Here our minister Revd Jon Keyworth shares his reflection from our Sunday services:
Sunday 31st May - Pentecost
Pentecost has arrived, and it seems a bit different celebrating it this year. We hear of the followers of Christ being sent out onto crowded streets, filled with and compelled by the Holy Spirit. It is pretty far removed from the reality that we are currently experiencing.
As people from all nations gathered in Jerusalem, the implication is that this helped the gospel spread to the far corners of the known world. In a time of international pandemic it is perhaps easier than normal to grasp this concept. The story of Christ is shown to have spread quickly, across huge distances, and already transcends human language barriers. This is the birth of the world-wide phenomenon that is the church.
Pentecost is often labelled as the birthday of the church. Over the centuries the church has seen dramatic changes, it became the religion of empire, it has faced persecution, and had more schisms than I care to name. Yet through it all, there is continuity of faith in the redemptive working of Christ, and the mission that we are called to share in. This year the church gathers in rather different ways, with congregants connected from their own homes, on their own electronic devices or phones, enabled by programmes such as Zoom.
It is possible that we might see this as a lesser form of being church. There are limitations, as we miss our familiar setting and being able to see each other in person, however, church gathered online still has significant meaning. It continues our calling to gather together as the body of Christ, to worship God, and should still enable to be sent out to witness to the good news with others, even if that currently means being a witness to Christ virtually rather than in person.
We are still very much meeting as a church, and meeting in every bit as significant a way as we would normally would, even if it is different.
Sunday 25th May - Arts Week - Painting for Freedom
Whereas last week we considered the creativity and joy that we find in sport, this week our attention shifts to art. In art we can convey things that we could never quite put into words, and can explore the mystery and wonder of creation in all kinds of creative ways.
This weekend we should have welcomed Richard Kidd and Mike Lowe from Painting for Freedom into the church to exhibit their art, and to share in our morning service. All of the profit from the art they sell goes to the work of Freeset. Freeset works alongside women in the red-light district in Sonagacchi, Kolkata, providing support, community and work that can help them rebuild their lives.
Despite Arts Week not taking place, except digitally, I am delighted that Richard is able to join us on Sunday morning. He has been busy collating updates from folk involved with Freeset; founders Kerry and Annie from their home in New Zealand, and Subhendu, Priya, Bashir and Frin who are working on behalf of Freeset on site in Kolkata and West Bengal. We will hear of the impact of Covid-19 on the communities that Freeset are working with, and start to see the implications of Cyclone Amphan.
We will also receive an update from Mina, a lady who has journeyed with Freeset, from being a refugee to becoming a respected leader in the community. She tells her story in a powerful book of artwork that is available to purchase from Painting for Freedom.
Richard has updated the Painting for Freedom website for Art’s Week, and encourages us to visit it here: www.paintingforfreedom.co.uk
More information on the work of Freeset can be found here:
As part of the service Richard prepared a video for us that can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcT17rjiF58&t=28s
Sunday 18th May - Sports Sunday
I know that for many people, as soon as sport is mentioned, it can be time to switch off. Yet for many others, sport forms (or used to form) an important part of their lives, whether it be in direct participation, or through supporting teams both local and national.
Most of the things that are said to be positive elements of belonging to a sports team, or participating in a solo sport, can also be said of many other hobbies and social activities. So, if you cannot stand sport, then translate it over to something else that you know and love! You might not take part in team sport, but you enjoy the mutual encouragement that can be found in a sewing group or book club. You might not be able to see the beauty in a wonderfully crafted goal or try, but you can see the beauty in a piece of art or in local architecture. You might think that people who run or cycle long distances (or any distances for that matter) are mad, but you can see the benefit of sticking at it when learning to play an instrument, and the discipline it demands.
All of these things are transferable into the Christian life. A shared purpose, teamwork, community, and mutual encouragement, should be found in our churches. The sense of awe in the mysterious presence of God, and wonder at the marvels of creation, should (one hopes) be present in our worship. The need of discipline and perseverance when the going gets tough should help us in our journey of Christian discipleship.
In the news, the focus on sport is often Premier League football, where obscene amounts of money are involved, way beyond anything that seems just or fair. No doubt they will try every possibility of restarting as soon as possible, as the cost of cancellation is so huge. Yet, our local sports clubs play an important role in our communities, without such financial turnover, providing purpose, friendship, fitness and a hub for many different activities. At this time, as we celebrate sports Sunday, it is an incredibly challenging time for many different clubs. They rely on funds from gate receipts, bar takings, players subs and coaching fees, all of which are not being collected at present. The future of many clubs is uncertain, and their demise would be a considerable loss to many people.
It would also be a loss to us as the people of God if clubs that are a positive presence in our communities cease to exist. Not only would there be a loss of shared purpose and entertainment, but a loss in wellbeing, fitness, and the creative output of human life. At its best sport is a place where people learn to compete fairly, win gracefully, and more often deal with the pain of defeat and loss (In most sports settings there is one winning team or competitor in a large field; a football league has one winner out of twenty, a marathon one winner out ten thousand). There are also moments in sport that speak of the divine, reveal to us more of the remarkable capability of human beings, and make a mockery of the limits we pace on ourselves and on others. Many victims of persecution and the socially disadvantaged find in sport the means to flourish and demonstrate their God-given equality. Long may all of these things continue!
Finally, the world of sport is also one in which we can witness to our faith, with people who would never consider entering the church on a Sunday morning. It’s not always the easiest place to do this, sports teams can be a challenging place to be, and church football teams can bring the absolute worst examples of sporting behaviour. Yet, where we engage faithfully, it is a place, like any other in our community, where we can point others towards the wonder of God’s presence in all of creation.
Sunday 10th May - The Land
This week on Wednesday in our study we reflected on the third day of creation, where land and vegetation were created. The focus was on trees and their importance for the environment, with regards to climate change and biodiversity.
However, the thing that has stuck with me was the consideration of our relationship to the land. We can form strong relationships with the places in which we live, our family homes, gardens, and favourite walking spots. This can also be true for a church community. We become attached to our land, our premises, and its surroundings. The story of Israel through the Old Testament is bound up with the promise of land restored to the nation following captivity in Egypt. The land became central to their identity, and is still important to Jewish believers today (as well as Christians and Muslims).
One of the things that we are struggling with in this time of lockdown is our inability to access land that is important to us. Our means of reaching and serving the city of Oxford is greatly diminished without access to our building. Hospitality to each other and local groups has come to a standstill. We feel the loss of our place of worship, a place of beauty and peace (whilst also well loved and tired in places!) in which we have accustomed to meeting with each other and with God.
We have managed to function relatively well through this time; supporting each remotely, meeting to worship and pray online, and even dealing with the ongoing practicalities of managing church resources. However, we are missing the shared space and context, that gives a focus to our identity as a congregation.
At my induction service back in September, Beth Allison-Glenny highlighted the great privilege we have as a church in owning land in a prime city-centre location. Since then we have renovated the church kitchen and have an improved (nearly completed) resource at our disposal. As we come out of this lockdown situation over the next few weeks and months, we will have a new opportunity to discern how we can steward our land most effectively for the sharing of God’s love, mercy and peace in our city.
This is something that requires constant reassessment, for the city continues to change at great pace. It will be changed again by the fallout from Coronavirus. Some of the shops and cafes closed through this period will not resume business. It will take time for shoppers, tourists, students and even churchgoers to return to the city. At least for a time there will be greater unemployment, hardship and potential for homelessness. It’s no good us simply returning to our land and picking up where we left off and acting as if nothing has changed.
We also know that further change is coming, as Oxford City Council has been at the forefront of seeking to address environmental issues. In the long-term this is likely to affect the ways we can access our shared space, with low emission zones and other restrictions. After the current situation that city dwellers have experienced, breathing clean air, and moving about without traffic clogging the roads, it is likely that pressure for change will increase. We should be supportive of change that will improve the wellbeing of our neighbours and our local environment, but active throughout the consultation process, ensuring that changes do not indiscriminately affect the poor and vulnerable.
If we see creation care as an important outworking of the good news, then this has implications for how we maintain and manage our own land. There are many ways in which we can make the church building more environmentally sustainable, with some small and some large changes required, ranging from light bulbs to heating systems. In time, as finances allow, we should seek to face this challenge. Campaigning for climate justice whilst our own building is lagging behind seems a bit duplicitous!
Alas, these are challenges for the future. We remain confined to our homes, our personal space and land, where we can also make changes small and large for the good of all creation. Whether it be changing energy supplier, planting vegetables and flowers or buying more sustainably produced food, I hope that in this time we might find the inspiration to act in ways that will help care for our land and those whom we share it with.
Sunday 3rd May - Life-giving water
On Wednesday our study reflected on water, and its life-giving qualities. Water is essential to us, for drinking, cleaning, growing and preparing food and making a whole host of things. This week as the weather has turned, although parenting has been slightly more challenging, for farmers, gardeners and those at the water board, the rain has been a blessed relief.
We are fortunate to live in a land where water is not scarce. We are more likely to feel the effect of having too much water, flooding, water damage and leaky roofs. In this time of global pandemic the privilege of access to clean water is highlighted, as we wash our hands more frequently and thoroughly. Worldwide this is not a luxury available to many in poverty, and even where people have water they might not have the soap to go with it to allow for a proper virus killing hand-wash.
Even in the UK there has been a great disparity between the number of deaths in poor communities compared to richer neighbourhoods. If you live in a poverty-stricken area of the UK, or from a BAME background, you are twice as likely to be killed by this disease. It is a shocking statistic, showing deep and ingrained social injustice. One can only speculate what the difference in survival rates will be if there are significant Covid-19 outbreaks in favelas, shanty towns and crowded cities in the developing world. The true extent of the death and destruction caused by this virus may never be known.
If one of the outcomes of this pandemic is a recommitment to seeking justice, an end to poverty, and access to clean water for all of humankind, then that would be a good thing. It is of course tied in with our response to climate change, that is already leading to both more drought conditions, but also rising sea levels and increased flooding. Unfortunately, for many, any positive change we can be a part of bringing will be too little too late.
We can help in the meantime, by supporting charities such as BMS World Mission. A little giving can go a long way. For example, the provision of soap to a family in Bangladesh would cost as little as 72p potentially save lives, and stop the spread of the virus.
Water is so important to us, it keeps us alive in more ways than one, so it is no surprise that it has such a pervasive presence in scripture. It is through the control of water that God creates and sustains life, through water that the Israelites pass to freedom as they escape Egypt, and through water that we enter new life in baptism. Jesus, the living water, brings us nourishment, a renewed hope and calls us to share in abundant living.
Access to water and abundant living go hand in hand. There can be no more effective way to share the love of God than to provide access to water to someone denied it.
As I watch the rain fall again outside, I am thankful the for life-giving water we have. I’m also hopeful that we can be a part of bringing life-giving water to others, whether it be through our giving, through the lobbying of those in power to work towards social justice, or through steps made in reducing our environmental impact. We can be a part of sharing God’s life-giving with others, even though we may never meet them in person.
Every blessing at the end of yet another week in lockdown.