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Sunday 29th March 2020
This morning’s Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent:
“Take away the stone”
Over the past two Sundays and this morning we have heard those wonderful long Gospel stories of the encounters of three people in varying degrees of need with the Lord.
First we heard of the Woman of Samaria – a woman whose heritage stems from the deportation of the Kingdom of Israel into Assyria where her ancestors were forced into mixed marriages and the faith of their Forefathers’ was corrupted by pagan practices. This woman knows enough of her heritage to know that her marital state is more than complicated. Yet she comes to see Christ as her deliverer, and as the source of her future hope.
Last Sunday, we heard of the healing of the man born blind, and in that very moving account we see how he has been blind from birth, and of how, once he has been healed, he experiences a lack of support from those who know him, rejection by the spiritual leaders of his people and even to a certain degree rejection by his parents. The account concludes with his encountering the Lord once more, but this time the Lord, having heard of the rejection he had experienced at the hands of others, sought him out, and the encounter between them is so tender.
Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who speaks to you.” He said, “Lord, I believe”; and he worshiped him.
And this morning we hear the final of these three encounters, that of Jesus with Lazarus. Of course, the encounter is also with Mary and Martha, and it is to their encounter with the Lord that we turn first.
We are used to thinking of Martha as the one who is distracted by all the domestic work that needs doing as part of welcoming a guest; and of Mary as the one who takes the spiritual path of sitting and listening to the Lord. However, in this encounter Mary has to be coached out of the house, as she is sitting there consumed by grief. Then when she does come to meet Jesus, she is seemingly accusatory in her opening words to the Lord, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” It is Martha, however, in this encounter, who pours forth that wonderful declaration of faith: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”
Then there is the encounter with Lazarus. It is a remarkable encounter, at least in the telling, because we are not told what they said to each other after the Lord raised Lazarus from the dead. The Lord orders that the stone sealing the tomb be taken away, he prays, he says loudly, “Lazarus, come out.” And Lazarus emerges still bound with bandages. And then Jesus orders those gathered to “unbind him, and let him go.” But we are told nothing else.
So we must look at the episode with closer eyes – in particular I want us to think of the matter of the stone. The stone represents all that inhibits life, Lazarus has been sealed away from life, cut off from those he knows and loves not only by death, but by physical barriers – human constraints keep him isolated – for the bodies of the dead, in Jewish Law, are unclean; and if you came into contact with one, you became unclean. But the Lord orders that the stone be taken away, that the barrier preventing life, human socialisation and love be removed.
Perhaps in that there is something for us to ponder in our hearts this morning with Our Lady, as England is rededicated at Noon today as her Dowry. The stone had to be taken away for life to begin again. That stone inhibited life, love and social interaction. At times in our lives that stone can be symbolic of the situation that we find ourselves in.
Like the woman of Samaria we can be in a moral mess, and can have made our lives so complicated that we worry that we have no future, no chance of forgiveness, nor even a life that is filled with hope rather than despair.
Like the man born blind we can be blind, not only physically, but also blind to the real identity of Jesus Christ. Like the blind man it may be that we have had signs of real hope, only to have them dashed by the intransigence or weakness of others.
Like Mary we can find ourselves at one point very close to the Lord, and then subsequently distant from him. Like Martha we can find ourselves distracted by so many things – even in parish life, by what we think is important in our Parish Churches, that we lose our spiritual perspective; but then like Martha through the experience of some deeply personal event come to a greater love and knowledge of the Lord.
Like Lazarus we can be kept bound and sealed off from life – that is our real life in Christ. It is the enemy who so often does this with his lies and schemes. That stone – whatever it is most be taken away at the Lord’s orders.
And so we must make our appeals to him, we must hammer on the doors of heaven with our prayers.
In this land at the moment we are facing one of the worst contagions since the Spanish Flu of 1918. Yes, we must abide by what the Government is asking of us, but as Christians who believe that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, we should have recourse to prayer. We must pray that God would take this pestilence away, for common-sense to prevail amongst all people, and for all those affected by this virus, and those who care for them in the NHS and in the wider community. May the Lord take this stone away, may he order that we be unbound and set free ……….that life may be set free.
Let us pray:
Lord, enable us to continue to serve our suffering brothers and sisters in peace that together we may glorify thy most honourable and majestic name of the Father + and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Tuesday 24th March 2020
The Archbishops have now issued a letter to all clergy in which the main points, as they affect our common life are as follows:
- Our church buildings must now be closed not only for public worship, but for private prayer as well and this includes the priest or lay person offering prayer in church on their own. For the priest this means celebrating the Mass at home. I have pre-empted this by setting up at altar in the Rectory and tried to make it as much like a chapel as I can. I hope to start live streaming, which is permitted, as soon as I have mastered the technology.
- Emergency baptisms can take place in hospital or at home, though subject to strict hygienic precautions and physical distancing as far as possible.
- There can be no weddings in church buildings until further notice.
- Funerals can only happen at the Crematorium or at the graveside. Only immediate family members can attend (if the crematorium allows – Milton Keynes Crematorium appears to be allowing up to ten mourners only) – that is, spouse or partner, parents and children, keeping their distance in the prescribed way.
- Foodbanks should continue where possible, under strict guidelines, and may have to move to be delivery points not places where people gather.
The diocesan bishop has added:
- That Pastoral Care of the clergy will be mainly left to the Area Deans
- That the priest should restrict most of his pastoral care of his people to using the telephone and internet. There is no guidance yet on the Anointing of the Sick and Dying. In the absence of that, which is worrying at best, I shall seek to administer that Sacrament with the guidance of the medical profession sought by the patient and/or their family.
- On Parish finances: he writes: “We recognise that for some their parish finances are significantly dependent on Sunday collections, lettings and fundraising events and will be issuing advice to help following a consultation with deanery treasurers. Please support the need to sustain parish and diocesan income at this time when the Church’s ministry is needed as never before.”
To all of the above, as your Parish Priest, I would add that sometimes that which we value most can become taken for granted and we can so easily become distracted by things that not of God, and sometimes by things that frankly are the work of the enemy. This period in the desert where we are unable to worship together in our Parish Churches may well, if we embrace the spiritual opportunity, become a period of real growth as disciples of Jesus, from which renewal can flow. All of us are experiencing a great sorrow and a time of great uncertainty, and yet this is a time to have faith, for this problem will end and when it does, as Christ’s Disciples we shall commit ourselves, as our first priority, more fully to the worship of Almighty God and to making our second priority sharing in the continuing mission of Christ the Redeemer. We cannot think that Parish Life will just resume as it was, for God is going to change us through this time and draw us back to himself.
And rend your heart and not your garments ” Now return to the LORD your God, For He is gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness And relenting of evil.
but if you return to Me and keep My commandments and do them, though those of you who have been scattered were in the most remote part of the heavens, I will gather them from there and will bring them to the place where I have chosen to cause My name to dwell.’
Friday 20th March 2020
I am sorry to have to relate to you that, following the Prime Minister’s announcements this evening, further restrictions have been placed upon what is permissible in terms of the Mass. I have received new instructions from the Bishop – these are requirements, not guidance.
I am only allowed to celebrate Mass with just one other person present and with the Church doors locked. That person may not act as a Server. After the Mass, I can unlock the Church so that it is open for private prayer.
All Baptisms and Confirmations are deferred. There are further restrictions on Weddings.
I cannot visit the sick and housebound at home, care homes or hospital (the latter only with the consent and direction of health professionals).
All this is really distressing, but I have no choice, but to comply.
Naturally and rightly I have informed the Churchwardens and Parochial Church Council first.
Below this message from me is a copy of the Bishop’s Letter to you.
O God Almighty, Lord of heaven and earth, and of all creation visible and invisible, in thine ineffable goodness, look down upon us, thy people gathered in thy Holy Name. Be our helper and defender in this day of affliction. Thou knowest our weakness. Thou hearest our cry in repentance and contrition of heart. O Lord who lovest mankind, deliver us from the impending threat of the Corona Virus. Send thine angel to watch over us and protect us. Grant health and recovery to those suffering from this virus. Guide the hands of physicians and preserve those who are healthy. Enable us to continue to serve our suffering brothers and sisters in peace that together we may glorify thy most honourable and majestic name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
I shall be giving thought to what is possible in terms of Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament at specific times in order that we can come to church in small groups – whilst sitting six foot apart – to spend time in private prayer; and I am completing a booklet of prayers for the week beginning this coming Sunday, and will be issuing ones for the whole week ahead each Sunday during this time of uncertainty, in order that you can pray in church or at home with some formal structure so that you know that you are engaging in the worship of the Church.
With the assurance of my prayers.
THE BISHOP OF EBBSFLEET
From the Bishop of Ebbsfleet
to all parishes under his oversight
Concerning Public Worship and the Celebration of the Sacraments
in relation to the current international pandemic
20 March 2020
St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne
Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord
In three short weeks, here and in many places around the world, life has been radically changed. Our
daily patterns of life and work are being changed to protect the greater good; the institutions and
services of our common life are under unprecedented pressure; and the lives of the world’s most
vulnerable—the elderly, the poor, the homeless and those with health conditions—are threatened.
Little surprise then that the Church should find itself deeply affected, and having no choice but to find
new and untried ways of living through this time and looking to the future.
I am sure that you will all recognize the wisdom of Her Majesty The Queen’s appeal yesterday that as a
society we should come together ‘to work as one’, concentrating our combined efforts, focusing on
our common goal. ‘We all have a vitally important part to play’, she said ‘as individuals.’
Paradoxically, at a time when our individual lives are being pushed apart by the absolute necessity to
maintain universal good hygiene and a safe physical distance from one another, we are discovering that
only acting in a really collaborative way will have the impact that we all need. We are all being taught
by this experience to recalibrate the connections between our individuality and our community,
between being one and being many – whether as people, as families and as nations.
Of all people on earth this should come as least surprise to the disciples of Jesus, whose profound sense
of calling and responsibility as the Son of God was entirely shaped by the love of his Father and the
salvation of his brothers and sisters. So Christians can recognize in our present crisis not just that
human generosity which appears in times of danger and trial, but the reality of what it means to be
human, and to be created in the likeness of God. To be human is to be one and many.
And that should remind us Christians of a second reality: that our life together as Christ’s Body is not for
the sake of ourselves but for the life of the world. If in these coming months the Church has to
experience being forcibly pulled away from the consolations of our routine life and worship—forced
for the first time that any of us can remember, into a kind of collective eucharistic fast—it may be so
that we can rediscover the mission God has given us: to be real witnesses in this world—currently so
fearful and anxious—of the joy and peace of the world to come, God’s kingdom.
Plainly none of this will happen if we do not use the time that we now have on our hands to learn
afresh how to pray. Not just prayers for all the different ways in which people are caught up in the
present crisis; but prayers that turn our hearts toward God. The Psalms frequently exhort us to
praise God’s mighty power and his loving intimacy. We may have to be physically distant
from one another, but God is not distant. ‘He is’, says St Augustine, ‘nearer to us than our
innermost parts’. (Confessions 3.6.11)
In recent days, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, together with the bishops, have
implemented changes in how we must practice our faith for the coming months. I too have
written to all the clergy of parishes under my oversight setting out the necessary changes that
need to take effect in the pastoral and liturgical ministries we share. Your parish priest can provide
you with copies of the archbishops’ letter and mine. I ask every worshipper to embrace these
arrangements. They will be kept under review in the light of expert health and hygiene advice.
Of course the most dramatic change is the suspension of all public acts of worship, and thus
the lack of access to celebrations of the Eucharist. All clergy and lay officers will however
strive to keep our churches open wherever possible so that, especially on Sunday mornings, those who
wish to can visit to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. I do not underestimate what a loss this will be
to you all. Nonetheless the clergy have been encouraged to celebrate the Eucharist and to pray
Morning and Evening Prayer, in church without a congregation. Some churches will make
arrangements for live-streaming of these acts of worship to support the laity: I hope to do so myself.
But above all I encourage you to keep Sunday carefully as the Lord’s Day, to read slowly and
prayerfully the readings for that day’s Mass; to pray the Rosary, the Litany, the Jesus Prayer; to
prepare in your home a shrine or prayer station, with a crucifix and images of the Lord and the saints;
and to expressing to the Lord in prayer your desire to receive Holy Communion even while you can’t;
desiring to be united to him, and filled with his Holy Spirit. It will be a blessed and joyful day, when
we can assemble again to celebrate Mass together!
Thank you for everything you will do to support your parish, and its wider community in the coming
months. Please show a special care and concern for anyone who might struggle. And do not be afraid
to ask for prayerful support yourself. Shop responsibly; be generous to charities helping the most
vulnerable; encourage your families as often as you can with words of faith and hope; pray for those
afflicted by the virus; and those who risk their lives to help them.
Two prayers for you to use at home before Passiontide begins:
Almighty God, it is you who made the heavens and the earth by your great power, and by your
outstretched arm. Nothing is beyond your power. We turn to you in our need, to ask your
protection against coronavirus which has claimed lives and affected many. We pray for those afflicted.
May they soon be restored to health. Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Almighty and everlasting God, mercifully look upon our infirmities, and in all our dangers and
necessities stretch forth your right hand to help and defend us, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Collect for the Third Sunday after Epiphany
With love and every blessing:
The Right Reverend Jonathan Goodall