Bishop Helen-Ann's Chrism Eucharist Sermon

First published on: 28th March 2024

Clergy and lay ministers from across our Diocese gathered together at Newcastle Cathedral on Maundy Thursday morning for Chrism Eucharist. You can read Bishop Helen-Ann's sermon from the service below. 

The name Jasmin Paris might not mean anything to you, but last Friday at 9.17pm UK time, she became the first woman to complete the Barkley marathons. Over a punishing course in Frozen Lake National Park in Tennessee this extraordinary non-stop test of endurance covers over 100 miles, with an equivalent elevation of running up and down Everest twice, without any GPS technology. The race has a number of idiosyncrasies about it including the $1.60 registration fee, the application essay required of all who want to take part and the condolence letter sent if the application is successful. Known as ‘the race that eats its young’ its exact start time and date is unknown except to those who are running it and their support teams.

The blowing of a conch shell indicates one hour to go, and the race begins when its founder, the legendary and somewhat illusive Gary ‘Lazarus Lake’ Cantrell lights a cigarette by the yellow gate entry to the Park. As there’s no tracking system the only updates come from a man called ‘Keith’ who posts sparse and slightly vague comments on social media. If you google Barkley Marathons you will see the filmed clip of Jasmin Paris’ incredible finish where she wills herself to the yellow gate with 99 seconds to spare before the 60-hour cut-off, and immediately collapses in an understandable heap. Why on earth would you put yourself through that, you may ask? Interviewed afterwards, Jasmin said this about her achievement:

“I hope maybe it encourages people to have some hobbies of their own when kids, work and life got in the way”. She resisted the title ‘superwoman’ choosing instead to shine a light on what others might do because of her achievement.

Jasmin didn’t come first, in a sense it was really a race against the clock, she came 5th, and what was remarkable was the way in which the 4 men who finished ahead of her, themselves surely utterly spent, rallied round to rightly celebrate what she had achieved. It was a parable of endurance, hope and light at the end of a gruelling few days. A story of sharing the sheer joy of adventurous achievement rather than aspiring to personal greatness.

Even one of the runners who didn’t manage to finish, Damian Hall dealt with his disappointment by saying: ‘It was still an amazing experience, and incredible to see Jasmin finish and make history. That wiped away most of my personal disappointment’. I wonder how many of us would have been so gracious as Damian in the face of what might look like a failure.

Not for the first time have I seen wisdom for the life of ministry that we all inhabit in different ways in the world of endurance sport. As I wheezed round a far more modestly distanced trail race last weekend in the Lake District I recall a lady who ran with me for a short while as we both navigated a tricky technical downhill section. We reached the bottom together and she headed off, but we thanked each other for the patient encouragement and help we had given one another in those moments.

All of this collegial forbearance shines a less than favourable light on the disciples in our Gospel reading this morning.

If Luke is showing us a model for the reality of ministry, then it is not a particularly comfortable or encouraging one: ‘a dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest...’ The Church unfortunately is a place where the politics of power so often exploit and toy with the weak and vulnerable.

We so often forget that the granulation of God’s image that each of us bears is one that is woven from within. When we look at one another we should see the image and likeness of Christ in our lives and ministries, God working his purposes out in each one of us called in ministry not to compete or damage but to share and uphold.

When I discerned God’s call to be your Bishop I held three words that had been on my heart for some time: seeking, sharing, sending. As I thought myself into this diocese I saw that these words are not about us as to be a personal plan for self-improvement, they are dynamic reflections of all of our vocational journeys together towards the God who is also constantly seeking us, sharing God’s very self with us and through the Holy Spirit willing us on. Sometimes we have energy to do this, sometimes frankly we don’t, and that’s ok. It’s more than ok.

In my most recent address to Synod I recalled attending a recent lecture in Newcastle University given by George Robertson, former Secretary General of NATO. Titled ‘How can we manage a dangerous world?’ he gave us 7 words beginning with ‘V’ that are the cause of much present global distress: these included the volatility of current events, a vacuum or leadership and a lack of vision for the future.

As I listened, I thought of two more: vocation and voice. I believe that the task of any vocation, lay and ordained is to be a voice: of hope, of a cry for justice, of joy, of realism. We do this however not because we are motivated by our agendas, but because we believe in the power of God in Jesus Christ and in the words of the Lord’s Prayer for the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. This is not a naïve hope.

As much as we might speak however, we are also called to listen. Jesus says, ‘The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves…I am among you as one who serves.’

We gather today to affirm vows made at licensing and ordination so that we might from our inner core listen afresh to the voices we do not always hear, the people and communities we don’t see, the summons of God to nurture vision with courage, to navigate volatility with measured wisdom, and to fill the vacuum with God’s inclusive love and mercy.

The cross is the reminder of God’s saving love, and as we participate again in the drama of these coming days we travel through the bleakness of Good Friday and Holy Saturday and await the blazing light of Sunday (but don’t forget to put your clocks forward!!!). Today we bless oils that will provide healing balm to those whose life struggle is great, welcome, and blessing to those beginning their faith journeys, and a sacred seal to those offering themselves in ordained service of God’s mission.

We don’t do any of these tasks for greatness, but aware of our own frailties we look out for one another as the Body of Christ, each part of value, each ministry context we might find ourselves in of worth and potential.

When asked about Jasmin Paris’ completion of the Barkley Marathons, John Kelly another runner who this year completed it for the third time simply said this: ‘She persisted’. In my first episcopal role I remember sitting beside the hospital bedside of one of the Franciscan brothers from the small community hear where my office was in Hamilton, New Zealand. Nearing the end of his life, Br Brian reflected to me that in these days he was focused on three other words beginning with ‘p’ that resonate with the theme of persistence: prayer, patience, and… prunes! I’ll leave you to work out which one you can probably do without at this point and ask God to help you and I together persist with the others.

With my gratitude for each of you. Amen.

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