“Get ready, I’m going to serve”: What has tennis got to do with ministry?

Canon John RowlandsLast night I preached at the 40th anniversary of the ordination to priesthood of Canon John Rowlands, Rector of Whitchurch (Cardiff), Canon Chancellor to Llandaff Cathedral, and former Principal of St Michael’s Theological College, Llandaff. On his request, I have edited the sermon and include it here:

Four years ago I was appointed as chaplain of Cardiff University. As I was curate of John’s parish at the time, he called me to his office to congratulate me. He was especially excited about having a big leaving party and service for me here at St Mary’s, Whitchurch, and he suggested I should make it on a Sunday afternoon. He left it for me to arrange the rest. I decided on a date, sent out all the invitations, and then met him again to organise further details. When I told him the day it was to take place on, he opened his diary, flicked through the pages to July, and, to my surprise, the blood drained from his face. Now, I knew something was seriously wrong, because, due to John’s famous love of the sun, it is quite difficult for his face to turn white! When he could finally speak, he stammered: “but it’s the Wimbledon final!” Well, those of us who know John well will know he is a huge tennis fan, but when the colour finally came back to his cheeks, he very kindly said: “for you, Trystan, for my first time in decades, I will give up watching the Wimbledon final”. I felt truly affirmed and loved… and then he added “unless, of course, Andy Murray gets to the final, and then you’re by yourself!”

murray serveFor the first time in my life, I ended up praying for the two weeks of Wimbledon that a British player would not get to the final. God kindly answered my prayer and Andy Murray was knocked out in the semis! As I was thinking about today’s gospel reading (Matthew 20:20-28), though, John’s love of tennis came to mind. The term “tennis” actually comes from the French word tenez (“hold on”), so it refers to the command “Hold on, I’m going to serve” or “Get ready, I’m going to serve”. The game actually has its roots in ancient Greece, but was then developed in medieval France, which explains much of the French terminology. Believe it or not, modern tennis was invented by a Welshman – Walter Wingfield, born in Ruabon, North Wales in the early nineteenth century – and the first ever proper game of tennis was played at a garden party in Nantclwyd Hall, Denbighshire. Interestingly, Wingfield and his friends used their servants to deliver the first ball of every point. So that’s how the tennis terms “serve” and “service” began to be used – because of the role of real servants.

Now, when I read about that, and reflected on John’s love of tennis, it got me thinking about today’s celebrations. “Get ready, I’m going to serve”. Forty years ago, John dedicated his life to Christ in a specific way when he was ordained to the priesthood. One year earlier, he had been ordained as a deacon. The word deacon, of course, is from the Greek word diakonos, meaning “servant”. In St David’s Cathedral that day, he therefore vowed to live a life of service – service to Christ and service to all of us. In other words, he was proclaiming to the world: “Get ready, I’m going to serve!”

apprenticeWhen you are ordained priest, of course, you continue to be a deacon, so you continue to serve the people around you. You are not their boss or their better, but their servant. This is very different from the attitude of the rest of society, which sees promotion to leadership as something which slowly relieves you of menial tasks. I hate to admit that I avidly watch the TV show “The Apprentice” – my excuse is that it gives me material for sermons like this! In “The Apprentice”, almost all the contestants seem to have egos the size of small planets and Alan Sugar seems to be impressed if kindness, compassion, and selfless service are placed to one side in the pursuit of money, authority, and power.

From our reading today (Matthew 20:20-28), it’s clear that Jesus taught a very different, counter-cultural view of the world. He overturned the value structures of our world. James and John were arguing about esteem and honour – they wanted to sit next to Jesus, in positions of privilege and power. The other disciples probably wanted such honour and prestige themselves, which is why they were so angry at the request. Jesus answered that those who follow the Servant must become servants themselves.

Servant Heart - handsThose of us who are ordained will sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that the most important thing is that we look talented and worthwhile to the outside world… that we are a good preacher, or we have had a good career, or appear on TV or radio often. But, in reality, congregations care about something far simpler… the foundations. Has my priest got a servant heart? My vicar was there for me when my loved one died, or my vicar good at affirming and encouraging me, or my vicar made me a cup of tea and gave me some time when I felt sad or lonely…

Servanthood is what ministry is all about – approaching everything and everyone with a servant heart, however big or however small the task. But, of course, ministry is not only about being ordained. Each and every one of us is called to ministry, and part of the servant role of a good priest is to recognise the skills and talents of others, and to nurture and encourage others to live lives of servanthood. How many of us down the years have been approached by our vicar or rector and encouraged to help in all sorts of ways? Jesus’ first action when he returned from the wilderness was to gather together an unlikely team. Likewise, down the years, as chaplain, principal, and rector, John has affirmed and encouraged so many of us here in our own ministries – whether we are priests, deacons, church wardens, PCC members, lay ministry members, cleaners, choir members, junior church leaders, servers, readers, flower arrangers, or musicians.

appreciateAnd I know for the fact that he appreciates what is brought to the church by each one of us. When I was curate here in the benefice, I got tired of hearing from John how brilliant his former curate Ben Andrews was. Then I left here and chatted to the present curate Pete Mortimer, and Pete let slip that he was tired of hearing how brilliant Trystan Owain Hughes was. And it was great to be able to reassure Pete that his successor, when that happens, will get tired of people telling him how brilliant Pete Mortimer was! And that goes the same for every other person who is involved in this benefice, lay or ordained, past or present.

This affirmation, this building up of individuals and encouraging them in their own lives, is what servant priesthood is all about and it should be an inspiration and encouragement to us all, whether we are priests or not. After all, we’re all called to servanthood. We don’t need to be great intellectuals, we don’t need to be eloquent speakers, we don’t need to be wealthy, we don’t need to be highly gifted or talented. All of us, whatever our backgrounds, have something to contribute to God’s Kingdom on earth. All of us are called to tennis – to “get ready, and go out and serve”.

Martin Luther KingSo I’ll finish with some words from Martin Luther King, delivered in a sermon only two months before his death: ‘Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. All you need is a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love’.