My whole wide world went zoom
Preacher: Revd Dr Donald MacEwan
Readings: Acts 17:16-31; John 14:15-24
When the apostle Paul visited Athens, he saw the temples of their religions, the shrines to their gods, he heard the high priests of their philosophies. When he was tried for expressing new and dangerous religious ideas in the Areopagus, they could all see the city’s principal temple, the Parthenon, dedicated to Athena. It is still there of course, still visible from the site of the Areopagus. From 1 June tourists can visit Greece, though it’s not clear how long we’ll be in quarantine on our return. Almost all the statues and sculptures have gone, including the Elgin Marbles, controversially still in the British Museum. Paul was distressed, we are told, that the city was full of idols.
If Paul had visited one of our great contemporary cities in recent years – London, New York, Delhi, Shanghai, Edinburgh – what would he have encountered? Perhaps he would have spoken out as follows…
I am distressed at the idols which I have seen here. There are temples stretching up high into the sky, given over to investment banks and hedge funds, to management consultancies and wealth managers. I’ve travelled in lifts that whisk me sixty floors in seconds, metros that speed me under the city; I’ve nearly been knocked over by pedestrians racing past me. I’ve encountered people heading into these temples before the sun has risen, bearing coffees and croissants; I’ve seen the lights on after the sun has set. I’ve heard the cacophony from the city’s taverns, hundreds shouting above loud music. I’ve seen poor and unfortunate people making a home in the doorways of your luxury shops, your gyms and nail bars. At night, when I cannot sleep for the streetlights and traffic noise and warmth, I’ve seen workers out in their hi-viz jackets, picking up the cans and wrappers, the plastic forks of hasty meals.
I’ve seen these idols – shrines to wealth, to power and appearance. And I have experienced a city in crisis. You may not see it from your office and your bar, your tube and your temple, but take a step back and you know it. You are facing a crisis in your time. Your climate is in crisis – heating up, with droughts and storms. Your health is in crisis – you are overweight and anxious, with healthcare rationed. Your churches are in crisis – increasingly irrelevant and exhausted. And your economy is in crisis – rewarding the idols, managing the wealth of some, while most haven’t a penny to spare. This crisis cannot be sustained.
We have been forced to take a step back over recent weeks. We’ve stepped back from our offices, bars, trains and temples. Of course, there is much to lament in the pandemic – the shortened lives, not being able to be with those whom we love, the risk of damage to good things – education, science, art, and not least, medical care for people without the virus.
And yet, in taking a step back, perhaps we can sense a world letting go of its idols: money, speed, ever-harder work, entertainment, luxury, convenience. We sense it in the cleaner air, the quieter streets, the sound of birdsong. We experience more time to walk, to be with those with whom we share our home, more time to spend communicating on the phone, on facetime, on whatsapp with friends. We are baking, jam-making, finding new ways to use the cupboards of pasta squirrelled away. We no longer fear we’re missing out because there’s nothing to miss out on. We devote what was our future wealth to ensuring people today have money to live. We recognise the work that really matters – the people in uniforms – nurses, refuse collectors, bus drivers, posties. We celebrate birthdays with a walk and fish & chips from the Tailend.
When Paul wandered through Athens, he saw temples, with their objects of worship, made of gold, silver and stone, images formed by the art and imagination of mortals. But for Paul, God “does not live in shrines made by human hands.” If there was ever a time for his words to hit home, it is now. We cannot go into our churches and chapels. We rightly close them to prevent the spread of infection: we cannot make an idol of an open church in the current circumstances. We have let go our worship in St Salvator’s and St Leonard’s Chapel, the bells drawing us, the warm oak of the pews, the play of light through the stained glass, the acoustic holding the balanced, blended voices of the choir, the space shared with students, staff, locals and visitors, the organ’s music, the flickering candles, the sense of generations of people who have entered and prayed, named their sorrows and hopes before God, and taken inspiration for life beyond the walls. We miss it, and yet in missing it we may recognise that for some of us, the religiously minded, our favoured shrines may have a touch of the idol about them. In A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene, set in a leprosy colony in Congo, the world-weary central character called Querry says this:
Men have prayed in prison, men have prayed in slums and concentration camps. It’s only the middle-classes who demand to pray in suitable surroundings.
We’ve stepped back from worshipping in the chapels. And yet perhaps we have learnt in a new way that God does not live in shrines made by human hands. He lives in the world which is breathing anew, he lives in the birdsong, he lives in the hospitals and care homes, he lives in Tescos and Morrisons. He lives wherever we pray, and care for our neighbour. And though we are conscious of people who are not online, surely God lives in our zoomunity.
Am I the only person to have this 80s classic playing as my earworm these days?
Zoom, just one look and then my heart went boom
Suddenly and we were on the moon
Flyin’ high in a neon sky, oh oh
Bang, just one touch and all the church bells rang
Heaven called and all the angels sang
Sunrise shine in the midnight sky, oh oh
Oh zoom, you chased the day away
High noon, the moon and stars came out to play
Then my whole wide world went zoom
Fat Larry’s Band have expressed what has happened to me and to this chapel community over the past two months – Our whole wide world went zoom.
We may miss being in Sallies or Leonard’s – but in our online services, we have offered time, we have prayed together, we have been silent together, we have heard music from across the country and beyond from students and colleagues, we have sung together (albeit with microphone muted), we have heard the scriptures read from Bavaria to Bristol, we have shared in communion, eating bread and drinking wine where we live. And, more than anything, for most of us, we have seen each other. I have found myself immensely moved, week after week, to see a new screen pop up on my screen, to see the congregation growing, to sense that in the midst of isolation ,we are in community, we are companions. For all our mistakes, peering at the screen, our private conversations occasionally broadcast to the world, we have worshipped remarkably, not remotely. We have been a zoomunity.
As Paul pretty much says to the Athenians, there is good theology in the zoomunity. And in this he echoes his Lord Jesus Christ in his words to the disciples in what is known as the Farewell Discourses. Jesus, the night before he died, promised another Advocate, or Helper, who would be with them for ever. They will know this Helper because he will abide with them, in them. This is the Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit. Jesus promises that though he will be invisible to the world, his friends will see him because he and the Father will make their home with them.
God will make his home with us. As we stay at home, the Gospel promises that God has made his home with us, where we are. Jesus promises that by his Spirit he will find us: we do not need to unlock the church to find him. For Paul, God has reached into the world to find us, not least in Jesus Christ whom he raised from the dead. Malcolm Guite, the poet-priest and chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge, is a former preacher in chapel, his daughter a graduate. He wrote a poem for Easter Day this year whose first verse captures something of this:
And where is Jesus, this strange Easter day?
Not lost in our locked churches, anymore
Than he was sealed in that dark sepulchre.
The locks are loosed; the stone is rolled away,
And he is up and risen, long before,
Alive, at large, and making his strong way
Into the world he gave his life to save,
No need to seek him in his empty grave.
In the resurrection, our whole wide world went zoom.
The lockdown is coming to an end, in China, Italy, Spain, Germany, France and England. In Scotland too, in time, although lockdown may return as the virus finds new chances to spread. But eventually the students will return, the traffic will rise, we’ll speed up through the day, bearing our flat whites and Danish pastries, and our temples will re-open.
But will something of what we have learned stay with us? That the false gods of money and luxury have already brought our climate to crisis? That we have completely undervalued the people who do the most important work? That we are living to work instead of working to live? That we are so fearful of missing the newest thing we have forgotten how to be together, simply and comfortably? That God does not live in churches made by human hands, but has made his home with us where we are?
We will open the chapels when we can – and God will meet us there. But the Spirit will always be with us, since our whole wide world went zoom.