SERMON BY THE RT. REV. ROBERT THOMPSON AT THE MASS OF THE RESURRECTION FOR THE RT. REV ALFRED CHARLES REID RETIRED BISHOP OF JAMAICA & THE CAYMAN ISLANDS

December 16, 2019

Sermon Text: John 21:18
“Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go where you wished.  But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go. (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.)  After this he said to him, ‘Follow me.’”

Today, a grateful Diocese joins with Gloria, Randall, Damian, Annette, the grandchildren and the rest of Bishop Reid’s family, in giving God thanks for a life and ministry that was truly a gift. Freddie’s illness was relatively swift. In fact, he had great plans for celebrating his 60th anniversary in Holy Orders next year, but he was no victim of death.  He lived out the richness of his own history right up to the last.  “Drinking his cup of sorrow, he was as hopeful, courageous, and self-confident, as the way he lived.  And because God enabled him to do that throughout his life, he radiated a kind of humility and grace that came from a place of deep spiritual maturity. 

At the heart of every religious search for “meaning and healing” is the “self” that wants to survive.  We resist holding the cup of sorrow, much less to drink of it, because if we are honest, we don’t take God at his word. We can’t let go, because deep down, we don’t trust him. We have to run our lives the way we want. Every human being has resisted such self-abandonment.

But as Freddie discovered, and as we all will hopefully discover one day, in the end our lives are given back to us for all eternity. A life transformed at every level into the one body of the living Christ, always dying and always rising for our salvation and the salvation of the world. 

Although holding strongly to the inherited Anglican tradition, he was equally committed to his Caribbean identity and was, therefore, unswerving in promoting a theological synthesis that was as spiritually uplifting as it was liberating. Bishop Reid was a quintessential Caribbean man who believed that the Church should pay attention to the interpretive wisdom of the local artist whose emancipating message was often lost to our collective Christian witness. He was numbered among the leading post-colonial Anglican thinkers, certainly in this region, who were not afraid to challenge the hegemonic forces of colonialism and its structural consequences.  And because the Liturgical life of the church is embedded in a particular culture Bishop Reid made much use of the art forms of contemporary messengers like the late Gene Pearson, Christopher Gonzales, Willie Lindo and Peter Tosh to advance the relevance of the Christian liturgy for the society. 

He was a treasure trove on the church’s history and could quickly provide from memory useful details on a variety of subjects. It is regrettable that he died before being able to record much of what he knew; and his knowledge was considerable. He was a passionate believer that one must allow history to guide present action since it tells the story of who we are.

Perhaps, his greatest gift and abiding legacy to the Church was as a teacher and guardian of the Faith. Because of his relaxed persona, his mentorship, especially of our younger clergy, was far-reaching. Those who were trained under his leadership in the Supplementary Ministry programme attest to the depth of his teaching, his personal connection with everyone, and the nurturing of their priestly life for the building up of the Body of Christ. 

We are always old enough to die.  The young may find that hard to believe, but when you reach seventy, the life span allotted to us by the Bible, it becomes increasingly obvious.  Perhaps, that’s why the text quoted above from John’s gospel has such meaning.  When you are young and you think of a future filled with unknown promises, it is quite easy to believe in your own capacity to change the world.  It is a different matter when you realize, that almost without noticing it, you have become old; and that soon, the incessant movement of life will carry you away, as it has carried away every generation before you.  So, adapting to the time when we are no longer in control and learning to accept the inevitability of death are the final spiritual challenges that confront us. 

In our text quoted above, Jesus speaks words to Simon Peter, to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.   Although Bishop Reid’s departure brings much pain to the family, especially for Gloria his faithful partner for 53 years, we can all take comfort, that he had a good death.

But the words are significant for another reason.  Not only for one who faces death, but for everyone who wants to live a mature and meaningful life.  And so our text highlights the great paradox; that ultimately life finds its fulfilment only by letting go.  The great paradox is that it is in letting go, that we receive.  Jesus said very much the same thing.  Those who try to avoid risks, who try to guarantee that their hearts will not be broken, end up losing the fullness of life and living.

In so many ways, the more we insist on control and the more we resist the call to hold our lives lightly, the more we have to deny the reality of our losses and the more artificial our existence becomes.

Immediately after Peter has been commissioned to be a leader of his sheep, Jesus confronts him with the hard truth that to be a true leader you must first be prepared to let go and be led to unknown, undesirable, and painful places.  “The way of the Christian leader”, wrote Henri Nouwen, “is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross”.  This might sound a bit morbid, but for those like Alfred, who have heard the voice of the one who calls us his beloved, and said yes to that voice, the way of service is the way of joy and peace that is not of this world.

Today, as we give thanks for Bishop Reid’s rich legacy, might we not use this opportunity to reflect on the qualities that undergirded the kind of leadership he exemplified?  Our text suggests that the kind of leadership we need today is not one characterized by power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God is made manifest.  Obviously, I am not speaking about a psychologically weak leadership in which the leader is simply the passive victim of the manipulative games of others.  No! I am speaking here of a leadership in which power is constantly abandoned in favour of love, and where competitiveness gives way to collaboration and trust. It is the kind of leadership that searches for ways whereby the contribution of everyone is valued. 

Perhaps what we will remember most about Bishop Reid is the fact that he never lost sight of his common humanity. He was a prince of the church but he was never pompous; no artificial distance existed between him and others.   He held strong views on many subjects but in conversations, no voice was silenced.  He found joy and satisfaction in his 59 years of ministry, not from trying to go it alone as the omni-competent, all wise leader; but as a collaborator; always ready to delegate and share responsibilities.

Management consultant, Margaret Wheatley has much to say in this regard. She wrote: “What gives power its charge, positive or negative, is the quality of relationships.  Those who related through coercion, or from disregard for the other person, create negative energy.  Those who are open to others and who see others in their fullness create positive energy. Love in organizations, then, is the most potent source of power we have available”.  

Why then is the temptation of power so irresistible?  Maybe because power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love and service. It will always seem easier to control people than to love them; easier to own life than to love life. Jesus asked Peter, Do you love me? And Peter asked, “Can we sit at your right hand in your Kingdom?”  People like Bishop Reid, who resisted the temptation to replace love with power to the end, give us hope.

“So if I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet”.  This is the paradox of servant leadership.  We grow up with the idea that “The greatest people are those who have the most servants.” But Jesus is saying precisely the opposite.   As he said in Mark chapter, 9:5 “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant.” The Greek word is “diakonos” from which we get the word “deacon” one who serves.  “I am among you as one who serves,” said Jesus.  Greater is the one who serves a hundred than the one who has a hundred servants.

Herein lies the second thing our text points to.  If Peter’s leadership is to be effective, not only will he have to let go of any pretence of power and control, he must be willing to stretch out his hand and be led by another.  

Tolstoy, the Russian philosopher, in his confessions, tells how he could find no logical purpose for his existence.  He was successful, happily married, rich, yet it all seemed pointless.  He came to the conclusion that man only lived because he believed in something beyond himself. 

Alfred wasn’t born into privilege but he inherited it through education, beginning with his early formation in Mile Gully, Manchester, and later from a church that enjoyed status and power even in post- independent Jamaica.  But even as we acknowledge this privilege, enjoyed by most persons in the middle class, Bishop Reid never claimed it as a badge of honour.  In fact, he was a strong advocate of dismantling privilege, even of the church, as the only way of facilitating new and liberating structures within the society and ultimately accomplishing God’s mission for humanity.  This is why St. Paul says in 2nd Corinthians Chapter 12; verses 9 -10, “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ then, I am content with weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities for when I am weak then I am strong”.

In his Charge to the 140 Annual Synod in April 2010, Bishop Reid reminded us that; “The pre-Constantinian Church, poor and persecuted, produced the great heroes, men and women of faith, who faced death and gave such a magnificent demonstration of the best in human nature, the calibre of people that are needed now to face the challenge of this hour.” ………….. “The greatest favour ever done to this Diocese was when it was disestablished and dis-endowed without notice by the Governor of Jamaica, Sir John Peter Grant, January 1, 1870.  And while we must always be gracious and respectful to lawful authority,……….. we must be prepared to be the voice of the voiceless and the public face of those who are invisible”.

For the Christian, dismantling privilege to create a new ethical agenda for the Church and the society is necessary and, indeed, possible.  It is possible, not because it comes naturally, but because as St. Paul tells us in his 1st letter to the Corinthians chapter 15, “With the Resurrection of Christ Jesus, everything is now possible”.  In Christ we are invited to think and to hope beyond the limits of this present life.  We are invited to think and to hope beyond the fixed parameters of our social construct; beyond the doubts scattered in our paths.  We are invited to imagine a different world with new possibilities of living out our humanity. 

And yet, despite this possibility, we repeatedly hear the argument that human beings cannot change. ‘So why bother?’  ‘Go with the flow’.  This, sadly, is the narrative many have bought into and accepted.  And so, we resign ourselves to accepting these things to be true because, regrettably, we have focused our attention on personalities and institutions that reinforce, rather than change human behaviour. 

Not so for Alfred Reid who believed that whatever we are; we might be different.  He belonged to that generation of Jamaicans that believed in themselves and their ability to make a difference for the greater national good.  One of the tragic features of life in Jamaica today is that so many have become cynical in not believing, and are, therefore, not prepared to fight to preserve values that will ultimately enrich our collective lives.  That’s not a risk he took and neither must we.

Bishop Reid believed that religious piety without social engagement is contrary to the incarnation, where God so loved the world that he gave his Only Begotten Son by immersing himself in human history to experience our joys and to die our death. 

The Good News for the Christian is that the Risen Christ is the source of new life and hope to those who choose to believe in him.  This is not some empty promise that has no practical implication for our lives.  It says to us that once we are prepared to open ourselves to the love and presence of God and God’s action within us, new possibilities for our human flourishing will open up before our very eyes.  This, I believe, was the passion that shaped Bishop Alfred’s life, where life for him was not simply a task, but a mission.

Now we must bid farewell to the one in whose patient presence we would always feel something very deep was taking place.  We take comfort in this Advent season that, despite all the dark and life denying forces, the glorious beauty of life belongs to God and not to the forces of death.  Once you and I can genuinely acknowledge this, as did Alfred Charles Reid, then we can be assured that all tears will be wiped away.

Such an assurance comes from a lifetime of commitment and trust. It doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t come easily. There are good days and there are bad, but there is always the thread of faith that ties us to the Risen Christ who said, “Someone else will put a belt around your waist and lead you where you may not wish to go”. 

After years of leading others, Bishop Alfred Reid finally stretched out his hand to be led by the one who called him my beloved.  Today we thank God for his life of service to family and nation.  May he rest in peace; and God’s eternal light shine upon him; for ever and ever! Amen.