Sermon preached by Canon Felicity Lawson at the Consecration of The Venerable Paul Slater as the Bishop of Richmond  19th July 2015.

What an amazing occasion this is:

  • The first consecration in Ripon Cathedral since 1293
  • The reviving of the See of Richmond which has only ever had 2 bishops and has been vacant since 1921
  • And for Paul, what must have been one of the quickest moves from appointment to consecration in recent history. The Church of England can move fast when it wants to!

Of course those of us who heard the Archbishop’s charge to +Nick in York Minster at Pentecost last year, knew that he was being given an impossible task, however great his gifts and his capacity for hard work. As one of the Acting Area Deans in the Leeds Episcopal Area, I am delighted by Paul’s appointment.  Being a suffragan bishop has its own particular challenges but having worked closely with Paul encouraging and supporting ministry among the Deaf in our former Dioceses of Bradford and Wakefield– I am sure that by the grace of God he is up to the task. (By the way,  the Deaf pioneered the way for collaboration across our 3 former dioceses, long before the Dioceses Commission came on the scene!)

If I am honest, when the Archbishop said he wanted the lectionary readings for the day used for this service, my heart sank.  Most of you here this afternoon will already have heard one sermon on these texts today, if not actually preached one. But when I read them I realised how appropriate they were!

In a little while the Archbishop will tell us that Paul is being ordained to be a shepherd of Christ’s flock and that he is to be mindful of the good shepherd in the way he exercises his ministry

In our reading from Jeremiah and in similar passages in Ezekiel and Zechariah, God speaks words of denunciation and  judgement on the bad shepherds, in other words the kings of Judah who have not cared for God’s people and whose fault it is that the people are facing exile. (Not a very encouraging start for a consecration!) But along with the condemnation comes a promise – a Davidic king who would rule wisely and justly and genuinely care for God’s people. A promise of a new beginning.  Christians see this promise fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth who not only spoke about the good shepherd but in John’s gospel claimed that title for himself.

In Mark chapter 6 we see Jesus the Good Shepherd in action. But to do so we need to consider the chapter as a whole and not just the summary verses which make up today’s gospel.

Mark the evangelist is a bit like a cameraman or reporter covering an important event who takes much more footage than is needed.  He or she then selects and edits to tell the story as they have seen it unfold and as they want others to understand it.

The chapter begins with Jesus sending out the 12 – sharing his authority and ministry with them – following his rejection at Nazareth.  He tells them to preach the good news of the kingdom and to demonstrate its arrival by their actions, in healing the sick and casting out demons. He recognises that the task is too big and too urgent for one person, even when that person is Jesus himself!

I asked a friend this week what she thought were the key characteristics of good Episcopal leadership. She thought for a moment and then said “the best bishops, no matter what their background, are those who are secure enough in themselves to open doors so that good things can happen and wise enough to close them so that bad and dangerous things are prevented from happening.”  A good bishop releases and encourages the ministries of other people.  Paul, I know that from the earliest days of your ordained ministry you have been involved in lay training, in identifying and releasing the gifts of others. Continuing to do so is important not only because it is what Jesus did, but because it will be a crucial factor in enabling our new diocese to grow spiritually, numerically and in missional outreach as Bishop Nick has encouraged us to do.

But I also notice something else in these verses.  Jesus sends them out vulnerable – with only shoes and a shepherd’s staff – and he tells them what to do when they fail! If a community welcomes you, stay there, receive their hospitality and exercise your ministry.  If they reject you, shake the dust from your feet and move on. One of the most inhibiting factors where growth is concerned is fear of failure.  A good bishop will not be afraid of having a go and sometimes getting things wrong or of encouraging others to do so.

In the immortal words of John Wimber, faith is spelt RISK.

Don’t play it too safe or you and we may miss out on what God is doing.

Mark then cuts from the mission of the 12 to the horrific story of Herod and John the Baptist. Here Mark is contrasting Herod the bad shepherd, with Jesus the good shepherd.

Herod throws a party for the powerful and influential – it is a symposium, a drinking party. Which incidentally may explain why he makes such a ridiculously extravagant offer to his stepdaughter after she has danced before his guests.

And when egged on by her revengeful mother she asks for the head of John the Baptist on a platter, he hasn’t got the guts or the courage of his convictions to refuse.

You can be sure that news of Herod’s party and its consequences would have spread like wildfire throughout the whole area.

And that, perhaps, is why in our gospel reading we are told that the disciples gathered round Jesus.  Was it that news of John’s murder stopped short their mission and they came to stand by their master whose cousin had just been brutally murdered?

Perhaps Jesus suggests that they go away to a quiet place not just because they were tired after their mission but because they needed time to reflect and talk  and pray together, to say what now?  How should Jesus respond to what has happened.  The OT law said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ but Jesus had said ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’  with john the Baptist gone, Jesus was the next key target.

The disciples weren’t the only ones who wanted to know how Jesus would respond, the crowd did too.  They guessed where Jesus was going and got there first.  We have a phrase no rest for the wicked.  Well in this case it was no rest for the righteous!

Rather than getting irritated with them Jesus had compassion on them because they were ‘like sheep without a shepherd’. He jettisons his previous plan and responds as the good shepherd.

He provides for them.  He teaches them and then he feeds them.  He takes the meager resources of 5 loaves and 2 fish and in a pattern that would become all too familiar to his followers he looks to heaven, blesses, breaks and gives them.

John tells us that they want to make him king, they want the revolution to begin.  But Jesus refuses to respond in the world’s way.  He dismisses the crowd, sends his disciples off in the boat and goes away by himself to pray.

You can be sure that there would be Herod’s spies in the crowd.  Not only would news of Jesus’ response and special meal spread throughout the villages, just as news of Herod’s meal of had done, word would get back to Herod himself. I wonder if he was challenged by Jesus kingdom way of practicing what he preached?

Mark then records the storm on the lake, the walking on the water, Jesus revealing himself to his disciples  and calming the storm which then brings us to the second half of our gospel reading – the crowds who once again gather, and Jesus gracious practical response to those who are sick and in need of his healing touch.

Which of us in ministry can’t help but identify with that sense of relentless demand?

How much more so for those called to be bishops.  The job is never done.

Yet Jesus models for us here both a willingness to respond to human needs  and a recognition of the importance of prayer, of drawing aside, of listening to the Father, of not being afraid to move on when necessary.

Paul, we need you to set us an example and to help us to respond positively and creatively to human need.As a bishop you will be given opportunities to speak to the rich and the powerful, the movers and the shakers.  Be careful not to get sucked into the world’s way of doing things.  Seize those opportunities but bring to them kingdom values. Remember that in Leeds there are huge areas of deprivation as well as areas of great prosperity and business opportunity. We need you to speak out on our behalf.

Inevitably there will be times of crisis – whether in a clergy family, a local community or God-forbid something more horrendous, a terrible accident or a terrorist attack. As a bishop people will look to you for words of wisdom, comfort, strength and interpretation, just as they looked to Jesus when John the Baptist was murdered.

As we shall hear in a few minutes, the responsibilities of a bishop are enormous.

But never forget that as well as modelling yourself on the good shepherd, Jesus is your good shepherd too.

He wants to provide for you,  guide you, protect you, sustain you, simply be with you.  Let him minister to you,  that you may minister to us.