Upton on Severn, June 22nd 2014
Sermon by the Rt Revd John Gladwin
So Ruth went down to the threshing floor and did just what her mother-in-law had instructed her. When Boaz had eaten and drunk, and he was in a contented mood, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she came stealthily and uncovered his feet and lay down. At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and there, lying at his feet, was a woman.
I think Jane must be one of a very few priests in the Church of England whose ministry unites in an unbreakable bond, sex and salvation. The church often gives the impression of being not too bad on salvation and hopeless about sex. But Jane, recalling a deep theme in the Biblical story, has flourished in both Eros and Agape – our physical and bodily love and that deep and redemptive love of God for us seen so fully in Jesus Christ. Jane’s filing system used to read – top drawer, GOD, then MAMMON, HOME, and SEX.
But there is nothing new is there? A scheming mother in law, a shrewd young woman, an overfed and wined man, a bed of straw and the rest is history. This is part of the great story that leads us forward to the Good News of God in Jesus Christ. A Moabite woman – an outsider, an immigrant, a refugee. But, as is so often the case, God works from the margins of human experience to bring us the glory of divine love.
Ministry in the Church of England is at its finest when, established as the church is and so much rooted in our culture and history, its ministers work from the outside and make their ministry in places the establishment finds troublesome. That is the pattern of Jesus’ ministry as we find it in the Gospels – a ministry among tax gatherers, prostitutes, gentiles and Samaritans as well as among his own beloved Jewish people.
Jane, seeking to be faithful to that pattern of ministry, travels easily from the margins into the heart of parish ministry uniting in her work those things which our culture and even our church would pull apart.
Sex and salvation have at least one thing in common. They are for everyone.
Professionally, Jane has sought to provide contemporary training for all who work with people with disability that they might find healthy and fulfilling patterns of sexual life. Similarly, at the altar and in the pulpit a message is conveyed that the agape love of God is genuinely for all and not just those whose lives fit what happens to be the predominant religious culture of the time.
Ruth is in the sacred line that leads to David and on to Jesus. So far from her lying with Boaz on that fateful evening being frowned upon in the Old Testament, it is celebrated.
This is the story that brings us to Jesus. So, again, the mysterious story of God’s purposes comes from the fringes of accepted culture opening new doors of understanding for all.
To deepen the theme St Matthew not only has Ruth and Boaz in the genealogy that leads to Christ but he also has Rahab the harlot. You remember the story how Joshua sent two spies into Jericho to ‘view the land’ and what did they do? They spent the night in the house of the prostitute Rahab.
So they went and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there.
Matthew tells us that Boaz was her son.
So we see how the Bible finds the work of God in the heart of actual human experience. How different that is to the culture of restriction and of the narrowing of the message to hold it within conservative and culturally comfortable boundaries. Neither of those words – ‘conservative’ and ‘comfortable’ fit what we know of Jane’s vocation, ministry and passion in her heart.
We have a third and delightful element today. The Jazz Festival about to begin in Upton. Jazz was born in the funeral bands of New Orleans. It is the music of the black people in the southern states of the USA. Louis Armstrong and his band played in the clubs that plied the Mississippi. Some of these boat clubs were not desegregated until 1967. So the music reflects the theme – the liberty to which God calls us all and especially those who we so easily keep at a distance or shut out.
Ministry is all about feeding and tending God’s sheep and lambs. Ministry accepts that this bears a cost to it. But that is why God calls people such as Jane to share in it. That in itself is a sign of hope and of resurrection life in a world where division and exclusion still threaten to take away from all of us the love that yields up its life for others and breaks bread with us this morning.
We should expect to find the signs of God’s presence and God’s love in the midst of our earthly bodily living. Ministry is rooted in the pattern of Jesus’ own ministry – sharing fully our human condition. It is not, as some seem to think, a sort of spiritual kamikaze coming from outside and dropping a few spiritual bombs and then departing. Ministry takes place among the people, with the people and for the people.
We should expect to find the signs of God’s presence and God’s love where human beings are being marginalised, discriminated against and excluded by the predominant culture of the time. In this way God opens doors that power shuts and brings into the fold those whose experience of life points to a new and fuller experience of love.
We should expect to find the signs of God’s presence and God’s love in the offering of ministry by those who seek the presence of God on the fringes and among the excluded and the vulnerable. Ruth and Boaz experience points to something new. A Moabite woman and a man among the people of promise. Both find a new liberty in the love they share and in the mystery of the purposes of God being played out in their lives.
In celebrating Jane’s 25 years of ministry here this morning we celebrate a vocation and a ministry rooted in these truths and practised in this pattern.
As we share in the Holy Table and the food of bread and wine let us both thank God for Jane and commit ourselves afresh to this creative and life-giving shape of ministry for our church and for our world today.
A prophet without a question-mark!