5th Sunday of Easter

                                         

                        Pew Sheet with readings   

Sermon 

I don’t know about you but discipline in my house growing up was not something that impinged on my mind too much.  It’s not that my brother and I were undisciplined and allowed to run amuck, far from it.  We just knew from an early age where the boundaries were and knew better than to cross them.  I can count the number of times I was spanked on one hand with fingers to spare, the last time being the “dog biscuit” incident whereby my brother ate the said dog biscuit I gave him assuring him that it was a ginger snap.  I was about ten and he only seven.  Somehow being shaped like a bone escaped him and he ate it anyway.  Why I got spanked I do not know, but as we are reminded on the nightly news, there’s no cure for stupid.  We still argue the point today forty years later.

Occasionally we might get sent to our room, which was hell for extroverted me missing out on what was going on elsewhere.  My brother, the introvert loved it, quickly becoming engrossed in his Legos or Matchbox cars.  You see where I’m going with this one.  Jesus’ assurance to his disciples that “the Father’s house has many rooms” has proven the test of time and has long been a favourite reading at funerals, as well as for interfaith services.  In the ordinary way of things the preacher would usually approach it from its overwhelmingly inclusive message, God making room for everyone as God is wont to always do.  Yet circumstances usually colour perceptions and this preacher has another perspective this time round. 

I can’t help but feel that most of us are rather bored and weary with the lockdown.  The novelty and excitement of the challenge has well and truly worn off.  We listen and read every snippet of news hoping (expecting!) a miracle breakthrough that will tidy all this away and return things to the way they “ought” to be.  I have to say I am especially guilty of this!  But the reality of it all is that we are learning the very hard lesson that we aren’t as in control of everything as we like to think we are.  There isn’t a “magic bullet” and life isn’t going to suddenly return to our old normal of rushing hither and yon as we please.  What does lie ahead is a process of gradual liberation that will follow the best scientific advice so that others may live.  Unlike America which seems content to gamble with lives, the approach here is considered and cautious.

The highlight of my week used to be my day off running errands up in town.  For someone brought up in rural North Carolina and never living in a city of more than 200,000, London was a welcome eye opener and I have been smitten ever since that first day when I alighted from the train at Charing Cross and walked up to Tottenham Court Station.  Unlike New York, London isn’t nearly as frenetic or overpowering to my mind, and is much more beautiful.  I do really miss my Mondays wandering around aimlessly.  Those of you who live on your own may take me to task, but to my surprise, I have discovered that the “enforced togetherness” is beginning to wear too.  I like be with happy and chirpy, but I also need quiet and a bit of head space to think.  Family life is likely to be as challenging as living alone for many of us, thanks to the demands of Google Classroom and online homework.  This is hard for all of us in so many ways, but it isn’t forever.

So while we may chafe with the restrictions in place, we may ask where is God in all this?  God of course didn’t cause the pandemic to punish us, that is a very naïve and misplaced notion at odds with who we know God to be.  Nor is God enjoying watching the suffering as it deepens.  No, God’s place in all things seems to be making the most out of the situation he is faced with and helping us come through it.  The Gospel reading made me think straightaway that with these “many rooms” we’ve been sent to our rooms for a time for our own safety.  And no matter how fed up we may be, how lonely, depressed, or even feeling at our wits end; we are not on our own in “our room”.  God is with us even now, calming, comforting, assuring us that we will get through this if we but stay the course.  Easy words you may say, but still true.  With God we never have to walk alone.

I remember becoming aware as a teenager, the deep and abiding faith of the poor peasants in Central America as the Reagan administration funded armed interventions that killed thousands who dared speak up for land reform and equal rights.  These dispossessed clung to God at a time when the “respectable” elite gave lip service by attending Mass, yet failing to practice what the Gospel demands.  The poor had nothing else.  God was all they had and somehow that was enough.  Counted as poor, they felt themselves rich beyond measure.  Like Stephen they did not accept their fate quietly.  Instead they spoke out and held the authorities to account no matter the cost as he did. 

Stephen is an interesting character if only because we know so little about him.  We don’t know how long he had been a follower of Jesus or even if he had ever met the Lord personally.  It is fairly clear he was a Jew but very Greek in his outlook and background.  He spoke fluent Greek and his name is Greek as well, he was commissioned to serve the Greco-Jewish poor who had been overlooked.  Legend tells us that he studied Torah, the Jewish law, under the great Rabbi Gamaliel as may have St. Paul, because of his eloquent and learned response to the Sanhedrin after his arrest.  Tradition paints Paul as standing to the side holding the cloaks as the crowd stoned Stephen to death, but is it not a stretch of the imagination to suppose such a zealous defender of the Law didn’t pick up a stone or two?  Zealots are dangerous wherever they are found, whatever their motivation.  Look at the protests across America as armed, white men storm statehouses and legislatures demanding their “right” to infect others with Covid-19! 

Stephen, like the poor in El Salvador and Nicaragua, realised that God was all they really had to fall back on.  They all are part of our Church even now shining as examples of total faith and courage in dark times.  As St. John’s continues to worship separately in our own “rooms”, we remain connected with one another in our thoughts and prayers for each other.  As the lockdown eases and life becomes easier, I hope we hold onto what we have learned and experienced in our enforced separation so that it can continue enriching our life as Church in this place.  We will emerge wiser and more trusting knowing that we may not have all the answers, but that we travel in good company, safe together though apart for a season. 

“In my Father’s house there are many rooms” now and forever.  Amen.   

                               

Intercessions by Roger Jeal
Let us pray for the Church and for the world and let us thank God for his goodness.
 
Almighty God, our heavenly Father, you promised through your son, Jesus Christ, to hear us when we pray in faith.
 
Inspire our Bishops, Christopher and Richard, and Archbishop Justin to lead us well and speak out well on our behalf. Bless Father Michael, Milly, Marilyn and Tony in their currently even more challenging ministry among us and help us all to do our best to aid others.
 
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
 
As we commemorate VE Day and the last few months of World War Two, help us, Lord, to keep calm and carry on and remain vigilant, in the spirit of those who brought our world through major past problems.
 
May we work hard to consider others of whatever age who are less fortunate than we are. Safeguard especially all those on the modern-day front line in the NHS and providing other essential services, including our armed forces yet again.
 
Grant us all as much good humour as possible, even amid great adversity, to try to cheer us all up and give us hope.
 
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
 
Whatever the pressures and fears, encourage us to put our trust in you – the way, the truth and the life. Give us unexpected strengths to battle our unseen enemy and work together in the common cause locally, nationally and internationally. 
 
We pray especially for wisdom for rulers worldwide to cope with the difficult present but also plan for what needs to change in future and encourage developments to keep us safer when this is all over.
 
Help us still find time and energy to focus on other challenges beyond the virus, especially our precious environment. May greater concern for others and their living and working conditions help reduce the tragic toll from events such as the recent gas leak in India.
 
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
 
Looking ahead, we pray for support and guidance for young people, who  carry our hopes for better times while facing even greater pressures than usual at this time amid great uncertainties over their education.
 
We also pray for continuing support and inspiration from the various less familiar ways we can be in touch with friends and family today, while also remembering just to phone people, especially those who may be alone. We hope that we’ll all meet again in reality before too long, not keeping our distance, but only once dangers and risks have subsided.
 
 Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
 
We seek your blessing on all who plan to get married when they can in future and families looking forward to baptisms, continuing and renewing our shared Christian life.
 
Lord , watch over our precious families amid the stresses of our restrained lives at present.
 
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
 
Bless all who are sick in body, mind or spirit, struggling to fight off various afflictions or taking the sometimes long road to recovery from illness.  We pray especially for those suffering from mental stress and fear amid the lockdown and personal tragedies as this often gets less attention. Grant good health and freedom from pain and distress for those known personally to us and those on our prayer list in particular need:
Emilia, Joanna, Anne Rogers, Andrea Linsell, Caroline Wareham, Sam, David, Sonya and Harriet.
 
Gracious God,
give skill, sympathy and resilience to all who are caring for the sick,
and your wisdom to those searching for a cure.

Strengthen them with your Spirit, that through their work many will be restored to health; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
We remember before you those who have died recently including Jeremy Callow, Penny Spring, David Miller, Helen Riverola and Brian Hepburn. May they rest in peace in your good keeping.
 
Also, on the anniversary of their death, Ivy Reason and George Bubb.
 
Grant them your peace and comfort all those who mourn them.
 
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
 
Rejoicing in the fellowship of St. John the Baptist and of all your saints, we commend ourselves and all people to your unfailing love.
 
Merciful Father, accept these prayers for the sake of your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ.  Amen.