Last year I stood in the pulpit of St Paul’s Cathedral looking out over a full cathedral and those who were about to be ordained. As I began to preach I reminded them that the following day many of them would be given a bunch of keys. Serving in the church means that we find ourselves keepers of keys – keys to the church gate protecting a building from vandalism, keys to the church front door closed to keep unwanted people out, keys to the photocopying room locked so it is not missed used, keys to the church hall, key to the safe – often historic and far too big and if we are lucky we may be given the key to the side door! – We develop deep pockets!
Keys can become a sign of authority – and if we are not careful, we begin to act as a gate keeper.
In Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 16:13-19) Peter declares that Jesus is the messiah the Son of God and Jesus goes on to tell him that he will be given the keys to the kingdom. Keys, for us as Christians, are not about keeping people out but rather about opening the way to the kingdom of God.
It was therefore with a heavy heart and great sorrow that at the beginning of this week I asked the clergy of the Diocese of London to use their keys to lock their church buildings for a season. This does not mean our calling to open the way to the Kingdom of God has also stopped – it does mean that we need to re look to see where the spirit is moving and how we continue to be shepherds in the strange place opening up to others the love of God.
Keys are not only a symbol of role of an incumbent in the church, keys are also held by the nurse in charge on our hospital wards – keys to drugs trolley or keys to the controlled drugs cupboard. In the Year of the Nurse I am reminded of the call of Florence Nightingale that ‘hospitals should do no harm’ – well the ‘church should do no harm’ either which is why I am convinced that closing our church buildings is the right way for us to do no harm to our neighbours.
During the Crimean War Florence Nightingale was horrified that most deaths occurred though infection and not their original wounds. It was this that motivated Florence to examine what when wrong and shaped her future work as an epidemiologist and within infection control.
Florence was someone who was motivated by her Christian faith and her actions were inspired by her faith. In talking about prayer Florence wrote:
It did strike me as odd, sometimes, that we should pray to be delivered from ‘plague’ pestilence and famine’ when all the common sewers ran into the Thames, and fevers haunted undrained land and the districts which cholera would visited could be pointed out. I thought that Cholera came that we might remove the causes, not pray that God would remove the Cholera’
Closing our Church Buildings become part of our prayer for God to deliver us from Covid – 19. Staying at home will save lives and directly support the Florence Nightingales of today. The NHS can only do their job if we do ours.
At the ordination service back in July I reminded us that ministry is not always grand. Being a Christian, a disciple, is not grand, being a deacon is not grand we are called to reach ‘into the forgotten corners of the world that the love of God may be made visible’.
Reaching into the despair of Covid-19, or to reach into the darkness and loneliness of sickness, depression, unemployment and broken relationships. Reaching into the shadow of death. Reaching into the places and towards the people who fear that God is not for them, that forgiveness is not for them, that grace is too far away to reach and to make the love of God known. That is our ministry – we may be afraid, we may be grieving the loss of our buildings or we maybe struggling to understand our identity in this strange place but together focused on God we are called to proclaim a fresh in this generation the love of God in Christ Jesus and that means reaching out to overcome physical isolation.
Today I did not lead worship, but it was a joy to join on YouTube one of the parishes in the Diocese of London and worship with them. They are one of many parishes across this country who are finding new ways to connect people with each other and with God and loving their neighbour by staying at home.
I know that this exploration of the new is difficult when we may be afraid and anxious ourselves but let us hear the words of Jesus to the disciples in the boat in the midst of the storm to keep our eyes on him and not the storm.
Thank you for all you are doing at this time.
“For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” 2 Timothy 1:7