Easter Sunday – 17/04/22

Musical Prelude: ‘O Saviour of the World’ by Arthur Somervell (Harold Lorenzelli, Margaret Marshall, Lucy Elston-Panter and Benjie del Rosario with Peter Crockford)

Opening Words: ‘Who Are We to Bet Against Glory?’ by Julia Hamilton (adapted)

Spirit of Hope, settle into our bones on this bright Easter morning.
Remind us once again that the dawn light is never a gamble;
If there ever was a sure bet, it is the sunrise.

Even stones crumble
even grief changes and shifts
and death is a mystery that is certain but not solid;
but hope is like the sunrise
eternal and bone-bred within us.

We are creatures built by sunshine
and cannot carve this hope out of our bones if we tried.
And yet people have tried,
tried to entomb the light,
tried to seal off the morning.

Emperors and kings, priests and patriarchs
have brought down death, certain but not solid,
on any who point to a new dawn.
In these fearful moments,
we can be forgiven if we stumble
and doubt and deny.

But still the sun rises
and calls her children into bloom
Always, she says,
Always I will return.
So don’t despair, all is not lost,
the small ways of the petty tyrants never win.
So place your money on the sunrise.

Who are we to bet against glory?

Words of Welcome and Introduction:

These words by Julia Hamilton welcome all those who have gathered for our Easter Sunday service. Welcome to those of you who have gathered in Kensington at Essex Church and those who are joining us from far and wide via Zoom. We’re delighted to have you all with us this morning – wherever you are, whoever you are, however you are, whatever side of bed you got out of this morning – or, with the help of all this modern technology, even if you’re still in bed. Welcome.

And let’s not forget all those who participate in our community via the podcast, the YouTube channel, or simply by reading the text of these services on our website. We love hearing from people in all sorts of circumstances who appreciate being able to join our beloved community. If it’s your first time joining us this morning, we’re especially glad to have you with us, perhaps you might like to hang around for a chat, drop us an email, or come to one of our small groups. May our circle grow still wider as we find new ways to overcome the obstacles to inclusion, to live out our values, and to reach out in love to all those who would share the Unitarian way.

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Jane Blackall, and I’m ministry coordinator with Kensington Unitarians. I’ve been part of this congregation since 1999, nearly 23 years now, and although I lead the service most weeks I haven’t been back in this actual pulpit since March 2020. Thanks so much to our tech host Jeannene Powell, who is sat at the back of the church and in charge of mission control for the first time this morning, which is liberating me to be up here. She’s asked me to ask for your patience and understanding if there are any technical hitches! And I want to thank all of you here in-person for doing all you can to keep everyone as safe as possible in this ongoing time of pandemic, by keeping your masks on throughout the service, including while we sing hymns and light candles, and respecting each other’s boundaries.

In this morning’s service we’ll be reflecting on the Easter Story. In mainstream churches there will have been services throughout Holy Week, this past week, focusing on the different parts of the Easter story – Jesus’ downfall, suffering, and death on Good Friday – the utter hopelessness and despondency of Holy Saturday when all seems lost – then the hope and triumph of resurrection (in all its strangeness) on Easter Sunday. As we only have one Easter Service we’ll be considering the story in one go, and asking how it might speak to us in this particular moment of human history, what resonances we might still find in it for our own struggles in a life that is so hard for so many. As Unitarians we will each have our own particular perspective on Easter, our own relationship to the Christian roots of our Unitarian tradition, so hopefully this morning’s service will provide a space to explore what this powerful story means to you, set free from any fixed interpretation of its meaning.

But let’s take a moment now to settle ourselves and become fully present in the here and now, into this time of togetherness, wherever we may be. Let’s breathe into this moment of worship, and co-create this sacred space, by our intention and our presence. And as we breathe out let us release anything that is stopping us from being present in this moment – any aggravations we are carrying – any preoccupations or distractions – let’s lay them to one side at least for an hour or so.

Chalice Lighting: ‘The Old, Old Story’ by Ian W. Riddell (adapted)

Let’s light our chalice flame now, as we do each week. This simple ritual connects us in solidarity with Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists the world over, and reminds us of the proud and historic progressive religious tradition of which we are a part.

(light chalice)

We gather today to remember and relive
the old old story of death defeated by emptiness,
of hope and newness triumphant over fear and separation.

We come, hearts heavy – perhaps – with pain and anxiety,
spirits flattened by exhaustion and apathy,
vision darkened by strife and injustice.

Still, we come seeking – and sharing – connection and love in this place of community.
So may the old, old Easter story of hope and rebirth uplift our hearts
and make us glad in the presence of each other’s love and care.

And may this little chalice flame be to us a symbol of
the light we can hold even in life’s darkest hours.

Candles of Joy and Concern:

Each week when we gather together, we share a simple ritual of candles of joy and concern, an opportunity to light a candle and share something that is in our heart with the community. So we’ve an opportunity now, for anyone who would like to do so, to light a candle and say a few words about what it represents.

To make this technically easier for Jeannene we’re going to go to the people on Zoom first, and take all of those in one go, and then I’ll call on the people in the room to come forward. So to the people on Zoom – you might like to switch to gallery view at this stage – and if you would like to light a real or imaginary candle and tell us who or what you light your candle for – just unmute yourselves when you are ready and speak out – and we should be able to hear you and see you up on the big screen here in the church.

(zoom candles)

And now I invite some of you here in person to come and light a candle and then if you wish to tell us briefly who or what you light your candle for – do use the microphone so everyone can hear. We’re asking people to keep their masks on for this candle lighting today, given the continuing high rates of infection. Thanks all of you for taking care of one another.

(in person candles)

I’d also like to light a candle for Carole Grace, a member of our congregation who many of us will remember fondly, we’ve heard this week from her carers that she’s moved to a new care home… they hope they’ll be able to arrange for her to attend one of our online services soon. And I’m going to light one more candle, as we often do, to represent all those joys and concerns that we hold in our hearts this day, but which we don’t feel able to speak out loud.

Time of Prayer & Reflection based on words by Vivian T. Pomeroy:

Let’s take a moment now to think of all those joys and concerns, both spoken and unspoken… all those little windows into our shared human condition and the life of the world… and let’s hold them – and each other – in a spirit of loving-kindness as we enter into an extended time of prayer.

You might first want to adjust your position for comfort, close your eyes, or soften your gaze. There might be a posture that helps you feel more prayerful. Whatever works for you. Do whatever you need to do to get into the right state of body and mind for us to pray together – to be fully present here and now, in this sacred time and space – with ourselves, with each other, and with that which is both within us and beyond us. (pause)

Spirit of Life, God of All Love, in whom we live and move and have our being.
As we turn our attention to the depths of this life –
the cosmic mystery and wisdom that abides in All-That-Is –
we tune in to your Holy presence, the light within and without.
Be with us now as we allow ourselves to drop into the silence
and stillness at the centre of our being. (pause)

This bright spring morning, this Easter Day, we thank you, God –

For the stir of the Spirit within us;
For the courage equal to every new day;
For the hopes which rise out of the failures of yesterday;
For the resolve which lifts its head above wrong and woe
and affirms its right to repent and begin again;

For the life which cannot be holden by death;
For the healing which comes to wounded hearts in time;
For the sunrise which is eternally greater than our fires and ashes;
For the joy which breaks in, we know not how, and when least expected;
For the disappointment which opens us to better desire;

For the darkness where the roots grow deep down;
For the shining thread of valour and goodwill never lost
through all the strange wanderings of humanity;
For all the labours of those who have sown that others may reap;
For the high calls to duty and service in our own day;

For the goodness which is at the heart of the world;
For the spirit and example of Jesus and all the saints;
For all we love and have ever loved in this precious life;
For the longing we express through our prayer. (pause)

In our company this morning, and every time we gather in community, there will be
those whose hearts are freshly broken open by all the world’s sufferings:
by loss and grief, rejection and loneliness, disappointment and meaninglessness,
by all the horrors and injustices of this world that we witness with anguish and frustration…
Let us spend a moment directing prayers of loving-kindness to those who suffer this day. (pause)

In our company this morning, and every time we gather in community,
there will be those whose hearts are full and overflowing, despite everything:
buoyed by the beauty of nature and culture, comforted and uplifted by family and friends.
Let us spend a moment directing prayers of gratitude for all that is still good in our lives. (pause)

In our company this morning, and every time we gather in community,
there will be those who are simply keeping on keeping on as best they can:
their hearts a blessed, messy, blend of all life’s mixed emotions, in the midst of it all.
Let us spend a quiet moment asking for what we need to face all life’s ups and downs. (pause)

Spirit of Life – God of all Love – as this time of prayer comes to a close,
we offer up our joys and concerns, our hopes and fears,
our beauty and brokenness, and call on you for insight, healing, and renewal.

As we look forward now to the coming week,
help us to live well each day and be our best selves;
using our unique gifts in the service of love, justice and peace. Amen

Hymn 109 (green): ‘Life’s Rebirth’

Let’s sing together now. We’ve got a couple of great Easter hymns today and our first one is ‘Life’s Rebirth’. For those of you present at the church in-person you’ll find the words on your hymn sheet and for those joining via Zoom they’ll be up on your screen to sing along at home. Please feel free to stand or sit, as you prefer, as we sing of ‘Life’s Rebirth’.

A day like many other days
Has seen us gather here to sing
And offer words which reach for thoughts
That lie beyond their capturing;
Yet may those prayers our lives renew:
From rocks of thought a vision hew.

We tell from land to land our tales
Where powers of hope shape life from death,
In differing words that share a dream –
With glorying shout, or whispered breath;
To caves of cold, dark unconcern
We bring our lights of love to burn.

Such warmth can melt a winter’s cold
In human hearts, as flower and field,
And push aside the blocking stone
With which so many a heart is sealed;
May I be never shut inside
The tomb of selfishness and pride.

This day, like many other days,
May see us roll the stone to find
A kindred soul who thirsts for light
Yet to the darkness was resigned;
So may we stretch our hands to lead
To life’s rebirth all those we’ve freed.

Introduce First Reading (Jane)

Our first reading today is by the retired Unitarian minister Cliff Reed. It comes from a collection of poems and prayers, ‘Beyond Darkness’, which he wrote during the first year of the pandemic and published in 2021. This short poem, which Charlotte is going to read for us, is titled ‘Easter 2020’. It draws resonances between the Easter story, and the particular experience of living through the first wave of Covid (not knowing that there would be such a long road and many waves to come), while also acknowledging the many other cycles of crisis and renewal we humans have endured.

Reading: ‘Easter 2020’ by Cliff Reed (read by Charlotte on Zoom)

It was a time of failing hope;
A time of betrayal, despair, and darkness at noon;
A time when fear and death seemed to triumph.

There have been many such times.
Times when it seemed that the pale horse and the
Ghastly rider might drive life from the earth.

Maybe we live in such a blighted time,
Even though we are surrounded
By springtime flowers and bursting buds.

There is a shadow over the world,
Robbing us of the season’s joy,
Mocking its beauty.

But though we must not diminish
The dangers we face, let us remember
That death never has the last word.

The faith of Easter is that beyond darkness
There is light, beyond sorrow there is joy,
Beyond death there is life.

We are called to be messengers of hope
And compassion to each other,
To our neighbours and to the world.

When the crisis passes, may each of us be able
To reflect that we didn’t altogether fail the test
Of love, conscience, and humanity.

We are living through a bitter, fearful spring,
But it will come to an end, and we’ll see
Summer come again.

Words for Meditation: ‘Good Friday’ by Bob Janis-Dillon

Thanks Charlotte. We’ve come now to a time of meditation. I’m going to offer a few words, a prayer-poem titled ‘Good Friday’ by my friend Bob Janis-Dillon, to take us into meditation. This powerful poem imagines all those who suffer – that is, each and every one of us, all of humanity – it imaginatively places us and our sufferings into the heart of the Easter story, right there on the hill at Calvary, where Jesus was crucified. As the saying goes, ‘we all have our cross to bear’.

The poem hints at what’s to come – from the suffering of Good Friday – and the despondent unknowing of Saturday – to the slightest intimation of there being something down the road beyond that sense of hopelessness, which we who listen know will come on Easter Sunday.

These words will be followed by a few minutes of shared stillness. The silence will end with the sound of a bell and then we’ll hear from our quartet singing ‘You Raise Me Up’. So let’s each do what we need to do to get comfortable – adjust your position if you need to – perhaps put your feet flat on the floor to ground and steady yourself – you might like to close your eyes. As we always say, the words are just an offering, feel free to use this time to meditate in your own way.

On this good, good
Friday my heart goes out
to my companions at Calvary,
by which I mean
those who are witnesses
to the death of life and end of love,
those who are broken open like crumbs upon the water,
those who are sick and crying out,
those to whom no music is playing anymore,
anyone lost, anyone lonely,
all thieves and trespassers,
the generous loves dead at the hands of men
and the men and women with imperfect hands,
the poor whose dreams are low to the ground enough
to be reached by the jackboots,
the forsaken under a stormy sky.

My heart goes out
to my companions at Calvary.
I wish I could tell you,
“three short days, and then voila,”
but the truth is, who knows.
I’m here with you, that’s all.
The night is coming and may bring no rest.
Tomorrow may be the day hope finally
gives up the ghost,
and we can stop fussing around with it.
Sunday, if you like,
I’ll come with you to the tomb.

Period of Silence and Stillness (ended with a bell)

Musical Interlude: ‘You Raise Me Up’ by Lovland and Graham (Harold, Margaret, Lucy and Benjie with Peter Crockford)

Reading: ‘I Will Lift up My Voice’ by Robert T. Weston (read by Brian Ellis in person)

I will lift up my voice and sing;
whatever may befall me,
I will still follow the light which kindles song.

I will listen to the music
arising out of grief and joy alike;
I will not deny my voice to the song.

For in the depth of winter, song,
like a bud peeping through the dry crust of earth,
brings back memory,
and creates anew the hope and anticipation of spring;

Out of a world that seems barren of hope,
song decries beauty in the shapes of leafless trees,
lifts our eyes to distant mountain peaks which,
even if we see them not,
remind us that they are there, waiting,
and still calling to us to come up higher.

Out of the destruction of dear hopes,
put of the agony of heartbreak,
song rises once more to whisper to us
that even this is but the stage setting for a new beginning,
and that we shall yet take the pieces of our hearts
and put them together in a pattern
of deeper, truer lights and shades.

I will lift up my voice in song,
for in singing I myself am renewed,
and the darkness of night is touched
by the promise of a new dawn,
for light shall come again.

Some Thoughts on Easter by Rev. Dr. Jane Blackall

Last Monday – no, Tuesday – it was sometime past midnight, I was sat with my dad – my 85-year-old dad – in a pretty crowded A&E waiting room at the Royal London Hospital over in Whitechapel. We’d been there since teatime, nine hours, advised by 111 to go and get him urgently checked out for a symptom that was potentially ominous (he’s fine now, by the way, turns out it was nothing too serious in the end, but that’s not the point of me telling you about this). I just want you to imagine the scene. In the A&E waiting room, in the early hours, surrounded by human suffering and grim-faced endurance, people in all manner of states of pain, misery, and disrepair, each with their own personal ‘cross to bear’. Nobody wants to be in A&E at 3am on a Tuesday morning – neither patients nor staff – unless you are driven there by urgent need or dire suffering and you’ve got nowhere else to turn.

Once the initial assessment had been made, they told us to go home, get some sleep (though not much), and come back the following afternoon for a follow-up scan and a decision on treatment. They would see dad in the ‘Ambulatory Care’ clinic. The phrase caught my ear: Ambulatory Care. I thought: ‘Ambulatory means walking, doesn’t it? This is a clinic for the walking wounded.’

Let me take a few steps back, though. Like I said at the start of the service, today we are reflecting on the Easter story and attempting to draw out those aspects of it that can speak to our condition in the here and now – in a world that’s going through a time of great turmoil and instability – and in which we know so many people are suffering in so many ways. We might think of the news headlines, some of those stories in which we are not directly involved perhaps, but which cause us such angst and anger to witness. The horrifying scenes coming out of Ukraine and the plight of refugees – especially in the light of the government’s proposals to ‘process’ (horrible word) asylum seekers in Rwanda – such dreadful stories are a source of second-hand suffering for many of us right now. But, for many of us, the suffering is getting ever closer to home, with the cost-of-living crisis, and the disintegration of the health, welfare, and social care system, having a significant and widespread impact on quality of life. And, of course, the last two years of the pandemic have certainly taken their toll on us all. Lest we forget, many, many people have died of Covid-19, and many more have long Covid, their lives have been suddenly changed – perhaps forever – as they learn to live with chronic illness and disability. Many relationships have broken up under the strain of lockdowns, people have lost their jobs and livelihoods, and the lack of social connection has been largely dreadful for mental health. But there are so many other sources of personal suffering we could name. ‘All is Dukkha’ as the Buddhists say.

For me, the Easter story is primarily about suffering, and the transformation of suffering. And this is why it is such a powerful story, one that’s so vital for us to engage with, in times like these. You don’t have to believe in the literal bodily resurrection of Jesus (or indeed any element of the story) as historic fact in order to let the story have its way with you and maybe even offer a little hope. But to do that we have to see it as a universal, archetypal, story – one which can speak to the patterns of human life – and Holy Week certainly takes us through a rollercoaster of human experience: triumph, betrayal, downfall, denial, cruelty, suffering, death and defeat; silence and despair; and then… what next? Resurrection, somehow. An astonishing, inexplicable, return from a bleakness which seemed utterly final and inescapable. But Jesus isn’t quite the same figure he was before. His mates don’t even recognise him at first. They mistake him for a gardener, a fellow traveller. It’s not like the clock was just turned back a week and everything restored just as it was before crucifixion. He’s still here, but he is transformed. And he is visibly wounded. The gory evidence of his suffering is plain for all to see.

Perhaps this is where the story can speak to us, right now, how it might resonate in our lives. For, in a sense, we are all the walking wounded. At least, all of us who survive the initial blows of whatever it is life has thrown at us, so far. That’s what I was thinking when I looked round the A&E waiting room at 3am on Tuesday morning, at all my companions, all of us who would rather have been tucked up in bed instead of waiting and hoping for our names to be called and for care to be given. None of us get through this life without enduring some turbulence, at least, along the way. We mustn’t conveniently forget those who have not made it through the worst of life’s trials – that would be survivorship bias – it’s important to realise that in some sense those of us who made it this far, the ‘walking wounded’, are the lucky ones. But for those of us who are still here, on the other side of Easter – having endured our own ‘cross to bear’ – what might we take from the story? How might it speak to our condition?

These days we hear a lot about trauma – individual and collective – and its lasting impact. I’ve heard it said that the collective trauma of the pandemic is going to take us years to work through (this is something that Unitarian Universalist leaders in the US have been taking very seriously over the last year). I’m no trauma expert but one understanding that makes sense to me was laid out by UU minister Elizabeth Strong, who has a PhD in ‘trauma-informed worship’, and she says: ‘trauma, at its root, is any experience that sort of shatters our experience of reality. So, it breaks us open; it breaks us apart; it causes a rupture in our self-understanding and our understanding of how the world works. Pretty much everybody experiences trauma at some point or another in their life.’ (end quote) Yes, trauma varies in its level of intensity, and some people are carrying a great deal more than others. But it seems that pretty much nobody gets through this life unscathed. Such suffering is universal. I suspect that all of us carry at least a few wounds – be they visible or invisible – whether physical, emotional, or spiritual – or maybe they’re old scars by now, somewhat healed and hidden away.

Before I end this short reflection, I wanted to share a little excerpt from a piece by Nadia Bolz-Weber, the famously (and enjoyably) sweary and tattooed rock’n’roll Lutheran pastor. She published this a year ago and I think it really helps to connect the Easter story and our recent collective experience. It’s a letter to God written just as the first vaccines being rolled out and first little shoots of hope were emerging. She wrote: ‘Dear God… many of us are stepping into the first light of a post-pandemic dawn… and one minute I want to run full speed and the next I am unable to move. If I talk too much about what was lost, I feel like a bummer, but if I talk at all about the unexpected gifts, I feel like I’m callous. And I’m not sure I can ever be who I was before, but I’m also not totally sure who everyone else is now, either. My Easter request is this: Help us remember that resurrection isn’t reversal, that as we return to life, we are carrying our own wounds from loss and isolation. But we are also emerging with new beauty and new wisdom. We are not who we were. But we do get to discover who we are. Help us not foreclose on each other. Maybe just grant us a holy curiosity for a while? Please give me courage to trust the hope I feel right now. Save me from squandering this moment of new life. Remind me that all the fear and cynicism in the world never protects me from pain and disappointment in the way I think they will. Give us back to each other when the time is right. May we recognize you, our wounded and resurrected God, in our laughter and our tears…and maybe … even in each other.’

Words by Nadia Bolz-Weber which spoke powerfully to me and I hope they resonated with you too. It seems important to keep this understanding – ‘we are not who we were’ – in our awareness now. We have survived, but we are transformed, and we’ve been wounded too. So, let us remember to take great care with ourselves and each other, as we attempt to discern the way forward, together, in love.

And let’s reprise Cliff Reed’s words as a blessing:

The faith of Easter is that beyond darkness
There is light, beyond sorrow there is joy,
Beyond death there is life.

We are called to be messengers of hope
And compassion to each other,
To our neighbours and to the world.

When the crisis passes, may each of us be able
To reflect that we didn’t altogether fail the test
Of love, conscience, and humanity.

We are living through a bitter, fearful spring,
But it will come to an end, and we’ll see
Summer come again. Amen.

Hymn (Purple 44): ‘Give Thanks for Life’

Time for our last hymn and it’s a stirring one for us to end with: ‘Give Thanks for Life’. Once again the words are on your hymn sheets and will be up on your screens at home. Let us lift up our voices in song: ‘Give Thanks for Life’.

Give thanks for life, the measure of our days,
mortal, we pass through beauty that decays,
yet sing to God our hope, our love, our praise:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Give thanks for those whose lives shone with a light
caught from the Christ-flame, gleaming through the night,
who touched the truth, who burned for what is right:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Give thanks for all, our living and our dead,
thanks for the love by which our life is fed,
a love not changed by time or death or dread:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Sharing of News, Announcements, Introductions

Just a few announcements now: Thanks to Jeannene for being out tech host today and for the enormous amount of work she’s put in to learning and practicing how to do it. Thanks also to Ramona for helping with the set-up this morning. Thanks to Maria for co-hosting on Zoom, to Charlotte and Brian for reading, and to Peter and our quartet for the splendid music today.

For those of you who are here in-person, there’ll be a chance to stay for refreshments if you’d like to, Marianne and Brian will be serving coffee, tea and biscuits in the hall after the service. Please keep your mask on until you get into the hall for the sake of those being Covid-cautious. For those of you who are attending via Zoom there will be virtual coffee hosted by Maria afterwards so do hang around for a chat (though you’ll have to bring your own beverage). There’s also a ‘Getting to Know You’ walk today, which will be led by Patricia and David, setting off at 12.15, lasting about an hour, and it will finish up at Holland Park station.

If you don’t feel like socialising today, you can always drop us an email to say hello, or come along to one of our online events during the week. We have coffee morning as usual at 10.30am this Tuesday, always interesting conversation, and there are still spaces left for our Heart and Soul gatherings (Sunday/Friday at 7) on the theme of ‘Rest for the Weary’ – even if you’ve not been before it’s never too late to start. The congregation very much has a life beyond Sunday mornings; we encourage you to keep in touch and look out for each other.

Now, I am going to hand over to the chair of our congregation, John Humphreys, who has a special presentation and a well-deserved fuss to make.

(John to thank Juliet Edwards for her years of service as treasurer – presentation of flowers).

Next week the service will be back on Zoom at 10.30 and it’ll be led by Sarah Tinker. I’m off on holiday for a few weeks from next Saturday so unless I’m seeing you at Heart and Soul or the coffee morning this week that’s it from me for a bit and I’ll see you back here on 15th May.

Benediction: based on words by William R. Murry and Judith G. Mannheim

It’s time for our closing words and closing music now.

(take candle from chalice)

Let us go forth, this bright Easter morning, with the faith that life is worth living,
That defeat and adversity can be transformed into victory and hope,
That love is eternal, and that life is stronger than death.

May we find joy this Easter, a joy born of life well lived.
May we have love this Easter, bringing healing and new growth.
May we have peace this Easter, a peace that gives us reason to sing.

And may our faith inspire us to live our lives
with dignity, courage, hope, and love,
as we meet the days to come. Amen.

(blow out candle)

Closing Music: ‘With a Voice of Singing’ by Martin Shaw (Harold, Margaret, Lucy and Benjie with Peter Crockford)

Rev. Dr. Jane Blackall

17th April 2022