‘You do not know what you are asking’

For those about to be ordained here this morning this has been a long journey – and for those who have travelled with them.

Many would say that their earliest sense of call to this can be traced back 10, 15 years or more.

It has been a careful journey of questioning, praying, waiting, testing, and perhaps uprooting.

For some it has been a complete change of life, home and community.

These are not easy times to do any of that. No one does this lightly.

And it is quite hard enough being a Christian without being paid or licensed to do it.

So can we say thank you to you all…. we are very grateful.


Now the real sacrifice of having been locked away in silent retreat for the last three days is that we missed the latest episode of 'The Apprentice'.

But there is something in the encounter with Jesus we have just heard that reads very like an early episode of 'The Apprentice'.

Would-be high flying employees come before the Lord with an audacious pitch:

'Choose us to sit one at your right and one at your left in the glory of your kingdom'.

Does that sound familiar?

The same question comes back:

'Have you got what it takes?

'Can you do what I do?'

And perhaps it is with the same manic self-confidence we hear them insist:  'Yes we can'!

Now it is perhaps fortunate that James and John aren't competing on the present series with people who can claim things like – 'I have been personally taught by Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama'.

But which Lord replies:

'I've got a gut feeling in my stomach here. Your mind seems like concrete to me - thoroughly mixed up and completely set in it's ways.'


'You know, I think there might be a village somewhere missing an idiot ….. You're fired'?

But the other Lord - who has only just finished talking about the path of suffering and death that must lead to glory - simply replies,

        'You do not know what you are asking'.

And they surely don't for not long after this story they came to a place where two people were to be found one on the right and the other on the left of Jesus … they were two thieves hanging on crosses either side of him at Calvary.

But is it really so surprising that we try to secure our place in the world by seeking privileged insider patronage with the powerful, the popular and the influential?

And if you can be special insider with God you really have arrived.

What really annoyed the disciples watching this was that they hadn't got their request in first.

It may be arrogance that drives us but I suspect it is more often the opposite.

It is the sheer insecurity of finding ourselves in a world that offers so few places in which to live, love, belong and be valued just for who we are.

This world is never more merciless than for those who lose the competition.

You're fired.

We have very good reasons for fighting to keep ahead.

And there was another place where the disciples were found arguing about who was most special - at the Last Supper. But there the real issue was actually not who was first. They were all desperate to avoid being last  – the bottom of the pile - the one who must be the servant and wash everyone else's feet.

None of them wanted the humiliation of that.

And the Lord Jesus did it.

        'You do not know what you are asking'

Perhaps Jesus says the same to us all today – as we ordain and are ordained in his name.

Even after all the preparation, training and solemn promises.

Not a firing or a put down – but a necessary reminder that we are caught up in a story we have hardly begun to understand or imagine.

- a way of living, belonging, leading and following that turns on its head all those familiar strategies for knowing ourselves through power, achievement and status.

        'You do not know what you are asking'

One of the features of our present society and church is an obsessive preoccupation with leaders and leadership. It is the kind of search that surfaces with particular intensity in anxious and uncertain times. So it is driven by messianic hopes of deliverance and rescue.

Who will take this and turn it around for us?

Who will make us feel secure and special and great?

Who will save us?  

And in the midst of all this searching for power and influence  Jesus, Lord and Leader, is to be found beneath us, always beneath our dignity and striving.

        People who do not know what they are asking usually have a lot     

        of unlearning to do.

To become a disciple or minister of Jesus requires something far more than blessing of our 'transferable skills'.

It involves nothing less than the redeeming of power, the renewal of mind and the transforming of identity.

And it is the way of the cross.

        Jesus explicitly compares himself with the leadership models of

        the world around him.

You want to be apprenticed to me?

You must learn that in my kingdom the way up is down

You have heard the heroic, entrepreneurial stories of rags to riches.

This is the kingdom of one rich beyond all imagining who freely chooses the way of poverty.

You admire the achievements of the powerful, the celebrities and the empire builders

The way to life is actually the way of surrender, of emptying and becoming a servant.

For those who had worked their way to the top with such effort (in life and in faith) – this was infuriating. And it still is.

What was all this goodness good for?

But for those who only knew life as a descent, a struggle to endure, a loveless survival without anything to compete for better with… it is good news beyond all hoping.  

If all this requires us to climb, to ascend, to achieve, work our way up to it … only some will ever make it - and even then Jesus asks – 'what do gain if you win the whole world but lose your soul'?

But if this Lord descends into his Kingdom - beneath our dignity, relinquishing the only strategies for being known, for fulfilment, power and achievement that we know as real….

…. if this Lord, establishes beneath us a Kingdom based on divine poverty -  there will be no one excluded.

There is no competition

There is no one that may not know his welcome

Nowhere that will not know his reign.

This is all pure gift.

        To you being ordained today –

You are apprenticed to your Lord – as you have all been for some time.

But you begin a journey now into a particular ministry and way of life in his name

May it lead you ever down into the glory of his generous will and serving ways.

(though we do not know what we are asking)

And we are gathered here to support you on this day -  with whatever faith we own or none, and whatever and whoever our lives are apprenticed to …

We must be reminded there is no promise you are asked to make that we must not consider for ourselves.

No way of life that does not summon us too.

So we ask you - always challenge to us with this.

Tell us of this Servant Lord.

(though we do not know what we are asking)

-  remind us who we are not.

-  call us to who we may become.

For there is another story being told.

Another life is being offered.

The way up is down.

And the hope of the world lies in following the path that is revealed today

beneath our feet.

Sermon preach at the ordination service, Canterbury Cathedral. 2011

Reading: Mark 10: 35 -45