Sermon for Candlemas 2023

If you’ve been coming to St Oswald’s for any length of time, you’ll know that Candlemas is my favourite festival. I love it for all sorts of reasons: 

I love the Candlemas snowdrop legends: that when Adam and Eve were driven out of Eden after the fall, it is said that snowdrops grew in Eve’s footprints, a glimmer of hope when all seemed lost. And you’ll notice that snowdrops do indeed grow in clumps, just as if they’re growing in someone’s footprints. And then, the legend says, they also grew in Mary’s footsteps as she left the Temple after the Presentation: Mary, through the Incarnation to which she gave her consent, is the one who leads the way on the journey back to Eden, back to paradise. Snowdrops are my favourite flowers and I have a pot outside my front door of snowdrops that were embedded in my dad’s funeral wreath – they are just showing a touch of white: they truly are the flowers of hope.

I love, too, the completeness of the Candlemas story with young and old, men and women, a young married couple, a bachelor, a baby and a widow. 

For many years, Anna’s half of the story was left out of the lectionary – the set readings for each Sunday. We only ever got Simeon. It wasn’t until the liturgical reforms in the early 2000s that Anna took her rightful place in the lectionary reading, and the Candlemas story was heard in its fullness and richness. A friend of mine once told me that, in 1992, when the Church of England General Synod was voting on the Ordination of women to the Priesthood, she went into her church, with the intention of reading through a Gospel, as her form of prayer and meditation while the debate was raging in London. She embarked on the gospel of Luke, but got no further than Chapter 2, and the story of Simeon and Anna. She suddenly saw very clearly, in the complementarity of these two people, just how inclusive God intends his people to be: the pattern of Candemas is the pattern of the Gospel – a generous and inclusive space where God’s love for all God’s children is made clear. If we look at Jesus’ life and  ministry, we see the same pattern – he spent his time with outcasts and sinners and was vocal in his opposition to those who held power and used it to exclude others. 

In 1992, my friend sat entranced by this story, until the debate was over and the vote won. But we still battle over the role of women in the Church. It is still legal for the Church of England to discriminate against women – parishes can say that they don’t want a woman as their Vicar: if that happened in the secular world it would be against the law. 

And, of course, Philip, our new Diocesan Bishop is not in favour of the ordination of women and would not receive Holy Communion from a woman priest, or from a man ordained by a woman. His appointment seems to have been greeted with great enthusiasm by numbers of women clergy in the diocese as he is perceived as being very supportive of women’s ministry on a day to day level. However, he will not ordain any women as priests. It is not yet clear whether he will allow Bishop Jill to ordain men, or whether he will hear the women clergy renew their ordination vows on Maundy Thursday. To my mind these divisions are exactly the opposite of what Jesus showed us – exactly the opposite of what is in God’s heart.

Two weeks ago the Church of England Bishops voted against allowing gay people to be married in church, although they are proposing that clergy will be able to bless the marriages of gay people who have married elsewhere. Again, this was a huge disappointment for me, as it adds another area of exclusion and discrimination in the name of the God we follow, the God we believe to be Love. 

The Bishops are, no doubt, in a very difficult position, as some groups within the Church of England, and across the world in the Anglican Communion are threatening to leave, or insist that the next Archbishop of Canterbury is someone much more conservative from within the Anglican Communion but not from the United Kingdom – someone who would not support gay marriage or any other kind of liberal theology.

I think the question in relation to both Bishops who won’t ordain women and the issue of gay marriage is ‘who pays the price?’ It seems very unreasonable to me, for anyone to be expected to pay the price of someone else’s conscience. Throughout history, people have suffered immensely because they refused to do things which were against their conscience. But in the church at the moment, it is the victims who are paying the price of other people’s consciences – and this surely can’t be right.

There are questions, now, about the Church of England’s role as the national, established church because it is so out of step with national opinion and practice. So maybe the Church will, after all, pay the price for its refusal to be inclusive. Voices are bring raised for disestablishment: personally I now support these voices because I think our policies of exclusion have put us in an untenable position.

Enough of Church politics. Time to look at ourselves, because we humans are very good at disliking people who are different to ourselves. We, as Christians need to beware of this, because we follow in the footsteps of Jesus who broke down all kinds of barriers and taboos and showed us a different way: he touched a women who was unclean because she was bleeding, had a conversation with a Samaritan woman – even worse, she may have been quite disreputable, he had a meal at the house of a man who collected taxes for the Roman state, he touched lepers, refused to condemn a woman caught in adultery and told a thief that today he would be in paradise. 

It is a challenge to us – it’s much easier to talk to people who are like us, people we’ve known for years, or people with whom we have much in common. It takes courage and energy to be open to someone from a different culture or religion, someone who looks or sounds different. We have to remember that we are only here today because, long ago, people travelled the world to different cultures, to places with different languages and customs, to bring the good news of God’s love. 

There were all kinds of arguments in the first decades after Jesus’ death about how this should be done – which boundaries should be observed and which should be scrapped. Should male converts to Christianity from outside the Jewish faith be required to be circumcised? Should Christians taking the faith to pagan communities eat food that had been offered to idols, to the likenesses of the gods of other religions? Should followers of Jesus stick to Jewish food laws? Should women cover their heads during worship? The pages of the New Testaments are littered with the fallout from these arguments.

These arguments seem a bit bizarre to us now. I think what a look through history shows is that slowly the church has become more inclusive – the things we get all up tight about look faintly ridiculous or unbelievably bigoted to people of succeeding generations.

Simeon and Anna welcomed the Messiah in the form of a child. This isn’t what they were expecting. They were able to do this because their long wait required them to look for the Promised One, for God-made-human in everyone they met. As Christians, this is our calling too. We too, must seek to see God in everyone we meet – and to rejoice and to make welcome. Try this while we’re enjoying refreshments after the service today – to seek God’s face, maybe in someone you don’t really know well. This is how we grow as people and how the church grows and is made whole. Amen

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