'Power in Weakness' - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

'Power in Weakness'

'Power in Weakness'

The Ordination of the Revd Dr Jeff Lake, Assistant Curate at St Bride's, on Saturday 4th July at St Paul's Cathedral

Many years ago, the theological college in Oxford where I did my ministerial training used to run a particularly challenging programme for its students. They were deposited in the middle of London, with nothing except the money for an emergency phone call (were it to prove necessary), and the poor souls were left to fend for themselves for a whole weekend, living on the streets. For most of them, it was of course, a phenomenally tough and demanding experience - although, having said that, one particular individual, who was a former professional singer, went busking on the Underground, earned himself about £400 (which was a lot of money in those days), and famously spent the rest of the weekend residing in great comfort in a Park Lane hotel. Which was not exactly in keeping with the spirit of the exercise, but one does have to admire his entrepreneurship.

I must confess that I was mightily relieved that that particular project had been dropped from the syllabus by the time I went to that college as a student - but having said that, I can nevertheless understand the purpose of the exercise. It was in part, of course, intended to give those future ministers, some of whom had lived fairly safe and protected lives up to that point, a degree of insight into the harsh realities of life experienced by the kinds of people who frequently turn up on Vicarage doorsteps. But I suspect that there was another point to it as well, which brings us to the theme of this morning's gospel reading

As we heard, Jesus sent out the disciples in pairs taking nothing with them except a staff: no bread, no bag, no money in their belts, and no spare tunic. And the task they were set was not merely that of survival: they were charged to go out and exercise a very challenging ministry - armed with nothing. The point being that this put into sharp focus their absolute and utter dependence upon the power and the grace of God. Because when you have no resources at your disposal whatsoever - not even the basic means of human survival - you can be under no illusions at all about the limits of your own capabilities and your own self-reliance: you have to trust in God, because there is no other option available to you. But the really bizarre and extraordinary thing is that it works.

Before I was ordained, I trained as a schoolteacher. And the day after I finished my PGCE, I had a phone call from my university tutor. She had received an urgent phone call from a school in Brentwood, whose Classics teacher had suddenly been taken seriously ill - asking if she had a graduate students who might be willing to step into the breach. Rather rashly I agreed to do it, and I asked when it was that they wanted me to start. Predictably the answer was 'Immediately' - and since the school had a staff member who was willing to offer me accommodation, I had no excuse for delaying it.

And so the following day, I hastily packed a bag, and prepared to set off for Essex, to start work first thing the morning after that. All of which felt pretty daunting for a brand new, completely inexperienced, fledgling teacher. But it got much worse than that. Before I left for the station, I phoned the department to get an idea of what my timetable would be like the following day - to discover that I was facing a solid day's teaching, across a range of subjects and age groups, which included an English lesson with a class of eleven year olds to an 'A' level Latin set text class. I had never been to Brentwood; I didn't know the school; I didn't know the syllabuses; I hadn't actually read the A level Latin text I would be teaching the following day; and I had no resources. But there was at least one very small crumb of comfort: the staff member who would be hosting me had promised to bring some school books back with her, so that at least I could have a quick look at the courses that evening, before I arrived at the school the following morning.

In the event I was deprived of even that minor consolation. The first part of my train journey, from Cambridge to Liverpool Street, was absolutely fine. The second part, from Liverpool Street to Brentwood, was not. Half way to my destination my train suddenly ground to a complete standstill, due to a fire on the line. And I sat on that train for five solid hours, trying to quell my rising panic at the prospect of the day that lay ahead of me, in which I was going to have to face eight consecutive classes of turbulent teenagers, with no teaching materials whatsoever. In the end it was after midnight that I finally arrived, when it was simply too late to do anything at all - at which point I was so beyond any sense of despair, that I just surrendered myself to the sheer awfulness of my situation - and realized that the only thing left for me to do, was pray my way through it. So I did.

And I have to say that what ensued was utterly extraordinary. Astonishingly, and completely against all the odds, particularly since I really did not have a clue what I was doing, the whole of my first day in the school went brilliantly. I was winging it from beginning to end - but somehow I managed to come up with a whole range of slightly off-beat things for the kids to do - and they responded with surprising enthusiasm. It was the first time I had ever had to pray my way through a situation, for the simple reason that I knew that it was so far beyond my own powers and capabilities that I had no other alternative. And suddenly I understood exactly what St Paul was talking about when he wrote, in our first reading this morning, 'My power is made perfect in weakness. So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.'

And a final little story for you. As most of you are aware, before I came here to St Bride's, I was for nine years vicar of a church in Edgbaston. When the news first broke back in 2005 that I had been appointed there, most of the clergy in Birmingham Diocese had to be revived with smelling salts. Because it was regarded as the ultimate toxic post, and they regarded my taking it on as an act of utter insanity. It was a failed church, with a congregation so small that the Diocese was no longer prepared to fund my post; and more than that, it was a congregation that was described to me at the time as 'very elderly, deeply resistant to change, and riven with internal dissention and in-fighting.' And if that were not enough, one was also taking on a mediaeval building with holes in the roof, dry rot, and a collapsing lych gate.

The church had enough money in its reserves to pay for its own priest for a period of five years - but of course, no sane clergyperson would be foolish enough to take it on. Except that I did - for the simple reason that I had a profound and inexplicable sense that it was the place I was called to be. But I can remember on my first morning there, opening up the church, sitting in my stall for morning prayer, and thinking to myself: 'What have I done? Coming here really is an act of pure insanity!'

Except it wasn't. Within five years we had turned the place around to the point where the Diocese funded my post in full; it had a thriving, growing, and united congregation, which was an utter delight. Within six years I was given the 'freehold', which meant that my post was absolutely secure. We repaired and restored the building. And, yet - if I am honest, I have absolutely no idea how we did it - because what we achieved went so far beyond anything that I myself felt equipped to do. All that I did, really, was to be prayerful, and to be hopeful, and to trust in God.

And so I hope that Jeff, at the start of his ministry here; and Henry and Marigold as they begin their own journeys of faith, will discover for themselves the extraordinary truth of those words of St Paul:

'My power is made perfect in weakness. So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.'


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