Sunday 27th September – Harvest Festival

Call to worship

Holy Spirit of God,

            we invite you among us.

As we come too celebrate your harvest

and to pray for your justice

we also ask you to bring your peace.

So that the quiet place inside us may speak

in stillness may we be at one with you.

As we prepare for worship now,

Our good lives can be tangled with thorns.

Thorns of failure and sadness.

Tangles of duties and demands.

            Holy God, cut away the thorns that wound and choke.

            Free us to live and too grow in your light.

Wild Goose Resources 

Hymn: Come you thankful people come (Singing the Faith 123)

Opening prayers

As we go about our busy and frenetic lives

we thank you for your on-going unfailing love,

that at times we almost forget is there.
We thank you, that you are always present in our lives,

behind and before us.

Your love is so great that we know you will never let us down,

you will never betray or deny us.

You will walk alongside us every step of our way
For you are the light of creation’s dawn,
You are the very breath of our lives,
You are the promise of renewal
You are the harvest of our soul.
You are the loyal and dependable friend and companion.
In you we place our trust

In you we hold out our hands in adoration and praise.

Katherine Baxter: worshipwords.co.uk

A prayer by Nadia Bolz-Weber:

God of all beings,

A lot of us feel less safe than we did a few days ago and a few days ago we weren’t feeling that secure to begin with. Help us draw upon you, our Divine Source, when what we have just isn’t enough to get through the day. 

A lot of us are grieving. Actually, all of us are grieving: lost friends, lost family, lost homes, lost income, lost connection to others, lost health.  Help us not to also lose hope. We can lose a lot and still survive, but we can’t survive without hope.

A lot of us are so angry. Angry that our inherent worth and dignity seems up for debate by those who have never had their worth and dignity questioned in courts of law. Angry that love of power seems to trump love of neighbour. Repurpose our anger into righteous action, O Holy One.

My fear is turning to anger and I am afraid that my anger can turn so easily to hate and hate is the thing I say I am against. Turn me away from hate. My heart can’t take that kind of brittleness because I need it to give and to receive love. Remind me that my heart is spoken for.

A lot of us are ashamed of how numb we feel, but honestly we’ve run out of emotional bandwidth and the system needs to re-boot before it comes back on-line. Give us rest and self-compassion.

A lot of us are joyous and feel like we have to shield that joy from others, lest it seem like we are callous toward those who are hurting. Help us see and celebrate what good there is in our lives and the lives of those around us.

I don’t think you created us to be able to metabolize such a constant stream of bad news everyday. But I do know that you created us to metabolize biscuits and chocolate. And for that I give you thanks and praise. They are helping. But they are not enough. 

So if you could show up right now, that would be great. And if you are already showing up, give us new eyes to notice you. 

Amen.

Psalm 65

You are God our deliverer

in whom all put their trust;

all who live on earth,

all beyond the horizon.

By great skill and untold strength

you fixed the mountains in place;

you calm the raging seas

and quieten the warring nations.

People throughout the world

stand in awe of your skill.

Lands to the east and west

gratefully sing your praise.

You care for the life of the planet,

forever tending the ground;

you nourish the fruits of the earth,

the crops that feed your people.

You water and level the land,

blessing each season’s growth.

You crown the year with your bounty;

rich harvests are signs of your goodness.

The open pastures are lush

and hills are clothed with joy.

The meadows are covered with sheep

and valleys burst into song.

Iona Abbey Worship Book Wild Goose Publications

Reflection on Harvest gifts

Have you ever been on a picnic? What did you take along? What is your favourite food to eat outside, perhaps having walked to a beautiful spot? I love eating outdoors – somehow food always tastes better when I’m in the fresh air. And of course, being in good company is the best way to enjoy a picnic.

In a few minutes we’re going to read a bible story about a picnic. A picnic where there was a great abundance of food and everyone was stuffed at the end and I should think wanted a bit of a sleep before walking back home. Today, we are celebrating Harvest Festival. Perhaps you’ve been able to give the gift of food recently – it may have been some homegrown vegetables to a neighbour. If you’re a cook, perhaps you’ve shared an apple and blackberry crumble with someone. Or maybe you’ve been able to buy some extra tins in the supermarket recently and drop them into the collection points for local foodbanks. Some of you may have even given gifts of money to charities such as Family Space or GARAS (Gloucestershire Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers) , who are working with people who are experiencing food poverty.

It’s good to share with others. Sharing food is a way of strengthening our relationships, whether that’s going on a picnic, or sitting down for a meal. For many of us, coming to church involves taking bread and wine together – communion – it’s a simple meal, but it symbolises that we want to be connected to God and connected to each other. It fills us with God’s presence and reminds us to share that love with those we meet. It’s been really tough these past few months not celebrating this simple meal with our Christian family, but one of the things that Harvest can remind us, is that we can continue to experience God’s love, and continue to share that.

And so, for all of those gifts, we pray a blessing:

We rejoice in the good things God provides in our lives.

And in gratitude we give.

Today’s special offering, our annual Harvest offering supports Family Space and GARAS and the Foodbank.

These organisations demonstrate the Christian message of loving God

by loving our neighbours through prayer, action, and financial support.

Let us give generously with grateful hearts.

As the ancient Israelites brought their gifts, we bring our gifts today.

Generous God – we pray your blessing over these gifts.

May both giver and receiver know your life and love

and that you are always with them. Amen

Hymn: We plough the fields and scatter (Singing the faith 130)

All Age Talk

Have you had your cereal this morning? What did you have? Corn Flakes, Weetabix, or something fancy? I wonder which cereals you have tried and which you like. I guess you didn’t have cereal like this?:

These do not look all that appetising do they? Truth is that although this type of cereal is not what we would have for breakfast, some of them make up the ingredients of our breakfast bowls and  we do have it in other meals. This cereal is very important to the world diet. For some people ‘important’ is not a strong enough word. It would be better to say that these cereals are ‘essential’ or ‘necessary for life’. There are two sides to our Harvest Service: The easy bit is to acknowledge how thankful we are for what we have. The harder part it is to be so moved by the fact that we are provided for, and that we are so well-off in comparison to others, that we recognise our responsibility to share. To sometimes share what we have; and always to make an effort to make sure that the world’s resources are shared out fairly. In a moment we’re going to listen to that picnic. Somehow Jesus played a part in making sure that whatever food there was that day was shared. Surprisingly it not only fed all the people, but there was some left over too. There is a great blessing in receiving, and a great blessing in sharing.

Readings:

Deuteronomy 24:19-21

Mark 8:1-10

Sermon

A great crowd has gathered. They hang on every word Jesus says. But they are now hungry. Jesus may have told the devil, who tempted him in the wilderness, when he hadn’t eaten for days, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’ But Jesus knows no-one lives at all without any bread to eat. The people are close to fainting, and now Jesus is worried if he sends them home, some of them might not make it.

So he tells the disciples to feed them. And the disciples immediately protest – there’s not enough. Jesus also said, ‘the poor will always be with us’ – when I get to see Jesus face to face, I intend to have it out with him over that particular phrase, because when we are confronted with the massive problem of hunger, just like the disciples, we think it’s a problem too big to solve. It’s all very well being compassionate, but we need a dose of realism, or so we are told.

The shocking reality is around one billion people will go to bed hungry tonight. And tomorrow night, just as they did last night. The good news is that until recently, the world had been making really good progress on world hunger. In 1970 around one in three people went to bed hungry. By the year 2000, this was more like one in six. Even though we have seen the global population expand, the number of people starving in real terms is coming down. Significant numbers of people are moving out of poverty. This teaches us that ending hunger is not an impossible dream. It can be achieved.

And we know what it takes to end hunger – the main ingredient is political will. It takes the engagement of the whole of society – government, the private sector, nongovernmental organisations, the media, religious leaders, and us – it takes all of us to step up and make the economy work for everyone, including the poorest.

People in first century Palestine understood food poverty – it was a rampant problem for those who were not rich. If we imagine a typical Roman feast, we might picture total excess, tables laden with food. There are stories about Roman citizens who attended these feasts eating to the point of vomiting, and then returning to eat some more – how revolting is that? It’s revolting, not just because we don’t like thinking about throwing up; it’s repulsive because their waste resulted in others starvation which were at crisis levels. And maybe we could come up with examples of waste and excess today, where money and food are squandered whilst children go to bed with empty bellies.

Jesus sees the people are hungry. He’s seen it before, probably many times over. He asks the disciples to figure out a way of feeding them. He doesn’t tell them how to do it, or provide them with the resources. But in typical fashion, the disciples still manage to get it wrong. They are trying to work out a solution purely in terms of food. They have seven loaves and a few fish. They know the maths, and that is not going to divide into anything meaningful. The disciples believe the problem is too big to solve, they look at their resources, those loaves and fish, and think them insignificant. They haven’t explored their other resources – the people themselves.

The miracle, of course, isn’t that Jesus did some magical trick and the bread and fish multiplied before their eyes. The miracle is a very ordinary one. It is that Jesus saw the solution to the problem based on the people themselves. He believed in these people and their generosity. And like an enormous picnic, when the people saw that some of them had taken out what they had and were willing to share, other people followed suit and did the same. The miracle is one of generosity, because that is what Jesus encourages. Jesus transforms greed and selfishness, he transforms a desperate group of hungry people into a community of compassion and justice, a community in which everyone is fed and no-one keeps things to themselves.

There’s not enough, cry the disciples. Oh yes there is, says Jesus, you’re just looking for it in the wrong place. The story of this mass feeding highlights the two extremes – scarcity which endangers life, and the abundance of God. We have been blessed with a planet with immense resources – creation is a larder stocked to excess because God is extravagant in generosity. The shame is we’re not terribly good at handling extravagance and abundance. We think we can store it up – a bit like the Israelites in the wilderness who tried to store up the manna, but the next day it turned foul and was filled with grubs. We have a tendency to hoard – I wonder whether you are someone who likes to keep hold of things, to collect things, or not get rid of things because you think one day they might come in handy. God’s abundance and generosity comes from a desire to share, a desire that all life is lived in fulfilment, a desire to see communities where justice and love are the guiding principles. The abundance we sometimes hoard rarely comes from these desires; they mostly come from the desire of self-preservation. We make excuses about prudence and independence and self-reliance. Saving for a rainy day might seem sensible, but not if someone else is standing in a monsoon.

This miracle is the only one which makes it into all four gospels. Matthew & Mark think it so important they repeat it, give or take 1000 people. That suggests to me that not only was it a memorable event in the lives who experienced this, but that it had great significance. It was life-changing. Transforming.

The real wonder of this story is that it continues today: God still cares deeply and passionately for those who are most vulnerable – the poor, the immigrant, the hungry – and God continues to use us to care for them.

What I have discovered anew about this bible reading is how much I tend to restrict and narrow the vision of God and how much more expansive God’s vision is to humanity. When I say ‘no’, God says ‘yes’. When I say, ‘there’s not enough’, God replies, ‘here’s an abundance’. When I say, ‘that’s mine’, God says, ‘share it’. When I say, ‘God can you just come and sort it out’, God replies, ‘I’m asking you to do the same’. When I pray, ‘God help the poor’, God replies ‘Rachel, I’m asking you to do it for me’.

Our harvest today reminds us about the disparity between the abundance of creation and the despair of crop failure. It reminds us about the disparity between those who have more than enough, and those who live hand to mouth. Are we prepared to step into the harvest, to step into the miracle of abundance, to step into the possibility of compassion spreading like a virus? Are we prepared to say yes to God’s justice which will see everyone fed? The miracle of generosity is waiting for us all to step up and say yes. Amen

Hymn:  Jesus Christ is waiting (Singing the Faith 251)

Intercessions & The Lord’s Prayer

We pray today for farmers and farm-workers, especially those we know in our communities.

We pray for them in the heat of summer and in the wet and cold of winter, as they tend their stock daily and cultivate their fields, as they manage the hedges, woodland and waterways.

We pray for safety in a hazardous industry, encouragement for the solitary, and a fair price for their products.

We pray for seasonable weather, good growth and good yields, so that there may be abundant harvests to feed hungry people.

For safe work practices and healthy habits for all farmers, so that people and communities may flourish and be strong.

For health and happiness in the home life of all farmers, and for families to work together with love, respect and harmony.

For wise financial planning, land care and asset management, so that farmers may be confident about the future of their farms,

for good communication between country and city, so that we may understand each other’s needs and encourage one another.

We pray for this country to increase its self-sufficiency in food that supermarket-buyers will support local growers.

We pray for all those who provide seasonal labour at harvest time,

for those who clean and process our food – often in tough conditions,

for those who transport, inspect and sell our food and for all who cook it for us, remembering particularly all the new school caterers feeding our young children.

We pray for rural and regional networks working to overcome rural loneliness and isolation; the Farming Community Network  and the National Farmers Union.

We pray for The Arthur Rank Centre, an ecumenical project working amongst the rural communities across the UK, supporting farmers and the agricultural community.

Generous God, as we celebrate your goodness we also remember the plight of those whose harvests have failed.

We pray for those whose land or crops have been affected by floods, drought, or fire, by pests or disease.

For those whose families are hungry and for those who have no seed or livestock for the future.

We also remember those here and abroad who are dependent on food banks.

Help us to be generous givers – of our money, food and time, as Christian disciples in this place, and show us how to be stewards of the resources of Your world, for the benefit of all people. Amen

Adapted from The Church of Scotland

The Lord’s Prayer

Hymn: Harvest Samba

Blessing

May God who clothes the lilies

and feeds the birds of the air,

who leads the lambs to their pasture

and the deer to still waters,

who multiplied the loaves and fishes

and changed water into wine,

lead us,

feed us,

multiply us,

and change us to reflect the glory of our Creator

now and through all eternity.

And the blessing of God almighty,

the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,

rest upon you and remain with you now and for ever

Amen

Sunday 20th September 2020: Season of Creation

Call to worship

As we enter autumn, our thoughts turn towards Harvest. Normally we hold one Harvest Festival as a celebration for all that God has provided. This year, we are encouraged as the Christian family to unite for this worldwide celebration of prayer and action to protect our common home.

I invite you to begin your service by lighting a candle, and setting the space with other natural items that represent the agriculture or wilderness of your local ecology, and open by praying:

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: From all that dwell below the skies (Singing the Faith 75)

Opening prayers

Thanksgiving God – we thank You that You always listen

even when our voices are less than joyful.

We thank You that You still wait for us

even when we dawdle or drag our feet.

We thank You that your generosity always overflows

even when we are grudging of its bounty to others

God – we thank You that You are always, and completely, Yourself

and that Your love is therefore never limited by our smallness. Amen

God of challenge and change,

the stories from Your word show us

how great the gap can sometimes be

between divine and human economies.

Forgive us when we have let attachment

to our own comfort and convenience

deter us from committing to the costly transitions necessary

for the wellbeing of our planet and the flourishing of all its inhabitants.

Silence

God of compassion and concern,

the stories from Your word show us

how great the gap can sometimes be

between divine and human tenderness.

Forgive us when we have let attachment

to our own understandings of justice and righteousness

deter us from following the discomforting paths necessary

for the wellbeing of our planet and the flourishing of all its inhabitants.

Silence

God of generosity and grace,

the stories of Your Word show us

how great the gap can sometimes be

between divine and human understanding.

Forgive us when we have let attachment

to our own sense of hierarchy and entitlement

deter us from making the difficult shifts necessary

for the wellbeing of our planet and the flourishing of all its inhabitants.

God Your compassion for our weakness

and concern for our wellbeing give us confidence

in the generosity of Your forgiveness.

Out of the liberality of Your grace

help us, as we begin again,

to grow into the courage, love, and understanding

which are the hallmarks of Your Kingdom,

and to live in ways which will help to make this world

a place where all life can flourish. Amen

(prayers taken from The Church of Scotland)

Psalm 145

I will praise your greatness, O God;

I will bless your name forever.

Every day I will praise you

and honour your name without ceasing.

God, you are great and deserve our praise;

your glory is beyond our understanding.

Each generation shall speak of your worth

and celebrate your goodness.

I will meditate on your wonderful work

and consider what you have done.

God is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger and constant in love.

God’s goodness and compassion

are meant for all creation.

God keeps every promise,

God’s ways are always gracious.

God lifts up those who are falling

and raises those bowed down.

All eyes look to you, O God,

who supplies every creature’s need.

God, whose ways are just and kind,

draws near to all believers.

Our mouths will sing out praise.

God’s name be blessed for ever.

© The Iona Community 2016

Reading: Jonah 3:10-4:11

Reflection

I have a bit of a soft spot for Jonah – he was a reluctant prophet. He ran in the opposite direction when he first knew God was calling him and that landed him in big trouble. So eventually, and I can only imagine, rather irritably, he does God’s bidding. I can see him walking through those ancient streets shouting his message of doom. And then something remarkable happens. Something totally unexpected. This city of hedonism started to listen to Jonah. They believed him and they changed their ways. Their gluttony was replaced by fasting and their fine clothes abandoned for sackcloth. They know they have nothing to lose – we didn’t hear verse 9, but the king says, who knows, perhaps God mind CAN be changed.

And indeed it was. We often speak of God being unchanging. Constant. The all-knowing one. And one of the things I love about this story is that here, God’s mind is changed. God has made a decision and then discards it. Such is the love God has for the people. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowman Williams has suggested that the one thing we can say with any certainty about the character of God is that God is for us and he rejects the idea that God seeks to punish us.

Rather than being delighted that Nineveh has heeded his warning, Jonah is furious with God. He has known all along that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and full of steadfast love, so what was the point of putting Jonah through all that if Nineveh was going to survive anyway? 

Ninevah was on a collision course to destruction. But God loves those who are messing up their world – loves them enough to throw them a lifeline they don’t understand, but will grab hold of anyway. The book of Jonah speaks powerfully to the institutional inertia of our churches and governments in the face of continuing climate emergency, and indeed, following the ‘sackcloth and ashes’ of lockdown.

God’s capacity for forgiveness and love is endless. God’s desire is to save us, not destroy us. And love always wins in the end.

God calls each one of us. Calls us into action, to save our world. Even those who are a bit on the curmudgeonly side. I can only think that Jonah was a tricky person to spend time with. Perhaps some of you will remember the TV character of Victor Meldrew, who managed to find frustration in most of life, well Jonah reminds me of him. And it gives me hope that God asks something of all of us, even those of us who far from being saintly, and say, you’re mine, you’re precious and I love you despite who you are and because of who you are.

Hymn: To God be the glory (Singing the Faith 94)

Reading: Exodus 16:2-15

Reflection

Unusually this week, I’ve chosen both of our readings from the Jewish Scriptures, our Old Testament. When I was reading through the passages set for today, I was struck how both Jonah and the Israelites are moaning. They are grumbling despite the action God has taken. They both wish for the better days that are behind them.

But wait, weren’t those Israelites held in captivity, as slaves, for generations? Are they seriously looking through the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia and wishing they were back in Egypt? If were to read verse 1 of chapter 16, we would learn that they have been in the wilderness now for about six weeks. Six weeks it’s taken for them to start their complaining, their questioning of authority, their discontent. They are unhappy with their new-found freedom, because it isn’t the promised land they were expecting. In fact, it’s jolly hard work. To be fair to them, they are genuinely suffering. They have a point. It’s understandable that they are grumbling; I’m sure I’d be doing the same after six weeks of not having enough to eat.

The Israelites think they have to choose between freedom and food. They think those are their only options and right now, they choose food.

As we start to think about our Harvest season, our thoughts naturally turn to the produce of the land, the crops and variety of food in our shops or perhaps in our gardens. From an environmental point of view, we know that there is enough to go around, but still many people starve, and that certain farming methods have damaged soil fertility. Choices are still having to be made about whether we can feed the whole earth, or whether we chose something else entirely. We have the choice of clean air, or the pollutants caused by travel. We have the choices of having strawberries all year round, or only eating seasonal produce, knowing there are air miles involved in transporting out of season food to our supermarkets.

Liberation is an arduous journey. It takes effort and even sacrifice. It means taking responsibility for each other, even for those in other countries, because our choices affect them too. Our choices mean that some people are held within the bondage of poverty, if we insist on cheap food or cheap clothing. Millions of people live with food insecurity, and shamefully we have people in the UK who cannot afford to adequately feed themselves.  

If we were to read on, we would hear about that bread from heaven, where instructions are given to them not to store it up. Some of the Israelites didn’t listened – they chose greed and laziness, but by the next morning the bread was full of grubs and had become foul. By taking more than we need, by insisting on more than our share of the harvest, things turn rotten. It’s the source of much pain and suffering, by not having enough to go around because others have more than their fair share.

So what might our two readings tell us? Well firstly, that God’s people do a lot of moaning. And sometimes we might even have good cause to moan. If we to read some of the Psalms, we would find them full of complaint.  Tell God – God is big enough, God can handle our anger. I truly believe that if we are to have an honest relationship with God, we shouldn’t suppress how we feel, and that means doing a bit of shouting from time to time. God heard the complaint of Jonah, heard the grumblings of the Israelites, and God continues to hear us, to listen to our pain, to be concerned for our suffering.

But I also find our readings are fundamentally about God wanting the best for us. And that happens when we act together, when we pull together as a community, with attention being paid to everyone. In a moment we will be praying the Lord’s Prayer. In it we pray ‘Give us our daily bread.’ Us. Not me. This is a collective prayer and one in which we normally recite in each other’s company, but even when we are separated, it is symbolic of our unity and our care for one another.

So what can we do about any of this? Give to foodbanks – a good place to start.  We are on this Christian journey of faith together, and our care for each other is crucial. And that care extends beyond the reaches of our own church communities, into our neighbourhoods and towns. But it can also extend to how we treat the earth itself, in knowledge that when we take care of our planet we are actually taking care of each other.

I invite you this week, if you’re in a grumbling mood, to tell God about it. Talk to God about your own pain and suffering. And let God lead you into new possibilities of how the love and care God shows to you, to share that to others. Amen.

Prayers of Intercession

We pray in thanksgiving for Mother Earth in whom all life is rooted,

Brother Sun whose energy radiates life,

Sister Water who nurtures and revives us, and co-creatures with whom we live,

and for whom we are called to till and keep this garden.

Creative Spirit, enlighten our hearts and remain with your world.

All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe

and in the smallest of your creatures.

You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.

Pour out upon us the power of your love,

that we may protect life and beauty.

Fill us with peace, that we may live as brothers and sisters,

harming no one.

Creative Spirit, enlighten our hearts and remain with your world.

O God of the poor, help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this Earth,

so precious in your eyes.

Bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world

and not prey on it,

that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.

Touch the hearts of those who look only

for gain at the expense of the poor and the Earth.

Creative Spirit, enlighten our hearts and remain with your world.

Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,

to be filled with awe and contemplation,

to recognize that we are profoundly united

with every creature as we journey towards your infinite light.

Creative Spirit, enlighten our hearts and remain with your world.

In the wake of the COVID-19 global pandemic,

hear our cries of compassion, and heal our world and all creatures.

Inspire our hearts with a holy imagination,

to rise, freed from the demands to produce and consume

to imagine a just, sustainable way of living,

where all have enough, and all may be restored.

enlighten our hearts and remain with your world.

During this Season of Creation, grant us courage to observe a Sabbath for our planet.

Strengthen us with the faith to trust in your providence.

Inspire us with the creativity to share what we have been given.

Teach us to be satisfied with enough.

And as we proclaim a Jubilee for the Earth,

send Your Holy Spirit to renew the face of the ground.

Creative Spirit, enlighten our hearts and remain with your world.

We thank you for being with us each day.

Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle for justice, love and peace.

Creative Spirit, enlighten our hearts and remain with your world. Amen.

(adapted from A prayer for the Earth, Pope Francis, Laudato Si) 

The Lord’s Prayer

          Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins

as we forgive those who sin against us.

Lead us not into temptation

but deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power,

and the glory are yours

now and for ever.

Amen.

Hymn: All Creatures of our God and King (Singing the Faith 99)  

Closing Prayer

You asked for my hands that you might use them for your purpose,

I gave them for a moment, then withdrew them, for the work was hard.

You asked for my mouth to speak out against injustice.

I gave you a whisper that I might not be accused.

You asked for my life that you might work through me.

I gave a small part that I might not get too involved.

Lord, forgive my calculated efforts to serve you only when it is convenient for me to do so,

only in those places where it is safe to do so,

and only in those who make it easy to do so.

Lord, forgive me, renew me, heal me, nurture me, empower me,

send me out as an instrument of your peace and justice

that I might take seriously the meaning of servant-leadership. Amen.

(Joe Seramane, Christian Aid Lifelines, South Africa)

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

Sunday 6th September 2020

Call to worship

Hymn: Jesu, tawa pano (Jesus we are here) (Singing the Faith: 27)

Opening prayers

From President of Methodist Conference, Richard Teal:

Seeking One, you are the beginning and the end of our search.

Finding One, you are the alpha and omega of all discovery.

Asking One, you are the voice and the silence of our exploration.

Giving One, you are the fullness and the emptiness of all yearning.

Persistent One, you never abandon your search for us, nor tire of our repetitive to-ings and fro-ings.

Receiving One, you endlessly welcome us home, and spread before us a feast in the face of our constant requests for mere morsels of bread.

Search us, O God, and find within us the secrets we hide.

Ask us, O God, and receive from within us the pain we bear.

Keep knocking at the door of our lives until we open our wills to your purpose, our lives to your life, and our yearning to your hope. Amen

Prayer of confession – pause to think of all we need to bring to God in our shame

Lamb of God
You take away the sins of the world
Have mercy on us

Lamb of God
You take away the sins of the world
Have mercy on us

Lamb of God
You take away the sins of the world
Grant us peace

Reading: Exodus 12: 1-14

Below is a clip from the Disney film, The Prince of Egypt, depicting this plague:

Reading: Romans 13: 8-14

Reflection

Our passage from Exodus should come with a health warning to any vegetarian or pacifist. I wonder if we’ve heard the story of the plagues and the Israelites being freed from slavery too many times and it’s lost some of its shock value. Have we become immune to the gruesome nature of this story? I don’t know about you, but I first heard this tale when I was a child in Sunday School – Moses, the Pharaoh, the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea – these are familiar stories to read to our children. I wonder why we’ve chosen these stories out of everything contained within our scriptures, to teach our children? Is it the colourful and dramatic nature of them that we think will hold their interest? Because I’m really not sure they are suitable for young people or those of a sensitive disposition. Somehow we are supposed to find God within slaughter and blood, and it should prompt us to love and praise this God. Hmmm…I’m struggling here.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he speaks of the economy of Jesus – his words are put in financial terms, of not owning debts. We continue to live in a money-based economy built upon debt. It’s how the financial markets operate. Our Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, freed up money for the furlough scheme and at some point that money needs paying back – questions are already being asked about whether to raise taxes or not. Owing money has become the norm – for any of us who have had a mortgage, or a credit card, or a loan. Money is supposed to make the world go round.

Pharaoh considers value only in economic terms. He owns a lot. He’s worth a lot. Production is crucial. Acquisition of wealth is the goal. And so he does what he needs to achieve his aim. We have the equivalent of Pharaoh today. Corporations that seek production as means of generating wealth, disinterested in the trickle-down effect of that wealth, because the workers are a means to an end. As people are being asked to quarantine if they have been in contact with anyone who has tested positive for coronavirus, some workers will not be paid during this period of quarantine. And if that meant your rent not being paid, or your children not having adequate school uniform, or even if that meant you not being able to feed your family, perhaps you would be tempted not to tell anyone you have been asked to quarantine. I completely understand the danger for smaller employers, but for global corporations continuing to make large profits, pay out enormous dividends to shareowners, award eye-watering levels of bonuses, who refuse their workers a living wage, comparisons are easy with the slave-owners in Pharaoh’s Egypt.

The Egyptian system of slavery was built upon sacrifice. People were sacrificed on the altar of consumerism, on the altar of greed, on the altar of production. Plagues had come and gone and nothing had changed, mostly because those in power hadn’t really suffered. Those with wealth were exempt from most the struggles of the people. But this last plague, this one hurt. How often is it that things only really change once the people with power accept that they are affected too? I find it hard to justify why the first-born sons had to die. Why God felt it necessary to be the cause of death and pain, even if we think the people who grieved somehow deserved to feel this grief. Finally, after decades of the slaves grieving over the meaningless loss of life (because the life of slaves is worth less than the life of princes) finally, the wealthy are experiencing what it feels like to be powerless against death.

Despite that, it still feels monstrous that God would choose to kill the sons of the wealthy in order to spare the lives of the chosen people. It doesn’t sit comfortably with us. For the Israelites to win their freedom, the Egyptians have to lose. This story feels about revenge and judgement and destruction and a total reversal of fortunes, and just for a moment I want to push back at God and ask, wasn’t there another way for you to get Moses to rescue your people? Couldn’t you have done this without so much death? So much violence? I thought you were a God whose love was expansive and inclusive.

So I’m grateful that we have the contrast of the letter to the Romans – a rewriting of the hymn of love from 1 Corinthians 13, which focuses on love. This is more the territory of my theology. Why is it I find myself having sympathy to the Pharaoh, when my sympathy should squarely rest with those enslaved? Perhaps it is because I believe that those who do the enslaving are themselves enslaved; enslaved to their love of money, their love of production, their endless quest that results in no rest for anyone. Perhaps God needed to take radical action to free the Pharaoh as much as free the Israelites, to show how life is not about the acquisition of wealth. The previous lessons, the other plagues were not enough, they did not do enough to demonstrate the error of living this way. This required something more terrible to stop the endless cycle of production.

The Passover celebrates freedom and life and safety for a deeply persecuted people. The focus may be on liberation, but it is also on community. Food is eaten and shared. If a household has too much, it will share it with the neighbours. Estimates are that there were between 20-40,000 Israelites living in Egypt at this time. That’s a lot of people to give instructions about blood on doorposts and what and how to eat. But these were a people preparing to be nomadic; a people prepared to leave at the drop of a hat; a migrant people who would travel light.

There is so much in this story to unpack, so much we could learn from. Who are the people in need of liberation today? Who is suffering at the hands of reckless inhumane production techniques? Who needs a fairer share of the harvest? Can we, as a church, learn from this nomadic people, to travel light, to leave our baggage behind and take a step of faith into a new freedom without the constraints of consumerism?

The German pastor, Martin Niemoeller, protested against the anti-Semitic policies of Hitler. He was eventually arrested and spent time in various concentration camps. You’ll know one of his most famous quotes: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist…” But the quote I came across this past week is the one I really want to share. Despite the pain he experienced, and the hatred he knew the Jews suffered during the Second World War, he said this:  “It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. He is not even the enemy of His enemies.”

So can we balance the plague of the killing of the firstborn sons against the love which is at the heart of the gospel? Can this teach us how to react when confronted with suffering? We might imagine that the Exodus story was the pinnacle of the liberating love of God, that nothing since could match up. But as with all slaves, we are not free until all of us are free. Egypt is all around us, there are Pharaoh’s in our midst. As a faith community, are we ready? Are we prepared to take action, to travel light, to migrate to wherever there is need? Are there things enslaving us? Are we held hostage to our inability to say no? Do we feel compelled to produce more, to work harder, to think that rest equates to laziness? God offers us liberation from all of this, to move us from a place of production to a journey in which all we need to carry is care for each other.

After the Exodus came the commandments – commandments Paul repeats in his letter to the Romans, and reminds us that when we love we are fulfilling the commandments of God. So I started this reflection wondering how I can locate God within a story of slaughter and blood, but of course in my exploration of this passage I discover that God is located in every human experience, drenching it with salvation and love. The God of love and liberation is seeking to liberate the oppressors as much as the oppressed, eager for them to understand that their lifestyles binds them and causes them and others harm, keen for them to understand the currency of relationships and the economy of love. This is the kingdom of God our Christian journey of faith leads us; to the place where everyone is free and everyone is loved. Amen

All-Age Prayer

Living God here is a big story for us

of a long ago time

when you freed people who were slaves

and called them your own people.

You seem to want to change things:

to move from what hurts to what heals,

from what traps to what gives us freedom.

Help us live like that too:

moving from dislike to love.

That’s the way you do things,

that’s the way you change the world,

that’s the way you ask us to live.

And we can make our own big story

working with you to help everyone live fully, freely, fairly together.

Hear us as we pray together. Amen

Hymn: Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love

Points you might like to consider:

  • Are oppressors and the oppressed in equal need of liberation?
  • Do you agree with Niemolloer: “It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. He is not even the enemy of His enemies.”
  • Do you think the church needs to travel light?

Prayers of intercession

Join me in a moment of silence to consider how you can breathe life into the hopes of those around you.

Silence

Breath of Life, hear our prayer.

God, our hope is in you.

Breathe on us and our world. Bring life into our weariness, and joy into our despair.

Breath of Life, hear our prayer.

We pray for those living with only the bare bones of resources…

for those with no fresh water, for those who have lost their homes and their livelihood.

Breath of Life, hear our prayer.

We pray for those who feel entombed by their circumstances…

for the children of alcoholics and drug addicts, for our young people unable to find meaningful employment.

Breath of Life, hear our prayer.

We pray for those who are tempted to despair…

For the people of lands in strife, for the refugee, for the hungry.

Breath of Life, hear our prayer.

God of hope, draw close to them.

Bless them with the promise of hope that no despair can overcome.

Raise them into the light of new possibilities.

Breathe life into their weakness and bless them with fresh strength.

Breath of Life, hear our prayer.

God of life, breathe on us now, confirming your presence within us,

empowering us to go forth as your people, spreading your hope into our world.

Use us to help others, and bring them, and us all, to a place of hope in the fullness of life.

Breath of Life, hear our prayer.  Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer

          Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins

as we forgive those who sin against us.

Lead us not into temptation

but deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power,

and the glory are yours

now and for ever.

Amen.

Hymn: Best of all is God is with us (Singing the Faith 610)

Blessing

May the One who adorns the poor,

binds the rulers,

and causes the people to rejoice,

adorn you with love,

bind all that seeks evil,

and give you cause to rejoice.

And the blessing of God,

Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer,

be with you, and all whom you love,

now and ever more. Amen

Some material taken from The Church of Scotland & ©2011 Spill the Beans Resource Team

Sunday 30th August 2020

Call to worship

We come in our need to worship God

In our need, and bringing with us the needs of the world

We come to God, who comes to us in Jesus

And who knows by experience what human life is like

We come with our faith and with our doubts

We come with our hopes and with our fears

We come as we are, because it is God who invites us to come

And God has promised never to turn us away.

Hymn: Be still, for the presence of the Lord (Singing the Faith 20)

Opening prayers

Holy God, we’re not always sure how to pray, or what even counts as prayer.

So, for now I just ask that:

When I sing along in my kitchen songs on the radio, that it be counted as praise.

And that when I read the news and my heart tightens in my chest, may it be counted as me saying, Lord have mercy. 

And that when my eyes brighten in a smile behind my mask as I thank the checkout assistant may it be counted as passing the peace.

And that when I water my plants and wash my dishes and take a shower may it be counted as remembering my baptism.

And that when the tears come and my shoulders shake and my breathing falters, may it be counted as prayer.

And that when I stumble upon a someone talking sense and find myself thinking of your grace and love may it be counted as a hearing a sermon.

And that as I sit at that table in my house, and eat one more homemade meal, slowly, joyfully, with nothing else demanding my time or attention, may it be counted as communion.

Amen.

 Adapted from Nadia Bolz-Weber

Jesus spoke of a yoke: Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn form me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ (Matthew 11:28-30)

In a moment of quiet, imagine your own concerns as heavy loads. Reflect that yoke of Jesus, a wooden one, hand-made by a carpenter, which makes light of our burdens, which gives joy and rest to the soul.

I unburden my heart.

I unburden my mind.

I unburden my whole being

And lay my heavy load at the foot of the tree of life,

To claim rest for my soul. 

(The Book of Uncommon Prayer)

Reading: Exodus 3: 1-15

Reflection

Since the middle of March, most of us have not been inside a church on many occasions, if at all. For some of us, this will have been the longest period in our lives of not coming to church. And we’ve missed it – or, at least, many of you have told me you’ve missed it. And for good reason. We come to church for different reasons; hopefully we’re all here because we want to worship God. But we also come to church to learn, to grow in our faith and to support one another. We are better people, better Christians because as a worshipping community we come together.

I wonder whether you have a favourite church? Perhaps the church where you got married? Or went to Sunday School as a child? It could be a church you visited on holiday and something about that place struck you as being special. Perhaps your favourite church is actually your current church. I’ve mentioned before that my very favourite building is the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King in Liverpool – the Roman Catholic cathedral known locally as Paddy’s Wigwam. There is something about being inside that church that brings me closer to God. The moment I step inside I know I am standing on holy ground and I find it a deeply moving experience. It’s not a very old building, but I sense the worshipping life of the faithful Christians that have gone before me.

Being inside a church can help remind us that we are connected to each other, but we are also connected backwards to those who have gone before us, linking us to Christians from decades and centuries before. It can help to connect us even as far back to those faithful people in biblical times, and if we are attentive to it we can notice their influence on us today.

God said to Moses, take off your shoes for you are standing on holy ground. Moses wasn’t inside a church or temple. He was in the rough mountainous region used to graze sheep. There were no stained-glass windows or organ music. No pews. No bibles to hand. No icons or religious symbols. This was an ordinary working environment. And yet God tells him, this place here is holy. Treat it with respect. Be as in awe in this place as you would be inside a cathedral or temple.

There are rules of behaviour most of us observe when inside a church for the first time even if we are not normally church-goers. Our voices might lower in volume. We slow down. We look around. We stop rushing. We take time.

When I was growing up I inhabited two different worlds, or so I was told. The church and the world. And I was led to believe that these two were in opposition to each other and there was very little common ground. I’ve come to the belief that there isn’t a separation between the church and the world; between the sacred and the secular; between heaven and earth and sometime even between the human and the divine. Jesus comes to bridges those gaps, to stand in those in between spaces.

So I find these words of God, when we are told ‘the place on which you are standing is holy ground’ to be very powerful and challenging. Because what if were to treat the whole earth as being holy and sacred? What if, when we stand in a queue in Tesco that can become a place of holiness? Or a hospital ward? Or a bus stop?

Gerard Hughes has described God as a ‘beckoning word.’ That resonates with me, that God is calling us out and inviting us to see the world through God’s eyes. God as an invitation into the depths of wonder and into abundant life. When we are able to accept that invitation, perhaps we will be able to treat all space as sacred, to see the creative love poured out into everything we see, even into urban and industrial landscapes. Because if all things comes from God, then wherever we are, it is holy. And perhaps our rules of behaviour when inside a church should extend to places outside church, where we need to slow down, stop and look around us, notice the awesomeness of our environment, soaked in God’s creative love.

If we could see the bus stop or hospital ward or industrial estate as holy ground, then perhaps we would treat them differently. If we believe these are holy spaces where God can be found, then this can inform our ability to tread lightly on our planet, to understand that our commitment to environmental issues is in itself an act of Christian love.

I have visited the Hebridean island of Iona on several occasions – Iona is described as a ‘thin place’ – George MacLeod, Founder of the Iona Community,  said that Iona is a ‘thin place where only tissue paper separates the material from the spiritual.’ And I can vouch for the ease with which I found God there, whether sat on the stunning beaches, worshipping inside the Abbey, or even helping wash up in the refectory. But I find myself more and more believing that these thin places are not specific locations where we can access God more easily because of geography. It is about noticing God wherever we are. The Psalm set for today is number 104 – we’ve not read it this morning, but I would encourage you to look at it later. It speaks of the whole earth reflecting the glory of God; the clouds, the thunder, the valleys, the animals, the grass, the nests, the roar of lions, the cedars of Lebanon, it goes on and on – everything is a statement of God’s praise and creative power. Where shall I flee from God’s presence, another psalmist asks, I can make my bed in hell and sail to the further ocean and not even that is beyond the reach of God.

You are standing, or perhaps sitting, on holy ground. Not because you are inside a church, but because God is here. And later, when you go and fix some lunch and sit down, you will still be on holy ground. You only need to accept that invitation of God to notice the holiness surrounding you. The holiness of God filling you, comforting you, leading you onwards, enriching you and enabling you to meet the days ahead.

God is a beckoning word. God beckons us into curiosity, to see through God’s eyes, to see the whole earth as holy, to see Christ in every face we meet, to even see our own loveliness, for God loves the world and everything in it.

Holy ground

Sacred space

Inviting intimacy

Facilitating vulnerability

Cultivating call

For even when our awareness is

of God who is the ground of our being

inhabiting every moment

present in every breath

still we are compelled

to turn aside

to glimpse that which is beyond

our familiar sightings.

Compelled to turn aside

to glimpse afresh

the intriguing

mischievous

butt kicking

playful God

who knows when we have settled for less

when we have resigned ourselves

to a life that brings peace

but not fulfilment

or the abundance God desires for us.

God knows

when we fear we are not enough

or even too much…

God shakes up our complacency

and offers new perspective

but only when we risk

stepping off the well worn

and perhaps hard won track

so that we might glimpse

an unimaginable future

that can only be forged

in partnership

with a pyromaniacal God.

Rev Liz Crumlish

Hymn: Purify my heart (Singing the Faith 508)  

Reading: Matthew 16: 21-28 (Phil Summers video)

Reading: Romans 12: 9-21

Reflection

Have you ever tried to define love? It’s a slippery word and perhaps we know it better by experiencing it than by talking about it. Last week we saw love in action, when some of us watched the wedding of Debbie & Kevin. That’s a really easy demonstration of love.

For those of us who might need other reminders about what love looks like, Paul, in his letter to the Romans sets it out. In this chapter of Romans there are 24 clear declarations about what love does and doesn’t looks like in our relationships. Paul is particularly interested in denying that love has anything to do with domination and control. Instead, genuine love is selfless, putting others before ourselves, harmonious; love isn’t interested in what we get back and has nothing to do with gaining advantage.

We have a potential pitfall in our passage today though: if it is possible, Paul writes, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Most people hate conflict. I enjoy debate and banter, I love a good discussion and even enjoy people disagreeing with me if it means we can have an in depth conversation. But I loathe conflict and confrontation. If two people are having a heated argument, I want to run in the opposite direction. I think that’s a pretty common reaction most of us have. But whilst love is peaceable, it isn’t silent. Love might not seek conflict, but love doesn’t run in the opposite direction when confronted with people being mistreated. How easy it is to turn a blind eye, or to claim it has nothing to do with me. That Sudanese teenager who recently drowned in the Channel is an example of this – how quick our government was to say, ‘nothing to do with us. Not our fault. Not our responsibility.’

Genuine love doesn’t leave anyone behind. Even those we think are reckless and irresponsible. If your enemies are hungry, feed them, we are told. There’s no justification for not helping; no excuses, no trying to claim that if only they’d worked a bit harder, if only they didn’t have a mobile phone, then I would feel better about feeding them. Because those are the reasons so often given for not supporting foodbanks, for putting the responsibility of poverty solely on the shoulders of the poor. If your enemies are hungry – feed them. That’s what love does.

Love doesn’t weigh up who is deserving or not of being loved. And thank God for that. Thank God that we are not judged as to whether we deserve to be loved by God. Thank God that there are no scales determining whether I’ve done enough to win God’s affection, that God hasn’t said to me, this week Rachel I’m not giving you any of my love because you’ve had some pretty unchristian thoughts about the British government, and you swore in your car when that person cut you up, and walked past that Big Issue seller, and I don’t think you deserve my love today. Thank God I don’t have to try and earn God’s love.

So why do we insist that some people are deserving of our help, and therefore of our love, and others are not? Why do we allow some people to go hungry?

Love might be peaceable, but it cannot remain silent when people go hungry, when children are drowning in our waters. And although love cannot be silent, it does not ask questions about whether the children’s parents are responsible, instead it speaks up in defence of those who are suffering.

Paul tells us to outdo one another when it comes to love. In an age where looking out for number one is considered sensible, normal, where we always expect the same back, Paul instructs us that love is not about gaining any advantage. It’s not about winning.

We should remember that on the whole Paul is writing to a persecuted church in its infancy. The enemies were real and dangerous. The moral choices were stark; to declare yourself a Christian was to put yourself in opposition to the society around you and sometimes in opposition to your friends and family. By naming yourself as a Christian, you were immediately at odds with many around you. And those who viewed you as the enemy could do you real harm.

Paul assures this community about the right response; the Christ-like response in the face of this opposition. You cannot curse those who would seek you harm; instead you need to bless them. And feed them. And not think yourselves superior. And not seek revenge.

Who are our enemies I wonder? Do we even have any? For some of us we might have lived through toxic relationships that have done us genuine harm, but I suspect many of us would be hard pushed to identify anyone as our persecutor. The media sometimes likes to identify enemies for us, as if asylum seekers are the ones who might do us and our way of life harm. But actually, the people I shout at the most are those speaking in news interviews, those in positions of power. Can I identify these as my enemies and am I prepared not to curse them?

So how can I take a stand against the hate speech I hear from certain leaders, rejecting the prejudice they spout, whilst at the same time blessing them and not cursing them? I can’t do this with anger in my heart or a desire for superiority. I can only do this through having genuine love. And yes, that’s a challenge and sometimes a monumental effort. Perhaps I have more in common with the persecuted Christians in Paul’s day than I initially imagined, because they were persecuted by those with power, not by those with nothing. I find it easy to demonstrate love to those who are weak, but it is much harder for me to demonstrate love to those who are in power. I am far more judgmental, far more willing to lay blame, far to eager to rejoice in their downfall.

Martin Luther King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Love doesn’t weigh up who is deserving of that love. The challenge for us all is to question ourselves as to who we find it hardest to love, who are we most judgmental about, who do we seek to point score against. Those are the people we need to bless. If your enemies are hungry, feed them, we are told. If the person you despise is hurting, help them, bless them, love them. For this is the way of Christ. Amen.  

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

Prayers of intercession

Jesus says, I will be with you always, to the end of the age

Jesus, be known to the Church, the holy Church, the imperfect Church, your church.

Be known to the suffering Church, especially in Egypt, in Iraq, in Syria, where the odds are stacked against faithful Christians.

Be known to the churches in this circuit, facing a hundred different problems that the rest of us do not see.

Be known to the local preachers, the stewards, the lay workers, trying to work out the gospel in the ambiguities of home and work.

Be known to us in our church life here.

Jesus says, I am with you always, to the end of the age

Jesus, be known to our nation, our confused nation, our talented nation, our materialistic nation.

Be known to those whose pursuit of money has isolated them.

Be known to the school-leavers looking out at an empty horizon.

Be known to the homeless, who are ignored and feel worthless.

Be known to our world, especially…………

Jesus says, I am with you always, to the end of the age

Jesus, be known to the weak who know their need of you.

Be known to the strong who do not know their need of you.

Be known to the sick for whom life is anxious and painful.

Be known to the lonely who are desperate for someone to call their name.

Be known to these people who we name before you…

Jesus says, I am with you always, to the end of the age

Jesus, be known to the joyful whose hearts are overflowing with gratitude.

Be known to the newly in love for whom life is a great promise.

Be known to the new politicians determined to make improvements

Be known to those who have made the decision to follow you, who have found a faith for life.

Jesus promises to all who will listen, ‘I will be with you always, to the end of the age.

Jesus, help us to believe your promise and to live in that confidence. Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer

          Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins

as we forgive those who sin against us.

Lead us not into temptation

but deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power,

and the glory are yours

now and for ever.

Amen.

Hymn: Everyone needs compassion (Singing the Faith 627)

Blessing

May the road rise up to meet you

May the wind be always at your back

May the sun shine warm upon your face

May the rain fall soft upon your fields

And until we meet again

May God hold you in the hollow of his hand

Sunday 23rd August 2020

grayscale photo of woman hugging baby

Hymn: Bring Many Names (whilst this is not in any of our Methodist hymn books, it is by renowned hymn writer, Brian Wren)

Prayer of approach and confession

Living God, we name You as immortal,

the Alpha and Omega of our creation,

the eternal living presence.

And now in our prayers, the immortal touches the human;

eternity dips into time,

and we are transported into Your nearer presence,

aware of Your greatness in this very place.

“Immortal, invisible, God only wise”,

we worship and adore You.

And we presume, now, when we choose,

at a time that is right of us, that You will listen,

be available to us, and hear our prayers.

What right have we to call on You when it suits us?

And yet, You bid us come.

You are ready to listen.

You will us to enter Your courts.

 You smile upon us in welcome when You see us arrive.

“Unresting, unhasting”,

You are our God.

And, because of all of this,

we come tentatively into Your presence – in awe of Your justice;

wondering whether we are worthy;

questioning whether we deserve to be here.

Yet You bid us come; You call us to confess;

You wait till we bow down; You expect our penitence.

And then You say, stand up, my friend.

Come closer. You are forgiven. You need fear no more.

“Thy justice like mountains, high soaring above thy clouds,

which are fountains of goodness and love”.

Unchanging God, we name You now as our life-giver,

who, with grace and mercy, shows You believe in us,

You need us, You want us to serve.

Take us now; free us from all reticence;

call us by name; welcome us home …

so that we can say now in Your presence:

“We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,

and wither, and perish, but naught changeth thee …”

These prayers we bring You,

“Great Father of glory, pure Father of light”,

in and through the name of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins

as we forgive those who sin against us.

Lead us not into temptation

but deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power,

and the glory are yours

now and for ever.

Amen.

Reading: Exodus 1:8 – 2:10

Reflection

This passage of scripture is one of my very favourites – the story of the midwives Shiphrah and Puah and their civil disobedience that gave birth to the possibility of exodus and liberation. Their belief in life, in all it’s beauty and wonder, emboldened their resistance, and delivered the promise of salvation.

The Pharaoh, Shiphrah and Puah’s boss, was a racist. As a slave-owner, he believed that his own ethnicity gave him and his people superiority over his foreign workers. He treated the Hebrews as sub-human, as a commodity, a possession, a means of production. And that meant they were disposable. If they failed to live up to his regime, they were eliminated. But suddenly he realises he has a new problem – they’ve been breeding and their numbers are out of control. If the Hebrews make this connection, they could rise up against their slave masters and overthrow them. They are, after all, strong, fit, physical specimens. There are so many comparisons we could make with the transatlantic slave trade that saw millions of Africans transported as a means of production, and this gave rise to many racial stereotypes – that those of African heritage are tall, strong, fit, physically imposing and therefore frightening. We continue to make these assumptions when it comes to sport – the assumption is those of African heritage are faster, taller, fitter. It gives rise to the racism that says a black man is to be feared because of his physicality. Why do you think black men are physically restrained more frequently that white men when arrested?

But back to our story; Pharaoh sees the problem with Hebrews and comes up with the perfect solution – you can’t stop them breeding, but you can cut off their roots. By killing the male babies it will weaken them, control them for a bit, stop them being such a threat. Girl babies of course, can’t be a threat. I mean, who on earth has heard of a woman standing up against authority, taking action and demanding her rights?

Pharaoh calls the midwives – they can help do his dirty work. When you go and assist at a birth, as soon as the baby is out, if it’s a boy, kill him, they are instructed. I wonder how they felt at this demand. They knew the consequences of disobeying their king. I wonder if the two of them had a conversation about how they would be executed if they didn’t carry out these orders, and what would be the point of that? The Pharaoh would just have more midwives brought forward to do what he wanted? Wouldn’t it be better to keep their heads down and obey the law? Women still needed help in labour after all. And no-one would blame them for obeying their king, from being good, well-behaved, law-abiding citizens.

Some time later Pharaoh gets the message that the number of boys hadn’t declined – he must have been furious. Who did these women think they are? He drags Shiphrah and Puah in front of him and demands an explanation. Remember, he’s a racist, and these women are quick-witted and play right into his assumptions. Well, you see, us Egyptian women, we labour for HOURS – plenty of time for midwives to be called and sit with them and see the whole thing. But those Hebrew women, those fit, strong, physical bodies, designed for physical labour of all kinds, when they go into labour it’s just a grunt and a push and the baby’s out, meaning they can get straight back to work – no time to call a midwife, no point. By the time we get there, these women are already on their feet and have hidden their new-born sons from us. The Pharaoh thinks for a moment – ah yes, that makes sense.

I wonder whether news of the resistance of these midwives spread, encouraging more people to question the injustices and wonder how they could participate. News might have reached one Hebrew woman, who must have prayed as she was in labour for God to give her a daughter, and wept when she saw she had a son instead, but became determined he should not die. She hatched a plan to save his life, putting his life above her own desire to keep him with her, knowing his safety was compromised by her presence. Because her home is dangerous, she puts him in a safer place – on the water. Our own news stories of people in dinghy’s risking drowning to save the lives of their children is echoed in the story of how the Exodus began. No parent puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land. This is, of course, the mother of Moses.

And then we have our third act of bravery, our third demonstration of civil disobedience – the baby is put on the water when his sister sees a rich woman go in for a swim. She knows this woman won’t fail to see him floating down the Nile. The woman who pulls him out knew this baby boy was a Hebrew and should be dead. But she takes this chubby cherub to her mistress. And this rich young woman also knows he is a Hebrew, but babies have that way of squirming into your heart in an instant. This woman is Pharaoh’s daughter. A daughter who defies her father.

Four women. All whose compassion was greater than their fear. All standing up against injustice. All subverting the Pharaoh. All at great personal risk. All with a belief that life is precious and must be protected. This chain of resistance extends and creates the environment that will liberate the Hebrews from slavery; that chain of resistance continues to be remembered and celebrated throughout Jewish homes today. You may have heard of the Butterfly Effect – the idea that very small changes can have immense consequences, rippling through time and space, changing lives forever. One of the messages I take from our passage today is that we might never know the effects of our actions, but our determination to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God will have ripples, will touch others lives in ways we will never know. I’m sure you have all been on the receiving end of acts of kindness and perhaps even those acts were turning points for you – the people being kind to you might never know what an impact they had on you.

We prayed earlier, ‘deliver us from evil.’ Have you ever thought of that word ‘deliver’ in a birthing context? In the context of a midwife delivering a baby? Midwives are a really interesting image for God; that God acts as our midwife, standing alongside us, assisting us in our pain, providing reassurance, constantly checking in with us, ensuring our safety and wellbeing, encouraging us to bring to birth something wonderful. A little bit later we’re going to hear the hymn, Guide me O thou Great Jehovah,‘ with the repeated line ‘Strong Deliverer.’ What if God was like a midwife, bringing to birth new possibilities from our depth, confirming strength we never knew we possessed, liberating and delivering us from our pain. Amidst some biblical names for God I find much less helpful, I find the image and name for God as midwife one which resonate with me. One which confirms the value of life, all life, confirms that all of God’s children are precious and blessed. God births us, the Holy Spirit breathes life into us, Jesus came to bring life in all of its abundance. This is an act of midwifery from the God who liberates us from all that would seek to harm us.

A Psalm of Delivery

Deliver me, God

from the cramped quarters

where my spirit sojourns.

Deliver me into a freedom

where I can be myself and grow.

Deliver me from a dependency

on any but You

who are my Creator.

Cut the bonds that force me to feed

on another’s spirituality.

Deliver me into a brand new day

and into a new beginning,

where heart and mind and soul and spirit

can really start anew.

Deliver me into the wide-open arms

of Your Maternal Presence.

Let me cling to the Source

of my sustenance

until I have had my fill.

Deliver me into a world

that has some answers

to the questions

I have not yet dared to ask.

Deliver me into a household of faith

and an inner security.

Your blood is in my veins, God,

Your love is the milk

that sustains me.

Your touch is the feel

of the full ness of faith

when the night falls thick around.

I shall not want,

I shall not fear

for I have been within You.

I know You are near,

I feel You here

at home inside of me.

M.T.Winter, Crossroad Pub. Co., © 1992 Medical Mission Sisters

Hymn: She sits like a bird (Singing the Faith 393)

Reading: Matthew 16:13-20

Reflection

Names are important. In our reading from Exodus we were introduced to two named women, something of a rarity in the bible. Why do we know the names of Shiphrah and Puah but not the Samaritan woman at the well?

Each of us has many different names. Different people know us by different names. Some of us might have nicknames, some of us might prefer to use surnames and titles to those less familiar to us. And of course we’re each known by who we are and what we do. We acquire different titles throughout our life. That might be as simple as ‘Mum’ or ‘Granddad’. They show the rich variations of our lives.

Jesus asks, who do people say I am?’ Actually he firstly asks, who do people say the Son of Man is? It might not surprise you to know, I’m not terribly comfortable with that particular title. I’m trying to reclaim it by thinking of Jesus as the Man of the People; he is the perfect representation of the best of humanity, the perfect one who can demonstrate the potential for living holy lives, who bridges the gap between heaven and earth, between the divine and the human.

The reply from his disciples is varied and we have a long and slightly peculiar list of who Jesus might be. But Peter goes to the top of the class by getting the answer right – you’re the Messiah. John the Baptist, Elijah and Jeremiah are all giants in the history of a faithful people, but Jesus is not simply replicating what went on before. These prophets were good, inspiring, courageous people, who led many others into faith. But they were fixed in time and space. Jesus is dynamic and alive, transcending time and space.

Jesus is still asking, who do you say I am? Who is Jesus for you? A historical figure? A good man who was killed in the end? A person of great moral courage, worthy to be listened to and perhaps even copied? Is that enough? Jesus is seeking to be more than that for us. Because if all Jesus is, is a person from the history books, we cannot have a relationship with him. He can’t affect who we become. In naming Jesus as the Messiah, as God, we are making a claim that he is so much more than a person born over 2000 years ago and did some good stuff. We are making the claim that he remains relevant and alive today because he is God.

Names matter. Names can be destructive – being called ugly or stupid or fat is harmful because these names worm their way into our psyche and affect how we think about ourselves. Jesus calls us by name, and declares we are special and precious and loved. If we call him a prophet rather than God, we are denying he continues to have power and influence and relevance in our lives.

There are many names for God. Earlier we looked at the image of God as midwife. Maybe you don’t find that helpful; maybe you prefer to think of God as Shepherd or Father or something else entirely. Different names draw out different aspects of the nature of God. We cannot know the full character of God; it’s too immense for us. Every title we ascribe God has limitations. But our understanding that God is ultimately mystery shouldn’t stop us from seeking. Who do you say I am? In the encounter Moses first has with God, he asks God that question – who are you? Who should I tell people you are? And God replies, ‘I am who I am.’

Jesus doesn’t need to ask us, who are you? He knows. We are created and known and loved. We are greater than the names others give us, greater than the names or titles we give ourselves. Today, the question we need to hear is Jesus asking, who do you think I am? Who am I to you? Amen.

Hymn: Through all the changing scenes of life (Singing the Faith 638)

 

Prayers of intercession

Holy and gracious God, we pray for others, prayers that bring to mind the world’s realities. Please teach us not to be afraid, because it is here we find you, sharing this deeply troubled world with us.

Please bless all who are continuing to make a difference: scientists working faster than ever before to find cure or vaccine for covid-19; chefs, volunteers, entertainers, neighbours and countless more. May they know your laughter and love.

We ask you to bless all who are there to care for those who are at their lowest, especially in health and care services. May they know your persevering strength.

We pray for the hundreds of thousands who are grieving here and across the world: for the loss of loved ones, loss of livelihood, loss of confidence and hope, loss of any sense of wellbeing. May they know your comfort, strong and everlasting.

We pray for people who need the world to be a more just and equal place, and for those who have power to make changes. May it happen quickly and peacefully. May they know your righteousness.

We pray for all who need the world to remember them: refugees and asylum seekers, all living in poverty and suffering from climate change. May we remember; may they know your provision through us.

Thank you for all, profoundly known and loved, who enrich our lives every day. Amen

(Prayers by Jean Hudson for the Methodist Church)

Hymn: Guide me O Thou Great Jehovah (Singing the Faith 465)

Blessing

Who do we say Jesus is?

How do our lives reflect this?

We go now to live out our faith in word,

in action and in love.

And we go knowing the love of God the Father,

strengthened through know the risen Son

and inspired by the Holy Spirit,

in this place and at this time, always.

©2014 Spill the Beans Resource Team

Sunday 16th August 2020

Call to worship

We come as mothers, daughters and sisters.

We come as fathers, sons and brothers.

We know the lengths we would go for our family.

We understand the depth of family love.

We come to worship the one whose love is stronger and wider and deeper than we can ever know or understand.

Prayer of approach

God who calls us to praise,

let us be glad and sing for joy.

Guide us in our worship this morning.

Help us to be attentive to You

as we come together as a community of faith

to grow and learn, to be challenged and to be comforted.

Help us to listen for Your voice today. Amen

Hymn: Let us build a house where love can dwell (Singing the Faith 409)

Opening prayers

“Be Still and Know that I am God.”

Sit back. Breathe deeply. Quieten yourself and listen to the noises around you; birds outside, the fridge humming, cars passing by, the neighbour working outside. Offer these things to God in thanks.

Be aware of the working of your own body. Your heartbeat. Your inhalation and exhalation. The aches and pains. The blood flowing through you. Offer the life within you to God.

In your mind’s eye, go to your happy place. The place where you long to be. Picture the scene, busy or remote. Beautiful or ordinary. Tell God why you love this and give thanks for the time you have spent here.

You have chosen today to sit here and be part of this act of worship. There are many other places where you could be, many other things you could have decided to do instead. You are here because of the people in your past and present who have guided you, who have taught you Christian ways, who have been signposts to Jesus. Remember them and give thanks to God for their ministry to you.

Holy One, in a time when we can so easily focus on the negatives, on the bad news, help us to remember to pause and give thanks. To notice the good things, the ordinary things that go on around us. To be aware of the life you have breathed into us. To remember happy times and good people who have enriched our lives. When things are tough, give us a poke in the ribs and point out the good things. We know that these good things don’t take away the pain, but they stop us from feeling overwhelmed.

Forgiving God, there have been moments this week that have been difficult.

There have been times where we have not lived up to everything You created us to be.

We have done what we should not and not done what we should.

We have said and thought things that were not kind, or honest.

We haven’t loved other people or ourselves.

We are sorry.

God of fresh starts, help us to wipe the slate clean.

Walk beside us and teach us Your ways,

give us hope that the difficult things won’t always be this way.

Help us to know Your forgiveness for ourselves and show Your forgiveness to others. Amen

Reading: Isaiah 56: 1, 6-8

Reflection

Our two readings today are about foreigners and how they are treated. Badly, usually. Both readings pit two ethnic groups against one another: the Jews and the Gentiles. Who has favour? Who deserves better treatment? Who wins at the game of life? Who does God love the most?

Isaiah is speaking to a community that has returned from exile and life isn’t quite what they’d been hoping for. This prophecies of a time when foreigners will be welcomed and embraced. The Israelites have experienced what it is like to be immigrants, asylum seekers if you will, but they are also used to thinking of themselves as God’s chosen people.  How will they feel about God bringing these new people into the promised land and these people worshipping in the same space as the Israelites? Given the same rights, the same level of justice?

When living as exiles, as foreigners, the Israelites experienced significant discrimination. They knew what it was like to be marginalised, to be treated less favourably on account of their ethnic origin. Life had been hard. In returning to the promised land, perhaps they were relieved to be back amongst their own kind, they probably felt a lot safer on home turf,  but Isaiah is now telling them that God is adamant they must share this land with other foreigners; others who themselves have experienced oppression and injustice because of their nationality. Justice is the key here and the great vision God has for God’s chosen people is that the blessed and promised land created by God will be a place of diversity, a place of harmony and unity amongst people of difference.

The message here is clear – the covenant God set up is not exclusive. It’s not restricted, but is available to everyone.

We are tribal people. We tend to gravitate towards people who are like us, who look like us, talk like us, think like us, love like us, pray like us, vote like us. The sorry state of the Methodist Church in Britain is that we are rarely a place of diversity, but instead a place of cultural uniformity. Uniformity will be our downfall, if we only ever attract people who are like us, if we only ever cater for people who do the things we do.

Most churches, not just Methodist, make a big deal out of saying, All are Welcome. As read those words in our opening hymn: All are Welcome in this place. And we probably mean it. We’re probably genuine in our desire in wanting anyone who walks through our doors to feel at home here.  A sign inside Coventry Cathedral reads:

We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, widowed, straight, gay, questioning, well-heeled or down at heel. We especially welcome wailing babies and excited toddlers.

We welcome you whether you can sing like Pavarotti or just growl quietly to yourself. You’re welcome here if you’re ‘just browsing,’ just woken up or just got out of prison. We don’t care if you’re more Christian than the Archbishop of Canterbury, or haven’t been to church since Christmas ten years ago.

We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome keep-fit mums, football dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems, are down in the dumps or don’t like ‘organised religion.’ (We’re not that keen on it either!)

We offer a welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or are here because granny is visiting and wanted to come to the Cathedral.

We welcome those who are inked, pierced, both or neither. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down their throat as kids or got lost on the ring road and wound up here by mistake. We welcome pilgrims, tourists, seekers, doubters… and you!

Isn’t that great? That’s how to say ‘All are Welcome.’ But are we really prepared for new people, because their very presence will disrupt us. Each of you reading this is a precious person, needed and loved, and I’m delighted you chose to engage in this act of worship. The church is shaped by each one of you. And anyone else who comes to the church will shape the church – is that what we want? Are we prepared to move the goalposts for them?

The message from Isaiah tells the people you’re special, you’re blessed, you’re precious to God. But God is adamant that every person created is special and blessed and precious. And there’s enough space to go around, enough love for us all. We don’t have to prove we are loved by God by identifying who might not be loved by God. God gathers us all in, holds us, embraces us. God’s arms are wide enough to encompass us all, there are no limits, God’s love isn’t rationed or risks running out.

How did the Israelites feel about sharing? Well I imagine a bit like a toddler who is presented with a baby brother or sister and suddenly realises they’re going to have to share their parents and are not best pleased about it. I remember when I was pregnant with our second son, worrying that all of my love had been poured into our eldest and I couldn’t possibly love this new child as much. I thought my love had already reached peak capacity. How wrong I was. Because when love is stretched, it doesn’t thin, it expands and multiplies.

All are welcome – it’s a challenge that requires serious consideration about whether we are prepared to take it seriously. But as the Israelites are told, when people come together, there is joy and holiness and celebration. Our communities should be places of safety that are welcome to everyone, not just catering for the majority, but being attentive to differing needs. It’s God vision and God gives us the responsibility of building on this vision.

Hymn: Community of faith (Singing the Faith 681)

Reading: Matthew 15: 10-28

Reflection

I remember as a young adult being told that we shouldn’t pick and chose bits of the bible we like and ignore the rest, that all texts are of equal value. Well, I certainly don’t think we should ignore any of it; those tricky passages need examining, we need to sit with them and grapple with them, put them through the lens of 2020 and see how God is still speaking through these holy words and how they can help and direct us in our lives today. But that said, I don’t actually believe all of scripture holds equal value – each of us here will have come across texts throughout our lives that have significance, have helped us through difficult times and hold special meaning for us. I can’t compare the instruction for us to love our neighbours as ourselves to the passage in Leviticus that determines people with disabilities are forbidden to make an offering to God – these are not of equal value.

And so we come to our gospel reading for today. One in which I struggle to recognise Jesus – he seems irritable and frankly downright rude to the Canaanite woman. Does this passage hold equal value to the feeding of the five thousand that comes almost immediately before, or the feeding of the four thousand that comes immediately after? Is there anything in this passage for us today? Or in our picking and choosing, should I have gone with the epistle instead?

Jesus went away to the district of Tyre & Sidon. In modern geographical terms this is Lebanon. Well this was my first clue this week that perhaps I can’t ignore this passage – modern day Lebanon, as we know, has been in our news because of that catastrophic explosion and they will be living with the consequences of that blast for many years to come. So what might this middle eastern woman and her encounter with Jesus have to teach us?

The woman shouts out to Jesus – has she heard his reputation as a healer? She knows there is a gulf between them – they couldn’t be more different – different gender, different family circumstances, different language, different nationality. But this woman is clever, she seeks common ground and is strategic in her confrontation to ensure she can’t be ignored – Son of David, she calls him. She’s finding a point of commonality in their ancestry – in the genealogy of Jesus there are three Canaanite women – Rahab, Tamar & Ruth. They share a heritage. They might even be distantly related.

And here’s where it gets tricky. Despite her determination, Jesus doesn’t answer her. Oh Jesus, why do you make things so hard for us? Why couldn’t you have turned around, a bit like with the Samaritan woman at the well, or the woman with a haemorrhage and behaved like the feminist we know you are, and treated this disadvantaged woman with a bit more respect. Why couldn’t you have modelled to the disciples what compassion to the foreigner looks like, what it looks like to treat women as your equal? Couldn’t you have been just a little bit nicer?

Has anyone heard of the modern word, ghosting? It means to suddenly for no reason stop all communication, to withdraw without explanation, to ignore someone, to blank them. It has deeply traumatic psychological effects of making the person being ‘ghosted’ feel insignificant and worthless. Is Jesus ghosting this woman? Far too often in history, in scripture, women’s voices are not heard. The testimony of a woman was much less important than a man’s. If your neighbour told you they had been burgled, you’d offer sympathy and perhaps practical help – you wouldn’t doubt their word. Your first reaction wouldn’t be to question whether they’d brought it on themselves by not locking their windows, or flaunting their possessions.  But if a woman says she has experienced the crime of a sexual assault, still, today, she can be doubted, she can be scrutinised, her behaviour brought into question as to whether she is deserving of this crime.  

This Canaanite woman is in good company, because like Rosa Parks, she doesn’t give up. She’s perhaps used to being treated like this, but not today. Today, like a lioness, she’s fighting for her child.

And here’s where this passage gets really complicated, because Jesus seems to be saying he only came for the house of Israel, for the Jews, he’s not interested in helping the Gentiles, so please go away. And still, she doesn’t give up – what determination, what strength she demonstrates. And then he insults her – ‘ it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs,’ he says. So let me get this right – the children, the children of God are the Jews, and she is the dog; the dogs are her people. Woah – that’s pretty awful stuff. That’s perilously close to being a racial slur.

But this woman is feisty and she’s quick witted – dogs eat crumbs, she retorts. And finally, Jesus takes notice: woman, you have great faith. Respect. Your daughter’s healed already.

There are a couple of ways of reading this passage – the first, is that Jesus knows all along that the woman has great faith, and he’s setting her up to be able to demonstrate this, to be able to make the point that God is for everyone, not just the Jews. He needs to banter with her to show this, and rather than irritability, he’s doing this with humour.

There is another way of reading this – that Jesus himself believed that his mission was initially to his own people. He needs to seek and save the lost, the people who have wandered from God, who have turned their backs on the covenant, and he needs to remind them they are special and blessed and precious. But his encounter with this formidable foreign woman changes him. His own mission, his own understanding of the kingdom of God is stretched and challenged by her, that she persuaded him of her own validity and importance. Her tenacity means she won’t let him go until he’s noticed her child – parents will do that for their children, they find strength they never knew they had to step up.

But actually, the question of whether Jesus knows all along, or is changed by this encounter, might be the wrong things to focus on. Instead, I think this links really nicely with our passage from Isaiah, about who’s in and who’s out. Who is included and who is excluded. Because the answer to that is, no-one.

In recent days we’ve seen news items of migrants on flimsy, overcrowded boats in the Channel, and we’ve heard our government’s reaction which seems to be about fostering fear of the stranger. If you see a boat, full of desperate people, some of whom are children, and your first reaction is, they are not welcome here, I seriously question your moral compass. Many of these people are parents, picking up their children and fleeing perilous homelands, seeking safety. Isn’t that what Mary & Joseph did, when they escaped to Egypt?

Those who are being persecuted, facing discrimination and injustice, need their voices heard. They need allies and occasionally they need advocates. They need treating with respect. They do not need to be told they are sub-human, or that they do not belong. Our heritage, our nationality, our territory is an accident of our births. Those of us who were born in the UK haven’t earned it and our birth rights do not give us superiority or special favour. We need to recognise the privilege of living in the UK, and especially for those of us who are white, or straight, or well educated, that we are given opportunities denied to many others; we may face hardship, but our skin colour or nationality or sexuality is unlikely to be the reason.

All are welcome, we heard earlier. Do we really mean it? Or do we secretly think that those who are different from us are somehow inferior, that they should have less say in all manner of things? So what I take from both of our readings today is that God celebrates our diversity, but gives no distinction to our race, gender, social class or culture. These social ills that divide us have no place in God’s justice.

Jesus heard this unnamed woman’s voice, was struck by her tenacity and faith. This woman was in the wrong place, speaking with the wrong accent, in the wrong gender, but she spoke up. Doesn’t that tell us something? And so the final thing I take from this is that if this woman, this woman of no importance, this woman who was so very different from Jesus, if SHE can speak out, then so can we. Do we sometimes hold back from asking? Are we sometimes afraid of approaching Jesus with our concerns? Do we speak and feel we get nowhere, as if Jesus might be ghosting us? Don’t give up, keep talking, shout up a bit, get cross, get feisty, Jesus can take it – are you angry about climate change – tell him! Are you furious about poverty in the Yemen? – yell at Jesus. Are you upset about friends or family who have died – trouble Jesus about it. Because in the act of conversation, what you’re actually doing is demonstrating great faith. I’m not sure Jesus is very interested in platitudes, or in hollow words we think we ought to say. I think he might be more interested in our honesty, because he wants an open and honest relationship with us, a relationship that is real, and real relationships sometimes mean a bit of shouting. This woman didn’t question her worthiness to be noticed and neither should we. Because the love of God, the love of Jesus, the love of the Holy Spirit, stretches and encompasses us all. Amen.

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

Intercessions

You may like to use the Taizé refrain between sections:
“The Kingdom of God is justice and peace
And joy in the Holy Spirit
Come, Lord and open in us the gates of your Kingdom”

I invite you to remember especially Beirut and those young people who have received exam grades or who are still waiting for their grades to be released.


God of Love
how wonderful it is for us all to know that God loves us,
no matter our background.
Thank You that in the Kingdom of God
we find radical welcome and inclusion for all,
even ourselves.
We delight in our Father’s love.
In Your Kingdom there will be justice and peace,
but we know that this is not the experience of everyone today.
Bring Your Kingdom Lord.


The Kingdom of God is justice and peace…

God of Justice
we pray for people who find themselves caught up in conflict.
For those navigating difficult relationship
and making hard decisions.
For those who have experienced discrimination and unfairness.
For those caught up in dangerous situations around the world.
We pray for people who find themselves on the margins.
For those who feel they don’t quite fit in or are being left out.
For those who don’t want others to know they are struggling.
For those who can’t access the things we take for granted
because of poverty or disability.
Break down the barriers.
Bring Your Kingdom Lord.


The Kingdom of God is justice and peace…


God of Peace
we pray for Your church.
For our neighbouring churches in our communities.
For our the faithful Christians around the world.
Strengthen and encourage us Lord.
As we settle into new rhythms of life,
we remember those who have suffered
and are struggling with the effects of the last few months.
We pray for those who are trying to trying to return to a new normality
and for those who are caught between the two.
Bring Your Kingdom Lord.


The Kingdom of God is justice and peace…

Hymn: The kingdom of God (Singing the Faith 255)

Blessing: Psalm 67:1

May God be gracious to us and bless us

and make his face to shine upon us