When I was a parish priest in England, my church, St Mary’s, stood right in the middle of the town, and in many ways was at the center of the community. Every year on our Patronal Festival, we organized a week of celebrations, with a carnival and street market, and concerts and events taking place every day inside the church. A large proportion of the town community thought of St Mary’s as their church, even if they only worshipped there occasionally, or not at all! Many of them were baptized there, and expected to be married and buried there. We were open and welcoming to anyone who turned up.
The only other church in the town was one of the oldest independent churches in England. Its members were direct descendants of those Puritan men and women who set sail a few hundred years ago to land on these shores of New England. They took a very different view of the local community, having little to do with it, and certainly nothing to do with us. Those who worshiped with them had first assented to some very specific theological doctrines, and tended to keep themselves separate from the secular world, which they saw as essentially ‘fallen’.
It is probably strange to hear this morning’s gospel text in light of the current state of our world. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Scenes of evangelism may be a challenge for us all right now. Rather than being sent out into the world, we find ourselves compelled to remain at home and distance ourselves from those we might otherwise wish to serve, up close and in person. We are not presently going, there are no homes into which we might safely venture, no opportunities for face to face discussion, study, or prayer.
Yet we still hear Jesus’s call, even in the midst of a crisis that would see us shrink back and retreat from the world to which we have been called to bring God’s love. Go.
Thankfully various technologies—especially the internet—have afforded us valuable ways to overcome the sharpness of our physical separation from one another. Although I count myself among the world’s stubborn luddites, I cannot imagine rising to meet the present moment without the advantages of our own community’s presence on social media and other web interfaces. Much like those Christians of the fifteenth century, who experienced for the first time a new kind of evangelistic media (the printing press), we have heretofore unexplored worlds of potential set before us.
Hosea 8:4-7, 11-13
Have you ever had one of those dreams when you’re trying to scream but you can’t? Or you try to run but your legs won’t move? It’s a real feeling of helplessness and powerlessness. I’m always glad to snap out of those dreams into the world where my voice and my body do the things that I want them to do.
When I read this passage about a mute demoniac, I sympathize. When I hear about people helpless and harassed my compassion is stirred. When Jesus says the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few I want to raise my hand. “Here I am, Lord! Send me!”
That’s why this is such a well worn passage for ordinations and calls to evangelism. It reaches into the natural sympathy we have for those who suffer. And immediately after this passage Jesus calls his twelve apostles and gives them power over all these demons and diseases. It’s a stirring recruitment call.
“Let me hear thee softly speaking;
in my spirit’s ear whisper: ‘I am near.’ …
voice, that oft of love hast told me;
arms, so strong to clasp and hold me;
thou thy watch wilt keep,
Savior, o’er my sleep.”[i]
We have just sung this prayer for sleep and God’s safe-keeping. How is your sleep these days? Many of us are more tired from the stresses of our present suffering: changed work, isolation and separation, the pandemic increasing, so much death and loss, cries of injustice, racism and privilege further exposed. When is change? Where is healing? How do we sleep at a time like this?
Paul in his letter to the Romans acknowledges suffering. In today’s text he speaks of us groaning and not just us but all of creation, groaning as in labor pains, waiting for restoration in a new birth. He also speak of hope, of that which is not seen. What does having hope look like? Especially when we’re groaning, and when it is hard to sleep?
Earlier in chapter 4, Paul wrote about Abraham as one who “hoping against hope … believed that he would become ‘the father of many nations,’” as God had said, with numerous descendants.[ii] Abraham believed despite overwhelming contrary physical evidence. Abraham was about 100 years old, and Sarah, his wife, was barren. Abraham was “fully convinced that God was able to do as promised.”[iii] Paul quotes Genesis 15 which says Abraham’s faith “‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’”[iv] Remember what happened at that reckoning?
The months-long suspension of in-person worship required in response to the coronavirus pandemic continues to be a disorienting experience for church-folk throughout the world. Added to the need for physical distancing in nearly every aspect of daily life, some experience the interruption of regular religious assembly and fellowship as a painful loss. Though alleviated to some degree by the use of technological capabilities for online gathering, the inability to partake of the sacraments is a profound grief for many. In the disruption of accustomed, habitual practices, the temptation to turn inward in despair and inertia is great.
But now our world languishes and groans in the midst of disease and death and the exposure of long-standing hatred, prejudices, injustices and inequities, all the result of human sin. Christians must relinquish self-concern and fear and give themselves, individually and corporately, to steadfast witness of our Creator’s goodness and love.
In his Letter to the Romans, Paul points us to our baptismal death to sin as the source of new and abundant life in Christ, both for ourselves and for the world which Jesus came to save. “You also must consider yourselves dead to dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” [Romans 6:11]
By our union with Christ in the baptismal mystery of his dying and rising we find our unity and meaning in life as his disciples. The Baptismal Covenant which we profess together in the Apostles’ Creed points to the present and eternal reality of our oneness with God, with one another, and with the whole Creation. Our re-birth in Holy Baptism through water and the anointing Spirit has marked us “as Christ’s own for ever”, a new creation reflecting the glory of God in our very being. Through three renunciations of evil and sin, and through three pledges to “turn” to the obedience of our Lord and Savior’s grace and love, we have been given power to be God’s children and messengers of the Good News of God in Christ now.
John 14: 15-21
As I write this sermon I am looking out of the window and seeing all the runners and cyclists passing by along Memorial Drive, and they are nearly all wearing masks. Gosh, how life has changed for us over these past eight weeks. How are you doing? How are you coping? Social isolation can be very stressful. Just a few days ago I got an email from the Church Pension Fund, who pay clergy pensions, and also care for their welfare. It was inviting me to a forthcoming Webinar on ‘Coping with distress – a psychological first aid kit.’ They have called in two experts to teach some ways to cope with trauma and stress of our changed lives, in these days of pandemic.
In our Gospel today, Jesus is with his disciples in the Upper Room. Jesus has washed his disciples’ feet, Judas has just gone out into the night, to betray him. And Jesus is talking to them, preparing them for the traumatic events which would soon unfold. Being together in that room, they must have felt so anxious, so bewildered, so filled with distress. Our life is about to change, our Lord is leaving us, we will be left alone. What will we do? How will we cope?
1 Thessalonians 4:1-12
This reading is from Saint Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, an ancient city in northern Greece. The letter was written in the early 50s, less than 20 years following Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is probably Saint Paul’s earliest preserved letter, making it the oldest writing in the entire New Testament. There is not yet a Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. There is not yet the record of the Acts of the Apostles. There are no Creeds. There is no ordination process agreed upon. So there is some confusion how to practice the Christian faith, with rivalry among those who purported themselves to be leaders.[i] Lots of conflict, resentment, and inexperience.
In this letter to the Thessalonian Christians, Saint Paul is rather tough. He tells them “to stop complaining.” He reminds them “to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands… so that you may behave properly toward outsiders.” If we were to take Saint Paul’s words – from 2,000 years ago – and overlay them on our own Coronavirus circumstances, we find some good counsel for life together during our own conflicted time. Saint Paul’s words are not a perfect fit for today, but we can glean some help:
It is remarkable how much a saint for our times is the Lady Julian. Living in the latter half of the fourteenth, and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries, on first glance one would think there was nothing about her life that would resonate with ours. However, like us, she lived at a time of much worry, anxiety, and turmoil. Twenty years before her birth in 1353, the Great Famine swept Northern Europe leaving up to 25 percent of the population dead. Shortly after her birth, the Black Death struck, leaving up to half the population of the city of Norwich itself dead, and killing an estimated 200 million people in total. It would take centuries for the population of Europe return to previous pre-Black Death numbers. Both these events lead to the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, when the city of Norwich was overwhelmed by rebel forces. At this same time early agitation for the reform of the Church, known as Lollardy, initially begun by John Wycliffe, was beginning to take root
It was in that world, not so unlike our own, that the Lady Julian lived and received her showings or revelations during a time when she herself was gravely ill, and expected to die. After receiving the Last Rites on 8 May 1373, she lost her sight, and began to feel physically numb. It was in this state that as she gazed upon a crucifix above her bed, she saw the figure of Jesus beginning to bleed, and received her revelations. Over the next several hours she received sixteen revelations. Following her recovery five days later, she recorded them, first in a short version, now lost, except for a copy, and then many years later in a longer version.
To describe the gospel of John as the gospel of love would not be inappropriate. From the very opening chapters of the gospel, where we read that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him we hear that God’s motive, from the very beginning, was a motive of love.
That motive of love runs throughout the gospel, and reaches its climax in what we hear and see in tonight’s lesson, which comes to us from that very tender scene in the Upper Room, on that first Maundy Thursday. I give you a new commandment [Jesus says to his disciples], that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’
This love, which the gospel portrays and Jesus commands, is not a sweet, sentimental, romantic love. It is a love which we know propels and compels Jesus to the cross. It is a love which is self-giving, self-offering, and self-denying.
We remind ourselves of this in our Rule of Life when we say that [faith] sees the cross of suffering and self-giving love planted in the very being of the God revealed to us in Jesus. When God made room for the existence of space and time and shaped a world filled with glory, this act of creation was one of pure self-emptying. But God broke all the limits of generosity in the incarnation of the Son for our sake, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
Dear Brothers, as this season in the world continues to unfold, I think there is no hyperbole in saying we live during an apocalyptic moment. No, not the end of the world (though, surely the end of a world), but an apocalypse in the purest sense: an unveiling or uncovering. Apo, to take away; kalypto, veil; apokalyptein, to remove the veil. Innumerable dimensions of a great global illusion now appear uncovered, revealing arrangements born of what proves to be an unsustainable way of life. For some, this period of epidemic is seen as a mere annoyance, an interruption; the sooner we return to the way things were, the sooner we can get on with our own projects, plans, and dreams of infinite growth and material security. For others, however, the apocalypsis of this season reveals the inevitable result of a way of life inherently at odds with the limits of nature and the poverty of our humanity. Now, with the kalypto plainly removed, we find ourselves confronted with urgent realities, larger than coronavirus, larger than individual or national dreams; realities as sharp as life and death. Realities that ask us to change our minds—that is, repent.
Today we remember St Mark the Evangelist, whom tradition remembers as John Mark, a disciple of St Peter. Mark, whoever he was, writes to a community in the very midst of apocalypse. His is the first gospel we have in any written form, and we find it permeated with the literary cues of apocalyptic language. The narrative is urgent and fast-paced as Mark seeks to uncover something for his hearers. Indeed, one of the most frequent words in this gospel is immediately. It not only moves quickly, but also seems mysteriously to imitate the confusing velocity with which the reign of God began its invasion of the world through that most unique and mysterious uncovering: Christ crucified.