Sunday 12th July 2020: Action for Children Sunday

 

white and black happy birthday signage

“Act with justice and righteousness” (Jeremiah 22:1-5)

Watch the following video to find out more about the work of Action for Children

Call to worship

The theme of today’s service is ‘Choose Childhood’. Action for Children believes that every child should grow up safe and happy. To make this vision a reality, they offer practical and emotional care and support, make sure children’s voices are heard, and campaign to bring lasting improvements to their lives. Doing this lays the foundations for children to thrive. The work Action for Children does is only possible with our support. The Methodist Church has been by the charity’s side for more than 150 years. But, tragically, there are still thousands of vulnerable children who desperately need our help. With our worship, prayers and gifts, we can make a real difference to these children. Together we can choose safe and happy childhoods for every child.

Our service follows the resources provided for this special Sunday.

Prayer: Heavenly Father, as we gather today with thanksgiving and an open heart, help us to hear you. Fill our hearts with love and compassion for those you have sent us to. Stir up our hearts and strengthen our arms to act with justice and righteousness in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Prayer by Karis Kolawole, Head of Faith Partnerships

Hymn: O Worship The King, All-Glorious Above (Singing the Faith: 113)

Opening prayers

Lord, we lift up the work of Action for Children. We think of all the families who come into contact with the charity and pray your blessing over them. We think of those struggling with their physical or mental health, and pray your peace descends on them. Lord, remove any barriers that may prevent people from reaching out.

We thank you for the thousands of staff members and volunteers who serve children and families, and pray that you would sustain them. Give them the energy and enthusiasm they need to lovingly support those most in need.

We thank you for the infrastructure that makes Action for Children’s work possible: the buildings, the vehicles, the IT – all the variables that help them to reach and serve communities across the UK.

We pray for the leadership and the trustees – may your wisdom and guidance be present as they map out the future of the charity.

We pray for our wider society – we ask that your will be done; from Westminster all the way down to our communities. We ask that lives led by love – love modelled so perfectly by Christ – transform the world we live in. In the name of the King, Jesus, Amen.

Prayer by Megan Ludlow, Bid Manager and Action for Children Christian Network

Choose Childhood: theme for our service

A Responsive Lament based on Psalm 13:1-6

        How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
        Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

        How long will you hide your face from me?
        Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

        How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
        Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

        How long will my enemy triumph over me?
        Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

        But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.
        I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me. 

from https://sjbrown58.wordpress.com – Worship Ideas You Can Use

Reading: Jeremiah 22:1-5

Reflection:

Lyle’s story

Lyle* was physically and emotionally abused by his parents. They punched and kicked him, and he’d often go hungry. After turning to alcohol to numb the pain, Lyle ran away from home. Action for Children stepped in to find him a safe and stable place to live.

“Drugs were always a big problem in my family and there was a lot of violence,” Lyle explains. “I wasn’t fed at home and my big sister would sneak food into her room most nights. But we’d often go days without getting food.”

Lyle was left to fend for himself after his parents threw his sister out. “I didn’t have clean clothes. Mum and dad wouldn’t let me bath or shower. I wasn’t even allowed to get my hair cut,” he says.

After getting bullied at school, Lyle started to isolate himself. At 14, he started drinking. “Mum and dad would offer me alcohol all the time, and eventually I said yes. I’d get home from school and they’d give me glasses of things. I’d just drink them. I couldn’t feel anything. I thought nothing bad could ever happen when I was drunk.”

Lyle left school and found a job he really liked. But things at home got even worse. “I loved my job. But I was the only one putting money in the house. And if I didn’t give the money to them for drugs, they’d take it out on me.”

Lyle’s depression and anxiety started to take their toll. “I just knew I had to get out,” he says. “I left that house with nothing apart from the clothes on my back. I was in a really bad state. I came to Action for Children with nothing.”

Action for Children found Lyle a safe place to live in supported accommodation. “They reminded me that I’m enough,” he says. “They helped me recover from alcohol. Without them, I don’t think I’d be alive. I nearly took my own life and, if it hadn’t been for my support worker coming and just talking to me, I wouldn’t be here.” I’ve got no memories of my childhood. Well, no good “memories anyway. My childhood didn’t exist.”

*We’ve changed Lyle’s name to protect his identity.

Hymn: Beauty For Brokenness (Singing the Faith: 693)

Reading: Luke 4:16-21

Reflection

A prayer to begin: God grant us wisdom and courage for interpretation of words inspired by you as we seek to make them relevant in our lives. Amen

This passage from Luke contains the very first words Jesus speaks as part of his public ministry, when he enters the synagogue, takes the scroll, reads from Isaiah and then declares, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’.

If we were to read Isaiah chapter 61, where Jesus takes this text, we would hear about the ‘not yet’; they shall do this and I will do that – it’s all very future orientated. To give you some context, the Jewish people had been living in exile in Babylon and most had returned, but instead of being that beautiful safe promised land, it’s a bit of a mess and they are bitterly disappointed. Isaiah is assuming that the oppressed have not yet heard the good news, the broken-hearted are still living fractured lives, those in captivity have not been released. It’s a life of still hoping. But don’t worry, folks, God’s got it sorted and this won’t last forever and at some unknown point in time, God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before the whole world. But who knows when that will happen, in the meantime you will have to cling to hope.

And then Jesus comes along and starts as he means to go on by upsetting the respectable people; he turns it all upside down, saying a reckless and arguably blasphemous phrase when he says, it’s no longer in your future, it’s in your now and it starts with me. I’m the one. The one God has anointed. The anointed one is of course, the Messiah. Messiah being the Hebrew name, Christ being the Greek name.

I worry somewhat that we live as if we’re still waiting; still waiting for God to sort it out; still waiting for the kingdom of God. Still waiting as if it’s not already started. As if there are no signs. It’s as if we’re content with saying, well the world’s a pretty messed up place (have you seen the plastic in the oceans, have you heard what’s been going on in the Yemen, did you know about modern-day slavery, have you read some of the Twitter comments from President Trump?), but not to worry, because at some point God will come swooping in and rescue us all from this disaster of our own creation.

Jesus says it’s now. Now’s the time; through me the oppressed have heard the good news, the broken-hearted are being mended, liberty is here, prisoners released.

The Psalms are full of the lament: how long? Psalm 13 begins, ‘How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?’ For some of you, you may be thinking this lament rings true for you right now. How long will this pandemic last? How long until a vaccine is found?  I read these words with new meaning if I choose to put them into the mouth of a neglected child, or a teenager in care, or a couple waiting as they go through the adoption process.

How long? What are we still waiting for? How long are we going to push God’s promise of justice into the future? How long are we going to wait for God to do the rescuing?

It’s tempting to read about the oppressed, broken-hearted and captive and put ourselves into this, assuming it’s talking metaphorically and not literally. Isaiah and Jesus mean the spiritually captive, right? We all need release, all need freedom, all needs our wounds binding up. But what if there was a practical dimension to this too. Now, usually I’m not a biblical literalist – I’m keen to dig deep and shake it up. I firmly believe God’s word is to be found in the Bible and I’m want to apply robust scrutiny to it, to put the text under the microscope and through the lens of 2020. Jesus stood against the heresy of literalism – challenged those who took his words at face value and failed to see the beauty and salvation held within them. Nicodemus got it wrong when he was told he needs to be born again and asks how on earth he can crawl back into this mother’s womb. The Samaritan woman at the well gets it wrong when Jesus offers her living water and she replies ‘Man, you don’t even have a bucket’! It’s a loose translation…

But I just wonder if we’re missing something if we only think this text refers to the poverty of spirit and leaves the politics of prophetic witness along way behind us. I think part of the temptation to turn this message in on ourselves rather than to see it in a wider context of justice, is how culturally focused we are on the individual. We talk a lot about individual rights and responsibilities – because I’m worth it, we say. And whilst there’s nothing wrong with being kind to ourselves and taking care of our needs, we need to be cautious when our own attentiveness comes at the cost of ignoring  someone else’s needs.

John Wesley talked a lot about the need for holiness and whilst there was an emphasis on personal holiness and transformation, he also knew that we had to act collectively to eradicate systemic sin. Long before Martin Luther King, Wesley had a dream of a transformed society, spreading what was known as scriptural holiness.

There’s a great quote from Desmond Tutu: we need to stop pulling people out of the river – we need to head upstream and find out why they fell in. We can pull out individuals, but systemic change requires collective action – that’s one of the churches greatest strengths.

Jesus sets out what his ministry is by using the Isaiah text – it’s sometimes referred to as his gospel manifesto. And he makes it clear that that the work has started and continues with anyone who follows him. Jesus calls for freedom and an end to oppression.

There has to be something of a health warning here though – after Jesus had finished talking in the synagogue, do you remember what happened? Did he convince people listening? The crowd turned against him and wanted to throw him off the cliff. He spoke out, but it was risky. And he eventually paid the ultimate price for speaking out.

Speaking out is brave and it is risky – we might not make friends. Christians in UK culture are not really taken very seriously – often we’re thought to be pretty ineffectual, slightly inoffensive do-gooding hypocrites. In TV and film we’re rarely portrayed as radical, and yet there are some inspiring exceptions. A couple of years ago, Pope Francis declared Oscar Romero a saint, the archbishop in El Salvador executed in his cathedral as he presided over holy communion – he was murdered for taking sides with the oppressed and speaking out against the authorities.

Jeremiah writes, ‘God says: Act with Justice and righteousness and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed.’ So maybe instead of us lamenting and saying how long, instead of putting these words into the mouths of children whose childhood has been robbed, maybe instead we can put them into the mouth of God. Perhaps God is saying to us, how long, how long are you going to be silent? How long are you going to hide your face and not take any action? How long must I bear this pain and sorrow? How long will you deny responsibility for those who are oppressed, broken-hearted and captive?

For vulnerable children in the UK, childhood hurts. In recent years, the number of children at risk of abuse and neglect, poverty and poor mental health has increased. Every child deserves a safe and happy childhood.

So what can we learn from our bible readings today?

Jeremiah calls us to act with justice. Luke reminds us that we’re sent to people in our community who are marginalised or disadvantaged. By choosing childhood, we’re choosing to act with justice on behalf of those who God has sent us to.

So what can we actually do? How can we act with justice in support of young people like Lyle and how can we Choose Childhood? Action for Children have suggested lots of practical ways of acting with justice:

1. Give a regular cash donation to support Action for Children’s work.

2. Leave a legacy gift in your will.

3. Sign up to Action for Children’s Choose Childhood campaign and invite other people to do the same. Go to: actionforchildren.org.uk

4. Write to your MP about the state of childhood today and ask them to do something about it.

5. Find out if there are any volunteer opportunities near you.

6. Befriend a family or young person in your neighbourhood.

7. Pray for the work of Action for Children and the people they support.

8. Give to your local foodbank.

All of this is living out the gospel manifesto of bringing good news to anyone disadvantaged, healing those who are broken, ensuring liberty to those held in captivity. Because we need to stop waiting and crying out, ‘How long?’ Jesus started it – we are given the task of continuing it. The rescue is down to us, by accepting God’s spirit is upon us. That doesn’t mean we’re alone or God isn’t involved or interested, because God’s spirit is with us, equipping us, teaching us how to care.

Amen

Hymn: Pray For A World Where Every Child (Singing the Faith: 527) No video for this one I’m afraid, but the words are perfect, so have a read if you’ve got a hymn book to hand

Prayers for the work of Action for Children

Heavenly Father, in the name of Jesus, we ask that you bring healing to any child or young person who has been the victim of abuse or neglect. They are your children and have been called into your wonderful light. Show them that you see them and know what they are going through. Show them that you are right beside them. No matter how terrible the situation, we pray that they will know that they can lean on you. Open our eyes, Lord, to see any potential signs of abuse and remove every form of ignorance from us. Give these children and young people hope and provide healing in their body, soul and mind. Ease their suffering, Father, and cause a complete restoration in their lives. Amen.

Prayer by Alison Smith, Fostering Marketing Officer and Action for Children Christian Network

Prayer of committal

In celebration of over 150 years of work and witness, we commit ourselves afresh:

Where children cry in need: We will hear their cry.

Where children are denied the gifts of childhood: We will provide for them to delight in good things.

Where there is exclusion or deprivation: We will challenge injustice.

Where poverty is rife: We will share what we have.

Where others also care: We will work with them.

Wherever we see a need: We will pray for means to meet it.

Loving God, you have called us to be your people and to share in the ministry of your Son. Grant us, we pray, ears that are open to the cries of those in need, hearts that are eager to respond, voices that are ready to speak out for the oppressed, and hands that are active in sharing your bounty. In the name of Christ our Lord. Amen.

Prayer by the Reverend Dr Jonathan Hustler, Secretary of the Methodist Conference

The Lord’s Prayer

A final video from Action for Children about the particular difficulties of working throughout this pandemic:

Hymn: God of justice, Saviour to all (Singing the Faith: 699)

Blessing

And now many we go into the world in peace,

encouraging the faint-hearted,

helping the weak,

honouring everyone and always seeking to do good to all whoever we encounter.

May we rejoice always, 

pray without ceasing,  

give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Amen

(based on 1 Thessalonians 5: 13-22)

For details of how to donate to Action for Children, please go to: https://www.actionforchildren.org.uk/donate

Donate now to the Emergency Appeal – https://bit.ly/33JKUW3 – or by texting “URGENT” to 70175 to donate £10 and allow Action for Children frontline workers to continue their much needed services.

Sunday 5th July 2020

two person on green mesh hammock outdoor

Service sheet

Call to worship

Come to me,

all you who are weary and burdened,

 and I will give you rest.

We come, Lord Jesus,

we are weary and heavily burdened

and long for the rest you give.

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,

 for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

We take your yoke upon us, Lord Jesus,

make it easy and lighten our load.

I am gentle and humble in heart,

and you will find rest for your souls.

We come to find that rest for our souls.

Be gentle, Lord Jesus, and humble our hearts.

Hymn: All my hope on God is founded (Singing the Faith 455)

Opening prayer

That I have been given one more day, I give thanks.

That the birds still sing each morning, impossibly early outside my window, I give thanks.

For the sun rising once again in the East, I give thanks.

That for this day I have bread, I give thanks.

For drinkable water, for breathable air, and chocolate biscuits, I give thanks.

For one more day of mobility I give thanks.

For novelists who create worlds and characters and stories for our minds and not for our TVs, I give thanks.

For mobile phone reception, and I-guess-its-better-than-nothing Skype calls with my family and reliable internet service, I give thanks.

That I am loved, I give thanks

That I am forgiven, I give thanks.

That I am alive, I give thanks.

That you, O God are known by many names, I give thanks. 

That you, O God are present when I feel only your absence I give thanks. 

That you are God and I am not, I give the most thanks. Forgive me when I forget that one.

And for every other gift I am too self-obsessed to see, but that totally comes from you -Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. 

Amen.

(Adapted from Nadia Bolz-Weber)

Reading: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

Reflection

Our journey through Genesis continues, and this week we have a much nicer story about seeking a wife for Isaac. Our cultural differences might cause discomfort about the servant of Abraham finding Rebekah and arranging a marriage, or Rebekah’s brother Laban seeing the rings and bracelets this servant bestows on Rebekah and then being totally at ease with her being whisked away. But firstly I want to point to the fact that Rebekah’s consent was sought – ‘will you go?’ she is asked. ‘I will’, she replies. She has the choice to say no. And secondly that there are themes here about fidelity, loyalty, blessings and the guidance of God.

The unnamed servant trusts that God will provide. Prayers for guidance are made, that whoever appears at the well and offers water for him and his camels will be the one. The servant is seeking someone kind, generous, hospitable and Rebekah does not disappoint. Seemingly God does nothing throughout these events.  God says nothing and does not obviously appear to intervene. So how is this more than just a story of an arranged marriage – what has this got to do with God?

How often in life have you felt God’s guidance at the time? Perhaps the answer to that is, all the time! If so, what a blessing for you. But for some of us, we notice God’s guidance sometimes after the event. We look back and realise that God was working, unseen, unspoken, unnoticed, but silently guiding and it is our perspective of faith which looks back and sees that God was there all along. It’s only when we reflect on our life that for some of us, we can see that God has always been present.

There are certainly events in my life where at the time things were pretty grim and for some of those times I wasn’t aware of God’s presence. Now I’ve said before, I don’t believe that God engineers situations to teach us a lesson, and certainly not that God does anything to will us harm. But through those life events, good or bad, I now view them through the lens of my relationship with God and can see that God was working through them. It may not have been apparent at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight I can see. I understand those events better now than when I was going through them.

We live in a culture that demands proof, and when proof is not forthcoming, the only alternative is scepticism and denial. How often do we grasp for visible signs of faith? Do not put God to the test, we are told by Jesus. The workings of God are not spectacular or magical. They are not some parlour trick where we’re left wondering how it was pulled off. The workings of God are so very often ordinary.

One of the things this passage can help teach us, is to trust. Trust that God will provide. Trust that God is not idle. Trust that God cares about the mundane aspects of our lives, enough to care when we choose to share these snippets of ordinary delights and worries. Abraham trusts God that his servant will carry out his request. Abraham’ servant trusted that a wife would be found. Rebekah trusts God that this marriage is God’s will for her and Isaac.

I sometimes wonder at how God has time or the attention span or the emotional energy to think about me, to care about what I care about. But God is God and I am not God and God is not me, and thank God for that! Because one of the lovely things about this ordinary tale of how two people ended up together is that God is not so busy, not otherwise occupied that God will not give us the care and attention. Through creation God creates, creates life and creates relationships. God seems to delight wherever love is found. Through the covenant, God renews the commitment made at creation to be intimately woven in our lives. So if, like me, you sometimes wonder whether God might just be ignoring you, or too busy to care, remind yourself that God’s love for you is deeply personal. God created you, loves you, wills nothing but good for you, wants you to stay connected. The danger is we so often lead our lives as if we believe God isn’t present, or that God is idle. When we live in the knowledge that even when God seems to be silent, God remains faithful to us. And with that knowledge, we become more attentive to God’s presence. And when we are more attentive to God’s presence it strengthens our relationships, not just with God but with those around us as we notice the presence of God within them.

Our story today is about journeying and hospitality. It’s about strangers who become family. It’s about taking risks and finding a place to call home. It’s a love story and a faith story and a hope story. It helps us to be brave in the knowledge that God is with us, in our past, our present and our future.

Hymn: Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us (Singing the Faith 238)

Reading: Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30

Reflection

Imagine there was a relationship at the very heart of the universe that existed between a Father and a Son. Imagine if that relationship wasn’t tarnished by our own edgy, messy and often complicated relationships with our own father’s, or mother’s, but modelled exactly what each of us would seek to have and seek to be. Imagine if the very closest relationship was between a parent and their child, a picture of love in perfection, and that this relationship was the touchstone for every other relationship in the whole history of the cosmos. Then imagine that you personally have been invited into that relationship, not just to witness it from the outside, but share it from the inside. To share the intimacy, to share the shorthand each family uses, to share the bond.

That relationship is what we call Christianity. That relationship is at the heart of everything in the universe. It is cosmic and it is intimate. It is deeply immersed in love.

I read this week that there is a clear correlation between childhood trauma and abuse and addiction. It’s not very surprising actually, that those people who was subject to abuse in their developing years have deep issues of trust, and seek feelings of pleasure and security not from people but from chemicals, because chemicals deliver and people let you down. We know that if you have strong relationships in your life, you can do almost anything. And the opposite is equally true; you can do almost nothing if your relationships are damaging and dysfunctional. Have you ever had a job you hated? How much easier was it to go to work if you enjoyed spending time with your colleagues – we can endure hardship when we are supported through our relationships. Whilst I think weddings are always cause for celebration, how much more should we celebrate a Diamond Wedding Anniversary? To celebrate those many years of successful marriage that have developed over time and those individuals have become better stronger people because of the strength they gained from that relationship.

We are not designed to live separately. We are designed to live in relationships, whether with colleagues, with friends, with family, with church family. This is why lockdown has been so harmful for those who are either alone, or who live in a state of loneliness because of a bad relationship. It creates discord.  

The word ‘comfort’ may sound a trifle banal, but if we break down the word origin, we find ‘com’ means together and the ‘fort’ is a place of safety – to be comforted is to be surrounded by the protective fortress of another person. ‘Companion’ has the same initial word origin – ‘pain’, French for bread – a companion is another person we break bread with.

Jesus understood that though life might be hard, we can thrive if we exist in relationship. And because our relationships with our parents, our spouses or even our friends are not always positive ones, Jesus demonstrates that personal relationship with God as the one in which we can do all things. In Philippians 4:13 we read, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’ This is the relationship we need to model all other relationships on. The relationship we are invited to exist within. Amen

Wherever she goes

Wherever she goes, the boxes go with her.

Big boxes, medium, and small.

Different shapes. All individually wrapped.

 Some in simple brown-paper packaging,

others more elaborate,

and tied with an exuberance of ribbons.

Wherever she goes, the boxes go with her.

All of the boxes. All of the time.

And in each box, no matter how haphazard, or carefully wrapped,

the contents are, essentially, the same:

cans of worms, that do not bear opening.

Wherever she goes, the boxes go with her.

Over the course of time she has spent her life gathering boxes:

adding to her collection

until she can hardly walk under the soul-crushing weight of them.

There is guilt, and shame,

and a whole bundle of small boxed regrets, in purple wrap.

There is anger— wrapped red, and envy— a poisonous green;

a big, black box, where all her hurts are housed, and nursed.

Wherever she goes, the boxes go with her.

At the top of the pile is a small box, plain wrapped,

 in which only emptiness is found:

her lack of forgiveness to herself:

the harshness of the human heart, is a fearful and terrible judge.

Wherever she goes, the boxes go with her.

And she is exhausted, with the carrying of them.

So heavy and burdensome, that her back is bent,

and she can no longer see the sky.

In her bone-weary tiredness, she almost misses the invitation,

and the hand held, outstretched:

“Come to me, all you that are weary, and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

She tastes the word ‘all’ tentatively, and savours freedom.

The offer includes even her, with so many, many boxes.

She sniffs the word ‘rest’ carefully;

it smells sweet: and her back begins to straighten,

and the boxes begin to tumble all about her.

Wherever she went, the boxes went with her.

Until the day she chose the gifts of compassion and grace.

Now wherever she goes there is a lightness about her,

a spring in her step… and she never tires of seeing the sky.

Hymn : My soul finds rest in God alone (Singing the Faith 633) I confess I didn’t know this new hymn, but the words seem to fit so perfectly, it’s worth reading it through even if, like me,  you don’t know the tune.

Prayers of Intercession

Prayer is where we receive. For prayer is essentially the opening up of ourselves to the love, light and truth of God. Prayer is communion; it is that centred-ness when we touch the rock, when we have access to the very heart of things. Yes, prayer also involves work – especially the hard work of intercession; but true intercession arises first out of communion. The yoke of prayer is easy, the burden of prayer is light, for we pray in and through Jesus himself and in the Spirit who prays within us.

O Holy God, we are weary. Weary of staying indoors. Weary of not seeing the people we love. Weary of seeing the people we love but not being able to hold them. Weary of hearing about illness and death. Weary of feeling anxious.

We come to you because we are weary and heavy-laden. Give us your rest we pray

O Holy God, the medical staff are weary. Physically weary from those long shifts. Weary of seeing pictures on the news of people taking unnecessary risks. Weary of worrying about a second spike to this virus. Weary of not knowing how much more they can take.

We hold before you these precious ones you because they are weary and heavy-laden. Give them your rest we pray

O Holy God, the teenagers are weary. Weary of worrying about exam grades they have no control over. Weary of an uncertain future. Weary of only seeing their parents. Weary of the pressure of social media.

We hold before you these precious ones you because they are weary and heavy-laden. Give them your rest we pray

O Holy God, the politicians are weary. Weary of the worry of making a mistake. Weary of the responsibility. Weary of the criticism.

We hold before you these precious ones you because they are weary and heavy-laden. Give them your rest we pray

O Holy God, our planet is weary. Weary of the exploitation. Weary of the pollution and debris. Weary the attempts to heal are thwarted at every turn.

We hold before you this precious one you because it is weary and heavy-laden. Give it your rest we pray

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins

as we forgive those who sin against us.

Lead us not into temptation

but deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power,

and the glory are yours

now and for ever.

Amen.

Hymn: Your hand, O God, has guided (Sing the Faith 692)

Blessing

In our weariness we come before you, God:

carrying our burdens.

We come before you, God:

confused and uncertain,

fragile and shaky.

In you we find what we need.

Support us and make us strong, O Holy One.

Unite us as people

and make the bonds between us stable.

Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer—three in one,

you are the arch of Divine Love

that holds together our whole existence.

(Some material taken from © Spill the Beans & The Church of Scotland worship resources)

Sunday 28th June

man holding card with seeking human kindness text

Service sheet

Call to worship

Some of us are hurting,

some of us are smarting.

All are welcome in this place.

Some of us are very young,

some of us are getting old.

All are welcome in this place.

Some of us have hearts of gladness,

some of us are filled with grief.

All are welcome in this place.

The strong and the weak,

the faithful and doubter,

the saint and sinner,

the regular and visitor.

All are welcome in this place.

Hymn: Let us build a house (Singing the Faith 409)

Opening prayers

Welcoming God, we come to you as we often do,

knowing that you are waiting with open arms,

ready to welcome us, your family, here in this place.

Welcoming Jesus, so often the recipient of hospitality

and yet willing to sit with anyone,

saint and sinner alike,

we come to you

knowing you are prepared to budge up and let us sit with you.

Welcoming Spirit, so often hidden from sight

and yet so large a part of any gathering of God’s people,

we come to you

knowing that the whispers of welcome are all around us.

Knowing we are welcomed

and yet knowing that we have not always been deserving of that welcome,

your wide arms of grace, O God, are too much to take in.

When we come with our heads dipped in shame

you gently lift our chins, gaze into our eyes,

and say: welcome child, so good to see you.

Lord, may we never take this for granted,

try harder to live up to your gracious welcome,

accept your love and, in turn, offer that same love

and welcome to all whom we meet.

Lord, gracious Lord, hear our prayer. Amen.

Reading: Genesis 22:1-14

Reflection

We our lectionary readings just seem to be getting tougher and tougher. When people are asked to describe the God of the Old Testament, most might think of a belligerent being, full of wrath and punishment rather than full of loving kindness; a God of violence and fear.  And I’m afraid this story of Abraham and Isaac does nothing to dispel this myth.

Last week we spent some time thinking about the cost of discipleship – was Abraham really prepared to pay the price with the life of his son? Because I need to get one thing straight – that’s a price I am absolutely not prepared to pay.

Neither God nor Abraham come out of this story well. God appears like an arbitrary trickster, testing Abraham with cruel dares, who then drops the game of Russian roulette at the very last second. English translations use the word knife, but in the original Hebrew it was more like a cleaver, a tool for butchering. This is frightening and gruesome. Isaac must have been deeply traumatised by this event; his trust in his parent and God shaken to the very core. Make no mistake, what is being described here is child abuse. If the purpose of this event was to make Abraham fear God, then it probably worked, but it certainly won’t have made Abraham, or indeed Isaac, love God.

And what of Abraham, and his willingness to appease God in this way? Who in their right mind would ever agree to such an act? Years ago, I struck up a conversation in a café with a woman who told me that she believed God had told her to give away all of her possessions. Which she did. All of her furniture, including her son’s bed. Inevitably social services got involved and her son was removed into a foster family. I looked aghast at her story, at which point she told me not to feel sorry for her, because she was following the will of God and although she might not understand his reasons, who was she to question the Almighty? I could only conclude this woman had some fairly serious mental health issues resulting in her making some catastrophic choices.

And where is Sarah in all of this? I can’t think Abraham has discussed murdering her beloved much longed-for only son. The fact he sneaks off early in the morning suggest he’s left her sleeping in blissful ignorance. How was he going to tell her? What was he going to tell her? Would he use the excuse of Nazi guards: I was only obeying orders?

If we were to judge the bible on this one story, well, I’m not sure I would have stuck with it. But if we choose to stick with it, to wrestle with the complexities of these challenging stories, like the woman looking for her lost coin, there is treasure to be found here. When we have doubts, when we lose faith in where we can find the good news in the bible, if we spend time searching, sweeping away the debris of our assumptions, we can be surprised by a nugget, a gem, that will sustain us.

So how on earth do we redeem the story of Abraham raising a knife to his son who he had tied down? Well, upon closer examination, there’s plenty that resonates in the story of Abraham and Isaac.

What if we have been wrong all this time in assuming that the test God sets for Abraham is the one he passes? What the real test were to see if Abraham would reject the notion of sacrifice and killing? What if the real test were to see if Abraham was prepared to stand up for the rights of someone else and at the point he is failing this test, God has to step in and prevent the very thing God abhors? What if Abraham’s leap of faith was in the wrong direction? What if the test was to see if Abraham would protect the vulnerable one placed in his care? What if the test was to see if he would stand firm, to step up, to say no? What if God did what God always does, to save and redeem?

Human sacrifice was widespread throughout the various other religions at the time when Abraham and Sarah lived. The other gods people worshipped demanded spilling of human blood, including that of child sacrifices. These gods required offerings to keep them happy or there would be terrible consequences. To keep life secure and safe, the appetite of the gods had to be fed. Sounds dreadful doesn’t it? Who would worship such gods? But the people believed in the superstition of these religions that by making such sacrifices they would be able to prevent bad things from happening. And if bad things did happen, they had a reason: the gods needed more.

At first glance this seems so removed from our experiences as to have nothing in common with how we live today. But let’s take a deeper look. God is not interested in sacrifices or offerings or any attempt to curry favour. When we read many of the prophets, this is the message we get: ‘you’re worship is unacceptable because you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. I want your heart not lip service. I want your life not your death.’ If we look a bit closer into the God of the Old Testament, we will find this is not a God of fear and punishment, but a God who wants a genuine relationship, a covenant written on our hearts not on tablets of stone.

Today, we sacrifice people in all sorts of other ways. We might not have blood sacrifices, but make no mistake, in a profit-driven society where the economy rules, some lives are expendable. Lives are lost on the altar of consumerism when, as if we were gods, we demand cheap clothes and don’t ask questions about the horrendous working conditions of sweatshops. Lives are lost on the altar of energy consumption when, as if we were gods, we demand cheap airfares and cheap electricity and don’t ask questions about who dies as a direct result of climate change. Lives are lost on the altar of non-seasonal vegetables when, as if we were gods, we demand a full variety of cheap food all year long and don’t ask questions about land in developing nations being turned over to cash crops causing malnutrition to locals. Sacrificing people is a way of keeping economies afloat. Perhaps we are being tested like Abraham and we are failing to protect the vulnerable ones, failing to step up and take responsibility, failing to say no to this sacrifice.

God still has some explaining to do in my book about why Abraham was put to this test in the first place. When I read the bible, I hear stories of liberation and redemption woven throughout. I read about the God who notices suffering and steps into that experience, but is not the cause of it. I read about Jesus who was an ally to the poor, the disabled, the marginalised, who healed and offered hope. So I still have issues with this passage of scripture and cannot justify the scene of abuse we witness. But I also need to locate myself as one who unwittingly and occasionally deliberately causes pain to others. And for today, this story is making me question myself and the role of the church in those times when abuse has happened, for us to own up to that, to accept our responsibility, to repent and for God to allow redemption to flow through us.

Isaac was bound to a place of pain and death. Many of us bind ourselves and by our actions bind others to places of pain. It is through the salvation Jesus offers us that we are released from this bondage. In Jesus there is freedom and life.

There is a phrase repeated three times in this story – “Here I am”. It isn’t God who says that, but Abraham. Can we imagine God calling us now, by name? Calling us to into freedom, calling us into a transformed life. And we don’t need to do anything else but say, ‘Here I am’. God transforms our pain. God provides what we need. When everything looks desperate, our faithful and eternal God stands firm and true and can redeem even the most hopeless of times. And that, my friends, is where I have found good news in this story of Abraham and Isaac. That it actually isn’t about abuse or sacrifice or making wrong choices, but that it’s really about saying to God, ‘Here I am, take me, bind me to you, transform me.’ Amen

Hymn: O, the love of my Lord is the essence (Singing the Faith 431)

Reading: Jeremiah 28:5-9

Reading: Matthew 10: 40-42

Reflection

We’re back to our theme of hospitality again with Jesus, and if we remember, this is all part of the chunk in Matthew in which Jesus is giving his disciples instructions for their mission. This is about both giving and receiving. This is a no-strings-attached gospel message. And it rather flies in the face of the cynical move from our government, recently merging the Department of International Development in with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, stipulating that our foreign aid will now come with strings attached. And those strings are there has to be something beneficial to the UK. I struggle to find the gospel within that decision.

Jesus, as we know, didn’t keep respectable company. He didn’t stick to his tribe. He didn’t stay in his lane. Instead, he behaves in a Spirit-filled way, taking risks, determined to take good news to whoever he meets.

Jesus brings light and life to all he meets. By expecting the best from people, it encourages hospitality. It raises everyone’s behaviour. Because as we know, laughter and kindness and love are more infectious than a virus. If we want others to know the good news found in Jesus, in order for them to find that, to be able to see Jesus in us, we need to behave like he did. Uncompromising in our compassion.

Discipleship doesn’t need to be heroic. Sometimes it’s offering someone a glass of cold water. Small actions may not change the world, but they may change someone’s day. If we were turn to Matthew 25, the story of the sheep and the goats, we would hear that if we respond to the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, we are doing this to Christ and our challenge is to see Christ in those we meet. Our passage for today turns the concept on us – when we are doing these things, people might just be able to see Christ in us. By allowing people to welcome us, they are welcoming Christ.

I was listening to the Rev Samuel Wells during the week talking about the time when he visited a hospital in Malawi, surrounded by overcrowded wards full of frail emaciated bodies. He felt uncomfortable as people reached out to him and as the medical staff told the patients that someone would attend to them later. As they were leaving he felt a tug on his clothes. He turned around, unable to hide his irritation knowing he had nothing to offer this person and snapped, ‘What do you want? I can’t help.’ The sick man was lying on the floor and said to Sam,’ You look tired doctor. I thought you might need to share some of my food,’ and the man pushed his plastic plate of watery food towards Sam. Sam found himself staring into the face of Christ.

In whose face will you see Christ today? For who will you be the face of Christ today?

Prayers of Intercession

For those who have been abused; for those who are experiencing abuse now; for those who work with survivors of abuse; for all of these and more, we pray…

For those who cause pain deliberately; for those who cause pain through their neglect; for those who cause pain unintentionally; for all of these and more, we pray…

For children with inadequate parents; for children who go hungry; for children who are forced into work; for all of these and more, we pray…

For those living with the effects of climate change; for our own complicity in damaging the environment; for corporations putting profit above care for the earth; for all of these and more, we pray…

For those who are dying; for those who are grieving; for those who work in the funeral industry; for all of these and more, we pray…

For the ones I love; for the ones I struggle to love; for me; for all these and more, I pray…

Holy and ever-present God, you hear our prayers. The polished articulate ones. The mumbled desperate ones. The silent groaning ones. You hear them and you envelope your loving presence around our concerns. We are grateful we are never alone and we hold onto your promise that you are always with us. Amen

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins

as we forgive those who sin against us.

Lead us not into temptation

but deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power,

and the glory are yours

now and for ever.

Amen.

Hymn: Let love be real (Singing the Faith 615)

Blessing

May the beauty of God
be reflected in your eyes,
the love of God
be reflected in your hands,
the wisdom of God
be reflected in your words,
and the knowledge of God
flow from your heart,
that all might see,
and seeing,  believe.

Sunday 21st June 2020

Sunday 21st June 2020

Service sheet

two hands

Call to worship

“The student is not above the teacher, 

nor a servant above his master.”

We are here to learn of Christ’s ways.

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? 

Yet not one of them will fall to the ground

outside your Father’s care.”

We are here in gratitude for all God’s care.

“Whoever finds their life will lose it,

and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”

We are here to find ourselves by losing ourselves in worship.

Hymn: Speak, O Lord, as we come to you (Singing the Faith 161. Not in Hymns & Psalms)

Opening prayers

st hilda community prayer

be silent
be still
alone empty
before your god
say nothing
ask nothing
be silent
be still
let your god
look upon you
that is all
she knows
she understands
she loves you with
an enormous love
she only wants to
look upon you
with her love
quiet
still
be

A poem by Benjamin Zephaniah : People need people


Reading: Genesis 21:8-21

Reflection

Our lectionary reading picks up from where we left off last week. We spent time with Sarah & Abraham, thinking about laughter and we finished with the joyous birth of Isaac.

This week: not so much laughter. Our story shifts focus onto Hagar. Remember Hagar? She’s the slave who Sarah tells Abraham to sleep with. When Hagar becomes pregnant, Sarah treats her so badly that she runs away.

But now Isaac has been born and that changes everything. Sarah sees Ishmael as a threat. Up until now she has been able to ignore this foreign woman’s child – a child born out of wedlock to a woman with no rights – there’s a name for children like that which I won’t repeat.  Whilst Ishmael was younger Sarah could pretend he didn’t exist. But now he’s a lanky teenager, and Sarah has a baby to protect. A baby whose inheritance rights she wants to protect. A baby whose financial security she wants to protect. A baby whose reputation and family name she wants to protect. She’s doing what every mother, every parent should do; put the protection of their child over all else.

Sarah sees this teenager playing. She sees Ishmael playing with Isaac – she can’t have them being friends. She can’t have Isaac being sympathetic to this cuckoo in their nest.

The fact was, Sarah had legal rights over Hagar. She had the power to order Hagar to have sex with her husband and that meant she also had the right to claim any children Hagar bore as her own. Hagar not only has no rights over her own body, she has no rights over the child she birthed from her body.

And so Sarah uses the power she has and tells Abraham to get that slave and her mongrel son out of her house. It is so easy to see Sarah as the villain of this story – a pantomime baddie who we all want to boo off the stage. She’s behaved appallingly with unnecessary cruelty – of course our sympathies are with Hagar, who has done nothing wrong.

But where exactly is Abraham in all of this? The supposed head of this household. The voice of authority. The man who would have countless descendants. To reduce this to a win-lose scenario, where Sarah wins and Hagar loses somewhat misses the point. These women are both bound by the disempowering force of the patriarchy. A system where inheritance only goes to the sons and not the daughters. A system where status comes through fertility. A system where women have restricted freedom, restricted choices, are subject to ownership by firstly their fathers and then their husbands. Under this system, everyone loses, even the men.  And so, a bit like with Mary & Martha in the gospels, I’m much less interested in setting these two women up against one another, and much more interested in the lack of agency of both women. Now, that’s not to say that they have equal status in this story, or that they equally suffer. But we do the bible and ourselves a disservice if we reduce everything down to binary issues, where there are always sides to be taken.

Ishmael, like Isaac, is promised he will have many descendants. History suggests that through the lineage of Abraham and Isaac, we have both the Jewish and Christian faiths, whereas through the lineage of Ishmael we are brought to the Muslim faith. Another reason why it would be easy to pit these two women and their sons against one another – the clash of these world religious – and why it is so important not to see them as victor and victim, goodie and baddie.

Spineless Abraham sends Hagar packing with some bread and water for her journey for who knows how long. She has nowhere to go. No home. No family. No friends. What on earth was she supposed to do? How was she supposed to protect her son in the wilderness? And our story takes a dangerous turn; the water has been drunk, her son is sleeping in the shade of a bush and Hagar has run out of options. So she cries to God: don’t let my son die. And God hears her. God promises her that her son will be the father of a great nation. Remember this is Ishmael, whose descendants will be the Ishmaelites, also known as the Arabians, also known as the Muslims. A great nation, God says.

God then opens Hagar’s eyes and she sees a well. Salvation. Relief.

Tomorrow is Windrush Day. It was on 22 June 1948 that several hundred people arrived from the Caribbean on board the HMS Empire Windrush to start a new life in Britain. Caribbean people who had served in the British armed forces were encouraged to come to Britain to work. More people followed. It is estimated that around 500,000 people living in the UK are part of the Windrush generation. Windrush Day celebrates these arrivals and seeks to honour the diverse contributions the Caribbean community has made to British society.

Like many migrants, they arrived in a spirit of hope. But very quickly they faced discrimination. They have lived with and in a hostile environment.  On Windrush Day we are invited to reflect on what it means to be a migrant, to be the descendent of a migrant. We are invited to reflect on our own responsibility towards those whose nationality or ethnicity prompts racist reactions.

This week I’ve watched the BBC programme, Sitting in Limbo, based on the true story of Anthony Bryan. He came to the UK from Jamaica aged 8, with this mother, who worked for the NHS. 50 years later, under the government’s Hostile Environment policy, he was detained and threatened with deportation because he failed to satisfy the Home Office that he had a right to live and work here. It made my blood boil, but I strongly recommend you watch it – it’s still available on iPlayer.

Delores Williams, a black womanist theologian, sees the story of Hagar through the lens of the experience of many black women. She says Hagar, like “many black women, goes into the wide world to make a living for herself and for her child, with only God by her side.” Like many black women throughout history and for some living today, they have no expectation of receiving justice, little control over their lives, whose colour subjects them to unfair treatment and abuse.

For African-American women in particular, whose ancestors were slaves, the story of Hagar is far too familiar. For foreigners living a life of servitude, the story of Hagar is far too familiar. For single mothers living in poverty, the story of Hagar is far too familiar. For women who have experienced sexual abuse, the story of Hagar is far too familiar.

So for those of us who are not black, and those of you who are not female, what can this story tell us today? Well, firstly, this story can help us identify if we ever react like Sarah, with petty jealousies and vindictiveness. Sarah had power over Hagar but wanted more. Hagar’s suffering was increased through Sarah’s cruelty. So maybe, we need to ask ourselves, might we be part of the problem? In an age when we hear the slogan, Black Lives Matter, is our first response to shout back, but hey, I thought all lives matter? It’s important to sit with that slogan, Black Lives Matter, because the fact it needs saying implies that some people need reminding that black lives matter at all. In the same way that women’s lives matter or disabled lives matter or old lives matter. People who treat others as less than equal need reminding that these specific lives matter and not just their own. And that’s about recognising the stamp of the divine put within all of us at creation, when God points at humankind and said that’s good, I’m pleased with that. 

Abraham sends Hagar out with a skein of water which quickly runs out. God provides a well, where the depth of water is virtually fathomless. Our generosity so often has limits, but God’s generosity is without boundaries. Are we generous with our time, our money, our space, our love, or are we people who sit back and allow a hostile environment to perpetuate, putting limits on who we think deserves our help or attention?

Finally, God hears the cries of those who are hurting. As we think about Windrush, and Grenfell, and George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and Stephen Lawrence and countless other names whose names are forgotten by us but eternally remembered by God, as we think on all of these tragedies, these acts of abuse against black people, we can add our voices to those who cry out to God, don’t let them die. Don’t let any more of them die. God sees and hears the suffering, the abuse, the racism, the discrimination and God is with them. We sometimes hear that there is no favouritism in God, but I read this story of Hagar and am struck by how God shows favour to her, because God is there in her need. To God, Hagar and Ishmael are fully human, when they have been treated as commodities, their humanity trampled on. We cannot limit God’s mercy. God hears the cry of the abandoned. God hears the cry of the outcast, and God saves. Perhaps now is the time to listen to those who suffer, to be instruments of God’s salvation, to enact God’s generosity with those we know are suffering. 

Hymn: We turn to God when we are sorely pressed (Singing the Faith 640. Not in Hymns & Psalms)

Reading: Matthew 10:24-39

Reflection

Oh my goodness, there is so much in this passage in Matthew that causes problems. It certainly raises more questions than I have answers for:

  • It speaks of slavery without condemnation
  • It speaks of the ‘one who can destroy both soul and body in hell’ – is Jesus talking about the devil?
  • The sparrows bit doesn’t seem to follow
  • I’m very uncomfortable about the idea that Jesus will deny anyone – what about Peter’s three denials on Good Friday?
  • As a pacifist I really want to push back about Jesus not bringing peace but a sword – perhaps my least favourite bible verse
  • Jesus is talking about disunity, disharmony, causing deliberate rifts among families – this isn’t the Jesus I know and love

So what is going on here?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian. He was a major critic of the Nazi Party and their rise to power in the 1930’s and he eventually joined a plot to assassinate Hitler. He wrote The Cost of Discipleship years before this, in which he lays out what it actually means to be a Christian, and the demands discipleship places upon each of us. Bonhoeffer paid the ultimate cost of discipleship with his own life as he was executed shortly before the end of the Second World War. I’ve read this book and was troubled by it – Bonhoeffer was arguing that being a Christian was hard. It involves making tough choices. I found nothing in his book about people who are heavy laden coming to Jesus and being given rest. There was nothing about joy or happiness or even much about love and relationships. In short, I hated it.

But I now look at Bonhoeffer’s book through a different lens. Because our challenge is about what we might be prepared to lose in order to ensure the suffering of others cease. For those of us who live comfortable lives, and by that I mean, having the finances to afford decent housing, three meals a day, and heating, for those of us whose sleep is uninterrupted by money worries, we are wealthy. We are very wealthy by comparison to those who lack these basic necessities. For those of us who are white, it is very unlikely that we will suffer lack of opportunity because of our skin colour. We may experience lack of opportunity for all sorts of other reasons, but our ethnicity is unlikely to be the reason.

But hang on a minute Rachel, you might be asking. What about quotas? What about companies who are now committed to employing a certain percentage of people from ethnic minorities? Doesn’t that mean white folk lose out? What about positive discrimination? All black or all female shortlists? Isn’t this political correctness gone mad?

If we truly seek God’s justice – God’s kingdom come here on earth as it is in heaven – if we mean it when we pray it, what are we prepared to lose in order that others can win? What cost to us are we prepared to pay? Because in order that those who are marginalised are given the same opportunities, the same dignities, the same standards of living, as those of us who have more than our fair share, we might be expected to relinquish some of it. To have fair wealth distribution, fair food distribution, fair education distribution, those of us who have never questioned these matters might be being asked by Jesus to take a long hard look at ourselves.

This is a hard passage to read, and I don’t have the answers, I just have more questions. But what if we read this passage about hell, and denial, and division, and swords and recognised that in living our comfortable lives, in choosing to ignore suffering , we are allowing these things to flourish. What if the cost to our discipleship was to make us a bit less comfortable? The gospel forces us to make choices that disrupt us. Those choices may disrupt our lifestyles and our relationships. What are we prepared to risk for Jesus? Are we prepared to risk our reputation, our social status? What injustices have we been willing to accept to ensure our own comfort?  Because that is a discipleship that requires no cost at all.

Hymn: Show me how to stand for justice (Singing the Faith 713. Not in Hymns & Psalms)

Prayers of intercession

For our prayers of intercession, I firstly invite you to listen to John Holt’s Stick By Me, and imagine God is singing to Hagar and Ishmael

Lullaby God, we hear you soothe in the desert, singing to a crying child – Ishmael, Isaac climbing Mt Moriah and the Exodus children facing the Red Sea. We hear your comfort: ‘Don’t be afraid, when you cry, I cry too. Stick by me, I’ll stick by you.’ 

Lamenting God, we hear you sing in the wilderness, hope for a grieving mother – Hagar, Hannah, Elizabeth. We hear your peace: ‘Don’t be afraid, when you cry, I cry too. Stick by me, I’ll stick by you.’ 

Serenading God of the Blues, who mourns in the wilderness for all families torn apart by bitterness, envy and strife. We hear your promise: ‘Don’t be afraid, when you cry, I cry too. Stick by me, I’ll stick by you.’ 

Harmonizing God, for all churches facing a crisis, help us hear your melody, harmonize with your desert lullaby.  May we open our arms to all those estranged in our community. We hear your voice: ‘Don’t be afraid, when you cry, I cry too. Stick by me, I’ll stick by you.’  Amen

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins

as we forgive those who sin against us.

Lead us not into temptation

but deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power,

and the glory are yours

now and for ever.

Amen.

Hymn: There’s a wideness in God’s mercy (Singing the faith 416. Hymns & Psalms 230)

Blessing

So now we leave this space of worship

And while so much of the road ahead is uncertain,

the path constantly changing,

we know some things that are as solid and sure

as the ground beneath our feet,

and the sky above our heads.


We know God is love.

We know Christ’s light endures.


We know the Holy Spirit this there,

found in the space between all things,

closer to us than our next breath,

binding us to each other,

until we meet we again,


Go in peace.

by Rev. Nora Vedress, Calvary United Church in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada

Zoom service from Sunday 14th June

Below there are two videos from yesterday’s service. The first half contains prayers, readings & reflections. The second half comes after people have come back from ‘breakout rooms’ where we hear the feedback from the congregation on the two bible readings. I would values your feedback as I intend to upload these live services each week. Please be assured, people were asked their permission prior to recording and were given the option of stopping their video function.

Sunday 14th June

smiling woman looking on right side during daytime

Service sheet

Call to worship

Back then there was the twelve. 

Here and now there is us.

We are your disciples today 

and today we gather to worship you.

Back then they followed you in the flesh. 

Today we follow in your Spirit.

We are your disciples 

and today we gather to follow you.

Back then there were but a few.

Today we, numbering billions, 

are part of a worldwide Church.

We are your disciples today 

and today we gather to serve you.

Hymn Born in Song (Singing the Faith 21. Hymns & Psalms 486)

Opening prayers

Loving and Holy God,
it is such a privilege
to bring our honest prayers to you,
to open the Scriptures and discover not only that ordinary women and men,
but also Jesus himself, offered to you the gritty ‘stuff’ of their lives –
it gives us the permission we need to be that honest
not just ‘polite’ prayers,
but the questions and challenges
and anger and hurt
of our very human emotions
bursting from our hearts and minds and flung out at you.
Thank you for listening to these too.
And thank you for being in this day with us – with me – in whatever unfolds.

Whatever this day brings,
your will be done;
even if I’m struggling,
your will be done;
because I cannot believe otherwise
than that you will the good
of every single one of your children –
including me.

Jesus gave us the way to follow, but we don’t always get that right. Sometimes going our own way is on the same path as yours, but sometimes we follow a selfish path and leave you behind. Thank you that you wait for us, give us signs through the Scriptures, through our friends, through the news, to bring us back to the right way of living. Your grace  is extraordinary and expansive and tells us every morning, today is a new start.

We ask now that you fill us with your Holy and life-giving Spirit, giving us hope, enriching our worship and filling us to overflowing with love. Glory be to you, God our creator. Glory be to you Jesus, our Redeemer. Glory be to you, Holy Spirit, our Sustainer. As it was from when time began, is in this present moment and will continue to be, world without end. Amen

Reading: Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7

This week’s reading tells of Sarah’s laughter. Below is a video and your challenge is to watch it without laughing:

Reflection

Sarah & Abraham were old. I mean REALLY old. Abraham would be at that age where he’d soon be expecting a telegram from the Queen – that old. They didn’t have children and Sarah experienced that awful title of being ‘barren’. Because of course it was Sarah’s fault. Or, that was what was always assumed. Never the man’s fault. It would be easy to look at these bible stories and say how much life has improved and how things are different now. Except, for many couples, the experience of infertility remains a matter of shame. Churches can be amazing places of hospitality, but they can also be intrusive, nosey environments, where personal questions are considered normal. Questions to single people about whether they’ve got their eye on someone. Questions to married couples about when they’re going to start a family, or have a second child. These questions might be well-meaning, but for people who do not want to be single, or are childless for a multitude of reasons, it can make the experience of coming to church something to dread.

Sarah had taken matters into her own hands. She knew Abraham would want an heir, so she told him to take their female slave and sleep with her. What pain must Sarah have endured to suggest such a thing and then live with the consequences? What pain must Hagar, that slave, have endured, lacking in all agency, even over her own body? But God promises a child to Sarah. Ridiculous. Impossible.

And so we come to our story for today, where Abraham entertains three unnamed strangers. His hospitality is extravagant – he tells them he’ll fetch a little water and a little bread, but then has a calf slaughtered.  All of this happens before one of the strangers repeats the promise God has made: Sarah will have a son. Sarah isn’t invited to this gathering of men, this conversation in which men are talking about her private issues, her fertility, but she’s eavesdropping about them talking about her, and when she hears this promise, she laughs. She laughs at just how ludicrous it all is. She was a post-menopausal woman of advancing years. I’m sure we all know some pretty sprightly 90-year old’s, but can you imagine them becoming pregnant? No wonder she laughs.

For a collection of books which contains the depth of the human experience, there’s actually not much laughter in the bible. So let’s sit with this for a while. If we continue our story, fast-forwarding a couple of chapters, we encounter Sarah again, having just given birth. ‘God has brought laughter for me. Everyone who hears will laugh with me,’ she says. Her initial laughter was mocking God. God had made empty promises as far as she was concerned and she finds it funny that God is showing her any interest, because it’s just too late. Sarah’s second episode of laughter isn’t tinged with cynicism. This time it’s genuine. And infectious. A hearty belly-laugh that brings joy to all who hear. Perhaps you have a friend or a family member that you know, who when they laugh you find yourself laughing with them until tears stream down your face and until you can’t remember why you started laughing in the first place?

We all find different things funny. I wonder what your favourite comedy programme is. What jokes make you laugh? Who makes you laugh? Personally, I like the gentle humour of comedians like Susan Calman or Sue Perkins. I’m not keen on Mrs Brown’s Boys – I just don’t find it funny. We all laugh for different reasons. Laughter can help you discover courage because it diffuses fear. There’s a reason why there’s such a thing as ‘gallows humour’ – laughing at the most traumatic situations. A couple of years ago I went down to London to protest against President Trump’s policies – whilst I was happy for him to visit the UK, I wanted him to know that many here did not endorse his politics. And on that march, with hundreds of thousands of others, there were banners ridiculing the president. Using the laughter of resistance, using a subversive humour. Now let’s see if I can say this right: one placard pronounced ‘Super Callous Fragile Racist, Sexist Lying Potus.’ Another one stated ‘It’s so bad even the introverts are here.’ Now, maybe you don’t find these particularly funny, but humour is a way of dismantling oppression. Liberation can be found through collective laughter. To laugh in the face of your oppressor is a way of saying, you can try and control my situation, but you cannot control my spirit. You will not have the last laugh.

For Sarah, she had endured hardship which brought her a hollow laugh, but of course, eventually this was subsumed into the laughter of joy. The laughter of the sceptic turning to the laughter of pure uncontrollable delight. And her son is named after this expression – Isaac in Hebrew means laughter. Sarah is not judged for being cynical. She is not judged for her disbelief. She is not judged for giving up.

Even before Sarah’s hardship is brought to an end, she says, ‘Is anything too wonderful for God?’ Perhaps if we were to sum up the entire bible, this short verse would be the one. We find this echoed throughout the story of God and God’s people, throughout our own story of faith, throughout the story of the church – is anything too wonderful for God.

The story of Sarah & Abraham (including the terrible abuse of Hagar) is full of tricky elements that we shouldn’t skirt over or even excuse. But the laughter will come. For many of us we are in a period of waiting. Waiting for restrictions to end. Waiting for churches to reopen. Waiting for black lives to actually matter. Waiting for an end to the climate emergency. Sarah had waited and then given up hope. And when finally she allows herself to imagine a different future, she is bursting with joy. We too can use our waiting to imagine a different future. To become better people, a better church, a better government, a better world. In visualising God’s justice, does that bring a smile to your face? Because it does to mine.

Hymn: Lord, you sometimes speak in wonders (Singing the Faith 158. Not in Hymns & Psalms)

Reading: Matthew 9:35-10:23

Reflection

Once we get past the story of the birth of Jesus and into the bit where he actually starts his ministry, we have a chunk of Matthew taken up by the Sermon on the Mount. This is where Jesus is directing his teaching to the crowd. We’ve now entered a new chunk, this time, the teaching is directed to a much smaller group – the inner circle of the followers, the disciples of Jesus. We now have a series of more focused, more specific instructions.

Now, Jesus has not been teaching for very long, and already he’s sending his disciples out, giving them authority to preach and heal. I wonder, how did they feel? They’re pretty new at this stuff. Surely they just wanted to carry on being his followers, to let Jesus take the lead. Did they feel ready I wonder? Well, Jesus think they are. But of course, they are not sent out alone. They are expected to go with the support of others, to share the experience of proclaiming good news, to rely on each other. Because Jesus knows it will get pretty tough for these disciples and they will need the strength of each other. If were to read on, Jesus says, ‘I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.’ This is not an easy mission, which makes me question why any of them volunteered, or didn’t back out. This is a risky business. It’s not going to be a popularity contest. They will experience failure.

These instructions, although pretty specific, only take the disciples so far. Jesus doesn’t tell them what happens if someone offers food that isn’t acceptable. He doesn’t tell them who to go to first. He doesn’t tell them the words to say. Sometimes we get bogged down with specifics because instructions will only take us so far. The words of Jesus and the bible in general is not an instruction manual, covering all eventualities. The church needs to move beyond Jesus himself and work it out. The bible doesn’t tell us specifically how to behave in a pandemic. It doesn’t go into details about committed same sex relationships. It doesn’t speak about motoring, or computer technology or the etiquettes of texting. Of course it doesn’t. Our journey of faith is about being sent out, with a grounding of good advice, and the rest we need to make up as we go along, to react to whatever we encounter within the broad framework of the mission before us.

The disciples are told to go on their mission without money, without food, without luggage, without a change of clothes, without firstly booking an Airbnb. They are unprepared in every sense. What a foolish mission. They were ill-equipped, vulnerable, and will be utterly dependent on others to provide for their most basic of needs.

So let me get this straight. Jesus is sending out his followers, the ones he’s trained up, to continue his ministry of preaching and healing. But rather than going into communities without taking anything from them, they are to be reliant. Rather than giving, they are expecting to receive. This is counter-cultural stuff for us. We value independence. Being able to look after ourselves is considered a good thing. Most of us hate having to be dependent, unable to meet our needs but needing someone else to provide. How good are we at receiving rather than giving? And when we do receive, do we feel a debt to be repaid, an obligation that needs responding in kind?

At Pentecost, we were thinking about being a good guest rather than a host, and this reading reaffirms the fact that we are needed in spaces that are not our own, rather than to act as custodians of our own spaces.

A significant part of the mission Jesus gives his disciples is to cast out demons. We tend to skip over that bit, just focusing on the proclamation and healing. I did exactly that at the start of this reflection. Exorcism isn’t something in the Methodist church we spend a great deal of time discussing. I am deeply uncomfortable of churches that offer exorcisms as part of worship, praying demons out of people. I worry that this is potentially very damaging to people who are highly vulnerable or mentally unwell. I’ve recently read Vicky Beeching’s autobiography, Undivided. Vicky was a prolific Christian singer-songwriter who less than 10 years ago was filling stadiums. But she had a secret that she kept hidden: her sexuality. It was something she felt was deeply shameful. As a teenager she attended a Christian rally where she heard an altar call for anyone who needed prayer. She came forward and admitted to the adults gathered around her that she didn’t want these gay feelings, and suddenly she was exposed to these Christians trying to exorcise demons out of her. She has never previously associated her sexuality with demon possession and this became a burden to her for decades afterwards, damaging her mental health. Eventually she came out, but her career dried up as fundamentalist evangelicals stopped booked her and buying her records. She now spends some of her time campaigning for equality and diversity. Amazingly, she is still a Christian.

Yes, exorcism can be used in a manipulative and dangerous way. But what if exorcism wasn’t about casting out demons, but casting out that which torments people? What if we took a stand against violent structures that hold people captive? What if we were to imagine liberation from all that binds us, freedom from that which constrains us, release from powers that prevent us from being truly human? I believe that being actively involved in social justice is the modern form of casting out demons. The demons of debt. The demons of modern-day slavery. The demons of white supremacy. The demons of addiction. The demons of domestic abuse. The demons of poverty. People are incapable of hearing the good news Jesus brings until they are liberated from that which possesses them. In each of his healings and exorcisms, Jesus removed the barrier first before expecting the person to listen to the gospel or respond.

Like the early followers of Jesus, we may not feel ready. We may feel ill-equipped, under-resourced, feeling there must be someone better qualified for the task. But we are all given the missional task of proclaiming the good news, of healing and casting out demons. What can this mean in practice? Proclaiming good news is also about living good news. It’s about being a person who can see God in all things, in all people, even when people let us down. Its about being a person who pours a healing balm onto volatile situations, rather than that person who fans the fire of hatred. Its about being that person who cannot be silent in the face of injustice. It’s about being the person who celebrates diversity but resists divisions that cause fracture. These are not easy things to live out, but we are not alone. We are not left to our own devices. We are firstly given God’s Holy Spirit, who does equip us, does sustain us, does lead us. And we are given each other, to support and build each other up. And thank God for that. Amen

Hymn: Everlasting God (Singing the Faith 46. Not in Hymns & Psalms). This worship song is by Vicky Beeching

Prayer of thanksgiving and intercession

In long summer evenings when light lingers and sunsets have time to deepen from light pink to deep red – we offer you our thanks and praise. 

We remember and hold before you people in your world where the fading of the light brings not only darkness but sadness and discomfort.  May they know your light. 

When we are able to buy, cook and eat food, enjoying the abundance of what is available, especially those of us who can eat together with loved ones – we offer you our thanks and praise.  

We remember and hold before you those who today will share meals tainted with sadness, those who through no choice of their own eat alone, those who are hungry and have little food. May they soon know joy and plenty.  

When we have been offered hospitality that was generous or unexpected – we have been blessed and we offer you our thanks and praise. 

We remember and hold before you refugees and those who are strangers in a foreign land, those for whom exceptional warmth and hospitality would mean so much. May they know a rich welcome and ongoing support.  

When someone who knows us a little, but not well, remembers our name – we offer you our thanks for their care and attentiveness. 

We remember and hold before you those who have been forced to change name  or those who forget their name – the overseas student in a culture that feels alien,  those who have been trafficked,  those living with dementia. May they know liberation and freedom.  

And hear us too as we take time to remember and hold before you…(list a few situations from the week’s news ….) Minister to their needs we pray. Ever creating, ever loving, ever encouraging God, we offer you our deep thanks. Use our gifts, talents and skills in the world so that our lives may tell out your praise and where possible aid those whom we have remembered before You today. Hear our prayers, through Jesus Christ our loving Saviour. Amen

The Lord’s Prayer 

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins

as we forgive those who sin against us.

Lead us not into temptation

but deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power,

and the glory are yours now and for ever

Worship Song: Joy of the Lord (not in current hymn books)


Blessing

May God bless you with impatience at waiting for peace

May God bless you with intolerance of injustice

May God bless you with righteous anger at poverty

And may God fill you with the spirit of hope, found in that newborn child who can change the world

Some material is taken from © 2020 Spill the Beans Resource Team, and from The Church of Scotland ©Faith Nurture Forum