Epiphany 3. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost at Palmerston Place Church for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

A couple of days before Christmas I had an unwelcome phone call. It transpired that I’d been in close contact with someone who had tested positive for Covid 19. The question was: are you at home? When I said yes, the response was: then stay there. No last trip to the supermarket; no last gasp of fresh air. Stay put for 10 days. We’re usually encouraged to plan ahead, to be prepared for at least the next few days, and to be self-sufficient wherever possible. And none of that was possible in that moment. With the answering of a phone call, everything changed.

This morning’s Gospel reading is about lives that were suddenly changed. There’s a simple word that’s repeated that is perhaps easy to overlook. Immediately. Jesus called Simon and Andrew and immediately they left their nets. And then he saw James and John and immediately he called them. We’re in Mark’s gospel which moves at a cracking pace and that movement is right at the heart of this reading. You can imagine an almost breathless reading of this passage – before we’ve processed one piece of information, the next is in front of us.
Jesus appears in people’s lives and there is an instant reaction, a response without hesitation. Whatever plans might have been around are simply yesterday’s news – and the focus and direction of travel have changed. That immediacy, that engagement without looking back to think, bypasses any cognitive reflection; there’s no time for that. This is the situation, and this is where your focus needs to be. There will be time to reflect and process later, but today’s task is just to act.

Over the past year all of our lives have changed more than once with very little notice. Lockdowns are understandably announced with almost no advance notice, no time for one last encounter that might be the vector for a new infection. The instructions are that we are asked to behave differently with immediate effect; to make sacrifices without any soul searching because that is what our society needs us to do.

We’re used to having more agency over our lives than that. I suspect that Simon and Andrew and James and John were used to having more agency over their lives, but the call was compelling, and they went. And, of course for us, the call to keep the rules, to make the necessary sacrifices is compelling. It’s the right thing to do.

The week of prayer for Christian Unity began in 1908 and is marked with varying degrees of enthusiasm by churches across the world. In our two congregations, it’s one of those dates that is in the diary as a standing item, a date that we don’t have to consider whether or not to engage with – we just do it. Not because it’s something we don’t want to think about, but because we know it’s the right thing to do; it’s one of the ways that we respond to the call of Jesus. And for us this week, that call centres on a reminder that we have far more in common than that which separates us. We may have different expressions of worship, different hymns and ways of praying – but they are all to the same end. They are all of no consequence in themselves but have a value because they are about our relationships with God, our desire to respond.

Many of us were very moved by the inauguration of Joe Biden and, in particular, by the poem that was written and read by Amanda Gorman. I want to quote just a few lines from that poem:

And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.
We seek harm to none and harmony for all.
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew.
That even as we hurt, we hoped.
That even as we tired, we tried.
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.

In a world that has been fractured in many different ways and on different continents, the need for a clear message of hope, a message that emphasises common goals not divisions, has never been stronger.
That need for harmony was expressed visually at Biden’s inauguration. The significant women all wore purple as an expression of the coming together of red and blue, the need for discourse rather than disruption. Our communities need us to convey that message. Our local communities need us to witness to the new life that will surely emerge. Our communities need us to model a way of being church, a way of being active members of the community, a way of creating space to heal, space to grieve. And there is no better way to witness to that than to stand together; to speak together; to have a common message and invitation.

I was delighted during the last lockdown, during the time when we were able to have our building open for personal prayer, that some members of Palmerston Place Church volunteered to welcome visitors into the Cathedral. It became apparent that there was a real appetite for people to venture in and to take a moment in whatever way was best for them. Many people lit a candle; some wrote in the book of condolences; some added to our prayer tree and some prayed as they walked the labyrinth.

What was important was that together we were able to offer that hospitality, to be a place where ‘even as we hurt we hoped’. One day, our lives will change again. One day we will be allowed to mix with family and friends.
One day we will be allowed to meet in our church buildings, to see people’s faces, to go to the theatre or the cinema or on holiday. One day. However, I suspect that when that day comes, many of us will be cautious. Many of us will find it hard to revert to our previous patterns of life, to what we once called normal. And I guess that most of us will find a way to something that is a new normal. We’ll work out what is most important to us, where we want to spend our time and our energy.

Simon and Andrew, James and John, left their boats and stepped into a life that became their new normal. They trusted Jesus enough to choose to invest their time and energy in following him. As we live with hurt and look forward in hope, this morning is a reminder that we may not know the shape and form of the new normal, but that we do know that when the time is right, Jesus will call us there. And I hope that we won’t hesitate, that we will follow.
We know that by working together, journeying together, we are strengthened, our witness is more significant, our message is clearer.

We’re not the same, those disciples weren’t all the same, but they were able to come together and to model something new. That’s the opportunity that is available to us if we are only able to find ways to work together and to simply turn our faces in the direction of the call and respond.

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