For the first time in hundreds of years, the churches across England will be closed today for public worship. It’s a poor substitute but the Richmond & Hounslow Circuit has decided to record a short act of worship each Sunday during the current crisis to help us stay connected. This is the text of our first service today. You can watch the recording on Youtube here. (I was slightly nervous preaching to an empty church, so please forgive the somewhat stilted performance!)
Call to worship
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Words of welcome
Brothers and sisters in Christ, for those of you who don’t know me, my name is Geoffrey Farrar and I am the Superintendent Minister of the Richmond & Hounslow Methodist Circuit in South West London.
It feels strange for me to be here today in an empty Putney Methodist Church speaking to you via a video recording. However, as you well know, we are living in strange times. For the first time in centuries, the churches in the UK have decided that they have no option other than to cease meeting for regular worship, or to curtail severely their activities. Very sadly then, the doors of our Circuit churches will largely remain closed this Sunday. We cannot meet together for worship, prayer or fellowship. The organs and pianos will remain silent. Sermons will remain unpreached.
This is undoubtedly the right thing to do, though, as we seek to slow the spread of the Coronavirus as much as possible, and to reduce the pressure on our National Health Service. Others in our society and world are making far greater sacrifices than we are. If we can save one human life by ceasing to meet together, then as Christians we have no choice but to act for the greater good.
That does not mean an end to worship or fellowship, though. In the last few days, churches and ministers have been trying to reach out to as many people in their congregations and communities as possible, trying to ensure that they know they are not alone. Those efforts will continue in the weeks to come, and I pray that this may be an opportunity to strengthen pastoral links. We also need to explore the gift of modern technology to remain connected – as we are doing here and now – and we shall be trying out new things in the days and weeks to come. Most importantly, we need to uphold one another, and our entire world, in prayer. As the scriptures encourage us, let us “pray without ceasing” as we face this terrible pandemic together (1 Thess. 5:16).
Each week, while our churches remain closed, our Circuit will play its part to maintain our life together by offering a short act of worship, like this. I hope it will be of some encouragement at this difficult time. So, let us come before God, wherever we are, and pray.
as we come before you, at this strange and unusual time,
help us to feel your presence in our hearts and lives.
Thought we cannot be together physically,
help us to feel the true unity of your body, the Church,
as we join with hundreds and thousands of your followers across the globe this day, in offering you worship and praise.
Forgive us what is passed,
protect us from all that is to come,
and help us to feel your risen power within us, now and always.
Keep us, good Lord,
under the shadow of your mercy
in this time of uncertainty and distress.
Sustain and support the anxious and fearful,
and lift up all who are brought low;
that we may rejoice in your comfort
knowing that nothing can separate us from your love
in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Words of scripture – Matthew 6:25-33 (Do Not Worry)
‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.
But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
When I was thinking about what to say today, it was this passage from Matthew that immediately came to mind, and I am sure you can see why. Those words of Jesus, from the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:17-7:29), have been running round my head all week as this global pandemic has finally reached our island home with such devastating force.
I must confess, though, that I have found it hard to follow our Lord’s advice, and have instead done a lot of worrying – as I’m sure you have too. I have worried about elderly relatives and friends. I have worried about the impact of the virus upon the poor and the needy. I have worried about whether there will be enough food in the shops. I have worried about the impact of long-term isolation on the congregations I serve, and our wider communities. I have worried about the impact of all this upon families, on children, on those working in the NHS. And a thousand more worries each day, it seems. So how can we possibly say to one another, “Do not worry!”, when there is so much to worry about?
However, there is an interesting fact about this passage, which comes in verse 27. Here, Jesus says, “can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”. In the original language of Matthew’s gospel, Greek, the word translated here as ‘span of life’ is ‘helikia’ (ἡλικία). It poses something of a challenge to translators and interpreters because it can be used to mean ‘age’ or ‘height’. Indeed, we find both translations in the New Testament. The writer of Hebrews, for example, uses the word to say that Abraham was thought to be too old to have children (Heb. 11:11). Whereas Luke uses the same word to say that Zacchaeus, the tax collector, was too short to see over the crowds waiting for Jesus, so climbed the tree (Luke 19:3). And sometimes it can mean both, as when the King James Version states that Jesus “increased in wisdom and stature” (Luke 2:52, KJV), meaning he both got taller and older.
If we think for a moment, therefore, of Jesus saying: “can any of you by worrying add a single inch to your height?” how that does that change its meaning? For me, it underlines the pointlessness of worrying. We can wear high-heeled shoes, do stretching exercises, even go into space, and we still cannot really add a centimetre to our stature for long. In a very similar way, worrying ultimately changes nothing.
These are not easy words of false comfort from Jesus. He knew every aspect of human suffering and care: the loss of friends and relatives, the danger of persecution, and ultimately the whipping post and the shadow of the cross. He had a lot to worry about, as did the apostles and all the disciples of Jesus. He and they knew that worrying is an inevitable part of human life.
At times of great stress and turmoil like these, though, Jesus’ words are a vital reminder that we cannot let worry take charge of our lives. Nor should it overwhelm us and prevent us from loving God and serving our neighbours. In fact, the inexorable spread of the Coronavirus shows the fallacy that we have we lived with for so long: that we humans can control and direct every aspect of our lives. That through mental effort and exertion we can alter history.
Our response to these dark days must not be one of worry or panic. As Christians, we are called now – more than ever – to respond as best we can to help those in need. For some people watching this, that may mean working long hours in hospitals and care homes, taking care of the sick and needy. For others, it will mean working hard to re-stock shops and supermarkets, often dealing with difficult and frightened people. For others, it will mean reaching out to neighbours in need, offering help with shopping or practical needs. For our congregations, it will mean trying to find new ways of being church, and using our buildings differently perhaps. For many of us, it will mean simply playing our part in stopping the spread of the virus by remaining calm, staying at home and phoning those who are isolated and lonely.
Most importantly, all of us need to be ever more constant in prayer. Bringing our fears, hopes … and worries before God, just as Jesus did so often during his life and ministry. For it is only through prayer, that we can truly lay our burdens down at the foot of Jesus’ cross and feel the peace that comes from giving God the rightful place in our hearts and in our world. Let us do our best not to be overcome by fear and worry, and rather put our trust in God for all that is to come, knowing that God, in the person of Jesus Christ, will never desert us or abandon us; that he walks with us every day of our lives, even through the darkest night; and that not even death itself can separate us from his love for each one of us. Let us be faithful in worship, unwavering in hope and in all things, “strive first for the kingdom of God” (Matt. 6:33).
Prayers for others
Loving God, our Maker and Sustainer,
hear the prayers we offer this day for ourselves and for your world,
through the power of your Holy Spirit.
In these dark times, it is hard to see the way ahead, and to feel your presence.
Help us not to be overcome by worry, or paralysed by fear.
Help us to trust in you and your unfailing love,
and to respond to those in need as best we can.
We offer to your care, all the peoples of this world and of our nation,
asking you to hold them in your loving arms and bless them.
We pray for all those suffering for those from the Coronavirus, in this country and across the world.
We pray for those working so hard in all parts of the NHS and the care system.
We pray for those who are isolated, alone and afraid.
We pray for the leaders of the world, that you would give them your wisdom and guidance.
We pray for those working tirelessly in the food industry to ensure there is enough for everyone.
We pray for all those worried about jobs, homes and finances.
We pray for all community initiatives and attempts to help those in need.
We pray for your Church across the world as it wakes up to a new reality of witnessing to your love.
We pray, on this Mothering Sunday, especially for all families and children, for teachers and care-givers, as they face the strain of the closure of schools and the uncertainty that brings.
And finally, we pray for all those who have died and passed to your eternal care,
and for those who mourn and grieve.
Help us to lead faithful and godly lives in this world,
and finally to share with the saints in light in your everlasting glory.
We offer all these prayers, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour, who taught his disciples to pray:
who art in heaven…
A special prayer for this time:
We are not people of fear:
we are people of courage.
We are not people who protect our own safety:
we are people who protect our neighbours’ safety.
We are not people of greed:
we are people of generosity.
We are your people God,
giving and loving,
wherever we are,
whatever it costs,
for as long as it takes
wherever you call us.
(Rev’d Barbara Glasson, President of the Methodist Conference)
May the blessing of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit
be with you, and with us all, this day and evermore.