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The Very Revd Prof. Martyn Percy: Dean of Christ Church, Oxford gave the following sermon during our Church at Home online service on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, 2020

‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.’ – John 14:15-21 New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)

“I Will Not Leave You Orphaned; I Am Coming To You”

Fifty years ago, one of my favourite films was released. It is a movie for all ages, and has enjoyed enduring popularity. The year was 1970; the film is The Railway Children. I remember going to see it at the Crosby Odeon with my grannie. I loved the film for several reasons. Jenny Agutter, naturally! And Bernard Cribbins, playing the genial role of Perks, the railway-worker.

The Railway Children concerns a family who move out from London to a house in the shires near a railway. Their move was forced upon them, after the father – an intelligent, high-ranking civil servant – was unjustly imprisoned for espionage, but is eventually exonerated.

In their new environs, the three children – ‘Bobbie’ (Jenny Agutter), Peter and Phyllis – befriend an older gentleman who normally takes the morning train from near their home. He becomes an unlikely hero, for in his empathy for the children, is moved to help prove their father’s innocence, thereby reuniting the family. Before the father is freed, however, the family care for a Russian exile who came to England looking for his lost family. And the railway family also take in Jim, the grandson of the old gentleman.

For a good part of the film, the children are effectively orphaned. The climax is achingly beautiful. The train pulls in and stops, and Bobbie, alone, stands on the platform and waits, not knowing if her father is there. The entire scene is consumed in the steam and smoke of the locomotive. And out of the clouds, the father emerges. As the gospel has it today: “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.”

When we think of orphans, we instinctively think of children without parents. In fact, the English word ‘orphan’ comes from the Greek orphanos, meaning merely ‘bereaved’, ‘bereft’ or ‘deprived’. In English, it has come to signify a child losing one or both parents. Of course we are always somebody’s child. Unless we predecease our parents, we will all know what it is to be orphaned: to be without our father or mother. We can be an orphan at any age.

This pandemic has so far led to over 30,000 deaths in our land, and that number will continue to climb. That means there are hundreds of thousands of new orphans today; and a great many more family, friends and colleagues are also sadly bereft. We only understand the gift of who we truly loved when we experience their loss.

So on this Sixth Sunday of Easter, we wait for another loss, even after the crucifixion. For after the resurrection of Jesus comes the Ascension. He leaves, and returns to the Father. The disciples will bereft once more – orphaned. Yet the scriptures promise us an end more like The Railway Children. 

In the gospels Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as “the Comforter”, and it is this name that most closely associates the maternal and paternal comforting care that Jesus gives – so abundantly in his ministry – with what is to come after he has gone. The gospels record Jesus saying “do not worry” or “do not be afraid” over and over again. Seventy times, in fact. Yes, seventy.

Jesus says it a lot. Don’t be afraid of the storm, or of sinking in this boat. Do not worry about lack of food or clothes. Do not worry about those who hate you. Do not worry about death. “Do not be afraid…I am with you”, says Jesus. Time and time again.

As a child, I grew always knowing I had been adopted. It has had, and continues to have, a profound influence on my personhood, ministry and theology. Deeply imprinted in my soul and psyche is the knowledge that, though I was, literally bereft as a baby, I was not in fact abandoned. I was blessed with good and loving parents, who came for me, and took me home. Interestingly, another meaning of the word ‘orphan’ is quite general – ‘to change allegiance; passing from one status to another’. That was my experience. My status moved from being an “unwanted baby” to becoming a much-cherished, much-wanted, much-loved…son.

Many years later, as an adult, my parents told me that, in fact, I had never been “un-wanted”. My birth mother simply could not keep me. But she had held me for the first weeks of my life, and only gave me up when she handed me over, in person, to the couple that came for me – my parents. My ‘new normal’ was to learn that I had always been held and cherished.

The first Christians cared for and cherished orphans. The scriptures give many examples of infants being adopted and raised by folk that are not their biological parents. The early church was called to be an adopting, caring and comforting community for everyone – especially the neglected, marginalised and bereft. The words Jesus speaks to us are what he calls us to proclaim and practice to the rest of humanity today: “we will not leave you orphaned or bereft; we are here for you; we are coming to you; do not be afraid; God never leaves any of us.”

So what of here and now? I recall an NHS advertising poster some years ago to recruit new nurses. The advert pictured a nurse cradling a new-born baby, and the caption read: “the first few minutes of life can be critical”. But someone had daubed a bit of graffiti underneath: “…and the last few moments can be a bit dicey too.”

This is a fearful, tender time in our nation. Cradling, holding and caring for others at the beginning and end of life – and for all that bit we call “the middle” (perhaps three-score-years-and-ten?) – is where our calling as the church must be. Remembering the words of Jesus, which have been, are being, and will be fulfilled: “I will not leave you orphaned or bereft; I am with you. Do not fear. I am coming to you.”

Alleluia, Amen.

View the sermon online here. 

The Venerable Judy French, Archdeacon of Dorchester, gave the following sermon during our Church at Home online service on Sunday 26 April: A Reflection for Easter 4 Acts 2:42-end; Psalm 23; John 10:1-10

Today is unofficially known as ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’ in the Church’s calendar, because on this 4th Sunday of Eastertide there is always a reading from part of John’s Gospel Chapter 10, in which Christ says, ‘I am the Good Shepherd’. It’s a very well-known and well-loved picture of Jesus, and brings to mind someone who will guard and protect us, care for us and know us each by name, who will lead us to good pasture and back home again to safety, who will come looking for us when we are lost. And that’s reinforced by the words of Psalm 23, which we’ve being praying together every day during the lockdown – the Lord is my Shepherd, he shall refresh my soul. It’s an image woven into the biblical story of God’s relationship with his people, as shepherd and flock.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells a little story about a sheepfold and explains the difference between those who hop over the wall to do a bit of sheep-stealing, and the one who enters by the gate and knows every sheep by name. One lot are thieves and bandits and absolutely not to be trusted, and the other is the shepherd who can be trusted to look after the sheep. So far, so good. The message is that we have to listen to the voice of the shepherd who will look after us, and not the thief who wants either to kill and eat us or sell us at the market for his own profit. Make of that what you can. Jesus first focuses attention on the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep, because that is fundamental to what follows; it is crucial for the life and well-being of the sheep, and indicative of what Jesus will do for them, ultimately. But even given the familiarity of the image for his hearers, they don’t understand what he’s talking about or why it’s relevant.

And then just as we are expecting Jesus to say he is the Good Shepherd, which brings to mind all sorts of traditional childhood pictures, he says instead, ‘I am the gate for the sheep’. A gate is not a very rosy or sentimental image. It is practical. It is the shepherd, lying across the entrance to the sheepfold, to guard and protect. It is a way in and a way out; it enables a keeping together in one place and separating, the sheep inside from the dangers outside. Jesus said, ’I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’ And there’s the point of the story: it’s not about security, it’s about abundant life.

It’s particularly poignant in our current context when our coming in and going out is restricted, and what we do and where we go has the potential to affect the life and health of others. This is life, but not as we know it. In a very short space of time, we are having to learn new ways of living and worshipping and working. We may have mixed feelings about the lifting of restrictions: a longing for the freedom of movement we once had; some loss of confidence about our safety and that of those we love if we go out; anxiety about the economy, businesses, and livelihoods; a fresh emerging vision of doing things differently as we emerge from this, particularly in terms of family life, working patterns, church life, the climate emergency. Both during the lockdown and as we emerge from it, we are first disciples of Jesus; we come and go and engage with the world around us, whether at home or in our communities, through listening to the voice of the shepherd, the one who leads us and offers abundant life.

In John’s Gospel, the story of the sheepfold is told in the context of Jesus healing the man born blind, which takes up the whole of the previous chapter. By the end of that story, the man is thrown out of the synagogue by the religious leaders who don’t accept that Jesus is from God. But the man who now sees, recognises and believes in Jesus, and becomes his disciple. Jesus follows that life-changing encounter with the story of the sheepfold and contrasts exclusion and inclusion, death and life. We read this story in the light of Easter and resurrection, and it is significant too that what follows is the raising of Lazarus and Jesus’ own journey to the cross, as the shepherd gives his life for the sheep. ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.’

Over the last six weeks or so, our homes have become not only places of home-schooling, work, and family life, but also very intentionally places of prayer and worship. Church at Home, church online, our own times of prayer and reflection, have become ways in which we are focussing, probably more than we did before, on listening to the voice of the shepherd. Doing and being church online is so new for many of us, and as our online presence grows, we are beginning to ask what ‘church’ will look like when the lockdown lifts, and we can return to our church buildings. What’s the exit strategy? We don’t yet know what that looks like for the country or for the church. What will be the ‘new normal’? How do we go forward with a ‘mixed-mode’ church? How do we grow our regular congregations alongside our new online worshipping communities? There is a sense that God is doing something new, and that is exciting, but it’s also unsettling because we don’t know what the future looks like; we are out of our comfort zones. It feels like we really are putting out into deep water, to use another metaphor. If we take our cue from the Gospel today, we will best meet whatever comes next by keeping on listening for the shepherd’s voice, keep returning to the one we trust, who knows us by name and leads us, the Lord who is our Shepherd, who restores and refreshes our souls.

Amen.

Watch the Church at Home service from Sunday 3 May here.

Bishop Colin gave the following sermon during the Church at Home online service on Sunday 26 April

Whilst there are a lot of negatives about the current lockdown, and I wouldn’t want for a moment to minimise the difficulties, whether mental, social, financial or relational, that so many are living through, there are nevertheless some silver linings around as well.

For me, one of those is the walks I am managing to make almost every day. It’s hard now to believe that I’ve lived here almost twenty years and that I hadn’t discovered the delights of Bladon Heath with its wonderful bluebells and Roe and Muntjac deer, or the superb views from Spring Hill, up above Begbroke, looking out both over the dreaming spires of Oxford and giving a glimpse of almost all the deaneries of the Dorchester Area – which is a great incentive to pray for them.

Of course, the weather has also been a great help and the sunshine of the last week was fantastic. I can feel a lightness in my step when it’s warm and when there’s a wind behind me. All very different when it’s cold and wet, and there’s a gale blowing in the wrong direction. Then it’s more a case of forcing one foot after the other.

Imagine for a moment watching Cleopas and his friend walking along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Those seven miles, something over the 10,000 steps so beloved at present, must have seemed very long ones indeed. Even if much of it was downhill, I doubt very much if there was any sort of spring in their step. Their dreams had been shattered. They had hoped that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel but he’d ended up on a cross. And even when news came from the women of an empty tomb, and a vision of angels, and others confirming that Jesus’s grave no longer had his body in it, this pair couldn’t even summon up the energy to go and see for themselves. All they could do was to leave Jerusalem and get away from the pain and disappointment.

Yet what a difference we would have seen had we been standing in the same spot just a few hours later. The same two figures, now in the gloaming, hurrying back to the place they had been so anxious to leave. If not actually running, in my mind’s eye I see them walking with a firmness to their step, their heads held high, talking excitedly with a whole new purpose to their lives.

The reason, of course, as we know, was that they had been met by, and then come to recognise, the risen Jesus, and for them that was transformative. All of which could leave us with the impression that all was now right with their world and what happened next was a fairy-tale ending and that both of them lived happily ever after. Well actually we don’t know what happened next to them, and it may be a far cry from the reality of what they lived through in the following weeks and months and years.

Certainly, that night they were walking back into danger. The disciples gathered in that Upper Room were living in fear of their lives. There was excitement of the encounters with Jesus, Pentecost, and the heady days of the expansion of the Church still to come – but persecution and martyrdom were to follow rapidly in succession and it strikes me that those twin realities are very much part of our experience as Christians – excitement and joy and disappointment and fear often run very close together. They may not be the exact two sides of the same coin, but they are often the lived reality for many of us. Certainly that is my sense of what is going on at the moment.

We are in Eastertide, celebrating quite properly the joy and power of the Resurrection Season. Christ is risen from the dead. Death has indeed been conquered and there are plenty of reasons for proclaiming Hallelujah. I remember too, the words of St Teresa of Avila at this point. I think that they underestimate God’s sovereign ability to do as he wills – but the underlying sentiment is certainly something I see being expressed in church after church at the moment. ‘Christ has no body but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on his world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. You are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body on earth but yours.’

And in that context, as I phone people and Zoom around the place I am very encouraged by the way in which in community after community is experiencing congregations who go way beyond what might have been expected of them, they are resurrection people they always were but they are being given a chance now to express that whether through food distribution and neighbourly care, as they work in partnership with each other, and with others. These are, I believe, exciting times with tremendous opportunities for churches.

Whilst very often we have been told that the digital world and networks meant the end for the significance of physical, geographical communities, the last few weeks have shown very clearly how these two can belong together, and mutually benefit each other. Likewise, in talking to those who have been streaming their services, many clergy have been impressed by the way in which the elderly members of the congregation have adapted to them – and for those technically challenged like myself it will be so much easier when the grandchildren can visit to sort out my problems. But won’t it be great if as a result of this, our housebound members never felt completely cut off from the fellowship of their churches. Resurrection people bringing new life in all kinds of ways.

Yet alongside the excitement are the leaden feet walking to Emmaus. Feet overwhelmed by the present pain and the difficulties of financial insecurity, or bereavement, or sickness that experience of being cooped up and, above all else, I sense, the fear of an uncertain future and the nagging question: ‘When will this come to an end?’ or, to be more realistic, ‘When might things begin to get better?’. Such fears are all too real. They cannot and must not be denied.

But, with them, in the light of the twin realities of joy and sorrow that Christians have experienced these down the centuries, and alongside them comes the footfall of the one who walks with us both in the green pastures and in the valley of the shadow of death, the one who is saying to us now, in the midst of the confusions: ‘When you pass through the waters I will be with you; when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through fire you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour” (Isaiah 43: 2,3).

Amen.

Watch the Church at Home service from Sunday 26 April here. 

Podcast

I will come into your house
Reflections for a Church in Lockdown

Episode 5: Samuel Wesley’s beautiful setting of Psalm 5.8 is my starting place this week. Wesley crafts a peaceful song of trust out of the middle of a Psalm which refuses to hide from life’s difficulties.

The music at the start of this episode is taken from a recording of Lead me Lord by Samuel Wesley by Somerville College Choir (Psalm 5.8 and 4.8). I’m using several commentaries on the Psalms to prepare these podcast episodes, but particularly Professor Sue Gillingham’s commentary: Psalms through the Centuries: A reception history commentary on Psalms 1-72 (Wiley Blackwell, 2018) and John Goldingay, Psalms in the Baker Commentary Series (Baker Academic 2006).

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