Sunday 4th July was the national day for saying Thank You to NHS, front line and key workers. I held services in 3 of my churches (with a 4th next Sunday) plus recorded 3 different school assemblies for First, Middle and High schools which also included invitations to our community events being held in July and August. The thoughts for the assemblies were added to for the sermon and services on Sunday and reduced massively for a short piece for our local newspaper this week.
Here’s the text (obviously without my asides) of the sermon, and some of the pictures I used to illustrate it. It was a little long – but I think worth spending the time to help people think through the issues I raised. I got positive feedback from it, so I know that those who said something found it helpful.
I thought about changing the bible readings from those set for the day, but decided to keep them:
Jesus sends his apostles out to spread his work of healing. Healthcare and education for everyone not just those who could afford it, has been offered by the church from the very beginnings. And continued to be the case in this country until the state took it over.
Jesus sends his people – you and me – still to share his love and his compassion with others we meet in our everyday lives. You all have a vocation – whether that’s in healthcare, education, keeping others safe in one of the armed forces or emergency services
The last 18 months have been extraordinary. We have been part of history in the making. Can you remember what life was like before Covid?
No face masks – social distancing – no sanitiser (although I do hope you washed your hands regularly). No Zoom assemblies. Holidays abroad for those who could afford it, go and do what you want, when you want. Hug your granny, see your family and friends.
We will soon be able to do those things again….. very soon, I hope.
How will we move forward? Two opinions……
In order to move forward, you have to look back
Don’t look back. You’re not going that way.
We watched the promotional video made for today – a re-make of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Don’t Stop’
I could say a lot about the theology underlying the video, but I won’t. What struck me about the video was the idea that yesterday has gone so don’t think about it. Instead look to tomorrow. Tomorrow will be better than yesterday – things can only get better.
Don’t look back is the definite message. However……
God’s people have always looked back to see where God has been.
The service of communion enables us to look back at Jesus’ sacrifice for us – to pause in the present moment and know his presence with us now – and to look forward with hope and assurance that whatever tomorrow brings, he will be with us.
The rainbow reminds us of his faithfulness and the hope we have in him. Rainbows have been a feature of the pandemic. The first rainbow banner picture appeared in Italy, the most affected country from the European Union with approximately nineteen thousand deaths. In major cities like Rome, Turin and Milan, Italian citizens showed their support by hanging hope messages on their balconies with a message, “Andrà tutto bene.” (Everything will be fine). Later, these banners appeared in other countries such as Spain and the United Kingdom.
Rainbows are signs of hope – reminders of God’s faithfulness to his promises. He promised never to flood the earth again – and he hasn’t. They point us beyond ourselves – taken on by many people as a sign of a better society
So, I think that before we rush off into the future, the ‘new normal’, we need to take a moment to look back and see what we want to take with us, and what we want to leave behind as we all play our part in creating a better society.
Leave behind – masks, social distancing, …. But take with us the care for others, not spreading our germs, sacrificing our own pleasure for the sake of the common good.
Leave behind – selfishness – those who didn’t social distance, who stockpiled toilet paper. Businesses closing and the other economic tragedies of the pandemic. And of course the numbers of deaths. Take with us a caring and responsible attitude that looks toward the welfare of others, not just our own.
Leave behind most of the remote working from home – but take forward the use of technology such as videos and Zoom where it helps. Our internet services have been a good thing to have come out of the pandemic.
Leave behind the government lockdowns and controls over our freedom of movement. But take with us a new appreciation of the NHS, those who worked in the front line and key workers. Not just today as we say Thank You, but every day.
For me, and for many Christians, our faith is about receiving God’s blessings in order that we can bless those around us. It’s about how we contribute to society through the work that we do, whether that’s paid or voluntary or within our family and community.
Sometimes it isn’t easy to be a Christian in the workplace. Have you heard some people say that there can’t be a God because if there were a loving God, he wouldn’t allow such suffering? And it does make you wonder:
IF there is a good and loving, and all powerful God, WHY did he create viruses and allow them to mutate? They are part of creation.
Why does God allow suffering? – a difficult question to answer in a short space of time. So this will be brief – AND you will be able to pick holes in what I say. You will be able to criticise it – and I hope you do because it will show you are thinking. But it might help you if you get into conversation with someone.
So briefly and very simplistically, my answer to where God is and why….
Suffering is caused by:
Natural events – storms, floods, earthquakes etc….. plagues and diseases
Human Action – global warming – many so-called natural disasters have human action as part of the cause. And think of the diseases that could be prevented by good housing and clean water. But then there are all the horrible, evil things that people do.
Perhaps without the bad or disruptive things in life we wouldn’t appreciate the good ???
No seasons…. No mountains or spectacular scenery caused by the earth’s movement
No weird and wonderful creatures – the results of evolution
Life is messy – like an embroidery that is beautiful to look at, but underneath there’s a whole lot of mess. A lot of people who are loving, kind, creative and generous – all those virtues we admire, have had bad stuff happen in their lives – and their goodness and love has grown because of how they have reacted and responded to tragedy.
Free will. I believe that God is Love and Perfect Love at that. When you love someone you can’t force them to love you back. You have to give them the freedom to either love you and behave lovingly towards you, to please you, or not. Otherwise it isn’t love. God made human beings to be like him – to be loving – and in our free will we somehow, a lot of the time turn our love inwards and think of ourselves before others.
The Pandemic – caused by a virus, spread by human beings. It’s a natural thing, part of the way the world is. Mutation, evolution and development, innovation are the way that the world has been made, by God, I believe.
- Suffering is a test – we learn from it… And in the ups and downs of life, as the letter of James says: testing of your faith produces endurance. And Paul writes along similar lines to the Romans about suffering for the faith. Yes, BUT….. does it have to be THAT bad that people die???
- I don’t believe God sends bad stuff just to see how we cope with it.
- I believe he does help us through it, and we do grow when challenged.
- St Paul had his thorn in the flesh – we don’t know what it was – a constant pain or problem that wouldn’t go away. A bit like this awful covid that seems intent on mutating and spreading.
- Suffering is a punishment for sin: I read a few verses from Lamentations at the beginning of the service. Even though they thought that God causes suffering because of people’s sin, they acknowledged that God didn’t want to do it
- Not according to Jesus – he made it clear that God does not punish sin by sending illness or disaster. We may suffer as a result of our own sin, or other people’s sin – but God doesn’t cause it.
- The honest answer = WE DON’T KNOW
Although my faith has been shaken in the past by things that have happened, this pandemic has not shook my faith. Can you believe in a God you don’t understand? If we could totally understand God, then he would be small and not much more than us.
The mystery of suffering is unanswerable, so what do we do? Where do we go?
Jesus is the answer.
In many respects our lives are different to Jesus’ days. He lived in a time when a case of the flu, a bad cold, or an abscessed tooth could kill. Now, we are in fear of covid – and rightly so if we are not vaccinated and in one of the vulnerable groups, it could kill. Perhaps we may find comfort in knowing that when we pray to Jesus we are praying to someone who knows that fear and understands – not because he is God and knows everything, but because he is human and has experienced all things.
We are told that whenever Jesus saw a person in need of healing, he was moved with compassion in the depths of his being – his guts, we might say, or his heart. That is how we model his care for others whether in a pandemic or in more normal circumstances.
The more important question for us, I believe, is Where has God been?
God has been with us through this:
Working in and through people – Christians and people of faith as well as through all human action. We are all made in his image and show his love in our actions.
I recommend Tom Wright’s book – very helpful. God and the Pandemic.
Romans 8:22-23 – The whole creation is waiting for God to renew us and re-create us. We look forward to a time when there will be no more suffering or death. The new heaven and new earth described in the book of Revelation, where there will be no more death or mourning.
But in the meantime, God’s people are there in the thick of it, helping others and making the world a better place. We have seen:
The dedication of NHS and Key workers – being willing to die in order to help others, long hours, working from home, adapting what they do…..
Community spirit – food banks, going shopping for others, helping where we can. Kindness and compassion
Innovation – developing new ways of working – God is creative and he made us to be creative too.
What have we seen and experienced that we can take with us into the future?
How will people in 100 years or more look back at 2020 and be fascinated at the times we lived through and how we came out of it as kinder and more considerate people.
How are YOU going to contribute to a better future, using your creativity and compassion?
Prayer – based on this image:
We thank you that you have been with us through the ups and downs of life,
the good and the bad.
Help us to look back at what we have been through with a new appreciation of the sacrifices and hard work of others to keep us safe,
Help us to forgive where it is needed,
So that we can look forward with hope,
Grow in our compassion for others
And develop an attitude of gratitude,