Call to worship
“If you love me” Jesus says
We show that we do by loving.
“If you love me” Jesus says
We show that we do by sharing.
“If you love me” Jesus says
We show that we do by serving.
“If you love me” Jesus says
We show that we do by worshipping.
So let us worship God.
Lord of the boundless curves of space (Singing the Faith 111. Not in Hymns & Psalms)
Anna Herriman is profoundly deaf and is training to become a Local Preacher in the Methodist Church and would be the first female British Sign Language (BSL) user to do so. Below is Anna’s BSL prayer
Psalm 66: 8-20
A Psalm of lament and praise in a time of coronavirus – lead by Vicki Courtney (St Mark’s)
How shall we praise you, Lord, our God?
When we are locked down,
how shall we praise you?
When the doors to your house are barred,
and your people cannot assemble?
When those desperately in need of money and work
cannot even wait in the market-place?
When we have to circle round people in the street,
and to queue for shops maintaining safe distance?
When we can only communicate
by hearing on the phone,
or seeing on the screen;
or digitally messaging,
or even just waving through a window?
When we cannot meet our parents and children,
grandparents and grandchildren,
or other family members and friends?
When we cannot touch them in their flesh and blood,
to know they are really alive?
How shall we praise you?
How, like Thomas, shall we not see yet believe
that your son is raised among us?
How shall we praise you?
How can I praise you, Lord?
Are you plaguing us with this virus
to punish us because we have all done wrong,
or thought wrongly,
or felt wrongly,
or just been wrong?
If so, why do only some die,
and those, apparently, the ones who are the least worst or most caring amongst us?
Or are you trying to teach us a lesson?
If so, why is it so hard to learn?
And how are we to find the answer
when we do not even know the question?
Or are you still the same loving God,
coming to us in our sufferings
and opening up the way to new life in Jesus?
Lord, I will try to praise you.
Through gritted teeth,
I will try to praise you.
I will try to remember that you have created all things,
and this virus is part of your creation.
I will try not to hate it
but seek to mitigate its harm.
I will try to keep myself and others safe.
I will work to pray for them
and seek to help in whatever way I can.
Lord, when I cannot pray or worship
help me be aware of all your people
and your saints and angels
hovering around me,
lifting me up.
When I feel alone,
let me feel you near me,
even if only for a moment that enables me to go on.
Let me hear you say
“Peace be with you”.
Lord, I will praise you.
Let all the peoples praise you. (The Revd Kenneth Howcroft)
Acts 17: 22-31
Christian missionaries haven’t always behaved well. Although we can celebrate the spread of the gospel, plenty of damage was done in the past to communities, both physically with the introduction of new diseases, and also in causing division encouraging people to reject the religion of their tradition. Last summer I visited Rwanda during the period when Ebola was still prevalent in some of West Africa. Rwanda had all but escaped this disease, apart from a Christian missionary who had decided to visit neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo to lay hands on those who were ill. Of course, he then contracted Ebola and when he developed symptoms, came home to Rwanda. Yes, Christian missionaries can be disrespectful, antagonistic and downright dangerous at times.
Paul is a Christian missionary and he gives us a pretty good example of how to behave well. Firstly, he’s not afraid to enter into conversation with those who hold a different belief system. In verse 18 we read the philosophers debated with him. The people of Athens were used to debating and were always keen to hear new ideas and Paul interested them, and they took him to the Areopagus to hear more. The Areopagus was a rock on the hill near the Acropolis, but the term ‘Areopagus’ actually refers to high court or government institution and was known for its democracy. Athens itself was filled with argument, a place of philosophical banter and debate. Much of this is complimentary to Jewish culture – at theological college we had a lecture by an orthodox Jew who told us that whenever two rabbis meet you could guarantee there would be three different opinions.
Paul of course, is talking exclusively to Gentiles here. They don’t have the foundation of a belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Moses. But don’t mistake this for a diverse gathering – these are the intelligentsia he’s talking to, the powerful ones, the decision-makers. He starts with a compliment: I can tell you’re a religious lot, there are examples of it scattered throughout the city. He goes on to point to an altar he found with an inscription: to an unknown god. They have many, many gods who are named, but just in case they offend a god by omission, the Athenians have created this safety-net – the unknown god. They are hedging their bets by creating this.
Paul doesn’t tell them they’re mistaken or wrong to have this altar. He doesn’t preach to them about a God who is foreign, who they ought to give up the familiar to follow. Instead he contextualises what he says. He doesn’t reach for scriptural texts to quote because he knows his listeners have no reference point with those texts. Paul knows quoting Isaiah just won’t be persuasive here. Instead, the quote he uses, the one we so often use today, has no origins in either Christianity or Judaism. He reaches for Greek poetry: ‘in him we live and move and have our being.’.
There are some pitfalls in Paul’s sermon – the reference to the unknown god is perilously close to saying to those who follow other religions, actually you’ve been following Christianity all along, you just didn’t realise it. I’m not sure many Muslims would find that complimentary. Likewise, when he quotes Greek poetry, he is dangerously close to cultural appropriation – picking something from somebody else’s culture and applying to their own. I’m never terribly comfortable when white people wear their hair in cornrows as a fashion statement, because as a white person I don’t have the shared history, the shared experience of being black.
Finally, despite all of his clever arguments, Paul’s mission to the Areopagus is a bit of a failure. He was scoffed, ridiculed. Although some converted, it was a very small number – it must have been disappointing for Paul, used to having a more dramatic effect.
So whilst I began by saying Paul gives us a good example as to how to take the gospel to those of other faiths or none, perhaps we need to add some notes of caution here. But there are some things I think we can learn from. Firstly, he is deeply respectful in the way he approaches the Athenians. He knows they don’t have a shared faith, but in no way does he try to undermine them. This is crucial when considering an interfaith dialogue.
Also, Paul seeks to find God regardless of the context. He can even see God in the worship of those he might otherwise brand pagan or idolatrous. He is generous enough to widen his vision of where God can be located. All too often we point to other faiths as if they stand in opposition to our own. We might find the prayer wheels of Buddhism an alien concept or the statues of Hinduism idolatrous. My brother went to Nepal a few years ago and brought me back a singing bowl, used by Buddhist monks as an aid to meditation. It’s a beautiful object – is it either cultural appropriation or simply wrong for me to use it as an aid to my own prayer – I hope not.
We sometimes limit God through the language we use or in our attempt to domesticate God. God is both bigger and more intimate than we can imagine. Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote a book entitled, God is not a Christian – perhaps some of you have read it. I might also add that God is not British, or white or male or heterosexual. Our assumptions about God reduces the capability God has to break through to every human experience. I’ve spoken before about being a panentheist– I believe that God can be found in all of creation. We risk being isolationist if we insist that our own ways of worshipping are the only correct ones. We risk being exclusivist if we insist our ways are the only ways of speaking of God. We even risk idolatry if we assume that God looks and behaves and sounds only like us, and does not look or behave or sound like those who are different from us.
As this lockdown continues and as our churches find new ways of worshipping and being, we are no longer confined to worshipping in our church buildings. We are discovering new places where God can be found. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, ‘We ought to find and love God in what he actually gives us.’ The challenge is for us to notice God in other people and in our current environment. Not to limit God in this way, but to expand our vision. Not to claim exclusive rights over where God is, but to say, today I’ve noticed God here.
That ‘unknown god’ is a good description, for each of us is on a lifelong quest searching for understanding of the unknowable God. Christianity never started out being inward-looking. The fact we are here today is testimony to the determination of other Christians to allow people to find God through Jesus. Our ability to ‘do’ mission at the moment feels pretty limited, but one thing we can do is to pay attention to where God is. Perhaps the next film you watch, or the next chapter of that book you’re reading, or the next telephone conversation you have, of the next walk you take, you can be intentional in your desire to see God. Like Paul, many of us find God in scripture, but this reading suggests we can also find God in poetry, and beyond that, in art, in literature, in nature, in dance, in music, in silence. Perhaps you have found God somewhere else? In God we live and move and have our being, Paul tells us. It is when we are attentive to God that we can notice the divine in both the mundane and in the extraordinary.
Desert Song (Hillsong)
1 Peter: 3:13-22
John 14:15-21 – read by Rev Phil Summers
We pick up where we left off from last week in John’s gospel, so we have to remind ourselves that this is part of a long conversation Jesus is having on what we now call Maundy Thursday.
His disciples must have been in some state of confusion – Jesus seemed to be talking an awful lot about death, about leaving them, about life changing forever. But as always, this isn’t the end of the story, because he also provides deep reassurance. He tells them that God will provide them with an Advocate – the Spirit of Truth. Jesus is keen that despite feeling pain, they shouldn’t despair because despair leads to inactivity and giving up.
Jesus says God will provide ‘another’ Advocate. This means another of the same kind. This Advocate is Jesus in another form. The same but the other self of Jesus. If this Spirit is ‘another’ Advocate, this suggests that there has already been an Advocate: Jesus. We’ll explore much more about the Spirit when we come to Pentecost of course. Through the Spirit, Jesus isn’t confined to being physically present, this way Jesus could be eternally with the Followers of the Way, not simply alongside them but within them. This Spirit will guide the Followers of the Way in truth and provide strength and comfort.
The Greek word used here is ‘Paracletos’ which is usually translated as Advocate. There are strong legal overtones here – the one who will stand alongside you when you are charged in court. But it also functions relationally – an advocate provides reassurance, consolation and encouragement. The Advocate is the one who is on your side. The one who will always speak truth to us and about us.
For us to function as Followers of the Way, to take Jesus into our lives, to welcome God’s holy and life-giving Spirit, means we are not just the ones who are being consoled, but the ones through that Spirit who can console. ‘So much to be consoled as to console’ we sing from the words of St Francis. And that also means speaking words of truth. Truth is a slippery concept – Pilate was right to ask, ‘What is truth?’ History is written by the victors, by the powerful and we often don’t hear the stories of more ordinary folk, the ones who struggled. It’s why I think it’s so important to retell the stories of the transatlantic slave trade, or the stories from the Shoah – the Jewish holocaust, and not just the stories of victories and leaders.
Each Sunday evening I take part in a quiz with my team members from my old pub quiz team. Last week it was my turn to set the questions and I wrote a round called ‘Her-Story’ asking questions about women in history. Prominent women, such as Elizabeth Fry, Rosa Parks or Catherine of Sienna came up and I was disappointed my team members struggled to answer many of them. These women’s truths, their stories are spoken of in whispers rather that the shouts about William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King or John Wesley.
Truth today can be tricky to pin down. We have become sceptical about what we read in the newspapers, cynical about what politicians say. Truths which are not liked are branded ‘fake news’, despite overwhelming evidence; even evidence is doubted as we worry it might have been fabricated, videos altered. Whose truth, we now ask?
Jesus tells us the spirit of truth cannot be received by the world, because the world will not recognise this spirit. That’s particularly relevant in an age where some doubt the moon landings. This spirit, this advocate speaks the truth, speaks truth to power. And that’s not always popular. As Christians we’re unlikely to win any popularity contests. The Brazilian Archbishop, Hélder Câmara, is quoted as saying, ‘When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.’ Perhaps today we can say, ‘When I give money to buy protective equipment for the NHS, I am called a saint. When I ask why the NHS has limited protective equipment, they call me a trouble-maker.’
Because we have been given the Spirit of truth, we need to find our voice and use it, trusting that words will be given, trusting that strength will be given, trusting that encouragement will be given. If we accept that all humans are made in the image of God, then we know we each hold equal value to God. Jesus implies the way we will each be judged will be how we treated the most vulnerable in our society, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned. These are the ones we should be speaking out for, through the power of the Advocate.
I also want to briefly touch on Jesus telling his disciples he will not leave them orphaned, because I find the whole family dynamic in the bible fascinating. There are virtually no examples of stable nuclear families – most of either terribly dysfunctional, or what we might now call blended families. Jesus himself had a loose understand of familial ties. Part of this is about a rejection that your family name or inheritance lent you a certain status. It was a rejection that blood relations gave you superiority.
When I was a slightly rebellious teenager, dressed up and ready to go out with friends, there was a repeating mantra my parents would say: ‘remember who you are’. Held within that mantra was an assumption that I had been brought up to know better and therefore had some sort of superiority over those who hadn’t benefitted from my rather privileged childhood. And my parents were certainly less than impressed with some of my choices of boyfriends, again, because there was an underlying belief that I was better than them.
We are all held within the family of God; it can be a bit messy at times as most families are. Squabbles are bound to break out, but this is the family to whom we belong. Orphans and widows are given particular attention throughout the bible as being in need of care. Jesus says we are not left as orphans, he does not want us to be vulnerable and uncared for. Instead, we are each in need of the protection a family often brings. Families can be places of love and nurture, but for some they are places of abuse and despair. The family Jesus leads us into is a place which brings out the best in us, envelopes us with love, encourages us when we think we have no worth, comforts us in our pain, champions us when we speak truth to power, protects us form harm, and brings us to life. We are all part of this family; through the example of Jesus and the Advocate, we can ensure no-one is left outside this family. No person left behind. So this week, let us commit ourselves again, to each other, to those who feel they don’t belong, to the vulnerable and powerless, to use our voice to speak the truth. Amen
Come down O love divine (Singing the Faith 372. Hymns & Psalms 281)
Prayers of intercession
Let us take our weariness and tiredness to God who picks up those who have fallen and raises up those who are brought low. Bless those, holy God, who are bowed down under the burdens they must carry. We pray for those who are crushed by their responsibilities at work and those who feel the pain of our world, who marvel that others can seem so indifferent to it. Help them to keep on going. Bring supportive friends alongside them. Give them tokens of your grace, fresh vision and courage and signs of encouragement in their struggle.
Let us take our loneliness to God, who delights to put the solitary into families. God our Father and Mother, bless those who are lonely, those who have grown old and whom the passing years have taken all their friends and contemporaries. Bless those who are shy, who find it hard to initiate conversation and have never known real friendships. We pray for strangers in a foreign land, for asylum seekers and refugees, separated by language and culture from familiar ways and much-loved customs. We remember all those whose families are dysfunctional that they may find a home in the church.
Help the church, we pray, to be a place of acceptance and belonging, a place of welcome and inclusion, where all can find a home, a listening ear, a friendly smile and a helping hand, even during these times of lockdown. Let us take our sorrows to God, who binds up the broken-hearted and comforts those who mourn. Bless those whose hearts are sore today. Be very close to those whose family circle has been invaded and whose joy has been darkened by death.
We remember those who have lost loved ones for whom they have cared, whose needs they have met, whose lives have been so intertwined that they still listen for a voice they will not hear again.
We remember wives who have lost husbands and husbands who have lost wives; parents who have lost children, who find their homes strangely silent and empty now, and children who have lost parents, who are confused by a world that seems less secure and more frightening than before. We pray for all who are prevented from attending funerals and ask for your comfort for all who mourn.
Let us turn to God in trust and recommit ourselves to God. Send us forth this day with the joy that no-one can take from us, the life which is your life and the hope that gives strength to our actions. Help us to sing of our faith and in that singing find our strength to go on, trusting in Jesus. In all the holy names of God we pray. Amen
Stay With Me – a puppet band
Be ready to love those you meet.
Go and reflect the welcome of God,
Creator, Redeemer and Advocate,
whose heart closes no-one out
but whose love is for all, always. Amen
Some material taken from ©2013 Spill the Beans Resource Team