Yesterday, Passion Sunday, Fr David conducted a said Eucharist live on Facebook from his own home on his final day of 14 days in self-isolation . You can watch the video here:
I hope the words of his sermon, bring you comfort in these uncertain times:
“Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
These are the strangest circumstances in which I have ever presided at a Eucharist, and pretty much the strangest circumstances in which I have ever attended a Eucharist. We are used to gathering together around the altar each Sunday in the spiritual centre of our parish, the church where decades of prayers have risen from women and men of faith. In the midst of this health crisis, our natural instinct is to want to gather together, in our church, and present our prayers to God around his altar. But we can’t.
We are doing as we must, each staying in our own homes, away from one another, for our own safety, and, crucially, for the safety of the most vulnerable in our society. At the moment, living out our Christian faith with love, means staying away from one another and from that place where our faith and our love are most readily nurtured. That is tough. As I draw towards the anniversary of my licensing to St Saviour’s, this coming Saturday, I cannot be there, and I cannot be with you its people. We have been exiled from our shared spiritual home, and exiled from one another. I find that hard, and I’m sure you do too.
It is into a place of exile that God speaks in our first reading. God is speaking to and through Ezekiel in the context of the exile of the people of God in Babylon. The people of Israel have been caught up in the power struggle between the surrounding powers, and the King of Babylon, fed up with their attempts to side with his enemies, has removed them from their land and settled them in an unknown place among an unknown people. It is from this context that the words of the famous psalm come “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land”. The outlook was bleak, Israel seemed ruined, dead, a pile of dry bones, they had given up hope, and yet here, arguably the climax of Ezekiel’s prophecy, God is calling Ezekiel to remind his people, that even from dry bones, God can bring life. As we seek to “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land”, to learn how to worship together while physically apart, we too are reminded of God’s promise that even in the darkest of times, God can and will bring signs of life.
The beginning of the fulfilment of that promise is there for us in today’s gospel, as we see Jesus begin to show his followers that he has power even over death. The passage contains my favourite verse of all scripture. In this translation it is four words “Jesus began to weep”, in many versions it is simply two, “Jesus wept”. “Jesus wept”, seeing Mary’s tears and those of the people around her, Jesus was deeply moved, and he began to weep. John’s gospel bears witness to the physical reality of Christ’s incarnation and the situation around him: the journey to be made, the stench from the body, the cloths needing to be unwrapped, and the many tears cried. In reading the accounts of Jesus life, we are reminded that through him God has experienced our joy and sorrow, our wonder and our grief. He looks on us with compassion, and he knows and shares our pain. In this time of separation and isolation, of illness, grief and worry, God looks on his world through those same eyes that filled with tears, and as we weep, God weeps with us.
Today is passion Sunday, when we begin to remember the journey of Christ to the cross: a journey that speaks of the fullness of life, good and bad: the joy and celebration of Palm Sunday that we will mark next week, the intimacy of the events of the last supper in the washing of feet and the sharing of bread and wine, and the pain and torment that followed as Jesus was tortured, his friends deserted him and he became obedient even to death. The journey we are on is a new one for us but in intimacy or separation, joy or sorrow, we can know that our God has gone before us. He knows our sorrow, he sees our bewilderment and he weeps our tears, but he does not leave us comfortless.
As we remember today the raising of Lazarus, we know that that is just a foreshadowing of what is to come. Lazarus’ resurrection was temporary. I’ve been to the tomb in Cyprus where he is said to have been buried, having gone there as a missionary. Whether that’s right or not, Lazarus would eventually have become old and died. He was not the Christ. But Jesus was, is, and every time we celebrate the Eucharist and commemorate Jesus’ death, we proclaim too his resurrection. Jesus is the fulfilment of God’s promise to Ezekiel to bring new life where the people saw only death. As we wait out these difficult weeks and months ahead, we must remember that not only is God with us in the pain, in the exile, in the mourning. God is there beyond that, offering us hope, promising life even to those who sadly will die. “I am the resurrection and the life” Jesus said to Martha, “those who believe in me, even though they die, will live”.
There are signs of life in the darkness and they may take several forms. Firstly there is the hope and the promise of life beyond this. As members of our community are prevented from grieving in the way they might like to, as severe restrictions are put on attendance at funerals, we hold onto that hope, and with faith in Christ’s resurrection we hold those who grieve in our prayers, as we do those who have died. The signs of life may come in your own relationship with God, as unable to be at church you find new ways to pray, and I will do my best via social media, emails and printed materials, to point you to resources that may help.
The signs of life will also hopefully come in our growing awareness of the joys and sorrows of the world. God’s compassion for the world did not begin with coronavirus, and it won’t stop when it is over. God looks with compassion on all in need in the world, and weeps tears over all who are forgotten and left to die. He calls us too to look with compassion on those in need: to not wait until there’s a crisis to house the homeless, to show concern for those in the world who have no room to social-distance. for those without health care when they get sick, or who will die from hunger long before disease can get them. He calls us to rejoice with those who rejoice, but also to weep with those who weep, not in despair but in sorrow, and to let those tears lead us to acts of compassion. May this time of shared suffering lead us to seek a more compassionate world, one where we are not afraid to weep with Christ, to love with Christ, and to be signs of Christ’s hope in the world. There are many ways we can do that as we ask God to breathe new life into the dry bones of our lives and our society, but if you feel called to respond with compassion today to those in our world who are more in need than we are, I have posted a link to the Bishop’s Lent Appeal. You may like to save up some money to give to the appeal through St Saviour’s when we are able to, or you can give directly by following the link. Our own church funds will be depleted during this time, and in the coming weeks we will be reminding you how you can give remotely to the church, but for today, as we remember God’s compassion on us in our exile, I encourage you to look with God’s compassion on the world, to pray for those in need, to serve with acts of kindness, and to give, if you are able, to those whose need is great