(.. begins with a single step!)
Address given on 26 July 2020
Readings: Romans 8: 26 – 39; Matthew 14: 13 – 21
This week, as many of our schools came to the end of term,
the lockdown phenomenon that was “PE with Joe” also came to an end.
Joe Wicks – a fitness instructor from Epsom, in Surrey, had been due to go on a tour of various schools after Easter. And, when lockdown prevented this, he began a daily 30-minute P E lesson via YouTube – at one stage netting almost a million viewers – with whole families joining in as part of their daily routine.
Along the way, he was able to generate more than half a million pounds in advertising revenue which he donated to the NHS. So two contributions to our nation’s health.
Now, after 18 weeks, and with a damaged hand, he’s decided it’s time for a rest – but what incredible things resulted from that initial decision to go online.
I have not been one of those following Joe Wicks: but I have been doing something similar.
Back at the beginning of lockdown, freshly exiled from the leisure centre, I discovered a more local alternative.
Via the unlikely route of Salisbury Cathedral’s Instagram feed, I stumbled across the equally unlikely character of Paddy Watts – who is not, as I might have assumed, in a middle-aged Irishman but a very English tennis coach in his late twenties.
Paddy had also expected to be busy this summer – in the build up to Wimbledon – but instead found himself back, living with his parents, and unable to work.
So he too began offering a free workout – on six mornings a week – via Instagram.
And that became my 8.15 ritual, and a real boost at a time where there were very few fixed points in the day!
As we progressed into April, however, the routine changed, as Paddy really needed to start earning some money again.
Now there would be just 3 freebies – and the other three sessions would be twice as long and charged for.
In addition there would now be personal advice, and sessions would be on Zoom , so that he could actually see us and would know if we were slacking!
And so I had to make a choice – cut back, or step up a gear or three. In the end, my family offered to pay a month’s subscription as part of my birthday present and the choice was made, and I’ve stuck with it since!
Now, if you’d seen me on Tuesday, at about 9am, you would know that I do sometimes struggle with it– “well, that was a tough one” Paddy grinned at the end of the session, “we know” someone else called back: that someone wasn’t me, I was too out of breath!
Those that DO see me in that state of near exhaustion sometimes wonder why I put myself through it, I know.
And if you asked me to explain what keeps me going back – I’d have to say there were three reasons –
a clear sense of progress; a strong sense of fellowship; and a slightly unnerving sense of accountability.
The sweat, if not quite tears, and the dent in the bank balance are worth it because I always feel so much more alive afterwards (though not always straight afterwards!) And the sense that things we once struggled with are now becoming second nature – that brings its own reward.
Secondly, that powerful sense of fellowship – Paddy himself uses the word “community”: none of us have ever met Paddy or each other, in the usual sense. But – in the early days of “isolation” – there was something reassuringly normal about having some regular contact with someone “outside” the 4 walls.
And we quickly started to recognise each other and even each other’s personalities:
Alice who always exercises out in the garden (even when it rains);
Barty who just can’t resist answering his phone, whenever it pings;
Romy, whose Labradors sometimes join in the floor exercises with rather more enthusiasm than she does – and – I’d better not go on!
So that’s been rather nice – but it also brings with it a certain accountability. I know that if I really didn’t feel like it one day, it would be noticed if I didn’t show up. And it would then be on my conscience that someone else might feel demotivated because I hadn’t bothered.
And, of course, there’s the beady eye of Paddy himself – who doesn’t miss anything,
is perhaps best described as a relentless encourager!
Now, if I’m making you feel tired, I do apologise – but I wanted to see if those three motivational strands might apply to us, as we start to rebuild our worship, and our church-life in general.
Can we hold on to any new discoveries -that we’ve made in the past few months – and that we sense have nurtured us in body, mind or spirit?
Can we continue to explore what will feed us, and help to maintain that sense of progress – renewing our faith with fresh energy and understanding?
Can we harness that sense of progress for all of us – for our community – not just my health; my knowledge; my spirituality. Can we try to make sure that our fellowship grows ever deeper, and that we don’t exclude anyone who wants to be a part of it?
And, can we develop our sense of accountability,
to each other and to God, so that we are bold in putting our faith into practice – and so that we can encourage each other to persevere when that gets tough.
St Paul reminds us that the Holy Spirit, who intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words, knows us and holds us together within God’s family – with all the saints and with Christ, the firstborn.
And we are empowered to endure the hardships we sometimes face, and to challenge what is wrong – to speak truth to power; to speak up for those who are persecuted, or vulnerable or neglected.
Faith, through the eyes of St Paul, is not so much about our comfort as our salvation – and the salvation of the world.
But how on earth to we contribute to that?
There are two pointers, I think, in our gospel reading.
Right at the end Jesus sets before us the image of the scribe – who draws on his treasury of stories and images – to plant ideas that can take hold and grow into something powerful – something precious.
We’re all too aware of the negative way in which ideas can be planted in people’s minds – the manipulation of social media for personal gain; allegations of Russian interference in western politics; 5G conspiracy theories in response to Covid 19 and a host of others.
What our gospel seems to demand is that we combat those things with true stories of our own –
personal stories, images from scripture, examples of the good that is being done all the time.
But what can we do against the mighty corporations and international media platforms? Even together we are barely a drop in a very large ocean.
Again, Jesus reminds us, that even the tiniest of seeds – the mustard seed – can eventually produce a sturdy tree, up 25 feet tall apparently (7.6 metres).
Its growth is slow – tiny imperceptible steps each day – yet, the end result is impressive and strong.
And, as with yeast, which transforms stodgy dough into bread ready for baking – just a small amount of goodness is needed to start transforming things for the better.
And so I think what I want to draw out of all those things is that we don’t need to be frightened by the uncertainty, and constant changes that we’re facing now, but should actually be excited at the possibilities.
We can never be certain that we are doing the right thing; we can’t wait for absolute certainty before we speak up or try something new. And what we need is NOT certainty, but a mustard seed of faith:
Joe Wicks didn’t know that his PE sessions would take off at all – he could have found himself broadcasting to noone: Paddy Watts’ first audience included 3 old school friends, out of curiosity, and his mum and aunty, out of loyalty!
But both have delivered more than they might have expected. And so, our small, tentative steps in faith can lead us far beyond the limits of our own vision;
far beyond what we thought we were capable of.
God’s Spirit is calling us afresh – in these strange times – to acknowledge God’s love, which is unconditional and without limit;
and to proclaim that love, in words and actions;
and to remember that,
in everything and despite everything,
we are always in the company him
who is both Christ our Lord and Jesus our brother.