Wisdom at the crossroads

It is very good to be here this evening to license Will to this key role in the Church, University and the City of Oxford.  I first met Will over 20 years ago in Halifax when he came as curate.  We were colleagues together in Sheffield when he was chaplain to the University and residentiary canon.  He has since gained further and deeper experience in another University in another place.

I know Will to be a gracious and wise priest and pastor, a careful listener, a good friend, an apt teacher.   A great deal of prayer and reflection has been invested in his appointment.  I am grateful to the patrons, to the Churchwardens and to all who helped with that process and all those who have supported and sustained the ministry of this Church over recent months.

We stand this evening at a moment of new beginnings and fresh hope in the long story of this Church and these parishes.  We surround Will with our love and prayers and encouragement as he takes up this new ministry.  We pray for all who minister and serve here with him.

“Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand”.

The calling of this Church since its foundation has been to offer wisdom at the crossroads.

Physically it stands at the very centre of the city and university, not far from Carfax, from the old river crossing which gives Oxford its name.  The story of this church is entwined with the story of the university it serves.  This was a place for the granting of degrees, for study, for congregations. Tens of thousands come to this place each year: as students facing the decisions which will shape their lives; as visitors looking back and looking forward.

Oxford itself is a crossroads of the world: a place for the mining of knowledge; for the shaping of minds; for the moulding of culture.  The University preserves conversation and encounter in its collegial life: the opportunity for different disciplines to meet, for fresh insights to grow, for iron to sharpen iron in debate, for face to face encounter.  The influence of those conversations and fresh minted understanding is world changing.

And here, at the crossroads, stands this ancient Church, a serious house on serious earth.  Here in this place, wisdom calls to those who seek.  Here in this place, a community of Christian people gather and grow, offering hospitality and welcome and service.  Here in this place there is an ongoing witness that without faith and God it is not possible to give an adequate account of the universe; that without faith it is not possible to give an adequate account of culture or history or politics or law; that without faith it is not possible to give an adequate account of human life and potential and community or truth or beauty or love.

Wisdom calls and raises her voice here.  Wisdom invites those who come to look deeper, to listen to the rising hunger, to the unanswered questions, to the unquiet heart within.  Knowledge abounds in this generation.  But wisdom remains scarce.  Facts seem plentiful but truth is rare.  Trends and fashions abound but where is the wisdom on which a young man or woman can build their lives.  A city teeming with people can yet be a place of isolation.  Where can community be found in which I do not have to compete?  In which I can begin to be myself?

“Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand”.

The wisdom offered in this place has changed the world and endured.  John Wesley’s sermons offered here are read and studied still.  The sermons of Keble and Newman and Lewis are still inspire.

So no pressure then Will.  Nothing to be feared here.  It should all be plain sailing.

Any new pastoral charge is daunting, but some are more daunting than others.  It is no small thing to stand by this crossroads and dare to raise your voice, to invite those who pass to come in and drink.  It is no small thing to be a public representative of Christian faith in this university at this time.

This new ministry will only be possible if you and the community here are rooted and grounded in prayer; unless you take time to dwell deeply in the scripture and sacrament; unless your inner life is fed by streams of living water.  The fear of the Lord, not the fear of others, is the beginning of wisdom.  That fear and knowledge of God demands time spent in prayer and contemplation, seeking the face of Christ, dwelling deep.  Putting down those deep roots and finding those rhythms in a new place takes time.  Do not expect too much too soon.

This new ministry will only be possible if you and the community here are willing to value one another’s gifts and work well together.  No priestly charge is a solitary ministry but this one can only be fulfilled by working closely with lay and ordained colleagues.  I ordain and license you this evening to work with others, to build a team, to continue to shape and model good collaboration, to serve and enable and invest in others who will go on to serve in different vocations in many different places.

Finally and most important, this new ministry will only be possible if you remember daily the truth at the heart of the second reading you have chosen, the story of the annunciation, of St Mary the Virgin for whom this Church is named.  God uses for his purposes those who know they are inadequate and weak and ill equipped; God uses the weak and imperfect.  God may call, often, to a mission which seems impossible.  But the experience of ministry is that God provides and surprises again and again as we offer what we have with joy with without fear.

Mary is called to bear God’s Son, Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world.  All of us who call ourselves Christians are called to carry his name in different ways and different places.  We can do that only as we say with Mary, daily: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word”.

“Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice?
On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand”.

In your ministry in this place, offer wisdom at the crossroads.  As you exercise this ministry together, be contemplative, be compassionate, be courageous.  The world is ready to listen.

In Philip Larkin’s words:

 “A serious house on serious earth this is….
Since someone will forever be surprising a hunger in himself to be more serious
And gravitating with it to this ground
Which he once heard was proper to grow wise in.

Enjoy this ministry entrusted to you and this new chapter in your common life.  May God bless these parishes, this university and these communities as together we seek wisdom for our world.

Amen.

A sermon at the institution of the Revd. Dr. Will Lamb as Vicar of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin with St. Cross and St Peter in the East

2nd May 2017.

Proverbs 8.1-22 and Luke 1.26-38

An Easter Jubliate

Matins on Easter day is a song of joy.  Heart deep, world wide, heaven high, life long.

For forty days the Church has fasted.  We have denied ourselves the Alleluia and the Gloria.

We have walked the way of the cross.  We have journeyed through Holy Week.  We shared the foot washing and the agony in the garden.  We witnessed the trial, waited by the cross and watched the body of Jesus laid in the tomb.

And now it is Easter Day.  The stone has been rolled away.  The grave clothes are folded and no longer needed. Christ is risen.  He has appeared to Mary.  A new gardener in Eden.  He is walking the Emmaus Road as a shepherd, bringing home the lost. He will break bread and cook fish on charcoal in the early morning, spreading a table for his friends.  He will enter rooms full of fear and breathe new life and power.  He will gently test those who doubt him.  He will restore those who denied him.  He will interpret Scripture for his friends. He will commission them to go and make disciples.  After nights of desolation, he will give them such abundance that their nets can scarcely hold the catch.  He will forge frightened Galileeans into true fishers of people who will turn the world upside down.  He will ascend into the heights of heaven.  He will send the Comforter as he has promised.  He will never leave us.  He is here.

The Lord is risen.  The heart of the Church is breaking open with joy.   The pent up Alleluia’s overflow.  The glorias abound.  Jubilate everybody.  The whole earth is alive with song today: cathedral choirs, organ fanfares, string quartets, drums and castanets, calypso guitars, brass and woodwind.  Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.

All of our hymns and songs and anthems are pure joy.  On this day we need the Easter Anthems, the Te Deum and Benedictus and then we’ve only just begun.  Even our bible readings today are songs of joy.

Miriam sings at the crossing of the Red Sea:

“I will sing to the LORD for he has triumphed gloriously”

The saints in heaven praise God for the story of salvation:

“Great and amazing are your works, Lord God the Almighty”.

We sing the Easter Anthems this day and for the fifty days of Easter:

“Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast”.

We are called this day above all days to Easter joy.  Let that joy rise within you.  Let nothing in all creation quench it or overcome it.  For the Lord is risen.  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia.

Christians are not always famous for their joy.  Pope Francis goes so far as to say this: “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter”[i].  It’s a striking phrase.  We project to the world and to one another a sense that we are burdened and worn down, serious and dull, too earthly minded to be any heavenly use.  Our church needs to rediscover joy.

We are too easily overwhelmed by the sorrows and troubles of the world.  There are sorrows and troubles enough this day, to be sure, as there will be tomorrow and every day of the coming year and of every year after that.  But Christian joy does not depend on everything being right with the world.

We are too easily overwhelmed by the sorrows in our own life.  There will be sorrows enough for most of us.  Sometimes they will be almost overwhelming but not quite.  Joy is not expressed in the same way at all times in life, especially in times of great difficulty.  But Christian joy does not depend on everything being perfect in our lives.

We are too easily overwhelmed by the imperfections in the Church and they are many.  But if you wait for the life of the Church of England to be completely sorted and set right you will never know a single day of joy.  For we will always be a flawed and imperfect Church like every other this side of eternity.

There is a simple lesson about joy which we are called to learn and relearn.  Christians are not called to rejoice for all circumstances.  We are called to rejoice in all circumstances.  There is a world of difference.

To rejoice for all circumstances is deeply misguided.  It leads to a forced, false joy which tries to pretend that sickness or injustice or even death are really blessings in disguise.  There are terrible things in the world and terrible things in our own lives.  We need to name them and grieve them and be angry about them.

But to rejoice in all circumstances is a very different calling.  To rejoice in all circumstances is to understand that underneath all that is difficult, all that is written in a minor key, all the sorrow and pain and grief, a stronger, major key of joy emerges and prevails.  Even in the midst of the darkest valleys we draw our strength from God in hope and joy that one day all will be well and all manner of things shall be well.  And even today, and especially today, there is a well of hope which feeds the roots of our soul and rises up to joy.

For Jesus whom we love is risen.
He offered his life for our sins
He has conquered death, never to die again
He is the new Adam.  He offers now abundant and eternal life.
He is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.
He was killed with nails and wood and spear.
But death could not hold him.
Death has been conquered and Satan thrown down.
There is a river of life flowing from the cross which will fill the world and fills it still.

So sing you heavens and rejoice now all the earth.  Let the Church echo alleluias for all of this beautiful day and the fifty days which follow.

Alleluia Christ is risen. Everything has changed.  Alleluia.  Gloria.  Jubilate.  Amen.

A Sermon in Christ Church

Matins on Easter Day, 2017

[i] The Joy of the Gospel, 6

Lift up your hearts

Oils

Thank you for your welcome to the Diocese over these last seven months. Thank you for your encouragement and prayers. I have been asked many times “How can we pray for you?” I have normally quoted some words spoken by the Bishop in the ordinal: “Pray daily that your heart may be enlarged”. I’ve been conscious that I have needed, as it were, a wider, deeper heart through this transition.

This morning I will invite all of us, lay and ordained to renew our commitments to ministry. As we make those solemn commitments again, I want to encourage you us to ponder some familiar words and set them again at the centre of who we are and what we do.

At the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer there is a dialogue between priest and people:

The Lord be with you
And also with you
Lift up your hearts
We lift them to the Lord

Some of us have the immense privilege as priests of summoning a whole community to lift up their hearts in the Eucharist. Others are called no less to invite God’s people to lift up their hearts in different ways: in the ministry of the word and in the prayers; in pastoral care, in evangelism; as we lead worship or work with children and young people. This call goes right to the centre of our understanding of every kind of ministry. What does it mean?

The words have a long pedigree. They go back to the third century. They are used in the rites of East and West, Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran and Reformed.

The words are biblical, like so much of our liturgy, but not an exact quotation. In Lamentations we read: “Let us lift up our hearts as well as our hands to God in heaven” (3.41). In the Psalms: “To you O Lord I lift up my soul” (25.1, see also 86.4 and 143.8). There is an echo of Psalm 24: “Lift up your heads O gates and be lifted up O ancient doors” (24.7,9). Colossians 3 says this: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth for your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3.2).

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the heart is much more than the physical organ which pumps blood round the body. The idea of the heart is a big idea. In contemporary culture, the heart is the seat of the emotions and especially the place of romantic love. In the Bible it is much more. The heart is the very centre of our inner life, our spiritual life, our emotions, our character and our will. The heart is the whole of who we are and how we are.

What is that we are lifting up? When I ask a congregation to lift up their hearts, I’m asking you to lift your very selves to God. And what is a priest, what is a deacon, what is a lay minister except someone who is called to make that invitation in everything we do. What are we saying in all our ministry except: “Lift up your hearts”?

St. Augustine says this in one of his sermons:

“The whole life of true Christians is “Lift up your hearts”, not that of Christians in name only, but of Christians in reality and truth. Their whole life is “Lift up your hearts”. What then is “Lift up your hearts”? It is hope in God, not in yourself, for you are below, God is on high. If your hope is in yourself, your heart is below, it is not on high. And so, when you have heard from the priest, “Lift up your heart”, you answer, “We lift them to the Lord”. Make sure that you make a true answer.”

Lift up your hearts is a call first to the hurting, the broken and the weary to draw near to God’s love and to God’s mercy. That includes you and me.

We are called to celebrate the Eucharist with gentleness and tenderness for we gather first as bruised and hurting people, carrying heavy burdens, worn down by our living and by our attempts to love.

We come carrying our sorrow and fear for the world. Every fresh tragedy. Every twist and turn of events. Every challenge in our personal lives. The sense of change and uncertainty in the nation and the world.

To lift up your heart is an act of trust in God even in the midst of all that is happening, even despite the grief and the things you cannot understand. To hold up your heart to God’s love in confidence that it will be held and healed and not rejected.

We will bless three oils in this service: the oil of healing celebrates the tender love of God, the desire to mend and make us new. Every Eucharist is a sacrament of God’s healing presence.

Lift up your hearts is a call to be made new within. We are asking for our small and narrow hearts to be enlarged, our stony hearts to be made flesh, our hardened and cynical hearts to be opened out to joy.

In every Eucharist we return to the heart of the gospel. We repent and we believe and we ask to be made new. In every Eucharist we remember our baptism and we seek to be changed more and more into the likeness of Christ.

We dare to lift up our hearts in the knowledge that they are imperfect and we invite God to transform us by his love and power.

We bless three oils in this service. The oil for the signing of the cross at baptism is a sign that our hearts and our lives are changed by God as we open ourselves to his grace.

Lift up your hearts is an offering of our whole lives to God in worship and in service.

“The sacrifice of God is a broken spirit”, says the psalmist. “A broken and contrite heart O God you will not despise” (Psalm 51.17).

We do not come to worship today bringing any sacrifice or gift to lay before God. The sacrifice has been made, once and for all, in Christ’s death on the cross. We come to offer and to lift up our hearts in response to God’s love: to offer our lives anew in the ministries to which God has called us. To offer our lives afresh, seeking a new beginning, conscious of our imperfections but of God’s grace.

By his Spirit, God weaves these offered hearts and lives into a royal priesthood able to proclaim the kingdom, to witness to God’s love and to call all the earth to joy.

We bless three oils in this service. The oil of chrism for confirmations and ordinations is a sign that our hearts and lives are offered back to God.

Lift up your hearts.

The American scholar Brene Brown has connected with millions of people through her TED talks and her books and her website. She speaks about the power of vulnerability. About the courage to be ourselves, to be vulnerable to others in order to love and to make a difference in the world.

The English word courage comes from the Latin “cor” which means heart. To live with courage is to live and love with all our hearts. To encourage someone is to put the heart back into them.

Lift up your hearts to the God who mends and saves and sends.

Amen.

+Steven Oxford

A sermon at the Eucharist with Blessing of Oils
Christ Church
13th April 2017
1 Samuel 3.1-10; Psalm 24; Revelation 1.5b-8 and Luke 7.36-50

Mercy and Judgement

A reflection for Ash Wednesday

“Blessed are the merciful”, says Jesus, “for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5.7).

“Mercy is the very foundation of the church’s life” writes Pope Francis (Amoris Laetitia, 310)

I want to encourage you to journey through Lent with today’s gospel reading from John 8.  It’s almost always described as the story of the woman caught in adultery.  But it should also be described as the story of the scribes caught in harsh judgement. Best of all, it is the story of the Saviour who is shaped by mercy.  The tensions in the story lead us through Lent to the drama of the passion and the meaning of Christ’s death.

So keep the story in mind as you travel through the next forty days.  Read it often and find yourself, as it were, in the three different characters and discover the three different characters in you.

The context is important.  Jesus is sitting and teaching in the temple.  He is in the place of judgement, a priest and a king.  The king is to be both judge and saviour. What kind of wisdom does he have when faced with an impossible dilemma?  Will he be like Solomon, able to offer a way forward in this terrible impasse?  Or will he fail the test?

Reflect first on the scribes and the Pharisees.  They are at their most unattractive here.  Cruel, harsh, judgemental, lacking in that foundational quality of mercy.  They publicly shame a woman in public, display her as an object for spectacle and scrutiny to make a broader, wider point.  Their aim is to test, to divide.  In the name of purity and holiness and rules, they have forgotten how to love.  Their zeal leads them to demand blood and death.  They want to test Jesus, the Son of God, and therefore to test God himself against his own laws.

We are meant to recognise ourselves in the scribes, I think, here and elsewhere in the gospels.  Our worst selves, of course.  The part of us which enjoys nothing more than to judge others and especially other Christians.  The part of us which continually strives to divide Christ’s body.  The part of us which listens to rumour and gossip.  The part of us which constantly seeks the high ground, the superior place, from which to rain down rocks on others.

If you cannot see your inner Pharisee when you look into the mirror then you are blind and you have not yet looked hard enough.  Take time in Lent for self-examination, for confession, for reflection, on your desire to feel and to be superior, to others, to judge, to displace God from the mercy seat.  Take time to realise the consequence of your unchecked zeal in the lives of others.  Put down the rocks you are so ready to throw and slip quietly away and seek the mercy you so desperately need.

For most of us, that will take at least a couple of weeks of Lent, perhaps longer.  When we can see ourselves more clearly and accurately in the mirror, when we see the hatred in our faces and hear the harshness in our voice and the rocks in our hands, then we are are ready to reflect on the woman who is brought before Jesus.  Taken in sin, as we are.  Deeply uncomfortable in the light of day, as we are.  Ashamed as we are.  Seeing all too clearly the wrong turnings.  Expecting nothing but condemnation, injury and death.  We are ready to stand far off and scarcely raise our eyes to heaven and say: God be merciful to me, a sinner.

We find ourselves in the woman and this woman in us.  The woman’s journey in the story is to move from the shame she feels in her actions to new beginnings, from the harsh gaze of the Pharisees to the gentle gaze of Jesus; to move from the condemnation of the scribes to the silence and stillness of the Saviour; to move from death and judgement to new life and new beginnings.

The central task of Lent is to recover mercy rather than judgement as the heart of our understanding of God.  It is all too easy to live with an image of God who is like the Pharisees: who is far more ready to condemn than to forgive.  To live in this story for a while is to see those harsh images of God dissolve and give way to Jesus, crouching in the dust, silent.  To hear him dismiss our accusers and hear them turn away one by one, dropping the stones they have brought in to throw at us.  To be left face to face with Christ.

To hear his words to us:  Neither do I condemn you.  Neither do I condemn you.  Go on your way and from now on do not sin again.

The story of the woman might bring us through Lent to Passiontide.  But the gospel passage has still more truth to teach us.  For we are left with a tension, a dilemma, in which mercy has prevailed over judgement in this scene.  Mercy has prevailed in a way which we recognise as deeply authentic.  This is the God we recognise through our tears, as it were, God for the weak and despised, God who subverts.  But how is it possible for God to raise us up, to set us free, to pronounce us forgiven and called to holiness and to share this work of mercy?

The gospel reveals to us that this reconciliation, this work of grace, is not possible without the cross.  We are continually tempted to write the cross out of our understanding of faith: to recude the gospel to something we do or learn or teach.  This tension between judgement and mercy leads in the gospel inexorably to the passion.  These hands which let go of their stones will pick them up again not to kill this woman but to kill the one who sets her free.

The one who kneels and draws in the dust and speaks words of mercy will give his life for this woman and for us all.  His life is offered, yes, as a demonstration of God’s love but far more than that.  Our words and our understanding struggle to grasp and comprehend the meaning of the cross.  He gave there by his one oblation of himself, once offered, a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.

Jesus makes his journey to the cross to complete a task, to accomplish the salvation of the world, to offer through his death freedom and a new beginning.  His words to this woman and to the scribes anticipate his death.  They are a profound reworking of religion and power and life.  They flow from the meaning of his death which gives life to the whole world.

This is the gospel we are offered and which we bear.  We are released from our compulsive need to condemn and judge others and set free to love.  We are released from our shame and guilt and set free to live.  We are called to service in the pattern of Jesus.  Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life.

Blessed are the merciful for they will obtain mercy.

A sermon at Ripon College Cuddesdon

Ash Wednesday, 2017

John 8.1-11

How to be angry

My subject this evening is anger and “How to be angry”.  It’s not a theme we address very often.  What part does anger play in our lives and in our world?  If we could measure it, it seems to me the sum total of anger in the world would be increasing.

What are the kind of things that make you angry?  What do you do with the anger?

I guess most of us have a pet list of things which really annoy us.  Buffering wifi.  The adverts on Spotify.  Queue jumping.  No seats on the train.  Undertaking on the motorway. People talking too loudly into their phones. Certain politicians depending on our flavour. These are a few of my least favourite things.  We can play that game later.

That kind of anger is mildly amusing.  Then there are the things that really get under our skin.  Some will be serious.  Some will be personal.  One of the quickest ways to make me angry is to patronise me and talk down to me.  There are outbreaks of temper caused by stress.  The people close to you are most likely to make you angry.  They know exactly which buttons to press to provoke a reaction: couples, parents and children, close friends.

We may sulk, we may withdraw, our tempers may flare.  We may be passive aggressive and silent.  We may throw crockery around the room.  Anger is never very far from the surface of our lives.

Paul writes these words in Ephesians (4.26-7).

“Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger and do not make room for the devil”.

Paul is writing to a community of new Christians who are learning how to live their faith, as we are.  He is writing here about the need for our faith to make a real difference in the way we live our lives.  He refers back to the teaching they received at baptism: to put off the old like worn out, soiled and dirty clothes and to put on a new character, to clothe yourself with the new self.

Then he becomes very specific. This putting off is applied to four practical parts of life.  He tells us to put off lying and anger and theft and evil talk; and to put on truth and peace and honesty and love.  This list has deep roots in the Old Testament: lying and theft are forbidden in the ten commandments; evil talk is explored in Proverbs and the words about anger are taken from Psalm 4:

“Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger and do not make room for the devil”.

This is a good moment to reflect on Paul’s instructions to the Christian community on anger.  We live in an angry world.  Our political life is marked now by anger and that anger is growing year by year.

A year ago we were in the midst of the European referendum marked not by quality debate but by cheap slogans designed to mobilise the anger of those left behind and focus it around a particular political objective.  That anger was revealed most starkly on the issue of migration.  It spilled over into an increase in hate crimes on grounds of race or religion.  It is an anger which is amplified by social media as anyone who has ever been trolled or bullied will know all too well.  There is a simmering hatred just below the surface of public debate.

The American election was similar in tone.  President Trump’s campaign seemed to me to be aimed at articulating, provoking and focussing anger rooted in envy, whether justified or not.  In the few days since the election, the new administration has continued deliberately to provoke anger, particularly in the travel ban imposed on those from Muslim countries.

Panjak Mishra, a columnist and writer, has given his new book the title “Age of Anger: a history of the present”.  He charts the rise of resentment across the world as aspirations rise in a world of finite resources and a changing climate.  The politics of anger are taking root as they did a century ago in Europe with disastrous consequences. Where jealous anger builds, the overspill of violence is never far away.  As Cain and Abel found, the devil crouches at the door.

Even in the Church, it seems to me, our debates around difficult issues are expressed in tones of anger, resentment and bitterness.  We need to listen to all of Paul’s words about truth and honesty and words which build others up.  But we need most of all to hear his warnings about anger.

“Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger and do not make room for the devil”.

What exactly is Paul saying?  How are we to be angry?

Paul acknowledges, first, that anger is part of who we are.  To be angry is to be human.  We are not told to avoid anger completely as we are to get rid of falsehood and theft.  We will all of us experience anger.

In the Disney/Pixar film, Inside Out, the complex emotions in Riley and in all of us are reduced to five cartoon characters: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger. Anger is the small, bright red character with fire coming out of his head.  From time to time we will be angry.  The question is what we do with that anger.

Some of our anger will be justified.  There is a right place for anger.  When Jesus overturns the tables in the temple and drives out the money lenders he is angry.  We are right to be angry about injustice, about abuse of all kinds, about human trafficking, about discrimination.

But in those moments when we are angry we need to be aware of our anger.  We need to allow our anger to drive us to action, to passion in debate, to change.  But in those moments when we are angry we need to be so very aware of the damage we can do as tempers flare, as brutal words are exchanged.  We need to be so aware that in those moments we are vulnerable to temptation, to self deceit, to inflicting damage to ourselves or others which cannot be undone.

Our anger needs to be short lived, therefore.  For a season.  On an issue.  We are to allow anger to visit from time to time, rather than go and stay.  In the world of Inside Out, Anger is not to take the controls for more than a few moments.  We are not to let the sun go down on our anger.  There is wisdom there for marriages and friendships.  Be reconciled before you go to sleep.  But there is wisdom there for our whole lives.  Don’t let anger take control.

Too many people live too much of their lives with too much anger.  Resentment shapes characters which then become either moody or grumpy or foul tempered or violent.  When that happens, we lose the joy and the perspective and the sense of abundant life which God intends.

It is not by accident that Ephesians quotes Psalm 4.4.  Psalm 4 ends with one of the most profound antidotes to the long burning deep resentment which can take hold in the soul: the appeal to be content with enough for each day:

“You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound.

I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety”

Put away your former way of life, writes Paul, your old self, corrupted and deluded by its lusts and be renewed in the spirit of your minds.  Clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

Put down your anger.  Take stock.  Be made new.

“Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger and do not make room for the devil”.

A sermon in The Queen’s College Oxford

5th February, 2017

Amos 2.4-end; Ephesians 4.17-end

Seeking the truth in a post truth world

Long ago a prophet looked at the world with honest eyes.  He saw nations in turmoil, an economy in crisis, the clash of empires.  He saw corruption in politics and religion and media and law.  Truth was eroded. The foundations were crumbling.  Disaster was looming.

Jeremiah wept for his nation and in God’s name he sang this song:

“Stand at the crossroads and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies and walk in it and find rest for your souls”.

At the end of 2016, our world is at the crossroads once again. Our climate is changing.  65 million people are on the move worldwide.  Technology is about to reshape our working lives.  Inequality is growing and with it discontent.  The economy is stalled. Our population is ageing.  The political landscape shifts under our feet. People are facing greater crises with fewer resources.  Oxford dictionaries declared the word of 2016 to be “post truth”. Even in the midst of crises, we play games with reality.

This Cathedral stands at that crossroads in time and in place.  Oxford is a crossroads for the world: a place for the shaping of people and ideas.  Here at the meeting of road and river, the meeting of ancient wisdom and future policy stands this place of prayer and learning, this house of Christ.  In every place across this Diocese and this nation, there are houses of prayer, communities of faith, at thousands upon thousands of crossroads, there for all who will come.

What wisdom do we offer this Christmas Day to a world in turmoil?  What song do we sing in this generation? Only one.

The Church makes such remarkable claims about the child who is born in the stable on Christmas Day.

He is more than the happy ending of the nativity story and centre of the crib scene, the child born in danger and poverty and pain.  He is more than the one who was promised and whose birth was foretold by the prophets over hundreds of years.  He is more than the one whose coming is celebrated by the poor and the rich, by near and far, by earth and heaven.

He is more than the child who would grow to live the most perfect, loving and righteous life that has ever been lived.  He is more than the most influential person ever to walk the earth, his goodness and teaching and truth recognised in every faith, by every philosopher.  He is more even than the one who would lay down his life for his friends, more than the one who would conquer death itself.

Who do we dare to believe this is, this child born of Mary, wrapped and swaddled and lying in a manger?

This child is God Almighty taking flesh, becoming human, come to be with us, come to save us.

Listen again to the first sentence of our Epistle and Gospel.  Hear what the Church claims for this birth in this moment.

“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son….He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being and he sustains all things by his powerful word”.

There is no greater claim that can be made about Jesus Christ.  This is God incarnate, taking flesh, coming to be with us, reaching out to save us, dwelling in our world and the place of rest for our souls.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God……And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth”.

This is our faith.  God has come to meet us and abide with us and invite us to abide in him. God has come with purpose, to save us.  A moment’s reflection will tell you why.  We cannot save ourselves.

God does not simply stand far off and shout instructions or rebuke or encouragement. God does more than write a letter, or send a message through a friend for that would not be enough to meet our need.

God is born to us.  Infinity is confined and eternity compressed.  The power and wisdom which forged the stars is distilled into a single most wonderful birth and life and death.  The love which shaped creation is concentrated in a new born child.  The vitality which filled the oceans and the forests is held within a single life.

This Jesus is God’s Son, the Word made flesh, who comes in love to save us.  This is Jesus, God’s Son, who comes in love to make all things new.  This is Jesus who would speak to you, on this day and in this place, words of love and forgiveness and new birth.

“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God”.

Stand here at the crossroads and look and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies and find rest for your souls.

We have come to live in a post truth world.  Every map is out of date and unreliable.  The only way to navigate from here is with a compass.  That compass finds its true north in this place, on Christmas Day through faith in Jesus Christ, full of grace and truth.

+Steven Oxford

Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford

Christmas Day, 2016.

Jeremiah 6.16; Hebrews 1.1-4; John 1.1-14

Presidential Address to Diocesan Synod 12.11.16

Welcome to this Synod and thank you in turn for your welcome to me. I am deeply honoured to be here. I am enjoying exploring the Diocese. I am greatly in need of your prayers. I am thankful for so many able colleagues and especially grateful to Bishop Colin and the senior team for their careful stewardship of the diocese during this long vacancy. I am doing my best to begin gently and to understand the diocese before we set our direction together. I still have my L Plates firmly in view.

A time of change

The world is in a time of change. In June, Britain voted to leave the European Union. This week, the United States elected a new President signalling a significant change of direction. Neither decision was predicted. Both have immense significance.

What is our calling as a Church in such a time of uncertainty?

The heart of our calling is to be a community of grace, a Christ-like Church in every village and town and city across this Diocese.  The Church is far more than a human invention or institution.  “For we are what he has made us” writes Paul in Ephesians, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” [1].

“For we are what he has made us”. A literal translation for those words would say this:  “For we are his poem”. We the Church are the poem God is making. We are the story God is writing. We are that new song that God is singing for the blessing of creation.

In times of great uncertainty, we are called to a simple vision: to be Christ-like together in our common life. The Church is called to be like Jesus together: his body in the world. We are called to be the Church of the Beatitudes: poor in spirit, acknowledging our need of God; mourning for the suffering and pain of the world; humble; hungry and thirsty for justice; loving mercy; pursuing holiness; making peace where there is division; willing to bear the cost of our discipleship.

Shaping and sustaining these communities of grace is a high and demanding calling, shared by every disciple, ordained and lay. Thank you for all that you give to this task, week by week and year by year. I look forward very much to getting to know you better and to sharing this ministry with you.

Listening

Every new bishop is called to listen, to take stock, to reflect on future direction. I am part-way through home visits to the clergy of the Oxford Area. In December, I begin a programme of day visits to all of the 29 deaneries which will take me through to next July. On each day I will spend time with the chapter, make visits in the wider community, spend time with lay leaders in the deanery and hold an open meeting for anyone who wants to come.

I hope that out of this process of listening and prayer and reflection together, a common sense will emerge for the next part of our journey together as a Diocese: for God’s call to us at this time and in this place. I have invited Area Deans and Lay Chairs, Bishop’s Council and others to join me in a three day residential in May as we reflect on that question together.

I have named three priorities at the beginning of my ministry in Oxford: children and young people; the poor; and discipleship. These priorities are not a strategy. That will emerge in time. They are simply priorities which I commend to you and where I will try and focus what I do and say.

These priorities have been with me throughout my ministry. Thirty years ago this year, I became Vicar of Ovenden in Halifax, the parish where my dad grew up. It is a very poor community of housing estates with high levels of social need. My nine years there were spent grappling with issues of poverty and deprivation; working with children and young people in schools and community ventures and youth groups; and making and equipping disciples and seeing them grow to maturity.

Children and Young People

We have a remarkable opportunity in this Diocese to invest in the lives of children and young people through our 285 schools. (In the Diocese of Sheffield there are 40. When I first saw that figure of 285, I thought it must be a mistake.) There are 58,000 children and young people in our schools and approaching 10,000 members of staff. Through our schools we have the opportunity to offer an excellent education and a foundation for life with Christian values and the opportunity to learn about Christian faith.

We have our schools today because of the foresight and investment of those who came before us who made a children and young people a priority. As we will hear later this morning, this next decade is one in which we need to match their courage and vision and hope.

Our 619 parishes have the potential to be centres of mission to children and young people, forming faith and laying foundations for life through children’s and youth groups, through nurturing faith in families and by reaching out into their communities. Children’s and young people’s services are being cut back by local authorities. How can we respond? We will hear this morning of the outstanding work of PACT in the field of adoption, again, part of our response to this priority.

One of the projects I am most proud of in the Diocese of Sheffield is the Centenary Project. In 2014, the Diocese took one million pounds of its very limited reserves and set it aside to fund part time paid youth and children’s workers in poorer communities. We were rebuilding children’s work from the ground up. Research shows clearly that the most effective investment a parish can make for the future, once the parish share is paid, is in children’s and youth ministry. I look forward to hearing what is already happening here.

Poverty and Deprivation

As you will know, I have moved from one of the poorest and most generous communities in the country to one of the wealthiest. But alongside affluence, comes inequality and poverty which is real but often hidden. In certain areas of Milton Keynes, Oxford and Reading there are rates of child poverty as high as 40 per cent. Fifty-three of our neighbourhoods are in the 20 per cent most deprived in England. Here as in the rest of England, the number of food banks is increasing. The need for them is growing. The number of rough sleepers is rising. The challenge of welcoming and caring for asylum seekers is very real.

Poverty is not only about income.  It is about access to services, housing, marginalisation and relationships. It is experienced in rural as well as urban communities.

The Board of Mission has a deep history of engagement with these issues. The Board has recently commissioned new research and listening on poverty in the Diocese. Much is being done. We need to continue and deepen our work of care for the most vulnerable in our communities and work for a fair and just society.

Discipleship

This Church we love is a community of missionary disciples, according to Pope Francis: a community called like the first disciples to be with Jesus together and to be sent out. We are called to recover in our generation that sense of every disciple living out their baptism and living in that rhythm of worship, community and mission in the whole of our lives.

Our parish churches and fresh expressions of church, our chaplaincies and religious communities are places where disciples are formed. Our Diocese has the potential to become, in Benedict’s words, a school for the Lord’s service, a place where we are shaped together into the likeness of Christ.

This means taking teaching and learning and formation seriously and deeply: of both ordained and lay. It means especially taking seriously the formation of new Christians, the ancient discipline of catechesis, teaching and learning the faith. It means investing more deeply in the lives of those who are enquiring into faith and those at points of learning and discovery in their lives. It means creating those opportunities for learning and grown in every place, every year, rediscovering the ancient pathways and offering new life to all.

As I travel across the Diocese in the coming months, I will be listening especially to what is happening in this area: how new Christians are being formed in faith and how established Christians are being equipped to live out their baptism. I will not be looking so much at what brand of material you are using. You will not receive extra points for Pilgrim. I will be looking at whether you are offering something and how much time and energy is invested in the making of disciples.

And finally…

In this uncertain time, we are what God has made us. We are God’s poem, God’s story, God’s new song in this place. We are called to be a Christ-like Church, the Church of the Beatitudes.  We are called to be a Church for the young and a Church for the poor. We are called to be a Church which makes disciples: a school for the Lord’s service.

I look forward to the journey we will share together.

+Steven

[1] Ephesians 2.10

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Sing to the LORD a new song

Welcome Eucharists

Psalm 96; Matthew 5.1-10

Thank you so much for your welcome.  It is very good to be here.

I’m deeply thankful for the Church in these three counties.  I have experienced good things over many years. I am enjoying working with Bishop Colin, Alan and Andrew and the rest of the senior team.  I have come initially to listen and to learn.  I am an imperfect bishop in an imperfect church but together we serve the God who makes all things new.

To all of you from across this county, clergy and lay ministers and wardens and officers and every disciple: thank you for all you give to the life of the local church and to mission in the new community.  Please pray for me.  It will take me a while to visit every place but I look forward so much to being with you.

This season marks a new beginning for me and a new beginning in the long story of the Diocese of Oxford.  As Christians we should not be strangers to these new beginnings.

The Psalms mean a great deal to me as I expect they do to you.  For this nine months I have been trying to dwell in a particular verse from Psalm 96 and to hear what God is saying to me through this part of scripture.

We heard it read earlier.  This is my calling and our calling.

“Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD all the earth

Sing to the LORD, bless his name, tell of his salvation from day to day”.

The whole of creation is summoned to worship and to joy.  The kingdom of God is breaking in: the kingdom of justice and mercy and peace.

One of the wonders of being alive is that life never stands still.  Our lives are constantly changing.  Each day there are new blessings to appreciate, new wonders to discover, new adventures to be had. There is nearly always a new song to sing.

I have recently taken up running for the first time in my life since primary school.  It certainly surprised my family.  I went to one of those fancy shops and bought some proper running shoes. I downloaded an app to my phone which claimed it would take me from 0 to 5 K in 8 weeks.  I started very tentatively.  Everyone thought I would give up after three weeks.  Rather to my surprise, I’m enjoying it.  I ran 5 K just this morning and completed the app.

A few weeks ago I sent a text to my children to say I’d been for a run and posted a picture of my muddy running shoes on our family Whatsapp.  One of my sons texted back: “Who is this and what have you done with my dad”.  My other new hobby for the summer has  been learning how to make pies.  The two things sort of balance each other out.

Sing to the LORD a new song, Sing to the Lord all the earth.

As God’s people we should be ready for new things.  That is not always how people see us. There is a story told in my native Yorkshire about a dialogue between a Bishop and a Churchwarden.  Bishop:  How long have you held office.

Warden: About forty years Bishop.

Bishop: You must have seen a lot of changes in that time

Warden:  Aye and I’ve opposed every one of them.

There is more in this text than the call to embrace change and variety and experience the richness of God’s love and God’s gifts..

Psalm 96 is not directed to the Church.  Psalm 96 is a call to the whole world.  Through the words of Psalm 96, God’s people are singing to all the earth and summoning the world to newness and to joy.

O sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD all the earth

Sing to the LORD, we say to all who will listen, bless his holy name; tell of his salvation from day to day”.

Rarely has that new song been more needed in our nation and in our world.   Year by year, the earth’s climate is changing.  We are living in the midst of the greatest human migration in history. In every country including our own there are questions of identity.  Who are we as a nation?  Inequality grows year by year. The world faces immense challenges.

What kind of a song are we called to sing as a Church in such a time?

When the world is being shaken, we must sing a new song of hope
When the world is hurting, we must sing the new song of healing and salvation.
When the world grieves, we sing new songs of resurrection.
When the world grows more unfair, we must sing God’s new song of justice.

To those who are enslaved and prisoners, we teach new songs of freedom
To those who are afraid, we share our songs of courage
To those who are dragged down by sin, we sing of God’s forgiveness
To those who are confused we sing God’s clear new song of truth

In this divided world, our songs reach out to strangers, to welcome and build bridges.
In this restless world, our songs tell of God’s peace and our final rest in heaven
In this polluted world, we sing a new song of care for God’s creation
In this world of vanity and pride, we sing songs of humility and meekness
In a world which lives for itself, we sing of love of God and neighbour.

The song we sing is the song of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  It is a song of great power and love.  Perhaps we do not sing it very well or as clearly as we could.  Perhaps we have forgotten its immense potential to transform human life.  Perhaps we have lost confidence in the immense importance of the message entrusted to the Church.  We need to find our voice again.

I look forward to working in partnership with all of you across this city in the coming years in all parts of the city.  One of the concerns I will bring as Area Bishop here and as Diocesan Bishop is a concern that we teach the faith well to adults, to enquirers, in every context.  I look forward to learning what you are doing now and to building together for the future.  We need to find our voice.

[In 1963, at the height of the American Civil Rights movement, 250,000 people gathered in Washington to urge change and freedom in America.  They were addressed by Dr. Martin Luther King.  He delivered the speech which began:  “I have a dream”.  His song is inspired by scripture and by the Christian message.  The trio, Peter, Paul and Mary, sang to the crowd.  They sang Pete Seeger’s song, If I had a hammer.  They sang of the hammer of justice, the bell of freedom, the song about the love between brothers and sisters, all over this land”.  Their song helped change the world.]

We need to find our voice again and find the confidence to teach the world a new song.  In every part of this Area, God has called a community of Christians to be the Church.  In every place, God calls us to sing a new song in the midst of this weary world.

We sing this new song as we gather Sunday by Sunday in every city, town and village.  We sing this new song as we are scattered in schools and colleges, workplaces and homes.  We sing this new song in the words we speak.  We sing this song in the way we live our lives.  We sing it as we live the beatitudes of Matthew’s gospel: as we are people who are poor in spirit, compassionate, full of kindness and mercy, hungry and thirst for justice becoming more like Jesus Christ.

And as we sing, and pray and serve and work so God uses our songs for good, to spread his love, to draw others into his family, to be the change we want to see.

“Sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD all the earth

Sing to the LORD, bless his name, tell of his salvation from day to day”.

I look forward so much to working with you and getting to know you in the coming years.  Please pray for me and I will pray for you.

I hope that together we will sing a new song to the LORD and to this needy world

Amen.

For a clip of Peter, Paul and Mary singing in Washington in 1963 see Peter Paul & Mary Talk about The March On Washington & Sing

The Church of the Beatitudes

Inauguration as Bishop of Oxford

Christ Church Cathedral

Genesis 12.1-8 and Matthew 5.1-10

May I speak with humility, mercy and joy,

May I speak of Jesus and his ways

May I speak clearly and with boldness now and always.  Amen.

Thank you for your welcome.  Thank you for being here and for the different parts you play in this region, in the Church and in my own life.  This is one of those moments when your whole life flashes before your eyes.

I am in awe of the ministry entrusted to me this day as a Bishop in God’s Church.  I will be able to bear the weight of this ministry only by the grace of God and with your prayers and love and support.  I look forward so much to the journey we will share together and to partnerships in the wider region, with other faith communities and other churches and with the Church across this Diocese.

I come as a learner, a disciple .  I’d love to pin a large L Plate on the back of my cope today.   There is a small one on the inside here – and another one at this side.  I look forward to learning from all of you and most of all from Jesus, whose disciple I strive to be with all my heart and with all my life.

I come giving thanks for the life of the Church of England across this Diocese: for our parishes and schools, for all the ways in which the Church is a blessing to God’s world.

I come with deep appreciation for the ministry my predecessors: of Bishop Richard, for his sharpness of mind and the breadth of his vision; for Bishop John, for his pastoral wisdom and love; and for Bishop Colin who has guided this diocese now through two vacancies and has a deep place in the affections of the Church and of the region.  I look forward to working with Colin and Alan and Andrew and Martyn and the rest of the senior team in the years to come.  I look forward to all that God will continue to do as our lives are offered to God’s glory.

God’s call came long ago to Abraham and Sarah.  Their story is sacred to more than half the people in the world today: to Jews and Christians and Muslims, It is the beginning. At the heart of the story is blessing.

“Now the LORD said to Abram…”I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed”.

This sacred story has shaped the history of the world and shapes it still.  The story reminds us that God calls us. God loves us and knows us and would walk with us and speak with us.  God calls us to deeper and longer journeys through all of our lives and beyond the horizon of our death God calls us home.

The story reminds us that the LORD  offers his blessing to all who follow that call.  “I will bless you”.  God is good.  God longs to give all people what is good.  In God’s blessings we discover again who we really are.

And the story reminds us that we are blessed by God in order to become a blessing to others. “I will make your name great so that you will be a blessing…In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks everyone will sooner or later need to ask three questions: “Who am I?”  “Why am I here?” “How then shall I live?”[1]

We find the answers in this sacred story.  We find our identity in God’s love, in God’s blessing.  We find our purpose and our way of life in seeking to be a blessing to others.  This holds true for families, for churches and for nations.

If we know longer know who we are as a nation, we will find the answers in God’s grace and blessing.  If we no longer understand our purpose and our role in the world, we will find it again in seeking to be a blessing to others.

Abraham and Sarah received God’s blessing in faith.  They trusted God and followed God’s call.  In time God gave them children.  Their descendants through Isaac and Rebekah became a great nation.  To that nation, God entrusted his greatest blessing, Jesus Christ his Son, born of Mary, given so that all the families of the earth might be blessed.

Jesus Christ revealed God’s love in life and word and deed.  He called his disciples, like Abraham, to leave their homes and occupations.  In the Sermon on the Mount he taught them what it means to be blessed and to be a blessing to others.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who know their need of God.  Blessed are those who mourn, those who are grieved for the suffering in God’s world.  Blessed are the meek, those who long for justice, the merciful and the pure.  Blessed are the peacemakers and those who will bear the cost of their discipleship.

In the gospels, Jesus lives this life of blessing.  He walks closely with God.  His heart breaks.  He speaks out for the poor.  He is merciful to the outcast. He is humble and holy and willing to walk the way of the cross.

Jesus offers his one, sinless and perfect human life so that the whole of creation can be blessed and reconciled to God.  Jesus is crucified that we might be forgiven.  God raised him from the dead so that all of us can enter life.  God poured out his Holy Spirit that we might know in the depths of our being that we are called and loved and blessed in order to be a blessing to all the people of the earth.

In every place in this diocese and across the world, the Church of Jesus is called to be like Jesus.  We are called and blessed that we might be a blessing.

We are a company of pilgrims who know our need of God who ground our lives in prayer and worship and scripture.  We are called to be a community of kindness and gentleness and mercy.  We are called to be a outspoken for justice and for the poor.  We are called to find the paths of holiness, to bear the cost of our discipleship, to recreate the peace of the world, and to walk always with humility before God and others.

We are called to be the Church of the Beatitudes: to know that we are blessed and to seek always to be a blessing to the communities we serve.

There are more than 800 churches in this diocese of Oxford and many more communities meeting in schools and colleges and chaplaincies.

All of those churches bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ.  Local churches provide meaning, which help people make sense of their lives and find the paths of salvation and blessing.  In every church we should constantly be offering ways to help adults and children encounter and understand the love of God revealed in Jesus.

Churches are communities which provide deep listening and attention and give value to individuals.  They are places where people are known by name, where people come for blessing at the beginning and end of life and many life stages in between.

Churches draw people together from different backgrounds.  They create networks of relationships and the confidence vital to our prosperity.  Churches offer communities in which people can invest together and create a legacy, They are communities which combat loneliness and isolation endemic in society.  Churches at their best bring vitality and perspective to the whole of life.

Churches attempt great things together with the aim of blessing others.  We attempt great things in the field of education: offering the best possible education with Christian values to more than 55,000 pupils in 282 schools.  We attempt great things through our chaplaincies in universities and prisons and hospitals and the armed forces.  We attempt great things in creative partnerships with local government and the voluntary sector, making life better for all kinds of people. We attempt great things in social action, in building cohesion, in relieving poverty, in campaigns for justice, in our care for the earth.  The mission of the Church is the work of every Christian, of the whole people of God, called and blessed and changed, scattered like salt and called to be a blessing to God’s world.

We are far from perfect.  It is a cliché but it is true.  The biggest room in any Church, the biggest room in any diocese and the biggest room in any bishop is always the room for improvement.  I begin this new ministry conscious of my own weaknesses and imperfections.  As a Church we continue to wrestle with questions of ministry, of sexuality, of protecting the vulnerable, of unity, of the call to change.

Sometimes those questions and imperfections can seem overwhelming. In those moments we need to return to the beginning:  to God’s call to Abraham and Sarah; to Jesus gathering his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount; to the call to rediscover blessing and become in turn a blessing to God’s world.

Who am I?  Why am I here?  How shall I then live?

Who are we?  Why are we here together?  How shall we then live?

We are a people called by God.  We are called to know God’s blessing.  We are called to bless others .

We are the Church of Jesus Christ, the Church of the Beatitudes.

And we are called to be a blessing to God’s world.

Amen.

[1] Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name, Confronting Religious Violence, p. 13

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Gentleness

Easter Day sermon from the Bishop of Sheffield.

Acts 10.34-43 and John 20.1-18

One of the great figures of the Quaker movement, Isaac Pennington, wrote these words in a letter to his friends in 1667.  He is trying to describe what it means to be a Christian.

“Our life is love and peace and tenderness and bearing with one another and forgiving one another and not laying accusations one against one another and helping one another up with a tender hand”

To be a Christian is to live a life of gentleness and peace and tenderness and mercy and love together.

Paul writes to the Church in Philippi, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone” (Philippians 4.5).  As a community we are to be known for our tenderness.  He writes to Timothy, “Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness” (1 Timothy 6.11).

As I have read the story of the passion of Jesus in John’s gospel this year, I have been struck very powerfully by this theme of the gentleness of Jesus Christ: it is a robust gentleness, a gentleness combined with steel but gentleness none the less.

There is gentleness in the way Jesus receives the gift of Mary, the sister of Lazarus.  She anoints his feet with perfume and wipes them with her hair.  There is  gentleness in the washing of the disciples feet.  Jesus moves around the group of his closest friends to wash to cleanse, to serve.

There is gentleness in his teaching at the Passover meal.  Jesus speaks of their grief and fear, about the comforter who will come, about sorrow turning to joy.  He tells his disciples not to be afraid. He prays tenderly for them and for us.

There is gentleness combined with strength even in the terrible narrative of crucifixion: in the silence of Jesus before Pilate, in Jesus’ care for ‘his mother Mary and for the disciple whom he loved, in his final cry: “It is finished.

And the same theme of gentleness and kindness flows through the story of Jesus’ resurrection. Mary Magdalene, stands weeping, alone outside the tomb.  Jesus appears tenderly to her.  There is no bright light, no clap of thunder, nothing to distress a woman’s grief. Jesus listens and enters her sorrows through soft questions.  He tells her he is alive as he speakers her name with love and joy: “Mary”.  He gives her a new calling to share his risen life:  “Do not hold on to me….go to my brothers”.

Jesus appears gently to the disciples, in the upper room.  His first word to them is peace and his second word to them is peace, calming their fear and healing their grief.  He gives them the promised Holy Spirit but in John there is no mighty wind, no earthquake or fire.  In John, the Spirit is given through a soft breath on the forehead, almost a kiss.

Thomas is not there, of course, but there is gentleness too in the way the Lord deals with his unbelief, a tender irony, a smile, an inner joy.  And there is gentleness in the final stories by the Sea.

Jesus stands as a stranger on the shore.  “Children you have no fish have you”. He gives them instructions, he blesses their labours, and then reveals that he has been there ahead of them.  The risen Son of God makes breakfast for his friends.  He came and took the bread and gave it to them and did the same with the fish.  He is taking them back to the feeding of five thousand.

And then after breakfast Jesus deals gently with Simon Peter who at the last denied him and who is broken by grief and by failure.  Jesus restores him with his questions: “Do you love me more than these”.  To Peter also he gives  a new task: “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep”.

The risen Lord we celebrate today is gentle, merciful, tender and kind. His character is consistent.  It is not spoiled and made bitter by the terrible suffering he endures, by denial or betrayal.  It is not changed by his resurrection, by his new and risen life.

Before the cross, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, washes the feet of his disciples.  After the resurrection, Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, cooks breakfast for his friends.

Here is something to ponder deeply this Easter morning.  Jesus Christ calls his Church, his friends to be like him in his gentleness and love.

“Our life is love and peace and tenderness and bearing with one another and forgiving one another and not laying accusations one against one another and helping one another up with a tender hand”.

It’s very simple.  At the foot washing, Jesus hands on the manifesto for the life of the Church: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this shall everyone know that you are my disciple, if you have love one for another” (13.34-5).

Jesus gives the Holy Spirit to the disciples with these words”  “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”.

Jesus commissions Peter to the same gentle ministry he models: “Feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep”.

The vocation of the Church is to be a community of gentleness and mercy in a world which is often harsh and often violent.

We have been reminded again this week of the terrible violence inflicted on the innocent when religion is twisted by forces of evil and destruction.  This week the world witnessed terrible violence in Brussels.  This week the world remembered the genocide in Bosnia committed against Muslims over 20 years ago.  These acts of violence are renounced and condemned by all Christians, all Muslims, all Jews in the name of God as well as by all people of good will. As Christians we must commit ourselves to working for greater understanding between our faiths and communities in the name of our Saviour who washes his disciples feet.

The vocation of the Church is to be a community of mercy in a world which neglects those who have nothing.  There is a challenge in our own day to care for the displaced of the world, to welcome the refugee and to care for the stranger.  There is challenge to serve the most vulnerable in this city, through the Cathedral Archer Project and in many other ways. There is challenge to campaign and be involved in political life so that the tears in the net of Welfare in this country might be mended again.

The vocation of the Church is to be a community of gentleness in a world in which so many are hurting and broken.  Here in South Yorkshire we know a great deal now about such brokenness following the child sexual exploitation scandals.  There are many lives and many communities which need gentleness and care.

The vocation of the Church is to be a community of mercy even as we face together issues on which we might disagree one with another.  Our Church is currently wrestling with the immensely sensitive issue of human sexuality. My prayer for that conversation is we will be gentle one with another and bear with one another and help one another up with a tender hand.

The vocation of the Church is to be a community of gentleness  in our stewardship of the earth: to live gently and respectfully in creation, to be faithful disciples in our care for God’s world.

And the vocation of the Church is to be a community of gentleness and mercy in the ordinary and extraordinary details of our lives: in the way we greet one another; in the ways we offer hospitality; in the questions we ask one another; in the time we give to listening; in the friendship we extend to others; in the way we restore people to fellowship; in the way we tell others of Jesus Christ;; in our welcome of little children.  “By this shall everyone know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another”.

We are the Church.  We are called into being by Jesus Christ, who was crucified and rose again.  The gentle, risen Lord.  We are called to reflect his love in a world of violence, hurt, hunger and confusion.

If you own the name of Christian, you are called to reflect this gentle strength in all you do: in your work and in your leisure, in your actions and in your character, in your words and in your deeds.

We are called together to be like him in his gentleness: at the anointing, at the footwashing, at the cross, in the garden, in the upper room, by the lakeside.

“Our life is love and peace and tenderness and bearing with one another and forgiving one another and not laying accusations one against another and helping one another up with a tender hand”