Don’t panic! That was of course the legend inscribed on the cover of the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, and if you haven’t a clue what I’m talking about look out for the book if the same name by Douglas Adams and enjoy. An essential part of not panicking if you are hitchhiking through space is to carry a towel. For example, if you happen to encounter the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, putting it over your head will save the day, since as well as being ravenous it is mind-bogglingly stupid and assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you.
Towels are an essential part of not panicking for priests and others in Christian ministry too. I’m thinking of the stoles that many of us wear. There a number of theories about their origins, but the one I prefer refers them back not to marks of office borrowed from the Imperial Civil Service, or even Jewish prayer shawls or just nice scarves to keep old men warm in cold churches, but to the towel used by Jesus at the Last Supper and carried by even high-ranking folk when waiting on the king’s table, right up to the Middle Ages. Jesus came among us as one who serves. And if he our Lord and Master has washed our feet, so we also must wash one another’s feet. We panic, literally come under the control of Pan or the wild and chaotic forces of nature ungoverned by God, if we lose sight of either half of that equation; if we do not let Christ serve us, or if we fail to serve others.
There is fundamental and counter-cultural truth here, as we choose not to be our own gods but to serve the God whose nature is to serve us, and then to act out that out in service to others ourselves. And what a relief that is. To know that the ultimate purpose and direction of our ministry has already been set for us, and faithfulness in following and loyalty in leading are more fundamental than any objectives that flow from them. To know that the more we give of ourselves that others may find life in all its fulness, the more we will find it for ourselves, and that when we are spent and at our worn-out weakest, then God’s strength is most perfect. And there is no need to panic.
I hope that this servant approach has been there in my own ministry here in Suffolk, even if I am pretty rubbish at it. At least, I have my Suffolk towel with me, with thanks to Simon who brought it from Adnams, and deep apologies to Greene King and other Suffolk Brewers everywhere. “Feed my sheep” was the word I was given, and it has been a privilege and a joy to pray for you and keep calling you to prayer on the one hand, and to write to you, visit you, lead worship with you and raid the charity funds for you as often as time has allowed on the other, so that together we might know God’s love and show that love to each other, because you in your turn have shown great love to Jean and myself, for which we are enormously grateful.
Now a new future begins for us all. I’ve been wondering of course what my last words to you should be, and as I wrote in my last Ad Clerum, I’ve found myself getting a touch sentimental. It must be my advancing years, but I’ve kept on returning to the words of another old man, St Joh the Divine, who reportedly reached the point where all he wanted to say was, “Little children, love one another.” As Oscar Romero said, if we don’t’s sow love, we won’t reap it. It’s a very simple equation. Speaking at Felixstowe Academy recently I called it Li-Lo Theology. Love in, love out. The society we live in here is not so obviously unloving as that of San Salvador was. But as everything is commodified, counted, and consumed, we have become poor in the name of prosperity and isolated in the name of independence. We can be worse than the emperor who had no clothes. We can be all clothes and no emperor. Take away our accessories and we are so often revealed as full of angst. Take away our suits and our sense of self may be in tatters. And when we become like that, we are not very good at living with our diversity and differences. Despite our affluence we can get very anxious, despite our interconnectedness we can be remarkably isolated, and despite our transnational world we can be very tribal. Even in the church. Even just occasionally in St Edmundsbury and Ipswich.
And that is a challenge, because the diversity and the differences are not going to go away any time soon. In fact, some of the challenges we will face may tempt us to be very unkind to each other indeed. But it doesn’t have to be like that. It need not be so with you. Neither you nor I are likely to make it with Romero into the calendar of saints. Nor are we exempt from our moments of angst and agony. But we have, and on a good day we remember we have, and on a really good day we give thanks that we have made a solemn choice and taken a solemn vow to live life the right way up, to choose sacrifice above self-interest, to wash other people’s feet, and dry them with our towel. Even the ones we disagree with or dislike.
So today I want to call you back to that first love. To ask you, for Christ’s sake, to keep on loving your neighbours, your enemies, yes, your parishioners, and yes, even the church, with all of your heart and all of your soul and all of your mind. When you’re tempted to explode with indignation, still make your point clearly, still retain your integrity fully, still hope for good change, but remember how old Pliny wrote that the really distinctive thing about this odd sect called the Christians was how they love one another. And when you’re feeling taken for granted, maligned, and mistreated, remember those words of St John,“little children, love one another, for love is of God. I might venture to go so far in fact as to suggest that it is this willingness to publicly struggle with our human nature and seek to love one another as God has loved us, and often fail at it, but never quite give up on it, and keep on finding redemption and resurrection within it, that is at the heart of the ordained ministry. It is a work the whole Christian community shares and must live out, but when we stand at the altar, when we preach, when we visit in the name of the church, it is a work and a calling that is focussed on us.
No wonder that as a bishop I remind you that you can’t undertake this in your strength alone. But wondrous then that God supplies the strength. You have been good friends to me during my time in Suffolk and shown me real love. And you have shown me that you love God too. Live in his love, and he will strengthen you to love one another as he has loved you, the people of Jesus Christ, the people of the towel.