“You are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you” – a sermon for Oxford Pride

Sermon preached at the University Church, Oxford for Oxford Pride 2023. Texts: Isaiah 43.1-7 and Luke 1.46-55.

Thus says God, the Holy One, the creator of the universe, of all that is seen and unseen: “you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you”.

This is what God says to those who are oppressed and marginalised, disempowered and despairing. It is what God says to the exiled people of Israel in the time of the prophet Isaiah,  and it is what God is still saying to allwho find themselves shut out from what ought to be home, cut off or cast out, angry or grieving or numb: “you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you”. 

Perhaps this is God’s word for us today. Certainly I firmly believe it is true for each of us as we gather here in all our glorious God-given God-beloved diversity: lesbian, gay, bi, pan, queer, trans, non-binary, genderfluid, asexual, intersex, and all the other labels or refusals of labels which make up the fullness of who we are. Perhaps for some of us this is the true word we need to hear today, spoken by God through God’s prophet, spoken to us, spoken to you: “you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you”. 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could leave it there? But still in so many places and in so many ways we and our queer kin are not beloved, not honoured, not treated as the precious gift of God we are. 

Our siblings in Uganda are even now in grave danger, and it is shameful that so many of our church leaders have failed to say publicly and unequivocally that the persecution of LGBTQIA+ folks is entirely at odds with the gospel of love stronger than death which we claim to proclaim. 

And indeed, we do not have to look so far from our own doors to see the damage done by hateful and harmful words and actions to God’s beloved people.

Confronted with such things, it is essential to hold onto that divine voice which, in the face of floods and fire, violence and devastation, persecution and condemnation still says loud and clear: “I love you”. 

It is essential, but it is not enough. It is not enough because love demands action. And God who is love is a God who acts. To quote Cornel West: “justice is what love looks like in public”. God who is love is a God of justice. We yearn to see justice in the world, to see a world in which all people are loved and valued as they truly are. And justice is what God yearns for too, but it is not an empty yearning. The God of justice and love is a God who acts.

Mary, the mother of Jesus – in whom God is made flesh to show forever that human flesh is holy, human bodies are holy, our bodies are holy – sings of justice and a world transformed: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” 

This is what God’s kingdom looks like. This is the world God calls us to yearn and work and pray for: a world transformed, hungers satisfied, power overturned. Love in public. Justice. 

But notice the tense of the verbs: “he has put down… lifted up… he has filled”. Past tense. The Magnificat is not some vague future hope, or something to work towards, but a statement of what God has done and is doing, what God’s love looks like in public: justice, and freedom, and also rejoicing: “my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”. 

The kingdom of God, this justice-shaped outworking of God’s perfect and all-embracing love, is not just coming, but is here among us. Too often it is obscured by the death-dealing forces of empire, white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, and all that oppresses and destroys. But still it is here, persistently here, growing wild, like the uncontainable weed which grows from the mustard seed: God’s kingdom of justice and peace, glimpsed in flashes of love, of hope, of revolution.

Today as we participate in Pride, as we party and protest, I hope we will see some of those glimpses of God’s glory. 

Today I believe we will see something of what love lived out in public looks like, in the streets of this city. 

Today I have no doubt there will be joy, defiant joy which cannot be contained, transforming joy which speaks of the beloved-ness of each person, each child of God. 

And tomorrow? Tomorrow the struggle will go on, for justice, for freedom, for love lived out in public without fear, everywhere, for everyone. 

But that struggle, that justice-seeking, risky, hard and heavy work, is held – as we are all held – within the love, vast as the ocean, of God who will never abandon us, who is already fulfilling in our midst the promises of the kingdom, who speaks to us again and again the truth: “you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you”. 

When I was training to be a priest, in our college chapel there was a sign above the door on the way out of the building: “you are now entering a place of worship”. It was a reminder that glimpses of God’s glory, encounters with God’s Holy Spirit of love, peace, hope, justice and joy, are not limited to our churches, any more than God can be limited to our ideas, or anyone’s ideas, of who and what God should be. 

As we go out from here at the end of this service, I invite you to imagine that sign above whichever door you go out of: “you are now entering a place of worship”. A place where love is seen and known, a place where people are known and loved for who they truly are, a place where fierce, courageous love meets a deep, yearning thirst for justice.

Doesn’t that sound a bit like the kingdom of God? Or perhaps a rehearsal for the liberating justice of God’s kingdom, as we embody together the glorious fullness of life which Jesus came to bring. Right here on our doorstep, on our streets, in our midst, today. The kingdom of God is at hand. 

Go out alert to the signs of the divine in our midst, to moments of love, of hope, of justice and joy. Go out prepared to be those signs of the divine for others, bearers to those we meet of the word we have heard and encountered. Thus says God, the Holy One, to you, to me, to each person we will meet today when we leave this place: “you are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you”. 

May we know that divine love in the very depths of our being, allow ourselves to be transformed by it, and be ready to share it freely and joyfully.  Amen.


“But what’s wrong with daffodils?”

There has been a growing awareness in recent years of how difficult Mothering Sunday can be for a whole range of people, for a whole host of reasons. I’m not going to go into all those reasons here – a little imagination and empathy should enable you to think of at least some of them – but it’s fair to say that, while Mothering Sunday is for some a source of joy, it is for many others an occasion which brings grief and trauma closer to the surface.

There are many ways in which churches can be, and are, attentive to this realisation with sensitivity. I only want to deal briefly here with one particular area: the daffodils. It has been the custom in many churches to hand out little posies of flowers, usually daffodils, in church on Mothering Sunday. “Who’s doing the daffs?” is a common question in the run-up.

I don’t claim to speak for anyone else, but for me, as someone who for several reasons finds Mothering Sunday an extremely difficult day, ‘the daffs’ are always a source of pain. Symbolic action is powerful – that’s why we use it in church in the first place – and therefore symbolic action which is painful is often very painful.

Here are some of the ways I have encountered daffodils in church on Mothering Sunday:

1. We give daffs to the Mums. This is, for me as a childless woman, a fairly straightforward one. The daffs are not for me. (For friends whose relationship to motherhood is more complex – including bereaved mothers, step-mothers and foster mothers – this is more of a minefield.) Where it gets painful is where particular characteristics are linked to ‘mums’. They’re the ones who look after us, who care for us, etc. Leaving aside for a moment the sexist stereotyping, what about those of us who do those things but aren’t mums? Also, unless it’s a church where the people giving out the daffs know me well, there’s going to be an abrupt question along the lines of “are you a mum?” and I’m going to have to say “no”. In front of people (at least the person asking and the people sitting near me). Ouch.

2. We give daffs to all the women. This is my least favourite option. Still the sexist stereotypes, but now they do apply to me! Great. A particularly grim subset of this one is: “we give the daffs to the mums, and then if there are some leftover we give them to all the women”. Do not do this!!! If it’s not obvious to you why that’s an extremely hurtful thing to hear as a childless (not by choice) woman, I don’t know what to tell you, and I think we have a bigger problem than ‘the daffs’. But however it’s phrased, daffs for all the women leaves me feeling like I’ve been given a consolation prize. And – like all the options where I do end up with daffs – leaves me with unwanted daffs to take home. What am I supposed to do with this little, lovingly prepared, unintentional symbol of alienation? If I throw it away I feel guilty and ungrateful. If I put it in a vase I’m likely to burst into tears every time I walk past it.

3. We give daffs to everyone. Much trumpeted in clergy circles and on social media as the ‘inclusive’ option. Daffs for everyone! How could anyone possibly object to that? Let me say this: it is only inclusive of the people who want the daffs. “But of course we wouldn’t foist them on anyone who didn’t want them!” I hear you cry. Have you tried saying “no” to an excited 5 year old who wants to give you something? Or a 95 year old who you know has spent her Saturday making the posies? Or really anyone, when you’re already feeling emotionally fragile, and it feels like people expect you to take them (and be grateful). And see above for the ‘now what do I do with them?’ dilemma. Points for moving away from the sexist stereotyping though, I guess.

4. We give daffs to everyone… for them to give to someone else. Ok, two issues here. Who do I give mine to? Anyone I might think of is either dead or too distant (geographically, emotionally, or both). And while I’m thinking about that (and all the grief that comes with it)… Oh look, here comes someone who wants to give me theirs! And I definitely have to accept, and summon up some enthusiasm, because they have chosen to give them to me. I feel guilty about not wanting them. And, again, now what do I do with them?

5. We give them to everyone… but we are subverting the symbolism to mean something different. Look, I get it: you’ve noticed the problem. You want to do better. So these Mothering Sunday daffs are nothing to do with motherhood or womanhood or caring responsibilities or anything like that. They are a sign that God loves you / that we are all part of Mother Church / [insert preferred symbolism here]. Right. But that’s not how symbols work. They accrue meaning over time, and you can’t just change that by declaring they mean something different now. Whatever you say when you give me the daffs, they are still going to represent (for me) layers of grief and alienation. And I feel bad about that, when people are obviously trying so hard. So add a layer of guilt too.

6. The daffs are available. You can take them if you want, and not if you don’t, and nobody’s going to notice or comment either way. Great. This is the option I can cope with. I can ignore the daffs, and people who want the daffs can be happy with their daffs. We can all have a cup of tea, and maybe a piece of simnel cake if we’re lucky, and go home. Except I’ll probably just slip out of the door quickly before somebody notices I haven’t got any daffs and ‘kindly’ gives me some…

It’s a minefield. I know it is. My personal preference would be for no daffs. Except that I know there are people for whom receiving them is significant and pastorally important, for all sorts of reasons.

And in the end, I think perhaps all we can do is live with the awkwardness, the pain, the grief, the trauma, and admit that those things are part of who we – individually and/or collectively – are. I understand the drive to say “But we’ve found the solution to this! We’ve found the way to make it ok for everyone!” But it’s not really about the daffodil logistics, is it? It’s about people’s layers of grief, pain, trauma, alienation, sorrow. And that’s not something that can be solved or fixed. It’s just not ok, and it’s not going to be.

In the end, perhaps all any of us want is someone to sit with us in our not-ok-ness, and let it be not ok, without trying to fix it or change it or solve it. Pastoral care at its most basic, really. But it requires us to let go of our need to fix, control, find solutions, make things ok for people. That’s the really hard stuff. So maybe it’s easier to focus on the daffs…

#AdventBookClub: Thursday – Internationalism – the United Nations

“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?” asks Jesus. And yet we know that not every adult does give to the children in their care what is good and nourishing. We know that humans hurt one another knowingly and unknowingly all the time. We know that we who have enough still resist sharing with those who do not.

In the case of managing the impact of climate change, the communities worst affected have repeatedly asked those which are most responsible for the problem, not for bread, but for serious, rapid and sustained change. And they have not received it. They have received empty promises – the equivalent of a stone.

It is, at least in part, an issue of failing to fully comprehend the depth of our interconnectedness. If we think in terms of boundaries and strangers, we can continue to resist the call for bread, for change which is essential to sustaining life, both human and non-human. If we allow ourselves to think in terms of kinship and tangled roots, perhaps we will begin to put down our stones and look around for some yeast and flour.

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading “Sleepers Wake: Getting Serious About Climate Change” by Nicholas Holtam. For conversations and blog posts from various group members, follow the hashtag on Twitter or join the Facebook group.

#AdventBookClub: Wednesday – Made in God’s image

This chapter raises, in a round about way, an important question: what, or who, are we in danger of allowing to usurp the place of God in our lives, our priorities, our imaginations? Is it a particular figure, as in the story of Jesus and the coin: a politician, a celebrity, even a religious leader? Is it a concept: growth, progress, stability, status, unity…?

It is a serious question. All of us, subconsciously, will from time to time elevate someone or something beyond what we should. We need to be alert to those times and prepared to check ourselves and one another, to repent – literally to turn again – and refocus our gaze on Jesus. We need to remember again whose image we bear, and whose measure of our worth is worth our attention. This is part of the work of Advent.

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading “Sleepers Wake: Getting Serious About Climate Change” by Nicholas Holtam. For conversations and blog posts from various group members, follow the hashtag on Twitter or join the Facebook group.

#AdventBookClub: Tuesday – The richest of poor men

Before reading this chapter I had not previously come across the idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH), but I am unsurprised to discover that it came from Bhutan. When I was an undergraduate student, heavily involved in the life of my college chapel, we received a visit from a group of Bhutanese Buddhist monks. It was evident from even the briefest exchanges with them that they lived life in a very different mode from anything I had ever experienced. I have found the same among many Christian communities of monks and nuns too, although perhaps not quite to the same extent.

Finding a non-financial measure of a country’s wellbeing seems like such an attractive idea. And yet, the idea of a GNH leaves me slightly uneasy. Do we need to quantify everything? Should we – and, indeed, can we – measure and quantify happiness? Or can we think even more boldly and find new ways to order our priorities? Ones which don’t rely on replacing one set of quantifiable metrics with another, but admit that to really know the state of a country, a community, an individual requires an attentiveness beyond anything numbers alone can convey.

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading “Sleepers Wake: Getting Serious About Climate Change” by Nicholas Holtam. For conversations and blog posts from various group members, follow the hashtag on Twitter or join the Facebook group.

#AdventBookClub: Monday – Making the most of our talents

Is it true that “we are shaped by the challenges we surmount”? Perhaps. But I’m not sure how helpful that framing is. What about the challenges we don’t “surmount”? We are shaped by them too. We are shaped by challenges in ways which stretch and expand our horizons, and we are also shaped in ways which leave us traumatised, damaged, and forever changed. A theology which cannot account for that is not worth having.

I found this chapter a challenge (though not a traumatising one!). The framing of the parables cited as examples of needing to be ready and prepared is not one which sits well with me. It’s far too close to the “Jesus is coming, look busy!” signs which are supposed to be “jokey” but exhibit a theology of cheap grace and self-sufficiency.

Advent is not a call to be busy, efficient, productive, or prepared. It is a call to attentiveness, to sit gently with the open-endedness of knowing neither the day nor the hour, to allow ourselves to notice God in the joys and the challenges of life without clinging too tightly to either.

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading “Sleepers Wake: Getting Serious About Climate Change” by Nicholas Holtam. For conversations and blog posts from various group members, follow the hashtag on Twitter or join the Facebook group

#AdventBookClub: Advent 3 – being human

‘Dominion’ is, as this chapter discusses, a quite unhelpful work for describing the relationship between humans and our non-human neighbours. It implies a particular power dynamic which is not (at least in my reading of them) faithful to either of the creation stories in Genesis. And it has some unfortunate resonances, in a world shaped by colonialism and empire, with all those times and places where (usually white) humans have claimed dominion over (usually black and brown) other humans.

But I am not sure terms like ‘stewardship’ are any better. Still, there is a power dynamic which places humans in some sense ‘over’ our non-human neighbours. Stewardship is intended to be a more ‘benevolent’ kind of power than dominion, but it does nothing to challenge the fundamentally hierarchical understanding of the relationship.

And yet we know that however much power we may think we have (for good or ill) over our non-human neighbours, we depend on them absolutely for our survival. This is not really a relationship of hierarchy, but on of mutuality and interdependence. Perhaps we need to find new ways of understanding and expressing our relationship with our non-human neighbours, on whom we depend and who depend on us, with whom God has created us in mutual dependence and support, if we are to bring about a significant shift in our attitudes and actions.

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading “Sleepers Wake: Getting Serious About Climate Change” by Nicholas Holtam. For conversations and blog posts from various group members, follow the hashtag on Twitter or join the Facebook group

#AdventBookClub: Saturday – the beauty of holiness

I might not have gone out today if we hadn’t run out of butter. And I would have missed out! As I walked across the park to the corner shop, I paused multiple times to admire the frost – the glitter of it across the expanse of the football pitch, the soft feathery layers of it on a fallen leaf, the sharp outlines of twigs on the path. Beauty of holiness indeed.

But beauty is not always so obvious. Recently I went walking with a friend who is particularly good at spotting interesting fungi. As we walked across woods and fields, gradually we all started to notice the fungi too. Every now and then someone would call out “fungus!” and point, and we would all gather round to admire it. Now I find myself noticing fungi more than I ever did before. Sometimes we need one another to draw our attention to beauty, and to holiness, which would otherwise pass us by.

The wonderful thing about fungi is that what we see is only the tip of the iceberg. Beyond the visible blooms we see in the grass or on a tree trunk, there is a huge hidden network, complex and sophisticated, on which the whole ecosystem depends. Beauty is not always in the eye of the beholder – sometimes it is hidden from our sight. The holiness of the creator is reflected in “things seen and unseen”.

So yes – let us delight in and give thanks for the beauty of holiness. But let’s keep expanding our understanding of where beauty – where holiness – may be found.

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading “Sleepers Wake: Getting Serious About Climate Change” by Nicholas Holtam. For conversations and blog posts from various group members, follow the hashtag on Twitter or join the Facebook group

#AdventBookClub: Friday – fear or love?

“Fear or love?” sounds a bit like “cake or death?” – obviously we’re going to choose love. But I’m not sure the two can be so neatly separated out. Sure, “perfect love casts out fear”, but our love is not perfect. We fear for the future of those we love. We fear the harm that may befall them. We worry about whether they will be safe and happy and fulfilled. That’s a normal part of human love.

And with our planet too, as we love it we fear for its future. Both love and fear are motivating factors to change our behaviour in ways which limit our impact on the environment. And very often they are tangled up together. Even in the local (which can be easier to grasp than the global) we may be motivated to campaign against a particular development both because of fear of it’s impact on the local landscape, and love for the landscape it will mar.

And what about “the fear of the Lord”? This is not, I think, a cowering fear of a God who might punish on a whim. Rather it is a right reverence and humility in the face of the awesomeness of God. In the context of climate change, perhaps it is the opening of our eyes to the splendour and majesty of God’s creation, which reflects something of who God is.

As we grapple with our love and fears for the future of our planet, and for future generations, and as we try to hold all that in the perspective of God’s awesome love, we would do well to remember the wisdom of Wendell Berry in his wonderful poem The Peace of Wild Things:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading “Sleepers Wake: Getting Serious About Climate Change” by Nicholas Holtam. For conversations and blog posts from various group members, follow the hashtag on Twitter or join the Facebook group.

#AdventBookClub: Thursday – Travelling together

One thing this chapter brings home for me is how quickly things change in our responses to the climate crisis. Published earlier this year, the reflection on COP 26 already seems dated and a bit naive, read in the wake of COP 27 and in the context of (among other things) the news of approval for Britain’s first new coal mine in many decades.

But perhaps that is the point. The comparison with the Israelites wandering in the wilderness is well made. We do not know what our journey into the future will look like, or where it will lead us. But we do know that, for good or ill, we travel together, dependent on one another, caught up in one another’s hopes and fears.

Advent is a wilderness time. It is a time of knowing ourselves in the desert of repentence. And it is a time too of knowing the wilderness for what it is – not only a barren, risky, and sometimes frightening place, but also a place of profound encounter with God. We see this reflected in the prophetic texts of scripture to which we pay particular attention in Advent. “I will make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert”, we repeat each day at Morning Prayer during this season. God is the one who promises water, and guidance, and new life, and who does not wait for us to emerge from the wilderness before coming to meet us with what we need.

This year for #AdventBookClub we are reading “Sleepers Wake: Getting Serious About Climate Change” by Nicholas Holtam. For conversations and blog posts from various group members, follow the hashtag on Twitter or join the Facebook group.