Over the next four Sundays
we will be reflecting together on the 4 Rs of deep adaptation
resilience, relinquish, restore and reconcile,
which form Jem Bendell’s road map
for navigating the unfolding climate tragedy we are in.
We will be using the 4 Rs – resilience, relinquish, restore and reconcile,
to think more broadly about the life of the church during and after COVID,
and not just about the climate tragedy.
This week we are taking the theme of resilience.
For the purposes of this service we will define resilience
as the American Psychology Association does,
as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity,
trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress.
It means ‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences”
not to the way things were before,
but forward to include and transcend our new experiences.
In other words, resilience is bouncing forward after adversity,
not being limited by traumatic experiences,
but accepting that they will change us
and the way our future looks.
So today we’ll be looking at scripture
and reflecting on how we can bounce forward
in adapting to the challenges we face as a community.
First Reading: Nehemiah 1
We have defined resilience as bouncing forward,
acknowledging and incorporating our traumatic experiences,
but not being limited or defined by them.
Within the parish boundaries of St Mary’s
indeed, within the congregation of St Mary’s,
there many people who have experienced trauma of various kinds,
and who have been unable to bounce forward.
Who remain downtrodden, wounded, powerless and lost
when it comes to moving forward positively with life.
When Nehemiah, a work in the service of a foreign King,
hears of Jerusalem’s trials,
how since most of the population were sent into exile
by the invading Babylonian armies,
the remaining people, and the city, are in a very bad way,
his initial reaction is very instructive:
first he takes the time to listen fully to their experience,
and then prays and fasts.
It is not until after many days of listening, then praying and fasting
that he decides how to act.
Let’s look an important aspect of Nehemiah’s prayer: repentance.
We live in such an individualist society
that we tend only to think of repentance in individual terms.
Nehemiah was probably not even born in Jerusalem,
but in Babylon in captivity.
In a court of law no jury could ever have found him in any way complicit
in the downfall of Jerusalem and its present troubles.
If anything he was just another victim.
But this doesn’t seem to occur to Nehemiah.
He willingly takes a share of the responsibility
for all that has gone wrong in Jerusalem.
He says sorry, and he turns over a new leaf,
and commits to live his life differently going forward.
We are living through times of stress and shock
to our economy, to our institutions – like the church,
and to our minds and bodies,
that will have long term impacts on us.
How can we as a church, following the example of Nehemiah,
seek to build up the resilience of our parish community,
and enable our people to bounce forward
into a future that is not hamstrung
by the traumas we are, and will continue to face,
because of COVID, but of racism, because of poverty,
because of the catastrophe of a changing climate?
Before we act, we must first of all listen,
and then pray with repentance and fasting.
As part of our membership of London Citizens
we at St Mary’s we are seeking to build a growing team of people
committed to the practice of regular 1-2-1 meetings.
This one simple practice, when committed to over time,
has the power to transform the culture of a community,
from one of individualism to a collective concern for the common good.
To put this into practice this week,
think of one person you could ask to have a 1-2-1 meeting with,
perhaps over a socially distanced coffee,
and listen deeply to them about their lives.
Second Reading: Nehemiah 2: 1-5, 11, 17-18
The old military strategy of divide and conquer
is alive and well in our society.
Most churches are in decline,
and many other institutions struggle for members.
We are a deeply individualistic society,
and not a few of us would struggle to name our next door neighbours.
The English person’s home has always been their castle,
but we have filled the moat and pulled up the draw bridge,
and isolated ourselves from the support and care of our neighbours.
It is very possible, as we know all too well right now,
when so many are working from home,
to have food, furniture, technology etc, delivered to our front doors,
and never have a need to leave one’s home at all.
Hooked up to an ever present stream of news and social media,
and with more TV shows to watch on demand than ever before,
it would appear that we no longer need community
to live a healthy and happy life.
In truth most of us realise that such a life is not enough.
And when it comes to the ability to bounce forward,
to cope with the shocks and traumas of life,
our atomised, fragmented society is very ill equipped.
We need to be a part of a wide network of relationships
to find the power to act in our own and others interests
when the hard times hit.
Despite being a captive, and a prisoner of war in a faraway country,
Nehemiah is not in such an isolated position.
In fact he has a relationship with the most powerful person in the land. The King.
Because of this relationship
– which he has been cultivating for years,
and not just at the last moment when he needs help,
he is able to get the support to put in place a plan of action
to address the terrible situation in Jerusalem.
Just as the leaders in Jerusalem under Nehemiah’s leadership,
we in St Mary’s have committed ourselves in our Mission Action Plan,
to working for the common good.
To serve the common good is to be willing
to bring my own individual needs to the table with others,
finding that others share those needs,
and to compromise so that through our collective strength
– working together for our shared goals,
we can all get our needs met.
The individual finds a greater sense of purpose and meaning in life
when we are part of a bigger whole.
Families – whether they are traditional or modern,
are the basic unit of society,
and a image for thinking about society.
We don’t always get on with our family,
but we are committed to each other,
and learn put our family before ourselves.
When a family works well together
everyone’s needs get met,
because of the love that each one has for the other.
The great image of this in the Bible is the body of Christ.
A body has many parts,
each with a different function
that the body as whole cannot do without.
No matter how humble that function might be.
For example, our little toe is small and peripheral,
but it helps us balance to stand, walk and run.
Just as with our physical bodies,
for the body of Christ to thrive, be healthy and whole,
each part of the body must have a relationship with the other.
No part can be dispensed with or considered unimportant.
How can we act together for the common good,
if we don’t know and love each other?
Whether we are dealing with the problem of racism,
of poverty, hunger, unemployment, climate change,
without relationships of care and concern
we remain just isolated individuals.
Together we stand.
Divided we fall.
To put this into practice this week,
can you think of one person – a little toe person,
who you may have once considered unimportant,
who you could befriend this week?
Third Reading: Acts 7:51-8:1
Stephen is filled with the Holy Spirit, we are told.
In this reading we hear the end of his powerful speech to the Jewish authorities,
in which he is railing against an establishment that refuses to change,
from their violent, power-hungry ways.
He is angry at the injustice they have meted out
in partnership with the occupying Roman forces,
which allowed Jesus to be crucified.
Stephen seems to know that his words will get him in trouble,
and yet he proceeds to speak them with great boldness.
He is the first martyr of the church,
and an icon of the christian truism,
that there are things in life that are more important than survival,
that death is not the worst fate to befall a person.
He is truly free, not from death,
but from the fear of death,
from the fear of “power”,
and what it can do to him.
It seems to me that to be truly resilient
we need to be free from the fear of death
– and a great many other things.
While we remain fearful,
we remain cosseted away in the privacy of our homes,
where we feel safe and where we can control things.
But a fearful society, is a distrustful society,
which is an individualistic, self-interested society
that cannot act for the common good,
and so is not resilient
– is not able to bounce forward,
in response to the shocks and traumas of life.
What it was that allowed Stephen to live so freely?
I long to live with the liberty and passion of Stephen.
To have something of his clarity of purpose and mission,
clarity about how he will spend his life.
Although he dies very prematurely,
he lives with such blazing intensity and gratuitousness.
As I consider this passage as a whole
it is striking to think that the person who came off the worst,
remained the freest, most liberated,
most integrated and whole person,
throughout the whole dreadful episode.