Ayr: St Columba Church

Strange Times

Sermon Sunday 22 March 2020

Lesson Psalm 23 St John 9: 1 – 41

These are strange and difficult times. Our species is facing a threat that was unimaginable just a few months ago. The danger to personal health and economic stability seem considerable and we are fearful for what the future might bring and the possible implications for ourselves, our loved ones, our communities and our country. In such moments of crisis, when we would naturally want to be with others, we are encouraged – told – to curtail our social contact and, as appropriate, self-isolate. Rightly, we are reminded of our personal responsibility towards ourselves, family and fellow citizens. Our wellbeing even life itself are more obviously dependent on the actions taken by others. For a time at least, the ‘me culture’ has crashed landed. The wellbeing of the human community is bounded together. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, spoke of the paradox of our ‘solidarity and apartness’.

Stories are emerging of long queues gathering outside supermarkets. Once the doors were opened, in herd-like fashion, customers have rushed to fill their trolleys with toilet rolls. Immune to common sense and kindness, many are worried and a little panicked. In Scotland and across the world we are told that this pandemic will last for months, not weeks. We are in this for some time and I hope that heroic acts of sacrifice and kindness become the measure of our shared humanity. While the Chancellor of the Exchequer spends hundreds of billions of pounds, local communities can continue to support the most vulnerable, including those dependent on foodbanks.

In the wider Catholic tradition, the patron saint of pandemics is St Corona! A Christian martyr of the second century, St Corona was put to death in 170AD under the reign of Marcus Aurelius. According to legend, the Roman army discovered that a soldier named Victor was a Christian. Brought before the judge Sebastian, Victor was tortured and murdered for his faith. The daughter of a fellow soldier, Corona was also a Christian. As Victor lay dying, Corona ministered to him; she knelt by him, let him know she was there, and prayed for him. Once discovered that she too shared the Christian faith, Corona was imprisoned, tortured and murdered. Together with St Victor, the remains of St Corona are in the basilica of Anzu in northern Italy.

In one of his reflections on the pandemic, the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, encourages Jews in Britain to ask of themselves, ‘What does this crisis make possible that I couldn’t or wouldn’t have done before it occurred?’ Sacks draws the distinction between a community of place and a community in time. Usually, a congregation is both: each week members of a religious community meet in a synagogue (a community of place) but they are also a community bound by story, Scripture and history (a community in time or across time). In the Tanakh (our Old Testament), during their journey through the wilderness, their desert experience, Moses told the Hebrew people to honour Shabbat, the Sabbath. Before giving them instructions to build the Tent of the LORD’s Presence, before the Hebrew people were a community of place, they were a community in time. Sacks spoke of two sanctuaries: place and time. The people were called to set aside sacred time. This week and in the coming months, let us think of ourselves as a community in time. In small ways, let us use this time as one of personal renewal.

Among other things, Rabbi Sacks encourages those in community who have children at home to spend more time with them, including time to share stories from the Bible, stories of faith. Sacks also encourages us to read the Book of Psalms. A source of immense healing, the poetry of the psalms has spoken to people in trouble for thousands of years. He says, ‘Sit and read; find ones that speak to you……Let the psalms sing in your mind’. In the Church of Scotland, the psalm set for today is Psalm 23. Could there have been a better psalm for us at this time?

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me
in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

In reading Scripture, or better meditating on it, we are to let it soak into our souls. Let it be an intimate experience, a moment of encounter with the Eternal, the One who formed us in the womb. The psalm powerfully brings to the fore the sense that God, the Sacred, walks with us. Last Wednesday, I stood on the beach at the water’s edge: the sand a symbol of my life, this life, and life in our material universe, and the shallow light-reflecting waves a symbol of the Eternal. The sand’s solidity is an illusion; it is the water that gives life. If we pause, if we are still enough, we can sense the Sacred around us and the Sacred within. In the Gospel of John, in the story of the man born blind, the message is one of spiritual blindness. The man encountered Jesus in the darkness, his darkness. It is no different for any of us: we are called to ‘see’ in our darkness; to be open to the possibility of encounter with Christ in our lives. In all the wonder and hardship which we face in this world, we are called to ‘see’ the Sacred. The pool of Siloam is a symbol of water and new life. The healing took place on the Sabbath, on Shabbat, in the sanctuary of time.

On Friday, along with half of Ayr, I again walked along the beach. I came upon words written in the sand:

COVID-19
2020

The solidity of sand is an illusion and, in time, the words will be washed away by the water. We are indebted to our scientists, doctors and political leaders for the monumental tasks that they face and, in time, a vaccine will be found. In the desert experiences of our life, including the challenges of the coronavirus, let us practise our faith. Let Scripture and spiritual reading do their job. Remember: we are a community in time, across time, before we are community of place.

Keep safe. Shalom.

Amen.