by Rev Peter Fairbrother
It feels particularly apt that my first service as your new minister occurs on the Christian festival of Pentecost which is a time of hope, celebration, and new beginnings.
A reading from the Bible: Acts 2: 1-13 (abridged): The Holy Spirit Comes at Pentecost.
When the day of Pentecost came, the friends of Jesus were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit enabled them. When those nearby heard this sound, a crowd gathered around in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
I like the biblical story of Pentecost. A story of unshakeable faith, joy, and connection. It is a story of people embracing their selfhood, their passion, and really not caring about the disparaging opinions of others. The biblical story of Pentecost is considered by many to be the starting point of the development of the Christian Church; the apostles being the first ministers or messengers of the teachings of Jesus to the wider population.
Christian Pentecost is considered by many to be a happy festival. It is derived from the Jewish harvest festival called Shavuot. This festival has a double significance. It marks the all-important wheat harvest in the Land of Israel (noted in Exodus 34:22); and it commemorates the anniversary of the day God bestowed the Torah to the people at Mount Sinai.
Common to both festivals, Pentecost and Shavuot, is this sense of new beginnings, and emergent ministry. For my first sermon as your new minister I'd like us to give further consideration to this thing we call ministry. What do we mean when we refer to it, what's it about, and what are its implications?
When I informed those in my social circle of my appointment as minister of St Mark's some said in their congratulations to me that it's great that I was going to a be 'proper minister at last' i.e. one who ministers to a church community. Although this was said without the intention of offending, I initially felt a bit aggrieved by this - 'a proper minister?!' – what a flaming cheek! - until I endeavoured to try to understand where they were coming from.
For some, 'ministry' and 'minister' are things bound-up in bricks and mortar, contained in the institutional fabric of religion.
I asked some of my friends what they thought a minister looked like and what it was they thought the role encompassed.
Broadly, the response I received was that a minister was someone dressed in ceremonial attire (I was asked if I would be wearing a cassock in my new role), that they stood on a podium, and preached in a church.
So, let's see:
Ceremonial attire – check (not a cassock though – not sure it compliments my figure)
Podium – check (one almost as tall as me which is handy, particularly until the diet kicks in - although I hope it will never be seen as a pedestal by myself or others)
and yes – here I am preaching in this gorgeous church.
Full house! Bingo! That's that then. Or is it?
Does that list encompass the sum total of being a minister, and of ministry?
For me it is an absolute delight to be here with you, to make connection under the roof of this magnificent building.
I love it and I feel humbled to be in ministry with you. However, church-based ministry, for want of a way of expressing what we are presently experiencing, it is only one such expression of ministry, it is not the entirety of it. Let us always be mindful that ministry is so much more. The role of minister is not restricted to persons or persons considered suitably qualified, nor is ministry solely contained within church. We are all ministers. And where do we minister? EVERYWHERE.
We minister when we get ourselves up in the morning, even on those days when we'd rather not face the world.
We minister when we live each day with chronic pain, ill health, or with the challenges of disability.
We minister when we are with our own grief and bereavement and hold ourselves in tenderness in it.
We minister when we greet our shadow self and accept it as part of the whole.
We minister when we allow ourselves to feel defenceless, when we show our vulnerability, (which is turn enables others to feel OK to show theirs).
We minister when we find forgiveness within our self.
We minister when we speak our truth, when we respect the truths of others, and when we hold ourselves in integrity.
We minister when we accept that we can't do it all, or be what others wish us to be.
We minister in times when it is important to say NO.
We minister on those occasions when we recognise when we aren't coping and ask for help.
We minister when we have the courage to say: 'help me to look after myself so that I may look after you.'
And we minister in the recognition and celebration of all those moments of beauty, big and small
the earth that holds us,
the big blue sky of our dreams,
the subtle and bold tastes, fragrances, and colours of
the worlds we inhabit,
the beauty and diversity we discover in each other
the beauty and diversity we discover in our self.
We minister everyday-single-day. And as our mutual commitment to ministry gives indication, we do so in many ways.
So, what is it, this thing we call ministry?
For me, in essence, it is simply consciously being present with our self and to one another in each precious, delicate moment. From the bible reading we heard that the first act of the apostles upon receiving the Holy Spirit was NOT to immediately construct a building to contain themselves, but to get out and be among people of all kinds, to endeavour to connect with others, to learn and share with others. Ministry in action. And you know, it's risky. They were laughed at.
Ministry presses buttons. Perhaps today I may have pressed some of yours? My first service as your minister, leading on a Pentecostal theme, and opening with a bible reading. I tell you, in preparing this service I have certainly pressed some of my own! (There was a time in my life that the idea of standing before a group of people to speak my truth related to a story from the Bible would have been simply unimaginable. And here we are!)
Ministry is challenging. It invites us to explore our assumptions, our prejudices, our defences, those things that make us feel uncomfortable, always encouraging us to ask the same, simple question, why? Why the assumptions, why prejudices, why defences, why the discomfort?
Ministry is difficult. It is often enormously difficult to fully be the present moment in a world full of distractions, in a world obsessed with forever racing ahead, seeking the next best thing. Equally, it is often enormously difficult to honour self-care, living as we do in within capitalist patriarchal structures with their emphasis on consumerism and exploitation.
So why bother?
We minister because we have an innate need to connect to ourselves and one another, to give and receive love. That's why we're here. Being. Human being.
A wee quote of which I'm very fond:
If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
As the one standing before you wearing the ceremonial attire, standing on the podium, doing the preaching thing, perhaps you think I come with answers. I don't. Only you have the answers to the questions you hold. My friends, it is in your explorations of the questions that you hold dear where you'll find and be with your own ministries. My role? To be alongside. A guide, a supporter, a challenger, a shoulder a try on cry on, a friend.
The kind words of congratulation and welcome that so many of you have extended to me since the news of my appointment has deeply touched my heart. Thank you. Just as you have wished me well with my ministry, so I do with yours. I look forward to sharing my ministry with you, learning with you, and alongside adding a few more sticks to the fire.
For all our ministries I'd like to close with some wise words of guidance from the Sufi mystic Rumi:
Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange
pull of what you really love.
It will not lead you astray.
Friends, follow your heart, light the fire within you – ignite!
Copyright Peter Fairbrother, used by permission,
given in St Mark’s on 20 May 2018