Sunday 13th September 2020: Education Sunday

ES-Logo-300-2020

man and woman sitting on chairs

There are approaching 90 Methodist Schools in the UK? In the state sector, we have 66 schools – about half of them spread across the county and about half concentrated in the North West of England.  Most of our worship resources have been provided by Barbara Easton, Head of Service for the Methodist Academies and Schools Trust

Opening prayer

We gather in the name of the Triune God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of the Earth and all its creatures! 

Praise be to the Holy Trinity! God is sound and life, Creator of the Universe, Source of all life, whom the angels sing; wondrous Light of all mysteries known or unknown to humankind, and life that lives in all. 

(Hildegard of Bingen, 13th Century) 

Hymn: Up times, Down times

Opening prayers

God of all, through all time and in all places, in each circumstance and season, You call us together in this place and welcome us with open arms as your beloved children. Each one of us is precious to you and called by you. In this time of great change and uncertainty, you are unchanging and ever faithful. Through this time together, let us feel you speaking to us, leading us, teaching us, Filling us with your spirit and strengthening us for the journey ahead.

Confession (based on Leviticus 25:1-25)

We praise you God, for the Earth that sustains life. Through the planetary cycles of days and seasons, renewal and growth, you open your hand to give all creatures our food in the proper time. In your Wisdom you gave a Sabbath for the land to rest. But these days our living pushes the planet beyond its limits. Our demand for growth, and an endless cycle of production and consumption are exhausting our world. The forests are leached, the topsoil erodes, the fields fail, the deserts advance, the seas acidify, the storms intensify. Humans and animals are forced to flee in search of security. We have not allowed the land to observe a Sabbath, and the Earth is struggling to renew. And so we confess.

God of mercy and justice, 

You tell us the land must rest, free from the burden of production.

We confess our demand that the Earth produce beyond its limits, and our bondage to desire more.

You call us to pause from sowing, pruning, and reaping in ways that destroy the soil.

We confess our vicious consumption of food and energy.

You assure us that we can be filled from the yield of the land.

We confess our lack of trust that we can thrive within the Earth’s limits.

You affirm that our security is found in enough.

We confess our lack of courage to resist the myth of endless growth.

You tell us that the land must not be sold permanently, because the land is Yours, and everything in it.

We confess to thinking of creation as given, instead of a gift.

You call us to leave enough fruit on the vine and in the fields to feed our neighbours, animals, and replenish the Earth.

We confess our failure to share what we receive from the Earth.

You call us to fairness and justice.

We confess our lack of faith, not loving you with our whole heart and strength and mind, or our human and non-human neighbours as ourselves.

Turn us from fear and mistrust,

and free us to imagine a life reconciled to the Earth and all creatures, through the Good News of Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray.

The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God (Romans 8:26–27). 

Amen.

(adapted from the Lutheran World Federation)

Readings:

Exodus 14.19-31
Romans 14.1-12
Matthew 18.21-35.

Hymn: O God you search me and you know me (Singing the Faith 728)

Sermon (Barbara Easton)

The theme that’s given for Education Sunday this year is, ‘A Learning People in a Time of Change’.

Education and change often go hand in hand – learning generally leaves us in a different place from where we started. That’s why Christians of all varieties mark Education Sunday and, historically, have often shared a belief in the importance of Education. Learning at its best is empowering and transformational. It’s one of the ways that the ‘good news’ is lived, as people move on to that greater fullness of life which God intends for us. And we are certainly in a time of change, what with ‘Covid’ and ‘post-Covid’ – for individuals, communities and the church. Today we’re going to be reflecting on that as we look at our readings.

When people encountered Jesus, they related to him as a teacher. We know from the gospels that, when people called Jesus in the street, they generally shouted ‘Rabbi’, ‘teacher’. Matthew’s writing maybe 50 years after Jesus died but, even for him, it’s important for him to present Jesus to people as their teacher. He even regroups Jesus’s teaching into 5 chunks to echo the 5 books of the Torah – to show that here’s a teacher who can out-Moses Moses. Jesus was a teacher par excellence. When I was a teacher at the chalk face I used to get very dissatisfied with Education Sunday sermons which said, at this point, something like Jesus was the model teacher and why couldn’t we all be like him – look! He’s engaging, he’s thought-provoking, he draws the crowds – heck, he even walks on water! The point of today, is not to make teachers feel (even) worse but to value education as a vocation within the Christian community. Covid has been quite a negative time for teachers in the media so it’s particularly important to say that, this year. Thank you, people who work in learning with our young people in all your different roles and settings. (maybe as a church you could think of a way to say ‘thank you’ this week)

But, going back to Jesus, it is true what Jesus was for the people who were drawn to him was a teacher. And if that’s the case, then it means that the people who chose to follow him styled themselves, somehow, as learners. They wanted to learn. They believed that they had something to learn – and that Jesus was the one to teach them. The word ‘disciple’ actually means someone who follows a teacher as a pupil – so that means that, whether then or now, to be followers of Jesus, is to be a ‘learning people’.

What might our learning look like? I’ve sometimes heard people say that Christians in the past were simple souls who just took what they were told, but that’s not entirely the case. I’ve read of early Methodist miners who took their Greek New Testaments down the pit so they could teach each other over their lunch. The internet has lots of definitions of learning which might apply to disciples: gaining knowledge, improving skills, developing wisdom, social learning and ‘abstracting meaning’ – I particularly like that last one. How have you been a learning person in this time of great change? I’ve learned to sew face masks; I now make better cakes; I know my neighbours much better. All that’s very good, but I think there’s still something more… a bigger question about how, as the people of God, we are ‘abstracting meaning’ from this time and these experiences. What are we learning, as disciples, in this time about what it means to seek the way of God? What are we learning about being church? How will we be changed because of our learning in the post-pandemic world?

The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is really interesting because it draws our attention to a community on the cusp of a new world. Our readings about the story of Moses have this week brought us to the pivotal moment where the people are leaving behind the only life they have ever known, even if it was unsatisfactory, and are heading to the Promised Land. Apparently the Rabbis tell a story about how no-one wanted to be the first one to step out in faith.  Eventually, one person bravely stepped forward and the waters parted. The second Rabbi nods and says, “Well, he didn’t so much step as fall, but still the waters parted.” The third Rabbi says, “No, he neither stepped nor fell – he was pushed, but still the waters parted.”

In our lives change may come deliberately or accidentally – at some time or other we probably fill each role in that story – we step, we fall, we’re shoved. Today we are thinking particularly of education, so we’re remembering young people who are in a place of change on their education journey. Sometimes we have to choose change on our journey and find our inner ‘brave’ (I’m think of refugees and people fleeing domestic violence at the moment). Sometimes change chooses us, and we have to dig deep to handle the re-routing of our journey (I’m thinking of people coping with illness and loss at the moment). Sometimes it’s someone else’s fault, like in the story – and maybe coronavirus has had aspects of all three. Whatever. The story repeats, ‘Still the waters parted’ – change comes anyway. Pretty much the whole of the Bible is the story of people navigating change. A several thousand year journey of travelling through uncertainty. What might we learn from the stories of God’s people before us to support us in our journey? Particularly as we think about moving on in our journey as a Church – God’s learning people in a time of change.

I wonder if they thought that the sea would part and there, lying in front of them, would be the Land of Milk and Honey. Of course, we know that they struggled to find their ‘providential way’. We know that they wandered in the desert for 40 years doing a journey that Google maps says should take 6 days on foot! We know that they lost the plot a few times –  they went down false alleys creating the religion they thought God ought to want instead of remembering what they’d learned about what God actually wants (remember the Golden Calf?); they failed to recognise God’s help when it landed in front of them (they called it ‘manna’ – ‘what is this?’). Perhaps we would like it if the Covid sea parted and we found the church of the future clearly laid out on the approaching shore. It’s said that, roughly every 500 years, the church undergoes transformational change. It is 500 years since the Reformation… could this be the point where we see God calling us to do things differently? And if so, what? What are our ‘golden calves’? What is our ‘manna?’.

A couple of things leap out at me in this story, and one is that God is always there. If you remember, God promised that he would go with them on the journey as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. In light and in darkness – God, always there. It’s a promise that we hear more than once – a passage that really stays with me is Isaiah 30: God says it doesn’t matter which way you actually go – ‘Whether you turn to the right or the left I will go before you’. The psalmist talks about God everywhere, in the dark and the light: ‘Whither can I flee from your presence…’, and again that sense of God waiting for us in the future – in the lovely translation of The Message ‘you are already there’. In this particular story, one thing that rather interests me is the behaviour of the pillar of cloud – at this particularly dark moment the pillar of cloud actually moves round to protect them against the worst that could happen. It’s a rather anthropomorphic image (or a cloud-o-morphic, if there’s any such word!) but still, it’s a very suggestive image. There in the darkness – God. Between me and the darkness – God…

The other thing, is that Moses breaks through to the future using his staff. If you remember a couple of chapters ago, when Moses protests, ‘how am I supposed to do this, God?’, God says to him, well, ‘what have you got in your hand?’ A staff. In the culture of the time, not just a walking stick but something a bit like a totem – a symbol of a person’s authority and identity. God doesn’t give him a new staff – Moses already has what he needs for the task. People might apply that to our personal journeys but I worry that it’s a bit trite. But I wonder if there’s some learning in it for the church as we move forward in the Covid, and post Covid world – that we have, already to hand, the things that will serve us in the future. We carry them from our story so far. There is no new ‘magic dust’. Moses uses the resource that he has – his stick, his people, but in a new way ways. It is interesting how this has worked in lockdown: my elderly friend’s phone has become a prayer line; the computer is where I share church; but also, people saying that they have seen anew the value of old-fashioned pastoral care and neighbourliness.

The question is, as we travel light into the future, what do we take with us in our saddle bags? One of our loveliest ecumenical hymns talks about bringing ‘your traditions richest store’. Like many people in lockdown, we’ve done quite a lot of sorting out at home. I discover that my personal ‘traditions richest store’ turns out to be my husband’s ‘load of old tat’! How do we discern, beyond a simplistic ‘it’s old so it’s useless’ or a personal ‘this is what I like’? Are there things in our saddlebags which shouldn’t be there – things which are harmful to others, maybe? We can see the challenge to the new played out in Romans, in our reading about life in the Early Church. If ever a group of people had the opportunity to create the church from the ground up, it is surely them – and in fact they did, and we read all about it in the early chapters of Acts. It’s based in prayer, fellowship, learning and the breaking of bread. And yet, by the time Paul writes to the church in Rome, they are arguing about religious rules and ritual practices that are a hangover from things that used to matter in the past. They wanted to replicate what they had known rather than learn from it; they wanted to copy the past rather than ‘abstracting meaning’. They signed up to the new wine but they can’t manage to shape the new wineskins to go with it.

Can we?

Here are some questions you might like to think about in your own reflections:

What are you learning, as a follower of Jesus, in this time of the virus and beyond?

How do you value learning and change in your life as a disciple? How does this balance with valuing tradition and the familiar?

The ‘pillar of cloud’ was for then, not now. But how do you see God at work at the moment – in your life, in the church, in the world?

Where do you think we are being led by God into the future as a church? What do we ‘have in our hand’?

Hymn:

We have a dream, who are the heirs,

     through centuries of praise,

of all whose worship, work and prayers

     have hallowed former days;

upon their faithfulness we build

     for futures none can see,

a dream of purposes fulfilled

     in all that is to be.

We have a dream of listening hearts

     where Jesus’ voice is heard,

a church where God himself imparts

     the treasures of his word;

a pilgrim church whose longing eyes

     are set on things above,

a church united by the ties

     of fellowship and love.

We have a dream to serve, and care

     for all who know distress;

the world our parish, and our prayer

     the search for holiness:

a church sustained by broken bread,

     the cup of wine outpoured,

a church for whom his blood was shed

     who reigns as risen Lord.

We have a dream, a goal, an aim,

     a charge that Jesus gave,

to share the blessings of his Name

     with those he died to save.

Help us to heed the Master’s call,

     the Spirit’s power renew,

for God is with us, best of all,

     to make our dreams come true.


Written for the 200th anniversary of one of our Methodist churches by Timothy Dudley Smith. Words © 2015 Hope Publishing Company, 380 S Main Pl, Carol Stream, IL 60188

Prayers of Intercession – these prayers have been provided by the Methodist Youth President, Phoebe Parkin

Before we pray, I’d like to share my favourite line from Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, and I feel that it is the overriding theme of this prayer, and it is this – “to love another person is to see the face of God”. Let us pray.

Timeless Creator, we pray for what has been, what is and what is to come.

Healing Creator, we pray for those who are bereaved and are grieving. May they know your comfort and peace. We pray for those who are unwell/ill, lonely or traumatised. Give us the strength to support them and the words to comfort them.

All-knowing Creator, we pray for the students and teachers who are returning to education this week. May they be kept safe and be able to enjoy the wonder of learning together again. We pray that they will be able to bridge the gap in learning after lockdown.

Powerful Creator, we pray for those who make the decisions for the future. May they do so with your wisdom, grace and strength. Keep them humble in their power and keep them grounded in their purpose.

Joyful Creator, we pray for those who are starting new roles or new adventures at the beginning of this Connexional year. May you bless them and give them zeal for what is coming next. Thank you for sharing in their joy and hope, and for being with them in the anxieties that new challenges may bring.

Guiding Creator we pray that the Methodist Church around the world. We pray that we might continue to faithfully follow where You, God, call us, in mission, and that we may recognize our unique role in doing Your work. May you be with those in ministry in the church and all those they serve and seek to reach.

Loving Creator, we pray for those who are victims of injustice. Like Jesus, may we reach out to the hungry, oppressed and marginalized. We pray for refugees, the persecuted, people who are experiencing food poverty, people who are homeless. May we be filled with your compassion and your righteous anger at the inequality in our world. Guide us, Holy God, to build your kingdom and right the wrongs of this earthly world.

Perfect Creator, we pray for the environment. We pray for all the creatures You made so perfectly and who share our home. Give us the knowledge and the skills to be good stewards of Your creation, so that we can protect its beauty and resources for generations to come.

My Creator fill me with your Holy Spirit in this moment. Let us spend a few moments with God, as we reflect on what is on our own hearts and minds.

Divine Creator, we give these prayers to you. Thank you, God, that you have heard us and hold our prayers in your loving hands. We pray all of this in Jesus’ awesome name. Amen

Hymn: Captain of Israel’s Host and Guide (Singing the Faith 459)

Blessing

God did not leave His people alone in the wilderness, he stayed with them and led them on Jesus said, Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age. We are a learning people in a time of change. May the God who calls us, lead us on. Amen

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