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St Frideswide’s Church, Osney Eucharist on Sunday 8th April 2018 [Easter 2]

Revd. Professor Martin Henig

Exodus 14.10-31; 15. 20-21; Psalm 133; Acts 4.32-35; John 20.19-31

O how good and pleasant it is,*
when a family lives together in unity!
It is like fine oil upon the head*
that runs down upon the beard,
Upon the beard of Aaron,*
and runs down upon the collar of his robe. [Psalm 133:1-3]

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

I have chosen my text from today’s Psalm, which always reduces me to mirth whenever I hear it: Beard or no beard, I am not sure that my own family would have lived together in much unity, if I had been in the habit of pouring olive oil on my head so that it ran down on my collar! I do rather wonder who was responsible for the psalmist’s laundry? I fear that there might be an element of male chauvinism here as so often in the Bible and other texts which have come down to us from antiquity and, indeed, from far later times as it always seems to be is women who do the laundry. I prefer to stick to the humour, to the image of a man deliberately pouring cosmetics over himself just like a third-year undergraduate liberated from Schools being squirted with champagne and shaving foam. God surely has a sense of fun and our festival, l like the Jewish Pesach, is , after all, concerned with liberation.

Our first reading according to the lexionary of the Church of England was supposed to be from Exodus : I am sorry if you are a believer in divine retribution, but I don’t go for horses or even their riders being drowned in the sea. Indeed that worried the rabbis too, who had God exclaim :’how can I rejoice when my Egyptians have been drowned’. So we have omitted it and so let the Psalm stand for our reading from the Hebrew Bible, and for the moment I will stick with the scented oil. Before the Triduum properly got going, on the morning of Maundy Thursday, your clergy were in the cathedral renewing their diaconal and priestly vows and then indulging in a bun fight in St Aldate’s, a moment to meet old friends from the farthest reaches of the diocese before a busy penitential couple of days. Actually between the Eucharist and the Danish pastries, we queued up to receive three little bottles of scented oil blessed by Bishop Steven, and (resisting the temptation to pour any of them over my head) I delivered them safely to the aumbry of this church. One of them, is the Oil of Baptism with which we make the sign of the cross when we baptize anyone as one of our own; we also have the Oil of Chrism, used then but also for ordination. Another Oil is used in signing the sick. All of these oilscombined are a sign of our being one community, one family at peace.

Symbolically, as Psalm 104, my very favourite psalm, puts it, God provides:
Herb for the service of man, that he may bring forth food out of the earth, and wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man’s heart [Psalm 104:14-15]

These comprise all four elements needful for human flourishing, first the green herbs, the fruit and vegetables, secondly wine, then olive oil and finally bread. I don’t need to remind you of the centrality of the bread and the wine in which we see in the Mass the body and blood of our Saviour, but, as Psalm 104 reminds us, all of creation is in fact sacred and unless we approach creation, the environment, our common home the earth in a sacramental way we are guilty of gross impiety and sacrilege.

Easter as the most important Christian festival is all about Resurrection. It subsumes, of course, Passover (Pesach) which centres on the Exodus story, and takes us deeper into the Divine mystery. Everything is ,or should be, different from now on. If we are truly Easter people we should try to live in total harmony with one another as the early Apostles are said to have done in our reading from Acts. Alas, they were only human and Luke will continue to record dissensions among even the people of God, and we still live in the nightmare of the schisms which have blighted the history of Christendom. Moreover, the peace of God was not simply intended for an exclusive circle of believers (though there are sadly some sects which continue to think in that way) or even for all human beings but for all creation. Psalm 104, which is more concerned with the Natural World in general than with purely human concerns makes this clear, and it should be apparent to us with our greater scientific understanding of other animals. I believe that the way we humans treat our fellow creatures as commodity, rearing them in factory conditions and slaughtering without pity millions of cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry is the greatest blasphemy, the sin against the Holy Spirit of which Our Lord speaks with such dread as being beyond forgiveness for it represents the hardening, the ossification, of the heart and a defiant resistance to the softening power of love (Mark 3:28-30).

If we learn from nothing else we need to be completely open to the power of love, the power of compassion. As I said, the story of horses and riders being drowned in the sea fills me with sadness, and the passage which follows it, the so called Song of Miriam, in chapter 15 of Exodus which gloats over the triumph over the Egyptians and which Common Worship sets as the first Canticle in Morning Prayer strikes the wrong note. However, they provide an alternative canticle from the lovely and highly erotic Song of Songs, a great poem or series of poems extolling the power of love:

Many waters cannot quench love
Neither can the floods drown it.
If all the wealth of our house were offered for love,
It would be utterly scorned, [Song 8:7]

Love, both Erotic and Divine-and they are often indistinguishable- allows us to retain a sense of proportion and to know in our hearts that every single thing we value is a gift from God and that we are his beloved children, the ‘we’ being all creation. Christ reminds us that we are indeed children (Matthew 19:14) so we should not be ashamed of being child-like, just like the little monkeys I saw in India dancing over each other in the rays of the sun in ecstatic delight (for after all we too are primates, and their near cousins) and one aspect of this is to see ourselves as God’s fools. never taking ourselves too seriously, and always being willing to learn from our many mistakes. A most important virtue is to foster a child-like, a monkey-like, sense of humour. We should never take ourselves too seriously and especially not in church. I have always liked the idea of Messy Church, and maybe all church should be Messy Church for, after all, we live messy disordered lives, and not worry too much if the oil streams down our face over our clothing. For nothing matters if we truly, truly live in the true spirit of love.

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen