At first, it may seem as if we are singing slightly out-of-tune with the mood music of the Church’s year. As we gather on this first Sunday of Lent, I suspect that sober and penitent reflection may not be the first thing on our minds, as we join with Debbie in celebrating this significant moment on her journey of ministry as a Deacon, and then Priest, in the Church of God. But we don’t do this alone. We should never forget the wisdom of those who have walked this way before us. There is a tradition, which began with the so-called Desert Fathers and Mothers, who withdrew into the wildernesses of the Middle East in the Fourth and Fifth centuries. It says that, at the beginning of Lent, you should deliberately break off from fasting, and abandon your resolutions for this season. This will save you from pride; and remind you that you are just a human being, with all the fears and flaws and failures that go with it. It shows us that we are dependent on God alone – and our best-laid plans, ambitions and even our Lenten resolutions can never be a substitute for God.
In a similar vein, the priest and poet of the 17thCentury, George Herbert, who is often cited as a model for the Anglican clergy, called Lent a ‘feast.’ In one of his poems he asks us to imagine Lent as a great banqueting table, spread with prayer and fasting, with silence and simplicity; and invites us to nourish ourselves on these things, to sustain us through this serious season of reflection and self-examination.
George Herbert, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, as well as the scriptures we have heard, this morning, all point in similar directions. In particular, the passage we heard from Deuteronomy is one in which triumph and tragedy, riches and poverty, glory and humility, sorrow and joy stare one another in the face. As our Jewish forebears enter the promised land, they are to bring the first-fruits of their harvest to God – all the delicious things we imagine we might give up for Lent! As they present this abundance to God, they are to tell the story of who they are, and what has happened to them in the past. This is hard-wired into the Jewish DNA. The earliest oral tradition of the rabbis describes the joyous scene of celebration, as people converged on Jerusalem from across the country, bringing their first-fruits to the Temple, to the accompaniment of music and dancing. But that is not enough. Each person also makes a declaration, which is our reading, this morning. Originally, it was recited at harvest festivals; but for the last two millennia, it has been a central element of the Passover celebrations.
‘My father was a wandering Aramean…’ and so begins a story, told and retold from generation to generation, reminding God’s people what God had done for them, of the mistakes of the past, of suffering at the hands of their oppressors, of God’s saving action even in the worst moments of their history, and of becoming the people God has called them to be. Here is exuberance hand-in-hand with soul-searching. Moments of celebration recalling times of lament. Laughter moistened with tears. By telling – and retelling – that story at significant moments, each new generation becomes part of what God has done. It’s no accident that, at every Passover celebration, it is the youngest child who causes that story to be told and retold, asking ‘Why are we doing this’? Every individual life becomes part of a much richer, deeper and expansive humanity under God.
That is something we, as Christians, have inherited from our Jewish roots. It shines a particular light on the mixed, and slightly contradictory, tone of this particular First Sunday of Lent. As we celebrate with Debbie, today, we are reminded that her ministry, and our ministry, belongs together, with all the highs and lows, and the joys and sorrows, the hopes and apprehensions that are an essential part of belonging to the body of Christ, the Church. It tells us that to be baptised, to be called and set apart for a particular ministry, is enlarging. It is about much more than ‘me.’ Just as this season of Lent invites us to consider and reconsider how we live; our celebration with Debbie, today, invites us to ask who – and what – we are as followers of Jesus Christ; to recall our baptism with a sense of seriousness and celebration. It invites us to discover again our passion for God, our thirst for justice in the world, our care for our fellow human beings, regardless of language, culture or whatever else makes them different. We tell – and retell – the story of who we are, and what has brought us to this moment: not as isolated individuals; but as those who are part of the great pilgrimage of Christian faith, as ‘one holy catholic and apostolic Church’ as the Creeds put it. This is how the ordained ministry is a sign to all of us. It tells us that we can never simply do our own thing in our own way. We have a history, yes; but we have a future, too. This is what ignites – and reignites – our desire to worship the living God above all else, as we recognise that the goal of this Lenten season is Easter, and the promise of transformation. But, before we reach Easter, there is a journey to make, and a story to tell and retell: a story of testing and betrayal, of suffering and death, of resurrection and renewal. This is our story. It is why we are here. It tells us who we really are.
There is something tantalisingly direct, as we mark this 25-year milestone with Debbie, in Luke’s account of how Jesus began his public ministry, which we heard as our Gospel, this morning. As Jesus was confronted by questions about the way he would speak, the stories he would tell, the relationships he would form, the impulses that would drive him, he retells the story that has shaped his identity and the identity of all God’s people. In the wilderness, where he was alone with God and no-one else, yet distracted by the empty voices that promised him celebrity status, he discovers the truth of his calling. He was able to see who he really was, and what he must become, by reaffirming his place in the history of God’s people. His utter dependency on God bound him to the wisdom of those who had walked this way before him and prepared the way for what he would say and do in the future.
This tough and trying time in the wilderness, and Jesus’s response to the testing questions he faced, show us that his ministry was inseparable from the story of all God’s people. This is what makes my ministry, and Debbie’s ministry, and every ministry, accountable to the whole body of Christ. We are dependent upon the affirmation of all who are baptized, and rooted in the pattern of Jesus Christ, who was never afraid to acknowledge his place in the story he shared with all his people, the story of God’s saving action in history.
So, yes, we begin Lent this year by breaking our fast. It is right to celebrate the gift of Debbie’s ministry as we set-out with Easter in our sights. As William Blake’s poem reminds us, the journey we are embarked on this Lent is one in which ‘joy and woe are woven fine.’ As Debbie enables us, and encourages us, we continue to tell the story with her, and discover more and more of our place within it. That is another way of affirming the importance of tradition, of being able to have that conversation with past, to discern where we are being led into the future. This is how weare liberated by Christ, to bring more and more out of the shadows of the past into the light of the future, to be more alive, and less fearful, always looking towards the joy of Easter as the key to the meaning of our lives and ministries.
As we thank God for calling Debbie to this ministry, so we join with her in responding to what God is calling us to become, with insight, imagination and hope. It is a call to live more faithfully in the way God has already shown us leads to life. As we break our fast and allow ourselves a moment of celebration, so we also turn to Christ’s Passion, knowing that the end of the road for all of us is Easter Day. This is where life is changed and redeemed, where the fast is broken, and the festivities never end.
Sermon preached in Christ Church, Lille by the Archdeacon of France and Monaco, The Venerable Meurig Williams
on Sunday 10 March 2019 being the first Sunday of Lent and
the 25th Anniversary of the Ordination to the Diaconate of Canon Debbie Flach