Yes to God: A Sermon to Celebrate 60 Years of Ordained Ministry

On 24th September 2017 my Dad, Gervase Babington, celebrated the 60th anniversary of his Ordination as a Deacon.  There was a lovely celebration at their church in Lincoln, St Nicholas, at which I preached and Dad gave the final blessing.  Thanks to all the people of St Nicholas church for making us welcome and for their love and care over the years.  Below is the full text of my sermon.

 

Yes to God

 

May I be helped to speak in the name of the Living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

First, can I say a huge thank you to the Vicar, Hugh, for inviting me to preach this morning and indeed for encouraging this celebration to take place today.  It is really wonderful for us all to be here for this celebration of a lifetime of ministry.

When Gervase, my Dad, moved after 16 years from being Rector of Waddington to become Vicar of Gainsborough, one of the congregation said to him, “I’ve timed all your sermons and you never preached for less than 7 minutes and never more than 12!” So, if you would like to set your timers now I will see if I can keep within that range.  One of my dad’s maxims about preaching is that a sermon should be about two things:  about God and about 10 minutes.  Whilst this sermon will be about those two things, I would also like to stretch that rule today because this sermon will also be about my father and his ministry as a deacon and priest.

60 years ago this week, Gervase Babington was ordained as a deacon in Sheffield Cathedral by Bishop Leslie Hunter.  It was a time of great change and challenge:  under Bishop Leslie Hunter, Sheffield was a forward-thinking diocese engaging with industrial mission, encouraging lay ministry, and exploring new patterns of ordained ministry.  It was also a time of great popular spiritual and theological questioning, exemplified by the controversial book Honest to God.

One of the great influences on my dad at that time was a priest called Alan Ecclestone.  Alan was vicar of the large parish of Darnall which had a population of 27,000.  He was highly intellectual, loved history and English literature, and was utterly committed to serving the people of his deprived urban parish.  He was a communist and taught through the Workers’ Education Association.  Alan organized his ministry around a weekly parish communion on Sunday morning, and a parish meeting on Tuesday evenings; he read and studied every morning and visited every afternoon – systematically visiting every household in the parish (it took him 7 years to get around every household in Darnall).  With a few other clergy, Dad would meet regularly with Alan to reflect together on the issues of the day.  Alan’s commitments and way of living out his ministry provided a pattern and model for my Dad and others to follow.

When Alan retired he wrote several highly respected books, and perhaps the most well-known is called Yes to God.  That simple word, “yes”, has been at the heart of my dad’s thinking and praying throughout his ministry. Indeed, I think the last sermon I heard him preach was on the theme of “yes” when he retired 20 years ago.

There have been lots of Yeses in my father’s life… from that initial yes of vocation to ministry over 60 years ago, the yes to move North to serve his curacy with Alfred Jowett in Sheffield, the yes to join the first team ministry in the country at William Temple Church on Manor Park, the yes to family life when he married Joy, my Mum, and they had Richard and Sheila my big brother and sister (and then later me).  There were further yeses as Dad was called to serve in different parishes from Waddington to Gainsborough, and then lastly, the Walesby and Tealby group on the edge of the Wolds.  Then came, in retirement, an itinerant ministry helping-out at many churches in and around Nettleham.  These are all different expressions and out-workings of Dad’s yes to life, yes to love and yes to God, that make up vocation and discipleship.

Deep down, at the heart of all this, is the invitation of the creating and saving God who is Love.  God has created the world with freedom and responsibility:  freedom, because as human beings we are not forced to acknowledge or obey God; and responsibility, because each one of us has the ability to respond as we wish.  God invites us to participate in his life and love, but never forces us so to do.  The life of faith is a lived yes to God’s invitation.  We see in the life of Jesus what this yes looks like fully lived out in a human life.  And if we try to follow in the way of Jesus, then we find a way of saying our own yes by shaping our lives according to his yes.

This idea of invitation and our freedom to respond is beautifully illustrated in the famous Victorian painting by William Holman Hunt The Light of the World.  The original version of this painting hangs in a side-room of the chapel of Keeble College, Oxford, where as an undergraduate my dad studied history.  I don’t know how much of an influence this painting had on my father as he saw it in chapel, but I do have a memory of him using it as a sermon illustration at some point when I was growing up.  The picture shows a wooded scene and the figure of Christ, carrying a lamp and standing outside an overgrown cottage door preparing to knock.  Although the painting has the title The Light of the World, it depicts the verse from Revelation Chapter 3 in which Jesus says, “Behold I stand at the door and knock”.  The subtle point of the painting, which is not always seen when you first look at it, is that there is no handle on the outside of the door.  Christ cannot open the door from the outside and force his way in, it is only we who can respond for ourselves by opening the door to him.

If we do respond to this invitation by saying our own personal yes to God then the subsequent journey of faith is one we do not have to make on our own. We follow in the company of many others through history, and with sisters and brothers in Christ in our own time.  Within the community of faith, which is the church, there are people who have particular gifts and who fulfil specific roles.  The role of the parish priest is one such ministry:  it is a role of listening and leading; caring and praying; teaching and guiding; lamenting and rejoicing; challenging and encouraging; celebrating and loving.  All of these different activities enable persons and communities to say their own yes to God.

This is the ministry that Gervase, my Dad, has carried out over the last sixty years with gentle humility, patient prayerfulness and loving kindness.  Picking up the imagery of today’s gospel reading, we might say that he has worked in the vineyard of the Lord since daybreak. Although I would like to think that he has never resented those who have joined in at a later part of the day, and throughout his life and ministry he has given of himself generously and graciously without seeking any reward other than knowing that he has been faithful to fulfilling his vocation.

Today we give thanks for the yes to God shown to us in Gervase’s life and ministry; we give thanks for all the many people who have inspired us, ministered to us and helped us to say our own yes to God; and in a moment of stillness let us now reaffirm our own personal yes to life, yes to love and yes to God.

Let us pray, and we pray first in silence:

Living God,
help us to be open to your presence with us
here and now…
we thank you for all that is gracious,
all that is faithful,
all that is yes…
give us grace
to say our own yes to life in all its fulness…
nourish and sustain us on our journeys of faith
go with us as we go
….and welcome us home.
Amen.