A sermon preached online at St Mary’s Iffley by Roger Wagner on 28 June 2020
May the words of my lips and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight O Lord our rock and our redeemer
That prayer of course comes from the psalms, from psalm 19, and as we haven’t been able to sing psalms together since lockdown began, it was good to read a psalm together this morning. The psalms speak to every variation in our spiritual weather and psalm 13 speaks very closely to our present situation.
‘How long O Lord…How long?’ The last time I preached at the beginning of lockdown I said that there will come a time when the bells of St Mary’s will ring out again, when the doors will be flung open and we will all join to worship God together in one place. Well that’s still true but we know now it’s not going to happen all in one glorious moment. There will, as we’ve just heard, be steps forward, perhaps steps back. As Jeremiah warned the prophet Hananiah in our reading, our preferred timing does not always coincide with God’s preferred timing. Even when churches throughout the land do fully reopen there will be gaps in the pews, there will be many who have been bereaved, and there will be consequences that we will all struggle with. Some who have had the virus are finding, as my nephew is, that the effects just seem to go on and on. Others who have been sheltering are finding that the effects of confinement stay with them and it’s not a simple thing to reconnect. ‘How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and everyday have sorrow in my heart?’
The psalm doesn’t answer that question but other psalms tell us that ‘our times are in your hand’ and that he knows our ‘coming out and our going in’. And in this psalm it is as the psalmist expresses their desperation that they discover a new trust in God’s unfailing love.
In the teaching that leads up to our gospel reading Jesus tells his disciples that ‘even the hairs on your head are numbered’, and that’s a wonderful reassurance. But that reassurance comes in the context of something quite challenging.
When Jesus says that anyone who gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple will not fail to receive their reward, its of a piece with the later statement in the parable of the sheep and the goats that ‘whatever you do for the least of these my brethren you do for me’. It’s as if he’s saying that every moral challenge we face, every encounter with another person is in some sense an encounter with God, with spiritual consequences. And that can sound daunting. Isn’t life hard enough we may think without adding to it a dimension of constant spiritual jeopardy. But of course to think like that is already to think of God as our enemy rather than our friend; our judge rather than our saviour. If we see God as he reveals himself to us in Jesus then we see that in every human encounter he is presenting us with a possibility of blessing. Every good thing even the smallest kindness multiplies blessing.
One of the dangers of isolation is that it can turn us inward and confine us within ourselves, but focussing on others opens the door.
A cup of cold water is of course a very practical thing, but there is a kind of gift that we can give to another person even when we can do nothing practical and even if for whatever reason its impossible to contact them – and that’s the gift of prayer.
This little reproduction of an icon that I keep in my studio used to be in the caravan of Sister Wendy Beckett. Sister Wendy, when she wasn’t making television programmes about art, lived as a hermit in self-isolation praying for other people. I was one of the people she prayed for and seeing this icon every day reminds me of her prayers and what a strength and blessing they were and are to me.
And that is a gift we all can give. From this afternoon St Mary’s will be open again as a house of prayer, but the purpose of our wonderful building is to remind us that each one of our houses is meant to be a house of prayer, and that every prayer is like a cup of cold water in a dry and thirsty land which will not lose its reward.