Sermon: Sunday 14 May 2016
Service of Welcome for the Installation of the Seventh Bishop of Leicester
The Rt Revd Martyn Snow, Bishop of Leicester
So this is my chance just to say a few words. First of all to thank you all for being here. Standing here looking out, it’s great to see friends from the past – from Sheffield, from Gloucester and elsewhere – as well as so many from Leicester: leaders of other faith communities, civic leaders, and partners from churches around the world. Thank you all so much for giving so generously of your time.
And how good of Leicester City Football Club to lay on a party for me just as I arrive – perfect timing! We really couldn’t have planned it any better, today being just a little foretaste of the massive crowds who will line the victory parade tomorrow. It feels like one long party ever since I arrived.
I know we asked you to come in colourful dress. In the church’s calendar this is Pentecost weekend when we celebrate the gift of God’s Holy Spirit who appeared to the first Christians as tongues of fire – so red, yellow, orange – and now we can add blue and white – which are just as appropriate for certain types of fire. You all look splendid.
I don’t want to keep you long, stood around outside with the smell of food drifting over from the stands, but I do want to pick up on the theme of parties and say that I am praying for more parties in this city and county. Parties to celebrate not just sporting success, though I hope there will be lots more of those, but parties to celebrate our rich community life, parties to celebrate our diversity, and parties to celebrate God’s good gifts.
Indeed, I’m going to be bold and say that I believe the church should be leading the way in hosting more parties with more prayer. You’re likely to hear me use that phrase quite a lot in the coming months – more parties and more prayer, please.
Pentecost is a great example of a party. Firstly, because you don’t have to worry if you haven’t got a ticket. Everyone is invited to this party and everyone is welcome. And secondly because all are equal at this party – there are no VIP tickets. Jesus is the unseen host of this party, we know from the Bible that he goes out of his way to invite those on the edge of society: the sinners, the disreputable, the downtrodden – those who think they would never be invited to sit and eat with a king – these are the people who receive a special invite. The risen Lord Jesus Christ invites all to his party and the church needs to learn again how to pass on that invite.
There are many different ways of inviting people to a party.
For me, one of the greatest delights of coming here as bishop is that this Cathedral church is dedicated to St Martin of Tours – and no, that’s not just because we share the same name, and I wasn’t named after him, but he has always been one of my favourite saints from the early church. Having served as a soldier in the Roman army, he later became a monk and a hermit. He founded a number of monasteries and was then tricked into becoming a bishop – he was asked to go and visit someone who was sick in Tours, and while he was there, the people physically propelled him to the Cathedral and proclaimed him bishop – slightly different to the interview process I underwent.
But of course he is best known for an incident, while a soldier, when he encountered a beggar and spontaneously cut his army cloak in two and gave half to the beggar. That night he had a dream in which he heard Jesus say: ‘Martin clothed me with his robe’. Which is why this cross is so appropriate with its quote: ‘whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.’
There are many different ways of inviting people to a party. Sometimes with words, sometimes without words – always with acts of kindness and generosity. I’ve seen some cracking examples this last week as I’ve been making a pilgrimage around the diocese, of churches working really imaginatively to make sure children and young people in particular know they are invited to this party. It’s so encouraging to see this happening – to see the church metaphorically taking off its cloak, and dividing it with those in need. So I’m hoping for more parties, with lots more young people, lots more people who think they don’t have a ticket. And lots more prayer.
I do believe that parties and prayer can go together. Essentially they are both about relationship – the more we know ourselves loved by God and experience this love in our prayers, the more we can love our brother and sister and celebrate with them.
I’m very aware that as we are stood here, with me talking about parties, there are many people in our world who are suffering greatly. Innocent people caught up in war in Syria and Iraq; or famine in South Sudan. Families who have had to leave their homes in fear, trying desperately to cross the seas or forced to live in huge refugee camps with only the most basic services. And in our own communities: people trapped in debt, suffering domestic violence, wrestling with mental health issues. What right have I to talk of parties, when there is such pain in the world?
Parties and prayer must go hand in hand. Real joy is never at someone else’s expense – it is a gift of God’s Holy Spirit which comes to us as we pray and as that pray is enacted by living for others. Prayer is all about putting on new glasses, seeing the world in greater clarity, and then being empowered to live for others, to put their welfare before our own
When I was asked at the beginning of this service “why are you here?”; my reply was that I have been called to serve the servants of God in this city and county. I pledge myself today to pray for this city and county, to serve those in need and invite people to the party which Jesus called the kingdom of God.
In just a moment, I’m going to be inviting a few children to come and lead some prayers – I suspect they may do it in a slightly different way – I’m hoping so. But just before they do, a reminder of that prayer we said at the beginning of the service as I knelt by the door of the Cathedral; the prayer Jesus taught his followers: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.
This is a prayer that the party in heaven, called God’s kingdom, would come to earth – that we would have a glimpse, a foretaste of the heavenly party to which all are invited and in which there are no favourites. I believe we can only experience this joy and this justice as we learn to pray and to serve others. I want our churches to be schools of prayer so that the joy of heaven will be infectious and lead to many more parties on earth.
So will you join me in calling for more parties and more prayer.
I invite the children to come and lead us.