The Queen has founded her life of service on humility and on wisdom. Long may she reign. God save the Queen.
Sermon from Christ Church Cathedral Oxford, preached by the Rt Revd Dr Steven Croft, Bishop of Oxford, at Holy Communion on the 6th of February 2022.
But by the grace of God I am what I am and his grace towards me has not been in vain (I Corinthians 15.30).
A reluctant prophet and poet. A persecutor of the church. An impetuous fisherman. Today’s readings profile the kind of people who are called by God to service in the life of the Church. The profiles stress neither their gifts nor skills. No-one is placed on a pedestal or called a saint. Rather each, in their own words and from their own mouth, confess their guilt, their inadequacy, their weakness.
We know very little of the prophet Isaiah before his encounter with the holiness of God in the temple in the year that King Uzziah died. We discover only a little about him from the beautiful narrative of his call except this. That when he is granted a vision of power and beauty, of God, Isaiah is overcome with a sense of the holiness and majesty of God and of his own inadequacy.
“Woe is me” he cries, “I am lost. For I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6.5).
The prophet’s confession is personal. He speaks about himself before he speaks of others. I am a man of unclean lips.
Paul’s pathway in ministry is not to claim great things for himself but the very opposite. Paul points away from himself and towards Christ. Where Paul does refers to himself, he confesses his weakness and the wrong turns his life has taken.
“For I am the least of the apostles”, he writes, “unfit to be called an apostle because I persecuted the Church of God. But it is by the grace of God I am what I am and his grace towards me has not been in vain”.
Paul’s persecution of the Church of God was not a light thing. Some of it is described in Acts. There is no doubt that Christians were arrested, imprisoned and put to death by Saul before his conversion.
Simon Peter’s encounter with Christ in the boat on Lake Galilee is similar to Isaiah’s in this one sense only. There is no temple, no vision of angels, no heavenly choir, no incense. Just tiredness after a night’s fishing and wonder at a miraculous catch. But Simon Peter’s response echoes that of Isaiah 6: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”.
Encountering the goodness and the greatness and the love of God in Christ shows us all up for who we are. Our hearts are unclean. Our hands are unprepared. We are not fit even to eat the crumbs from under his table. And yet…..
I want to acknowledge this morning the deep pain which surrounds the disputes of recent years in Christ Church which affects many people and which cries out for healing and for grace. This is not the moment and this pulpit is not the place to offer any kind of commentary on events save this: that many who take very different views of the situation will have some sense of being disappointed in others for one reason or another. Those feelings are deep and real and there is a long road of reconciliation and healing ahead.
Disappointment in others is a feature of many parts of public life at present. It’s not wrong to have high expectations of those in positions of responsibility. But we will often be disappointed particularly in an age of 24/7 news and social media. It is a remarkable thing that our beloved Queen has reigned for 70 years today and retains her dignity, respect and integrity, one of the most remarkable women of this century and the last. Long may she reign.
But what should we do when we find ourselves in that place of disappointment and disillusion? Nothing is the work of a moment, but it may help to begin with Isaiah and Paul and Peter and their own sense of unworthiness before God in the temple, on the road to Damascus and on Galilee.
For each of us, the heart and the life we know best is our own. Over thirteen years as a bishop, I think I have seen my share of difficult situations and of human weakness, pride and fallibility as well as much that gives me cause for joy.
But insofar as I know my own heart and life, I am not able to judge others. I know that I am often stretched beyond my resources by internal and external drivers and temptations. I know my reservoirs of compassion and energies are finite. I know I yield often to vanity and temptation. I know my wisdom is limited, my prayers often weak, my faith sometimes not even a grain of mustard seed, my love faint. I know that I make mistakes and will often fall short in the ministry to which God has called me and will need to seek forgiveness.
And I know that when I find the place of Isaiah and Paul and Simon Peter and acknowledge both God’s glory and my own weakness, that is the place of grace.
It is there that I discover as they discovered that repentance is the place of forgiveness and healing, undeserved and offered because of what Jesus has done. The Lord of Hosts in the temple does not rebuke the reluctant prophet. He sends an angel with a coal to touch his lips and to restore him and commissions him to new ministry. Saul is not disqualified from serving Christ by failure: rather through his failures he discovers deeper reservoirs of grace and passion. Simon Peter admits to his inadequacy but immediately is given a commission: Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching people.
Each of them is enfolded in different ways in the love and grace of God. Each of them is forgiven. Each of them is called to new and deeper ministries. These are the ways in which God moves in human lives.
And it is in the same place of weakness, as I understand I am forgiven, that I will find the courage and the ability, in time, also to forgive and to trust again and to love. The journey is seldom short or easy but it is a path of life and healing.
Christ invites us in this Eucharist and every Eucharist to come to him just as we are with all of our inner conflicts and disappointments. His love is infinite, beyond understanding. We will hear again in this service the song of the seraphs: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts.
The president will issue the invitation to all of us to come:
Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world
Blessed are those who are called to his supper.
And we will respond, echoing Isaiah and Paul and Simon Peter:
Lord, I am not worthy to receive you
But only say the word and I shall be healed.
So let us come.
Today’s collect again as we pray together:
O God, you know us to be set
in the midst of so many and great dangers,
that by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright:
grant to us such strength and protection as may support us in all dangers
and carry us through all temptations; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
6 February 2022
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In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus sets a child in the midst of his disciples and invites them to reshape their priorities. What would happen if we did that today in the public square?
It was good to be at St. Michael at the Northgate on Sunday for the Patronal Festival and to mark 50 years since St. Michael’s became the civic Church of the City of Oxford. The service was attended by the Lord Lieutenant, the Lord Mayor of Oxford and members of the Council. The Bible Readings for Michaelmas were Revelation 12.7-12 and Matthew 18.1-11.
A sermon given by the Bishop of Oxford on Sunday 26 September 2021:
It’s very good to mark today the 50 years in which St. Michael at the Northgate has been the civic Church of the city of Oxford. It is good to express thanks and appreciation to those who have served as City Rectors in that time, including Anthony, and to all those who have served and serve as Mayors, Councillors and officers. Thank you for your leadership and care and especially in the challenges of the last twenty months.
St Michael’s became the City Church in 1971. We are looking back today over fifty years. By coincidence the new ITV series of Endeavour, the Inspector Morse prequel, is also set in 1971: a good reminder of some of the changes over the last two generations. The line that stays with me from last Sunday’s episode is the taxi driver charging 75 new pence for a ride from the station to Summertown.
There have been many changes over that time. Our first reading from Revelation uses the language of war in heaven and describes the conflict between good and evil as a battle.
As we look back we can see that battles have indeed been fought and won. Our city is more inclusive. Town and gown are better integrated, each more appreciative of the other.
Oxford is described by its poorest residents as a compassionate city; a place of safety for the most vulnerable. Women are better represented in our leadership. The church and faith communities work well together. The city has been able to welcome and to integrate into its life migrants from all over the world and to celebrate diverse cultures.
Year by year we welcome students, academics and scientists and help equip them for global leadership in the arts, the sciences and the social sciences. The influence of our city extends across the world.
St. Michael and all Angels is part of this social fabric in its role as a city church: as a place of prayer and worship; in the role of the City Rector as chaplain to the Mayor and Council; as a symbol of our City’s deep Christian heritage; as a witness to the Christian values of integrity, service, humility and safeguarding the vulnerable which flow through our gospel reading.
The Church, of course, makes no claim to perfection: we are often slow to change ourselves; we continually fall far short of our ideals; we are sometimes on the wrong side in these great battles. We are called continually to repentance and to renew our commitment to Jesus Christ ourselves as the only safe foundation of our message to those around us.
Greatness in the kingdom of heaven does not lie, Jesus reminds us, with politicians or religious leaders but with little children. Both politicians and religious leaders will be judged by the ways in which the interests of those children have first place in our decision making and in our actions.
Anniversaries are a good moment to look back and measure the journey we have travelled together. But they are also a moment to look forward. What are our hopes for this city as we look ahead now to another fifty years: to the year 2071. What battles lie ahead in the great war being fought in heaven and on earth? What will the Church dare say to the City in this next, uncertain chapter of our life together?
To put the question a different way: if Jesus were to place a child in our midst this morning here in Oxford in 2021, what battles would be uppermost in our minds as we look to safeguard the well-being of that child through the next generation? What needs to change?
Three are uppermost in my mind. I will be interested to know if they match your own.
The first is undoubtedly the battle being fought over the earth’s climate. The world faces twin emergencies of climate change and biodiversity loss. Science tells us clearly that the next ten years will be decisive in that battle and will determine the future of life on earth. Will the child Jesus sets in our midst inherit a world in which all can flourish?
For Christians, we are stewards of God’s good creation. How can our city make a significant, world changing contribution to this great challenge of our age through our policies and example and convening power and the priorities we set? How can this City Church lift up and support the green agenda as part of our God given mission to the city?
The second challenge faced by the child Jesus sets in our midst is one of health and safety and especially mental, emotional and spiritual health. A child or young person growing up today will face immense pressures, many arising from the misuse and exploitation of technology.
COVID has revealed a tidal wave of mental health pressures on the young which has been building for decades. How can our city increase resources directed to the mental, emotional and spiritual health of the young through harnessing the churches and faith communities, the third sector and the health and social services? There is a battle here for investment and of priorities. How can this City Church be an advocate for children and young people as we imagine the child Jesus sets in our midst?
My third challenge for the next generation is the challenge of rising inequality: the gap between rich and poor which again has been revealed and has increased through COVID. Oxford as a city is a tremendous generator of wealth and innovation. The City anchors and will help drive the Oxford-Cambridge arc which will be an engine of the UK economy in the coming decades.
But we are also in danger of becoming a segmented city in which the gap between rich and poor grows wider to the detriment of all. How is it possible for us to become a fairer city in terms of access, health, transport, work and housing? Is it time for a fairness commission which can look at the future of our city through the lens of inequality? How can this City Church continue to set out a vision for justice and fairness for all as a core part of its role as the civic church of Oxford?
There was a war in heaven, says Revelation. As we look back over fifty years we give thanks for battles fought and won and for the role this Church has played in the civic life of this great city. We give thanks for all those who contribute to that civic life today.
But as we look forward we know that there are battles still to come and great resources to meet them both seen and unseen. Christ sets in our midst a little child and challenges our priorities for the future. Together as a city we are called to have a vision for a greener, more sustainable world; for a healthier world; for a fairer world.
We commit ourselves, imperfect as we are, to these great challenges. In this Church dedicated to St. Michael, we too, every single one of us, are called to fight on the side of the angels.
Bishop Steven gave the following sermon at the Civic Service with Prayers for HRH the Duke of Edinburgh on Friday 16th April 2021
Some verses from our psalm:
For he maketh the storm to cease : so that the waves thereof are still. Then are they glad, because they are at rest : and so he bringeth them unto the haven where they would be.
We have all listened to many wonderful tributes to His Royal Highness Prince Philip over the last seven days and seen again many powerful images and photographs of his life’s story. I think my favourite is the picture which appeared on the cover of many newspapers yesterday morning: the Queen and Prince Philip with seven of their great grandchildren, taken at Balmoral in 2018.
The room is surprisingly tidy given the presence of so many small children. It is a picture of rest and peace, of the calm beyond the storm, the safe haven for which we long.
Sailing through storms seems an appropriate metaphor for a remarkable and distinguished life. From his childhood through to his final years, Philip’s life was disturbed by wind and waves, by the forces of chaos and change in tension with the order and stability he brought to those around him. He knew those storms in his youth and in his distinguished naval career, itself disrupted by the death of the king, his father in law.
He knew internal and external storms as he forged his life in the nation, the Commonwealth and the world as well as in his own family. He became a strong rock, an anchor and a source of stability, most of all to Her Majesty the Queen, a symbol of continuity. But he lived his life on the front foot, engaging with the issues of the day, with a lively, enquiring mind, often creating minor turbulence himself in the interests of change.
Prince Philip was a pioneer of the environmental movement long before it was fashionable through his patronage of the World Wildlife Fund. He invested continually in the next generation through the Duke of Edinburgh’s awards. He took the sciences, industry and technology seriously. He was a man of faith who coped with having to hear so many sermons by actually listening to them and quizzing the preacher afterwards with sharp questions.
He was a man who piloted his family through successive storms, each progressively sharper for being in the public eye. His life is testimony to the resilience of families, to the possibility of reconciliation between generations, to the capacity for good in a life well lived. Prince Philip must be one of the very few people who have lived to have offered a model to at least four generations with absolute consistency. I found when we met, as so many others have done, a deep courtesy, a keen, well informed mind and a rich sense of humour. Along with many others we give thanks for Philip’s life and pray for those who most mourn his death.
Sermons to or about the Duke of Edinburgh should not be long. But as we ponder the storm and safe haven, we must remember this: in our psalm as in the rest of the Bible, the sea is the great symbol of chaos, destruction and death.
When we read the words he maketh the storm to cease so that the waves thereof are still we remember Jesus Christ’s victory over death which we celebrate in this Easter season.
When we read: then are they glad because they are at rest we remember the Christian hope of resurrection, of peace at the last, of life which continues in new and deeper ways beyond death for Philip, we pray, and for ourselves.
And so he bringeth them unto the haven where they would be.
An address from the Bishop of Oxford for the Chrism Mass service, delivered at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.
We bear witness to the truth that Christmas has not been cancelled – to the profound truth that God became a human person for our sake.
I hope and trust you’ve had a break in August and that you are coming back refreshed to school or work or ministry – whatever your calling may be.
Today’s readings seem really appropriate as we begin a new school year and as we look ahead to the autumn.
Jesus reminds his followers that the way of the disciple is often a hard way. He talks about his own road to Jerusalem and the way he must suffer and be killed and then rise from the dead. Peter rebukes him: God forbid it, Lord. This must never happen to you.
Then Jesus patiently explains to his disciples that he must walk in the way of the cross – and we must follow him.
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lost their life for my sake will find it.
This is a call to deep and adventurous living.
It is also a call to a disciplined life: a way of self denial. Throughout the long history of the church Christians have been called to deny themselves, to live that disciplined life. It can be helpful sometimes to gather those disciplines, those habits, together into a personal code of practice, sometimes called a Rule of Life.
You may never have thought about a Rule of Life for your own Christian journey. This might be a good time to reflect on that and reflect on it with others. Or your Rule of Life might need some resetting at this point in the journey and after several months of lockdown.
What kind of things might be in it? Public worship first of all. Putting God first on the first day of the week, the day of resurrection. If you can, if it’s safe to do so, worship with other Christians. Receive the sacrament. If you can’t for health and safety reasons, or because your church can’t open yet, then worship as you can, virtually. But reset that discipline.
Private prayer next. Set some time aside daily for prayer. It may be helpful to join with others and join your prayers in some way with the prayer of the church. Many churches have reported a rise in the number of people praying together in the mornings and the evenings online. I hope that will continue.
Third, practice the discipline of secret giving to and through the local church and for the relief of those in need. Again, you might need to reset that discipline and the way you give because of the pandemic.
After public worship, private prayer and secret giving, how will you engage in community with others in the Church? We all need the fellowship with other Christians: to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, as Paul writes in that beautiful passage from Romans. Can you meet physically and regularly with a few people to support one another in prayer? If not physically, can you meet virtually, once a week or once a fortnight to recharge your spiritual batteries, to give and to receive, to love one another?
Finally, how will you offer your time and your gifts to serve your wider community and your church? There is so much that needs rebuilding now. We all have something we can give through our time and our talents. Can you support your local school? Can you get involved with a struggling charity? Can you help to rebuild a ministry in your local church? Is there a need to lead in your community? Can you show hospitality and welcome to strangers and build up your neighbourhood?
All of these things are needed and vital. They might feel like a sacrifice at first, but actually, the more we do them, the more connected we feel to others.
A Rule of Life is a very simple thing: a set of habits and disciplines to make sure we are being faithful and being sustained as we follow Christ. Public worship, private prayer, secret giving, fellowship with others, loving service according to our gifts. Think about what you will do. Pray about these disciplines. Write them down. I look forward to walking with you and walking with Christ through the coming year.
What’s your favourite story in the gospels? It’s a question I like to ask when I visit churches for informal meetings. Time and again, over the years, the story that comes to the top of the list is today’s bible reading: the feeding of the five thousand. I wonder if it’s yours.
It’s a story that begins when Jesus and the disciples are exhausted and they need to get away – a good story for the beginning of August. Jesus withdraws by boat to a deserted place. But the crowds follow him, thousands and thousands of people.
Jesus has compassion on them and heals the sick. We love Jesus for his humanity. We love that he is exhausted and we love that he puts his tiredness aside for the sake of the crowds.
At the end of the day, the disciples try to take over and manage the situation. We might have done the same.
“Send the crowds away so that they might go into the villages and buy food for themselves”. But Jesus gives his disciples a seemingly impossible challenge. “They need not go away. You yourselves give them something to eat”. The problem is set.
The disciples look around at the vast crowd. Five thousand men with women and children. There is nothing for miles around. They see the sun beginning to set over the western hills. They look at one another.
Their response is a curious mixture of honesty and hope.
We have nothing here….that’s the honesty. We have nothing here but….five loaves and two fish. Did you hear the but? That’s the hope.
Every authentic call of God has that curious mixture of honesty and hope: it’s that mixture which takes us away from ourselves and draws us into God.
We have nothing here but….five loaves and two fish. This is why we love this story: because we see it lived out in the life of the church year by year.
We look at the vast needs in the communities around us. We see children going hungry. We hear Jesus say: you yourselves give them something to eat. We say: “We have nothing here….but maybe we could start a foodbank, or a breakfast club, or a meals service for the shielding”.
We look at the financial needs of our churches. We say, truthfully, we have nothing but perhaps we could give something extra because the needs are so great.
We look at the children and young people of our churches who need loving and caring for and teaching the faith. We have nothing ….but if there’s no-one else, I could offer the little I do have.
We look at the vast needs in the world in the Disasters Emergency Appeal. We have nothing to match that need. But we could text and give £10.
We see our local church has no Wardens or treasurer. We have nothing it seems – but I could offer some of my spare time in retirement.
Jesus takes five loaves and two fish, the little we have, sincerely offered. Jesus gives thanks. He breaks the bread and gives it to the disciples. The disciples give it to the crowds. A miracle happens. And all ate and were filled.
Every Eucharist, every service of Holy Communion, is a sign and a re-enactment of this story. The priest takes ordinary bread and wine, offered by God’s people. The priest gives thanks, breaks the bread and gives it to the disciples. All are fed by the very bread of heaven, the presence of Christ.
And then, at the end of the service, we offer our very lives to God, all that we have. God takes what is offered and turns it into a miracle.
We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.
The Very Revd Prof. Martyn Percy: Dean of Christ Church, Oxford gave the following sermon during our Church at Home online service on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, 2020
‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’ – John 14:15-21 New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)
“I Will Not Leave You Orphaned; I Am Coming To You”
Fifty years ago, one of my favourite films was released. It is a movie for all ages, and has enjoyed enduring popularity. The year was 1970; the film is The Railway Children. I remember going to see it at the Crosby Odeon with my grannie. I loved the film for several reasons. Jenny Agutter, naturally! And Bernard Cribbins, playing the genial role of Perks, the railway-worker.
The Railway Children concerns a family who move out from London to a house in the shires near a railway. Their move was forced upon them, after the father – an intelligent, high-ranking civil servant – was unjustly imprisoned for espionage, but is eventually exonerated.
In their new environs, the three children – ‘Bobbie’ (Jenny Agutter), Peter and Phyllis – befriend an older gentleman who normally takes the morning train from near their home. He becomes an unlikely hero, for in his empathy for the children, is moved to help prove their father’s innocence, thereby reuniting the family. Before the father is freed, however, the family care for a Russian exile who came to England looking for his lost family. And the railway family also take in Jim, the grandson of the old gentleman.
For a good part of the film, the children are effectively orphaned. The climax is achingly beautiful. The train pulls in and stops, and Bobbie, alone, stands on the platform and waits, not knowing if her father is there. The entire scene is consumed in the steam and smoke of the locomotive. And out of the clouds, the father emerges. As the gospel has it today: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”
When we think of orphans, we instinctively think of children without parents. In fact, the English word ‘orphan’ comes from the Greek orphanos, meaning merely ‘bereaved’, ‘bereft’ or ‘deprived’. In English, it has come to signify a child losing one or both parents. Of course we are always somebody’s child. Unless we predecease our parents, we will all know what it is to be orphaned: to be without our father or mother. We can be an orphan at any age.
This pandemic has so far led to over 30,000 deaths in our land, and that number will continue to climb. That means there are hundreds of thousands of new orphans today; and a great many more family, friends and colleagues are also sadly bereft. We only understand the gift of who we truly loved when we experience their loss.
So on this Sixth Sunday of Easter, we wait for another loss, even after the crucifixion. For after the resurrection of Jesus comes the Ascension. He leaves, and returns to the Father. The disciples will bereft once more – orphaned. Yet the scriptures promise us an end more like The Railway Children.
In the gospels Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as “the Comforter”, and it is this name that most closely associates the maternal and paternal comforting care that Jesus gives – so abundantly in his ministry – with what is to come after he has gone. The gospels record Jesus saying “do not worry” or “do not be afraid” over and over again. Seventy times, in fact. Yes, seventy.
Jesus says it a lot. Don’t be afraid of the storm, or of sinking in this boat. Do not worry about lack of food or clothes. Do not worry about those who hate you. Do not worry about death. “Do not be afraid…I am with you”, says Jesus. Time and time again.
As a child, I grew always knowing I had been adopted. It has had, and continues to have, a profound influence on my personhood, ministry and theology. Deeply imprinted in my soul and psyche is the knowledge that, though I was, literally bereft as a baby, I was not in fact abandoned. I was blessed with good and loving parents, who came for me, and took me home. Interestingly, another meaning of the word ‘orphan’ is quite general – ‘to change allegiance; passing from one status to another’. That was my experience. My status moved from being an “unwanted baby” to becoming a much-cherished, much-wanted, much-loved…son.
Many years later, as an adult, my parents told me that, in fact, I had never been “un-wanted”. My birth mother simply could not keep me. But she had held me for the first weeks of my life, and only gave me up when she handed me over, in person, to the couple that came for me – my parents. My ‘new normal’ was to learn that I had always been held and cherished.
The first Christians cared for and cherished orphans. The scriptures give many examples of infants being adopted and raised by folk that are not their biological parents. The early church was called to be an adopting, caring and comforting community for everyone – especially the neglected, marginalised and bereft. The words Jesus speaks to us are what he calls us to proclaim and practice to the rest of humanity today: “we will not leave you orphaned or bereft; we are here for you; we are coming to you; do not be afraid; God never leaves any of us.”
So what of here and now? I recall an NHS advertising poster some years ago to recruit new nurses. The advert pictured a nurse cradling a new-born baby, and the caption read: “the first few minutes of life can be critical”. But someone had daubed a bit of graffiti underneath: “…and the last few moments can be a bit dicey too.”
This is a fearful, tender time in our nation. Cradling, holding and caring for others at the beginning and end of life – and for all that bit we call “the middle” (perhaps three-score-years-and-ten?) – is where our calling as the church must be. Remembering the words of Jesus, which have been, are being, and will be fulfilled: “I will not leave you orphaned or bereft; I am with you. Do not fear. I am coming to you.”