You are set free: Sermon for Canon Biggar’s retirement from Christ Church

Sermon Trinity 10


21 August 2022

Fr Richard Peers SMMS

Christ Church, Oxford

Today at Christ Church we are saying goodbye to Canon Nigel Biggar. He has been a canon of Christ Church since 2007, not quite the eighteen years of bondage that the woman in today’s gospel had experienced. It has not been an easy time, particularly in the last six years, for anyone at Christ Church, but I hope that it has not felt like bondage – although he has been rather cheerful as the end approaches.

I asked Nigel whether he would rather preside or preach today and he passed the short straw to me. But when I looked at today’s readings and particularly at today’s gospel it seemed appropriate for wishing Nigel well in his continuing work.

The gospel we have just heard is about freedom.

The freedom to live that is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching.

I have come, Jesus said, in John 10:10, that you may have life, life in fullness, life in abundance, life in completeness. 

And it is that abundant life that the woman has not had.

Her life has been constrained, contained, restricted.

Jesus gives her permission to be free.

So one point of this story is the freedom that Jesus brings, that he offers to each one of us to be free.

But the story is also about the misuse of religion to constrain God. Jesus heals this woman on the Sabbath.

The biblical sabbath is a wonderful gift to the people of God of freedom. Freedom from work.  A day of rest, of joy and celebration.

The glory of the sabbath is well described by the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading. If we observe the rest that God gives us in creation we will ‘ride on the heights of the earth’.

But take a look at what else the sabbath consists of in Isaiah:

offering food to the hungry

satisfying the needs of the afflicted

The sabbath is not about us, me, ourselves, it is precisely about not ‘pursuing our own interests’, not exploiting others, bringing freedom to those who are oppressed by hunger and afflictions.

Our second reading today doesn’t mention the sabbath. 

In our second readings we work our way through a new testament book and we are now almost at the end of the letter to the Hebrews. It is a good commentary on today’s gospel reading. It tells us that the fullness of life that Jesus gives to the woman, that he promises us, that is justice for the hungry and afflicted is a dangerous thing.  A consuming fire.

Freedom is dangerous. Fullness of life is dangerous.

We saw the cost of freedom last week in the attack on Salman Rushdie.

Not, thank God, physically, but Nigel has also carried the cost of daring to write and say things which are unpopular, unfashionable in some circles.

We live in an age of high anxiety, perhaps not surprising given the destruction of the planet and the economic and political uncertainties in which we live.

In this anxiety it is easy to imagine that things would be better if we limited freedoms. It’s the illusion of control.

Freedom can be frightening and disturbing, better the prison we know than the freedom we don’t.

The woman in the gospel is free after eighteen years.

We can only imagine the excitement, the fear, the shock, that she begins her new life with.

As many of you know I was a headteacher in south east London for some years. Rather than have a punishment system to ensure good behaviour we introduced practices of Restorative Justice. It was a powerful tool for changing behaviour permanently, for enabling young people to see the consequences of their actions for other people and not just for themselves.

One of the aspects that fascinated me about Restorative Justice was that it concentrates on actions not motives. Often when we deal with children we ask them why they did something. Usually they don’t know, they can’t answer that question. As human beings our motives are too complex, too irrational to be easily explained,

I think Jesus would understand that.

When he sees the woman in today’s gospel he is not interested in her psychology, nor that of those who want to preserve the sabbath and are cross with him for healing on the sabbath. There is a straightforwardness about Jesus that is deeply attractive.

Just look at the gospel we’ve heard today. He sees the woman and the gospel says “When he saw her he called her over.” He doesn’t interrogate her. He simply says “Woman, you are set free.”

This is the freedom that Jesus offers every one of us. The simple freedom of being fully alive.

The task for each of us, for you and for me is to notice the things that make us unfree, the things that bind us.

Many of us will think of all the psychological factors, the experiences of our lives that bind us, that limit our freedom. These are, no doubt, important, but perhaps the task is simpler, more straightforward than that.

Perhaps there are simple choices that we can make not to be bound in life but to live the freedom that Jesus gives.

We human beings like to complicate things. To put up barriers, to turn the joy of the sabbath into the rules that must be kept. To limit the sharing of bread and wine in the Eucharist to those who fit, who tick the right boxes.

When Nigel takes bread and wine and says the prayers in a few moments, he is celebrating the feast of freedom. 

This feast is food to sustain us in living freely for the rest of the week. To see what we are bound by and to let it go and walk away from it.

The justice of God is restorative, it restores us to the freedom that God wanted for us when he made us. That freedom that unbinds us from the narratives of our lives, of resentment and cynicism and self-obsession. It is the freedom of Jesus who does not ask ‘why’, but simply says ‘you are set free’.

We walk freely as we ascend to the altar because we have “come to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus …”


The Lambeth Roller Coaster: a personal view

For many people of my age the BBC series Its a Sin was immensely triggering. It brought back half-submerged memories of that time in the 1980s. HIV, family rejection, friendship. The shared house even reminded me of the eclectic and diverse collection of people I shared a house with on Andover Road in Winchester (you know who you are).

The recent Lambeth Conference has felt a bit like that. A roller-coaster of emotion.

I hate the victimology of much of our culture and in so many ways I lead an immensely privileged life, the total joy of entering the 38th year of life with an utterly beautiful man (I am 57 for the avoidance of doubt), a career protected by equalities legislation in schools and now in a university, simply to be born as a gay person in this time and this place, to work in a friendly, welcoming and inclusive community.

However, I do know what it is like to be rejected by family, to have an actual door slammed in my face, to have to leave a New Year’s lunch and have to search for a place for the night because someone could not face seeing my partner and I together, to not to be invited to family events, to have things said by my closest relatives that should never be said by one human being to another. To be required by the church, by my bishops, for the first years of my ordained life to live apart from my partner, “Well, at least have separate postal addresses.” as one Archdeacon put it. Or, “It’s for your own safety.” as a bishop described it – so much easier to blame other people. I know the effect this all had on my partner and I am ashamed that I put him through it.

So, yes, I was triggered when the partners of same-sex partnered bishops weren’t invited to the Lambeth Conference, when it was the University of Kent that offered them hospitality, when they had to stay long-distances away from their partners, when a friend driving one partner on part of the journey to Lambeth described the anxiety.

And yes when the first version of the Call to Human Dignity was published it was a kick in the stomach; I felt it viscerally. Lambeth 1:10, despite some subtlety in the actual text is a baseline of prejudice; like Section 28 it has a sign value to LGBTQ+ people that is profoundly negative. Whoever put it in the text can have no empathy or understanding for that sign value for us.

But things got better. 

I am cautious about this, I want to see what happens next and I still have some problems with what was said.

It does feel that the Holy Spirit was at work, it does seem that we have reached a point where we accept the diversity of our churches. That we are not a church but a fellowship of churches has been firmly stated, that there are no sanctions available or desired by the Archbishop of Canterbury has been clearly said. It does seem that the presence of same-sex partnered bishops and their spouses made a difference, that there has been real encounter.

It is early days and I am nervous and cautious.

So, my concerns:

The claim for ‘validity’ for Lambeth 1:10 and the failure to note its iconic value for LGBTQ+ people. I simply don’t understand what validity means in this context. And in my privileged life I worry for LGBTQ+ siblings in places where their lives are in danger.

My second concern is the affirming bishops statement organised by Jayne Ozanne and which has had more than 170 signatures. What it says is really rather mild. Only two bishops of the Church of England signed, Bishop David Hamid in Europe and Bishop Alan Wilson in this diocese. I wonder if those English bishops, that is to say all of the rest of them, but mostly those I know personally and like and have much respect for, realise how triggering it is for me to see that they have not signed. It hurts. Of course, the politics is complicated. But it feels like the willingness to accept diversity in the Communion does not extend to accepting diversity in the College of Bishops. I think they, you, if you read this, need to explain themselves / yourselves.

It is important to remember the beautiful 1998 statement from affirming bishops following Lambeth 1:10: A Pastoral Statement to Lesbian and Gay Anglicans from Some Member Bishops of the Lambeth Conference

“We apologize for any sense of rejection that has occurred”.

It feels that in England at least we have gone backwards and that bizarrely the Living in Love and Faith process has stifled not encouraged debate.

When I was sent away, not invited, spoken to in humiliating ways by those I loved in my family I was certain they would get over it, I couldn’t believe that they couldn’t. God is good, and they did get over it in just a few years, and came to love my partner Jim and to cherish us. I was barely in my mid twenties for my family to make this journey.

A church, a worldwide communion is a bigger and more, complex thing, of course, than one family, but it is still my family and I have waited for the rest of my working life for the church to make progress.

Is this Lambeth Conference progress? I hope and pray that it is. But I also hope that you understand why I am not quite rejoicing.

What a friend we have in Jesus: sermon on Luke 12: 32 – 48


Trinity 8

Proper 14. Fr Richard Peers SMMS

Lk 11: 32-40

What a friend we have in Jesus,

all our sins and griefs to bear!

What a privilege to carry

everything to God in prayer!

O what peace we often forfeit,

O what needless pain we bear,

all because we do not carry

everything to God in prayer!

I don’t know about you but my friends are a pretty rum bunch.

Sometimes I wonder how I know them, what attracted us to each other.

Some of them I have quite a lot in common with, some of them nothing in common at all.

I like the hymn What a friend we have in Jesus a lot.

But often I like to imagine that first line with an exclamation mark at the end of it: 

What a friend we have in Jesus!

What an extraordinary, exasperating, irritating, challenging friend Jesus must have been.

In our year long reading of Luke’s gospel we are about half way through and today’s gospel reading contains a set of statements by Jesus, some of which St Luke shares with St Matthew some of which come from another source, that Luke has woven together. 

There isn’t really a single theme to the passage and in some ways the reading cuts the flow of Luke’s narrative by choosing these particular verses. As so often with the gospels the phrases can seem so familiar to us that we ignore or just don’t notice their force. We don’t notice what an extraordinary, exasperating, irritating, challenging friend Jesus is.

Many of you will be in church today to see this wonderful historic, sacred building. For many of you this may be the only time you worship at Christ Church. Some of you will worship at your own churches when you get home, for others this may be the only Christian worship you attend this year or this month.

Wherever you come from, how ever often you find yourself in church I’d like us to look together at this remarkable collection of sayings and think about our friend Jesus. What state is our friendship with him in? How does this collection of sayings help us to think again about Jesus?

What a friend we have in Jesus: he doesn’t want us to be afraid, that’s how the passage begins. It might seem quite consoling and comforting; but I wonder if actually it is to help us face the really quite frightening and challenging journey of friendship with Jesus that he is about to describe.

I am certainly challenged by the next statement. Sell your possessions and give alms.

I expect most of us contribute something to charity from our spare income. But I certainly don’t envisage selling any of my possessions any time soon to be able to give more to charity. Filling out my tax form this week I had to add up how much I spent on books in the last financial year. If I had given all that money to charity it could have changed lives. Why do I need to buy all those books when I have access in Oxford to one of the best libraries in the world?

And this passage about possessions goes on:

Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

I spend quite a bit of my time seeing people for Spiritual Direction. Everyone loves to talk about their prayer lives. The spiritual experiences they may or may not be having. But Jesus, our extraordinary, exasperating, irritating, challenging friend is much wiser than that. He knows that the real test of what we value of where our hearts are is how we spend our money.

If you want a spiritual practice this week take a look at your bank statement and see what you value. Jesus is much more interested in how we spend our money, what possessions we have than in spiritual experiences.

Then the passage changes tack. 

Now we are the servants waiting for our master to come back from a wedding party, no doubt late, no doubt in the middle of the night.

We can’t afford to put our pyjamas on and go to bed or to turn the lights out.

In fact we can’t sleep at all.

This following Jesus is no easy life. We can’t coast through it.

But then look at what happens.

The Master comes home. But he doesn’t expect to be waited on, he becomes the servant, serving the servants.

Jesus is never predictable. This turn in the passage is revolutionary, it changes the world. Masters become servants, slaves get waited on.

What a friend we have in Jesus!

And then the passage turns again. No longer are we thinking about servants waiting for their Master to get back late at night or early in the morning. Now suddenly Jesus is thinking about a house being broken into.

There is a thief about.

Jesus shows us that there is a conflict. This might even be called the real spiritual conflict.

What or who has stolen our hearts?  If we are not waiting to welcome Jesus what are we waiting for, who breaks into the house of our lives? 

You must be ready, Jesus says, for he is coming at an unexpected hour.

What a friend we have in Jesus! Because he comes when we don’’t expect him.

We all like to see our friends, we make arrangements to see them, we invite them over at certain times. But Jesus is not that sort of friend. He turns up when we don’t expect him, perhaps even when we are busy doing something else, perhaps even in the middle of the night.

These sort of passages are sometimes interpreted as referring to the end of the world when Jesus will come again.

Others interpret them as being ready to meet Jesus in our worship, in the words of Scripture or in his body and blood received in the Eucharist as we will in just a few minutes time.

All those interpretations may be true. But I want to end by thinking of a slightly different way of understanding this.

This service, this act of worship is not the unexpected time. Quite the opposite we are here because we knew the time of the service. We expect perhaps some of us to have a spiritual experience.

But what about this time tomorrow? 11am on Monday. 

Perhaps we will meet Jesus then? perhaps we will see where our treasure is, what we really value in the way we answer an email, speak to a colleague spend our money when we go shopping or online.

What a friend we have in Jesus,

all our sins and griefs to bear!

What a privilege to carry

everything to God in prayer!

O what peace we often forfeit,

O what needless pain we bear,

all because we do not carry

everything to God in prayer!

If Jesus is not our friend in every moment, everything of our lives he is no friend at all, we are no friend to him.

If you are serious about friendship with Jesus carry everything to God in prayer, your work, your social life, your spending, your eating, your intimate relationships.

Whether we choose friendship with Jesus or not, and the choice is entirely ours don’t do it without noticing what an extraordinary, exasperating, irritating, challenging friend Jesus is.

What a friend we have in Jesus.