With many thanks to Matthew Courtney for these reflections
Maundy Thursday – A METHODIST LOVEFEAST
Thursday 9th April 2020
Because we are unable to share in Holy Communion, I invite you this evening to experience a Methodist Love Feast in your own homes.
The Love Feast, or Agape, is a Christian fellowship meal recalling the meals Jesus shared with disciples during his ministry. The service expresses the koinonia or sharing, belonging and fellowship enjoyed within the body of Christ.
The Love Feast, in common with other acts of worship includes prayer, praise, scripture, preaching and mutual fellowship and an offering, but in addition the Love Feast contains a time of Testimony and the sharing of the Love Feast cake and the Loving Cup.
Traditionally the Love Feast has a specially prepared cake and there are many recipes you could try. Alternatively, use whatever you have at home where you can eat something; suggestions could include crackers, teacakes, biscuits or bread and butter. You will also need what is known as the Loving Cup (usually a cup of tea or glass of water) and the suggestion is both are covered until they are required and are placed on a table in front of you.
‘All praise to our redeeming Lord’ (Singing the Faith 608. Hymns & Psalms 753))
Jesus of the Emmaus Road,
Come as we walk the lonely path,
and be our companion.
Come when life mystifies and perplexes.
Come into our disappointments and unease.
Come at table where we share bread and hope,
and coming, open our eyes to recognise you.
Usually during a Love Feast, people are invited to give a short testimony. Today, I invite you to consider where you have noticed God in your life recently. Spend some time on this, don’t rush past. You may remember a particular occasion where God was very real to you and this changed the direction in your life. You may remember something much more ordinary that has happened in the last few days, the kindness of a friend perhaps, or the birds singing outside.
Matthew 26: 20-29
One of the events during the Last Supper I had previously missed was how Jesus predicted the betrayal of one of his disciples but didn’t then restrict who could participate in this holy meal. I think it highly likely Jesus knew about Judas but continued to let him sit at the table and share in the food and wine. The brokenness of his body and the shedding of his blood was for the world, including Judas. I find that grace and forgiveness extraordinary; the love and sacrifice did not exclude Judas. We are prone to offering love and forgiveness only to those we think are deserving, and in some circumstances this can be extended to excluding people from participating in Holy Communion. If Jesus didn’t exclude Judas, if the response of Jesus is to be inclusive and say yes, shouldn’t our response be the same?
Richard Rohr believes that when Jesus spoke those familiar words, ‘This is my body,’ he was not just speaking about the bread in front of him, but that all of physical creation should be seen as being sprit-filled. When we look closely, we can notice God everywhere. One of my favourite films is Love Actually and the opening lines are:
Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.
There is a difference between pantheism (the belief that everything is God) and panentheism (the belief that God is in all things) – I firmly stand in that second category of belief because I believe that God’s divinity is to be found through all of creation. It is a challenge to find the Christ in the face of everyone I meet – I certainly don’t always remember this and I confess I struggle to find Christ in some of our world leaders – but if I accept that Jesus came to save us all, to show us the face of God in us all, I have to accept the face of Christ in everyone I see.
I have a fairly low theology of Holy Communion and have some Quaker sympathies that every shared meal is potentially an act of communion. It is the sharing that is crucial for me, which is why for a long time I didn’t think it possible to celebrate communion alone. This is certainly the Methodist perspective. However, a few years ago I read Terry Waite’s autobiography of when he was held in captivity and spent many years in solitary confinement. One morning as his guard brought him some bread and water, he asked what day it was. Sunday, was the reply. And so, in his isolation, Terry recited the words of the eucharistic prayer as he turned his simple meal into an act of Holy Communion. But the reality is, although he was physically apart, he was worshipping in solidarity with Christians all over the world and wasn’t really alone.
Richard Rohr believes that when Jesus says, ‘This is my blood’, he is actually saying that ‘This is all of my blood’; all bloodshed, all suffering is his. All suffering is unjust and through his blood he stands alongside us, uniting those who suffer with him. The physicality of the act on communion is significant – Jesus didn’t tell us to think about it, to reflect on it, or to watch it done, but simply to eat it. And in suddenly the advice that you are what you eat takes on a whole new significance. When the bread is held aloft and the words ‘This is the Body of Christ’ are spoken to the Body of Christ, the Church, we are each experiencing God in each other.
As we near the end of Holy Week, I invite you to consider how united we are, how across the county, across the country, across the world, Christians are sitting in their homes to remember those events that led to the crucifixion. We are in solidarity with them. I invite you to consider how the body of Jesus means we can find God’s presence in every aspect of creation, and how the blood of Jesus means we can be in solidarity with those who suffer. In doing so, I believe we will find that love actually is all around.
Charles Wesley wrote only one specific hymn for the Love-feast, Come, and let us sweetly join, (Hymns and Sacred Poems, 1740). There were 22 eight-line verses in the original! Verses from this hymn appear in Singing the Faith 646 (Hymns & Psalms 756) and a shorter version is printed here.
1 Come, and let us sweetly join
Christ to praise in hymns divine;
Give we all with one accord
Glory to our common Lord,
2 Hands and hearts and voices raise,
Sing as in the ancient days,
Antedate the joys above,
Celebrate the feast of love.
3 Jesu, dear expected Guest,
Thou art bidden to the feast;
For thyself our hearts prepare,
Come, and rest, and banquet there.
4 Sanctify us, Lord, and bless,
Breathe thy Spirit, give thy peace;
Thou thyself within us move,
Make our feast a feast of love.
Eat and drink
Now as you consume the food and drink you have prepared, say the following prayer:
Be present at our table, Lord;
be here and everywhere adored;
thy creatures bless, and grant that we
may feast in paradise with thee.
Jesus arrested, judged, found guilty and condemned to die
is held captive overnight.
If I were arrested and held this night what would I be found guilty of?
That I made friends with people irrespective of their colour, creed or class….
That I shared my bread with the poor….
That my words… and actions… brought healing and forgiveness….
That I made justice and didn’t count the cost ….
That I sought the truth and then spoke of it….
That I recognised my neighbour and loved them as my very self…
That I met God along the way in the healing and forgiveness I received….
That I accepted hospitality at many different tables….
That I was changed by the lives of others….
…. and often repented my arrogance and foolishness
in encountering their wisdom …
That friends and strangers sometimes paid the price for me….
That I never sought out suffering…
….. but journeyed with it to the best of my ability…
That the love of those about me taught me to love myself before God…
You call us out of brokenness
to mend and remake your creation.
Grant us the courage to stay
with all those who are held captive this night.
In the name of Jesus who is good news, Amen.
Christ, from whom all blessings flow (Singing the Faith 676. Hymns and Psalms 764)
Now the blessing of God,
Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer,
Be with you and those you love
Tonight and every night.
Service sheet 5th April 2020
Call to worship
The story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem,
tells us that after his celebrated arrival,
he went into the Temple
and looked around at everything.
As I prepare for worship today,
may it be with a sense that Jesus
has walked in too, and is looking around.
May my eyes be open to see him,
may my heart be ready to be seen by him,
may my worship be worthy of his presence,
and may I be transformed
so that I see the world through his eyes.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-F8mdyhRVmU – Give thanks to the Lord, our God and King (Singing the Faith 77)
If we are ill, strengthen us.
If we are tired, fortify our spirits.
If we are anxious, help us to consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.
Help us not to stockpile treasures from supermarkets in the barns of our larders.
Don’t let fear cause us to overlook the needs of others more vulnerable than ourselves.
Fix our eyes on your story and our hearts on your grace.
Help us always to hold fast to the good,
See the good in others,
And remember there is just one world, one hope,
One everlasting love, with baskets of bread for everyone.
In Jesus we make our prayer,
The one who suffered, died and was raised to new life,
In whom we trust these days and all days,
The Revd Barbara Glasson, President of the Methodist Conference
Psalm 118: 1-2. 19-29
Isaiah 50: 4-9a
Philippians 2: 5-11
You can see a dramatized reading of the entry into Jerusalem using Lego here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-4sX-fJosw8 )
For a lighter, modern version, you can also see Rev Phil Summers in action here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXRWWDMaDv0
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MD9rMkIS1yw – Ride on ride on in majesty (Singing the Faith 265)
For many of us, today would have been marked by a walk of witness through the streets, waving palm branches and singing loud hosannas. This year, of course, things will be very different, and perhaps like me, you are wondering how to celebrate or even feeling guilty that you’re not in the mood to cheer. It’s hard to feel triumphant in isolation.
It’s a shame the lectionary, yet again, cuts off before the story gets really interesting. Because, of course, after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem like the return of a wandering hero, Jesus heads straight to the temple and gets really cross. It’s almost as if he has a tantrum, pushing tables over and causing total chaos. This part of the story brings into sharp focus the contrast between the crowds who hail his arrival cramming the streets to catch a glimpse of their Messiah, and the authorities who are becoming increasingly agitated with the actions of this agitator. We all know the fickle nature of this crowd who less than a week later will be baying for his blood.
Jesus is an odd figure-head, rejecting power and choosing a different way. The crowd in Jerusalem were living under occupation by a foreign army. They were oppressed and ruled by fear. Their hope was that the Roman occupiers would be overthrown and life would be restored. Jesus was that hope and they pin their expectations upon him. When they cry ‘Hosanna’, this is as much a political cry as it is theological, for hosanna means ‘rescue’ or ‘save’ us. Its implication is that they are in need of rescuing; that their current conditions are far from perfect. ‘Hosanna’ is a challenge to those in power, a subversive criticism in a world where that kind of talk could end up getting you killed.
No wonder then, that Jesus disappointed them and they quickly turned against him. This was a king without an army, without financial backing, who refused to look like a king, refused to act like a king. He had the opportunity to ride a magnificent stallion, but chose a ridiculous donkey instead.
With a bit more time on my hands, I’ve been exploring boxsets on Netflix and have stared watching The Crown. Those of you who know me may be aware I’m not much of a royalist, but I’m finding this series fascinating from a social history perspective and it is giving me a greater understanding of the British monarchy. Although the series has been fictionalised in parts, it seems that those around the ‘Crown’ are constantly terrified of the potential erosion of its power and will do anything to maintain the appearance of strength and leadership. I have never been terribly comfortable with attributing the title ‘King’ to Jesus, and The Crown is confirming my belief that Jesus is the antithesis of monarchical rule. I’ve never found Jesus to be terribly interested in doing or saying things for the sake of appearance. Just as Jesus defied expectations of being a Messiah, he does the same with our expectations of being a king.
The swift change of scene from the streets strewn with cloaks and branches to the tables of the temple money changers reminds me that the economy of Jesus is very different from the economics we are used to. One lesson the coronavirus pandemic is teaching us is our value judgements are having to shift. Suddenly supermarket workers are more useful than accountants (apologies to any accountants out there!). Our cars, holidays, nice clothes are all meaningless when confronted by the potential loss of health, the loss of family. Jesus is a populist leader who attracts large crowds, but he refuses to get drawn into their expectations. How easy would it have been to assert his influence and justify spending money on an elaborate campaign? How easy would it have been to throw on an expensive tunic to stand out and be noticed, to ride a horse to give him greater height so more people could see him? How easy would it have been to have a red-carpet moment, just for once? How easy would it have been to hold his tongue when speaking to the political and religious authorities because in diplomacy there always has to be compromise? How easy would it have been to stay alive just a little longer, to heal more people, to spread the good news a bit wider, if it just meant not getting under the skin of those in power? How easy would it have been to just behave himself, to keep that temper of his under check, to smile politely if it meant not facing arrest?
Put like this, his crucifixion could easily have been predicted. His execution inevitable.
Jesus does not conform to our expectations. He goes to those who are broken, those who can’t afford temple sacrifices. He provided free health care because his currency is life and love, not insurance and conditions.
John Dominic Crossan writes: ‘Jesus does not ride a stallion or a mare, a mule or a male donkey, and not even a female donkey. He rides the most unmilitary mount imaginable: a female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her.’ Stay with that image for a while. That the way of Jesus might be seen to be nonviolent is in contrast to the next scene where he overturns tables in a riotous act. These two Jesus’ seem incompatible, but I believe there is no inconsistency here. The temple scene demonstrates the passion Jesus has for justice and his anger at those who suffer. This is often described as being righteous anger, because he was taking a great personal risk by behaving in such a way. His decision to side with those who had little or no economic value is woven throughout his ministry, and his choice of a female donkey and his choice to overturn tables is consistent with his message of justice, mercy and love.
At every turn, Jesus provoked attention, and not always the good kind. The further through his ministry the more every action and every word was scrutinised and eventually determined to be a threat to the establishment. His civil disobedience could not be tolerated for much longer. Our passage for today might end with the crowd asserting Jesus as prophet and Son of David, but look again at verse 10 – the whole city was in turmoil. The entry into Jerusalem might have caused quite a stir and this crowd is volatile.
This turmoil is what stands out for me this week. I have always enjoyed the experience of Palm Sunday; the celebration before the contemplation of Holy Week, a chance to dance before the solemn waiting. But I have not noticed this word ‘turmoil’ before. Is there something here about the turmoil we are living through right now? The turmoil of the pandemic? The turmoil each of us is trying to keep a lid on? Does Jesus cause a turmoil – well, that’s not quite what I think Matthew is saying. It sounds to me as if the city would have been in turmoil whether Jesus had arrived or not, because people are living through difficult days. Jesus doesn’t always behave how we expect. Instead he is a living example of justice, of unifying his words and actions. What might that teach us as we sit in our homes for another week? There is much rhetoric spoken of regarding the coronavirus, much of it framed in the language of war, as if our words of violence can reduce this threat. Jesus doesn’t show up waving a ‘V’ sign at us, giving us platitudes that everything is going to be ok and then riding off to a disinfected palace. Instead, Jesus shows up and stays with us. He stays with us through the turmoil. He stays with us regardless of the pandemonium and panic.
Of course we read this passage in the knowledge of what comes next. But sit with this awhile. The Ignatian way of reading the bible is to immerse yourself in the story, to imagine you are there. So I invite you to read again this passage and put yourself there with the sights, sounds and smells. Who will you choose to focus on? One of the crowd? A disciple? A chief priest? What do you feel? Spend some time listening for God’s word speaking to you today and let that word wash over you.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CRUp5JiRFu0 – My Song is Love Unknown (Singing the Faith 277)
For the layers of comfort and convenience that surrounded our lives and that we never considered a blessing but always just took for granted, forgive us.
For we who must grieve in isolation and not in community, comfort us.
For we who care for the sick, protect us.
For the ability to turn off the fear-mongering and unhelpful commentary and worst-case scenario click bait, strengthen us.
For the times when we are all out of creative ideas for how to get through this with cooped up kids, inspire us.
For we who are now cutting our own bangs at home, guide us.
For the grace to allow ourselves and others to just be less productive, shower us.
For the generosity needed from those of us who have more resources, empower us.
From our own selfish inclinations, deliver us.
For just being your children, none of whom have done a global pandemic before, love us.
For the days ahead, accompany us.
God, unbound by time, help us to know that you are already present in the future we are fearing.
(Nadia Bolz Weber)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dAiBntMtViY – Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest (Singing the Faith 263)
We have gathered with the crowds crying Hosanna!
Because even if we were silent
the stones themselves would have called out.
We have shared the hope for a world about to be changed,
and then it changed.
We have walked with another crowd.
One that called words of scorn and condemnation.
And now we follow the crowd as it leads out to the cross,
and yet even as the world grows dark,
we cannot lose hope.
Because God is with us.
God will be with us.
We are not alone.
And so we watch the crowd and we follow…
Service sheet: Fifth Sunday in Lent
Call to worship
Out of the depths, I cry to you,
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!
O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
Psalm 130: 1, 7
God of Life, lift us out of the valley of bones.
God of Life, brings to life in all your abundance.
God of Life, breathe on me now, here in this place to worship you.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7PjSO5Ihl0M – Faithful One, so unchanging (Singing the Faith 628)
As you enter into a time of prayer, firstly focus on your breathing, on your inhale and exhale. Spent a few moments considering the breath of God within you. Consider the breath of life within you. Now spend some time thanking God for the gift of life, for the lives of those you love, for the life around you in the newness of spring. When you are ready, make this your confession:
We are in Your presence, Holy One, knowing that without you we can do nothing;
without the breath of God, we are dry bones;
without the word of God, we have stumbled and fallen;
without being part of God’s people, we have put ourselves above contradiction,
and lived as though we only had ourselves to answer to.
We see that the world is not as it could be,
and we confess the part we have played;
things we have done which have been hurtful;
things left undone, and choices which have been unwise or worse.
We have failed to see you in our neighbour;
we have misunderstood, and we have not recognised your signs,
your work in the world through so many surprising partners;
Forgive us God; and hear us now in the silence as we make our own private prayers of confession, speaking those things which can only be offered in quietness.
These words of Jesus are strong and true, so believe them: your sins are forgiven.
Amen. Thanks be to God.
Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Well that was weird, wasn’t it? Don’t you think that was a very odd reading from Ezekiel? Bones, scattered, being talked at, and sinews and flesh growing back – it’s not a nice image. A bit spooky if I’m honest. Not being a fan of horror films, I’m not sure I want those pictures in my head.
If you’re of a certain generation, when you hear this passage from Ezekiel, there might be a song which springs to mind? About the toe bone being connected to the foot bone, the foot bone connected to the heel bone – dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, now hear the word of the Lord… This was written by James Weldon Johnson, and African American who worked for Theodore Roosevelt and was a civil rights activist around the turn of the 20th century. He campaigned against racial segregation laws.
Ezekiel was writing at a time of civil unrest. He was used to seeing battle scenes and the backdrop to his narrative is one of war and his writing bears these scars. James Weldon Johnson lived in difficult times, in a divided land where violence against those of his skin colour was commonplace. And yet it is this passage he wants to sing about.
Ezekiel offers us hope in unexpected places. He shows us that through speaking God’s word even the most desperate situations can be improved. However deep those scars run, there are none so damaged that God’s love cannot reach them. James Weldon Johnson knew it, he kept hope that one day we would see an end to racism, that God can breathe new and transforming life into the most unlikely of places.
As we have entered into a period of lockdown, we can feel in a very ‘dry’ place, removed from some of the people we love the most, and possibly we might be feeling removed from God. Not being able to engage in collective worship means we are having to find new ways of being church. Of learning that church is definitely NOT the building, but the people. So one of the things I find in this passage is that even in this most desperate of times, God is seeking to breathe new life into us. God’s love reaches out to us wherever we are. Now that’s the word of the Lord I need to hear right now.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVoPG9HtYF8 – Dem Bones (well, it had to be this!)
Reading: John 11:1-45 – you can find Rev Phil Summers storytelling version of this reading: https://youtu.be/3eYiQgp6NAI
Perhaps the lectionary could have given us a break this week and not a reminder of the presence of death. Or maybe I should have chosen one of the other lectionary readings and ignored this one. Both of our readings today are visceral, messy, putting the realities of our corporeal beings at the centre and showing us bits of ourselves we normally cover us. If you happen to be reading this passage from the King James Version (not one I normally turn to), in verse 39 Mary says, ‘Lord, he stinketh.’ Did we really need to be told that?
Let’s do a quick recap: Mary, Martha & Lazarus (all of them siblings) were good pals of Jesus. He’d eaten and socialised with them. He loved them and they loved him back. Jesus finds out Lazarus is seriously ill, but chooses not to go and visit, and stays put for two whole days. He seems indifferent. Mary & Martha must have been going stir-crazy at this. Did they feel let down I wonder, when Jesus doesn’t come in their hour of need? Then someone tells Jesus and the disciples that Lazarus has fallen asleep. The disciples say, ‘Phew!’ But only Jesus realises this is a euphemism. One we still use today, using words to cover up the messy reality, using words to put up a barrier between us and death because social niceties mean we can’t talk in plain language, as if the words we choose will lessen the hurt. Jesus heads to the tomb of Lazarus. He’s late. Four days too late. Martha sounds cross – if you’d been here, Lazarus wouldn’t have died, she cries. In other words, it’s your fault, Jesus. Jesus talks to her about death and resurrection and life and she says she understands, she says she believes, but she is grieving and all she can do is turn to God. Crucially she turns to the God with a human face. She turns to Jesus. Mary then appears on the scene and repeats Martha’s sentiment: where the hell were you? Everyone is crying. Including Jesus. Now why would Jesus be crying when he knows in just a moment Lazarus will appear alive again? Why is Jesus upset here? He asks for the tomb to be opened – Martha is horrified. After four days the body will have started to rot and that will stink. Please don’t, I can hear her say. Jesus prays and then calls to Lazarus, and like something out of a zombie movie, the walking dead appears. Except, of course, this isn’t the walking dead, this is the walking living.
And that’s where the lectionary cuts off.
Keep reading – go on, have a look at where this story actually ends.
The powerful ones, the religious leaders and not happy with what has happened, and they panic. They are terrified their power will be taken away by this man and his followers, that people will stop listening to them and start listening to Jesus. He has to be stopped before the whole fabric of society starts to crumble. The high priest, Caiaphas (we’ll come across him again in a couple of weeks) is plotting already, and in his arrogance says (and for anyone who has watched Game of Thrones we can’t help but hear these words in a northern accent): ‘You know nothing.’ The arrest, trial and execution of Jesus is now a foregone conclusion.
This is a resurrection story. Of course it is. We’re not at Easter Sunday yet but already we’re talking about death and life and resurrection. Jesus was killed because he offered life. All the Romans could do was offer fear and punishment and death. But Jesus offers life. He is life. He was powerful in a way that couldn’t be understood because he didn’t threaten, he didn’t condemn, he didn’t have long lists of rules and consequences.
He calls to Lazarus, ‘Come out,’ and he’s doing the same to us. Perhaps even more right at this moment, when we are cocooned in our homes and questioning how we can be together as the church. Please don’t misunderstand me: stay at home, don’t come out…but for some of us, the isolation and separation will feel like we are living in a sort of tomb, and even here, even in the depths of our solitude, Jesus calls to us, he reaches into the graves we dig for ourselves and he pulls us out. Jesus gives us new life in the most unlikely of places.
We have been given a unique opportunity through this lockdown, of doing things differently. And that’s scary but also exciting. It shakes us up and takes us out of our comfort zones. Who now is ever going to worry about what seat they sit on in church on a Sunday morning? Who now will ever worry about stumbling over the words of a bible reading in a church service? Who now will get upset if the service overruns by 10 minutes? This experience is giving us each a fresh perspective on what is important: life. That’s it. Life is the most important thing. Jesus understood that and offers it freely, unencumbered by convention or tradition.
We may feel like Mary and Martha right now, pleading with Jesus to come and save us, upset when we think all hope has been lost because he didn’t step in in time. The raising of Lazarus shows us that there is always hope and there is always life. We might be in that waiting period known as Lent (how apt for the lockdown to be now), we might be in a dark place, we might feel despair but in that despair Jesus weeps too. Jesus is waiting with us in this time. He is alongside us right now, reaching into those ugly, messy, stinking places and transforming them, showing us that it is never too late for hope. Although we are not protected from the realities of pain and loss, Jesus shows up, reaches out, calls our name and speaks life into us. Amen.
it is no longer
an exegetical puzzle
to be solved in our study;
it is no longer a pericope
with which to wrestle;
it is no longer a (really)
long reading to get through;
it is no longer a story
we blow the dust off every 3 years.
it is our story;
it is about us;
it is us inside that
dank, dark tomb:
stinking of fear,
wrapped in the bands
blinded by the handkerchief
of weary worry.
for just a footstep,
just a tear dropping on the ground,
just a whisper of Jesus
pacing before the stone,
growling in his spirit
in anger and frustration,
before he cries out,
in hope and joy and life,
we are not casual bystanders;
we are Lazarus
waiting . . .
(c) 2020 Thom M. Shuman
(Please note: additional lectionary readings set for today: Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGoBJ6R18qg – Ain’t No Grave
You already know what we’re worried about, Holy One. ‘Worried’ seems a bit of an understatement, though.
Some of us have already been laid off.
Some of us were already working three jobs.
Some of us are already living payday-to-payday.
Yeah, worried doesn’t quite cover it. We are tired. We are scared. We are grieving.
So because we’re really not sure what’s next or when ‘next’ will even come, we’re going to take the advice Paul was said to have given Timothy, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone,” so here we go.
For the teachers and education staff who know exactly how much their students rely on school for routine, inspiration, relationship, and their next meal, we pray.
For students who worked so hard to get to the finish line, but now everything is cancelled, we pray.
For the parents who are trying to work from home, but who now have tiny co-workers who really do not care about deadlines or toilet breaks or conference calls, we pray.
For the truck drivers, food preparers, shelf stockers, care givers, farmers, produce pickers, and the overlooked and underpaid on whom we are discovering the world actually turns, we pray.
For first responders and medical personnel who keep showing up, keep gloving up, and keep masking up, we pray. For first responders and medical personnel who keep showing up, even when there are no more gloves or masks, we pray.
For the spirit of community effort that puts the whole before the one that we might all get through this, we pray.
Help us hold fast, Holy One, for we have a way to go. You’ll be hearing from us again. Amen.
(Prayers by Rev Lori Walke, Mayflower Congregational UCC, Oklahoma)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxpPIa-BskY – All I once held dear (Singing the Faith 489)
May the spirit be with you
The spirit takes brokenness, dust,
absence of life, and long time death.
The spirit gives life, renews, it revives,
it gives life, it causes hope, it causes joy.
May the spirit put breath in your lungs
and you will come to life.
We are only at the beginning of learning news ways to be church in the current pandemic. We will experiment, get things wrong, enjoy the novelty of some things, horribly miss collective worship and still remain part of something bigger than ourselves. Inevitably this experience will transform us and change how we exist as the church in the future. Over the past few days I have been pondering on what it means to be church in the time of lockdown and am concluding the building has ceased to be important. There is a difference between saying it doesn’t matter and it doesn’t matter at all, but our community of faith exists for the people and not for the building.
There is a church in Atlanta called the Church of the Common Ground. The website reads, “We’re like any other church—we just don’t have a building.” They meet in a public park where worship is conducted, encouraging those on the margins. The Birmingham District of the Methodist Church has run an initiative called ‘Church Without Walls’, but this takes no walls to a whole new level. They are both host and guest within a shared space.
This current lockdown will have severe and negative implications for many people. But maybe not for the church. Maybe, in time, after many discussions and heartfelt prayer and theological reflection, maybe at some point in the future we will be able to look back at this time of isolation and claim the church was with us because we are the church. Maybe we will see the church with fresh eyes. G.K. Chesterton wrote, ‘Your religion is not the church you belong to, but the cosmos you live inside of.’ I pray that during this time, despite not being able to physically gather in our church buildings, that you may feel connected to your faith community like never before. Because for now, the church has left the building.
Call to worship
I lift up my eyes to the hills –
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
who made the heaven and earth.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZugvUQ4m90U – Be still for the presence of the Lord (Singing the Faith 20)
Prayer of thanksgiving
God, we thank you for the wonder of sight. For the beauty of the world we see each day, for the ordered loveliness we see in nature, for the majesty of the heavens and the marvels within the tiniest object, we give you thanks.
For people who have lit up our lives by their goodness and service, for people who have led your church in wise and even wonderful ways, for people of courage and vision and loving perseverance, we praise your name.
We thank you above all for Jesus, who walked in the light and gave light to others, our Saviour who has shown us your light and let it illuminate our lives, our friend who has brought heaven and earth together, the one who prays for us continually, who listens to our concerns, who shares our hopes and our fears.
We thank You for every good person, for every bit of service that makes our journey cleaner and easier and happier, and for everything that bring light and joy into our lives. Blessing and honour be to the God who is above all things yet present in the world as it changes from day to day; to the God who is shrouded in mystery yet wonderfully brought into view by Jesus; to the God whose Spirit brings light and love to our daily lives.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as in the beginning, so now, and for all time, Amen
Prayer of confession
If we say that we have fellowship with God while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as God is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and Jesus restores us to a right relationship with each other and with God.
Lord God, we do not come before You without sin – against you, against others, against the image you have placed within us – but we come in the name of Jesus, bringing ourselves into his light and love, asking, claiming, finding the mercy promised to every penitent sinner, humbly rejoicing in the way he became human, to straighten out our lives and offer them as perfect in His life and death and resurrection. May your Spirit make this wonderfully clear to our minds and hearts, through Jesus Christ. Amen
1 Samuel 16:1-13
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pN4tPkX0MG0 – The Lord’s My Shepherd (Singing the Faith 481)
I am sat at my desk as I write this resource for worship, wondering what I can possibly say which is of any use to people in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. What hope can I bring? What care can I offer? This certainly wasn’t covered at ‘Vicar School’!
Let me start by offering some thoughts on the Samuel reading.
David’s name appears over 1000 times in the Jewish Scriptures, what we refer to as the Old Testament. We know him as a great leader who had humble beginnings and his leadership is known for its victories and defeats. David experiences blessing and tribulation and we see him demonstrating both the best and worst of power.
If you skip back into the very last verse in chapter 15, this tells us God feels regret at having made Saul king. I am fascinated over the possibility that God thinks this was a mistake, that God made an error of judgement. The only other time the Bible tells us that God regretted anything was back in Genesis when God had decided upon the flood, having regretted creating humanity. God’s intention in creating humanity as well as anointing Saul as king was that they would serve harmoniously, but Saul let God down, just as humanity had done centuries before.
So there was a lot of pressure on David, a lot to live up to. And he was the last choice for Samuel. Jesse had lined up all of his sons with the expectation at least one of them was destined for greatness. David, although perhaps resembling Poldark or James Bond, was young and so unimportant Jesse hadn’t bothered to ask him to attend. In that society your position was often determined by the order of your birth, and David was the bottom of the pile. Young, there were no expectations he would do anything other than manual work, and here he is, shepherding. The contrast between Saul & David is stark – Saul came from a wealthy family, David had nothing. He was insignificant.
But when God calls, David steps up, unlikely though it seemed, and he serves God willingly.
God continues to choose unlikely people and in our own way we have each responded to that great invitation by being part of this faith community.
But a word of warning; David’s anointing did not protect him from making bad decisions. True, he was a great king and his achievements are remembered millennia later, but he was far from perfect and we need to be careful not to whitewash over his abuse of power. He sees the beautiful Bathsheba, rapes her, conspires to have her husband killed and then forces her to marry him. He does nothing when his own daughter Tamar is raped by his son. We have a tendency to categorise people into goodies or baddies, but we are far more complicated than that.
Psalm 23 is the most well known of all the psalms, and this acknowledges the existence of stark opposites in the world. There are green pastures but also dark valleys. A table is prepared but enemies are near. Instead of being consumed by the darkness and overcome by enemies, we are reassured by the presence of the shepherd who offers blessings of goodness and mercy for all of our days.
The regret God articulates at having chosen Saul as King, or having created humanity prior to the flood could easily lead us to wonder whether our current global crisis is evidence of God’s displeasure at the behaviour of humanity. I believe this is toxic theology and spiritually damaging and I utterly resist this message. By turning to our Psalm for today, we know that we cannot stop bad things from happening. But this suggests to me that instead of engineering disaster to punish us, God wills blessings upon us. I do not believe that God ever conspires to do us harm.
There is a well-known story told by Eli Weisel, a survivor of the Nazi death camps, of when a child is publicly hanged by the Nazi guards in front of the Jewish prisoners and they are made to watch. They stand in agony as the child struggles dying before their eyes and Weisel hears a voice behind him asking, ‘Where is God? Where is he?’ and another voice replies, ‘Where is God? God is there, hanging on those gallows?’
Instead of causing disaster and remaining at a distance, God is located in our pain, seeking to envelop us in goodness and mercy. I invite you to reread Psalm 23 now. God gives us what we need. God makes us rest because that is what is good for us. God restores us. God leads us to good places. And whatever we experience, the good stuff and the bad, God is right there beside us, offering us deep comfort, and with extravagant generosity pours a healing balm onto us.
In these times of isolation, know that God steps into your loneliness, seeking to be alongside you and give you comfort. Amen
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H9_0jiO5ZRM – Lord I come to you (Singing the Faith 471)
Who sinned, asks the disciples. What bad thing did someone do that caused this blindness? Whose fault is it? Because these things can’t just be random; there have to be consequences to actions and this disability must be evidence of sin.
Jesus, of course, challenges this interpretation. He pushes back. He resists the toxic theology I wrote about earlier. He turns it round and rather than accepting that God punishes, and people deserve their fate, he explains that God works through these tragic circumstances and if only we opened our eyes, we might just glimpse God in them.
The photograph below is from my very favourite building, Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, known locally as Paddy’s Wigwam. If ever I feel that God is distant, I think back to the many occasions I have been inside this cathedral knowing I was standing on holy ground surrounded by God’s presence. The sanctuary is built in the round with lengthy blue stained glass windows flooding the space with light. If you are observant, you can spot shards of red hidden within the blue. In his homily one Sunday, the priest told us that the designer wanted to remind us that the Kingdom of God is always breaking through, and if we look for it we will always find it.
As I read John’s gospel, it took me back to this cathedral, remembering these windows. We might be asking questions about why this pandemic has happened, what actions of ours might have caused this, what punishment is God giving us? In this reading, I find Jesus pushing back at those questions, saying you’re looking for answers in the wrong places, because your starting point it wrong. You’re asking the wrong question. Jesus reminds those listening that it is them who cannot see the truth and not the man who was blind.
I invite you to try and notice God. Wherever you are sat, right now, in your homes. To look for glimpses of God breaking through. You might be able to hear birdsong. You might have had a telephone call yesterday. You might have experienced someone’s kindness recently. You might have read a story about generosity in the news. Find God in those experiences. Just as the psalmist writes, we might be walking through dark times, but like the stained glass windows, light is breaking through and God is with us. Amen
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=itiB52mVJ9Y – My Lighthouse by Rend Collective
I invite you to spend some time praying in order for the following:
- The government and advisers, that they may be given wisdom
- Those who are working hard to keep us safe and well; NHS workers, teachers, delivery drivers, supermarket workers, cleaners, police and many many others
- Those who are currently ill and feeling frightened
- Your friends, neighbours and family
- Yourself for however you are feeling
We bring our prayers together in saying the Lord’s Prayer in what ever language or version is most familiar
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sw5ZCZeS32M – Love Divine (Singing the Faith 503)
God as we go out, stay beside us: along the deep valleys of the world, through the dark hillsides of the world, beside the still waters walk with us, lead us, show us and be our companion for we are ever your people, this day and always. Amen
Some material adapted from ©2013 Spill the Beans Resource Team & Church of Scotland
My brother is a secondary school teacher. His favourite biscuits are custard creams and he gave up chocolate for Lent about 40 years ago and hasn’t eaten chocolate since. Yesterday he said goodbye to his GCSE and A level students, some of whom he has taught for many years. He received this letter:
Dear Mr –
Thank you so much for your incredible hard work over the past 4 years. Every lesson of yours I went into I knew that my mind was going to be filled with boatloads of information afterwards.
For months I was convinced that you had an eidetic memory but you’re actually just that knowledgeable about Biology. It’s truly incredible how amazing a teacher you are.
Now I have to admit that I tried to get you some custard creams but everywhere I went they were all sold out! How abysmal!
Unfortunately I do not have the opportunity to demonstrate to you the hard work that I’ve been putting in to try and get the highest grade possible however; I know in myself that I wouldn’t have been in the position I am if it wasn’t for you and for that I will be eternally grateful. All the best
Lots of love –
Excuse me a moment, I think I have something in my eye…
I wanted to share this with you because I think saying thank you has suddenly become one of the most important things we can do (apart from staying apart, obviously!). My brother frequently complains about the pressures of teaching and I haven’t yet met an Education Secretary he likes, but I know he will treasure this letter. A small, kind gesture that reached out to him in these difficult times.
Many of us are experiencing time on our hands, rather than rushing about wondering how we can fit it all in. We are having ‘Sabbath’ forced upon us whether we like it or not. So perhaps we can take time. Take time to tend to our own needs. Take time to say thank you; thank the shop workers, the neighbours, the friends, the rubbish collectors. Maybe write a letter – I can’t remember the last time I sent a letter rather than an email. Being forced to rest, most of us have been given the opportunity to revaluate what is important; health, friendship, human contact. Sabbath theology is about stopping for a while. Saying thank you. Taking time with God. And when we come through the other side of this, these acts of kindness will be remembered.
Sermon John 4:5-42 preached at Bishops Cleeve Methodist Church 15th March 2020
If we were to head back to the previous chapter in John’s gospel (Chapter 3) we would find another encounter Jesus had, this time with Nicodemus, a leader, a teacher, a Pharisee. He comes to Jesus at night, curious, wanting to know more, but not prepared to ask questions under the scrutiny of his companions. He has a detailed theological conversation with Jesus, where Jesus says some peculiar things about being born again, about how it is necessary to be born both of water and of spirit. Nicodemus is a clever man but doesn’t get it. He might have been told there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but oh boy does he get it wrong by asking about crawling back up the birth canal.
And now we have another encounter and there are some points here to make about the differences between these stories. The first encounter was with a man, who is educated. Here we have an encounter with a woman, highly likely to be illiterate. Nicodemus is named. The woman, like so many others in the bible is not. Nicodemus is like Jesus; he shares the same ethnicity, the same religion, he occupies the same space and frequents the same places. The woman, by comparison, is an alien, a foreigner, and a hated one at that. The Samaritans had a different way of worshipping God, a different temple, a different moral code. Nicodemus is respectable, he holds a position of influence. The Samaritan woman is morally dubious with a messy sexual history. And finally, Nicodemus comes under cover of darkness, ashamed we assume. The Samaritan woman is out in the open in the middle of the day for all to see.
Women sometimes get a raw deal from the lectionary – the three-year cycle of bible readings Methodist preachers are encourages to follow, which misses out great chunks of the bible (some for good reason!), and the lectionary is not terrific on focusing on the female voices and stories. But it should be pointed out that nowhere else in the Gospels, do we have virtually an entire chapter taken up with a women’s story. Peter might go off and build the church, but the block of verses he occupies are not as many as this unnamed woman.
The woman comes to the well in the heat of the day and she comes alone. Only mad dogs and shunned Samaritans go out in the midday sun. It suggests that she was ostracised by the other women in her village. Women generally would go together to collect water – safety in numbers and all that. But she has to wait. Her solitude and the timing are dangerous to her, but she has no choice. Her sexual past is known about and gossiped about and judged and she is pushed away.
And she comes to the well and there is a man, sitting there. She would have been afraid. Another man who would want something of her. To use her, to exploit her. But she sees that he is a Jew. Relief would have flooded through her. At least he would leave her alone. He wouldn’t want anything to do with her. Her very presence would offend him, and he would surely walk away. He wouldn’t risk being alone with any woman, let alone a foreigner. Let alone a Samaritan.
But he speaks to her. Perhaps he hasn’t heard of the Billy Graham rule, that rule that states a man should never be alone with another woman who isn’t his wife. He asks her for a drink. She is puzzled. He would have to touch something she has touched and surely that’s against the rules? But he’s already spoken to her, so clearly this guy doesn’t play by the rules.
And they strike up a long conversation about the essentials for life; water and God. And things seem to be going so well, until he suggests drawing her husband into the conversation. Uh-oh. Now he’s ruined it. Perhaps with hesitation, certainly with shame, she stammers, I have no husband. And then he tells her he already knows about her life. He knows her but isn’t interested in gossip or judging her. He has seen deep into her and hasn’t condemned her. And there is no awkward pause in the conversation; it moves on and suddenly they are talking about the common roots in their religions and now he’s talking about spirit and truth and life.
To be known is to be loved, and to be loved is to be known. Well, that’s not been her experience. She isn’t loved and no-one truly knows her – they know the labels they put on her, but they don’t know her. They see her but only to whisper in corners. The bits of her that are known are hated and she is castigated because of them.
But suddenly she knows what it is like to be loved and known and known and loved. And that feels extraordinary. That’s never happened before. And despite the fact she shares NOTHING in common with Jesus, her gender and ethnicity and religion pose no barrier to her evangelism. And suddenly she is full to over bursting and she can’t keep it all in. Like a bucket that has water poured into it, if it doesn’t stop it can’t be contained. It spills over and yes, that’s a bit messy and she’s messed-up, but for the first time in her life she is known and loved, and loved and known and that’s like feeling clean for the first time in she can’t remember when.
Suddenly she forgets that her village hate her and judge her and gossip about her, because of course, it is only a woman whose sexual history is gossiped about and never a man’s. Suddenly, she forgets she has no friends and no husband, just a man who has moved in because she is considered easy because she is clearly damaged goods with so many men in her past. Suddenly she forgets that she’s considered worthless, I mean, a woman with that kind of past can’t be respectable can she and if she’s already damaged doing a bit more harm to her won’t matter. Suddenly she forgets that she has lived her life afraid, afraid of men and neighbours even the other women. Suddenly she forgets that she has no voice, no power, no-one normally listens to her. Suddenly she wants to share this experience of being known and loved, share it with people who have made her life so difficult, because she knows this feeling is so extraordinary that even those who have done her harm she wants to experience the same. Suddenly her past, her unhappiness, her loneliness and her fear are forgotten. Because she has been known and loved and loved and known.
And you see, that’s what love does; it drives out fear. Now where’ve we heard that before – perfect love driving out fear. That passage starts by saying, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. It goes on to say, God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. We love because God first loved us. It is, as you will know, from the first letter of John.
Jesus doesn’t tell this woman, I will love you, but you really ought to have a ring on your finger first. I will love you, but first you need to become a Jew. I will love you, but you need to say sorry first for your past. I will love you, but first you need to learn to read so you can study the scriptures. He doesn’t even say, well ok, I will love you straight away, but I will be wanting some evidence that you have been changed by this. Love is the primary reaction for Jesus. His love is indiscriminate and has no strings attached.
We are living in times of fear. There have been incidents of supermarkets running out of basics such as pasta or toilet rolls, because peoples fear has taken over. There have been incidents of people of east Asian origin who have been subject to violent attacks because peoples fear has spilled over into causing harm. People are behaving badly because they are afraid. A few years ago I read Albert Camus’s book, The Plague, about a French town that becomes exposed to a deadly virus. Whilst the virus itself is to be feared, the more frightening aspect of the novel is the reaction of the people. Suddenly money and power provide no protection against this disease and normal rules of behaviour disintegrate. Perhaps it wouldn’t be good bedtime reading right now…
Perfect love casts out fear. It casts out fear of those who are different from us. Whilst fear stops us from seeing the humanity in other people, love ensures we look with compassion. Love stops us from being selfish and putting our own needs first.
Jesus, in his encounter with both Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, demonstrates his understanding of the physical and the spiritual. He doesn’t put one above the other, he knows in order for us to live, to flourish and not just exist, we need our physical needs to be met, and also our spiritual needs. We are diminished if we neglect one of them.
Was Nicodemus changed by his encounter with Jesus – we are not told. Perhaps he was. Perhaps he went away examining again the scriptures he has studied for many years and found he is now reading them through the lens of Jesus. I’d like to think that’s what happened. But perhaps his position of privilege prevents him from allowing Jesus to change him because he knows that to change risks him being shunned by his companions and that might be a step too far. The Samaritan woman was utterly transformed by her encounter with Jesus and her testimony and faith changed her village and changed how her village saw her.
Just like the waters of baptism are about our belonging, belonging to God and belonging to each other, symbolising growth and refreshment, this story has much to teach us about how when we don’t fear one another, we can be known and loved, and we can come together without shame or judgment. Some of us might identify more with Nicodemus, educated, privileged, questioning, curious, but not quite ready to commit. Some of us might identify more with the Samaritan woman, a shady past with shameful secrets, lonely and careworn. Jesus seeks to know us to show we are loved. And when we accept that we are known and loved and loved and known, it transforms how we see ourselves and it transforms how we treat other people. We want them to know this experience too, we want them to belong to Jesus, so that like an overflowing bucket of water, our experience of love overspills into everyone we encounter. And like Jesus, we don’t allow social boundaries to put limits on who we love. Amen.
Well, despite my kids calling me a boomer (I’m not btw, I’m definitely Gen X), and my ineptitude for all things technical, I’ve decided to give blogging a go. So what’s this all about, I hear you ask? We face a new normal with coronavirus meaning many of us will be self-isolating over the coming weeks and months. The purpose of this blog is to try and stay connected with my congregations and perhaps even a bit wider. I’ll be posting worship material for Sunday’s with access to reflections (sermons, if you’d prefer) on bible readings, designed for those who cannot attend Sunday services.
I’m new to all this, so please do comment; I’d like folk to join in the conversation as we journey together, just in a different way.