Recent Sermons


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

Fr Benji

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.

 

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Amen.

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


(for the sermon preached at the Parish Church please see below)


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.

 

Amen.

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.

 

Amen.