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Sermon from Christ Church Cathedral Oxford, preached by the Rt Revd Dr Steven Croft, Bishop of Oxford, at Holy Communion on the 6th of February 2022.

But by the grace of God I am what I am and his grace towards me has not been in vain (I Corinthians 15.30).

A reluctant prophet and poet. A persecutor of the church. An impetuous fisherman. Today’s readings profile the kind of people who are called by God to service in the life of the Church. The profiles stress neither their gifts nor skills. No-one is placed on a pedestal or called a saint. Rather each, in their own words and from their own mouth, confess their guilt, their inadequacy, their weakness.

We know very little of the prophet Isaiah before his encounter with the holiness of God in the temple in the year that King Uzziah died. We discover only a little about him from the beautiful narrative of his call except this. That when he is granted a vision of power and beauty, of God, Isaiah is overcome with a sense of the holiness and majesty of God and of his own inadequacy.

“Woe is me” he cries, “I am lost. For I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6.5).

The prophet’s confession is personal. He speaks about himself before he speaks of others. I am a man of unclean lips.

Paul’s pathway in ministry is not to claim great things for himself but the very opposite. Paul points away from himself and towards Christ. Where Paul does refers to himself, he confesses his weakness and the wrong turns his life has taken.

“For I am the least of the apostles”, he writes, “unfit to be called an apostle because I persecuted the Church of God. But it is by the grace of God I am what I am and his grace towards me has not been in vain”.

Paul’s persecution of the Church of God was not a light thing. Some of it is described in Acts. There is no doubt that Christians were arrested, imprisoned and put to death by Saul before his conversion.

Simon Peter’s encounter with Christ in the boat on Lake Galilee is similar to Isaiah’s in this one sense only. There is no temple, no vision of angels, no heavenly choir, no incense. Just tiredness after a night’s fishing and wonder at a miraculous catch. But Simon Peter’s response echoes that of Isaiah 6: “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”.

Encountering the goodness and the greatness and the love of God in Christ shows us all up for who we are. Our hearts are unclean. Our hands are unprepared. We are not fit even to eat the crumbs from under his table. And yet…..

I want to acknowledge this morning the deep pain which surrounds the disputes of recent years in Christ Church which affects many people and which cries out for healing and for grace. This is not the moment and this pulpit is not the place to offer any kind of commentary on events save this: that many who take very different views of the situation will have some sense of being disappointed in others for one reason or another. Those feelings are deep and real and there is a long road of reconciliation and healing ahead.

Disappointment in others is a feature of many parts of public life at present. It’s not wrong to have high expectations of those in positions of responsibility. But we will often be disappointed particularly in an age of 24/7 news and social media. It is a remarkable thing that our beloved Queen has reigned for 70 years today and retains her dignity, respect and integrity, one of the most remarkable women of this century and the last. Long may she reign.

But what should we do when we find ourselves in that place of disappointment and disillusion? Nothing is the work of a moment, but it may help to begin with Isaiah and Paul and Peter and their own sense of unworthiness before God in the temple, on the road to Damascus and on Galilee.

For each of us, the heart and the life we know best is our own. Over thirteen years as a bishop, I think I have seen my share of difficult situations and of human weakness, pride and fallibility as well as much that gives me cause for joy.

But insofar as I know my own heart and life, I am not able to judge others. I know that I am often stretched beyond my resources by internal and external drivers and temptations. I know my reservoirs of compassion and energies are finite. I know I yield often to vanity and temptation. I know my wisdom is limited, my prayers often weak, my faith sometimes not even a grain of mustard seed, my love faint. I know that I make mistakes and will often fall short in the ministry to which God has called me and will need to seek forgiveness.

And I know that when I find the place of Isaiah and Paul and Simon Peter and acknowledge both God’s glory and my own weakness, that is the place of grace.

It is there that I discover as they discovered that repentance is the place of forgiveness and healing, undeserved and offered because of what Jesus has done. The Lord of Hosts in the temple does not rebuke the reluctant prophet. He sends an angel with a coal to touch his lips and to restore him and commissions him to new ministry. Saul is not disqualified from serving Christ by failure: rather through his failures he discovers deeper reservoirs of grace and passion. Simon Peter admits to his inadequacy but immediately is given a commission: Do not be afraid, from now on you will be catching people.

Each of them is enfolded in different ways in the love and grace of God. Each of them is forgiven. Each of them is called to new and deeper ministries. These are the ways in which God moves in human lives.

And it is in the same place of weakness, as I understand I am forgiven, that I will find the courage and the ability, in time, also to forgive and to trust again and to love. The journey is seldom short or easy but it is a path of life and healing.

Christ invites us in this Eucharist and every Eucharist to come to him just as we are with all of our inner conflicts and disappointments. His love is infinite, beyond understanding. We will hear again in this service the song of the seraphs: Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts.

The president will issue the invitation to all of us to come:

Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world
Blessed are those who are called to his supper.

And we will respond, echoing Isaiah and Paul and Simon Peter:

Lord, I am not worthy to receive you
But only say the word and I shall be healed.

So let us come.

Today’s collect again as we pray together:

O God, you know us to be set
in the midst of so many and great dangers,
that by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright:
grant to us such strength and protection as may support us in all dangers
and carry us through all temptations; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Amen.

 

+Steven Oxford
6 February 2022

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Happy Christmas everyone.  This is my Christmas sermon from 2012, from the Midnight Eucharist at Sheffield Cathedral.

Christmas Sermon 2012 24th December, 2012 in Sheffield Cathedral Isaiah 9.2-7 and Luke 2.1-14

Some powerful words from our Old Testament reading and the ancient prophecy of Isaiah:

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”

One of the most memorable news stories of 2012 was the story of the unclaimed Euromillions jackpot.  Sometime back in June in the Stevenage area, someone bought a lottery ticket.  The numbers on the ticket came up. The holder was entitled to claim a staggering £63 million in prize money.  Think of it. But no claim was made.  Despite an extensive search, the ticket was never found.

It’s no use checking your pockets.  The deadline was 4th December.  Somewhere for six months there was a ticket in the back of someone’s wallet or down the side of the sofa or behind a fridge magnet which could have brought unimaginable wealth.  Perhaps one day, someone will find it and ponder what could have been.  Hold that thought for a moment.

What is that brings us together this evening in this ancient and holy place? What is it that draws people all over our land to churches at Christmas time? We are drawn, I hope, by more than the beautiful music, by more than a place of prayer, by more than the love of family and friends.

We are drawn by a longing for something, an ache, an emptiness, a void, a restlessness, a sense that life is incomplete.  It’s there all the time in different ways.  Often the noise around us drowns it out.  Sometimes when life is going well we forget it’s there for months on end.  Then suddenly it’s back again: like a voice calling from the distance, a thirst deep within us, a sense that we are incomplete.

In times of happiness, that joy we feel has nowhere to go.  In times of sadness, it’s a longing for comfort beyond ourselves. In times of confusion the ache becomes a cry for guidance.  In moments of darkness, a sense the light is there, if only we could see it.  In times when we do wrong it’s a sense of guilt and regret.  In the times when we are crushed it’s a desperate cry for help, a longing for someone to be listening.

Sometimes it feels like a distant memory of childhood.  Sometimes it’s an echo from a far away future.  Sometimes it’s a cry in the midst of the pain of the world. Sometimes it’s a glimpse of peace amidst turmoil and misery.  Sometimes it’s a gentle whisper in the silence of the night.  Sometimes a dis-ease for which we can find no cure.  Sometimes it’s a longing for someone or something we cannot name, something precious but just out of reach.

All down the ages men and women like us have felt this longing, this restlessness, this emptiness whenever we have tried to live without God.  However deeply we try to bury it, however much we hide from it, however difficult it is to face it, the sense remains that there must be more to life than there seems to be.  We know we are called to something deeper, more real, more meaningful than this world seems to offer.  We long in our hearts for more.

God is calling us all down the long years.  Christians recognize this inner voice, these questions, this restlessness as the voice of God calling out to each person in creation, to every one of us.  You were made with a purpose and a high calling, each of you, to know your creator and to live in friendship with God.

It is part of the great mystery of life that our friendship with God has been fractured by the evil which is in the world.  But even that broken friendship leaves its traces in that sense we have that life is incomplete, unfinished, hollow, unless we find the meaning.  From time to time we listen and know and understand that God is reaching out to us, longing to draw us home.

The story of Christmas can only be understood as a rescue mission.  Humanity is lost.  By ourselves we cannot find our way back to God.  So God sends to us his Son, born of a virgin, a child in a manger, to help us find our way.

Many people who celebrate this Christmas with turkey and tinsel will be like the owner of the lost lottery ticket.  They will simply not understand what they have been given.  They will not claim the treasure which could be theirs, the treasure which is worth more than they can ask or imagine.

So pause for a moment this Christmas and ponder again the wonder of the scene we know from cards and nativities all the world over.  See the stable, rough and ready, feel the straw under your feet and the chill night air.  Hear the animals, imagine the farmyard smells.  See Mary, a young girl, full of holy wonder.  See Joseph, kneeling by the crib.  See the fearful shepherds crowding in the stable door.

And in your minds eye see the child, wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.  See this child who is called by the prophecy so long ago wonderful counselor: the one in whom the wisdom of the ages rests.  See this child who is called Mighty God: the Lord of heaven and earth born as an infant, taking flesh becoming human.  See this child who is called in the prophecy, Everlasting Father: the one through whom the stars were made becomes a boy in a stable.  See this child, born in the midst of conflict, who is named the in prophecy Prince of Peace.

Come and see Jesus.  His name means God Saves and this Jesus has come to save us and all the world from our sins and draw us back to God.  According to Isaiah, his coming brings light.  The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.  His coming brings joy.  “You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy”. According to Isaiah his coming brings freedom and peace and order and justice and righteousness such as the world has never known.

Remember as you look, this is the child who will grow into the wisest teacher, the most compassionate friend, the mightiest healer the world has ever known.  This is the child who when he grows will feed the hungry, calm the storm, drive out the demons and raise the dead – mighty works and signs of a greater reality.  This is the child who when he grows will call men and women to follow him and become a new community which will spread over all the earth.  This is the child who will grow into the man of sorrows, who for the love he bears us, will go to his painful death on the cross for our sins, who will again be wrapped by his mother in strips of cloth, and who three days later will rise again, the conquerer of death itself.

Don’t hurry from the stable.  Stay a while. Kneel with the shepherds and ponder. If God really came to earth as a tiny child, then that one truth changes everything.  It changes the way you see God.  For God is not distant waiting for you to come to him.  God is present longing for you to receive his gift.

It changes the way we see ourselves.  You are not just a number, a statistic, a grain of sand on the seashore.  You are infinitely precious to your creator.  You are meant to be here.  You are chosen and called and saved. Your life has meaning beyond itself.

It changes the way we see the world.  For every child is precious to God, loved, cherished.  God’s love does not change as we grow older.  God’s love is not affected by race or the place where we are born or the human family we are born into.  No-one is just a number.  Each is a person, unique, created in God’s image, loved and able to be redeemed.

Our world is meant to be different.  It is meant to be a place of peace not war, of fairness not inequality, of health not disease, of love not hate, of honouring one another, not exploitation, of truth not lies.

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”

Listen again at Christmas time to the voice of God calling to you down the ages and calling you home.  Come and kneel on the floor of the stable with the shepherds.  Receive the most precious gift of all this Christmas time: the gift of Jesus, the gift of life.

Amen.

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Podcast

As we reach the sombre anniversary of the start of the first national lockdown, revisit this podcast from October 2020. Take a moment to reflect on all that has passed and cast your fears for the future on the Lord.


Look back over the last six months and reflect for a moment. What part has fear played in your own life and your life’s journey? What part is anxiety playing now in the key decisions of your life? Does it have too loud a voice? Does all of that fear and caution have the support of reason? Are there inner fears which you are keeping buried deep inside and cannot name or talk through with those closest to you? Are those chains of fear shaping the decisions you make in your work or your Christian service?

If that is the case, listen to the word of the Lord to you: “Do not fear, for I am with you. Do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand”.


The famous Dad’s Army episode at the start of this episode is taken from this BBC clip on YouTube
Photo: Shutterstock

So we come to the final chapter, Isaiah 55. This chapter is about comings and goings, and they set a profound rhythm for the life of God’s people which flows through the worship of the Church.

The first verses of Isaiah 55 offer the most gracious and powerful invitation for thirsty, weary souls: Come. But our prophet turns this into a fuller and deeper invitation still.

Music in this episode is taken from this recording available on YouTube. Photo: Steven Buckley

Three times now, the unknown prophet has sung to us of the servant of God. The fourth song is a reflection on the suffering of the nation and the way God will raise up his people again, no matter how difficult the circumstances or how far we have fallen.

How are we to hear these words afresh today as we walk through the pandemic, as we re-assess our lives and the life of the church and the life of the nation?

Music at the start of this episode is taken from this recording available on YouTube. ‘Take Me To The Alley’ by Gregory Porter is also available to listen to in full on YouTube. Photo: Shutterstock

We often think of comfort as something soft and soothing, like a big hug. But to comfort someone is not simply to wrap them up in cotton wool and tenderness. Comfortable words are words which restore our strength, our core, our backbone.

The next three months or so may well be the hardest of the COVID journey – how can we find the resources to give strength to our communities when we are already tired and worn down?

Music at the start of this episode is from the Fellowship Worship Collective, here on YouTube. Image courtesy of Shutterstock

The prophet sings of love and forgiveness, of new hope and strength in God, to rekindle courage in the hearts of God’s people. The prophet sings of a new kind of leadership, based on humility and gentleness. The prophet sings to tell us not to be afraid even in the face of death. These are comfortable words the whole world needs to hear afresh in this season.

The Comfortable Words I want to explore today unfold a mystery which is at the centre of the universe: that Almighty God, maker of heaven and earth, calls women and men into a relationship of love and entrusts us with a purpose for our lives and a mission to God’s world.

Episode links

  • The Personal Discipleship Plan
    A PDP is an accompanied faith journey with a local minister or mentor that explores six core questions that discern what God is doing in your life and what you might be called to next.
  • Paul’s faith journey (YouTube)
    This short film is a conversation between Paul and his mentor about the difference a PDP has made to his faith journey.
  • Disciples Together
    Disciples Together explores how we can embrace change for the benefit of God’s work in the world and outlines steps for our future ministry.
  • Join Bishop Steven for a webinar
    If you live and worship in the Diocese of Oxford, join Bishop Steven for a free webinar looking at rebuilding ministry with children, young people and families, introducing the Disciples Together principles and new resources you can use right now.

Opening music: John Denver – Sweet Surrender, taken from YouTube.
The Summons (Will you come and follow me), by John Bell, taken from YouTube.
Photo, Shutterstock

One of the oldest books on my shelf is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, the famous allegory of the Christian life published over 300 years ago. The famous hymn Who Would True Valour See is taken directly from his text. I first read Bunyan as a young Christian and have returned to Pilgrim’s Progress many times. At the very end of Christian’s journey, after many twists and turns and trials, he arrives at last at a great river, symbolising death. There is no bridge over this river and no way around it…

Music: a brief extract from ‘Who would true valour see’ by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band. Available here on YouTube.

Episode image: (c) Steven Buckley | Diocese of Oxford.

Brother, sister, let me serve you
Let me be as Christ to you
Pray that I may have the gift to let you be my servant too.

The servant song by Richard Gillard is one of the most popular contemporary worship songs, sung by churches of many different traditions. It’s often chosen for services of ordination and licensing new ministers. The song captures something vital about the way of discipleship. As Christians we are called to a life of service together, to love and support one another in all the joys and sorrows of our lives. But where does that idea come from?


Image: Shutterstock

The world around us has learned to respond to suffering and pain and difficulty. The temptation is to numb negative emotion, to overlay it, to disguise it through shopping or social media or food or alcohol or other addictive behaviours. We numb. In normal times that can set in motion slow but destructive cycles of behaviour in our lives. We keep afloat but only just. But in times of crisis and difficulty, it is not enough to numb. The pain around us overwhelms our defences. Something much deeper is needed…

The quotation from Brene Brown in this episode is taken from her TED talk The Power of Vulnerability. Watch it here.

Photo: Shutterstock

Welcome back to a new series of podcasts for the autumn: comfortable words.

The title is taken from the opening verses of Isaiah 40-55 (and also for a well-known part of the Prayer Book liturgy for Holy Communion). Each episode will begin from a passage of scripture taken from this part of the Book of Isaiah which begins with the unknown prophet’s call:

“Comfort, O comfort my people says your God
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her….”

The focus of the songs in Isaiah 40-55 is helping God’s people to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. I hope and pray the podcasts will be helpful to the Church across the Diocese of Oxford and more widely as we find our voice again in the midst of the pandemic.

I’ve listened to three songs as I’ve prepared the podcast this week.

The first is the opening section of Handel’s Messiah, which sets this passage to music. The second is Prepare ye the way of the Lord from the musical Godspell, and the third is Emilie Sande’s brilliant live performance of Our Version of Events III at the close of the 2012 Olympic games, heard briefly at the beginning and end of this episode.

Image: Shutterstock. The short music clip is taken from a live recording, here on YouTube