A year on – waiting and hope
I thought I would begin this morning by sharing an inspiring message from the Methuselah Tower of Prayer Baptist Church….
That ‘sermon’ was actually from the American comedy series Saturday Night Live. I don’t think we have ever had as many problems as encountered there, but what a technical journey we’ve been on as a church over this last year, haven’t we? Who would have imagined we would all have become experts in using the Zoom machine, not only in muting and unmuting microphones but also using breakout rooms, chat box, Mentimeter and so much more!
I’ve followed the advice Claire suggested last week to ‘press the pause button’ and give ourselves a moment to reflect on some of the experiences we have encountered as a church over this last year. And this will be much more of a reflection than a full-blown sermon. I am also very aware that a sizeable part of our congregation is missing from Zoom, so I do look forward to returning to church to ask them too about their experiences of this last year.
It was almost exactly a year ago, on March 29th to be precise, when I last preached. It was one of our first Zoom services and the sermon, based on Psalm 130, was given the title ‘How long shall we sing this song? I’d like to take two of the themes from that sermon, as we look back at our shared experience and look forward to the imminent return to our church building: the themes of waiting and hope.
I wonder if you are the kind of person, like me, who loves to plan ahead and make lists – and lists of lists? I looked back at our calendar in January 2020 and all the events we had for that month: a Scamping Rogues gig, baby shower, dental appointments, guys’ drinks, book club, our son Jonny going back to Czech Republic, and this obscure one that says ‘Lorna – sausage casserole at 5pm’. And then comparing it to this year’s calendar where we had two appointments, both of which were cancelled.
This is one of the areas I have found most difficult and painful during this year: the inability to plan ahead, of not knowing when I can see my parents and children again, of when we can meet for a cuppa or a pint in someone’s garden.
As Richard reminded us in his sermon last month, waiting is a frequent theme in the Bible. He recounted the story of Abraham and Sarah and the promise of God that he would bless them with a child. And even though they were of a great age, they had to wait over twenty years for this promise to be fulfilled.
Our Old Testament reading today from Jeremiah is full of hope of a new covenant and a new way of life to come, but God’s people were to wait hundreds of years for its fulfilment in Jesus.
I’ve often fallen into the trap of considering waiting as being passive, a bit like waiting for a bus into town – that waiting is an act of killing or wasting time between worthwhile activities. It can certainly be very painful and difficult, but it can also lead to a time of growth: of deeper understanding of ourselves, each other and of God. During this last year, the church family has helped me keep going when I have struggled and given a taste of that community that I’ve missed so much. I’d like to thank you all, particularly for three areas that I’ve valued immensely during this time, where I feel we have grown more in our own understanding of God and each other.
The first is our Shared creativity. We are so blessed in our church to have people who have offered their creative gifts during this year. Thinking back over the year, we’ve celebrated so much of our God-given spark of creativity. You may remember the Christian Aid and Christmas cabarets, with puppetry, poetry and music. But there have been so many other ways we’ve shared too – through gardening, cooking, acting, film criticism, Peter’s Emmaus blog, and of course the numerous photos and videos on Facebook. How can we encourage this spark of creativity to flourish in our church and community when we return to our church building?
The second area is our church’s support and fellowship
I don’t know about you, but I have been constantly surprised by the kindness of strangers during this year: from the warm greetings on walks, letters and messages sent to us asking if we needed support, clapping for the NHS and more.
And in church too this kindness and support has been evident in so many ways: in buying food for those who can’t go to the local shops, going for socially distanced walks together, spending time online listening and caring for others, taking round printed out sermons and notices to those who would otherwise miss out, spending hours cleaning and preparing the church, weeding the courtyard garden, or getting on your bike to deliver ashes for the Ash Wednesday service.
I’ve also valued the breakout rooms in our services. I’m naturally a shy introvert and often hide behind a musical instrument at the end of a church service. I’ve valued being able to meet and chat to so many people before and after our online services. How do we ensure in future we make these opportunities to talk to those we don’t know well, when we return to a church building without social distancing rules?
The third area is in our shared spirituality
Another thing I’ve valued in our Zoom services is how we have been able to pray in a different way with and for each other. I’ve found the Chat prayers to be deeply moving and helpful to read and pray during our services and to use them during the week to continue praying for our church. How can we continue this richness of prayer once we return to the church building?
But there have been other ways that I feel we have grown spiritually as a church. I’ve valued the sermons that have been shared with us and the way our preachers have worked so hard to engage people through this Zoom machine! We have also adapted to running children’s groups, homegroups, morning prayer and even sharing meals together online, as we will do so again on Maundy Thursday.
I wonder what has been meaningful to you over this last year in our online church worship? And what would you like to see continue as we move back to our church building?
This time of waiting as a church certainly hasn’t been one of standing still and killing time. Amongst all the challenges, pain and problems we have encountered this year, there is so much to be thankful for in the creativity we’ve shared, the support given and received and the growing depth in prayer and spirituality.
Alongside the theme of waiting, the other theme from last March’s sermon was on hope.
I’m not sure if you are one of those kinds of people who keeps up to date on all the different world days and festivals, which nowadays seem to cover everything under the sun. To prove this point, this week on Thursday is the world day of waffle making in Sweden. So if you want an excuse to indulge in a waffle, you have your opportunity! More importantly, this weekend is the celebration of one of the oldest festivals in the world, dating back over three thousand years. This is the Festival of Nowruz, the Persian New Year. It celebrates the beginning of spring, of purification and starting again. During this festival enormous eggs are painted and displayed and homes are spring cleaned in preparation for a fresh start to a new season. Both of our readings today look forward to a new hope and a new season. In Jeremiah we heard of the new covenant, the new start between God and his people. It has emerged after years of suffering, injustice and pain. And in our gospel reading, Jesus hints to his disciples of how through suffering and death there is new life and hope.
‘Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’ The hope of Easter is just around the corner for all of us.
I wonder what has sustained and given you hope during this last year? One of the things that helped me were the expertly curated poems that Stephen faithfully sent out to us for much of the year.
One of my work colleagues, Preethi Alice Jacob , runs a poetry website called Find my rest my soul (findrestmysoul.net). Her passion for writing poetry is particularly meaningful for her as it came much later in life, without any formal training. I’d like to finish this reflection by sharing a poem she originally wrote in January for a new year, but perhaps is as relevant now for us as we enter this new season.
Lord, as into this new year I step
My heart is heavy, my feet are cold.
I, Lord, tend to worry and to mope
Often finding it difficult to hope.
And yet, Lord as I turn and look back
Over the year I have just left behind
I remember your presence ever near
Faithfully through times of joy and tear.
Furthermore, this Lord for sure I know
You our Sovereign Lord, you alone
The Grand Weaver, you remain in control, absolutely
Weaving a tapestry of breath-taking beauty.
And so Lord, as into this new year I step,
With my questions, fears and doubts.
I choose to trust and, on this truth, I stand
That you hold my world in your loving hand.
Preethi Alice Jacob