This morning I want to depart from our Lectionary readings to offer a text which inspired a first-class sermon which I once heard at Rochester Cathedral. A few years ago, Bishop Chad Gandiya visited the Diocese and preached from the Book of Samuel, comparing the troubles of his homeland Zimbabwe to those of the nation of Israel in Samuel’s time.
Both predicaments had things in common. Both peoples were endangered; the Jewish people from the Philistines who shared the ambition to occupy the same land; the Zimbabweans were fearful of their own government. The people’s faith wobbled. The Jews faced imminent attack; the Zimbabweans had been locked out of their churches. Could their cohesion hold?
I need not labour the comparison to our current predicament long: you will know from the news, your own hearts, and your own experience, how we and those we love currently feel now that our former certainties have been turned upside down. Then, and now, people are fearful, the future is uncertain, and folks worry about isolation and how we will cope.
Samuel is the last and perhaps the greatest of the people known as the Jewish ‘Judges’.
Like a contemporary judge, they did resolve disputes, but an Old Testament Judge was was more than that: they were also wise men to whom the people looked for advice and leadership. After Samuel, the people said they wanted a king. They did not want Samuel to be the King, because his two sons were not seen as good king material. Hereditary kingship was wanted, but not if his sons were the price. Reluctantly, the story tells us, Samuel identifies an unlikely candidate for the role. First he chooses King Saul, and then, when he disappoints (as all leaders do), the young boy who becomes King David is selected. He is better, but still not perfect.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
For today I want to give you another name to think about: Ebeneza.
Most of us will hear that name and associate it with a rather unattractive character, that of Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. But the name is biblical in origin and is found in the story of Samuel. It inspired earlier congregations to name their communities after it : some of you might have seen Ebeneza Baptist churches.
Scrooge starts in a bad place: a disliked, uncharitable character brought to his senses by the ghost of his former partner Jacob Marley. In the story, Scrooge is shown his past and his present, and then two possible futures; one positive, one negative. He can choose the outcome of his life. He is redeemed by a good choice, and everyone is astonished.
Dickens is not an overtly Christian writer, but his themes have their roots in the Faith, and he did ask to be buried in Rochester Cathedral. His famous story has plainly Christian undertones.
Scrooge, like the Jews and the Zimbabweans (and us), has a choice to make at an important moment in his life. Will we hold true to the path God offers us?
Bishop Chad told us how well the Zimbabwean Church coped when locked out of its buildings by their government. It grew and thrived! Unlike us, they could at least gather, and did so outside in the heat, under the trees. Adversity drew out their faith, and, indeed, the best in them. He told us that they were beginning to ask ‘Shall we be as good a Church when we are allowed back into the buildings?’
Now that is an interesting question for our times!
It’s worth reminding ourselves that Jesus was a construction worker, but he never worked on a church building. Saints Peter and Paul never saw a church building, let alone founded one, and neither did any of the gospel writers.
The architect of St Paul’s Cathedral is commemorated by a Latin inscription there, which translates: “Reader, if you seek his memorial – look around you.” Well, the memorial to Peter, Paul, the Evangelists – and Jesus – lies not in Church buildings, but in the communities that gather in a variety of ways and places. Although Peter is likened to the foundation stone upon which the Church is built, the Church isn’t bricks and mortar; its character is not compromised by non-proximity. The Church is people: the Holy Spirit dwells within us; we are the temple, the Body of Christ. Believers, though dispersed throughout the world, are literally, Corpus Christi, the realised presence of Christ on earth; more than ordinary human notions of gathered corporeality.
Church is community: it is those who are united by the love of God and the love of brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ as taught by Jesus in the gospels. Everything else is an optional extra.
So where does Ebeneza come into all this?
Well now, read this part of the story of Samuel:
And Samuel spake unto all the house of Israel, saying, If ye do return unto the Lord with all your hearts, then put away the strange gods and Ashtaroth from among you, and prepare your hearts unto the Lord, and serve him only: and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.
Then the children of Israel did put away Baalim and Ashtaroth, and served the Lord only.
And Samuel said, Gather all Israel to Mizpeh, and I will pray for you unto the Lord.
And they gathered together to Mizpeh, and drew water, and poured it out before the Lord, and fasted on that day, and said there, We have sinned against the Lord. And Samuel judged the children of Israel in Mizpeh.
And when the Philistines heard that the children of Israel were gathered together to Mizpeh, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel. And when the children of Israel heard it, they were afraid of the Philistines.
And the children of Israel said to Samuel, Cease not to cry unto the Lord our God for us, that he will save us out of the hand of the Philistines.
And Samuel took a sucking lamb, and offered it for a burnt offering wholly unto the Lord: and Samuel cried unto the Lord for Israel; and the Lord heard him.
And as Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to battle against Israel: but the Lord thundered with a great thunder on that day upon the Philistines, and discomfited them; and they were smitten before Israel.
And the men of Israel went out of Mizpeh, and pursued the Philistines, and smote them, until they came under Bethcar.
Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mizpeh and Shen, and called the name of it Ebenezer, saying, Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.
So the Philistines were subdued, and they came no more into the coast of Israel: and the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel.
And the cities which the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel, from Ekron even unto Gath; and the coasts thereof did Israel deliver out of the hands of the Philistines. And there was peace between Israel and the Amorites.
And Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life.
And he went from year to year in circuit to Bethel, and Gilgal, and Mizpeh, and judged Israel in all those places.
And his return was to Ramah; for there was his house; and there he judged Israel; and there he built an altar unto the Lord (1Sam 7:3-17).
After coming through a Philistine attack, Samuel sets up a stone. He tells the people that when they pass it, they should look upon and take courage. It was a reminder. The name given to the stone was ‘Ebeneza’, which means ‘God has brought us this far’.
Now you may see why I wanted to share this passage with you, and to offer you the same encouragement that Samuel offered his people. Bishop Chad offered this encouragement to his people, and I want to offer the same to you all today.
It’s a good word, a good (if unfashionable ) name, because whilst it recognises where we are at present (still in need of reassurance), it has a clear implication: God is not going to abandon His people now.
‘Ebeneza’ is a word to put you in good spirits. It is a word to put a spring in your step. It encouraged the Israelites, it encouraged the Zimbabweans, and it should encourage you.
One interesting straw in the wind is that last Sunday, more people gathered within the online Church of England than have entered its buildings for worship over many a year. Archbishop Justin led us in worship from the crypt of Lambeth Palace, and around five million joined him. Many others did so afterwards in other ways, such as watching the recording or reading the Order of Service. This, too, is Church. It is not second-best Church: it is a church that puts the arms of Jesus around everyone, not least the lonely and the disabled, who have been worshipping God for many years through the virtual church. They are offering us leadership in our times of uncertainty. It is another normal.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is recorded as saying: ‘Where two or three are gathered in my name there am I.‘
Note the word ‘there’.
Christ is just as present in the online virtual Church as he present in any and every other church building.
Ebenezer: God has not brought us this far to abandon us now. So let us pray together a prayer offered by a leading pioneer online Church, ‘Disability and Jesus‘, which has been working in this field for some time:
Provoke one another
to love and good deeds
Not neglecting to meet together
As is the habit of some,
But encouraging one another
Lord, we cannot meet physically for now
But we rejoice
that technology allows us to contact
May we use it well
And be your body