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.