The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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11am Holy Communion      6th September 2020
Gathering Together (Ayla's last sermon)
Ayla Lepine

READINGS:
Romans 13.8-end
Matthew 18.15-20
‘Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This church is holy ground. The people in this place, whether they are gathering online or in this church, right now, have the light of the glory of God within them. The light of God, and the love of the Spirit, is with us, surrounding us, and within each of you. It is overwhelming to be in this pulpit. God is good. And as the theologian and poet Rachel Mann put it recently, you can’t keep a good God down.
As you know, Evelyn Underhill, writer and spiritual guide, is buried in our churchyard. She knew about sacred spaces, about holy places, and about the abiding, eternal truth of the Spirit within. She knew, and asserted all her life, that anyone, anywhere, at any time, can and is immersed in that Ocean of Light. This sermon, my last as your curate, and as your priest, therefore begins with her words. They seem apt for today, as our hearts, minds, and the doors of this house of God and gate of heaven, are able to open a bit more:
‘O God who has filled the earth with the glory of your presence, and led your servants of old to make this place your dwelling place. Grant that your children who come within its influence, may ever find you here: and going away from here may truly take you with them and return to you here again in due season. May we and they so build up our lives in you that they also may be places wherein your Spirit dwells, filled with that strength and beauty which only comes from you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’
In our Gospel today and in Paul’s letter to the Romans we find images of conflict that remind us about the deeper foundation beneath these painful aspects of being human. Only one thing can overcome this inner and outer pain. One thing: Love. At each step, there is an opportunity for people to view each other as human beings, each and every one of them worthy of respect, understanding, love, blessing, compassion, hope. No matter what, every person, in every moment of their lives, is worth of dignity, respect, and love. Why? Because Christ draws us together. Because we should always seek the best in each other. Because, as Jesus says, and as we thankfully pray, ‘When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’
We have never not been gathered. In good days and bad, when the church was locked and when it began to open, we have never stopped gathering. Today is particularly heartbreaking and yet profoundly hopeful for me, because it’s the first time I’ve seen so many of you in so very many weeks and months. It’s the first time we’ve moved into a new form of worship, and may these doors and these opportunities continue to open. Today as your priest I am saying ‘welcome home’ to many of you. I am also saying goodbye to you. For this to happen in the same day, at a time of so much intense change, is a great gift as well a genuine sadness. 
We are physically apart and we are spiritually united. Wherever and however we are, whatever we have brought with us today, in sorrow or in joy, we are gathered. In baptism, we are gathered. In faith, we are gathered. In frail moments of deep doubt, we are gathered. In weariness, we are gathered. In the peace of God that passes all understanding….we are gathered.
I therefore did a bit of crowdsourcing and asked people why our church is important to them. They said:
* Because of the acceptance, love and safety I feel when I’m there. I’ve never felt judged or pitied, just held.
* The cake is ******* great!
* Because we do the C4WS homeless shelter.
* Everyone seems to genuinely care so much, even if they don’t necessarily agree.
* It’s a safe space. A warm blanket or a hot cuppa for my spirit.
* It’s our home. My family. I was a stranger in a strange land but I know, KNOW, that if I ever needed anything (support, rescue, forgiveness, love, fun, resources) I would find it at our church.
* A place where I find belonging and peace.
* The beauty of the building and the churchyards
* Our activity is intergenerational and goes way beyond Sunday worship.
* The history of our family is here: two family weddings, wedding vows renewed, three, baptisms, admission to Communion, Confirmation, a funeral. Our lives continue here.
* It is where I have grown up – experienced the greatest pain, the happiest moments, and been sustained by the kindest people. It is where, when empty, I feel the deepest sense of that community of saints (past, present, and always).
In our church, there are two angels on either side of the top step, on the vicar’s and the curate’s stall, holding banners. They are at the threshold between the nave and the chancel, signalling a growing intensity of sacred meaning as we approach the altar. They proclaim those first glorious words from the Gospel of John, our patron saint: ‘The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.’ Every day, whether we are here or not, the Incarnation’s salvation is proclaimed here. Every day. Every moment. And its truth sets us free. As the writer Toni Morrison puts it, freedom is not only a gift, but also a communal responsibility. She says, ‘The function of freedom is to free someone else.’ 
Jesus is here. The God who enfolds us with radiant light is here, and within you, and within every moment of time, creation, and hope. And this is a time of incredible and complex change, and certainly not only for me and for Geoff. In our community, the Church, and our world, the past six months have been bewildering, painful, exhausting, anxious, traumatising, and crushing beyond anything that anyone can say, whether in a pulpit or anywhere else. There are very few things I have desired as deeply as I have desired to preside at the altar with you and for you. For you. As soon as that became impossible, I moved through a time of indescribable pain.
Some of this hardship became energy to do a lot of new stuff. Jeremy and I encouraged each other and worked with our stellar team to learn new skills, try new things, engage with as many people as we could, adapt the best of Hampstead Parish Church’s ethos and values to our ever-changing circumstances. Some things worked, some things didn’t, and we brought the best of what we had to every moment (and here I want to thank my husband Geoff, for spending four long months setting up our living room like a TV studio on Sundays with the patience and empathy of not only a true professional but also the most supportive of husbands). Zoom, Facebook, children’s activities (Maureen teaching us all to make an origami fish is unforgettable, partly because it’s harder than it looks!), the choir doing their thing (I will truly miss Malachy’s trumpet in the hymns), Black Lives Matter conversations, discussions about scripture, salvation, paintings, and poetry, the gentle peace of the Rosary group, uploading over 150 videos to YouTube, and on it goes. We’re encouraging people to not only stay connected to God and to each other but to grow in those connections.
From altar frontals, the epic Church Chat blog, and phones on tripods at the school and in our chancel, to WhatsApp groups, foodbank donations, wishing John Willmer a happy birthday from a safe distance, and a film or two for Jeremy’s birthday too…we all did what we could. And we’re still doing what we can. With every wipe, every mask, every sanitiser, every QR code (if you want to know what that is, ask Courtney later), and every time we somehow manage to hold back from embracing each other, we are doing what we can. Among the many prayers I hold in my heart for you, that’s one of them. Keep doing what you can, because all these things are signs of being gathered in God’s love.
In the last scene of the Sound of Music, the Von Trapp family are on the anxious threshold of a challenging and dangerous, but ultimately hopeful journey. One of the children bravely says, ‘We can do it without help.’ The Abbess responds: ‘You’ll have help,’ and quotes Psalm 121: ‘I will lift mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.’ Let’s keep climbing mountains, and following rainbows. Amen.

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