Preached by the Reverend Tim Sledge, Vicar of Romsey, at the Sung Eucharist with the Ordination of Deacons, 1st July 2012, the fourth Sunday after Trinity.
I wonder how good your memories are? Cast your minds back five years, to an event a moment an anniversary we remember today, which changed and improved so many people’s lives but turned many others to feel like social outcasts?
I mean of course that today is the anniversary of No Smoking Day. Yes indeed! For many people today is the anniversary of a new way of living and existing. Exactly 5 years ago today, it became illegal to smoke or light up in public places.
For many who in Victor Meldrew mode have curmudgeonly tutted and groaned when eating out and someone on the next door table next door lights up. You have enjoyed exactly give years of happiness and breathing clean air. For those of you who smoke – you have been relegated as a social outcast to a new bus shelter yards away from your work place and you feel like its like being back behind the bike sheds as a teenager.
Either way, we have got used to it now.
But I make the analogy because it seems to me that today this ordination service should be anything but Non Smoking Day – in fact – it is anathema to it! For surely today should a Smoking Day and this Cathedral Church declared a smoking zone! Why? Because there can be no smoke without fire! And throughout this service and the bible readings, references to the fire of God, the flame of the Spirit, the blaze of the light of God, appear even more than the words “quantative easing” at an EU budgetary meeting.
So if there can be no smoke without fire – why is that fire so important for today, not only in the lives of these people soon to be ordained deacon in the church, but also in the life of the church?
Fire is a sign of God’s presence. It is a sign of God’s presence at baptism, at the call of Moses, at Pentecost and in this sacrament of ordination. So let us look at some of these and understand that for these people here, soon to be ordained deacon will become hot property for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Turning first to the call of Isaiah. He received a commissioning to a ministry in a place filled with so much smoke it would have been closed down if it was today – here not only was there smoke, but there was a burning coal touching his lips like a kiss. a kiss of fire. A kiss to unlock his lips to speak, it is as the kiss of baptism.
Moses however was aware that he was on Holy ground when he saw the bush flaming.
And what was his response. He was over awed and overwhelmed. I can’t do it! Thank goodness for that. If any of us here whether deacons, priests bishops or anyone involved in ministry think when you feel called to do it and up for the task then we should think again. The service of God is something not to be done lightly and assuming that we have got all that we need – we find ourselves floored, driven to our knees, with a sense of inadequacy for the task. I often think with politicians and others with key positions of responsibility, that anyone who wants to do it and thinks that they can do it should be automatically disqualified from office!
No like Moses– this call strikes us with fear and trembling. I am nervous for these guys now! I am nervous thinking about the night before I was ordained pacing around for half the night in a chapel in Mirfield in Yorkshire desperately pleading with God for a way out – as if I was in the Big Brother house and there was no eviction in sight.
At Pentecost Tongues of fire appeared. Here in this one intimate encounter, the touch of reassurance to say that it’s going to be OK.
In a few moments, at the intimate moment of ordination, the fire will descend, like a kiss from burning coals. It will happen in silence – we become mute – because you can’t kiss and talk at the same time. You have to allow it to happen to you. But we can be certain that in this sacrament in those still and intimate moments the kiss of fire will descend – as one of my training incumbents said brilliantly and succinctly describing a sacrament – “it’s when God shows up!” And today, God shows up as fire – the kiss of the burning coal. Out of a temple which was full of smoke…. There was the source – for there is no smoke without fire!
After each of the encounters with God as fire there came a sending out, a commissioning. And in the moment of ordination as they are kissed with fire, these servants of God will be unlocked into something new – commissioned to the task of building God’s church, a community of faith just as Moses Isaiah and the disciples had been commissioned.
But this is not just their task! This is the task of the whole church of God.
Let me give you another example of how fire spreads and serves, and how it is functional but indispensable.
Have you ever noticed how a central heating system works? I mean have you ever looked and wondered at awe at its functionings. I mean it’s not something that we concentrate on that much, we expect that with a rumble the hot water will come on and when we need it so will the central heating. We only notice it if it goes wrong. And the vast majority of times that it does go wrong is because the pilot light has gone out. There through a tiny port hole on many a boiler is a small blue flame – insignificant on its own and yet with the potential to literally set your hot water systems alight and make your radiators nice and toasty warm. But its all background. You may be wondering where this ode of appreciation to and wonder at a domestic gas boiler is leading.…Well its simply that one of the best descriptions of a priest I heard was from George Guiver, again from the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield who described the minister as like a pilot light. Relatively insignificant on their own but with huge capacity. For these servants God is providing the source of the energy and yet with the flick of a switch, this constantly burning light can bring light to others. Now this task of igniting and setting ablaze a whole community sounds great but in reality there will be challenges.
And as deacons much of this work goes unnoticed. And when you are carrying go-pak tables for an afternoon for the church fete and wondering why you studied doctrine for two years and its come down to this. Well in fact it has come up to this – this is modelling service. This is working with others to ignite a community into action
Yes we need deacons and priests in the church but all of us who are part of the Christian family are called to this royal priesthood of all believers – we are all called to be set on fire, that our hearts would burn within us, that we would light up and be lights in a world where there are so many clamouring voices.
But one word of warning. As we all know fire can be dangerous and can engulf homes and lives as we have been reminded in Colorado recently. Its easy for the flame to become engulfed itself rather than be an engulfing fire.
How significant that we use the term “burn out” when we over pressurise people–too much pressure and lack of care will simply mean that the light goes out. So I ask you all who are here to support these people. Keep an eye out for them. That demands vigilance , prayer and support.
We are not ordaining 15 lone rangers and superheroes here – just a luminous collection of pilot lights with the capacity to set their communities on fire wherever they are called to in the future.
But what about you? About each of our own willingness to offer ourselves to God. Maybe some of you might be thinking with the spotlight on these soon to be deacons the spotlight is off you! Not so! The gospel is not just about willingness to be open to be lit up by the power of the Spirit.
So from the kiss of fire, to the pilot light finally to the source and desire of God in all of this. What is it that God is calling both these people down here and us all to? I believe it is to the life of fire. This can be best summed up in a story – one of many from the Desert Fathers – monks who spent time stripped of everything in the desert in order to be refined by God.
A junior monk went to see Abba Joseph and he said to him, “Abba, as far as I can, I say my office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven; his fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
If you will you can become all flame. What an extraordinary vision. Not of spontaneous combustion, or of being consumed by fire, but by allowing the fire of God to burn within us It is a daunting and heady vision, and but this is the call of the life of the Christian disciple.
So I call on all of you today, 1st July 2012 exactly five years into the Smoking Ban to start a counter movement to buck the trend and do something different! Henceforth for these folks and for all of us, and If I can say boldly for the whole church of God that we should become or continue as a Smoking Zone – a public place where smoking is required not discouraged, a place where we can light up in order that other lives may be lit up, a place with kisses of fire, where pilot lights remain burning and many others are ignited because of them, so that all our hearts might burn within us. Winchester Cathedral is a Smoking Zone and this is a day of Smoking, for there can be no smoke without fire!