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Sermon by Victoria Johnson, Canon Precentor
Sunday 24th May 2020
Readings: Isaiah 65:17-end, Revelation 21:1-8, John 17:1-11
In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
The last few months have been for all of us, quite a journey. That journey, we each have to acknowledge, has been a journey through loss and grief. We have lost freedoms, we have lost certainties; plans that we may have had for March, April and May of this year, have suddenly been ripped up and thrown into the fire and it looks like any plans we may have had for the rest of this year will be disrupted too. Weddings, celebrations, travel, projects, new jobs, ordinations, schooling, exams, the list of things which have been disrupted goes on and on. Our lives have literally been turned upside down by a microscopic virus which has trampled through the whole world. Though the virus shows no partiality we have seen that the partiality in our society and the inequality in our world, has made some people more vulnerable to it than others.
Whoever we are, and whatever our situation, we have experienced a profound loss, individually and corporately and for many in our communities that loss has been tragic and devastating and many have had to say the ultimate and final farewell to those they love, and some have been unable to say the farewells they would have wished. As a nation we carry the corporate grief of losing nearly 37,000 people, that number is still sadly rising. But these are not just numbers, these are names, and lives and loves. What effect will all this grief, and all these losses have on us, as individuals and as a society and as a church?
One of the most well-referenced books on loss and grief is by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying. She reflects that after the loss of a loved one, the reality is, you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss, you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to be the same. When we experience loss of any kind, we may heal, and rebuild, and become whole again, but we will never be the same. We will have been changed and there is no doubt we have all been changed by our experiences over the last few months.
This pandemic has also upturned our notions of what church is and how we do church. As we have experienced ourselves, creating church online is not without its issues. It remains an imperfect means of representing the gathered Christian community, and it has become clear that when we do return to our church buildings our gatherings will look very different. We cannot now rewind back to what we have always done. We need to imagine a new future. The church will have been changed by this experience too.
For us here in York, our excitement about welcoming a new Archbishop and our hopes of saying a fitting farewell to an Archbishop who has served the North so wonderfully have also been thrown up into the air. This is not what anyone of us was expecting. We are all experiencing grief for what would have been. We have all said goodbye to long held hopes and dreams.
We have just heard in the Gospel of John (17:1-11), what is called the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus to his Father in heaven as he begins to face his future and say his farewells. He prays that what is yet to come, firstly his death and then glorification through the resurrection, will reveal the divine majesty of God to all people and help them build a new world in his name. He is the herald of change, the first born of a new creation.
The context of the farewell discourses as they are called, is important. We are with Jesus just after the last supper, the night before he was arrested, tortured and crucified. There is a kind of knowing in what Jesus says, he knows his end and the number of his days, but he also knows there is more to come. He is trusting his future to God, and the future of his disciples and the world he came to save.
Jesus understands loss and grief, remember he wept at the grave of Lazarus his friend. He understands the reality of a world being turned upside down because he is a sign of a new world which emerges from the old. He sees his future and beyond his future. He sees into eternity. This is his goodbye, his farewell to those he loves but he knows and understands that what is to come will ultimately glorify the Father and change the world. This is an ending which also marks a new beginning, a farewell which inaugurates a divine greeting. He is a sign of new life walking out of a stone cold tomb. He is the change.
Jesus prays for his disciples, those he is leaving behind, he prays that they may be one, that they are united and bound together through love, that they will be protected as children of God. He is praying for the embryonic church, that it may flourish and blossom and bear fruit, through and beyond a time of testing, a time of grief and a time of uncertainty.
The disciples are confused and upset about this coming and going of Jesus, they are distraught that Jesus speaks of leaving them, but they do not yet realise that the limitations of their earthly imagination will soon be overwhelmed by the reality of God being with them for all eternity.
Soon they will come to understand that from loss comes hope, from despair comes joy, from uncertainty comes faith, from death comes life. They will learn through Christ, how to see the world differently and how to carry the losses and the griefs that come with being fully human just as Jesus in his risen body also carried the wounds of the nails on his hands and his feet.
Jesus Farewell discourse with his Father actually begins to open up for his disciples a new future for the whole of humanity. Stephen Cottrell, our Archbishop designate, said this week ‘we’re all having to re-imagine how we live our lives and how we inhabit the world. What inspired me to follow Jesus is that vision of a new humanity that I see in him.’
That vision of a new humanity is laid out in the readings from the prophet Isaiah and the book of Revelation that we heard in morning prayer. In Christ we are promised a new heaven and a new earth, no more weeping, or cry of distress, houses will be built, vineyards planted, enemies will become friends. A new city will come down from heaven as a bride adorned for her husband, the former things will pass away and God is making all things new.
This is a vision of the Kingdom of God, a vision of what the resurrection means for the world, a vision for a people who will never be left alone, but always surrounded by the love of God. It is a vision of hope and comfort, but it is, and let us not ignore the fact, also a vision of change.
This week the whole church makes a prayer to God ‘Thy Kingdom Come’. In our current situation, we might begin to reflect on what that invocation means in our world today and what it means for each one of us personally. Despite the pain and the loss and the grief we are all experiencing in so many different ways, and the wounds that we will carry with us, perhaps we are being given the time to imagine a new future where the cities we are called to rebuild after this crisis reflect more closely the kingdom of God we pray for. When we pray Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven, we are praying for change, we are asking God to make all things new.
We hear very often these days, the phrase, ‘the new normal’- what will our new normal be like? We are told things will not be the same after COVID-19. And why should they be? We will not ‘get over’ the loss we have borne, we will learn to live with it. We will heal and we will rebuild our lives around the loss we have suffered. We will be whole again but we will never be the same. Nor should we be the same nor would we want to be the same.
Six weeks ago, we celebrated the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and remembered once again that in him is life, in him is a new creation. As we all grieve what we have lost in the last three months, and say our farewells to what might have been, we also look to what Jesus Christ promises us and begin to live into that promise. We continue to celebrate the resurrection each day of our lives knowing that from death comes life.
Jesus calls us to lift up our eyes and imagine a new future, a new humanity, and perhaps even a new beginning. He calls us to imagine a refashioning of creation itself, and look to a new dawn, a new day, a new heaven, and a new earth.
We pray, Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
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