A sermon given during the 10:30am Choral Eucharist, by The Rev’d Joan Claring-Bould, on the 30th April 2023.
Chaplaincy Sunday April 30 2023
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” (Lk4:18)
Today at the Cathedral, I have been invited to preach on the ministry of chaplains. Those of us who have chosen this as the focus of our ministry are appreciative of the opportunity to tell congregations of the work that chaplains do on behalf of the church. Chaplains have traditionally worked in hospitals, the armed forces, the police force, schools, aged care facilities, universities, and in other workplaces to which they have been invited.
The role of chaplains is diverse depending on their workplace, but they share a few significant things in common. Chaplains are involved in people in the course of their everyday life, and often times of crisis. Fundamentally, the chaplain’s role is to offer non-judgemental support in the most appropriate way to each person based on our belief in God’s infinite love and care for that person.
I have been involved in chaplaincy all of my ministry. My first work experience was not as an official chaplain but as a music teacher. As part of my role I formed a number of choirs. Within one choir was a young girl who was relentlessly bullied, and after a time she trusted me enough to talk to me.
A small prayer chapel had just been opened annexed to the main chapel, and so after empathetically listening to her, (and inwardly feeling a bit sad and helpless listening to her story) I suggested that we go to the chapel and pray.
The following week she asked if we could do that again, and I agreed on the condition that she brought one other lonely student from the school yard – which she did, willingly. By the end of the term we have 12 young people, bonded together, meeting weekly, led by a passage of scripture, we sat in silence before praying aloud for each other and for the school.
It was one of the most remarkable experiences of my young teaching life. Not only did I see those down trodden students gradually break into new life and joy, but they gave me the insight that maybe I needed to leave teaching to do something else- and here I am!
During my next few years at theological college I did Clinical Pastoral Education- which was a short course in hospital chaplaincy training. I loved it, and when I finished my theology degree and women couldn’t be ordained, I went to London Ontario in Canada to do an intern year of CPE.
That was a baptism of fire! There were 4 students and between us we were on call to the hospital 24/7, which meant we were in the hospital from 8am-10pm for 7 days one week in 4, and called to every emergency – not because people were religious, but simply to look after relatives who might have been flown in from all over Canada or the north of the USA.
The wards allotted to me were the children’s ward, the psychiatry ward and the liver transplant ward. These areas were all challenging for someone with little experience, and I was blessed to have a brilliant supervisor with whom we all met each day.
I learn most from the liver transplant patients. It was a time when organ transplants were just beginning to happen I Australia, and certainly not in Adelaide. Those waiting for a liver were living across the road in what used to be a convent. I visited them often. They all knew that life was fragile, that this day could be their last.
Each day, each of them waited for the phone call, some for weeks, some for months – the call that may bring them life – but they were also aware that for another family this meant the devastating loss of a loved one – often someone who was young.
So there were many conversations about ethics and morality, and at one level, when blizzards were forecast, there was excitement, thinking this was potentially a chance for new life, whilst at the same time feeling guilty for thinking like that.
I soon learned to listen empathetically without needing to have answers, and also to talk without fear, about death. Everyone knew that at least half of them would die without a transplant irrespective of their age.
My time with the transplant patients was challenging and at times very sad, but there were also times of laughter and joy. On Christmas Day that year I offered to run a service in the hospital. The chapel wasn’t big enough, so we held it in the front foyer of the hospital. All of those who attended were people who had received transplants – either heart or liver transplants. None of them had expected to be alive that Christmas.
We didn’t have the beauty of a Cathedral or lovely music, but we celebrated the gift of new life in a way that I am sure none of us could ever forget!
Chaplaincy with children and families is also close to my heart. It is a delight to see how well most children recover from illness and surgery. They are beacons of hope, and children’s hospitals have a real sense of life and a good degree of laughter around.
But of course, there are many heart breaking scenarios that occur, not least when children are afflicted with terminal illnesses like late stage cancer or chronic illnesses, along with tragic accidents.
Some of my most precious memories of working at the WCH have been with young people who have asked me about suffering and death.
The first child with whom I had I had had some long talks over a number of months, called me in one night, before he was having a party. He had come to trust me. He was 12 years old. His parents were divorced. He asked me to pray for him, then he said “When I die, will you tell me mother and father that I love them both the same?”
I could barely hide my tears, but assured him that I would. He had his party in the ward that night, and died early the next morning. I trust I had given him some hope and love, but he had given me a gift that couldn’t be contained in earthen vessels!
My experience working in a psychiatric ward was invaluable. I came to see that people will psychiatric disorders, no matter how bizarre, were equally beloved children of God, and that it was they who had to be patient with me, while I adjusted to feeling at ease with them, rather than the other way around, before we could have a relationship. Many of these patients, amongst their colourful visions and stories, had some very clear insights into the nature of God, and a sense of closeness to God. They taught me not to be afraid of people who are different, and to respond to them with dignity, patience and God’s love. If you can have the grace to be open to them, you never know what gifts people with mental difference can bestow upon you.
It was my privilege over Easter to receive a call from Helping Hand to visit a lady nearly 100 years old who was dying. I came back a couple of days later when more family were around and offered her the Last Rites. She died peacefully soon after. A few days later the whole family came to the 10.30 service here. It was such a joy to have them follow me home to you!
A week ago her funeral was held here. It was simple and beautiful, and somehow between what I had managed to say in the homily and the spirit that brood over the service there was a real sense of God’s presence there.
A few days ago one of her daughters phoned me to say thank you and to tell me with excitement that some of those present had told her that because of the experience of that funeral their faith was renewed and they wanted to have their children baptised. God is good!
[Chaplains can become a hidden part of the church’s ministry, but their role is greatly valued by those for whom they care. I urge you to pray for them.]
Whilst working at the WCH I was asked to baptise many babies and children and that was always a joy. In my community chaplaincy work I am always delighted if someone says I would really like to be baptised.
Today we have 3 people, two little children and one adult here for baptism. It is our joy to welcome you, and to pray for you. In your baptism you are reminded that you are marked forever as Christ’s own beloved child. You are signed with the sign of the cross using the chrism oil, marking you forever as a royal child of God’s kingdom. You are given a special candle representing the light of Christ which is kindled with in your heart. This is the light with Jesus promised is stronger than any darkness that you may encounter on your journey ahead. Then you are reminded that you are baptised into the Church. We welcome you into the community Together we proclaim
“We are the body of Christ”. The Body of Christ is enriched today as we welcome you, Jason, Jonathan, and Georgia into our midst. Thank you for choosing us to be part of this significant spiritual day of new birth for you.