Journeying through the wilderness
In her sermon this week (14 June), Bishop Cherry looks to the future church by examining our past.
She draws similarities between the uncertainty in the days following the flight from Egypt and our own journey to a "new normal". We're reminded that as people of God, we are the church and it is our duty to be "equipped and sent to proclaim the good news and point others to the signs of God’s activity, God’s kingdom, in the world he has created, loved and redeemed."
Sermon: 14th June 2020, Trinity 1
As the lockdown begins to ease, albeit very slowly, questions are being asked as to what the ‘new normal’ (as it’s being termed) is going to look like. For nearly three months now, we’ve been living in a rather strange and unnatural world, learning to live separated from those we love and care about and finding other ways, sometimes wonderfully creative ways, of continuing to do what’s important - be that work, leisure or meeting and sharing with family and friends. In our life together as church, we have also had to adjust, find new ways of being together, and continuing in our fellowship and prayer and worship. At first, praying together on Zoom felt quite odd and awkward, but we’ve got used to it, at least to some degree, and to holding our meetings, doing our business and even licensing our clergy through online platforms.
We don’t know how long it’s going to take us to come out of this pandemic or how long such things as the face masks and the social distancing are going to remain in place. But however long or short a time it is, there’s a sense that we won’t be going back to how it was or how we were, at least not entirely. Like other organisations, we’re starting to ask ourselves what, of the new ways of being, might we keep; how we can build on the new connections we’ve made and the new opportunities that have opened up because of how differently we’ve had to do things. We’ve learnt that we can change when we have to and that change can bear fruit in ways we wouldn’t have imagined possible.
Our readings today speak into this in an important way. For, however excited we are about what we’re learning and how we might build on that, or however concerned we are about our church’s future and the challenges we face (not least the significant financial ones) there are some key things to remember and to ponder.
Our reading from Exodus takes us into the wilderness where the Israelites, the people whom God had delivered from slavery in Egypt, had been wandering for three days. So, given that they were to wander in the wilderness for 40 years, this is early days, though of course, they don’t know that. But God speaks to them through Moses to remind them who they are and what they are to be, and in doing so he draws them back to their experience of deliverance; the shared experience of being freed from slavery that has bound them together and defined them as God’s people. ‘You have seen’, says God, ‘what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.’ That experience continues to define the Jewish people to this day. And such an experience defines Christians too, as a people who have been delivered from the dominion of darkness and brought into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son. That is, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus: an experience which defines us as the body of Christ, shapes our lives and the life of our community, and strengthens us to be the people God has called us to be.
God goes on to tell the Israelites that although the whole world is his, they are to be his treasured possession out of all the peoples, a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are almost exactly the words that the writer of the first letter of Peter uses as he encourages the early church in its first decades. ‘You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, God’s own people.’ We’re not God’s chosen people because we’re better than anyone else or more important or God’s favourites. We’re chosen, as the first letter of Peter goes on, ‘in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.’ In other words, we’re chosen for a particular task - to proclaim what God has done, not just for us but for the whole world.
I reflected as I was reading these passages earlier in the week that it’s not difficult to think of ourselves as journeying through a wilderness at this point in time. We might think it sums our situation up rather well: not sure where we are, not clear where we’re going, not very much idea of what lies ahead or how best to navigate our way. But what we do know in it all is what we have seen and heard of God, how God has picked us up, carried us on eagles’ wings, and how God has brought us to himself. We know that because that is our experience. That’s what defines us and will continue to define us as a church. That’s what will hold us and strengthen us and empower us to be what God calls us to be. Because what matters as we emerge from this lockdown is not so much how we’re to be but what we’re to be. We’re to continue to be what God calls us to be; a chosen race, a royal priesthood, God’s own people - not for our own sake, but in order that we might proclaim with our lives all that God has done for his world.
Jesus uses not dissimilar language in our gospel reading today. He looks at the crowds and has compassion them - because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. Worried, distracted, wandering aimlessly, perhaps lost, scattered and disorientated. That too could sum up rather well where we are as a world, as a society. And Jesus’s response is to summon his disciples, to give them authority and to send them out. As they go, they are to proclaim all that God has done: the good news that the Kingdom of heaven has come near.
That’s our task; to be the people of God who are sent out. So, this is not about us and what we can do and what we have to offer, whether individually or as a church family. It’s about God and what God has already done and what God can do in and with and through us. Neither is it about the church in terms of its institutional structures and buildings and constitution. It’s about the people of God, the body of Christ here on earth, called and equipped and sent to proclaim the good news and point others to the signs of God’s activity, God’s kingdom, in the world he has created, loved and redeemed.
So as we look forward, as we surely do, to the time when we can meet again in our church buildings let’s pray deeply and intentionally that we may, first and foremost, be faithful to our calling as God’s chosen people - to be signs and signposts to what God has done and is doing - and, as we go, wherever it is that we go, to proclaim the good news, the Kingdom of heaven has come near.