Text of Revd Miranda's sermon on 2 January 2022, ahead of presiding at her first Communion at All Saints' Church
Well, Happy New Year to you all. New Year often brings about change and trepidation. And nationally we begin 2022 with a certain degree of anxiety, and uncertainty with the continuing rise of omicron and where that will lead us. And here at All Saints we are experiencing a big change in our Ministry arrangements as a female Priest presides at Communion for the first time in this lovely church’s history. What is this event about? It's important for this church and for its ongoing story: another chapter unfolds. But this is a very minor footnote in the unfolding of the kingdom of God: the important thing isn't what we do this morning but what will we do as a result of it, together. And how we work together through this is period of change and adjustment for All Saints as we seek God’s guidance on how the future Ministry here will pan out and how we can ensure our valued and unique Anglo Catholic Tradition is maintained.
I've learnt over the years to start my first sermon in a place with two important statements. One I can’t abide sherry and the other thing I need to ask you is that we might live in the truth with kindness. We all make mistakes, I will get things wrong – we all do – and often expectations of me and what your Churchwardens can do will be too high, especially as to what we can achieve. We will have to prioritise on occasion - I have another job and three children- and I am sure we will occasionally prioritise the wrong things. So please tell me and us when we’ve got it wrong – we must help each other take responsibility for what we do and for when we fail, because that's how we learn and grow; but tell with kindness. When something goes wrong, there's no point in blaming others: instead, we need to keep asking the question, what have we learnt for next time? How will it be different? How can our Ministry grow in these challenging circumstances.
Blaming others is for small-minded people, and Christians are called to be generous and kind. The question is not, am I right and are you wrong? The question is: do I live with the love of Jesus Christ in my heart and in my life? Do I treat others with the love with which I trust that God will treat me? In words from scripture: Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. Or as St Paul says, Without love, all we do is worth nothing.
This is not soppy or sentimental anything-goes love. Christian love isn't pink and fluffy and self-indulgent; nor is it the romantic love which people chase after, the myth which has destroyed so many marriages and relationships, and damaged the lives of children, and undermined society. Christian love is what we see in Jesus Christ, in his life and death and resurrection: love which chooses to suffer for those who hate you, love which loves the unlovable, and so changes the world. Learning to live with difference.
As a nation it seems we have sadly become incapable of debating and disagreeing with each other with any level of patience, decorum or understanding. Indeed it seems since the Brexit referendum in 2016, the attitude of “you’re either for us or against us “ has set in , with social media being used to spread venom against those who hold a differing view to the trendy accepted one. One can be cancelled if one’s views are not on message. Many have been guilty of this, with sweeping generalisations being made against those with opposing views. And the church, rather than setting a higher example, has sadly seemed to follow suit in the way that it has conducted its debates, and expressed difference, over matters such as women priests, and gay clergy. And so all those opposed to women clergy have been branded “misogynists” – so very untrue and wrong on many counts , On the other side of the argument, I’ve heard it said that all female clergy are liturgically illiterate – this being said in the presence of a female Cathedral Precentor! I.e. that member of staff responsible for liturgy!
I am very conscious that there will be some here today who are unhappy at having a female priest preside at Communion – for some it strikes at the core of their theological belief. I am also conscious of the fact that I am probably only presiding today because its Hobson’s Choice/ or needs must. There is no one else. For others here today they can’t see what the problem is and do not mind whether their priest is male or female. The national debate- which mainly took place 30 years ago- has been heated - heated, because both sides of the argument are about theological understanding and identity, and whether people have a right to exist in a certain role, and they touch on deep-seated feelings and experiences of unacceptable behaviour and unreconciled differences.
Both sides of the argument are examples of how as human beings we have such a tendency to put the world into two camps: them and us. We say or think that, if you don't agree with me, then you're wrong; if you're not on my side then you must be my enemy.
We divide the world into black and white, and shades of grey are squeezed out, reduced to soundbites and headlines. It's a digital view for a digital world. Digital technology reduces everything to noughts and ones, on or off, yes or no. Analogue music on vinyl or analogue TV have gone; so too the subtlety of analogy itself is being pushed out of public discourse and replaced by 'us' or 'them'.
We need to stop seeing the world in black and white, and see the colours of God in people instead.
For in Christ there is no them and us. There is only us. God is on everyone's side, and therefore God is on no one's side.
God's love for 'us' and for 'them' doesn't depend on our being good or deserving; it depends on God being loving. And God's love, unlike ours, is relentless.
That's why in Christ there is no them and us. There is only us, who should be trembling before the overwhelming love of God.
There's no more wonderful way to live in this world than to be a disciple of Jesus Christ: to follow in his way, in joy and hope and love, being continually challenged to change and grow, always called to be open for Jesus to overturn the tables of the prejudices which we erect in the places of his prayer.
The Bible tells us that God's love is inclusive. Everyone is loved wholeheartedly by God without exception – it's the original equalities policy: all of us are equal before God. It doesn't matter whether you're a priest or a bishop, an insider or an outsider; whether you're a conservative or an open evangelical, male or female or in the ordinariate or identify yourself as inclusive; it doesn't matter whether you're a musician or tone deaf; a journalist or a hoodie; gay or straight, or neither; a failure in marriage or a successful single; a victim of crime or a convicted criminal; a person with a strong religious faith, or an atheist or a struggling agnostic.
Whoever and whatever we are, wherever we start from, Jesus Christ will start with us; Jesus Christ loves us to the uttermost, died to set us free, and was raised from death to transform our lives.
God is on everyone's side, and no one's side: for God is both loving and just. The love of God for us is so great, say Jesus and the prophets, that God will not rest until we are remade into the image of Jesus Christ, until we become as loving as God is himself, as profligate and careless with our love as is the God who loves and longs for all.
For God's love is a consuming fire, burning up our hatreds and our darkness, the things we're ashamed of, the ways we've hurt others and ignored God and goodness and truth and never even noticed. God will not rest until we know that we are loved.
And Jesus calls us to be a Church of love and truth, inclusive and challenging and ready to face the challenges ahead together. Let that be our prayer today.
It doesn't matter what adjective you put in front of yourself: liberal, conservative, charismatic, traditionalist, male or female, orthodox or unbelieving. God is onto your case - and mine. We can't stop God loving us, however hard we try. As the poet Francis Thompson writes of the God he calls the Hound of Heaven:
'Still with unhurrying chase, And unperturbèd pace, Deliberate speed, majestic instancy, Came on the following feet...' God's love will hunt us down and there's nowhere to hide:
For God will keep challenging us whenever we think we've got it right, when we think that, unlike 'them', we have the truth, rather than trusting that the Truth has us.
Come, sisters and brothers, whatever your religious or irreligious tribe.
Come to Jesus Christ and find the inclusive and challenging love of God. If our faith doesn't make us uncomfortable and change us;
if we blame others rather than love them;
if we refuse to tolerate the intolerant;
if we don't love those who are different from us, really love them and be their friend; if we still persist in dividing the world into 'them and us' –
then hear and believe the words of one of the friends of Jesus who knew him best, and be changed.
Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.
No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is made perfect in us.
Ubi caritas – where love is, that's where God is.
Let us pray
Be present, O merciful God, and protect us throughout our life’s journey, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world, may rest upon thy eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.