Homily for June 14 2020
Ps137: By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
Upon the willows in the midst thereof, we hanged up our harps.
For there, they that led us captive, required of us songs; and they that wasted us, required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember thee not; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy…
This is not the first time a congregation has been denied use of its place of worship.
Talks are underway about reopening our churches and chapels. Some are already unlocked to allow individuals to enter for private devotions, — something that will be especially important for some very orthodox attenders.
We also miss our chapel and the familiar activities we associate with services, although prayers before an altar or icon are admittedly not vital parts of our belief system.
But although patterns of social behaviour are beginning to relax and more meetings are permitted, I believe it may be some time yet before going to church or chapel can return to what we were used to.
When we do return, social distancing will have to be observed. We will sit apart. The handling of common objects (hymnbooks and the collection plate) will not be possible. Hymn singing and perhaps responsive prayer (the Prayer of Jesus) may be restricted or forbidden. Socialising over a cup of coffee afterwards may not be possible without restraint.
Caveats on our freedoms such as these all tell us something about the nature of our worship which we may not have been quite so aware of before.
One characteristic of the life of a congregation is of course where we meet. And it is not unknown for the place of worship – the walls and decoration, pews and organ – even the time of services – to become inordinately important to us.
And a second characteristic most notable in its absence, is how intimate attending and being involved in worship actually is. How we mingle and literally share each other’s air. It is very much a part of what we understand loving our neighbour entails.
Handshakes and friendly conversation are just as important a part of chapel as kneeling to pray or standing to sing.
Corporate worship, — where a group of individuals gathers together in one body (including our Zoom gatherings) – has been recognised as providing many benefits over and above individual worship. It has been suggested that when we feel least inclined to attend chapel is when we most need to ! And the importance of being led in worship has also been emphasised.
When you decide when to pray, possibly what to sing, or which passage to read, you are in the driver’s seat. In corporate worship, usually in chapel, you are organised to receive and respond, which can be a richer experience for many.
For some weeks after we had to close, the thing I missed especially was being able to stand at the door as everyone left, to shake everyone’s hand, and have that final word with you as you went through into the Garden Room.
To shake hands requires a moment’s pause. We stand still for a few seconds or longer, and I can see how you really are. I feel it is very important to see you close-to and make eye-contact. It has been noticeable if someone is upset, or alternatively very happy about something.
The warmth and firmness of your handshake has also been revealing. And I hope you understand as I do that this is meaningful, and not just a social nicety.
Other faith groups are possibly even more dependant than we are upon mosque or temple, and we sympathize with them in the present circumstances.
The call of the muezzin [“mu-azzin”] or church bells summoning the faithful to prayer, are a feature of our common experience now. And since they have been effectively silent is yet another aspect of the unusual quietness that engulphed us when lockdown was total.
I wonder, however, if prayers in church were silent, were people in fact praying at home? I rather think more prayers might have been uttered for the unwell and the dying.
Some time ago our chairman Mike sent me a message saying (among other things) how much he missed going to chapel for services, and he added: “Even the cold ones!”
How telling it is that at times when we might have been warm and comfortable at home, we can miss a sometimes cold and less comfortable pew.
Chapel is not always a perfect environment or a perfect experience, but in the totality of what it offers: music, devotions, thoughtfulness, quietness and proximity, it is hard to think of anywhere else (except another such place of worship) where you could find similar qualities.
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember thee not. Amen.
Our concluding prayer is taken from an Hebrew source:
Almighty God, we thank thee for this hour of prayer, this precious opportunity of realising thy presence, and of laying before thee our desires, our hopes, and our gratitude.
We thank thee for this worship which binds us in spirit with others; which unites us through them with all thy worshippers; and quickens within us our sense of the importance of our religious heritage.
May the worship of thee here this day preserve thy gracious power within us, to keep our actions pure, and our souls untroubled, amid the dust and difficulties of the world. Amen.