Reflection: Hope at the End of the World

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Advent One, 29th of November 2020

Isaiah 64:1-9
Mark 13:24-37

Happy New Year! And to those of you here, in the nave, welcome back to worshipping in the church building after months of lockdown. In previous years it might have been hard for us to experience the beginning of Advent as something ‘new’ because we were doing pretty much the same things at church that we had done the week before, give or take some Advent candles. That is not an issue this year. This year, as we start the new liturgical year, we are also starting a new (or renewed) way of worshipping God: together, not merely in spirit but in actual physical fact, in the church building. 2020 has been the year of learning to appreciate things that we previously took for granted, and being in the same place as other members of the congregation as we worship is one of those things.

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Reflection: This is what it all comes down to

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
22nd of November, 2020

Matthew 25:31-46

Here we are, finally at the end of the church year, and at the story of the Last Judgement towards which we and Matthew have been heading for the past month. Today we are told exactly what distinguished the wise from the foolish bridesmaids; the slave with five talents from the slave with one; what more the one who says, ‘Lord, Lord,’ must do to prove themselves a follower of Jesus. Today we hear one of the fundamental texts of Christianity. As we listen to it, we affirm that Christ is the ruler not just of our hearts but of the whole world, and that following the way of Jesus should determine everything we do and say. Continue reading

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Reflection: Being extremists

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
15th of November, 2020

Matthew 25:14-30

Ex-Prime Minister John Howard once said of the story that we hear today, the story most often known as the ‘Parable of the Talents,’ that it is: ‘the “free enterprise parable”. The parable that tells us that we have a responsibility if we are given assets to add to those assets’. This is why we should not ask politicians to do biblical exegesis. On the face of it, Mr Howard’s interpretation seems reasonable. In this story there are three slaves, two of whom double their master’s money and are rewarded, the third of whom merely preserves his master’s money and is condemned. Read simply, it does seem to be a parable about an apparent responsibility to increase wealth. But when we look at the context of the parable, and the details in the story, we discover that Jesus’ message is quite different.

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Reflection: Being wise, not foolish; wheat, not weeds

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
8th of November 2020

Matthew 25:1-13

So, here we are, near the end of the liturgical year and the end of Jesus’ life on earth.  Over these last three Sundays we hear three parables about the coming of the Son of Man that Jesus tells his disciples on the Mount of Olives in his last days. Jesus’ teachings in the Gospel according to Matthew began with the ‘Sermon on the Mount’; now they end with the stories he tells his followers as they gather privately on another mountain. These are parables for the church, for the people who follow Jesus and call him Lord. Continue reading

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Reflection: As I have so often said, it’s all about love.

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
25th of October, 2020

Matthew 22:34-46

We are (still!) in the series of controversies and arguments between Jesus and his opponents in the Temple on the day following his entrance into Jerusalem. Jesus has told three parables against them; the chief priests and elders have asked Jesus whence comes his authority; the Pharisees and Herodians have asked him about paying taxes to the Emperor; and the Sadducees have asked him about the resurrection (Matthew 22:23-33). (The lectionary for the Year of Matthew skips over that last controversy, and we only hear it in the Year of Luke, which I think is a pity because I love Jesus’ reassurance that the woman in question will not be confronted with seven husbands in the afterlife.) Now we come to the final controversy and, finally, to Jesus turning the tables on his interlocutors and asking them a question. We are getting close to the end of the gospel, to the moment when Jesus’ opponents will move from reasonably civilised controversies in the Temple to betrayal and execution. Continue reading

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Reflection: When the things of God and the Emperor conflict

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
18th of October 2020

Matthew 22:15-22

After Jesus has told three parables aimed at the leaders of the Jewish people, it is unsurprising that some of those leaders now set a trap for him. What is surprising is the two groups that Matthew tells us are working together: the Pharisees and the Herodians. We know all about the Pharisees, those teachers of the Law who wanted to impose the purity demanded of those involved with the Temple on every member of the Jewish nation. They were among the people most opposed to collaboration with the Roman Empire. On the other hand, the Herodians were those who supported Rome’s puppet king, Herod Antipas. They owed their position to Rome and were collaborators themselves. Yet these two groups are united in their opposition to Jesus, because he challenges both. Continue reading

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Reflection: What is that ‘wedding robe’ all about?

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
11th of October 2020

Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

We are in the final weeks of the liturgical Year of Matthew and I, for one, am glad. The Gospel according to Matthew is my least favourite of the four canonical gospels. Look at today’s parable. Both Matthew and Luke describe Jesus telling a story about someone giving a banquet who finds their invitations refused. In Luke’s version, Jesus is telling the story at ‘the house of a leader of the Pharisees’. In this version, when those invited refuse to come because of their many cares and distractions, the host tells his slave to ‘go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame’. When these guests do not fill the host’s house, he tells the slave to again ‘go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner’. (Luke 14:15-24) Luke’s story has Jesus showing his usual preference for society’s excluded and outcast over those who thought that they were insiders. And no one in Luke’s version ends up dead. Continue reading

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Covid19 Diary 12

Samuel Pepys: October 5, 1665
The Bill, blessed be God, is less this week by 740 [deaths] of what it was last week.

Today, for the first time in months, the number of deaths from covid19 over the past twenty-four hours in Victoria has been zero. Over the past day, no one has died of the virus. It’s hard to think back to the first wave, when days and weeks went by without deaths, and we thought that by locking the country down early we had escaped the infections that we were seeing in Europe and the USA. We have still done much better than the USA, which has recorded more than 200,000 deaths, a number too big to comprehend, and the UK, where community transmission still seems rampant and yet the country has not been properly locked down. But more than 800 people have died in Victoria, and so it is very hard to celebrate the amazing flattening of the curve that has taken place. Every single one of those deaths will have caused pain, especially because people who have died of covid19 have usually died isolated and alone, and those who loved them will not have been able to hold funerals for them.

I wish I could believe that things would change in Australia as a result of this outbreak, that lessons would be learned by governments. The vast majority of the deaths in Victoria have occurred in aged care. Partly this will have been because the residents of aged care are a uniquely vulnerable population. Partly it will be because once an illness gets into a ‘home’, no matter the size of the home, it tends to go through all the residents. Aged care facilities see this every year with flu and every time there is a bout of gastro. It is very hard to protect the residents once an illness is in the facility. It is almost impossible to limit an illness anywhere with communal cooking and washing. Even in hospitals, where staff are presumably most careful, patients pick up infections.

But it seems that the infection got into many of the aged care homes in the first place because their staff worked casually and part-time, working across multiple sites and without sick leave, so that they sometimes didn’t self-isolate while infectious and they sometimes took the infection from one home to another. Have governments learned from this that insecure work is a health risk? Maybe not. According to The Saturday Paper the Victorian government still had to turn to outsourcing to run the ‘hot’ hotels in which people are now quarantining, because those hotels were put into the hands of Alfred Health which had already outsourced cleaning and patient management to Spotless. They couldn’t suddenly undo decades of outsourcing just because we now see how dangerous it is.

Even worse, the federal government didn’t mandate paid sick leave at the beginning of the pandemic. It still hasn’t. Again, for decades LNP governments have done their best to destroy unions and they have pretty much succeeded. Vast swathes of the workforce is now made up of casualised labour, without security or leave entitlements. This has now literally killed people, and yet the federal government is still anti-union, still talking rubbish about ‘flexibility’. 

The willingness of Melburnians to endure Stage Four lockdowns in order to protect each other is a sign that there is still a community here. Despite what governments have tried to do throughout my adult life (despite the rubbish spouted by the evil Margaret Thatcher whose death should not be celebrated, I agree, Patrick Stokes, but whose example should never be followed) we obviously continue to believe that we are all members of a society, we are not simply isolated individuals. But Australian governments have made that society into one in which the poor and most vulnerable are literally to be allowed to die in order to benefit them and their donors. Aged care makes that absolutely clear. Presumably Scott Morrison, like Tony Abbott and John Howard before him, believes that he will be able to pay for appropriate care in his old age. The rest of us, if the past year is anything to go by, can look forward to being cared for by well-meaning but under-trained, under-paid, casualised workers. If covid19 is not a ‘once in a century’ pandemic, we can also look forward to dying for the sake of the economy. Because it does not appear that the lessons of covid19 are going to be learned.

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Reflection: Matthew versus Paul?

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
4th of October 2020

Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

Today I am giving you less of a ‘reflection’ and more of an academic exercise. I want to look at the difference between Paul and the author of the Gospel according to Matthew in their attitudes to the Law. In today’s epistle reading Paul tells the Philippians that although he himself was blameless under the Law, he now regards that as rubbish and instead believes that his righteousness comes purely from his faith in Christ. On the other hand, in today’s gospel reading Matthew describes Jesus telling the scribes and the Pharisees that they have got things wrong, and so Israel is going to be taken away from them and given to people that produce ‘the fruits of the kingdom’. While Paul rejects the Law, Matthew argues that the problem with the scribes and Pharisees is that they are not following the Law well enough.

There are some things concerning the Gospel according to Matthew about which biblical scholars agree. They agree that it is a ‘Jewish’ gospel, written by a Jewish Christian for a community primarily made up of Jews. They agree that it was written after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. They agree that it was written in the context of a dispute between followers of Jesus, and the scribes and Pharisees, about which group was the authentic heir of Second Temple Judaism. They agree that all the anti-Jewish, anti-Pharisee, rhetoric it contains is coming from a family dispute and should certainly never be used against Jews today.

In 70 AD after a siege of six months the Romans conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. The Temple had been the central unifying institution for the people of Israel. How could they survive as a people without it? We know of two groups who answered that question so successfully that they still exist today. One group, descended from the Pharisees whose focus was the Law, the Torah, rather than the Temple, became what is now mainstream Judaism. The others, who declared that the Temple was no longer necessary because Jesus’ crucifixion had been the final sacrifice after which no more sacrifices were needed for atonement, were our ancestors. Today we are two different religions, but at the time Matthew was writing that was not the case. Matthew did not think followers of Jesus were part of a ‘new Israel’ that was replacing the existing people of God. Matthew thought instead that followers of Jesus were the legitimate leaders of that nation.

This is what we see in today’s parable. The idea of Israel as a vineyard comes from the prophesies of Isaiah: ‘My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill … he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.’ (Isaiah 5:1-2) According to Isaiah the vineyard itself, the entire nation, was to be destroyed: ‘For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!’ (Isaiah 5:7) But Jesus here says that the vineyard, the kingdom of God, will be preserved. It is the people who tend the vineyard who are going to change. In this parable the tenants are the chief priests and the Pharisees, as they realise when they hear it. The slaves are the prophets, and the landowner’s son is, of course, Jesus himself. This parable argues that the vineyard, the kingdom of God, the house of Israel, will be taken from the priests and Pharisees and given to ‘a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom’. That is, leadership of Israel will be given to followers of Jesus.

All the way through the gospel Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses, the authoritative interpreter of the Law. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil,’ and uses the repeated formula: ‘You have heard that it was said… But I say to you’. (Matt 5) Jesus argues with the scribes and Pharisees about which of them is truly following the Law of God, and which of them is instead substituting their own human traditions. (Matt 15:1-20) Jesus tells his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach.’ (Matt 23:2-3) For Matthew, Jesus has come to ensure that those who follow the Law are following it correctly, which is why in the Great Commission at the end of the gospel Jesus tells the disciples: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.’ (Matt 28:19-20)

Matthew’s gospel was written in part in opposition to the scribes and Pharisees, who argued that it was their movement that was the true descendant of Second Temple Judaism. But was it also written in opposition to the Apostle Paul? After all, Matthew has Jesus saying in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven’. (Matt 5:19) Is the one who teaches others to break the ‘least of these commandments’ Paul, who taught Gentiles that they did not need to be circumcised or to follow all the Jewish rules around eating? In his First Letter to the Corinthians Paul wrote that ‘no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 12:3), but Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.’ (Matt 7:21)

Today’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians makes it clear that Paul does not believe following the Law is necessary for salvation. Paul argues that he himself was a Pharisee who righteously followed the Law, but that he now regards all of that as ‘loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’. The NRSV very politely tells us that Paul regards all these things as ‘rubbish’, but the Greek word used is ‘skubalon,’ which means ‘the excrement of animals’. To put it into Australian, Paul considers righteousness according to the Law to be ‘bullshit’. He instead values the righteousness that ‘comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith’. Was the author of the Gospel according to Matthew, writing at the end of the first century, responding to letters like this from Paul, written maybe a generation earlier? I have absolutely no idea. That is why I said at the beginning that what I was giving you today was less of a reflection and more of an academic exercise. It is the sort of thing I love pondering, but I do not imagine it will change the way anyone lives.

Instead, I want to end with a reminder of something about which Paul and Matthew would have fervently agreed. Love is the fulfilling of the Law. In the gospel Jesus explains that obeying the Law means following two commandments: ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the Law and the prophets.’ (Matt 22:37-40) Paul wrote to the Romans, ‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the Law … Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the Law’. (Romans 13:8-10) He told the Galatians, ‘you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole Law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’ (Galatians 5:13-14) Matthew and Paul might have vehemently disagreed about whether we need to obey the Torah, whether we had freedom from the Law, but when it comes to how we should live they are in complete agreement. We are to love one another.

We are coming to the end of our year reading the Gospel according to Matthew. We are approaching a series of parables about the coming of the kingdom of heaven in which there will be a lot of weeping and gnashing of teeth. But these scary parables end with the most wonderful description of what the righteous can do for Jesus, ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me … just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’. (Matt 25:35-36, 40). This is a description of what it means to be righteous with which both Matthew and Paul would agree. So, let us go and do likewise. Amen.

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Reflection: From prison comes joy

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
27th of September, 2020

Matthew 21:23-32
Philippians 2:1-13

Between last week’s reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, when Jesus told those around him the parable of merciful employer, and this week’s reading, in which there is another parable about a vineyard, Jesus and his followers entered Jerusalem surrounded by a large crowd spreading cloaks and branches on the road and shouting ‘Hosanna!’ After entering the city, Jesus immediately went to the Temple where he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those selling doves. Today’s reading comes from the next day. Understandably the religious leaders, those who would have felt themselves to be guardians of the Temple and of the faith, now question Jesus’ authority for what he has done.

This is the beginning of five controversies between Jesus and his opponents in Jerusalem. (Matthew loved writing things in groups of five, the number of the Pentateuch, the books of Moses.) The religious leaders are trying to get Jesus to blaspheme, to say that his authority comes from God. But Jesus, like all good rabbis, answers their question with another question. Where do they think John’s baptism came from? His questioners are immediately in a cleft stick; if they say ‘from heaven’ they will be asked why they did not believe in John. If they say ‘from humans’, the crowd will attack them. So, they cannot answer; so, Jesus does not answer them.

I have some sympathy for the chief priests and elders here. They are, after all, confronting someone who had caused a huge ruckus in the Temple, in the presence of a passionate crowd, in a land under Roman occupation. These leaders have kept the people of Israel ‘safe’ by collaborating with the Roman officials and Rome’s puppet king, Herod. They most certainly do not want a messianic pretender stirring up the crowd. That was what got John the Baptist executed. They want to maintain the status quo. It is interesting that in the parable he tells the chief priests and elders Jesus compares them to members of two other professions notorious for their collaboration with Rome, the tax-collectors who took money from Jews for their occupiers, and the prostitutes who would often have serviced Roman soldiers. One group of collaborators with Rome were notorious, and yet listened to John the Baptist and repented. The other group of collaborators with Rome were respectable, and so refused to repent. One of the things this parable does is remind Christians not to allow our own respectability to suppress our need to repent, or lead us to look down on and reject any notorious sinners of our day. We need to be humble about our own claims to righteousness.

This leads me to the reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, in which Paul reminds them to ‘in humility regard others as better than yourselves’. There are two things I want you to remember about this letter as we read passages from it today and over the next few weeks; Paul is writing it from prison and it is a letter full of joy. The lectionary has given us a gift in asking us to read this letter during this time of lockdown, when the church building is closed, and we are isolated from each other. We know that the history of Christianity is full of people being locked down, the Apostle Paul is just one of many, and so we have a wonderful heritage of Christians enduring isolation on which to draw during the covid19 pandemic.

Paul obviously loves the members of the church at Philippi. Unlike his letters to the church at Corinth or in Galatia, there is no scolding; no equivalent of ‘You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?’ (Galatians 3:1). Paul begins his letter by telling the Philippians that, ‘I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now’. (Philippians 1:3-5) Paul is writing to a community of Christians that he himself founded. (Luke tells the story of his visit to this Roman colony in Macedonia in Acts 16 and you might remember that it was there that Lydia, the dealer in purple cloth, was converted.) Paul is writing to a community that alone among the churches gave him financial support for his missionary journeys. (Philippians 4:15-16) He is writing to a community who even sent a representative, Epaphroditus, to serve Paul in his work. (Philippians 2:25-30) He is writing with joy.

But all the joy Paul expresses in this letter, and there is so much that it is from a passage in this letter that the third Sunday of Advent takes the name ‘Joy Sunday’ (Philippians 4:4-7), is being written to the Philippians from prison, possibly a prison in Rome, where Paul is being held on a capital charge. This is the main reason for the letter. Paul is not worried that the church at Philippi is going to fall apart. He is not condemning unchristian practices. He is writing to reassure the Philippians that even his imprisonment is working for Christ: ‘I want you to know, beloved that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel’. (Philippians 1:12) Paul himself does not know whether to hope for release or execution: ‘For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.’ (Philippians 1:21-24) So, they are not to worry about him; ‘only, live [their lives] in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ’. (Philippians 1:27)

This is where we come to today’s reading, a description of what a life worthy of the gospel looks like. It is a life lived in community, united with one another, without selfish ambition or conceit, in which each looks to the interests of the other. Today’s passage starts, ‘If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy …’ but the word Paul uses in the Greek is one that assumes the reality of what he is saying. It might be better to translate it: because there is encouragement in Christ, because there is consolation from love, because there is sharing in the Spirit, because there is compassion and sympathy, the Philippians will be able to make Paul’s joy complete by living with one mind and one heart. And this is where we come to the passage that commentators think was a pre-existing hymn, the description of Jesus’ emptying himself and then being exalted. Paul in his letters usually talks about Jesus’ crucifixion leading to his resurrection; this hymn talks about Jesus’ incarnation leading to his glorification. Some scholars, looking at the rhythm of the words, think Paul added in the phrase ‘even death on a cross’ which would be a very Pauline thing to do.

There are two possible translations of Paul’s introduction to this hymn. Paul could be saying to the Philippians, ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,’ or he could be saying ‘Let the same mind be in you that you have in Christ Jesus’. The first translation tells the Philippians to imitate Christ. The second tells them that they have no need to imitate Christ, they simply need to be who they are, those who are part of the community of Christ. I lean a little to the second, because today’s passage ends with Paul’s reassurance, ‘it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure’. We do not need to artificially seek to humble ourselves. We simply need to love one another, as Paul loves the members of the church at Philippi and so can rejoice, despite his own imprisonment.

Imagine how reassuring this hymn must have been for Paul in prison. We know from other letters that those he called ‘super-apostles’ (2 Corinthians 11:5) tried to use Paul’s sufferings against him, as a sign that God was not with him. (1 Corinthians 4:8-13) I told you last week how much I dislike the prosperity gospel, but it has always been with us and Paul faced it too. It would have been unsurprising if his imprisonment led him to question whether God was truly with him. Humility was not a virtue in the Roman world; it was an attribute of slaves and children and women. But humility, Christians knew, was also an attribute of the God who in Jesus Christ gave up power to show us love. And so Paul, imprisoned and facing death, humiliated according to the understanding of his culture, as Jesus was humiliated by dying on a cross, can still know encouragement in Christ, consolation from love, sharing in the Spirit, compassion and sympathy, and God at work within him.

Lockdown is hard! I hit the wall on Monday; I’d been living alone for a month, which I know is a much shorter time than any of you have been in Stage Four; two of my nieces had told me they were going to visit my mother, because they all live in regional Victoria; I am missing my mother after living with her for the past year; and I am really missing my nephews and nieces, who I haven’t seen for months. On Monday, after weeks of feeling, “we Melburnians are tough and strong; we can do this!” I instead felt like hiding under my doona and crying. I didn’t, I had some chocolate and read a murder mystery, but Monday was a bleuch day. And then the lectionary gave me the gift of this reading: the reminder of all the Christians throughout history who have experienced imprisonments much worse than this lockdown; and the reassurance that just as God had been with all of them, God is with us. Paul writes in gratitude and reassurance to the Philippians that he knows ‘you hold me in your heart’. (Philippians 1:7) They may be separated by distance and his imprisonment, but they are united in God’s grace. We are separated from each other and from those we love by the pandemic and the lockdown, but we too are united in God’s grace.

In the reading that the lectionary gives us in two weeks’ time, Paul offers the Philippians an instruction and an encouragement that bears frequent repetition, so I have decided not to wait until then to quote it. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say Rejoice’. (Philippians 4:4) If Paul can write than from prison, we can hear it in lockdown. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say Rejoice’. Amen.

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