This sermon was preached on the occasion of the first public act of worship in St Mary’s Diss, following the lockdown of 2020. It was the 8th Sunday of Trinity – August 1st 2020.
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Join with me:
Alleluia, Christ is Risen!
He is Risen indeed, Alleluia!
It is only right and fitting that we should remind ourselves of the beating heart of our faith, of our reason for gathering here this morning, because when we last were able to gather together we were in the middle of Lent, reflecting on the life of Christ as we made our pilgrim journey through the Gospel accounts to focus afresh on the moment which changed history, which changed reality, which changed our own lives – the passion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, by which God himself made a way for us to receive forgiveness of sin and to become the people whom he desires and intends us to become – his people, sharing in his divine and everlasting life of love. Dying for us upon the cross, Jesus died the death which we all shall die. Rising from the tomb to new life, Jesus rose to the life which we who trust in him shall also rise.
Life has happened, time has moved on. It’s now August, and no longer March or April, but as the Church gathering together to pray and worship here in this place it would be wrong for us to simply pass over the central, defining moment of our shared faith.
In a sense, although the calendar has moved on, our interrupted Lent has not been left behind but was oddly and painfully extended. Since the 23rd of March with the inauguration of the national lockdown in response to a global pandemic we have all had to enter a different mode of life. Some have talked about ‘the new normal’, but in truth there has been nothing ‘normal’ or regular about it, and despite all being in the same boat, as it were, our lived experiences have varied more than might have been expected. For some life hasn’t changed too much, for others everything has become very different. Despite it’s semi-perpetual nature, the lockdown itself has not been consistent. First its duration was extended, and then we have had the ongoing emotional cycle of rumours of changes followed by announcements of changes, and subsequent guidance as to how to implement these changes.
This has created a time in which planning for the future has become much harder, a time where we have had to rethink and evaluate how we do things and indeed whether we should do certain things. Even our gathering together this morning has required much thought; from the clergy and the ministry team, from the wardens and the PCCs, and from each of you as you weighed up whether or not your desire to come to Church outweighs potential risks. Aside from out limitation as to the number of people we can accommodate in a service, there are members of our community who have also had to make the uncomfortable decision that although they would dearly like to be with us, for any of a number of reasons they haven’t felt able to join us – and that’s both quite okay and completely understandable.
We’re in a time of unknowns, and that naturally prompts reflection and careful consideration. More than this, it’s been a time of restraint and of not having what we’re accustomed to having. We have been less ‘free’ to live our lives, we have had to navigate shortages of products on the shop shelves, and we have been deprived of our rhythm of worship and fellowship which we value so dearly.
Perhaps you’ll agree with me then when I say that this year we didn’t lose our Lent, but rather we have continued it on and along, much as the Israelites found themselves wandering in the desert as they awaited guidance into the Holy Land. Yet even in the desert, God provided food and water for the Israelites. So, too, has God been present with us throughout lockdown. There has been a commitment to praying for and checking in with one another. For our part, as the clergy, we have rung around those on the electoral roll, we have tried to improve our communications by updating the website and offering regular video reflections – and we’ve been glad that people seem to have found these helpful – yet we would join in the prevailing chorus: “it’s not the same”. It’s not the same when you can’t gather together to worship God, to be forgiven for your sins and to receive the comfort of the sacrament.
It has been a long Lent, and yet today is an Easter for us; a chance to hear afresh the Gospel of salvation and to receive once again the bread of life, Christ’s body broken and given for us.
For our Easter celebration this year was a much reduced occasion. It did not go unmarked, for although the circumstances were such as they were the clergy felt compelled by conscience to gather privately at dawn to remember the resurrection and I was grateful to celebrate my first Easter Eucharist as an ordained priest. Although we were only very few we offered it up for all of you, and were mindful of you in our prayers, as we have been ever since.
We were glad to be able to finally resume our habit of privately praying the office, morning and evening, here in Church from the 20th of July as we’ve been preparing to reopen for public worship today because although our faith is personal we live it out as the Church, the body of Christ here on earth – together.
Our Gospel passage today resonates with this idea. The scene is that of feeding the five thousand yet all too often we can overlook how it begins.
“Now when Jesus heard this.” What had Jesus heard? We read in the previous verses of the death of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist; beheaded in jail by Herod to satisfy Salome and Herodias’ spiteful request for John’s head on a platter. John’s disciples had recovered his body and buried him, then they went and told Jesus. “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself”, Matthew writes.
Before we get to the miracle, we find Jesus withdrawn to a deserted place. It doesn’t specify what he did by himself but it’s reasonable to assume that he needed some space to grieve and pray by himself, having been unable to be present for John’s burial – just as many of us have been unable to attend the funerals of those we’ve known and loved in these difficult times.
The crowds also heard the news of John’s death and desired to find Jesus, yet he had gone. Unable to be with him where he was, they searched after him on foot, walking along the shore and keeping an eye out for his boat.
Is this how we have been during lockdown? Wanting to be close to God though unable to be in Church? Perhaps you’ve taken steps to walk after him by reading your bibles, praying the Lord’s prayer, listening to services on the radio or, more recently, using the daily prayer materials from the Church?
A while later, Jesus came ashore to be greeted by a great crowd, and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.
Here we are reminded that although we strive and rightly make our efforts to follow Jesus, we don’t find him – rather, he finds us. He comes ashore to encounter us and, finding us, he has compassion for us.
This is what lies at the heart of the Gospel – we have been estranged from God, locked out of his presence by sin and unable to free and cleanse ourselves from its stain which clings to our bodies and clothing. The santisier our souls yearn for is the presence of the Holy Spirit, who courses through our very being as purifying and refining fire, sweeping away dark webs of sin from every corner of our hearts.
The presence of the Holy Spirit is not something we can achieve, even if we’ve walked after Jesus along the shore; it’s a loving gift, won for us by the God who sees us, who knows us and knowing us has compassion for us such that he would send even his only son to die our death that we might share in his life.
Without God stepping ashore to be present with the crowd, all we would see is a hungry crowd kept spiritually distanced from Jesus in the boat. Their trip, their efforts, made for nothing.
But Jesus does step out of the boat and onto the shore of our lives to encounter us, and in his compassion and great mercy to heal us and feed us; to be the God we need and love, and by so being to cleanse us of our sin and set us free to live for him, forever.
This has been a long Lent, and today is, for us, an Easter. Let us walk the Christian life even through the uncertainties of our present times so that we are there on the shore when God comes to us his people and has compassion upon us. Let us ponder afresh the value and the importance of our faith, of our Church, and resolve to turn away from our sin so that we might receive from Christ the bread of faith, the pledge of the Holy Spirit, and the blessing to live in the love of our Heavenly Father.