A Sermon for the Civic Service of Thanksgiving marking the end of St Mary’s Festival 200.

A Sermon for the Service of Memorial and Thanksgiving for the late Queen Elizabeth.

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.
Amen.

 

+Steven Oxford
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.

Amen.

 

This seems a good year to reflect on the emotional depth and range of the Easter stories.

Bishop Steven preaches from the pulpit of Christ Church Cathedral

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.