence and stillness. I mean reading the Bible (especially the gospels) and listening, listening, to hear Jesus’ voice speaking to you. I mean walking outside and hearing the voices and seeing the faces of all the beings Creator has made. Learning from them. That too is prayer. Perhaps nothing has shaped me more and drawn me closer to Jesus than prayer.
There are so many other things I could list that I’ve slowly been learning these past 40 years as I’ve tried to be a faithful disciple and servant. I see myself and you as part of the great crowd of disciples following Jesus, watching him heal and teach and challenge and change lives. It’s a lifelong journey, because Jesus walks right into our lives, if we’ll let him, and changes us.
The aisle down the centre of Durham cathedral seemed very long 40 years ago, and I was very young and nervous. But it has led me here, and I give thanks to God and to you for all the gifts along this road of discipleship and ministry. Let’s continue on together.
Not by might, not by power, but by God’s Spirit. Amen.