The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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All      11th October 2020
Dedication Sunday 2020
Jeremy Fletcher

This time last year Dedication Sunday focussed on the question “What does Hampstead Parish Church mean to me?”. We were surrounded by a display words, pictures and reflections. I said then:
What I have seen … is a humbling description of people being built into a spiritual temple, a challenging call to be the people of God, gathered in a place where prayer has been valid.
I ended by saying:
Thank you for challenging me every day about how to welcome, include, challenge and serve. Do not stop that. Be properly proud that this is a place and we are a people who proclaim, humbly and joyfully, that this is the house of God, and here is the gate of heaven.
I did not expect the year that followed to be comfortable. In fact I hoped it would not be. But I was not looking for what we have all faced in the last seven months. 
I have been reflecting on words I have used for the first time since March – like “Covid” - and on words which have changed their meaning since then. They speak on the surface of an attack on being community, of being a fellowship, being a body, being together, being as one. “Distance”. “Bubble”. “Mute”. “Mask”. “Sanitise”.  If we touch each other now we have to be washed clean. If we are to associate with each other we must do it in sealed bubbles. When we are together on screen we have to be muted. When we come close to each other we must mask and distance. 
What has this done to us as church, church which is the gathering, the calling together, the community of God? Every Sunday since March 22 has seen something change, a new thing in worship, a new way of engaging. Our time horizons have radically altered. We had wondered about changing our online presence, and some jottings about that in January and February are still on my desk. Look at us now, with some services streamed onto separate platforms, sermons preached from people’s front rooms, intercessions videoed in and emailed from Greece. 
We had wondered how we might be more including of those excluded from church. Look at us now, with people praying the Rosary together from their sickbeds, with maximum participation in PCC meetings even on a wet cold evening, with study groups, lectures, discussions and arts and faith meetings for more and more people, most of whom would not have come out for such a gathering in the building. 
We had wondered about how worship could become more intergenerational, particularly involving more children. Look at us now, with Bubble Church as a new addition to our services, and seven children admitted to Communion in a joyful, formal yet informal Eucharist last Sunday. 
We cannot know whether these things will be a lasting change, but we have seen much that is good being forced into being under the pressure of necessity. And what we have seen is the fruit of the values we believe to be foundation to our mission and ministry here. In 2018, in our Mission Action Plan, we held ourselves to be “inclusive and loving; reflective and experimental; transparent and accountable; accessible and participative”. We were looking to be “generous, creative, compassionate and collaborative”. 
I cannot tell you how humbled I have been by the donations you have made to foodbanks, by the creativity you see all around you today, by the breadth and depth of our online presence in forms way beyond videos of services, by the pastoral and caring engagements between unexpected people, and by the commitment shown by around seventy households who have donated £26,000 to address the shortfall brought on by the pandemic. 
If ever there was a proof that the church is made up of living stones, the four months of complete absence from the building was it. We were alive outside the building before. We lived completely outside it from March to July, and continue to do so. You, we, are the body of Christ. Your, our, planned giving increased during lockdown, and you, we, have been sacrificially generous since we came into the building once more. You, we,  bore with change, because there had to be change. Only one service is broadly the same on a Sunday. Three service times have changed. You, we, have done it, because blown by the storm winds of the pandemic we have been rooted in Christ, built on the rock. This is the house of God. 
And now? There are challenges. You, we, are tired, and the nights are drawing in. Our Sunday worship is fragmented and we miss being together. People have moved away, and many have lost the church habit. Not everything can be done online, and many are rightly fearful of being close to other people. What are we going to do about Remembrance, and Advent, and Carol Services, and Christmas? Will anyone listen to us any more? The nation saw a church which locked its doors for months, and many resent that. Structural sins, especially around the safeguarding of children, are to the fore, and we lack a credible witness to many. There is racial injustice at the heart of the church as well as the nation. 
Last year I said this:
What I see … around me today is a living, growing, vibrant community and gathering who’s bumping to each other, whose networks and intersections, even who’s collisions and arguments, are the stuff of the Kingdom of God.
I have seen so much in the last seven months which convinces me that the church has a Gospel to proclaim. I have seen the Kingdom of God at work as we have agonised and prayed and laughed and cried. “Mute” has become “speak”; “distance” has become “welcome”. Bubbles are beautiful. Masks reveal the beauty and expression of the eyes. Our hands are sanitised and ready to serve. Outbreak has become outreach. 
I cannot call us to a strategy now more than three weeks distant. But I can call us to continue being rooted in Christ and built on the rock. I can call us to our foundation values, and to our restless exploring of the inheritance of faith. I can rejoice in financial commitments from people which show that we will be here in three weeks and three months and three years’ time. Give thanks that in complex times the Kingdom is near. And, with me, continue to build an inclusive community of Christian love, faith, witness and action. Amen.  

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