Ss Peter & Paul, Wantage:
Church Street, Wantage, OX12 8AQ
Holy Trinity, Charlton:
Charlton Village Road, Wantage
A Sermon for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
Preached by the Vicar, the Revd Katherine Price, at the Parish Church on 22 January 2023
Has Christ been divided?
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Fishermen are possibly not the people on whom I would build a kingdom of peace and harmony! Many of you know that I previously ministered in Grimsby, which was once a major fishing port, and the defining event in the collective memory of that community was the Cod Wars, a series of sometimes violent disputes between the UK and Iceland over fishing rights in the North Sea. This took place in the middle of the twentieth century but it continues to poison Grimsby’s attitude to Europe and to intenational co-operation to this day. So I for one am not too surprised - knowing that Jesus Christ chose his first disciples from amongst fishermen - that the church today looks less like an ark of salvation than a number of rival fishing fleets squabbling over territory!
There’s no doubt the church’s credibility in carrying out the mission entrusted by Christ to those first disciples at the sea of Galilee is very seriously undermined if anyone looking to learn about the One Lord, Jesus Christ has first to choose between half a dozen different churches! We might or might not take comfort from St Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians, which reminds us that strife between different groups of Christians is not uniquely the product of our own age, or of any other historical period but comes with the territory of being human.
This is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an international joint initiative which is observed by most of the world’s different churches and denominations. This week in January is also generally seen as the most depressing week of the year! That seems horribly appropriate, because I have to ask how much difference all that prayer for Christian Unity has made. The forty years of my life have coincided with a wilderness period for ecumenism - that is, relations between churches and progress towards church unity. It seems hardly believable now that, back in the late sixties, the Pope placed a bishop’s ring on the finger of the Archbishop of Canterbury and invited him to give a blessing, or that the Methodists voted in favour of a proposal to be reunited with the Church of England. I’m afraid we were the ones who blocked that! The prospect of institutional unity seems more remote than ever.
Yet at the same time, many Christians have become indifferent to their denominational distinctions, and to the ‘organisation’ side of organised religion in general. We know that real hostility exists just over the water in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, but here on the ground in Wantage, most of us already feel we’re part of the same thing as our Christian brothers and sisters in the Baptist church or the Community Church or St John Vianney. We co-operate on projects such as the food bank. We share the experience of being Christians in a society that mostly isn’t. We feel the truth of the Orthodox saying: “the walls we build on earth don’t reach to heaven”. Getting all Christians together into one institution doesn’t seem very urgent or maybe even very desirable.
So if the separation of the churches is a problem that isn’t going to be solved, and maybe doesn’t need solving, why do I still believe that prayer for Christian unity is our most urgent duty?
When St Paul wrote to his Corinthian church, he recognised that Christians didn’t leave behind their fallen behaviours outside the church walls. Our disunity is likewise connected with a wider malaise in our twenty-first century world. We call it by various names: culture wars, identity politics, polarisation, post-truth. A few years ago, I think those of us in the church – who care about the idea that some things are true and some are wrong – thought the challenge was indifference and relativism: everyone believes whatever works for them. Now maybe we long for that superficial harmony of live and let live! It seems that people disagree more fiercely than ever, not just holding their own views more passionately but feeling threatened by the very existence of someone else who thinks differently. Just look at what’s happened in the past week with the relationship between England and Scotland and different positions on what the law should allow in terms of gender recognition. That’s another Union which has been strained close to breaking point. It is the question of our times: how is it possible for people to live together?
And that’s the challenge to the church. Can we be different? Can we, in our relationships with one another model an answer, or at least the hope of an answer, to this great question of our times?
In our gospel reading we hear that Jesus began his ministry in Galilee. Galilee was a fractious and resentful province which felt far from the cosmopolis of Jerusalem – a place, we might say, in need of some levelling up! But it was also ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ – where Aramaic-speaking Jewish villages such as Jesus’ home town of Nazareth and his base at Capernaum co-existed with newer communities of greek-speaking non Jews, side by side but keeping very separate lives and cultures.
The astonishing claim of Jesus and his immediate followers was to break down that barrier: “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” And more than that: “there is neither male nor female, neither slave nor free, but all are one in Christ Jesus”. Christian Unity is nothing less than the mission of Jesus, to break down the fundamental human differences and power dynamics which exclude and divide.
If “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself”, then this is the challenge to us, the church: how can we live as a reconciled community, a community of the reconciled? Christian Unity is not just about unification between churches but about the quality of our relationships from top to bottom.
The Anglican tradition and family of churches, to which this parish belongs has always taken very seriously the mission to build unity. Anglicans have been at the forefront of ecumenism and we have presented ourselves – not uncontroversially! – as uniquely placed to reach out and build bridges with different churches because of our own broad and comprehensive understanding of what Christian life and belief can look like.
Anglicans are never afraid to learn and to borrow from the wisdom and riches of other Christians’ traditions. Sometimes, of course, that affection for how other churches do things can seem like a lack of loyalty to our own, and I know this church has an uncomfortable history with that. But just as the English language has developed one of the richest vocabularies in the world by begging borrowing and stealing words from other languages, or the English palate has adapted itself to love pizza and curry as much as roast beef and spuds, so the global church tradition which originated first in England has an aquisitive attitude to the practices and prayers of Christians outside its boundaries. As the classical writer Terence said “nothing human is alien to me” so the Anglican motto could be, “nothing Christian is alien to me”! The model of unity for which we strive is to be broad enough that any Christian can be a member of the Church of England without being untrue to whatever other tradition may have given them faith.
But this commitment comes at a cost. We have seen in this past week a decision from the Bishops of the Church of England, to permit for the first time same-sex partnerships and marriages to be publicly celebrated by the church through services of blessing and dedication but stopping short of legally-recognised marriage services. It is a decision which will be too much for some and not nearly enough for others. The Church of England is famous for its compromise solutions; its admirers describe this as the ‘via media’ – the middle way – and its detractors call it fudge! Is it cowardice to try and please everyone, or is it bravery to take the line of compromise knowing you will please no-one? At the very least, it is a witness to the earnestness with which we take the task of living together. The Church is Christ’s body, broken for us on the tree, broken for us at the altar, and still broken by our sin and division every day. If that hurts, it should do! because it is Christ’s pain that we are feeling.
Jesus began his ministry in a divided land and invited divided and broken people to build his church. If we are to live as reconciled people, reconciled to one another, we must first be reconciled with and to ourselves, as well as to God.
How can we meet one another in peace if our own hearts are divided by fear, resentment, insecurity and bitterness? Let us then pray for Christian Unity: the unity of each Christian in singleness and simplicity of heart. Amen.
What's in a name? A sermon for the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus
Preached on New Year's Day 2023 at the Parish Church by the Revd Katherine Price, Vicar
After eight days it was time to circumcise the child, and he was called Jesus.
What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. So says Juliet Capulet to Romeo Montague: two lovers trapped by their names.
But a great deal of thought goes into a name. The name of a product or a company requires careful market research: nobody wants to find their brand translates as something obscene in a foreign market! There are international committees for the naming of stars, or storms, or pandemic diseases. And of course, the naming of cats is a difficult matter…
In twenty-first century Britain the naming of a child is generally a matter for the parents, who may well keep it to themselves until after the birth, on the grounds that, once it’s a fait accompli, other people are much less likely to react by reminiscing about their unpleasant classmate at school who shared that name or pointing out an unfortunate abbreviation or pun. The name chosen might express the parents’ aspirations for their child - in some cultures names like ‘Lucky’ or ‘Wealthy’ are popular. Or you might name your child after someone you would like your child to emulate – apparently the names of Love Island contestants were particularly popular in 2022! We are a long way from the situation in former centuries when maybe half of men would have been called William or John, and half of women some variant on Ann or Joan.
Jesus’ name, Yeshua or Isho in Aramaic, is a variant of the name Joshua. Joshua is best known as the hero of Jewish legend who led the invasion of the promised land and took the City of Jericho, and for whom one of the least attractive books of the Bible is named! ‘Jehoshua’ also means ‘the Lord is salvation’, hence the reference earlier in Luke to Jesus being given this name ‘because he will save his people from their sins’. But perhaps what is most significant is that it’s an entirely commonplace name - and, at a time when some in Palestine would have been adopting Roman and Greek names, it is a distinctively Jewish name.
Most of the time we don’t choose our own names. They are given to us, and they say less about who we are as individuals than about our culture and our family. The most common baby name in the UK in 2022 was Mohammed. Even if we do choose to change our name it’s most commonly when we get married, or to mark a religious conversion, or increasingly a gender transition. It’s about how we relate to others. You don’t need a name to talk to yourself: you need a name so other people know how to talk to you.
And so, roses notwithstanding, Romeo and Juliet cannot change their names. They cannot escape the family and the society they have been born into no matter how they might wish to disavow what it stands for.
If a name is given to locate us within our family and our wider community, some cultures go further in physically marking children through tattooing or scarification, using traditional symbols to communicate to others information about who they are and where they come from. So the circumcision which accompanied Jesus’ naming can be seen as an extreme form of the same thing. Of course for Christians the first shedding of Jesus’ blood has symbolic value in looking forward to the cross but it is also about placing Jesus firmly within the culture and community of his own people, the Jews.
At the risk of making the men in the congregation a little uncomfortable, I’m going to say a few words about the history of circumcision. It probably starts out as a widespread middle-eastern custom which may have involved only a small cut. But we know from St Paul that by the time of Jesus, there were Jewish men who were trying to reverse or conceal their circumcision to fit in with Roman and Greek society – remember the importance of the baths, where you would meet people naked! As a kind of reaction to this, circumcision becomes more and more important as the pre-eminent marker of Jewish identity and actually develops into the more extreme form practised today.
For Mary and Joseph, there is no question that their son will be circumcised. Luke simply recounts it thus: “it was time to circumcise the child”. Jesus gets no say in this. It is simply part of what it means to be born as a Jewish boy in that place and time. Nowadays, circumcision is much more controversial, although just how controversial is still very culturally defined: if you pick up a new baby book written for the American market the first chapter will probably be about whether or not to have your son circumcised – not an option parents will be offered in an NHS hospital! But increasingly we are less comfortable with the idea that parents might make decisions over their child’s physical integrity and religious identity. Yet we still take it for granted that parents will choose whether their child receives vaccinations, or which school they will go to.
So much of our lives is determined by our family background: not by the choices our parents make, but just by who they are their genetics, where they live, how much money they have, their presence or absence in our lives, the examples set by those around us. We are heirs of a particular inheritance, the inheritance of our culture, our history, our family, whether we like it or not. Many of us will have spent time with family over the last week and even the way you celebrate Christmas is probably in part something you have inherited. And we all know that inheritances often cause as much trouble as they’re worth, particularly within families!
Because to be an heir is not the choice of the one who receives but the one who gives. Circumcision in the Jewish tradition is the mark of the covenant, the mark of God’s faithfulness to his people as beneficiaries of the promise made to Abraham.
At the burning bush, God revealed his name to Moses so that from then on, his people would be able to address him by name. In Jesus Christ, God gives us a new name by which we can address him. Not the mysterious name by which he revealed himself to Moses, a name so sacred that over time it came to be hedged round with alternatives such as The Lord, and never uttered directly, but a human name and a human face by which we can enter into relationship with God.
And the name which he gives himself becomes the name by which we are known: ‘Christians’, people of the anointed one or in some middle eastern countries Nazarenes, followers of the man from Nazareth. Like all names, it ties us down to a family, a community, a culture, a history. We are heirs to the whole of the Christian tradition some of which we may wish to treasure, and some of which we might wish were not taking up room in our metaphorical attics and understairs cupboards. We are bound to others who bear the name of Christian in this generation and through history. They are part of who we are, however that may make us feel. And we are bound also to the generations of the future to preserve this inheritance for them.
Jesus Christ was born under the law to redeem those born under the law: not to start afresh, like the flood of Noah, but to enter into history, culture, family, and renew it in his image.
On this New Year’s Day, the secular tradition is to make a new year’s resolution: New year, new me; Out with the old, in with the new. The resolution will probably be forgotten by the end of January and the old me will resolutely still be here – maybe a pound or two lighter, maybe not. But the tradition in the Methodist church is the renewal of covenant. I’m not going to use that text in our service today, although it is authorised for use in the Church of England as well, because it is something solemn, not something to spring on people unprepared. But I would like to invite us to consider this New Year not as a time to take up some new project of individual self-improvement but an opportunity to re-commit to renewing and redeeming all we have already received.
Christmas Day 2022
Homily by the Vicar, the Revd Katherine Price
She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them.
I wonder what stories are told about your birth. What are the anecdotes – funny or hair-raising or poignant – that have become part of family lore, perhaps to be brought out inappropriately round the Christmas dinner table later today?
The story my mum tells, not about my birth but about her own, is about my grandmother travelling to hospital in an ambulance in a storm... strapped down to the deck of a ferry. This was Cornwall in the nineteen-fifties, before the building of the Tamar Bridge and the nearest hospital was the wrong side of the river. And when the paramedics arrived at the house they told my grandfather to fetch what they needed – no, not hot water and towels, but a hammer and a nail! You can imagine his face! They had to hurriedly explain it was to put up a drip next to the bed. But the best story has to go to another Cornish baby, born just this week in a helicopter somewhere between the Isles of Scilly and the mainland. I don’t even know how you register that as a place of birth!
The stories we tell about our birth are about the things that matter – things that were important or out of the ordinary. Luke tells us four things about Jesus’ birth: it was in Bethlehem, he was wrapped in swaddling clothes, he was laid in a manger, and it was because there was no room.
He was born in Bethlehem. Why Bethlehem? The answer we always hear is that Bethlehem is the place foretold in prophecy for the birth of the Messiah. But that doesn’t tell us much, and certainly means very little to us today. What I think is more interesting is where Luke starts his story: a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This is an actual historical event, although not necessarily in precisely the year Jesus was born. This is about the imposition of direct Roman rule in Judea, the area around Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The Roman empire – Roman taxes, Roman soldiers – is coming to the neighbourhood.
So if they are travelling from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea, Joseph and Mary are entering the Roman occupied territories. And they are going to be registered, so that the Romans know exactly how many people they have and where and how much money they can get out of them. This is about imperial control. And it’s particularly offensive to Jewish thought. Even today some religious Jews won’t take part in a census.
So when we hear that Jesus is born in the city of King David, the great king of Jewish history and legend it’s a little bit like being born in Wantage, the town of King Alfred! This is a political statement, that he represents a different kind of power and legitimacy.
In the words of our Old Testament reading from the prophet Isaiah the birth of this child, this powerless child, is somehow also the defeat of every empire built on violence, on “the boots of tramping warriors” - or we might say, the rolling caterpillar tracks of tanks - and the establishment of a reign of peace. And this is ironic, because Caesar Augustus is credited with the establishment of the Pax Romana, commemorated in the traditional words at Midnight Mass each year: ‘when all the world was at peace’. We imagine the birth of Christ coming at a time of political upheaval and turmoil but actually it was a time of unprecedented peace – albeit an imperial peace. So when the angels sing, Glory to God and on earth Peace to those he favours, Jesus is offering a rival peace, a peace built on something other than military might and strong borders and an efficient bureaucracy.
Secondly, Luke tells us that Mary wrapped Jesus in bands of cloth. This is what we sing about as ‘swathing’ or ‘swaddling’ bands. But why does Luke mention this? Swaddling is just what you do to a baby. The angels to say to the shepherds, ‘this will be a sign for you, you will find the child wrapped in bands of cloth’, and that’s a bit like saying, ‘you’ll know it’s the right baby because he’ll be wearing a nappy’. How can that be a sign?
Well, Jesus will be wrapped in strips of cloth on another occasion, by his mother and other women, and laid not in a manger but in a tomb. If you look at our manger in the crib, it’s actually quite a realistic representation of what a first century feeding trough looked like – it’s made of stone. It looks quite a lot like a tomb. So when we hear that Jesus is laid in a manger we are meant to remember Jesus as the Lamb of God, the one who lays down his life. But he is also the one who feeds us: as the animals come to the manger to eat and drink so we come to Jesus to be fed – most literally here at this altar in this service of holy communion.
Finally, we hear there was no room. Now yesterday at the crib service we saw a play about the innkeeper, and after writing that script I was horrified to learn that there was no innkeeper and no inn and probably no stable. I wanted to say, yes there is! It’s there in the bible! Well it is there in our particular English translation of the Bible but apparently, as I have now learned, the word used could mean any kind of guest room. Might be in a hotel, might be in a house. And animals quite often lived inside the house at night anyway. So, one argument goes, maybe our crib scene is all wrong and Mary and Joseph weren’t turned away at the door at all, but staying in a house, perhaps with relatives, and they just happened to have the spare room full with all the rest of the family as I imagine many of you have this weekend!
But I’m not convinced. If there’s nothing odd about this part of the story, why would Luke mention it? This isn’t about being born in one room rather than another, this is about there being no room. Even before he has been born, Jesus is being rejected and turned away by the people he has come to save and taking his place with those at the margins.
This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. This message is for us as well as for the Shepherds. How are we to know this baby as our God and our saviour? Because he gives his life for us; because he feeds us; and because he is found not by kings in the palace at Jerusalem or in Rome or in London or New York but by poor shepherds in a small town in a colonial province amongst those who are pushed out and overlooked and for whom there is no room. Amen.
Darkness: a homily preached at Midnight Mass
by the Vicar, the Revd Katherine Price
He was in the world, but the world did not know him.
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
It came upon the midnight clear…
Actually we have no idea whether Jesus was born at midnight or at three o’clock in the afternoon – although statistically a baby born without medical intervention is more likely to be born in the hours of darkness. But whatever time of day or night it took place the event we commemorate this night is an event cloaked in darkness. It takes place in a small town in a small province on the far fringes of a great empire. The scene: a nondescript shelter – maybe a barn or a cave or the lower room of a little house, of the sort that still cluster against the hillsides in Palestinian villages. In a dark corner, a woman giving birth in the straw.
A personal moment, although perhaps not quite as private as we would now imagine. Most likely Mary would have had other women with her, not to mention the ox and ass and donkey! Joseph probably stayed well clear. The nativity, like the resurrection, was witnessed first by women.
An insignificant place, and an insignificant audience for this apparently insignificant moment… this moment from which every other event in human history is now dated.
Jesus of Nazareth, whom we call the Christ, was born in obscurity and he lived most of his life in obscurity. He didn’t rule a kingdom, he didn’t write a book, he didn’t win a war, or discover a continent, or create a new invention. He died five miles from where the Christmas story says he was born - as it happens, at three o’clock in the afternoon. That we do know. The most public and well-attested event of his life was his death. In an empire in which legionaries could march from Egypt to Hadrian’s Wall, he never travelled more than a hundred miles from where he grew up. And yet his is the best known name in history – way bigger than the Beatles! – and we live in a world that quite simply would not have existed were it not for this moment.
He came to his own and his own people did not receive him. God came into his world not with flashes of lightning and trumpets and earthquakes but as it were by the back door – sneaking in under our noses, quietly, without fuss.
His arrival was not proclaimed by heralds or released to the world’s media, or shared on twitter but announced to a few shepherds who happened to be in the neighbourhood. God enters the world… and the world just doesn’t notice. We don’t get it. We’re trying to find God, but we’re looking in all the wrong places.
If Jesus is the light what he brings to light is the story hidden in plain sight from the foundation of the world -what has been dubbed the Bible’s minority report – that our God is a God of the hidden, the vulnerable, of the outcast and the obscure.
In this Year of Our Lord two thousand and twenty two, our world is smaller and our lives are bigger. At least, we take up more space on the planet and on the servers of Google and Facebook. Life feels more public: it has never been easier to compare our lives with others – or what they choose to share of them – never easier for a private moment to go viral or an individual to launch from obscurity to a global brand. That can be a lovely thing: for a record-breaking fifth time this year, the Christmas Number One has gone to LadBaby: a bloke and his missus from Nottingham.
But are we at risk of forgetting that the most important moments of our lives may have been small, private, impossible to explain to anyone else or unnoticed even by ourselves until much later? Did it even really happen if it’s not on insta?
What we celebrate this night is what Christians call the incarnation: God coming to share everything it means to be human, God revealing himself to us in a human life. What we see in Jesus is the truth about God. God is what we see in Jesus Christ.
So how does it change the way we see God if instead of looking up to an all-powerful figure, up there somewhere in a distant heaven, we look down, to seek him among the powerless and the dispossessed? What if we cannot see him, not because he is so far above us, but because he is hidden in plain sight in those people and places and moments we overlook or disregard?
So tonight we gather in the darkness to seek the God who comes to us in darkness. Amen.
A sermon for Advent 4
Preached by Fr Benji Tyler, curate of Wantage, on 18 December 2022
Year A | Advent iv |
Gospel: Matthew 1 18-25
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
On the 24th February this year ‘with imperial swagger, Russian troops, tanks and planes were on the move [, advancing towards Ukraine]. The disaster unfurled on a grey, ordinary Thursday morning, sprinkled by rain. By 5am friends and loved ones were calling each other, peering into their phones, clicking on news updates and making existential decisions. Stay or flee?
[Luke Harding of The Guardian recalls:] Some packed and got ready to leave. Others took refuge in apartment building basements, wondering if the horror might pass. Alerted by colleagues, I threw on my boots and coat and took the stairs to the hotel’s underground garage. The floor filled up with staff and guests. A family arrived. A mother shepherded her two children to safety. The kids perched on chairs. They were carrying colouring books. The war was no longer abstract, a matter for opinion columns and thinktanks. It was a bringer of random death, if not to these children, then to others.
By breakfast, the scale of Russia’s military assault became apparent.'*
This is what it looks like for an everyday civilian – for you and me - when an earthly ruler attempts to align the world according to his view. Today, as in the days of the Bible, land and people are still claimed as possessions. The use of war in these situations is inevitable. Yes the weapons may be different, but the invaders and the invaded are the same. Human beings as despots and as victims. Human beings caught up, against their will in a moment of history.
Which makes the circumstances of the coming of the Saviour of the World, King of the Universe all the more astonishing.
I would like to invite you to pause with me and join in moment of wonder. To think that a Jewish boy, conceived in a woman who could easily have been stoned for apparent adultery, born in an animal house surrounded by cold and filth, escaped the attempted murder of jealous King Herod, and raised as his own by Joseph a Carpenter, is the one to whom you pray, the one to whom you look for your very life’s purpose and the one who one day, you believe, will come again in glory and dwell with you forever? [pause]
The German language has a word Zeitenwende – literally: a times turn, a turning point in history. The paradox in the Zeitenwende of the coming of the Son of God, Christ the King, to this earth is that the single greatest conquest in history occurred totally unnoticed, save for an ox, an ass and a camel, which adored.
And yet, despite the humility, (or maybe because of it), the lack of army, the death on a cross - the consequences of this quiet, humble, peaceful birth are that hearts for 2000 years have been challenged, changed, and transformed into an army whose ensign is peace, whose weapon is love.
The war in Ukraine over the past year has been devastating. Cities have been laid waste. The largest mass movement of people since WWII has taken place. The price of oil, of food and everything else is soaring.
But the consequences of invasion have also been transformative for international relations. In a matter of days, unthinkable things happened. Sweden and Finland abandoned neutrality; Germany, pacifism; the UK, post-Brexit estrangement from European neighbours; Poland and Hungary, antipathy towards refugees, at least those from a neighbouring country. By showing solidarity with Ukraine, the US and its allies found a role, a new moral purpose and a collective resilience.
The birth of Jesus Christ came about in this way.
A way that, let’s be honest, even we his followers might have done differently had we have been God. Yet Matthew’s claim that God came among us in THIS way, should give us more cause for hope than a thousand ‘other’ ways. More cause, because if God can change the world through a birth of a boy in a stable in Bethlehem which Zeitenwende’d human existence, he is the God I want to worship this Christmas; the God I want to trust; the God I want to pray to for peace and goodwill amongst all men.
St Joseph trusted God. He trusted that this baby, born of the virgin Mary, was the one who saves, who would rescue humanity. We today must be like St Joseph. We must take him seriously, take his attitude to heart. As we look at the mess our world still gets itself into in our own day, as we look at the atrocities of war, of inequality, of poverty - the invitation this Christmas is to join St Joseph in acknowledging his son whom he named Jesus and trust afresh that he WILL continue to save; will continue to save his people and through his people, the whole world. This is why we celebrate Christmas.
Let us pray.
from whom all thoughts of truth and peace proceed:
kindle, we pray, in the hearts of all, the true love of peace
and guide with your pure and peaceable wisdom
those who take counsel for the nations of the earth
that in tranquillity your kingdom may go forward,
till the earth is filled with the knowledge of your love;
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.
A sermon for Gaudete Sunday (Advent 3)
Preached by the Revd Dr Chris Dingwall-Jones, Chaplain of Jesus College Oxford, at Wantage Parish Church on 11 December 2022
My Kingdom is not of this world.
Dorothy Day, the Roman Catholic spiritual writer and social activist, was fond of the phrase ‘to love is to suffer.’ This idea has strong roots in Christian theology – after all, Jesus Christ is the full revelation of God’s love for us, and the ‘high point’ of Jesus’s ministry among us is known as the ‘passion’ – Jesus’s suffering with and for us, demonstrating his love for us. The double meaning of passion, as suffering and as deep love, attests to this mystery.
But this is hard. Suffering is something we rightly want to avoid, for ourselves and for others. Today is Gaudete Sunday, the day on which we are reminded to ‘rejoice in the Lord always,’ a day on which our readings point to a day when even the barren parts of the earth will rejoice, when impassable wildernesses will become a highway, when sorrow and sighing will flee away.
How do we bring all this together? Suffering and rejoicing, the coming of the Kingdom and the reality of the world as we find it today, with all its injustice and all its sorrow?
In essence, this is the question John the Baptist is asking of Jesus in our Gospel reading. John, like the prophets who came before him, was a thorn in the side of the rulers of his day. John’s preaching was popular with ordinary people, who came to him to be baptised. When we piece together the Gospel accounts, we find a figure who recognises the injustice of the world he lives in, and encourages people to repentance, as well as advising them how to exist within this world. John stands between the world as it is, unjust, impossible to navigate without becoming complicit and the coming of the Messiah, which will herald in both wrath and justice.
At the start of the Gospel reading, John seems confused by Jesus. Like many who stand up against the powers of the world, John has found himself imprisoned by local rulers. Something about Jesus’s preaching and activity seems to have struck him as wrong, since he asks ‘are you the Messiah, or should we wait for someone else?’
It’s hard to know exactly what John has in mind here, but part of the confusion surely comes from the fact that John remains in prison, injustice is still the foundation of Judean society, and the Messiah seems to be doing nothing about it. Surely, if Jesus were the Messiah, John would have been released? Surely Herod would have been deposed and Jesus the Messiah installed as the true King of the Judeans? John is suffering, and in his suffering he longs to see justice done, here and now.
I want to pause here and think about the cause of John’s suffering: it is not just that he is in prison. John has self-consciously styled himself after the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, who knew that suffering would be their lot. The Letter of James makes this understanding clear: the prophets are to be seen as an example of suffering and patience. Jesus is similarly clear that prophets will be rejected and even killed for speaking God’s word and in God’s name. John has spent his life living a life of extreme simplicity and hardship in the wilderness.
And yet, now, after the Messiah has come, he is suffering: the exploitation and injustice he has been preaching against continue, he has been arrested, and the coming of the Messiah does not seem to have had any impact on the status quo. John’s complaint comes not just from his situation, but from his awareness that things could be different. The knowledge that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near makes the experience of injustice more acute, because it stands in contrast to John’s own experience of injustice.
This is the difficulty at the heart of Christian spirituality. We know that Jesus has come. We know that what Jesus has come for is to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven, the restoration of all things and the end of all injustice. We know that Jesus calls us to look for the signs of the kingdom, to recognise where the world is being transformed, and to join in.
But we also know that the Kingdom is not here yet. We know that there is so much injustice throughout the world: we see the conflict in Ukraine, the exploitation of workers which has enabled the World Cup to take place in Qatar. We see the cost of living crisis contrasted with the enormous wealth of a very few. We see a deliberate attempt to use the media to stoke division rather than solidarity, picking vulnerable groups like asylum seekers as scapegoats.
As Christians, we are called to inhabit the place of John the Baptist, sharing the suffering of those who are oppressed precisely because we know that this is not how it is meant to be, that in the Kingdom of Heaven there will be justice and peace, and everlasting joy.
This is what it means to say ‘to love is to suffer’ – as we grow close to Jesus through scripture, through prayer, through the Eucharist, we learn to see with the eyes of the kingdom, and to tell what we hear and see. With the eyes of the kingdom we are reminded that creation is good, but that human sinfulness has damaged that goodness. With the ears of the kingdom we hear the cry of the oppressed, a voice of protest against sin. And with the eyes and ears of the kingdom we discern where Christ is at work transforming a sinful world, through grace, into the kingdom.
And through it all, we suffer – because we are called to live in a world where the kingdom is not yet here. ‘Be patient’ says James, ‘strengthen your hearts,’ take the prophets as examples of suffering and patience. Even within the lifetime of the apostles the waiting for the fulfilment of the kingdom called for a patience which required the support of grace – and we are far on in time from then.
There has, perhaps, been little joyful in what I have said so far: to be in Christ is to be made more sensitive to the suffering of the world, to be called to share Christ’s sorrow at the sins which beset it, to weep with those whose lives are crushed by the powers and principalities of this age.
But the Gospels insist again and again that here is joy. We do not suffer needlessly, but because of our closeness to Christ, because we have been allowed to see the vision of the world as it should be. This is a call to action, to solidarity, to rejoicing: God is not distant and disinterested, but sees the suffering of the world so clearly that God lived among us, entering into this suffering to its deepest extent, not just on the Cross, but in an unlikely birth, in an occupied territory, under a murderous ruler. Christ is here, with us, the source and token of joy despite everything.
In Christ we see the spiritual, the material, even the political brought together and integrated. Their out-working is not what we might expect, as John the Baptist found – but Christ is the promise that all that we hope for will find its consummation, all that we love is loved better and more fully by the Christ who suffered for that love. All our suffering finds its meaning in the love which will make Christ all in all, not because God wills our suffering, but rather because our suffering shows us the distance between what we know in part now and what will be in the future.
So rejoice. Rejoice in the face of the suffering of the world, that we have been granted the grace to see that this is not as it should be. Rejoice that our efforts, however inadequate, to address suffering in our communities are efforts to co-operate with the coming kingdom. Rejoice that Christ is among us this morning, in this community gathered at the altar. And rejoice that in the coming of Christ among us is a seed of the restoration of all things when the kingdom of God comes in power. Amen.
What the Dickens…? A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
Preached at the Parish Church on 4 Dec 2022 by the Revd Katherine Price, Vicar.
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness…
Last week the Office for National Statistics released the results of the 2021 census, and in the top headline on the BBC news that day we learned that under fifty per cent of people living in Britain now define themselves as Christians. Christians have gone from being the majority to being officially a minority for the first time since records began.
Now these statistics are notoriously slippery and dependent on exactly how you ask the question, so this headline-grabbing figure may well be rather more arbitrary and less momentous than it first appears. Even when Dickens was writing a Christmas Carol back in the 1840s probably only half the population was in church on any given Sunday. Yet that headline does give us pause: is the church now a lone voice crying out in the wilderness?
Well if we are, then we are in good and venerable company! In Advent we recall how the way was prepared for the coming of Jesus, and in this second week of Advent we celebrate especially the prophets of the Old Testament. One of the key themes of Old Testament prophecy is the notion of the ‘remnant’, the faithful few. We find it here in Isaiah: “A shoot will come out from the stump of Jesse”.
The so-called Jesse Tree was one of the most popular subjects from Old Testament prophecy in Medieval church art: there is an especially fine example just up the road at Dorchester Abbey. It traces the biblical figures and stories which connect Jesus back to his ancestor David, son of Jesse. In recent years the Jesse Tree has also become popular as a distinctively Christian alternative to the Advent Calendar. But the image in Isaiah is not one of unbroken continuity, but rather of new life springing from a tree which appears to have been cut down and destroyed. Jesus comes as hope when all hope is lost – growing not from the old high branches but directly from the roots exposed by this violent pruning.
It is characteristic of prophecy that it is read anew and reinterpreted in each generation. So a passage from Isaiah features here in our Gospel reading, but whereas in the original it is the path being prepared in the wilderness here it is the prophet himself who is located in the wilderness.
John the Baptist has gone out into the wildnerness, into the place where traditionally people have gone to meet with God, complete with a diet straight out of “I’m a celebrity, get me out of here!” Maybe it’s not much of a wilderness if you’re surrounded by TV crews, but it is interesting that even today, people are drawn to extreme and isolated terrain looking not just for fame but for redemption, for self-discovery, for forgiveness.
This weekend in Wantage we have been celebrating Dickensian Evening, the start of a season in which - in spite of the supposedly secularising trends in our society – people still turn out in huge numbers, both in church and elsewhere to sing carols about the coming of Jesus, or to re-enact his nativity.
Dickens in his novel, A Christmas Carol, was in many ways the inventor of our modern Christmas. His vision of Christmas as a family celebration really caught the early-Victorian imagination. But we’re missing the point if we associate A Christmas Carol with a romantic chocolate box image of a Victorian Christmas, all ice-skating and crinolines and roasted chestnuts. Dickens’ writing always had a sharp edge of social critique. The family gathered round the hearth to share a plump goose or turkey is only made possible when there is enough food for the table, enough fuel for the fire, and enough time off for workers to spend with their families.
In A Christmas Carol, Ebeneezer Scrooge is shown three visions of Christmas: Christmas past, Christmas present, and Christmas yet to come. He is invited to see how life will be if he does not repent, and how it might be if he does. In other words, prophecy. In his journeys with the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and yet to come, Scrooge’s heart is opened to a different vision of what might be.
The world presented to us by Isaiah is equally as strange and fantastical as Scrooge’s dream: the lamb lying down safely with the wolf, and the lion giving up hunting and becoming a vegetarian! But it invites us to wonder how life could be different, to question the competition and violence that seems inherent to how we live in this world: be that nature red in tooth and claw or England versus Senegal in the next round of the world cup! This week, Archbishop Justin Welby has been in Ukraine meeting with representatives of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, because if we are to preach peace – to Vladimir Putin or to anyone else – we have to start by building peace within the family of the church. Yet I know how far we are – how far I am! – from being immune to a sense of competition between churches. Even in taking note of that statistic we started with – counting how many people are Christian, how many people are Muslim, how many people have no faith – we are buying into that desire to be top.
If Advent is about preparing to welcome Jesus, it is also first of all about preparing to welcome one another. In Isaiah, in Paul, and in the ministry of John the Baptist, we see one real distinctive marker of the new world that God is offering: the welcoming in of the gentiles, the goyim, breaking down the key distinction between the Jews, the descendents of Abraham, and all the other peoples. ‘Gentile’ literally comes from the word meaning ‘nations’ or ‘peoples’, the whole diversity of different human groups with their different languages and customs and their very different history in relation to the God of Israel. This is the promise that God might no longer be the jealously guarded posession of one people, but shared without any sense of competition or threat.
At the centre of A Christmas Carol is the figure of Tiny Tim, and at the centre of our Christmas story is the figure of the baby Jesus. In the words of Isaiah, a little child will lead them. It is a little child that knows the way into this new world. We often say that Christmas is ‘for the children’ as though we’re embarassed to be seen enjoying ourselves without the excuse of the little ones, or as though joy and wonder and excitement are something we grow out of the same way that playing an instrument, or painting or writing poetry or playing sport or caring about our friendships seem too often to be things we leave behind in childhood. This is the truth recognised by C S Lewis when he made Narnia a place which could be entered only by children who were not old enough to have stopped believing in the reality in front of them.
Now I am not romantic about children: a child’s love of Christmas can be deeply materialistic, the love of presents and chocolates! But it seems to me that the world looks to the church to keep Christmas alive, to hold on to something they remember as special and magical and untarnished, even if we can only bear to bring it out once a year.
On the same day as Christians and non-Christians made the headlines through the census data, there was another smaller headline with a statistic no less striking: one quarter of young people aged 17 – 19 are estimated to be struggling with a diagnosable mental health disorder. Now I want to be cautious about drawing any connection between those two developments: on an individual level, having a faith does not protect you from facing mental illness, and of course the lockdown has affected all of us in ways we may not yet fully grasp. But I think that Christians and non-Christians alike recognise the society we are living in is not always good for us. We are looking for a glimpse of how things could be different.
Just as Isaiah invites his Jewish readers to celebrate that God is God even for those who have not been part of God’s chosen people through the generations, so Christmas is an invitation for us as Christians to share Jesus: to recognise with joy rather than with jealousy and competition that Jesus is not our exclusive possession but is also part of the lives of many who have not made a Christian commitment.
There is more than one way to be a prophet. John the Baptist’s approach was pretty strong medicine: He called people vipers and warned them of God’s wrath and they lapped it up! That is the prophetic style of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. But it is also prophecy to enchant people with a vision of what life could be. What if it really could be Christmas every day? What if Jesus is for life not just for Christmas? That is the gift we have to give, and it is for everyone.
Let us walk in the light of the Lord: a sermon for Advent Sunday
preached at Holy Trinity Charlton by the Revd Katherine Price, Vicar
On 28 February 1944, at about half past twelve in the afternoon, Corrie ten Boom was awakened from sleep. She wouldn’t normally have been in bed at that time, but she wasn’t well: she was exhausted by the effort and stress of her secret work with the Dutch resistance, protecting Jews and others during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.
She was awoken by six people running past her, through the hidden door next to her bed and into their hiding place. At first she thought it was a drill, because they had prepared for this so often. She even had a small bag packed with the essentials she would need in prison, not least a toothbrush and toothpaste. But it wasn’t a drill. At the last minute she flung her bag against the secret entrance to help conceal it, and so she was sent to a concentration camp without even a toothbrush. This was what she had been preparing for,
but in the end, the bag she had packed was not the preparation which mattered but the habit of compassion and self-sacrifice gained through fifty years of ordinary Christian living.
Advent is the season of preparation for Christmas. Last week on Stir-Up Sunday, I made my Christmas cake with Austin, using a kit from Going Green in the Arbery Arcade. It’s probably the first time I’ve done it that far in advance, and I thought I was fantastically well-prepared, until I looked at the first instruction on the recipe: soak the fruit overnight…! Preparing for Christmas is all about planning, starting early, making sure you have time to get everything done: catching the black Friday sales, checking the last posting dates. Sometimes the preparation is part of the fun of Christmas, sometimes it turns a family celebration into a major logistical operation. But it all depends on knowing when Christmas will happen.
That is the opposite of how the Coming of God is presented in our scripture readings. We cannot open twenty-four little doors on our Advent calendar, or count down the sleeps until Father Christmas. About that day and that hour nobody knows, only the Father…
According to one survey, something like half of all Christians in the US believe that Christ will return in their own lifetime. I think you’d probably get a different result if you asked that question here, but on the whole I would place myself in that fifty percent, not because I’ll be surprised or disappointed if it doesn’t happen but because it is a good discipline to live in that expectation. We have all of us in recent years had to confront the reality that life is less predictable, less preparable-for, than we would would wish it. Government teams were working on pandemic preparedness for years, but Covid was still a surprise. In our own church community these past weeks we have been terribly reminded of how sudden death, or terminal or life-changing illness, can come out of the blue.
So much of our mindset about being prepared is about planning for the future - pensions, retirement plans, care costs - rather than about living in the present, and being prepared for the possibility that the future will not happen, or will not happen in the way we expect. How would you be preparing for Christmas differently if you thought it could come at any time? You might try to be prepared for every eventuality. Perhaps you’re the kind of person who always has a torch, a bottle of water, and a small first aid kit in their glove compartment - maybe you were a boy scout or girl guide, always prepared! Or perhaps, knowing that Christmas could come at any time would have the opposite effect and make us prioritise what is really essential, our equivalent of the toothpaste and toothbrush.
Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God as coming like a thief in the night. It’s an arresting and intriguing image. Can we imagine God coming, not in glory to a waiting world, but sneaking in, unbidden and unwelcome, to a darkened world that has barred its doors against him, drawn its curtains against his light, and steadfastly closed its eyes to him? Yet that is exactly how he came to us in Jesus Christ, in this dark time of the year, in the darkness of a world that was dark not just in its suffering but in its chosen obliviousness to the light and hope of God. And that makes us as the church the sleeper cells of the kingdom, the reservists of the Heavenly Host: keeping our eyes open to the realities of what is good and what is bad in our world, and always ready for the moment when we may be called on to do the work of the kingdom.
Here in this parish, we are starting to think about how we might be more prepared – through prayer, through good stewardship of our resources, and through an honest inventory of our gifts and skills and particular callings - to respond to the needs of our community when they arise and to the ppportunities to serve God and witness to his love for the world. One possible way in which that might manifest itself is being presented by Fr Benji this Advent – whether there are ways in which our church communities could partner with other charities in Wantage to respond to the immediate crisis of fuel- and food-poverty in the coming Winter months. We’ll be hearing more about that over the next couple of weeks.
But even in a world that sleeps in darkness, we are called to be people of light. At the recent crime forum held at the Parish Church, we heard from Thames Valley Police about the challenges of what’s called the night-time economy and the vital work of the street pastors in our town. Many of us will be enjoying the night-time economy over the festive period! But it does seem to be true of humans in general that in the hours of darkness we are sometimes ready to act in ways we would be ashamed of in the light.
Corrie ten Boom lived through the war in fear of exposure, of being found out: but at the end of the war, when her heroic deeds came to light she was rightly celebrated, and she devoted much of her energy in the immediate post-war period to rehabilitating those of her fellow countrymen and women who had not been so heroic and had been exposed and condemned as collaborators. It is perhaps the most deep-seated human fear: the fear of being exposed, of being found out, of being put to shame – many people live with that sense of imposter syndrome even when they have nothing to be afraid or ashamed of.
Paul tells us that our best protection is ‘the armour of light’: living with integrity, with nothing to hide, so that when we find ourselves under the floodlights of God’s presence we have no fear of what will be revealed.
Because we are not the only ones who have been preparing. Advent is a time for preparation, but most of all it is a time for us to remember that God too has been preparing for this special moment. Through Advent we remember all those through whom God has been preparing the world for his coming, and on this first Sunday of Advent we honour especially the patriarchs: Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, and their descendents, from whom Jesus is descended physically and culturally. What happens at Christmas, has always been God’s plan, prepared from the foundation of the world: to enter his universe, to share our human life, and to be our Emmanuel, God with us, now and forever. Amen.
A sermon for the Third Sunday before Advent, preached at the Parish Church on 6 Nov 2022
The Revd Katherine Price, Vicar
He is God not of the dead but of the living.
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Imagine there's no heaven, It's easy if you try
No hell below us, Above us, only sky
Imagine all the people, Living for today”
That was released by John Lennon in 1971, and the original video features the multimillionaire songwriter and his wife touring their mansion on their Berkshire country estate. Quite an easy today to live for.
But that is also the context of this debate between Jesus and the Sadduccees: is your faith about the living or is it just about the dead?
The Saxons called this month, November, the ‘blood month’, because it was the time for slaughtering animals that had been fattened up, and this month you could certainly make a good argument that our religion is all about the dead. We started the month with All Souls. Next week on Remembrance Sunday we remember the war dead. This weekend we remember, remember, the fifth of November.
But of course remembrance is what we do as a Church every month. Our celebration of the Eucharist is a remembering. And being a parish church, a church which cares about place and community means that we feel the presence of past generations in a very tangible way. This church is not just metaphorically but literally built on a thousand years of our forebears in the faith: they found quite a few of them when they put the heating pipes in! And those of you who’ve ever been to an Orthodox country, such as Romania or Russia, you might have been invited to share a memorial meal in honour of the dead or even seen the priest pour a libation onto the grave - one time I seem to recall it was a bottle of coke!
There is something deeply human about honouring the dead, almost definitively human: homo sapiens sapiens have been burying our dead, sometimes with flowers or other gifts, for about forty thousand years. It’s where our spiritual instinct is strongest. Death is the horizon which only faith can look over.
But how we treat the dead says a lot about how we treat the living. When we honour the dead, be it with an elaborate tomb or mausoleum, or a single bunch of flowers thrown onto a coffin, we are saying that human beings matter, that they matter eternally. We are commanded by God to honour the weakest and most powerless in society. Well who is more powerless than the dead? G. K. Chesterton’s fabulous defence of tradition is that it “gives votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.”
Just last week we heard about King Alfred, and his role in bringing Christianity to other parts of the English nation. And archaeologists can map the spread of Christianity in England by the changes in burial practices: Christians bury their dead facing East and with far fewer grave goods. Alfred, unlike his ancestors, would not have been buried in a ship surrounded by jewels and the bodies of sacrificed horses and servants. Humans continue to matter after death. Wealth and status doesn’t. That what that says.
So after all that, it might be a surprise to hear that life after death is not an automatic or necessary part of religious belief. In this church, we pray for the dead - that is something Christians have done since earliest times. It doesn’t require any particular theology. It is an instinctive act of love.
Later, of course, the theology became a problem, and a source of division within the church; the reformation cleared away what Diarmuid McCulloch has called the ‘soul mass industry’ – the lucrative trade in prayers for the dead –
represented here in this church by the Fitzwaryn Chantry chapel, where the mass would have been offered for the respose of the souls of the Fitzwaryn family.
In the Church of England, praying for the dead only really became acceptable again during World War I when once again the instinct of love, the need to express our ongoing love for those who had died, trumped questions of theology. The same people who knitted gloves and sent food parcels to the front still wanted to do something for their loved ones, even after death
Confronted with the reality of grief, the theological questions are as artificial and tone-deaf as the scenario posed by the Sadduccees to Jesus, who see a woman seven times widowed as a good debating tactic and not as an awful human tragedy.
But the very fact of this debate between Jesus and the Sadduccees, who were the religious leaders and priests of his time, reminds us that we are also heirs to a longer Jewish tradition which is very much about this life. The hope of resurrection or eternal life is – to us shockingly - absent from much of the Old Testament. The burial of the dead was always a sacred duty in Jewish tradition,
but it was the end and not the beginning of true life in God. Even today’s passage from the book of Job is rather a selective quotation! And that is an important reminder that our relationship with God does not have to be about our anxiety for our own or our loved ones’ fates. This life alone can be motivation and scope enough for a life of faith.
So when Jesus and the Sadduccees meet, Jesus represents a relatively new and radical perspective. The Sadduccees are the religious establishment: it was from them that the priestly cadre in the temple was drawn. Caiaphas who sent Jesus to Pilate would have been a Sadduccee. These are the ones who have remained in their positions under Roman occupation; these are the Jews who are seen as safe and acceptable to the authorities.
Whereas the hope of resurrection is radical and politically dangerous. It developed during this period of occupation and invasion when devout Jews were making the choice to accept death and martyrdom rather than submit to rulers who expected them to compromise on their faith. John Lennon dreamed of a world with nothing to kill or to die for; but generations of oppressed and occupied peoples have found that there are things worth dying for. There are people in Ukraine right now fighting because some things matter more than this life. And it is that sense not just that human beings matter eternally, but that humanity and justice matter eternally, that leads us to the hope of resurrection.
The dead matter because the living matter. The way we think about death affects the way we live. If the dead are not raised then the only hope we have that something of us will survive is through reproduction, through childrearing – or perhaps through accomplishing some lasting achievement or legacy. That is our only response to the sense of tension we feel between the eternal significance of human life and the reality of individual mortality. In the older Jewish tradition, children are our immortality. That is why in so many of our scriptures we see this massive stigma on so-called ‘barrenness’, childlessness – the stigma which God again and again challenges and removes.
It is still the case that marriage and parenthood are religious duties in Judaism; it is not acceptable for a religious Jew to remain single. But Jesus was single, and we know some of his immediate followers were – notably our own St Paul. So when Jesus says, those called to eternal life neither marry nor are given in marriage he is not simply dismissing the Sadduccees absurd caricature of life after death but saying something much more radical about what the hope of the resurrection means for how we live in this life. In recent days and in recent years within the church there’s been a great deal of debate about marriage, about who can and cannot get married and who might or might not leave the church as a result, and perhaps it is instructive for us to hear Jesus saying that marriage is not as central to Christian life and teaching as we might imagine.
But the hope of resurrection means that we matter: our bodies, the choices we make, our lives. All matter – eternally. It is because the dead matter that the living matter. He is God not of the dead but of the living, for to him they are all alive. Amen.
A sermon for All Saints, preached at Wantage Parish Church on 30 October 2022
The Revd Katherine Price, Vicar
Who is in and who is out?
This week we have had the drama of our new Prime Minister picking his new Cabinet - or in some cases not so new! The political pundits and podcasters have been hotly watching for who will be walking proudly up to the door of Number 10 under the gaze of the press photographers, and who will be quietly summoned to the office to be let down gently.
A good leader is only as good as their team, whether that be Rishi’s cabinet, Gareth Southgate picking his world cup squad, or Elon Musk clearing out the top team at Twitter! Or for those of you who were watching Doctor Who last week the Doctor and her ‘fam’!
So today we celebrate Team Jesus, also known as the Communion of Saints. Here in the parish church at Wantage we have two patron saints: Peter and Paul. A tactfully phrased press-release would say that they bring different and complimentary gifts to the team of apostles. Or to put it more bluntly, they are chalk and cheese. Yet Jesus had a place for them both – even if they worked best together when that was as far apart from each other as possible!
Building a team is not just about picking the right people, but about forming them together and motivating them, inspiring them to pursue a shared goal, to overcome setbacks, and to trust and respect one another. One of the many ways we can see what we do together on a Sunday morning is as training – training together as a team for the Kingdom of God.
St Paul had a particular ministry of ‘team-building’. Many of the so-called ‘Pauline epistles’ – that is the letters of Paul himself and those like today’s letter to the Ephesians which may have been written by Paul or by his followers – are addressed to ‘the saints’, to the church in a particular place, giving the kind of feedback you might get from a coach or a team captain: sometimes building them up, sometimes gently advising, sometimes hauling them over the coals! And actually many parts of the Bible can be seen in this light: it is addressed to us not as individuals, but as a team, reminding us of what it is we are striving for, and not to be discouraged by the challenges we face.
That’s the spirit in which I suggest we might read today’s Gospel passage, the Beatitudes, Luke’s account of a sermon Jesus preached to a great crowd at the bottom of a mountain near the sea of Galilee: as a rousing pep talk for his followers, uniting them in a common struggle – yet not a struggle against those who oppose them but for them.
If we read it a a series of statements about individuals there is a risk that this sermon becomes just an empty speech, a manifesto for jam tomorrow. There are people in our community who are hungry, literally hungry. They don’t want to be told that they are ‘really’ blessèd, however theologically true or profound that might be. They don’t want to be blessed, they want to be full.
But I’d like to invite you to hear this differently. Jesus looked up at his disciples – looked up – and said ‘blessed are you…’ That phrase, ‘blessed are you’ is the beginning of the Jewish phrase ‘blessed are you, Lord God, king of the universe’. An observant Jew would say that multiple times a day with different endings depending on what was being blessed or given thanks for. When we hear that Christ at his last supper blessed and broke the bread, giving thanks to God, he would have used those words, ‘blessed are you’. So here he is honouring these people, honouring the holiness and sanctity in them.
How does it feel to hear that addressed to us, to our church? Blessed are you when you are getting old. Blessed are you when you are tired. Blessed are you when people ignore you, or misunderstand you, or misrepresent you. You are blessed, you are holy.
To be a saint is to be holy, and we are all called to holiness, to a life-long process of drawing nearer to God and being transformed by him. As our epistle reading explains it, to receive wisdom and revelation, as you come to know God, so that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened as you look towards the inheritance you have been promised. We should not be afraid to see the Christian life as a journey of spiritual enlightenment and the pursuit of holiness.
But that does not necessarily mean that all of us saints-in-training will or should aspire to experience that holiness in terms of the intense mystical experiences reported in the lives of some saints: the ecstasies of St Theresa of Avila, the ascetic feats of the desert fathers, or the Damascus conversion of St Paul. The Christian tradition is rich in examples and accounts of mystical experience, but has never placed them at the centre of the Christian life; it has much to say about these experiences, these tangible encounters with holiness,
because it is part of our human experience, arising from our God-given human nature as spiritual beings - and, as we are reminded by our reading from Daniel, just as likely to be a terrifying or baffling experience as one of peace and clarity.
But our faith is a pragmatic one: Love your enemies. Give to those who take from you. Pray for those who hate you. For Christians, holiness is worked out largely in practical and interpersonal ways. Forgiveness, thankfulness, generosity – these are the practices which train us in holiness, and our progress in holiness is unlikely to be accompanied by tangible benefits such as prosperity or popularity or physical good health. As Theresa of Avila said, “If this is how you treat your friends, Lord, it’s no wonder you have so few of them!”
Having said that, one meaning of ‘holy’ is ‘healthy’ or ‘whole’. When you are choosing a team, you start by looking at their gifts and strengths, what each person has to offer. Part of what it means to be holy, and to be the Holy Church, is that the whole of what we are is offered to God. I wonder whether we feel that’s true at the moment. Do we know that God sees and values and receives all the different parts of who we are and what we have to give, or do we feel as though the only types of gifts which are valued are those which are visible in our worship, or those which are remunerated, or those which are exercised within the church context rather than in our work, family, and personal life? One of the reasons that we as a church are going to be offering the Personal Discipleship Plan tool is so that we can hear from one another
what God is doing in the whole of our lives.
But – if you will pardon the pun – what we learn from the team that Jesus Christ built around himself is that God does not want just our ‘whole-ness’ but also our ‘holey-ness’. Holey as in holey socks! Our gaps, our threadbare patches and our weak spots. He identifies as the blessed precisely those who seem to have least to offer, and time and time again he shows himself more interested in how he can use our weaknesses than how we can use our strengths: how the scepticism of a Saint Thomas can become an invitation to other doubters, or the violent self-confidence of St Paul be harnessed for the gospel, or the cowardice of Saint Peter open a opportunity for God’s overflowing mercy.
Because true holiness belongs not to us but to God. We affirm it in our liturgy, in our worship: “You alone are the holy one.” Or in a part of the Orthodox liturgy which has been borrowed into our own common worship, the priest declares “Holy things for Holy people” to which the congregation responds, or perhaps retorts, “One is Holy, one is Lord”. To be holy, in the Christian tradition, is to receive the Holy Spirit: holiness is not something we achieve but something God accomplishes in us. As we are incorporated into the body of Christ, physically incorporated by the physical sacraments of baptism and communion, so we are animated by the spirit of Christ.
After he has addressed himself to the poor and the rich, to the grieving and the happy, Jesus addresses us in these words: “I say to you who listen…” In the end, that is what it means to be the Holy Team of Jesus: to be those who listen to his Holy Spirit. Amen.
Bible Sunday 23 October 2022
Wantage Parish Church
Show the light of your countenance upon your servant
and teach me your statutes.
Words from Psalm 119
What is the primary source of Christian revelation?… Believe it or not, it is not actually the Bible. It is prayer. And I invite you to hold that thought.
A dangerous book
We need to understand the Bible, because the Bible did so much to form the world we live in.
Not least because the Bible is also a very dangerous book. On the basis of the Bible, Christians have been murdering Jews for nearly 2000 years, and those who became the Jews have killed others in pursuit of a promised land.
Of course, that has to be qualified: some Christians and some Jews. Even so, on the basis of the Bible, witches have been burned alive, homosexuals executed, children beaten, Africans shipped to slavery, women treated in law as children, animals regarded as human property, and wars justified in the name of the Prince of peace.
This immediately makes the point that the Bible is a powerful book, open to different understandings and opposing uses.
But in that case, what can it possibly mean to say that the Bible is the word of God?
The word of God and the people of God
Does it mean that God dictated the Bible in such a way that it contains no mistakes about anything? Is the Bible completely infallible and completely inerrant?
Most people agree that there are factual errors in the Bible although they may explain them differently. The Parthenon was built of marble, even if here and there speck of sandstone can be detected in its structure. One might draw the analogy with the Bible - these specks of sandstone do not detract from the entire structure. So when one sacred writer says that on any given occasion 24,000 were slain and another that 23,000 were slain it can be helpful to look at it in this way.
God did not bypass history and human circumstances, but used them to help a people to grow up and come of age making a name and nature known that people could understand and respond to, because they knew them to be true to themselves.
The Bible is a consequences of a process, it came into being over a period of more than 1000 years so that the Bible is not a single book. It is made-up of hymns, histories, songs, law codes, prayers, and many other kinds of writings, focused on God and preserved by the people.
John Goldingay wrote of the activity of the Holy Spirit:
“It does not bypass their distinctive humanity but uses it. They do not have to be perfect, nor do their words have to be models of balance, free of rawness or solecism, in order for God to work through them. The grace of God is such as to be entirely prepared to speak through skewed human agents and quite relaxed enough to trust that their eccentricities will do more good than harm”.
The Order of the Bible
The children of Israel and people of the covenant slip into error and mischief as much as any children do. What is remarkable is that they recorded these lapses as carefully as their brilliant moves into vision and truth. It was a bumpy ride and they learned from it as they went along.
The Bible is not put to together in chronological order. The first words of the Bible to be written were not Genesis 1:1 and the earliest part of the New Testament is not the gospel according to Saint Matthew. Most parts of the Bible have gone through a long process of editing as one generation after another brought to bear on the circumstances of their own day the words they received from their predecessors. What is extraordinary is that they did this. They did not regard the words from the past as having a historical interest only, but knew that through them, God was speaking to them in the present. Prophets go to the past to interpret the present, as do many of the Psalms. In the New Testament, Jesus, and those who wrote the New Testament quote scripture as having authority.
Last week we had from Timothy that all scripture is given by inspiration - literally 'I breathe into'.
This scripture could equally be translated, “every scripture inspired by God is also useful...”
Jews and Christians believe that all scripture, not just the books of the prophets, is inspired. 19th century Christian, J. W. Bergen wrote: “every book of it, every chapter of it, every verse of it, every word of it, every syllable of it, every letter of it is the direct utterance of the Most High”
A claim like this can be extremely misleading. Once again we have to remember that the Bible is not isolated from history but immersed within it. Where the text of the Bible is concerned - every letter of it - we do not know what anyone originally spoke or wrote. Thinking of inspiration in this way becomes difficult when we remember that the decisions of Jews and Christians about the books to be included as scripture where for a long time uncertain and did not turn on decisions about which books were inspired but which books should have God derived authority in their communities.
The Authority of Scripture
God is the author of all things. Without God we would not be. In the quest for the growing up of a people into maturity, not by force even when we go astray, but by the nurturing of apparent and by our cooperation of faith, God evokes and brings into being the words that now stand as scripture.
God is the source of these words by being the source of the lives that wrote and spoke and edited and preserve them.
Because God was in this sense their author, they have authority. They are the means through which God’s authorship continues still in human lives, so that a new and different story is told about them, a story of holiness and love. The Bible is thus the word of God because through these words, God becomes the author, or at least the joint author, of the continuing story of our lives, as individuals, and as communities that tried to be God's story in the world. We read the Bible column not to find text to enable us to burn witches, make slaves, subordinate women, condemn homosexuals, and murdered Jews. All of those acts and attitudes were justified by taking single texts and applying them without reference to the greater purpose of God in the creation of happiness and love. If the Bible does not produce that, and if it instead leads to communal hatred and acts of violence and destruction, it is being misused.
There is a better way: we read the Bible in order to encounter the word of God in the words of God, and to be made a holy people for the worship of God and the service of the world.
Praying the Bible
We may read the Bible out of interest, or as a fascinating story, just for enjoyment. But many reads the Bible as the word of God and the starting point of prayer. What difference does it make to read the Bible in that way? The Bible seems to be about God talking and interacting with people in the past, long ago. But the Bible is a means through which God extends that talking and interacting in to the present. Yes, there are many prayers contained within the Bible, not least the psalms and the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, and we can make those prayers our own. But beyond that, the Bible offers itself as the place to meet God now, and to be met by God in ways that will change our lives.
Susie, our parish lead on pastoral care, has provided a list of daily readings in the e-news that you may like to make use of. There are different apps for prayer and scripture. There are many opportunities to join the clergy in prayer, both at the daily office and at mass throughout the week. But the simplest way is to take a passage and let that passage be the introduction that starts the conversation with God. The passage may draw out from you anger, happiness, fear, hope, trust. Allow time and quiet to listen to what it is saying to you and what it is drawing out from you. From this reading it may inspire you to write or sing or dance. It may inspire you too a good deed or give you an idea for the improvement of your community. You may simply stay with the passage and let it rest in you.
You may ask is there any control over this? How do we know that it is God who is speaking? Well, the guarantee is prayer. Remember that if people had not found God and been found by God through prayer in the first place there could not possibly have been the honest visionary, angry, encouraging, searching, hopeful words that make up the Bible.
There are no words, as a whole, like this, gathered together in books of this kind, anywhere, in any religion, or in any literature. It is God, or at least at the very least this people's belief in God, that made the total difference.
Share the belief, and the reality will become clear.
The reformer, John Calvin, put it like this:
“Scripture will only be effectual to produce the saving knowledge of God when the certainty of it shall be founded on the internal persuasion of the Holy Spirit”.
The control is this: if you find that praying the Bible does not draw you deeper into relationship of holiness and love with God and your neighbour, you need to pray it more receptively and attentively. You are not on your own. The Bible is read and prayed in community, in liturgy, in the worship of synagogue and church.
May the words from this strange and remote word of the Bible in the past come into our lives today and turn them into something better for tomorrow.
Sunday 11 September 2022: a sermon on the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II
The Revd Katherine Price, Vicar
I came not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.
+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We come today to mourn for our late Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II. Mourning is not the same as grieving. Grief is a feeling, or more commonly, a succession of feelings, unpredictable and disconnected, different every day. Mourning is a duty: a deliberate act.
Many are grieving today. Foremost among them, of course, her family: King Charles, and all her children and grandchildren. Many will perhaps have been surprised by grief, by how much her death has affected them personally. Some will have found that they are grieving anew for their own loved ones, for those whom they have lost, whether recently or long since. They may find that this shared duty of mourning permits and unlocks their private grief in a way that perhaps our modern culture of celebrating life does not easily allow.
And there will be those also who feel uncomfortable, who want to insist – perhaps out of respect for those ordinary unroyal people whose death is no less overwhelming for those who loved them - that the Queen was only one person like anyone else.
One person, yes, but one person lost by each and every person in this nation.
She was our Sovereign, but also, in later years, our national granny. One of her last and most memorable TV appearances, at her jubilee, was acting opposite Paddington Bear!
On Thursday, as we heard the news that she was close to death, I was standing waiting in a queue as the young woman next to me, maybe university age, gasped and beckoned her friend over. As they looked together at her phone screen, one of them said “No! the Queen can’t die!”
The Queen can’t die. I think that speaks for so many of us, in our first reaction. She has been a fixture through the whole of their lives and almost certainly their parents’ lives. That a day should dawn when we do not have a Queen feels as new and inconceivable a thing as a day when the sun does not rise in the East.
It is that constancy which perhaps most of all sums up what the Queen meant for us all. In the best possible sense, someone we were able to take for granted. The Reverend Sorrel Shamel-Wood, recently ordained priest in this diocese, has written a poem which begins: “You were old, already, when I was born / And I took your gentle face for granted: / On every coin and every postage stamp.” You only have to step outside this church to see a whole fleet of vans at the Royal Mail depot which will now need to be repainted. Whatever the Queen has meant to you her face and her name have been part of the fabric of your life at least for however long you have lived in the UK - and for those beyond, maybe even more so, synonymous with this country.
It is, and it feels like, the end of an era. At a time of great instability and uncertainty in our lives and in the world another constant has been removed, a prop that we took for granted has been pulled away. Another friend – not a Christian – wrote to me these words: “She is the last bastion of a stable, sane, compassionate world built on duty, service and tolerance. When she goes it will be as though an era is ending, the wheel of history crashing round on its axis away from goodness and honourable behaviour.”
In our Gospel reading we hear the words of our Lord, “I came not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” and it is that sense of selfless service most of all, which was represented by Queen Elizabeth. She showed duty in a time of self-fulfilment, reserve in a time of relentless self-publicity, and in a time of social fragmentation, she was someone we all had in common. Her death seems to underline that we are entering a more doubtful age.
Yet, we do not lose heart. Those seventy years of the second Elizabethan Age
were times of enormous social and political change, as great as anything we face today. Just as we looked to Queen Elizabeth as a constant at these times of change, so she looked to Christ, the eternal king, the constant presence in her life as in ours.
The eighth of September, the date on which Queen Elizabeth departed this earthly life is also the feast of the Nativity of Our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary. In a profoundly important sense, it is true that Queen Elizabeth was just one person: she, in her Christian humility, would be the first to acknowledge that. But, like Our Lady, an ordinary woman called to an extraordinary duty. We mourn today, because in this changing world, death is real, loss is real, grief is real: nothing in the Christian tradition, least of all the death of our Lord and Saviour, allows us to deny or bypass that reality.
But the peaceful death of a Christian is always also a triumph: the fight well fought, the race run to completion. And in that sense, a death is also an invitation to celebrate life, not in an individualistic sense, but rather the life we all share, as human beings, as children of God, and the life that we are promised in Jesus Christ.
Our mourning is for Elizabeth our Queen, for all that she meant to us and all that we have lost in her passing. But our joy is for her, our sister in Christ, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary – whose face was familiar to so many, but whose heart was fully known to her Lord alone. A child of God, a sinner of Christ’s own redeeming, a lamb of his own flock, now gathered into his eternal kingdom.
Sermon on the Nature of Evil
Fr Benji Tyler
Wantage Year C Trinity 10 21st August 2022
Every once in a while it is good to be reminded of, even confront, the problem of evil.
Evil in all its various forms - and we could name many: the evil of war, of senseless crime, of homelessness, of viral and bacterial infection, of pain and suffering caused by natural disaster or mental affliction.
Evil and sin seem to surround us on a daily basis and, to the pessimist, it would be easy to understand evil as the natural order of the world.
'You make this world lousy' says Doc, the drug-store owner, to some of the Jets in 'Westside Story.' 'That's the way we found it, Doc,' answers one of them.
This is a challenge to anyone professes to believe in God and we cannot ignore or evade it.
Is the world intrinsically oriented towards evil or towards goodness? Is evil the status quo from which goodness occasionally erupts or is the world good and evil the disrupter.
The quickness that many of faith and of none run to deny the existence of God when suffering erupts is alarming.
And so in order to safeguard ourselves against this bent we need, I think, to understand the nature of evil.
How can we, as Christians in the 21st century seeking to mature in our faith and not waiver at any slight (or indeed massive) interjection. make sense of suffering and evil?
Do we resign ourselves to Gallio's argument that, if there is a God at all, he must be completely indifferent to what happens on this planet, and cares for none of these things, or do we face the challenge with hope and courage and perseverance seeking to discover hidden mystery and truth?
I very much hope that you will accompany me on the latter journey.
Of course it would be impossible to plumb the depths of this question in one short sermon but I hope we can at least begin to discover somethings that might help and, with the women in our Gospel reading, know the healing touch of Christ.
It was Darwin who, towards the end of his long life wrote ' According to my judgement happiness decidedly prevails'. The very fact that pain and evil trouble us so profoundly, whilst goodness and order and beauty pass by almost unnoticed, is a witness to the fact that goodness is the norm throughout the universe.
the problem of evil would not present itself as a problem if chaos was the rule and not order, or sickness the normal human condition and not health. Just as people take snow for granted in the Arctic so we would take evil for granted. And yet we don't. We rail against it. We avoid it. We pray it away.
At this point I must say that there is no neat answer to the problem of evil. There are no easy solutions to any of the great problems of Theology and Philosophy and if there were I would be highly suspect of them. In every faith there must needs be a high level of agnosticism, of humility in the face of the great questions. For we must remember that in this life we walk by faith and not by sight.
So, to return to our problem. If God is omnipotent (all-powerful) nothing can happen unless he wills it. If God is Love, then whatever he wills must be good. But, you say, there is still a great deal of evil! Does this mean that God is NOT omnipotent after all, or that there is some flaw in his love and goodness?
No. to deny this is to accept false theories of evil - and there are aspects of each which are tempting to believe.
The first which says that God is the sole source of all that is and therefore somehow responsible for what we call evil, as part of his divinely ordered plan and it is useless or wrong to question it. the sort of 'God's will be done' sort of attitude. Sound's alright until you factor in the Holocaust... this attitude fails to distinguish between what God commands and what God permits to a world given free will.
The second proposal to the solution of evil can be more persuasive and is held by many Christians. God is not so much al-powerful but is all-goodness. This divine perfection makes it inconceivable that God could be responsible for any of the evil in the world and so lays it at the feet of the devil. The war between good and evil in ourselves is a microcosm of the cosmic war between goodness and evil which is why it is so popular because it is relatable. Our Lord himself appears in the gospels to support this view as we today heard him attributing the woman's ailment to Satan. But it is obvious that he treats these demons and powers as a Sovereign treats their subjects - with authority and not with reason.
To believe in a God who is not omnipotent is to admit that God is not God, for God is, as St Anselm puts it 'a Being than whom no greater can be conceived'.
The third is less probable but is also commonly held amongst Christians and that is that actually evil I, in reality, just a lesser good. For God is in his heaven reigning in omnipotent goodness and therefore all must be right with the world. Evil is reduced to an illusion because we fail to recognise it as a part of the perfection of the whole.
Yet we do seem to intrinsically know what is right and what is wrong.
So what is the ‘correct’ Christian view of evil?
A created world which ran like clockwork because nothing had any will of its own would have been a wonderful world, a potentially evil-free world but a limited world. The actual universe which in fact exists is, more wonderful still. We believe that God dare to create beings who share in his authority and freedom. Without freedom humankind would have been incapable of loving God or their fellow human. Humanity was made to love and love must be free.
It is only in a world where cruelty, hatred and injustice CAN happen that love, friendship and self-sacrifice WILL happen. God, the creator of angels and men and insects with free will play their part in the course of the physical universe. And it is our choice, as we heard in the reading from the Hebrews, to choose or refuse to hear the one who is speaking, who is calling us to receive an unshakable Kingdom.
The Church perseveres in the mystery of God's ultimate and universal responsibility and this is where the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ comes in. For in this foreknown, fore planned act of God, God accepts responsibility for all things, even evil, and in the Passion he discharges it.
Words alone cannot and do not satisfy the human longing for answers. Our primary need is not for someone to explain the problem of evil to us but for someone who will show us how to transform the suffering which results from it from being wasteful, negative and senseless into something which may be creatively used for good.
This is precisely what the Christian faith offers us. Not an explanation of evil but a tool to meet suffering and what to do with it. And in Jesus of Nazareth, we find assurance that God can transform evil into good.
Far from denying the existence of evil, the Christian gospel reveals to us the greatest crime that ever there was - that which was inflicted on a man who had done no wrong - here we view the full range and depth of evil. Standing at the foot of the cross - as I did at Oberammergau a few weeks ago, witnessing how perfect Love was treated. At the cross, evil came face to face with goodness and love and instead of goodness and love becoming contaminated, evil was neutralised and defeated. The victory of Easter Day, won on Good Friday is how God accepts and discharges all his responsibility for all the evil in the world: by enduring the worst that evil can do to HIMSELF and in doing so making it serve his purposes for good.
Fr Harry Williams of Mirfield put it like this
'What looked like the utter defeat of goodness by evil was in reality the final defeat of evil by goodness. What looked like the weakness of a dying man was in reality the strength of the living God. What looked like tragedy was really victory'.
If we believe this, we shall never complain again that suffering is wasteful or meaningless or that it defeat's God's purpose - for if God can bring good out of the cross then he can bring good out of your sufferings too. And in allowing God to do so your suffering will be transformed from the self-destruction of 'this lousy world' into one of the most effective and productive activities open to us. As Isaiah says 'your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday'.
So, when suffering comes, either to you as an individual, you as community or you as God's Holy Church, remember the pattern and shape of it as demonstrated by God not only in the Incarnation, life, and Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, but also through his triumphant resurrection, which looks forward with confidence and hope to the time when there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the former things are passed away. (Rev 21 : 4).
[In receiving prayers for healing and anointing, you may know yourself assured of the miracle: that not only Christ but Christians are made perfect through sufferings and that your sufferings have the potential to be transformed into joy.]
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.
May God the Father bless you, God the Son heal you, God the Holy Spirit give you strength. May God the holy and undivided Trinity guard your body, save your soul, and bring you safely to his heavenly country; where he lives and reigns for ever and ever.
Sermon preached at Holy Trinity Charlton for the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary
The Revd Katherine Price, 14 August 2022
He has put down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This week’s feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary is often called the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – not because she ‘assumed’ that it would be a nice idea to have a feast in the middle of summer, but from the belief which grew up in the centuries after her death that her body did not remain on earth, where it could be fought over by well-meaning devotees and relic hunters, but was taken directly to heaven. Some versions of this tradition go one further and suggest that the Virgin Mary, unlike her son Jesus, did not even need to pass through death to be resurrected, but went to heaven without ever dying.
This devotion to Mary as someone almost super-human has inspired some of the most glorious art and music in Christian history. If you’ve been on holiday to Spain or Italy or Poland you may perhaps have seen something of the cult of the Virgin Mary – I don’t use cult in the derogatory sense, but simply the devotion to the Virgin. Processions with life-sized statues dressed in embroidered finery and crowned with jewel-encrusted crowns. You might be surprised to learn that before the Reformation it was this country, England, which had the greatest devotion to the cult of the Virgin. Just down the road in Reading, at the local museum, you can see possibly the earliest depiction of the Coronation of the Virgin: a stone carving from one of the pillars of Reading Abbey.
Earlier this week Jan and I were trying to find pictures of Mary for the notice sheet, and you can imagine how many there were to choose from. I would hazard a guess that Mary is the single most depicted woman in human history. Is it even possible to look at a picture of a mother and child and not think of the Madonna?
And yet behind all these different faces from every century of Christian history, it’s important that we don’t lose sight of the real Mary. The Galilean peasant girl, the wife of Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth. The real Mary is a very human Mary. She is a mother. The few words and deeds recorded during her son’s lifetime are the words and deeds of a mother:
She is cross because her twelve-year-old boy wandered off to the temple by himself.
She has compassion for her friends who under-ordered on the wine for their daughter’s wedding.
A couple of times she even tries to stop Jesus’ public ministry – perhaps because she can see where this is going to lead.
It matters that we remember and honour Mary not in spite of but because she is an ordinary woman. And it matters for three reasons.
Firstly, what is at stake when we honour Mary as the mother of God’s son is nothing less than the incarnation. Jesus Christ is fully human because he has a mother.
Secondly, it matters that Jesus Christ was born of a woman, because it means that a woman, and a woman’s body, is essential to God’s salvation plan for the universe. The incarnation is not a clean, bloodless, divine miracle. It involves a birth, and birth is a messy business. The Word was made Flesh, and flesh is a messy, dirty, bleeding, hurting thing.
Attitudes to motherhood at the time of Jesus were paradoxical: we hear that Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was seen as cursed for not being able to have a child of her own, or so it was thought. But we also here that Mary herself had to be purified at the temple after giving birth, as well as the shame and scandal of not being able to explain to her fiance Joseph exactly how she came to be pregnant! When God chose to take on human life, in Jesus Christ, he took on all of human life not just the easy or the neat or the respectable bits but also the scary and the shameful and the stomach-turning and the sad.
And thirdly, it matters because Mary is a revolutionary. Our gospel text today is known as the Magnificat, and it’s sung at Evensong every day in our cathedrals. It is all about the powerless triumphing over the proud. Luke puts these words in the mouth of Mary, claiming that what she is doing is nothing less than a revolution on a cosmic scale: the triumph of God, and the defeat of his enemies.
There may not seem to be anything revolutionary about a girl having a baby. Mary is not the obvious feminist hero – she is famous for being a mother, and for being a virgin, and for being associated with a more famous man! Mary doesn’t do anything that other women and other mothers have not done. But is surprising how many revolutionary movements start with a woman just being a woman where other people don’t want her to be: Rosa Parks sitting in the wrong seat on the bus in racially segregated 1950s America, or Malala Yousafzai, going to school in Pakistan.
15 August, the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is also this year the first anniversary of the Taliban re-taking Afghanistan. One of the most immediate and profound consequences of that is the disappearance of women: from education, from many workplaces, from showing their faces in public, and from anywhere they can’t go without a male chaperone. When we remember Mary, a young girl growing up in the middle East, without particular wealth or status, with the grave disadvantages of being both young and female, we should remember all those other young girls growing up in the middle east and elsewhere where being a young girl automatically puts you at the bottom of the heap.
The UN secretary general Ban-Ki Moon, speaking about the nobel peace prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who was 15 when she had to flee Pakistan, said that she had showed what terrorists most fear is a girl with a book. Now the most common depiction of St Ann, the mother of Mary, is of her teaching her daughter to read. And in traditional depictions of the annunciation, Mary is reading when the angel Gabriel comes to her. And it is to her he comes – not to her father, not to her husband, to her. He has put down the proud, and lifted up the lowly…
It turns out, what the powers of hell most have to fear is a girl with a book.
Sermon preached at the Parish Church for the Feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary
The Revd Katherine Price, 14 August 2022
In the fullness of time, God sent his son, born of a woman
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Three people, and only three people, are mentioned by name in the creed:
One is Jesus Christ, obviously. Another is Pontius Pilate! We’ll come back to him. And the third is the Virgin Mary.
The writers of the creeds didn’t include Jesus’ mother as a bit of human interest or family background. If you’ve been following the Lambeth Conference this month, or General Synod earlier this year, or if you’ve ever attended a PCC meeting, here or elsewhere, you’ll know that getting Christians to agree is no mean feat. So the wording matters. What is at stake in saying that Mary is the mother of God is nothing less than the incarnation.
When Paul says, God sent his son born of a woman, you might think, well obviously, how else would you be born? But he spells it out, to say that incarnation doesn’t just mean, Jesus has a human body but Jesus has everything that a human being has, including a family, and a childhood, and a history. Family history is big business these days - we get enquiries here from people whose ancestors were baptised or married here - so many of us want to know ‘who do you think you are?’ and look for that in our family history. Mary means Jesus had a family history.
And being born of a woman is also, it has to be said, a messy business. The Word was made Flesh, and flesh is a messy, dirty, bleeding, hurting thing. The incarnation means that God’s salvation plan for the universe doesn’t just involve a male body broken on the cross but a female body racked by childbirth. In the time of Jesus, attitudes to motherhood were paradoxical:
We hear that Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was seen as cursed for not having a child but also that Mary herself had to be purified at the temple after giving birth not to mention the shame and scandal of having to explain to her fiance Joseph and his family exactly how she came to be pregnant before the wedding. I say in the time of Jesus, but I don’t know that our attitudes to motherhood today are much less contradictory!
Our gospel text today is known as the Magnificat, and it’s sung at Evensong every day in our cathedrals – our choir will have been singing it a lot in Brecon this week! And it’s a revolutionary text. It is all about the powerless triumphing over the proud. What Mary does is nothing less than a revolution on a cosmic scale. And I think we do well to remember that in particular this year because 15 August, the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is also the first anniversary of the Taliban re-taking Kabul. There are times and places where simply daring to be a woman is an act of resistance.
One of the reasons it matters that a woman is involved in salvation is that for so long women have born the stigma as ‘daughters of Eve’ blamed for instigating the fall. It is in that story, in God’s words to Eve, that this paradox of childbirth is laid out. God has already told Adam and Eve to multiply – but here he tells Eve that the consequence of her disobedience is that childbirth – the very thing which should be most natural to her – will be the most painful.
In our third hymn today, listen out for the line about ‘the second Eve’. Just as Jesus is often called the second Adam, Mary is sometimes presented as the second Eve, who reverses or undoes her ancestor’s sin. Some medieval hymns and poems make use of the idea that ‘Ave’ in Ave Maria is the reverse of ‘Eva’. It’s one of those quirky little play-on-words that are most amusing… if you are a monk and you know medieval Latin!
As well as pain in childbirth, God promises Eve that she and the serpent will remain enemies – ‘he will bite your heel and you will crush his head’. So the Bible is bookended with these two stories of a woman’s encounter with a serpent: in Genesis, Eve defeated by the snake, and in the book of Revelation, the woman clothed with the sun and crowned with stars escaping from the dragon!
Earlier this week Jan and I were trying to find pictures of Mary for the notice sheet. We were defeated not by the seven-headed beast of the apocalypse but by computer trouble! But most of the pictures we found were rather meek and mild, and there were a lot of them! I would hazard a guess that Mary is the single most depicted woman in human history. And there is a risk that Mary, the wife of Joseph, the carpenter of Nazareth becomes a symbol rather than a real woman.
Today’s feast is sometimes called the dormition or falling asleep of the virgin, i.e. her death, but more commonly in the West it is called the ‘assumption’, from the legend that her tomb, like Jesus’, was found empty and her body was lifted to heaven, or even, in some versions, that she didn’t die at all. It’s beautiful, but also a little bit like, anything Jesus can do she can do better! And these devotions, which start quite properly as honouring Jesus through his mother can undermine exactly what they are meant to reinforce: that Jesus is fully human. His mother does not have to be different from other women – she just has to be human. Nor does she have to represent salvation for women, because if Jesus is fully human, he is fully human for all of us, not just for men.
The real Mary is a very human Mary. Only a few of her words and deeds are recorded: she is cross because her twelve-year-old boy wandered off to the temple by himself; she has compassion for her friends who under-ordered on the wine for their daughter’s wedding; a couple of times she even tries to stop Jesus’ public ministry – perhaps because she can see where this is going to lead.
Maybe these words of the Magnificat are not the triumph song of the victorious Queen of Heaven but the excitement of a teenager who has heard the words of an angel but has not yet heard the words of Simeon, ‘a sword shall pierce your own soul’. In that sense, Mary is like us: she accepts Christ into her life absolutely – literally into her very body – but she does not yet know where that will lead.
I recall when I was pregnant the woman behind the counter in the Oxfam Shop on Broad Street, Oxford, looking from my belly to my collar and back again and saying ‘You’re pregnant! And you’re a priest!’ One of the many striking and surprising ways in which Mary has been depicted in art is dressed as a priest, and this is something pregnant women have in common with clergy: that you become public property. It’s like wearing your heart on the outside of your body: something very personal becomes very public, it becomes everybody’s business. Because bringing a child into a world with an uncertain future is an act of radical hope for the whole of humanity.
But it is also an act of radical patience. Those of you who have fruit trees in your garden – we are very much blessed with them at the vicarage – will have noticed how early they are ripening this year. It can be tricky to know when to pick apples. Or even worse, pears: they are rock hard right up to the moment they are slush! We are reminded by St Paul in the passage with which I began this sermon that Mary comes into God’s story ‘in the fullness of time’, when the time was ripe.
To say that God is incarnate does not just mean that God inhabits space, and human flesh but also time, and human history. Our God is a God who supremely acts in and through time: Which is where that other figure in the creeds comes in, Pontius Pilate! God could not or did not become man at just any time, but at this moment in human history, with a Roman empire reaching its peak, ripe both to destroy God’s son and to spread his fame across three continents.
So incarnation means waiting.
Waiting nine months for God’s son to be born
Waiting thirty years for him to start his ministry
Waiting through the many generations of Jewish expectation which find their culmination in this one Jewish girl.
And waiting still. Because the triumph acclaimed in the scriptures has been won- already, and also not yet. Today, there will be women in Afghanistan and elswhere bringing children into a world where the lowly have not yet been lifted up and the proud are very firmly on their thrones. And yet – God has been born of a woman, and therefore there is hope.
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