Of wrestling, Collects and Justice: my final sermon as Sub Dean


16th October 2022

Christ Church, Oxford

Trinity  18

Ord Sun 29C

Fr Richard Peers SMMS

If you were here last Sunday you will have heard Canon Graham begin his sermon with some words from Leonard Cohen:

And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water

And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower

And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him

He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them.

This week we have three wonderful readings from Scripture to think about. As you know the second reading and the Gospel each Sunday follow in course the biblical books, this year Luke’s gospel and at the moment  the second letter of St Paul to Timothy. But the first reading is chosen from anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, to shed some light on the the day’s reading from the gospel.

Today’s Old Testament passage is the famous one where Jacob wrestles with a stranger at the ford of the Jabbok.

It is a powerful and extraordinary account ending with Jacob limping away, having asked the stranger’s name, and receiving only a question in return.

It is a passage that has figured highly in Christian imaginations and mystical interpretation. The stranger seen as an angel or God himself; the wrestling the spiritual struggle, the life of faith, in modern times the limp seen as a sign of the christian minister as ‘wounded healer’.  And so on.

The story has inspired art, music and poetry.

I am going to reflect on the fact the fact that Jacob wants to know the name of the stranger, but is not given it.

Names, as we know are important. At the beginning of creation Adam names the creatures. When Moses meets God at the burning bush God tells Moses that God’s name is I AM WHO AM.

We all like to be remembered by name and feel valued when we are.

In Jewish tradition God’s name is so sacred that it is not to be uttered, and when it is read or spoken outside of worship is replaced with the Hebrew word for ‘the name’ – haShem.

God’s name is elusive because God is too complex too big to be encompassed by a simple name.

Jesus, as you probably know is never called a Sailor in the Bible. But in Cohen’s song it is a powerful image. Picking up, perhaps, as it does the idea of the church as a boat on the rough seas of the world.

It is this enriching of our language and imagery for God that I think of as our wrestling with God, our efforts to define God and God’s slipping away from us.

In recent decades Christians have thought a lot about the language we use in our worship. Firstly, to be inclusive of men and women. This reflects the changing nature of language so that we cannot assume that mankind refers  to all human beings. This is now largely accepted and our Common Worship texts are written in such a way as to reflect this change.

This is not altogether unproblematic of course. Many questions remain: should we change historic texts such as hymns to be more inclusive? Should Scripture translations reflect these changes?

I am not going into that today. I would rather think about the ways in which our language about God might expand to richer imagery.

I was really taken with the idea of Jesus as a sailor. The metaphor can go in many directions.

At Evensong when I am in Canon in Residence it is my task to pray the prayers at the end of the Office, just before the blessing. Here at Christ Church we keep to the traditional form of a bidding followed by a prayer in the form of the Collect. The Collect is a simple form of prayer in the Latin, western Christian tradition with a straightforward structure:

1 an address to God

2 a mention of something that God has done for us

3 a request that God do something

4 a kind of statement of purpose, why we want this thing we have asked for

5 a conclusion

The Common Worship Collect for this week is a pretty good example of this:

1 Almighty and everlasting God,

3 increase in us your gift of faith

4 that, forsaking what lies behind

and reaching out to that which is before,

we may run the way of your commandments

and win the crown of everlasting joy;

5 through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,

who is alive and reigns with you,

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever.

Although it misses out the second statement, probably because that would make it too long. It was written by the liturgist David Frost for the Alternative Service Book 1980.

Form like this in liturgy or the classical forms of poetry might at first seem constraining. But in fact form is what allows us freedom without chaos. The poet Malcolm Guite writes about the importance of form in last week’s Church Times, he ends by saying:

“The priest who serves the liturgy, the pastor serving their flck, the teacher working within the constraints of classroom and curriculum – all of them submit to constraints that sometimes seem impossible and yet, ‘meeting with wit and industry’, produce something ‘greater and worthier’ than unconstrained and possibly self-indulgent self-expression could ever do.”

There is a great treasury of prayers in the Collect form and many of my colleagues mine this treasury for the prayers that end Evensong.

In a small act of subversion in my time here I always use the Collect form in those prayers but always use modern collects written by others that expand our language, expand our images of God.

There are many people wrestling with language in our times in this way. Three writers whose Collects I frequently use are great wrestlers with language.

Jim Cotter, now dead, was a great wordsmith and poet and wrote many liturgical texts unfolded, as he used to say, from the traditional words. His form of Compline, Night Prayer, made its way almost entirely in to the official Prayer Book of the Anglican church in New Zealand.

Janet Morley, a writer, liturgist and social justice campaigner.

Finally a dear friend of mine, Fr Steven Shakespeare, a priest who is now Professor of Philosophy at Liverpool Hope University.

So here are three Collects for today one by each of these wrestlers with words. Notice the way they use the Collect form to contain their language and imagery:

First of all Jim Cotter’s:

1 Living Presence of justice,

2 inspiring us with passion and endurance

    to embody your ways on earth,

3 that oppression and injustice may vanish from our lives.

5 We pray this after the pattern of Jesus

    and in the power of the Spirit.

Unfolding the Living Word, Jim Cotter,  Canterbury Press 2012

Now Janet Morley’s:

1 O God,

2 with whom we wrestle

until the break of day,

3 make us long to seek your face

beyond the limits of our strength:

4 that in our wounds we remember you,

and in your blessing

we may find ourselves,

through Jesus Christ. Amen

And finally Steven Shakespeare’s:

1 God of the dispossessed

2 you teach us to hunger for justice

even when the weak are shut out

and the powerful turn in their beds:

3 (4?) in the heat of our anger

and the bitterness of our complaints,

give us the courage to protest,

the persistence to pray

and the heart to love;

5 through Jesus Christ, the true judge.  Amen.

Prayers for an Inclusive Church, Steven Shakespeare, Canterbury Press, 2008

I hope you will notice how these writers have used the form of the Collect in creative and playful ways, not always abiding exactly to it but never leaving it too far behind. Take these Collects home with you and reflect on them and the way in which they pick up on the theme of today’s readings: persistence, justice and woundedness,

Today is, if I have read the rota correctly, the last time I will preach as Sub Dean at Christ Church.

I am delighted that the exhibition for Black History Month is here.

Those of you who were here for my first sermon at Christ Church 26 months ago may remember that I had a visual aid with me.

In an attempt at homiletical parenthesis or even hermeneutical inclusio I am going to share that same icon with you again today.

It is an icon of Our Lady of Lewisham.  Designed by the pupils at the school where I was Head and painted by Helen McIldowie-Jenkins. It illustrates perfectly I think the balance between form and freedom that the Collects we have looked at demonstrate. The form of this icon is a traditional Orthodox icon. But the black children who designed it ensured that not only is the skin of Mary and Jesus black, but so are their features, and hair; the fabric on Mary’s clothing is west African kente fabric.

The call for justice in church and society is like this. It is using the forms we have inherited in ways that include more people and lead to more justice.

Whether it is the inclusion of black and minority ethnic people, the ordination of women or same-sex marriage, it is finding the freedom which the form gives us and will build God’s kingdom of justice and peace.

Women, black people, LGBT people have all had to be like the woman in today’s gospel, persistent in the call for justice and more persistence is needed.

In today’s second reading from St Paul, he encourages us to be strong:

“be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable.”