Usually when I engage with Oliver O’Donovan I am either standing wide-eyed and open mouthed in response to his amazing ideas or gently mocking his inability to communicate with normal people. He is a very smart man, and if you are a Christian you should really listen to what he has to say about ethics and politics. It’s just that it’s hard to actually listen to what he’s saying when his writing and speaking is intellectual to the point of inaccessible. I honestly have no idea what he’s saying almost all of the time – most of what I understand from him has been translated into normal English by other people.
I’m not sure what compelled me to pick up his book The Word in Small Boats: Sermons from Oxford. I was looking for some inspiration for a talk I am writing on mission, and there were fifty other books, not written by O’Donovan, that I could have picked up first. Oh my goodness. I am very glad I did! This book is full of tiny treasures. There are thirty sermons, each no more than a few pages long and written in such beautiful and evocative language. I don’t think I’d ever bother hearing him lecture again, but I would definitely listen to him preach if I could!
One of the sermon’s Frideswide’s Place is a perfect three page excursion into the idea of place and space. It asks how Christians engage in the local community: when do we move? When do we stay put? How do we engage with the place we are in. My heart fluttered wildly as he explored the geographical implications of the gospel, and it set on fire again a deep conviction in my heart – that Christians should always be ready to move, to belong to many places and to take the gospel into new and unfamiliar communities.
The sermon was given in 1991, reflecting on the patron saint of Oxford, St Frideswide, and the relationship between her history and the Oxford of today. I wish I could replicate the whole sermon here but I’m pretty sure that counts as plagiarism. Instead I will point you to the book and encourage you to read it there.