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.