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7th March 2021

But who’s in charge?

Passage: John 14;15-27


Do you remember what the shops looked like this time last year? Rows upon rows of totally empty shelves. Long queues forming outside first thing in the morning. Exhausted NHS workers bursting into tears because by the time they got to the shops, all the food had gone. As the grim reality of the approaching pandemic hit, people fearful of being left without supplies went panic buying.
Hand in hand with this fear went fears that our hospitals would be overwhelmed with critically ill patients; that there would not be enough PPE for the staff; that essential services all over the country would collapse as workers became infected.

And these were very real fears. Everything in life is finite- it comes to an end. Supplies of food will dwindle if they are not continuously replaced. Medical care can only be available so long as there are plenty of strong and healthy staff. Suddenly we were scared that those things previously available to us 24/7 would now run out.

You have probably heard the expression “compassion fatigue.” This is what happens when your inner supply of care and concern for others begins to run dry. Like everything else, our strength is finite. We become physically exhausted when we push our bodies too far; mentally exhausted after too much brainwork; and emotionally exhausted when coping with others’ needs and pain has worn us out.

This is a very real fear for many of us who try to be caring Christians, and not least our Pastoral Visitors. Some hesitate to take on this work because they fear that a time might come when they are not able to cope: if a person’s needs become too great and too complex for them to handle; or what happens if they do not say the right thing or do the right thing and end up making things worse. We are human. Our strength is finite. That is nothing to be ashamed of. We need to acknowledge the reality of our own humanity.

What is the answer, then? What is the best and safest way for us to survive? Is it simply to hoard our own strength, withdraw from any kind of care and concern for others? Buy up all the toilet rolls in the shop? Hold ourselves aloof from troubled people?

The story of Elijah and the poor widow- what is that all about? Like most stories in the Bible, it can be read on several levels.
On first reading, it comes across as a story with a personal moral- be good, share with others and everything will be alright. Delightful message but, unfortunately not true. There have been many loving, generous people who have starved and suffered.
On another level, it could be read as saying something important about religious and social divides. Elijah’s country was suffering drought and famine; so was the widow’s country. Would it not be better if both nations came together, sharing what resources they had in terms of supplies and know-how? Now that message has been proved true, over and over again.
There might even be a third level here- something about ecology- the causes of drought and famine. Earlier in the story we are told that Elijah’s country was being ruled by a cruel, corrupt King and Queen, who were teaching the people false, selfish principles and beliefs. Might this story be suggesting that the land was suffering because of the behaviour of the people and that, if the people changed their ways, then the land might become fruitful again? We are learning-aren’t we- albeit very slowly- that our behaviour has a direct effect on the way the natural world works?

We do know, don’t we, that a life of pure self-preservation does not work. It does not work for us, because it does not make us happy. It does not work for the world as a whole because we all depend on each other; what happens to one will sooner or later affect us all. If there is a message in the story of Elijah that founding both our communal and our personal life on good, loving principles will make life a whole lot better, then yes, that has got to be true.

Nevertheless, we are still human, and our strength is finite. How do we cope when we feel that we have nothing left to give?

Jesus knew all about the pressures of human need. People with mental and physical issues followed him around everywhere he went. How did he cope? He talks to his followers about the Holy Spirit- the living power of God, which would be given to them.
“If you love me,” he says, “you will keep my commands.” And Jesus’ command was to love one another.
But God does not ask more than he promises to give. Just as our bodies need regular food in order to survive, so our hearts and souls require the constant presence of the Holy Spirit: our gift from God.

The rest of the world won’t understand this, says Jesus. It’s not like going to the gym to keep your body fit or doing Sudoku to keep your brain active. It is not a formula or a strategy. But YOU will know this source of strength and inspiration because you will find it deep within you. You have followed me and believe in me. Therefore, God will give you the Holy Spirit.

The Bible Society Study Course, which we are exploring on Sunday evenings, pointed out that this idea of Holy Spirit remaining in people was new. In the Old Testament we hear of the Holy Spirit descending on a person purely in order for them to fulfil one particular, usually dramatic piece of work. Then the Spirit goes. Jesus is promising the Spirit 24/7.

The Spirit will always be leading us into truth, so that we know what is right. The Spirit will always be empowering us to do what is right. The Spirit will be a living power to guide us through a changing life.
And, like the woman’s food supply, as we give out loving care in the name of Jesus Christ, so our own supply of strength will be continually replenished. Other people may not be able to understand this power but they will surely see it in you.

So, what we have here is a Premise and a Promise.
The presence of the Holy Spirit in us, convinces us day by day, that the premise that life is meant to be lived in love and in community is a true premise and worth basing your life upon. Those who preach that life should be only or chiefly about self-indulgence, hoarding everything you can lay your hands upon to ensure your own comfort and safety are lying. When we get tired and frustrated it is easy to be tempted by the dreams they peddle, but such a life will lead to personal misery, social injustice and worldwide devastation.

And when a life lived in love and in community threatens to stress us out, we have the promise that God’s store of grace will not run dry. Strength will rise as we wait upon God and live by his promise of the Holy Spirit given to us hour by hour, challenge by challenge.
It does not mean that we never get tired; that we never get exasperated by people who simply will not be helped; that we never make mistakes. It does not mean that we don’t need boundaries to our own space. Even Jesus took time out to go into quiet places and pray. It does not mean that the time will never come when we have to lay down a particular work of care or community. What it does mean is that, so long as we love God and trust that He loves us, there will be strength and guidance given as we need it.

Personally I have lost count of the number of times when I have been on my way to some pastoral crisis, thinking to myself, “I am too tired for this,” or “I’m too busy for this,” or “I’m totally inadequate to deal with this,” only to find that the strength is given, the guidance is there, the care is gratefully received and something that sounds suspiciously like the voice of God is saying “told you so” as I make my way home.

So, to our Pastoral Elders, Pastoral Visitors and Link Visitors, I say this: believe in the role to which God has called you.
Believe in the premise that life is best lived in love and in community. Trust in the power of the Holy Spirit which is in you and will remain in you.
Celebrate your partnership in the kingdom of God.
And to the rest of you, I say-
welcome those who reach out to you in loving care as messengers of God himself.
Encourage them with your friendship and support.
Trust them with your truth
Partner with them in creating community in a fragmented world.
And, as we live by both the premise and the promise of God, we learn who is in charge as we walk the way.Amen.

God our Father, thank you that we are creatures with a capacity for love. Thank you that life is so much richer and fairer and safer when we live together in community. Thank-you for all that Jesus taught us about living in love and about creating community.
Pour out, we pray, your gift of the Holy Spirit on our Pastoral Care Elders; on our Pastoral Visitors and on our Link Visitors, that, as they give out, they may also receive. May their stores of faith, of grace and of compassion never run dry. Renew them day by day with your love.
We pray for this same Spirit to live in each one of us, so that we may recognise your truth as it is shown to us and receive your grace as it is given to us. Draw and shape us into a community which is your kingdom here on earth. For we ask this in the name of Jesus, your Son and our Redeemer, Amen.