A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church North Shields, July 31st 2022, during
A Service Remembering Those Who Died During ‘Time of Covid’
On the 31st of December 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) was informed of a cluster of cases of a novel coronavirus, Covid-19, in Wuhan City, China. Just over two and a half years have passed since then, but it seems like a lifetime ago.
Government statistics suggest that COVID has been the cause of or a significant factor in the deaths of between one hundred and eighty and two hundred thousand people in the UK. More widely, the WHO suggests that the figure for deaths worldwide is 6.4 million. And that’s only the deaths.
There were also those directly affected by the disease in a serious form, with significant numbers continuing to struggle with ‘long covid.’ Then there were all those who cared for the ill – family members or friends, plus all of the health and care workers, in a system bending and buckling, but not quite breaking under the strain. Another much-felt impact was that funerals, whatever the cause of death, could not be conducted in the way that grieving family and friends wished.
The ripples spread further, with all of us confined to our homes at various times, and for various lengths of time, according to any underlying health conditions we might have. There’s the massive psychological impact – the phrase ‘mental health’ and are now very much part of everyday vocabulary, and some still struggle psychologically. Some of us do so more so than we might realise or care to admit.
Church was not immune to Covid. This building was closed for any activities at times. The form activities could take was sometimes severely curtailed, including our worship services. At times we had to reinvent how to do church, and among our not-so-serious regrets must be in failing to buy shares in Zoom three years ago.
Now, times are changing again. COVID has not gone away, but with improved treatments, and through a massive immunisation programme, we are better placed to live with COVID. Therefore, in early September, God willing, we will hold a service marking our return to ‘normal’ church life, though, of course, ‘church’ won’t look the same as it did before COVID. Before our September service, for which I hesitate to use the word, ‘celebration,’ we, in this service, take some time to look back, particularly pondering the time through which we have lived and remembering those who will not be with us at our service in September because they died during these last two and a half years.
So before we read the names of those we miss, let’s take a couple of minutes to ponder what has gone before and what’s to come, in the light of the Bible passages we have heard and sung: Isaiah 45; Psalm 23; Revelation 22.
Well, first, we’re being told that God accompanies us, including in times of struggle. We sang Psalm 23 which contains that oft quoted line that people still turn to in times of death and distress: ‘Yea, though I walk through death’s dark vale, yet will I fear no ill; thou art with me, and thy rod and staff me comfort still.’ (R&S 679) And I know that some of those we name tonight would have affirmed those words, all the way to life’s end.
Second, though, God not only accompanies through bad times but brings us into better times That’s the message to us from the prophet Isaiah: ‘But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.’ (43:1)
The great disaster for ancient Israel was not a disease, like COVID, but a military defeat, after which a significant part of the Jewish people was taken into exile in Babylonia. That collective trauma probably inspired the collecting together and writing of many of the Bible’s Old Testament books, to answer the questions, ‘how could this have happened?’ ‘How could God have permitted this to happen?’
Isaiah, the prophet proclaims good news. God who created us, who formed us, has not only been with us in exile but now redeemed us. We have been redeemed, not as individuals (though God can do that too) but as a nation. The God who could and did rescue Israelite slaves from Egypt was rescuing Jewish exiles from Babylon. God was not only with them in the tough times but also was bringing them into a better time; bringing them back home.
God was with us in the dark valley of COVID and now has brought us into a better place and better times. Yes, firstly, God accompanies us through times of struggle, then, second, God brings us out of the bad times. And then thirdly, God, who created us, and who accompanies us through the ups and downs of history, brings things to a concluding, complete and ultimate healing.
‘Then,’ says John the Divine, in that vision he recorded in his book, called, ‘Revelation’, ‘the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.’ (22:1-2)
We might tend to think about God in terms of what God does for individuals or for groups of individuals, but that is too small a vision of God. God accompanies each one of us through challenging times. God also brings us into better times within the warp and weft, the ups and downs of history. Ultimately, though, God is bringing everything together – people, nations, lands, the world and the whole of creation. Whatever we have lost in time of COVID, whatever we might face in future times of crisis, God, in God’s time, will heal it all.
So, we remember the past, we acknowledge the challenges and joys of the here and now, and we look forward with hope to God’s future. Let’s sing a hymn of that past, present and future concerning God’s saints. Then, let’s remember by name those known to us who have died during this time of COVID, with hope for their future and ours.