The Bishop of Reading, the Rt Revd. Olivia Graham, gave the sermon at the Eucharist with the Blessing of Oils and Renewal of Ministerial Commitment at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, on Maundy Thursday this year.

Today, we gather to remember God’s grace and his love in Jesus Christ; to renew our call to ministry; and to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. Today in this beautiful and ancient space, we are glad to gather and look around at each other and marvel at what God has done and continues to do in our lives.

The oils that we bless today are a sign of the power of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives. They are a reminder of the grace and the blessings that God has given to us through the sacraments, and they remind us of our calling as baptised Christians to share that grace and blessing with others.

And as we renew our ministerial commitment, our thoughts are naturally drawn to reflecting on our calling to ministry in God’s church. What is it to be called and how can we encourage others to think about it as a normal part of our relationship with God?

It has come to us in many ways. It might have been that we felt a niggle, experienced a thought that wouldn’t not go away, sensed a nudge. It might be that a word that kept coming back to us, or a series of ‘co-incidences’ took place which triggered us to wonder whether something was going on. It have might been the ‘have you ever thought about?’ question, asked by one person, and then maybe repeated in some form by others. Other people often see in us what we can’t see in ourselves, notice the gifts we have been given, or the way our hearts are inclined. And maybe it was none of those things, but simply an experience of getting more and more drawn in until it seemed like a natural next step.

Just occasionally it is a voice. Maybe God’s, maybe our own. My own sense of calling began a decade before I was ordained. I was working for Oxfam in Somalia., One hot sticky night, during a routing power cut and by the light of a pressure lamp, I sitting with an oddly assorted group of people who were doing the same kind of work as I was, we began to tell each other what we thought we would be doing in 10 years time. When it got to me, I heard a voice saying ‘I think I will be ordained’. To this day I don’t know where it came from. It was my voice, but not my words, because I had never voiced this idea, had never even formed the thought in my head. But sure enough, 10 years later, I was ordained in this Cathedral.

We will all have a story to tell of how we were called into the flow of the Kingdom of God.

Imagine perhaps a stream emerging from a dark, underground, invisible place and flowing out into the daylight, through woodland; a stream contained by banks down which leaves and twigs tumble and are swept along in the flow. Each of us who becomes conscious of God’s call on our lives, at that moment tumbles into the stream and is carried along by it. It has no beginning and no end, although we experience the passage of time and the sense of a journey. Our journey is unique, but it’s in company with others, and born along by the irresistible current of God’s eternal love.

Christ walks the earth among us, calling, calling, who will go for us and whom shall we send? At some point we have said ‘Speak, for we are listening. Here I am, send me’. And we have tumbled into the stream, and begun a journey of discovery.

What we discover is the part we are called to play in God’s Church and God’s world as we witness to God’s wonderful story of salvation through Christ; as God continues to forge his relationship of love with the creation.

Vocation, for all of us, begins with getting to know ourselves. The quest to gain an ever greater understanding of who we are, is one which should underpin our lives, and this has been recognised from ancient, pre-Christian times. The great message of the Oracle at Delphi was Know Thyself. It’s a lifelong quest well known to secular philosophy and psychology.

But for us as Christian disciples, vocation begins with knowing our belovedness in God’s eyes and God’s heart, and becoming aware of who God intends us to be. This entails growing in holiness and becoming more Christ like. We are who we are, and all that we are, in Christ, who is our beginning and our end.

But it will also entail shaping our lives in a particular way for a particular purpose. And when we discover, by whatever means, a course for our life which is the right fit, then we have a sense of ‘Yes, this is who I am; this is what I am for’. And we experience a sense of the rightness of it. In Christ, fully in Christ, we are a new creation – the old has gone, the new is come.

We are here today, in this Cathedral, because we have heard the voice of this calling in the Church of England. We may have always been in the CofE; we may have joined it at some stage, and there may have been a moment of decision when we said, OK I’m in.

We’re here because we’re committed to this imperfect, sometimes confusing, sometimes troubled expression of the Body of Christ; because it feels like home. It’s often infuriating and slow; it’s often fractured; it can be bad-tempered. It emerged out of a King’s marital difficulties nearly 500 years ago; it was founded in statecraft and pragmatism, on differences held in tension, and reconciled disagreement; it is underpinned by historic formularies; governed by Canons and Measures and served by the ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons as well as lay people in licensed ministries. It is a big, complicated old thing. And within it, and the ministry it offers, there are abundant moments and examples of real holiness, humility and self-giving love, as God-filled Christians incarnate the Christ of the Beatitudes, and through the astonishing reach of the CofE into all corners of our society and nation, tend and serve and love human beings in every kind of need, and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.

Why me? Why any of us? Simon Peter, when brought face to face with the realisation of who Jesus was through the miraculous catch of fish (in Luke 5) fell on his knees and said, Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.

Who among us is not? We’re all horrible, miserable sinners. We get it wrong daily, hourly. We judge, and misjudge, and fail to love and show compassion, and think we know best. We are hard of heart, and we lack hospitality and generosity; we mis-use power. But the gospel story in Luke 7 gives us hope. The irony of this story of course is that the woman, who is introduced as ‘a sinner’, makes her extraordinary display of love and contrition, and is forgiven. But Jesus makes it clear that Simon the Pharisee, who is quick to label and condemn her, is no less a sinner, perhaps the more so because he does not recognise it; and his lack of love stands in sharp contrast to the woman’s extravagant display.

Simon thinks of himself as a good man. He is an alpha male; he is a Pharisee, an influential religious leader. He has power and status (and frankly, thinks that Jesus is in a lower class). He thinks of his life as being correct and feels justified in taking the moral high ground. The woman with no name is outcast, with sexual sin implied – probably that of selling her body to satisfy the market for sex without responsibility demanded by her male clientele, and repeated down the centuries. Who knows why she does it? Maybe she is forced into it; maybe she just needs to eat or support her children. She has no power or status; and she is labelled by a hypocritical religious elite. A sinner.

When we recognise how much we have all fallen short, and turn back to God with love and longing in our hearts, we are forgiven. In the face of love, there is no moral high ground. We are astonishingly equalised, and forgiven in the measure that we love. And as we are forgiven, we are made worthy – as the Eucharistic prayer puts it – to stand in your presence and serve you.

And this is the only way that we can be credible ministers of the Gospel.

Today, conscious of our failings, conscious that we dare not judge others, we renew our commitment as ministers of the gospel, to God and to one another. Tomorrow is Good Friday: when the body of Christ is broken for each one of us on the Cross. And beyond it lies Easter Day. And with that front and centre, let’s remember our calling to be ministers of hope, of faith, of love. In the service of Jesus Christ.

Lift up your hearts A Sermon at the Chrism Eucharist 15th April, 2014. 1 Samuel 3.1-10; Luke 7.36-50

The Lord be with you And also with you

Lift up your hearts We lift them to the Lord

About two years ago, this particular phrase in the service of Holy Communion began to strike me afresh.

It’s a feature of all good Christian ministry that we get to know one another better over time.  When a priest first comes to a parish or a bishop first comes to a diocese, when a lay minister is licensed or authorized, we do not know each other well.  We are strangers called by God to walk together and serve together in our different ministries.

But, with time, of course, strangers become friends.  This is one of the great mysteries and privileges of Christian ministry. Through listening and shared experiences, through dialogue and sometimes disagreement, through mistakes made and forgiven, bonds of love are forged.  We see the world, a little more through one another’s eyes.  We learn to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.

The longer we are in a place, the better we know it. Because of that knowledge it has become more and more meaningful for me to say in many different congregations and contexts, “Lift up your hearts” and to hear the response back: “We lift them to the Lord”.

Lift up your hearts We lift them to the Lord

The focus of my sermon this evening is what it means to say those words and what it is to set those words at the heart of ministry.

Some of us have the immense privilege as priests of summoning a whole community to lift up their hearts in the Eucharist.  But 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 or young people.  This call and invitation goes right to the heart of our understanding of every kind of ministry.  So what does it mean?

The words have a long and wide pedigree.  They go back to the earliest descriptions of the Eucharist in the third century.  They are present in the rites of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches and all the churches of the Reformation as well as our own Church of England.  What does it mean to say “Lift up your hearts”?

The words are biblical, like so much of our liturgy, but they are 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 perhaps 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 invite 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 an evangelist, what is a Reader, what is a pastor except someone who is called to make that invitation in everything we do: in the structuring of worship, in prayers at the bedside, in teaching the faith to enquirers, in the ministry of welcome, in our care of little children.  What are we saying except: “Lift up your hearts”?

There are many layers of meaning woven through those scriptures but let me explore three of them this evening.

First and foremost we lift our hearts to a God of compassion, who loves us, who stands with us, who cares for us in ways we cannot understand, whose Son died for us. It is no accident that these words stand at the head of the Eucharistic prayer.  We make the memorial of Christ and especially of his death and resurrection: his one full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.  We lift up our broken, wounded and hurting hearts and place them into the gentle hands of our creator.

Bishop Peter and I have just finished a series of five residential clergy conferences at Whirlow Grange.  Those conferences were an immense privilege to lead.  It was a particular and moving experience for both of us to preside, in turns, at the Eucharist at each conference, to look around the room at those with whom we are called to share this ministry, and to be able to say: “Lift up your hearts”.

Today as you will know is the 25th Anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy. I went with others to the short service at Hillsborough this afternoon, led by David Jeans who was involved in ministry to the bereaved and injured.  David did not use these exact words, but his message to those who are grieving today is the same: “Lift up your hearts”.

It is likewise an enormous privilege to stand before any congregation in this diocese of faithful disciples and say these same words: to those who are rejoicing, Lift up your hearts.  To those who are cast down: Lift up your hearts.  To those who are quarrelling: Lift up your hearts.  To those who are broken: Lift up your hearts.

In our gospel reading, Jesus’ long speech to Simon is a speech of such gentleness and love for the woman who has brought oil to anoint him, who has bathed his feet with her tears, who has dried them with her very hair (Luke 7.36-50).  Jesus has created safe space in the midst of a hostile room.  By her actions the woman has said to him:  “To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul, O my God in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame” (Psalm 25.1-2).  Through his words Jesus has replied: “Lift up your heart”; “Your sins are forgiven, your faith has saved you, go in peace”.

We must grasp the love and mercy of God afresh especially in this Holy Week.

But in second place, we lift our hearts, as God’s forgiven people, to a God who calls us to holiness, to sanctification, to be transformed and made new.

This is the context of the verse in Lamentations:

“Let us test and examine our ways and return to the LORD. Let us lift up our hearts as well as our hands to God in heaven. We have transgressed and rebelled and you have not forgiven” (Lamentations 3.40-42).

It is sobering to remember the first reference to human hearts in the Bible is in the preface to the story of the flood:  “The LORD saw that….every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Genesis 6.5).  According to Jeremiah the human heart is devious above all things (Jeremiah 17.9).

It is sobering to remember the call of Jeremiah and Ezekiel that humanity needs a new and radical transformation.  To be in a covenant relationship with God we need a whole new heart – a complete change (Jeremiah 24.7; Ezekiel 36.26)

It is sobering to remember that, according to Jesus, “Out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15.19).  It is sobering to remember the hardness of heart which afflicts even the religious, even Simon the Pharisee, who is blind to his own corruption and so blind to the great love of God for both him and the woman he knows as a sinner (Luke 7.36-50).

Whenever we lift up our hearts to the Lord, we lift them up in the hope and prayer that these poor, small, sinful hearts will be made new and transformed and reshaped and made clean again and enlarged so that we may love God and love our neighbour more faithfully and with deeper integrity.  We are praying that our hearts of stone will become hearts of flesh again.

We come here as Christian ministers seeking to be transformed in this Eucharist and in every Eucharist including those in which we ourselves are ministers of word or sacrament.  For us and for all God’s people, the Eucharist is a converting ordinance for the transformation of our lives.  The oils we bless today are for signs of healing, for wholeness, for transformation, for the changing of the heart.

“As we recall the one perfect sacrifice of our redemption, Father, by your Holy Spirit, let these gifts of your creation be to us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ; form us into the likeness of Christ and make us a perfect offering in your sight”(Common Worship Order One, Eucharistic Prayer F) [1]

To lift up our hearts, to offer God our inmost lives, is to invite God to change us and through us to help transform God’s world.

We lift up our hearts to hold them in God’s love.  We lift up our hearts so that God will, through his mercy, change them, soften them and enlarge them.

Finally we lift up our hearts and we call others to lift their hearts in worship, in adoration, to the things of heaven, to the things above.  As bishops, as priests, as deacons, as lay ministers, our calling is to invite others away from the business of earth to the business of heaven: the adoration of the Trinity.   For these few moments in the week we are indeed called to be so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly use: lost in wonder, love and praise so that we might bring that vision of heaven into all we do on earth.

“Set your mind on things that are above, not on the things that are on earth, for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3.1).

Lift up your hearts means to be caught up in the worship of heaven, in the song of the angels, to join with angels and archangels as they proclaim God’s glory without end:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory.  Hosanna in the highest.

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.[2]

To live well in this earth we so need the perspective of heaven.  We need to set our minds on things that are above not on things that are on earth for you have died and your life is hid with Christ in God.

In this Eucharist and in every Eucharist, lift up your hearts.  Lift up your hearts as you renew your commitment to ministry. Lift up your hearts as we dedicate these oils as signs of God’s grace.  Lift up your hearts as we remember his great offering of himself.

Let us lift up our fragile hearts to the mercy and tenderness of God who loves us with a passion beyond telling.

Let us lift up our stony and deceitful hearts and invite God once again to transform them by his gracious Spirit.

Let us lift our earthbound and fragmented hearts to the worship of heaven and the adoration of the one true and living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit:

In the words of Hebrews:

“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the Living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12.22-24).

Lift up your hearts We lift them to the Lord.

[1] See also Prayer A: “Renew us by your Spirit, inspire us with your love and unite us in the body of your Son Jesus Christ”; Prayer C: “Grant that be his merits and death and through faith in his blood we and all your Church may receive forgiveness of our sins and all other benefits of his passion….Do not weigh our merits but pardon our offences”; Prayer G: “form us in the likeness of Christ and build us to a living temple to your glory”

[2] Augustine, Sermo 227.  I have changed the translation from “Hearts on high!”, the literal translation of “Sursum Corda” to the more familiar English, “Lift up your hearts”.