Servants of the servants

To be honest, I wanted to write something in response to the bishops’ statement following the Living in Love and Faith process and the draft liturgical resources that have been published in the last few days. But on reflection, there has been a lot on social media already and, at the moment, I don’t want to add to it. Instead, I need time to think about what I think and I also want to hear what General Synod has to say. So, don’t worry, I’m not ignoring what is going on, I just need more time on this one.

So, instead, I thought you might like to read what I said in my sermon at the Diocesan Servers’ Festival held in the Cathedral yesterday. It was another stage in getting back to normal and good to welcome servers from churches across the diocese who serve and enable us to worship, real servants of the servants. The readings were 1 Samuel 3.1-10 and John 2:1-11.

“My name is Samuel. I think I may be ten, but I don’t really know. Eli says that I’ve been here for six years with him and I was only little when my mother left me here, but I don’t know how old I really am. I see my mother each year, she brings me a new robe to wear, though I grow a lot faster than she imagines, and I never really ask her why I’m here, or when I came, or how it all happened. I just cling to her and love the moment of seeing her. You may wonder if, deep down, I think she loves me – after all she gave me away, her little boy. But when I look into her eyes, each year, on my one day off, I know she loves me.

Yes, one day off. I hear other boys playing outside, in the square, calling out, singing songs to each other. But I’ve never had time to play with them. Eli is quite old now and I have a responsible job. In the morning I unlock the door to the temple, then I check that all the lamps are lit, then I make sure that everything is clean and tidy. Then I bring to Eli food to eat and wine to drink. Then I check the lamps again and tidy up after the people have been in to make their offerings. And finally, late at night, I can lock the door and roll out my mattress against the door, and lie down, but only after I’ve checked that the lamps won’t go out overnight, that there’s lots of oil in them to keep them burning.

As I go about my work, I hear in my head some of the words of the song my mother sings to me every time she visits

‘He will guard the feet of his faithful ones.’ “

Eli and the boy Samuel

“My name is Samuel. You don’t need to know how old I am, all you need to know is that I have a good business, a very good business, that my inn is well run and very popular. I have the reputation of never watering down the wine, never running out of anything and serving the best food in the district – succulent lamb, fresh tasty bread and juicy olives. People come to me if they want to celebrate, because I have a big room and, as I say, a fine reputation for good food and wine and the best place to hold a party. ‘We’ll have the wedding at Samuel’s place’ is what people say.

Well, that was my reputation until today. It was a normal wedding booking. People were coming to Cana, where my inn is, from all over the district. The bride and groom were very popular and the family was big. There were even people here from Nazareth.

All went well at first. The bridesmaids escorted the groom, their lamps well lit. The doors closed and the party began. I don’t know how long your weddings last but ours can last for days – and people eat and drink a lot. So, I have to have everything well planned. But things went wrong this time. Whether it was that group of fishermen and carpenters who came with a young man and his mother from Nazareth, I don’t know, all I do know is that all of a sudden one of the servants ran to tell me that the wine had run out. My reputation was in danger, my whole business threatened. To be honest I didn’t know what to do.

Then … it was amazing … but the servants came back and said that everything was ok; that I had no reason to worry. They had more wine, in fact a heck of a lot more wine, suddenly from nowhere. All my six water jars were full of it. I tasted it, it was delicious, much better than the wine I’d been serving at first. I asked what had happened but all they could do was quote from the prophet Isaiah

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-matured wines strained clear.”

Two Samuels – of course we don’t know the name of the Steward of the wedding feast at Cana, but he might have been called Samuel! But both of them, the boy and the man were in the business of serving. That was what they did, and both were really proud of it.

Neither of their jobs, their lives were glamorous and in many ways they had to stay out of the limelight. For the boy Samuel it was Eli who had centre stage; for Samuel my steward it was the bride and groom who were the guests of honour. But neither sought to be the centre of attention – they just wanted to serve.

What you all do is amazing. You enable worship to happen. Like Samuel checking the candles; like the steward checking the bread and wine; like Samuel serving the priest, like the steward serving the guests. Being an altar server is a high calling because it’s an enabling ministry. Because of what you do people can come along to church and be caught up in the worship that’s offered, caught up in the praise offered to God, caught up in that atmosphere of prayer, caught up in the meal that looks towards the heavenly banquet.

You may feel that you don’t do much – that you only carry a candle, only swing the incense, only hold the cross, only point in a book – but that’s an essential task that you’re doing – and each task adds together to create liturgy – the work of the people of God, the worship of the God who is love.

There are some words that we sing as a hymn that were written way back in the very early fourth century by St Ephrem who lived in the area of Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq. He was a deacon, not a priest, and so called to a ministry of ordained service and he wrote this.

Strengthen for service, Lord, the hands
that holy things have taken.

Those are your hands, the hands of the lamp-trimmers and the door openers; the hands of the bread holders and the wine pourers, your hands are made holy because you handle holy things on behalf of the holy people of God. Like Samuel and Samuel you are servers, servers of God, servers of God’s people and you help those of us who are priests and bishops to draw people into the foretaste of the heavenly banquet in which Jesus provides not just the wine but also the bread, his body and blood, which never fails but sustains us into eternity.

God bless your hands; God bless your ministry; God bless you, servers.

Loving God, bless us as we serve, bless us as we worship, bless us as we come before you in true humility. Amen.

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Andrew Nunn's reflections from General Synod

the personal views of the Dean of Southwark