Jeremiah 29:1-4 (NLT)
29 Jeremiah wrote a letter from Jerusalem to the elders, priests, prophets, and all the people who had been exiled to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar. 2 This was after King Jehoiachin, the queen mother, the court officials, the other officials of Judah, and all the craftsmen and artisans had been deported from Jerusalem. 3 He sent the letter with Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah when they went to Babylon as King Zedekiah’s ambassadors to Nebuchadnezzar. This is what Jeremiah’s letter said:
4 This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem: 5 “Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. 6 Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! 7 And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.”
8 This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let your prophets and fortune-tellers who are with you in the land of Babylon trick you. Do not listen to their dreams, 9 because they are telling you lies in my name. I have not sent them,” says the Lord.
10 This is what the Lord says: “You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. 12 In those days when you pray, I will listen. 13 If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. 14 I will be found by you,” says the Lord. “I will end your captivity and restore your fortunes. I will gather you out of the nations where I sent you and will bring you home again to your own land.”
Matthew 13:51-53 (NRSV)
51 “Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” 53 When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place.
Rather than give a Vicar’s report during the annual meeting which follows this meeting, I am going to use this sermon to think a little about where we are as a church in these peculiar and difficult times. Our annual meeting is supposed to look back at the activity of 2019, and certainly there was much to look back upon. There was a year of varied and dedicated worship as we fulfilled our calling as the Church for this community by adoring God and praying for God’s world. We served the community in so many ways, meeting the needs of the young, the old, the jobless, the grieving… We stewarded well our building which has been passed on to us by generations gone by – keeping it in good repair and making it available to community groups who also bless our community. We were careful, yet generous, with our finances – giving with dedication, fund-raising with joy and supporting a variety of charities with love. We were watching the Church family grow steadily and were well on our way to our dream of a Church of 200 by our 200th birthday in 2024! All this was only possible because of the time, talents, care and commitment of our church congregation and I thank you all for the part you played.
But 2019 feels like a different country now. Our hopes and plans for 2020, like so many plans for so many people this year, have been upended by the global coronavirus pandemic. Our building closed, our worship in that building suspended, our groups and clubs and activities stopped with no idea of when or if they would ever start again. I will confess after the initial adrenaline rush of the crisis had passed – and once the mountain of risk assessments had been conquered – I had a few weeks when I was very low and demoralised. It took me a little while to realise that what I was feeling was grief – I was grieving for the Church life we had shared together and the Church we had been. I couldn’t begin to imagine how we might be Church going forward. As Psalm 137 puts it “How can we sing the Lord’s song in this strange land?” For goodness sake, we cannot even sing!
Psalm 137 is a psalm which comes from a time in the history of the Israelite people called the Exile. After they had escaped slavery in Egypt, the Israelites established a Kingdom and under David and Solomon, and their faithfulness to God, it prospered. They built a Temple to the Lord and their national life was shared around the festivals and observances that God had given them through Moses. But then things got more tricky – the people forgot God, the Kingdom divided and the surrounding nations became more powerful. Eventually, both Kingdoms of Judah and Israel were overrun by their enemies, the Temple was reduced to rubble and many of the people were taken hundreds of miles away into Exile. The exiles were disorientated physically as they were so far from home. They were disorientated culturally – they were amongst people with different customs and different Gods. They were disorientated spiritually – how could they be God’s people without their Temple and their shared national festivals?
We might not have been taken hundreds of miles from home – in fact we are spending far more time in our home than many of us are used to! But we might be able to relate to that feeling of disorientation. Everything around us has changed – how we shop, how we go to the doctors, how we work, and most importantly, how we can be with our family and friends. And when we need it most, our spiritual world has changed – we have our building, but have to use it very differently; our worship doesn’t look like it used to; even we don’t look like we used to with our pandemic haircuts and faces covered with masks! We long for things to go back to how they were. Some put their hopes in a vaccine – maybe by Christmas! Some try to pretend the danger to themselves and others isn’t real and live like the whole thing isn’t happening. The government’s advice that restrictions will be in place for at least six months is hard to hear and accept. What will be left of all we love and value by then?
The prophet Jeremiah wrote a letter to the people in Exile with a message from God and part of it is our first reading this week. The advice must have been surprising – and possibly unwelcome – to those recipients who were longing for the home and the world they had known. Learn to live well in this, God tells them. Don’t listen to the conspiracy theories and the fly-by-nights telling you it will all be over soon – their lies don’t help you. Settle down, settle in – make a life in the midst of all this. It will not be forever, but it will be for a while. And never doubt that I am with you and have plans for good – I am the God who can bring light out of darkness, hope out of despair, life out of death…
And I think that message to the exiles is pertinent to us today as we work out how to be God’s people, how to be St Paul’s Church, in these strange and difficult times.
Now don’t hear me wrong – I am not for a second saying that God planned coronavirus. I don’t think God works like that. But if we seek God and pray, as God’s message through Jeremiah’s suggests, we can find that God can even bring blessings out of disasters. You can’t keep a good God down, as someone once said, and even coronavirus won’t stop God loving us, blessing us and helping us to love and bless others.
So what does it mean to live well, to be church well, in these times of pandemic? Well, we go back to basics and remember our values, what matters to us. Some of that has already happened. It matters to us that our Church is a place where people from our community who are struggling will be helped, and so even in the depths of lockdown, the Churchwardens, PCC and I worked hard to make sure that Foodbank could continue. Our relationships matter to us, and so a number of dedicated people have phoned round the congregation regularly to check in and stay in touch. The Griffiths worked hard to provide covid-safe garden parties and Lesley organised a Zoom Murder Mystery. Prayer matters to us and our Prayer Circle have been called upon to pray for all sorts of situations both in the congregation and in the community. Worship matters hugely to us and so with a bit of headscratching and hard work and lots of learning from our mistakes, Jo, David, Liam, Andrew and I have cobbled together ways of ensuring that people at home and in the building can share in worship. Children and Families matter to us, so we ran a virtual Holiday Club – and Messy Church at Home starts this weekend. Celebrating festivals matters to us, so we have been imagining creative ways of sharing them with our community in covid-safe ways – a Scarecrow Festival for Harvest, Lights for Loved Ones at All Souls, then decorated Remembrance pebbles to be placed at the Cross. This is only the start. Our challenge is to continue asking “what was it we loved best about our Church as it was in 2019?” and then working out creative, sustainable and safe ways to carry those values forward into the Church we can be now. As Jesus says in the Gospel, those of us who are trained for the Kingdom will be able to bring treasures old and new out of the storeroom – sometimes we need to do old things in new ways, and God will help us.
There are still gaps. One of the most difficult things for me is how we best support some of our older members, when companionship is the thing they most valued and companionship is the one thing we cannot safely offer, so I would love any ideas God might be prompting in you to help with that! There are things which are inaccessible if you are notconfident with technology. There may be gaps we haven’t yet noticed. So please do tell us.
But be encouraged. God’s message of love has survived persecution, the Dark Ages, Crusades, the Black Death, the Reformation, two world wars and so much more. It is a message that still needs told through and after this pandemic. So grieve for what has been if that is where you are – it is very much allowed. The Church we enjoyed in 2019 was very good indeed. But then, take a deep breath, look around and ask “what might it look like to live well in the middle of this?” Hibernating until it is all over sadly isn’t an option – the world needs us now, Stockingford needs us now, to continue being God’s people of love and hope. And God will be with us and help us. Amen.
Lord God, through your grace we are your people:
through your Son you have redeemed us;
in your Spirit you have made us as your own.
We pray for your Church, especially in these challenging times.
Make our hearts respond to your love.
Lord, receive our praise
and hear our prayer.
We pray for the many needs of our world and our community.
For those affected by the pandemic, by climate change, by poverty and injustice.
For those whose employment is uncertain; those in debt and those worried about accommodation.
Make our lives bear witness to your glory in the world.
Lord, receive our praise
and hear our prayer.
We pray for all who are unwell in mind, body or spirit,
and for all who are bereaved.
Make our wills eager to obey, and our hands ready to heal.
Lord, receive our praise
and hear our prayer.
We give thanks for your overcoming love
which gives us hope in all circumstances.
Make our voices one with all your people
in heaven and on earth.
Lord of life,
hear our prayer,
and make us one in heart and mind
to serve you with joy for ever.