But this I know

A sermon delivered by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Readings for this Service: John 9

We seem to be living in a science fiction film. Humankind is facing a collective threat unknown in our lifetimes. And withstanding requires a level of social and international cooperation that’s putting a huge strain on everyone.

The current crisis is affecting all of us. But perhaps most painful is the way it’s affecting each of us differently. For some of us, catching the virus is a profound discomfort; for others, it could prove to be fatal. Some of us are simply trying to keep sensible distancing guidelines; others are at real risk, working in intensive care and emergency wards. Some of us have incomes that are secure; others could find ourselves impoverished by business shutdown and economic downturn. Some of us feel busy and urgent, making a difference in people’s lives with new arrangements and complex plans; others feel utterly powerless, embarrassed that what seemed so important and necessary a fortnight ago seems so trivial and irrelevant in the present crisis. Some of us are taken up with the daily tasks of getting groceries and medicines; others have had our lives turned upside down by cancelled exams, postponed weddings, impossible choices and enforced separation from loved ones. Some of us complain of inconvenience and criticise overreaction; others are overwhelmed by our having to work and still care for children, the fragile routines of life disintegrating before our eyes.

On a personal level, what’s most bewildering is how much of what we now have to do goes against our deepest impulses. We want to be present to one another, shake hands, embrace, put a kind hand on a shoulder; but all this is now unwise and irresponsible, if not to us, then to them and to third parties. We want to gather, be in solidarity, offer practical help and real companionship; but we find in the immediate term we show our care for the vulnerable by discouraging encounter and by keeping people away from each other. We believe isolation is humanity’s biggest problem, because if we come together, between us we have all the skills and resources, wisdom and experience we need: but right now things are so bad that we have to practice isolation for an even more pressing good – our health and our concern for one another’s safety, even survival. It’s dismantling so many of the good habits we’ve long sought to foster in one another.

On an existential level, it keys into our deepest fears. We cannot escape to a part of the world that isn’t affected. We cannot see an endpoint when we’ll be able to relax and put it behind us. It’s dangerous, and still getting bigger. It’s invisible, universal, unstoppable, and currently without a cure. There’s only one thing anything like it – and that’s death itself. And that’s the worst thing of all. The virus is a premonition of our own death – shutting down communication, depriving us of companions, relentless in its march toward us, all-consuming in its imminence and slow inevitability.

But that realisation – that our response to the virus anticipates and models our attitude to death itself – provides the clue to how we are to think about it now. When people want to discredit Christianity and religion in general, they often say, ‘It’s just an elaborate way of dealing with the universal fear of death.’ To which I say, ‘Yes, and are you going to tell me you have a better way?’ The crucial point is, if we can find a way to stare down our paralysis and anxiety in the face of death, nothing can finally hurt us. We become the most powerful people in the world. No one can threaten us, intimidate us, blackmail us, derail us; because the ultimate threat isn’t a threat to us.

Of all the verses in the Bible, one stands out for me. It’s from Song of Songs chapter 8. ‘Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death.’ Here’s the deal about Christianity, when all the complexities of life and faith and church and experience are stripped away. Christianity is the conviction that love is stronger than death, and that if we are sealed upon God’s heart we need not be afraid; not now – not forever. Christianity is the trust that on the cross Christ sealed us upon his outstretched arms: and in Christ’s resurrection, God showed us that love is stronger than death. The love of the Trinity is ultimately unbreakable and is the very core of all things, and if we love too we shall be part of that everlasting, unbreakable love. The cross shows us that such love includes terrible grief and pain and even despair; but the resurrection shows us that such wondrous love will ultimately prevail. Right now we feel the love of the cross in all its agony and dismay more than we feel the love of the resurrection. But one day we shall discover that the two loves are the same love, and nothing can separate us from that love.

The hymn ‘I cannot tell,’ written in 1929 by the Baptist leader William Young Fullerton, gives us an appropriate shape for how we may live in the face of covid-19. Fullerton structures his convictions around the tune Londonderry Air. The tune has four lines of wistful and sometimes sorrowful lament, followed by four lines arising from the ashes of bewilderment, inspired by the words, ‘But this I know…’ I want now to offer a version of Fullerton’s hymn for such a time as this.

I cannot tell why grief and sadness linger

Why jobs are lost, and people face despair;

When this will end, if vaccines come and rescue,

Why isolation stalks the earth again.

But this I know, Christ feels the hurt upon the cross;

The Spirit weaves our lives together still.

And some glad day, through Providence, the Father

May turn this wave of loss to glory by his will.

I cannot tell how we can be together

When all our ways of doing so are lost;

How we can be one body in communion

If every form of touch comes at a cost.

But this I know, we’re sealed upon the heart of God

The Spirit dwells within our fearful souls.

And Christ finds ways to show his face to all of us

To lift our hopes and meet us in our mortal fears.

I cannot tell how long this time of fear will last

If there’ll be months, or years of damaged lives;

When once again we’ll gladly throng together,

To sit and laugh, to dance and play and kiss.

But this I know, we’re finding things both good and true

About our God, each other and ourselves.

So after this we’ll know we’ve met our darkest hour

And now there’s nothing we will have to face alone. 

What we don’t know is daunting. But what we do know is beyond glory. The hardest part, day to day, is to keep our perspective wide, so we recall, in the trials and challenges of each day, that we are living on the broad canvas of eternity, and that God created the world to be with us, and will never leave us alone. If we live or if we die, we are in Christ. Everything changes; except the thing that matters most.

I haven’t forgotten it’s Mothering Sunday. I want to finish with a thought about a rather old-fashioned word. Every mother gives birth. And all of us are very glad that our mothers went through this strain and sometimes agony to bring us into the world. In days gone by, people would refer to the last stages of pregnancy as confinement. The curious thing is that confinement in a different sense is exactly how many people are experiencing this virus. Confined by not being able to be close to friend and colleague. Confined by having no money to spend. Confined by being forced to stay at home. Confined, with the illness, by being stuck in bed.

The insight we get from this double meaning of the word confinement is that the agony of childbirth is the prelude to the single most wonderful thing about life: and that’s the miracle of birth. Confinement means a period of strain and distress and extreme pain that yields endless life and energy and wonder. In the midst of our sadness, suffering and bewilderment today, maybe we could think of this time like a child in the womb, growing in hidden ways, drawing on unknown resources, discovering our true identity and preparing for what is to come. This is Mothering Sunday: the day we recognise the cost of confinement. But also the day we remember the paradox we first knew as babies ourselves: that confinement is not the end of life as we know it, but its hidden beginning.