Christ’s Ambassador

Sermon given on 10th September 2022 at an ecumenical Special Commemoration Service for our Sovereign Lady, the Late Queen Elizabeth II. St Mary the Virgin, Boston Spa – service led by The Reverend Steve Jakeman (Presbyter, Boston Spa Methodist Church), The Reverend Nick Morgan (Vicar, St Mary’s) and The Reverend Glenda Webb (Associate Priest, St Mary’s)

Bible Reading: Revelation 21.1-7

The New Heaven and the New Earth

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.

Sermon

What an amazing vision from St John the Divine: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth…. the holy city (a vision of peace) coming down from heaven to be among humanity… see, God is making all things new”

This vision of God’s Kingdom at the end of time is a reality into which our late Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth, has a clearer glimpse then we.  By the grace of Jesus her Lord and Saviour, she is welcomed among the saints in heaven, the limitations of age, time and mortality lifted.

But God’s Kingdom is not merely a distant vision. In Jesus, the Kingdom of God was inaugurated and made a reality on earth as it is in heaven – it is the now and future Kingdom.  The home of God is among mortals, God will dwell with them and they will be God’s people: that is our vision for the here and now, as well as for eternity.  This means that our lives are not mere preludes to the hereafter, but they matter: they are part and parcel of God’s business here on earth. In our earthly lives, we are called to be citizens of heaven, not exiles – but ambassadors. Queen Elizabeth certainly embraced that calling in her unique calling as monarch, supreme governor of the Church of England, head of the commonwealth and the myriad other roles she undertook. She was an amazing ambassador of the Kingdom of God. 

Many people have reacted more strongly, more emotionally, than they thought they would to the death of our Queen. There is a sense of the end of an era, not merely because the crown passes to a new King, but because Her Majesty’s life was so bound up with our personal, as well as national, history. Few of us can remember a time when she was not there as part of our life, often in the background rather than the foreground on a day-to-day basis, but always there. Her speech to the nation during the Covid lockdown was such a comfort to so many people because it was as though we suddenly saw a true leader, the head of our national family, talking to us to strengthen our resolve, offer comfort to the bereaved and fearful, and assure us of better times ahead.  For some, even though she was old and frail, her death was a huge shock as she was the nation’s rock – always there, especially in times of uncertainty.  But death is a universal reality, and one which our queen did not fear because, like her son King Charles, she had a strong, personal faith in Jesus and was assured of her salvation. But this personal faith was not something she kept to herself. She attended worship faithfully, and often publicly; she was constant in daily prayer; and she brought her faith to bear on her role. Her annual Christmas speech often drew on this faith, and her very natural way of expressing this and linking it to our national life, and the life of the Commonwealth, stemmed from her faith being a lived reality. She lived in the now and future Kingdom of heaven, lived out that reality of God being at home here and now in the world we live in through the person of Jesus, and through the presence of God’s Church enlivened by the Holy Spirit right here, right now, across the world.

We are rightly saddened by Queen Elizabeth’s death. Death is no matter to be brushed off or belittled. Indeed, death is such a serious matter that God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, to take death upon himself and defeat it on the cross. That resurrection faith was Her Majesty’s faith, and so in the light of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter day, we can rejoice amid our sadness that she has a clearer vision of that eternal new heaven and new earth which St John the Divine wrote about.

We thank God for calling Queen Elizabeth to her role on earth, for sustaining her in that role, and for empowering her to be such a wonderful ambassador for God’s Kingdom. More than that, we thank Jesus for his presence in her life and work, and for the example that gives: how a life of faith can make a difference.  That example has certainly given comfort and strength to King Charles as he begins this new chapter of his own calling as a servant of God, and I am glad that he, too, is a prayerful person of strong faith. 

Today we say “Thank God for Elizabeth, the servant queen, ambassador of Christ.” And as we look ahead to an unknown future, we remember that God alone is Sovereign, Jesus alone is Head of the Church, but we pray that King Charles III might like his mother, be a true ambassador for God’s Kingdom and, not only for the Church of England, but for all followers of Christ in our nation and Commonwealth, our partner in the Gospel. God save the King. Amen.

You are the light

When Archbishop Desmond Tutu died at Christmas 2021, we lost someone who truly shone the light of Christ into the world. I wrote a song, based on some of the words of Jesus from Matthew’s Gospel which are appropriate for Epiphany, and for remembering Archbishop Tutu, one of those people who really was a light on a hill.

Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.  No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Matthew 5:14-16
Recorded at St Mary’s Church, Boston Spa, Epiphany 2022

The next step for four village churches

A few key principles have guided me in deciding what to do between 19th July and the new school year in September.

One person’s Freedom Day is another’s Fear Day. 3.8 million people in this country remain clinically extremely vulnerable.  As communities of hope, our churches must ensure that our approach is inclusive. The Church of England guidance comments that everyone is known and loved individually by God and as many members within one body we are called to be responsible to and for one another, respecting the more vulnerable whose suffering is our suffering (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). The move to step 4 means that as a nation we are being asked to take even more personal responsibility around coronavirus than when we were compelled to adhere to Government restrictions. However, we need to keep in mind that our calling is not merely as individual Christians. Rather, we are the Body of Christ and need to act as a body, unified in purpose, hearts set on revealing Christ to the world around us through our actions as well as our words. This includes how we meet corporately for worship.

The Summary of the Law taught by Jesus reminds us of a two-fold calling: loving God and neighbour.

  • Firstly, our calling is to love God wholeheartedly, and we need to keep in mind that, even if the restrictions have curtailed our enjoyment of services, worship is fundamentally all about God, not us. This involves us as the People of God coming together in ways which may diverge from how people in wider society come together in groups. It may make us feel foolish to continue to take precautions when we see markedly different behaviour in other settings, and indeed experience these ourselves, but our faith does compel us to act distinctively in society from time to time. This is such a time.
  • The second part of the Summary of the Law tells us that Christians should love all our neighbours. Jesus, in his earthly ministry, was especially concerned with those who are marginalised in society. Now more than ever, we should be striving to create places of worship where those who have been made vulnerable to Covid and pushed to the margins of our national discourse are the most honoured guests at God’s banquet. Our churches should be prioritising justice, hospitality and inclusion for all, especially when the rest of society is being encouraged to do the opposite.

On a practical level, after 24th July our group of churches go into our usual pattern of August worship where there is a single Benefice service each week. Therefore, I propose very little in the way of change for the time being, with a view to reviewing the situation in late August for any further changes to be implemented in September.

Singing God’s praises is an important part of worship and one which has been greatly missed. A lot of research has gone into this, and the RSCM and other bodies have produced information which has informed my approach to whether, and how, this might be safely resumed by congregations. I believe that an informed way has been found to enable hymn singing whilst taking into account the needs of the vulnerable.

The decision regarding what to do rests with the incumbent, but I have consulted churchwardens about this and invited comments from the wider worshipping community via the Newsletter in recent weeks. I thank those of you who have helped form these decisions, especially the churchwardens of all four churches.

The following will apply from Monday 19th July onwards in all churches of the Bramham Benefice.

What will stay the same:

We shall keep the Serco Track and Trace poster in place for those who use the app.

We shall keep hand sanitizer available at entrances to churches and encourage people to use it on entry to church.

We shall continue to share communion in one kind only (i.e. the bread). To receive in one kind is to receive the whole Sacrament, in any case. We shall continue the current pattern of distributing these one at a time rather than gathered at a communion rail. Clergy will maintain their current practices regarding safe preparation of the bread and wine.

The words of distribution (i.e. The body of Christ / blood of Christ keep you in eternal life) will continue to be said communally rather than individually.

The peace will be shared contactless (eye contact, nods and gestures as it is at present).

We shall ask people to wear face coverings as they enter, exit, and move around the church building. Masks are to be worn by everyone as they come up to receive communion as is currently the case. Clergy will also continue to wear a mask during the distribution.

We will still only use alternate pews for the time being. This will mitigate the changes below. In the case of the Benefice service in Walton where this may not be possible, a separate risk assessment will take place to allow for a slightly larger congregation than usual.

Services will continue to be shorter than usual (up to 45 minutes) since time elapsed in the same building is an important factor in the build up of this airborne virus.

An online service will be offered every Sunday. Over much of August, this may not be one from our own Benefice due to practical considerations, but our Facebook page will always have a link to an Anglican act of worship. From September, we will resume livestreaming services (usually from St Mary’s at 10am).

Refreshments after services will not resume until September.

What will change:

The full choir at St Mary’s will return. They will sit in a socially distanced way and will continue to be more than 8 metres away from the congregation.

Once seated, members of the congregation will be permitted to remove their masks for most of the service. The singing of hymns by congregations will be permitted throughout the benefice, but behind masks for the time being (not including the choir of St Mary’s who will remove theirs to sing). 

Shortish hymns will be chosen (or verses cut). Congregations will not sing the Mass Setting (i.e. Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Benedictus, Agnus Dei) and some cuts to the liturgy will be continued in order to keep service length short.

Those who are less comfortable about the resumption of singing will be invited to seat themselves towards the rear of the church so that people are not singing directly behind them.

The same protocols as currently apply to orders of service will apply to hymn books.

Tapes which currently seal off alternate pews may be removed to make the church look more welcoming. However, if this is done, we will still encourage social distancing when seated: alternate pews will have the cushions returned to them to indicate where we intend people to sit. This should be explained to the congregation by the churchwarden / sides people as they arrive (e.g. “please sit in one of the pews with cushions / a carpet runner on it”). This is one way to make the church visually more “normal” whilst still keeping the degree of distancing to which we have become accustomed. This will also allow a more flexible approach to seating at weddings and funerals. Churchwardens can make the decision as to whether this is suitable in their individual church in consultation with me.

Some simple instructions will need to be given to people as they arrive and at the start of each service for clarity’s sake. A script will be developed for consistency and this will be read before every service.

Further reading to explain what has informed these decisions may be found below:

Church of England guidance.

Statement on the Church of England’s Covid guidance to churches (July 2021)
July 17, 2021 by Naomi Lawson Jacobs, Emma Major and Katie Tupling

RSCM updated advice