This sermon was delivered by Bishop Steven at the Choral Eucharist on Easter Day (1st April) at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. 

Happy Easter. The Lord is risen.

Today is the 1st April and it seems a very good day to announce my plans for a new font and baptistery for the Cathedral and the Diocese of Oxford as a major project for the coming year.

There is a very large and convenient pond in the centre of Tom Quad which you passed on the way in. My hope is that this pond can be cleaned and excavated and deepened, perhaps expanded a little. The fish will have to go of course, and the statue in the centre will need to find another home.

It will be a reminder for all who come into this place that baptism into Christ, into his death and resurrection, is at the very centre of our faith and identity. I look forward to discussing it with you at the door.

The people of the Old Testament by and large do not believe in resurrection. Human beings have one life. After that we sort of fade away and disappear into a shadowy land called Sheol. Death is something to be deeply lamented, never welcomed: a great black shroud which casts its shadow on the earth.

But the urge to live beyond death is strong. A few exceptional individuals, Enoch and Elijah are taken up to heaven and into friendship with God instead of dying rather than through death. Sometimes life can be extended. But for the most part death is a deep mystery. In the powerful words of Ecclesiastes:

“You have put eternity into the minds of men and women yet they cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end”.

We feel as though we ought to live for ever, we reach for immortality, but we cannot believe that this is really possible.

In many ways, this Old Testament view of death is not so different from ideas about death in our contemporary world. We certainly fear death.

Our ancestors put their burial places in the centre of towns and villages, in our churchyards as a reminder that we will all die. We now build our new crematoria on the very edge of town and make them look like libraries. There is evidence year by year that people have fewer resources to think about death, one of the fundamental facts of life, and cope with grieving.

Science is reaching for ways to help us live longer, through medicine, or to help part of us endure. Human enhancement through technology or biology will be a feature of the next generation. Yet we still struggle deeply with our mortality. One of the best selling books worldwide last year was When Breath becomes Air by Paul Kalanathi, a beautifully written reflection on living life yet facing death.

Themes of heaven and hell and afterlife have been front page news this week, centred on Pope Francis. There is more and more speculation in film and television and popular culture about what happens when we die. The Netflix series The Good Place, set in heaven, is one to avoid. The Black Mirror episode San Junipero is a powerful exploration of this longing to live on after we die: we leave a digital footprint of ourselves locked in a virtual world for all eternity.

Discuss.

The prophets of the Old Testament will not leave death alone. The Book of Isaiah contains a powerful promise in our Old Testament reading that when God’s kingdom comes, death will be destroyed for ever:

“And the Lord of Hosts will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples; the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death for ever” (25.7).

The prophet Ezekiel lived in the bleakest and most difficult times. He saw his nation and his city and his temple destroyed for ever and, he thought, they deserved it. But Ezekiel’s hope transcends his despair at the profound sin of the nation. One of his most famous visions is a valley of dry bones as far as the eye can see, bleached white by the sun. It is a vision of death. He is told to prophecy to the bones. They come together. Flesh and muscle and skin grow back. Death is thrown into reverse.

He is told to prophecy then to the wind, the breath and Spirit of God. The Spirit comes and breathes in the valley of death: “and the breath came into them and they lived and stood on their feet, a vast multitude”.

The first Easter is the beginning. The beginning of the resolution of the deepest tension between the longing and the experience of humankind. We long to live for ever. We experience the bitter ending of death.

The first Easter is the fulfilling. The fulfilling of the deep yearning and prophecies of the Old Testament that one day the shroud of death will be destroyed and the process of death and dying will be reversed: there will be resurrection.

The first Easter is the great turning of human history. Death itself is conquered in the victory of the Son of God. In Peter’s words from Acts:

“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead”.

All of this is present in John’s story of the resurrection. The great and universal longing for life is the backdrop to our story together with the present reality of death. It is a single resurrection in one time and one place, witnessed first by Mary Magdalene and then by Peter and the other apostles, witnessed to in signs and wonders, evidenced in lives transformed generation after generation down the ages, in the Spirit’s work in human living, in the signs of the kingdom of God, in the life and worship of an imperfect church. At its heart is the most human of encounters, in a garden, a new dawn, a case of mistaken identity, a name softly spoken, an embrace, a promise, a love renewed, a call to life eternal.

A single resurrection. A first fruit of the harvest of the dead. A sign of new life for all people everywhere. Death has been overcome and is no more. This is the faith we take hold of afresh today. This is good news we share.

This is the faith we proclaim as we invite the world again to come to Jesus Christ, the resurrection and the life, to be baptised into his death and to rise again to life in all its fullness.

This is what we mean as we declare together: On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures.

Alleluia Christ is Risen. Amen.

 

+Steven Oxford
Christ Church
Easter Day 2018.

A very happy Christmas.

One of the best carol services I took part in last week was in prison. There were about 100 prisoners and staff and volunteers gathered for the service. The very ordinary dining room was turned into a chapel. The music came from an old keyboard.  There were no candles or crib scene or decorations.

But there was a Pentecostal gospel choir from Luton. And when they sang, somehow, joy filled that prison dining room. The joy was in the harmonies and the way they moved. But the joy came from their hearts and on their faces. The joy was infectious, it moved from person to person.

Nobody there forgot their sorrow or their pain or their questions. But through the choir, we were touched, somehow, by an even deeper joy. The gospel message became real in the music: glad tidings of great joy.

Joy is the accent of our worship this Christmas morning. We come conscious of the pain and grief of the world and our own sorrow. We haven’t come to escape. We come conscious of our weakness and frailty and the many imperfections of the church. We come mindful of all that stands in jeopardy in the world at the present time: war and greed; corruption and poverty. We are conscious of humanity coming to a great turning point.

Yet still the joy penetrates our darkness and lifts our hearts and reshapes our lives and burns brightly even in the midst of tears. “Joyful all ye nations rise” we sing.  “O be joyful in the Lord”.  “Joy to the world”.  How can that be?

It’s not the outer wrappings of Christmas which make us joyful: tinsel and turkey, paper hats and sending cards.  It’s not the time off work, or time with family or travelling long distances or particular traditions.  It is not sentiment or wishful thinking.

It is the remarkable truth at the heart of the Christmas story. Glad tidings of great joy. Almighty God is born a person. Jesus Christ, God’s Son, conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.

“He will save his people from their sins”.

When you or I drop a stone in a pond the ripples are largest near where the stone falls and then gradually fade. When the Son of God is born, at the time hardly anyone notices. But then the ripples grow larger all down the years, spreading through time and space and human culture.

We celebrate and proclaim this truth in this place today and the ripples go out and affect even the most dry and cynical and secular parts of the season with rich echoes of joy.

God the maker has entered creation and has made a special study simply of being human. God stoops and bends and distils divinity into one particular child. By taking human flesh, moving to be near us, at one time and in one place God dignifies in every time and place each human life and every person. There is no-one now beyond the immensity of this love.

Left to ourselves we cannot see or imagine God who made the heaven and the earth. Even if we could imagine, we would not dare draw near. Left to ourselves humanity would have continued to manufacture gods in our own image: cruel and careless idols, tools of oppression, projections of our own tired fantasies, demigods with feet and hands and hearts of clay, or vast impersonal forces generating only fear.

Jesus, the sweet word of God, is the light entering the darkness, the force which shaped the universe taking flesh, the reason and logic and grammar of creation in flesh and blood and tears and laughter. The greatness of God’s power and majesty is not diminished by his presence in a tiny child. The child is able to bear and contain the vastness of God’s love.  God comes down to earth to lift us all to heaven.

God’s limitless power is voluntarily confined, God’s love beyond measure is concentrated, the wisdom of the ages is focussed, poured into a single life, the pivot of history. This is the moment the mending of the world began.

The entire story of the gospels is simply the unfolding of the truth of the incarnation. An acorn holds within its DNA the plans and life force to grow a mighty oak which will endure a thousand years. Today we remember that the fragile simplicity of this new born baby carries God’s entire plan of healing and salvation for the whole of creation, for as long as earth endures, for this world and the next.

In this our season of the world’s long story, the souls of men and women are parched and thirsty for meaning and for mystery and truth and joy and love. The message in the carols and the readings and the story of Christ’s birth are like water on dry ground.

For those of us who know the story, come deeper. See more clearly. Love more dearly. Follow more nearly in this coming year.

For those who do not yet understand, who catch a glimpse of something far away, whose hearts are strangely warmed, who catch an echoing of a knocking at a long forgotten door, come closer, look deeper, begin the journey, hear the call.  Let the mending and the healing which has come to all creation come to you.

For this is Jesus and he will save his people from their sins.

 

 

+Steven Oxford 

A sermon in Christ Church, Oxford

Christmas, 2017.

 

 

 

 

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15.13)

Jesus words from John 15 have a special resonance this evening: Remembrance Sunday. They are inscribed on many a war memorial or chapel built in memory of those who fell. Bonds of friendship forged in war endure. One of my last acts as Bishop of Sheffield was to travel to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme where the Pals Regiments from northern towns and cities saw their first and tragically their final action of the Great War.

We remember for the sake of those who gave their lives and carry still their mental and their physical scars. But we remember for our own sake as well, if we are wise. We remember as a nation in order to piece back together our identity, our fragmented sense of who we are. We remember together the conflicts which defined the 20th century in the hope that we might somehow find our bearings in the 21st.

As humanity and as a nation we find ourselves in the midst of a crisis of identity. We no longer know who we are. We are lost and cannot find our way home.

Each Tuesday this term, you will find me in a Select Committee in the House of Lords making an enquiry, with others, into Artificial Intelligence. We call witnesses: on the future of work, on data, on business applications, on research, on the media.

Each Tuesday evening my mind has been stretched to capacity. I’m learning many things. That my young grandsons will probably never drive or own a car. That the familiar life script of education then work and then retirement will soon no longer apply. That the impact of AI will fall unequally and adversely on the poor. That social media is rapidly changing political debate and public truth. That the fastest way to be a billionaire is to read for a doctorate in machine learning.

But most of all I am learning more about our crisis of identity. Our science fiction tells us what we already know from our politics: we are deeply unsure of who we are. Each step forward in AI forces us to surrender more of what is supposedly unique about being human. According to one writer, humanity will spend the next three decades, perhaps the next century, in a permanent identity crisis.

Sometimes people ask me – or want to ask me – what a Bishop is doing as part of an inquiry into Artificial Intelligence. AI is too important to be left to the scientists. There are huge ethical questions: not least, on this Remembrance Sunday, around weaponisation.

But I am there most of all because as a Christian, I understand the most important truth about what it means to be human. At the heart of the Christian faith is the faith that Almighty God, maker of heaven and earth, became a person and lived the most authentic human life and gave his life that we might live. The deepest answer to our crisis of identity does not lie in machine learning or robotics, or history. The deepest answer lies in love.

For “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”

In 1637, in a different age, Descartes coined his axiom, I think therefore I am: cogito ergo sum. He was searching for rational proof of his own existence and found it in his freedom to doubt, to rebel. But Descartes only takes us so far.

Some think Descartes has been recast in the age of consumerism where we define ourselves more and more by what we spend and where we spend it: I shop, therefore I am. Some translate this as Tesco ergo sum.

The Gospel of John offers something much more profound to the anxious philosopher, to the driven consumer, to the fragmented soul seeking an identity which satisfies.

For John says this. We know who we are when we know we are loved by our maker.
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, says Jesus. Abide in my love.

That love, received by faith, gives us the strength to know who we really are and the strength to love as we are loved.

“Love one another as I have loved you”.

So what does it mean to be human, to be alive, to redeem and to shape the life entrusted to us?

It means to know that we are loved and in that knowing to find strength to love. No longer cogito ergo sum but amor ergo sum.

I am loved therefore I am.

And more than amor ergo sum but amor ergo amo. I am loved and therefore I love.

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15.13)

Magdalen College Oxford
12th  November 2017
John 15: 9-17

 

I visited Greyfriars church in Reading yesterday for the 9.30 and 11.30 am services.  Greyfriars are part way through a sermon series on Micah and the sermon was on passages in Micah 2 and 3. 

This morning, the fourth beatitude is my way into the prophet Micah and to this passage.  Jesus begins by blessing those who are poor in spirit, who know they need God; those who are tender hearted, who mourn the suffering in the world; those who are willing to be servants to others as Christ was meek.  His fourth blessing is for the world changers, the godly discontents: the people who long for everything to be different, those whose passion is to change the world.  His words are a glorious promise of hope:

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matthew 5).

Micah is one of these.  Perhaps you are too.  Micah is someone who is able to see and hear what is wrong in the world and who has to speak out.  Together with Amos and Hosea and Isaiah and others, he forges in the tiny kingdom of Judah the concepts of justice which underpin the entire civilised world today. Whenever the world talk about human rights or equality or oppression or the needs of the poor or the corruptions of power, we are using some of the language first minted by Micah. His eyes see what is wrong and his words name it.  He is a godly discontent, a prophet.

Today’s passage highlights the injustice Micah sees in what is a basically a city state but a microcosm of the human condition.  He sees and names the evil of the landlords and money lenders who foreclose on the poor for their own gain and steal their land away.  He pictures them lying awake at night longing for this desirable vineyard or that beautiful house and planning how to acquire it.  Then he tells us that they wake up the next day and set out to do the very evil they have planned.  There are loan sharks aplenty preying on the poor of Reading.  We have been painfully reminded recently of the dangers of landlords who do not pay attention to health and safety.

He describes gang warfare and violence against those who are doing no harm.  Knife and gun crime is on the rise again, particularly in London: “You strip the robe from the peaceful, from those who pass by trustingly with no thought of violence”.

He sees and he describes the oppression of women and evil done to children: crimes in themselves but crimes which are a particular abuse of power. It’s not hard to make the connection, sadly, with our contemporary world and with some of the news this week.  These evils have not gone away:

“The women of my people you drive out from their pleasant homes; from their young children you take away my glory for ever”.

“Arise and go; for this is no place to rest because of uncleanness that destroys”.

The original language is immensely strong here.  The community is defiled because of these things. There is an immense and corrosive corruption and sickness in society.

In Micah 3, the prophet turns his fire on the entire governing class who turn away, who see no need for change, who choose not to see what Micah sees.

“Hear this you rulers of the house of Jacob, and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong”.

Justice is perverted because of money.  The entire ruling class has been corrupted.

“Its rulers give judgement for a bribe; its priests teach for a price; its prophets give oracles for money”.

Together they still claim a veneer of religious respectability: “Yet they lean upon the Lord and say, “Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall come upon us”.

But it is Micah’s role to see what he sees and then to pronounce sentence:

“Therefore because of you, Zion shall be ploughed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins and the mountain of the house, where the temple is, a wooded height”.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled”

How are we to read and explore the prophet Micah today.  What are we to learn?

First I think we are called as a church to cherish and listen the people in our community who see what is wrong and become angry about it and long for it to be set right: the prophets in our midst.

We are the body of Christ.  We know we do not all have the same gifts.  No single Christian exhibits all the qualities commended in the beatitudes.  The only person who has ever done so is the person who gives the Sermon on the Mount: Jesus Christ.

But God gives to every church those who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness: those who will see the suffering of the poor; or the abused; or the homeless; those who see what climate change is doing to our planet; those who share the pain of victims of domestic violence or sexual exploitation; those who stand with asylum seekers and refugees.

Prophets in our midst are uncomfortable.  Micah found that people did not want to listen to him.  “One should not preach of such things” the people say to him.  Tell us something more comfortable, something that will make us smile or feel good.

We have a harder calling.  Our calling as a Church is to welcome the prophets in our midst and give them space.  And then to respond where we can through service and advocacy and campaigning for change.  Our calling as a church is to harness the vision of the prophet to the practical skills of the administrator and the generosity of the person who has wealth and the gifts of the communicator.

People with these gifts do not get everything right.  They have at the core of their being a hunger and thirst for the world to be better.  But those of us who have other gifts need to think very carefully when they begin to make us uncomfortable.  It is all too easy to close our eyes and ears.  We need the witness of Micah to remind us of that.

Together we are called to make a difference in our local community and in the world and the only way to do that is as we work together as a team.   Cherish your prophets and listen to them.

But here is the second lesson.  Micah does not yet have the complete picture.  He sees the purposes of God, in Paul’s words, through a glass darkly.

He is given a kind of x-ray vision to see into the hearts of those around him and name the evil.  He sees the judgement that is coming.  He sees even beyond the judgement to restoration.  He sees a way of life which is satisfying and good: to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with your God (6.8).

But he cannot yet see the cross.  He sees the weakness of temple worship: animal sacrifice and even human sacrifice cannot make a difference to the human condition, to setting things right, to transformation.

But he cannot yet see that God’s own Son will take human flesh and live a perfect and complete life and offer his life on the cross.  He cannot yet see that in the death of Jesus Christ on the cross is the gift which enables forgiveness and transformation and new beginnings.  He cannot yet see the possibility of human hearts being changed and made new.

He cannot yet see baptism: the outward washing and cleansing and making new so that the most corrupt life can be restored and made new.  He cannot yet see that that the goodness and healing in the cross will flow outwards through the people of God for the remaking of all humanity and of all creation: the reconciliation of all things.

The more clearly we see the corruption and deceit of the world, the more fully we know the deceitfulness of our own hearts, the more bleak our vision of the true state of the world, the more we need to see and hold onto the message of the cross.

Micah cannot yet see the gospel and the message of hope and transformation which Christ brings and makes possible.  Whatever we have done, however corrupt and far from God we have been, however we have suffered, it is possible to begin again, to make a new beginning with God, to find a way to inner healing and peace and to be restored.

As the Church we are custodians of the gospel.  We must never make it less than Micah intends.  We must never reduce it to a gospel simply of personal, individual salvation.  The gospel is good news for the whole earth and at its heart is a vision of God’s justice and God’s peace for the whole of creation.

But we must understand that the heart of our faith, the whole gospel, is even more than Micah’s vision: the restoration and healing of creation, the salvation and making new of individuals and families and communities, the restoration of the earth.

We are called together to be a more Christ like Church, embodying and living out this gospel in a way which is contemplative, compassionate and courageous.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled”

A sermon at Greyfriars, Reading

5th November, 2017

Micah 2.1-2; 6-11; 3:9-12 (part of a series on Micah)

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

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

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

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

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

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