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)
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 –
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:
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
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)
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