Today is Rural Sunday, and we need to celebrate being rural. In order to celebrate I start by asking what it means to be rural. For some being rural is a picture of a country bumkin chewing a straw i.e. to be stupid. But that is not the picture I have of us as a congregation. For others rural is an idyll. A glorious place in the country to escape and relax. But this is no more realistic. We are neither the butt-end of humanity nor a pleasure garden. But what is rural?
I was brought up in a house with nearly an acre of ground surrounded by woods and a view of fields with just one house visible in a mile. In this countryside houses were not known by names, let alone by numbers, but by the names of the people who lived there whether Capewells, Shanklins or Knotts. For me to be rural is to be well spaced out. A bit like our congregation today. Social distancing was not a problem. But it did mean that we knew everyone around us. I think that this is one aspect of being rural. It is knowing all of your neighbours. So being rural allows us to treat people as individuals and not en-mass.
Our gospel explains another aspect of rural churches. We are inseparable from the community among who we live and so we incorporate everyone. We are not a monoculture all thinking the same way. In a rural community we accept our different likes and theologies, not just high church and low church not just traditional and modern but every idea.
I was reading a book on the rural church recently and the author pointed out a third aspect of being rural; that rural churches mostly had far smaller congregations than urban or suburban. So we can add to very thin on the ground and knowing everyone we can add small. Small means that everyone plays a part in our life. This does not mean that everyone has to stand at the front and be visible. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul explains the church as being like a body, every bit has a part to play. I will come back to the part we can all play. So one aspect everyone says about a rural congregation is that it is small. One of the implications is that we no longer can afford a full time stipendiary clergy. We have to work as clergy and laity together.
A 4th aspect of rural life is that we are self-reliant and self-sufficient. This should NOT mean refusing to ask for help when we need it. It means the opposite; It means being realistic and assessing what we can do and where we need help. It does not mean being like an ostrich, head in the sand and refusing to look at our real situation. I give an example. I am not good at car mechanics, but my neighbour is. So I ask him to maintain my car. I am good at carpentry, so I have turned the pews into book cases and noticeboards.
One aspect of rural culture that I think we need to address is that some think of rural as being old and traditional and refusing to adapt to change. Despite what city dwellers think rural people adopt to new ideas quickly. It is about survival. Just look at the modern farm machinery which thunders past our doors almost daily. So I think that being rural means we must start by being realistic about our position and ready to adapt. We must see how we fit into the communities in which we live and not retreat into some inward looking self centred spirituality.
But above all in the rural we can see creation, God’s creation and not man’s creation. In an urban setting mans’ creation in brick concrete steel and glass dominate but in a rural setting they pale into insignificance beside God’s creation which dominates. We see trees and flowers grow, hear birds sing and smell the damp earth. This brings us again to the gospel in which into this good creation we can see bad things planted by men. We need to face up to the reality that good and bad are inextricably mixed and live side by side. We need to learn to live with this mixture in our rural environment.
Then in our reading from Romans we hear of creation waiting with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God and groaning in labour pains. I want to put some thoughts to this in our rural place in this current time.
At present we can see that the world in which we live is out of joint. We are suffering at this present time because of Covid 19. We cannot get out to socialise or see our friends. The virus means that many things we took for certain we can no longer do. The virus seems to be exposing many other issues at fault in our world such as how we run care homes, Black Lives Matter and social injustice. I do not believe that God caused Covid 19, I suspect that it was caused and spread by human greed, but God is allowing it to shake the certainties of our world. Almost everything we relied on is being shaken, so that we are being forced back looking to God. What I see is that none of these things we relied on compares with God, how does a holiday in Portugal compare with the glory of God? So how do we handle this uncertainty.
Paul catches in his statements about creation the way I feel at this time. I wait with eager longing for the future to be revealed. At this time, I feel subjected to futility, and as I wait, I look to God in hope. I just wish that were were freed from this bondage to decay and will be free again. We know that the whole world has been groaning; and we ourselves groan while we wait. The present time is uncomfortable and we groan as we wait for God to act because we do not know what will happen.
But what can we do about the bondage we are in to Covid 19? I find our answer as I read the next few verses. 26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
What all of us can do whether confined in our houses, or as we exercise in our glorious rural countryside or as we work from home; we can PRAY. I want to remind us all that we can all pray even those who are housebound and too frail to get out and come to this building or zoom into morning prayer.
Perhaps you are like me, I do not have a clue what to pray for and what encourages me about these few verses is that Paul says God knows our prayers are weak and God the Holy spirit helps us to pray. We do not even have to find the right words or ideas or anything. We do not have a clue what we should be praying for. We just have to groan. God the Holy spirit takes our groans and intercedes for us.
You see it is in our pain and confusion that God comes to us. We do not have to be neat tidy and well behaved before God will deem to live with us. We just have to cry out in our pain and our desolation at how the world has fallen apart.
So you do not have to be clever or theologically trained or have the complete set of prayer books of Common Worship. All you have to do is groan. Say “Oh God the world is in an awful mess”. God then takes all of these jumbles thoughts of ours and turns them into something beautiful and places our wordless prayers into what he wants us to pray for.
So we wait patiently praying. You see what God has called us to be is not pie in the sky when we die but as we pray every day as part of the Lord’s prayer. May God’s Kingdom come on earth as in heaven. .We must pray not to escape from the mess of Covid 19 but as always in the rural way in the mud and mess of everyday life.
The psalms teach us a way of prayer that is called Lamentation. This does not mean despair. It means we rely on God. It is epitomized by Psalm 22 – the one we know from Jesus cry from the cross “My God My God why have you forsaken me”. That is the way the psalm starts and we can do the same. Why God have you allowed Covid19 and the awful mess. But the psalm ends with these words:-
I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you. 23 You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
What the cross teaches us is to be realistic and to take our pain and anguish and offer them to God who will sort out the mess.
The way I do this prayer is like this
God what a mess we are in I can see no hope for the future.
But I know that you are God and all powerful and love us.
So I will praise you for who you are and leave the sorting out the mess to you
So can I encourage you to pray. We can start by thanking God for making us a rural, small, caring community. Where we know one another by name. We can thank him for his wonderful creation even if it is groaning under the agony of our selfish ways. Pray that while we cannot see a way out of this mess God is in control. And finally in this pandemic what we are doing should be likened to a marathon. Do not rush at it do not try and pray as if you were a great saint. Just do what little you can when you can and as you can. Because God will take your prayers and turn them the most glorious sounds.