Sunday 17th May

Service sheet

Call to worship

“If you love me” Jesus says

We show that we do by loving.

“If you love me” Jesus says

We show that we do by sharing.

“If you love me” Jesus says

We show that we do by serving.

“If you love me” Jesus says

We show that we do by worshipping.

So let us worship God.

Hymn

Lord of the boundless curves of space (Singing the Faith 111. Not in Hymns & Psalms)

Prayer

Anna Herriman is profoundly deaf and is training to become a Local Preacher in the Methodist Church and would be the first female British Sign Language (BSL) user to do so. Below is Anna’s BSL prayer



Reading

Psalm 66: 8-20

A Psalm of lament and praise in a time of coronavirus – lead by Vicki Courtney (St Mark’s)

How shall we praise you, Lord, our God?
When we are locked down,
how shall we praise you?
When the doors to your house are barred,
and your people cannot assemble?
When those desperately in need of money and work
cannot even wait in the market-place?
When we have to circle round people in the street,
and to queue for shops maintaining safe distance?
When we can only communicate
by hearing on the phone,
or seeing on the screen;
or digitally messaging,
or even just waving through a window?
When we cannot meet our parents and children,
grandparents and grandchildren,
or other family members and friends?
When we cannot touch them in their flesh and blood,
to know they are really alive?
How shall we praise you?
How, like Thomas, shall we not see yet believe
that your son is raised among us?
How shall we praise you?

How can I praise you, Lord?
Are you plaguing us with this virus
to punish us because we have all done wrong,
or thought wrongly,
or felt wrongly,
or just been wrong?
If so, why do only some die,
and those, apparently, the ones who are the least worst or most caring amongst us?
Or are you trying to teach us a lesson?
If so, why is it so hard to learn?
And how are we to find the answer
when we do not even know the question?
Or are you still the same loving God,
coming to us in our sufferings
and opening up the way to new life in Jesus?

Lord, I will try to praise you.
Through gritted teeth,
I will try to praise you.
I will try to remember that you have created all things,
and this virus is part of your creation.
I will try not to hate it
but seek to mitigate its harm.
I will try to keep myself and others safe.
I will work to pray for them
and seek to help in whatever way I can.

Lord, when I cannot pray or worship
help me be aware of all your people
and your saints and angels
hovering around me,
lifting me up.
When I feel alone,
let me feel you near me,
even if only for a moment that enables me to go on.
Let me hear you say
“Peace be with you”.

Lord, I will praise you.
Let all the peoples praise you. (The Revd Kenneth Howcroft)

Reading

Acts 17: 22-31

Reflection: Acts

Christian missionaries haven’t always behaved well. Although we can celebrate the spread of the gospel, plenty of damage was done in the past to communities, both physically with the introduction of new diseases, and also in causing division encouraging people to reject the religion of their tradition. Last summer I visited Rwanda during the period when Ebola was still prevalent in some of West Africa. Rwanda had all but escaped this disease, apart from a Christian missionary who had decided to visit neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo to lay hands on those who were ill. Of course, he then contracted Ebola and when he developed symptoms, came home to Rwanda. Yes, Christian missionaries can be disrespectful, antagonistic and downright dangerous at times.

Paul is a Christian missionary and he gives us a pretty good example of how to behave well. Firstly, he’s not afraid to enter into conversation with those who hold a different belief system. In verse 18 we read the philosophers debated with him. The people of Athens were used to debating and were always keen to hear new ideas and Paul interested them, and they took him to the Areopagus to hear more. The Areopagus was a rock on the hill near the Acropolis, but the term ‘Areopagus’ actually refers to high court or government institution and was known for its democracy. Athens itself was filled with argument, a place of philosophical banter and debate. Much of this is complimentary to Jewish culture – at theological college we had a lecture by an orthodox Jew who told us that whenever two rabbis meet you could guarantee there would be three different opinions.

Paul of course, is talking exclusively to Gentiles here. They don’t have the foundation of a belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Moses. But don’t mistake this for a diverse gathering – these are the intelligentsia he’s talking to, the powerful ones, the decision-makers. He starts with a compliment: I can tell you’re a religious lot, there are examples of it scattered throughout the city. He goes on to point to an altar he found with an inscription: to an unknown god. They have many, many gods who are named, but just in case they offend a god by omission, the Athenians have created this safety-net – the unknown god. They are hedging their bets by creating this.

Paul doesn’t tell them they’re mistaken or wrong to have this altar. He doesn’t preach to them about a God who is foreign, who they ought to give up the familiar to follow. Instead he contextualises what he says. He doesn’t reach for scriptural texts to quote because he knows his listeners have no reference point with those texts. Paul knows quoting Isaiah just won’t be persuasive here. Instead, the quote he uses, the one we so often use today, has no origins in either Christianity or Judaism. He reaches for Greek poetry: ‘in him we live and move and have our being.’.

There are some pitfalls in Paul’s sermon – the reference to the unknown god is perilously close to saying to those who follow other religions, actually you’ve been following Christianity all along, you just didn’t realise it. I’m not sure many Muslims would find that complimentary. Likewise, when he quotes Greek poetry, he is dangerously close to cultural appropriation – picking something from somebody else’s culture and applying to their own. I’m never terribly comfortable when white people wear their hair in cornrows as a fashion statement, because as a white person I don’t have the shared history, the shared experience of being black.

Finally, despite all of his clever arguments, Paul’s mission to the Areopagus is a bit of a failure. He was scoffed, ridiculed. Although some converted, it was a very small number – it must have been disappointing for Paul, used to having a more dramatic effect.

So whilst I began by saying Paul gives us a good example as to how to take the gospel to those of other faiths or none, perhaps we need to add some notes of caution here. But there are some things I think we can learn from. Firstly, he is deeply respectful in the way he approaches the Athenians. He knows they don’t have a shared faith, but in no way does he try to undermine them. This is crucial when considering an interfaith dialogue.

Also, Paul seeks to find God regardless of the context. He can even see God in the worship of those he might otherwise brand pagan or idolatrous. He is generous enough to widen his vision of where God can be located. All too often we point to other faiths as if they stand in opposition to our own. We might find the prayer wheels of Buddhism an alien concept or the statues of Hinduism idolatrous. My brother went to Nepal a few years ago and brought me back a singing bowl, used by Buddhist monks as an aid to meditation. It’s a beautiful object – is it either cultural appropriation or simply wrong for me to use it as an aid to my own prayer – I hope not.

We sometimes limit God through the language we use or in our attempt to domesticate God. God is both bigger and more intimate than we can imagine. Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote a book entitled, God is not a Christian – perhaps some of you have read it. I might also add that God is not British, or white or male or heterosexual. Our assumptions about God reduces the capability God has to break through to every human experience. I’ve spoken before about being a panentheist– I believe that God can be found in all of creation. We risk being isolationist if we insist that our own ways of worshipping are the only correct ones. We risk being exclusivist if we insist our ways are the only ways of speaking of God. We even risk idolatry if we assume that God looks and behaves and sounds only like us, and does not look or behave or sound like those who are different from us.

As this lockdown continues and as our churches find new ways of worshipping and being, we are no longer confined to worshipping in our church buildings. We are discovering new places where God can be found. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, ‘We ought to find and love God in what he actually gives us.’ The challenge is for us to notice God in other people and in our current environment. Not to limit God in this way, but to expand our vision. Not to claim exclusive rights over where God is, but to say, today I’ve noticed God here.

That ‘unknown god’ is a good description, for each of us is on a lifelong quest searching for understanding of the unknowable God. Christianity never started out being inward-looking. The fact we are here today is testimony to the determination of other Christians to allow people to find God through Jesus. Our ability to ‘do’ mission at the moment feels pretty limited, but one thing we can do is to pay attention to where God is. Perhaps the next film you watch, or the next chapter of that book you’re reading, or the next telephone conversation you have, of the next walk you take, you can be intentional in your desire to see God. Like Paul, many of us find God in scripture, but this reading suggests we can also find God in poetry, and beyond that, in art, in literature, in nature, in dance, in music, in silence. Perhaps you have found God somewhere else? In God we live and move and have our being, Paul tells us. It is when we are attentive to God that we can notice the divine in both the mundane and in the extraordinary. 

Worship Song

Desert Song (Hillsong)

Readings

1 Peter: 3:13-22

John 14:15-21 – read by Rev Phil Summers

Reflection: John

We pick up where we left off from last week in John’s gospel, so we have to remind ourselves that this is part of a long conversation Jesus is having on what we now call Maundy Thursday.

His disciples must have been in some state of confusion – Jesus seemed to be talking an awful lot about death, about leaving them, about life changing forever. But as always, this isn’t the end of the story, because he also provides deep reassurance. He tells them that God will provide them with an Advocate – the Spirit of Truth. Jesus is keen that despite feeling pain, they shouldn’t despair because despair leads to inactivity and giving up.

Jesus says God will provide ‘another’ Advocate. This means another of the same kind. This Advocate is Jesus in another form. The same but the other self of Jesus. If this Spirit is ‘another’ Advocate, this suggests that there has already been an Advocate: Jesus. We’ll explore much more about the Spirit when we come to Pentecost of course. Through the Spirit, Jesus isn’t confined to being physically present, this way Jesus could be eternally with the Followers of the Way, not simply alongside them but within them. This Spirit will guide the Followers of the Way in truth and provide strength and comfort.  

The Greek word used here is ‘Paracletos’ which is usually translated as Advocate. There are strong legal overtones here – the one who will stand alongside you when you are charged in court. But it also functions relationally – an advocate provides reassurance, consolation and encouragement. The Advocate is the one who is on your side. The one who will always speak truth to us and about us.

For us to function as Followers of the Way, to take Jesus into our lives, to welcome God’s holy and life-giving Spirit, means we are not just the ones who are being consoled, but the ones through that Spirit who can console. ‘So much to be consoled as to console’ we sing from the words of St Francis. And that also means speaking words of truth. Truth is a slippery concept – Pilate was right to ask, ‘What is truth?’ History is written by the victors, by the powerful and we often don’t hear the stories of more ordinary folk, the ones who struggled. It’s why I think it’s so important to retell the stories of the transatlantic slave trade, or the stories from the Shoah – the Jewish holocaust, and not just the stories of victories and leaders.

Each Sunday evening I take part in a quiz with my team members from my old pub quiz team. Last week it was my turn to set the questions and I wrote a round called ‘Her-Story’ asking questions about women in history. Prominent women, such as Elizabeth Fry, Rosa Parks or Catherine of Sienna came up and I was disappointed my team members struggled to answer many of them. These women’s truths, their stories are spoken of in whispers rather that the shouts about William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King or John Wesley.

Truth today can be tricky to pin down. We have become sceptical about what we read in the newspapers, cynical about what politicians say. Truths which are not liked are branded ‘fake news’, despite overwhelming evidence; even evidence is doubted as we worry it might have been fabricated, videos altered. Whose truth, we now ask?

Jesus tells us the spirit of truth cannot be received by the world, because the world will not recognise this spirit. That’s particularly relevant in an age where some doubt the moon landings. This spirit, this advocate speaks the truth, speaks truth to power. And that’s not always popular. As Christians we’re unlikely to win any popularity contests. The Brazilian Archbishop, Hélder Câmara, is quoted as saying, ‘When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.’ Perhaps today we can say, ‘When I give money to buy protective equipment for the NHS, I am called a saint. When I ask why the NHS has limited protective equipment, they call me a trouble-maker.’

Because we have been given the Spirit of truth, we need to find our voice and use it, trusting that words will be given, trusting that strength will be given, trusting that encouragement will be given. If we accept that all humans are made in the image of God, then we know we each hold equal value to God. Jesus implies the way we will each be judged will be how we treated the most vulnerable in our society, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned. These are the ones we should be speaking out for, through the power of the Advocate.

I also want to briefly touch on Jesus telling his disciples he will not leave them orphaned, because I find the whole family dynamic in the bible fascinating.  There are virtually no examples of stable nuclear families – most of either terribly dysfunctional, or what we might now call blended families. Jesus himself had a loose understand of familial ties. Part of this is about a rejection that your family name or inheritance lent you a certain status. It was a rejection that blood relations gave you superiority.

When I was a slightly rebellious teenager, dressed up and ready to go out with friends, there was a repeating mantra my parents would say: ‘remember who you are’. Held within that mantra was an assumption that I had been brought up to know better and therefore had some sort of superiority over those who hadn’t benefitted from my rather privileged childhood. And my parents were certainly less than impressed with some of my choices of boyfriends, again, because there was an underlying belief that I was better than them.

We are all held within the family of God; it can be a bit messy at times as most families are. Squabbles are bound to break out, but this is the family to whom we belong. Orphans and widows are given particular attention throughout the bible as being in need of care. Jesus says we are not left as orphans, he does not want us to be vulnerable and uncared for. Instead, we are each in need of the protection a family often brings. Families can be places of love and nurture, but for some they are places of abuse and despair. The family Jesus leads us into is a place which brings out the best in us, envelopes us with love, encourages us when we think we have no worth, comforts us in our pain, champions us when we speak truth to power, protects us form harm, and brings us to life. We are all part of this family; through the example of Jesus and the Advocate, we can ensure no-one is left outside this family. No person left behind. So this week, let us commit ourselves again, to each other, to those who feel they don’t belong, to the vulnerable and powerless, to use our voice to speak the truth. Amen

Hymn

Come down O love divine (Singing the Faith 372. Hymns & Psalms 281)

Prayers of intercession

Let us take our weariness and tiredness to God who picks up those who have fallen and raises up those who are brought low. Bless those, holy God, who are bowed down under the burdens they must carry. We pray for those who are crushed by their responsibilities at work and those who feel the pain of our world, who marvel that others can seem so indifferent to it. Help them to keep on going. Bring supportive friends alongside them. Give them tokens of your grace, fresh vision and courage and signs of encouragement in their struggle. 

Let us take our loneliness to God, who delights to put the solitary into families. God our Father and Mother, bless those who are lonely, those who have grown old and whom the passing years have taken all their friends and contemporaries. Bless those who are shy, who find it hard to initiate conversation and have never known real friendships. We pray for strangers in a foreign land, for asylum seekers and refugees, separated by language and culture from familiar ways and much-loved customs. We remember all those whose families are dysfunctional that they may find a home in the church. 

Help the church, we pray, to be a place of acceptance and belonging, a place of welcome and inclusion, where all can find a home, a listening ear, a friendly smile and a helping hand, even during these times of lockdown. Let us take our sorrows to God, who binds up the broken-hearted and comforts those who mourn. Bless those whose hearts are sore today. Be very close to those whose family circle has been invaded and whose joy has been darkened by death.  

We remember those who have lost loved ones for whom they have cared, whose needs they have met, whose lives have been so intertwined that they still listen for a voice they will not hear again. 

We remember wives who have lost husbands and husbands who have lost wives; parents who have lost children, who find their homes strangely silent and empty now, and children who have lost parents, who are confused by a world that seems  less secure and more frightening than before. We pray for all who are prevented from attending funerals and ask for your comfort for all who mourn.

Let us turn to God in trust and recommit ourselves to God. Send us forth this day with the joy that no-one can take from us, the life which is your life and the hope that gives strength to our actions. Help us to sing of our faith and in that singing find our strength to go on, trusting in Jesus. In all the holy names of God we pray. Amen  

Stay With Me – a puppet band

Blessing

Be ready to love those you meet.

Go and reflect the welcome of God,

Creator, Redeemer and Advocate,

 whose heart closes no-one out

but whose love is for all, always. Amen

Some material taken from ©2013 Spill the Beans Resource Team

Sunday 10th May – Christian Aid Service

In order to participate in todays service, please firstly download the Service Sheet here:

Introduction

Hymn

Let us build a house where love can dwell (Singing the Faith 409. Not in Hymns & Psalms)

Prayer of confession and absolution

Psalm 31 – sung by The Psalms Project

Reflection

Psalm 31 Reflection

The Psalms, the worship songs of their day, reflect as wide a variety of the human condition as our songs today. We have uplifting ones, celebrating the days of wonder and the glory of God. We have rebellious ones, questioning and challenging God and seeking distributive justice by way of compensation. We have angry ones of lament and fury. We have lonely ones, seeking but not finding God’s presence. We have consoling ones, affirming the faithfulness and constancy of God. As Methodists, we are known to ‘sing our faith’. The Psalmists did the same – this religious songbook contains a depth and breadth of theological thinking.

Psalm 31 is a treasure-trove for the human condition. The Psalmist has experienced great suffering. The people are in pain and distress, waiting for this to be alleviated. Seeking the fortress of God.

In these times of isolation, we have retreated into the fortress or our own homes. A place of security and safety. The Psalmist speaks of their distress – ‘my eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also.’ It is interesting how the writer of this Psalm notes the connection between body and spirit. Tears are shed, the body deteriorates, and this has an affect on the soul. There is a refreshing honesty in how the psalmist tells God exactly how things are, in the knowledge that God is not simply interesting in our spiritual lives, but our physical ones too.

For those of us who are keeping well, we might have noticed some physiological changes over the past few weeks. Some of us might be sleeping much longer than usual, but waking up not feeling refreshed. For others, we might have fitful, broken night’s sleep full of vivid anxiety dreams. For some of us, our inactivity is strangely exhausting. The Psalmist manages to speak into our current situation – verse 10 says ‘my strength fails because of my misery.’

Even though we are locked away, we can continue to show concern for those who are struggling. The Psalmist says, ‘I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbours.’ There is a painful reality than when people are going through a really hard time, sometimes, people step away, or even there might be an element that the person suffering might be somehow responsible for their suffering which justifies why other don’t offer to help. When my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, some 16 years ago, she suddenly found out who her real friends were. Some of her neighbours simply stopped speaking to her. If they passed her in their cars, they wouldn’t make eye contact. The hospice nurse explained that it is a known phenomenon that when a person is dying, some of their friends simply can’t face a reminder of their own mortality, so rather than reaching out with compassion, they turn away. My mother, in her dying, had become a ‘horror to her neighbours, an object of dread to her acquaintances, those who saw her fled from her.’

There is clearly an invitation here, not to look away, but to be present in new ways with those who are suffering. Most of us dread catching COVID-19, and we have become fearful of strangers, and perhaps even friends and family, hiding away. But this must not stop us from showing love. 

This is a psalm Jesus himself knew. He quotes verse 5 when he is on the cross; ‘Into your hand I commit my spirit.’ This takes on particular poignancy as we know of many people who have died because of this virus. We pray that for those who are currently dying, and commit their safekeeping into the eternal love and mercy of God.

If we take a quick look at verse 15, it says, ‘My times are in your hand.’ Hands have been particular factor during this pandemic, as our initial responses were to frantically handwash to remove traces of the virus. Other peoples hands have become a risky form of potential contamination. Most of us are desperately missing the human touch of a hug or simply handshake. But it is into God’s hands we place ourselves. We reply on God’s hands when human hands are absent.

Under normal circumstances Christian Aid Week would be reliant upon human hands, to deliver and collect envelopes to local communities, hands to bake cakes and hold coffee mornings, hands to sort books for sale, hands to count money collected. Perhaps some of you are missing this week of activity.

We were originally told that this virus was indiscriminate. Now, however, we know that this virus disproportionately affects deprived areas and those who are black and Asian. Christian Aid is painfully aware that the world’s poorest people are the most vulnerable to this crisis. They are less resilient, have less access to healthcare and will be less able to weather the economic impact. Christian Aid, through generous donations, has been standing alongside the poorest communities for the past 75 years. And it will continue to stand with them through this crisis, and will be with them afterwards. Now more than ever, please share your love for your vulnerable neighbours by giving what you can.

We thank God and pray for the hands of all those working on the medical frontline now to help save lives, in the UK and around the world. As verse 15 and 16 say, May their times be in God’s hands, may God’s face shine upon them. May the unfailing, steadfast love of God be their constant strength. Amen

John 14:1-14

Hymn

Be still for the presence of the Lord (Singing the Faith 20. Not in Hymns and Psalms. Complete Mission Praise 50)

Helen Taylor is going to play for us now this hymn and I invite you, if you are able, to sing along at home.

Reflection: John 14

Reflection: John 14

This passage is a favourite at funerals, offering comfort, hope and reassurance. A well-known slogan of Christian Aid is ‘We believe in life before death,’ and throughout this pandemic this slogan provides a new challenge to us.

Perhaps for some of you, the words, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled,’ rings hollow at the moment. For these are indeed troubling times. ‘Do not fear’ is the most repeated phrase in the entire bible – it’s not simply a platitude. We’re not asked to go about cheerfully when our world is crumbling, but we are invited to believe in the God who believes in us. And this passage comes on the Thursday evening before the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus, who is about to suffer torture, humiliation and death, is the one to provide words of comfort to his anxious disciples. Do no be troubled.

I wonder which phrases did you especially notice in todays reading. Perhaps the words, ‘In my Fathers house there are many dwelling places,’ took on new meaning. We sometimes refer to our church buildings as the house of God, the Father’s house. And of course, at the moment we are prevented from entering our churches. Instead, our dwelling places are our houses. Our homes have become places of work, places of education, places of exercise, places of meditation and of course, places of worship.

No matter how difficult the circumstances, we are given the opportunity to reflect on how God can use them for good. That’s not to say it justifies the suffering or even balances it out, but in our dwelling places we are finding new ways to worship. New ways of being church. New ways to deepen our faith. For some of this, it might be easier than for others. For some of us, this feels like a wilderness experience and we might be shouting at God as the Psalmist does, why have you forsaken me? But for some of us, we are discovering how we can live out our faith at a distance from other people. And when this is all over, when we have returned to our home churches, when we can be together again, I hope we will carry with us that experience of dwelling in God’s presence. Last week we looked at Psalm 23 which speaks of dwelling in God’s house my whole life long.

If you were to be able to ask God just one question, what would it be? Just ponder that for a moment? There are so many questions I have. So many answers I want to understand. It’s difficult to narrow it down. Perhaps I might ask God for confirmation that the worship of other religions is equally as acceptable as the worship of Christians. I really hope so. Perhaps I might ask what grieves God the most? Or what delights God the most? Or maybe I’d ask why, just for once, God couldn’t have intervened and stopped the holocaust, stopped the Rwandan genocide, stopped the Cambodian killing fields. I’m sure you have better questions than I do and maybe some of you have answers to some of my questions.

I love Thomas – he’s one of my favourites. He gets a bad rap. We know him as Doubting Thomas. He’s the one who doubted, that is forever how he is known. If my discipleship is ever recorded, unlikely, but if it is, I’d hate the idea I might be known forever as Clumsy Rachel, or Swearing Rachel or  even Doubting Rachel, from those moments when I’ve demonstrated all of those things. Thomas is bigger than his mistakes. And here we have him asking a profound question – how do we know the way?

I imagine at this point the rest of the disciples took a big intake of breath. He’d exposed his ignorance. He’d asked a question rather than keeping quiet. Remember back to your school days; were you someone who kept quiet even if you didn’t understand, or threw your hand up making the teacher regret that they had once said, ‘There is no such thing as a stupid question.’ Thomas is probably saying what everyone else is thinking. He’s asking the hard questions.

Thomas, like many of the Psalmists, in honest in his speaking. Honest in his questioning. This virus had led many of us to ask some hard questions, about life and faith and purpose and truth and God and many, many others. I certainly have more questions than answers right now. Like Thomas, many of us are saying, but hang on Jesus, we don’t know the way. We don’t know how to get through this.  We don’t know how to follow you right now.

There are more questions we should be asking right now. Questions that may prevent us from going back to normal, because normal was part of the problem. Normal is a massive wealth disparity, both in the UK and globally. Normal is 7500 children per day dying of preventable diseases. Normal is the planned renewal of Trident at an estimated cost of £205 billion, just in case, when the stockpiling of PPE in hospitals, just in case, was a casualty of austerity.  Our questions allow us to reimagine and recreate a world where poverty is not inevitable, where climate change is not inevitable, where violence is not inevitable. Where the world does not have to be troubled.

Jesus doesn’t call us to be passive in our discipleship. Reimaging and recreating requires stepping out in faith. Even in our most difficult days, Jesus promises he is with us, to the end of the age, according to Matthew. For some of us there will be painful days ahead and I pray you can cling onto that promise. When Jesus says, ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,’ this takes on a new meaning through the lens of COVID-19, when life is fragile and we don’t know the future, we doubt the truths we are told. This virus has shone a light on our broken economic systems, highlighted new meanings, new perspectives, new connections. The early Christians were not known as ‘Christians’; they were known as Followers of the Way. I really like that. Jesus is showing us a new way and the possibility of a new normal, daring us to dream we can be as he was. As we commit to following the way of Jesus, walking in his footsteps, we commit ourselves afresh to ensuring the abundance of life is a reality for everyone. Amen

Prayer of lament and intercession

Hymn

Be thou my vision (Singing the Faith Hymns 545. Hymns & Psalms 378)

The Lord’s Prayer & Blessing

Donations to Christian Aid can be made here: www.caweek.org/payin    

Sunday 3rd May

Service sheet

Call to worship

Though the way seems long and the road rough
Yet will we trust the One who leads us.
Though the direction is unknown and we don’t know the outcome
Yet will we place our lives in Christ’s loving care.
It is Christ who brings us out to green pastures and restores our souls.
It is Christ who gives us hope and peace. Praise be to Christ our Lord. AMEN.

Hymn

All for Jesus – all for Jesus (Singing the Faith 341) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqvprlKZKhQ

Prayer

A 5 year old’s prayer of thanks:

Dear God

Thank you for our world

Thank you for all our beautiful trees

Thank you for all our flowers

Thank you for making us and everybody

Thank you for our streets and neighbours

Thank you for the people that collect our bins

Thank you for all our posties in our world

Thank you for our people who make us food and sell us some

Thank you for all our doctors and nurses helping people when they’re sick

Thank you for loving everybody. Amen

You can listen to this prayer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IN2M5E5h2FY&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR3mAq3n_kyWAZT6XwHjVWaJ-4nJ94ZY3pjJ4mWzTCycNG8Xab1cjMkq08Y

Readings

A late edition. This is my son, Gabriel, reading Psalm 23

Acts 2:42-47 Read by Caroline Sparrow

Reflection

The observant amongst us will have noticed that the 23rd Psalm was our lectionary reading a few weeks ago. Today we have it again. When we come to our gospel reading, we will find the theme of shepherds, so rather than focusing on the Psalm, instead I’m firstly going to take a look at the reading from Acts and share some of my thoughts.

This passage describes the reaction to Peter’s amazing sermon that inspires the conversion of many people. Three thousand we are told in verse 41. That’s pretty impressive. For those of us who are preachers, this is the reaction we dream about. Peter’s words have built up that small community and suddenly we find them eating together, spending time in each other’s company and even going as far as to sell possessions and give the money to those in need. Let’s just take a moment to imagine such a church. Being with other Christians continually praising God, praying together, baptising newcomers and everyone happy about this newfound way of living. Especially at a time when we are forced to be apart, this is what many of us are desperate for.

But hang on – does all this ‘goodwill of all people’ sound too good to be true? Well, you’d not be wrong. Because the reality was, this happy commune was soon to be fraught with difficulties, arguments and some major fallouts. The euphoria didn’t last long and we shortly face a community at risk of fracture. Ananias sells some of his property (but by no means all) and then fails to put the whole amount into the communal pot (5:1-11). Peter gets cross with him; they have an argument and Ananias falls down dead. Peter then confronts the widow, who also promptly dies. And we are told, ‘great fear seized the whole church,’ which given this story doesn’t sound terribly surprising. This is a very long way from a group of Christians spending time in each other company ‘with glad and generous hearts’ (2:46).

Disagreements continued about ritualistic food, circumcision, inclusion of gentiles and all manner of other aspects of establishing a Christian way of living. Does that sound familiar? Christians today continue to argue about who has the right interpretation of the Bible, or the right way of conducting worship, going as far as to deny that some people are proper Christians.  Although they fall under the umbrella of ‘Christian’, Quakers and those attending Westboro Baptist Church would probably fail to find much common ground, being on opposite ends of the theological spectrum. From an outsiders point of view the enormous variations of church would appear to lack agreement on anything.

The church was established on a set of ideals and a desire to come together in community. Reading ahead, it would be easy to think it quickly became a failed project with infighting and some pretty unchristian behaviour. Last week I mentioned that the Bible weaves together the story of God with the story of humanity. What I didn’t say was that the Bible records the history of God’s people mostly getting it wrong, going the wrong way and doing the wrong thing. But God doesn’t give up on them and the Bible is also about people changing their behaviour. By weaving our story in with these Bible stories, we are continuing this story of God and God’s people. Still getting it wrong a fair amount of the time, but that doesn’t stop us from trying. And God isn’t done with us yet. God isn’t done with the church, even today when we cannot meet together in our buildings.

St Teresa of Avila is quoted as saying, “The Lord walks among the pots and pans.” I like that domestic image of ordinary life. Pots and pans are made to be used to the benefit of others. They get dirty from being used, but in the sharing, God is with us. Giving us a clean slate everyday. In these uncertain times the church isn’t finished just because the buildings are closed; it’s being renewed.

Worship Song

One Thing Remains (Not in Singing the Faith) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNUNexJlwGk

Readings

Another late edition. This is my husband, David, reading 1 Peter 2:19-25

John 10:1-10

This next video shows a herd of sheep coming at the call of their shepherd: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Coq_grSFlNs

Reflection

So this morning, we’re thinking a lot about sheep. In our liturgical calendar it’s sometimes described as Good Shepherd Sunday.  I grew up in North Devon and spent a considerable amount of my childhood on the local farm. I helped feed orphaned lambs and would go and try and befriend the feral cats. My husband, by contrast, grew up in inner-city Birmingham. His childhood was a world away from my own, playing on busy urban streets. For him, the pastoral images of the gospels is simply not part of his experience. And I guess, increasingly, it is less relevant to many of us. I know there are still some professional shepherds working the hills and fields, living a remote, isolated life, but it’s a career path few teenagers consider. The question is, what can this story offer to us today? For those of us living in towns, how are the warm, fuzzy images of a shepherd and their sheep relevant when we really only come across them in church nativities? Well, it seems that we are not alone in struggling with this metaphor – in verse 6 we are told the Pharisees didn’t grasp it either. Not everyone in 1st century Palestine understood the life of a shepherd and the challenges of looking after sheep.

For those of us with a little bit of experience, we know sheep are pretty dirty creatures, prone to getting stuck, prone to their coat getting mangled and certainly having a herd mentality. Lambs are cute – our Easter pictures of new life are full of these energetic, clean, delightful creatures. But sheep are none of those things. Lambs tend to grow into ugly, stupid animals, unable to make decisions for themselves and needing a leader to follow. Because they have poor depth-perception, they struggle to find an open gate and need someone to encourage them through. They would struggle to find their way without help.

Suddenly, this metaphor of Jesus shows itself to be less than flattering. He’s talking about us, right? We’re the sheep in this story, right? Wait a minute, that means Jesus thinks we’re filthy, dim-witted creatures incapable of good decision-making – is that what’s he’s saying here? Is that what we want to hear? Many preachers have interpreted this reading as us covered in the filth of sin, unable to find our way in life and requiring the benevolent shepherd to rescue us. I’m not sure this pastoral image is quite as comforting as I’d once supposed.

The problem with this reading is that I don’t think of myself as a sheep. I’m very uncomfortable with any herd mentality – it’s one of the reasons I’m not altogether keen on being in very large Christian congregations. Perhaps you have, and have fabulous memories of those emotions that you were swept along with – I’ve never been terribly happy in these environments and worry about my emotions being manipulated with the crowd. I’m someone who is confident to stick out from the crowd. I’m certainly not happy with being described as either dirty (even if that does mean sinful) or dim. That’s not how I see myself. That’s not how I describe my relationship with Jesus as a relationship between one who is dominant and one who is submissive. That makes me feel very uncomfortable.

Sheep, whether 2000 years ago, or today in Britain, are an economic commodity. They are rarely kept as pets. They are used for wool and breeding and of course for food. There are all manner of dangers sheep are exposed to, whether through the thieves Jesus spoke of, or weather conditions or predators. Jesus here is offering more than just protection. In 21st century Britain we have all become used to living in a society that places economic value on people. One of the interesting aspects of this lockdown is how this economic value is being rewritten. Refuse collectors are being thanked for turning up and doing their job because we are all painfully aware of the chaos it would cause if they didn’t. And we are all grateful to them and all of the other key workers, very few of whom would be ranked among the highest paid in this country.

Jesus refused to place a monetary value on things or on people – it didn’t interest him. The economic value of the sheep isn’t why he seeks their protection. When we are exposed to pain and suffering, Jesus doesn’t walk out. He steps up, not because he wants any reward from us, but because he loves us. The shepherd doesn’t expect anything from the sheep, except to listen. To be attentive to the voice of the one who cares. There are many voices which can distract us – possibly the most destructive voice is the one inside our heads that tells us we are not good enough. That whisper which puts negative thoughts at the forefront of our minds, suppressing our self-esteem, telling us our bodies are not beautiful creations, ensuring embarrassing moments are not forgotten and that we risk new ridicule in our activities. That voice is powerful and when we give that voice oxygen it becomes the dominant narrative to our lives. Jesus offers us a different voice. He is saying, I know you better than you know yourselves, better than that voice inside you.

Jesus talks about the sheep not following the voice of a stranger. They only follow the voice of the one who knows them, the one who has taken time to get to know them. I am comforted by the idea that God has spent time paying attention to us, getting to know each of us by name and that this will last our whole lives. God doesn’t just dip in and out, rescuing us from harm and then disappearing.

And then of course, there’s the last verse in this reading: I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. Fear was a way of life for many people living in the Roman-occupied land of Jesus. It was frequently violent, insecure and was especially difficult for anyone who didn’t fit in. In this discussion, Jesus is offering protection to the most vulnerable. But he isn’t just talking about the basic necessities. He’s speaking about abundance. He’s not just talking about existing – he’s talking about living and loving being alive. This is not survival. This is flourishing. And suddenly this passage is no longer about us filthy sinners requiring salvation because we are incapable of doing the right thing – this is about Jesus offering us salvation which is about pure joy. It has much less to do with  Jesus thinking we are miserable sinners, and much more about Jesus thinking we are deserving of a wonderful life and he is the one who can show us how to live it. 

One of the things I hadn’t noticed before about this passage is how Jesus doesn’t define abundant life. Just moments before, Jesus has healed a man born blind. For that man, abundant life is about release from dependency and poverty into freedom. Abundant life for the Samaritan woman at the well was about having her voice heard and an end to her shame. Abundant life for you might look different from abundant life for me. Because Jesus knows us each individually and calls us by our name. Our reading in Acts spoke of the important of community and Jesus talks from within the context of company, but that doesn’t mean we are all the same.

Abundant life is about stripping all that stops us from living the life God intends for us. Silencing the voice inside our heads that tells us we don’t deserve happiness. There is an invitation here, not just to listen to this word of God, but to live it. To embed it deeply within it so those words don’t remain words, but give our lives the meaning God desires. Because God desires us each to be living our best lives.

That’s all very well Rachel, you might be saying, but how on earth can we be living our best lives right now, when we are locked away prevented from seeing each other. Surely at best we are just waiting to live our lives full of abundance. How can we have lives full of abundance when we can’t even have abundant kitchen cupboards?

My challenge to you, which is the same for me, is to try and expand your vision of what abundant life looks like. So that means we’re not simply waiting to live until these lockdown restrictions are lifted, but to immerse ourselves into the joy of the salvation Jesus brings. Salvation and happiness and abundant life are not things in themselves to seek, but they are by-products of a life dedicated to following the Good Shepherd. The shepherd who knows us by name, who seeks good things for us, who doesn’t dip in and out, but is constant throughout our whole life journey. The shepherd who seeks out those who don’t fit in and tells them they belong, that in him they can find a home. Now that’s a voice I need to listen to today. Amen

Hymn

Jesus, be the centre (Singing the Faith 447) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EG-l1kK-BpU

Prayers

Following on from last week’s reflection on the Lord’s Prayer, here is Nadia Bolz-Weber’s reworking:

Our Father who art in heaven….. Our Father who art in everything…who art in orphanages and neonatal units, jail cells and luxury high-rises.

Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. We beg you to bring more than just a small measure of heaven to earth because this place is a mess. Lord, your people are killing each other and the vulnerable are even more vulnerable and the wealthy are even more wealthy and it’s hard to see a way out, Lord. So, we need your Kingdom to speed up.


Give us this day our daily bread. Give us this day our daily touch, our daily laughter, our daily kindness, our daily humility, our daily freedom.

Give your children their daily bread, their daily naan, their daily tortillas, their daily rice.

Forgive us when we hate what you love. Forgive us for the pride we exhibit in our political life together. Forgive us for how much we resent in others the same things we hate in ourselves.

And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. Deliver us from the inclination that we too do not have evil in our hearts. Deliver us from addiction and depression. Deliver us from complacency. Deliver us from complicity.

As Jesus taught us, we are throwing this bag of prayers at your door.

Use these prayers to hammer us all into vessels that can accept the answer when it comes.

For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.
Amen

Hymn

When we are living, we are in the Lord (Singing the Faith 485) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBb-xZEem9g

Blessing

May the voice of the one who calls you by name

Be the voice you hear today and every day.

May the love of the one who calls you by name

Be the love that surrounds you today and every day.

May the peace of the one who calls you by name

Be the peace that frees you today and every day.

And may the blessing of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, be with you and with those you love. Amen.

Sunday 26th April

Service sheet

Call to worship

We who read this, together and apart, 

are united in having taken the risk of living and loving, in a dangerous time. 

We are dwellers on a threshold caught between birth and death.

Together we will raise our eyes to the mountains,

and wonder where our help comes from.

Hymn

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xw2jpBwa2Io King of Glory, King of Peace (Singing the Faith: 56. Hymns and Psalms: 449)

Prayers

“If the only prayer you said in your life was ‘thank you’ it will be enough.” Meister Eckhart

A prayer: Thank you.

Amen

*pause*      Take a moment to reflect with gratitude on things, people, and times you are thankful for.

Readings

1 Peter 1:17-23

Acts 2: 14a, 36-41

Hymn

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cXRwCprmji4 O, the love of my Lord is the essence (Singing the Faith 431. Not in Hymns and Psalms)

Reflection: The Lord’s Prayer

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how easy it is to slip into an anti-Jewish rhetoric when it comes to the crucifixion of Jesus. I’m currently reading The Misunderstood Jew by Amy-Jill Levine – Levine is a New Testament scholar who happens to be Jewish. She is fascinated by Jesus as a Jew and although she has no intention of converting to Christianity, studies the scriptures within their very Jewish context.

Peter’s sermon in Acts starts with a potentially damning statement – he is talking to an exclusively  Jewish audience and he puts the blame of the death of Jesus squarely on their shoulders. Perhaps, like me, you are used to hearing sermons where Pharisees are portrayed as pantomime baddies, resembling Malvolio in Twelfth Night, ridiculous, obsessed with protocol, pompous and puritanical. Christians down the ages have been guilty of blaming the Jews for the crucifixion and this had led to violent antisemitism.

Levine has reminded me that Jesus was a Jew. Did I need reminding of that? It is easy to portray Jesus as a white European – we’ve all seen the paintings. Well, not only was Jesus a Jew, he was a pretty orthodox one. If you bring to mind an image of an orthodox Jew, perhaps this is what you see:

Many Jews wearing clothes with fringing, a rule taken from Numbers 15:38 (‘tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments’), and it is likely that Jesus did the same for the same reasons. If we think of the story of the women with the haemorrhage touching the fringe of the cloak of Jesus (Matthew 9:20), perhaps we can now see a more Jewish image of Jesus. The Pharisees were not thought of as hypocrites at the time; this is a purely Christian interpretation. Instead, the Pharisees were the purest in heart, the most faithful. Think of an outstanding Christian; perhaps Mother Teresa or one of the saints, perhaps someone closer to home whose faith you admire – Pharisees were like them.

Levine has helped me to reflect on the Jewish nature of the Lord’s Prayer. She argues that if we read it from within the Jewish context we can find it more political than perhaps we are used to. Jesus refers to God as Abba; under Roman occupation, Caesar would have been referred to as ‘father’, so this is a direct challenge to the authority of the occupying rulers. We still use the word ‘father’ as an honorary title of respect; we refer to the oldest sitting male MP as the Father of the House. By referring to God as Abba, Jesus is reminding us who to put first, and this would have been controversial in his socio-political context when Caesar was top dog.

Most Jewish prayers speak of the name of God as being almighty and sacred. ‘Hallowed be your name’ reminds us of the Jewish unpronounceable name of God (YHWH). The next line (‘Your kingdom come’) also has a political dimension, Levine suggests, because it suggests the world in which first century Palestinians lived was far from perfect. It is a challenge to the Roman rulers that they would be better off under God’s rule, living in God’s world than under Roman rule.

‘Your will be done’ is a call to action. God’s will needs doing. God’s will needs doing by us. We all need reminding that God’s action is mostly carried out through the activities of the faithful. We pray that we are open to understanding whatever God’s will is, and that we commit our lives to bring this about. We are seeking the ideal world that is God’s will.

When we come to, ‘Give us our daily bread’, Levine has an interesting approach – she considers the fact that this is not a request for grain or the right conditions under which we might grow and then produce food; this is a request to God that we work with God to ensure everyone is fed. Bread requires both divine and human effort. I find it interesting that this prayer uses the plural rather than singular – ‘our’ and ‘us’. This prayer is about our existence within community. My God is our God. My bread is our bread.

‘Forgive us our sins’ is more accurately translated as ‘debts’; this calls for us to take a long hard look at what we owe and who owes us. I have spoken before at my dislike of transactional relationships and how we feel the need to pay back good deeds (and occasionally bad ones!). Christianity (and indeed Judaism) is not based on the concept of karma (and thank God for that) and the nature of forgiving debts is partly about economic justice. We all justify good living through hard work; those who enjoy large houses or fast cars must have worked hard and therefore deserve these things. Forgiving debts, just as God has forgiven us is partly about us seeing value in everyone and addressing the economic disparity. It goes beyond this though, as I discovered when I visited Rwanda last summer. This line in the Lord’s Prayer took on a whole new meaning to me as I sat in churches where survivors of the genocide worshipped alongside the perpetrators. Forgiveness is a lived reality in Rwanda.

‘Save us from the time of trial’ is generally considered a better translation than speaking as if God seeks to tempt us into doing wrong. Levine suggest that at a time of huge persecution of the Jews, they would be keen not to be put into a position where they would deny their faith. Although many people speak as if God never gives us more trials or struggles than we can bear, I’m not persuaded by this; what we each pray for is that our pain and suffering will not to bring us to a point where we fail to find meaning in life. I’m also not persuaded that God is the one who gives us these sufferings in the first place. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, I am resistant to the idea that God is the engineer of our pain. Instead, we pray that we may continue to find God whatever trauma we may experience.

The final part of the Lord’s Prayer we have inherited is not included in the gospels (‘the kingdom, the power and glory are yours’) but this is included to give an ending to our prayer. Levine has helped me to find the Jewish desire for justice within this prayer; she has given me a new perspective on a prayer I admit to occasionally find boring. Having reflected and re-examined it in the light of the Jewish nature, I don’t think I will find it repetitive or dull again.

So now, I invite you to say out loud the Lord’s Prayer. Try saying it slowly and concentrate on each line. I hope my reflections might encourage you to revisit this most familiar prayer.  My preference is for the modern version, which is below, but please use whichever version springs to your lips:

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins

as we forgive those who sin against us.

Save us from the time of trial

and deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours

Now and forever.

Amen

Hymn

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zBfRNrvvUfc Father, I place into your hands (Singing the Faith 519. Not in Hymns and Psalms. Complete Mission Praise 133)

Readings

Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19

Luke 24:13-35

Reflection

I know the Emmaus Road story provides great strength and is a favourite passage for many Christians. Here’s my next confession: I’ve never been a fan of this reading. I’ve always been left with a sense of irritation that these despondent male disciples recount the news of the resurrection by the women, but remain grief stricken, because of course, women’s testimony is not to be trusted. They tell this stranger that the women claim to have been witnesses, but their male friends couldn’t verify it, so it can’t be true. They were devastated; their hopes in the Messiah were dashed. Perhaps they were even angry that Jesus had allowed himself to get caught and killed. Maybe they secretly thought Jesus had been foolish.

Unfortunately this story resonates in a #MeToo era, where women’s stories of violation and sexual abuse continue to be disbelieved. We don’t treat any other crime in the same way. If your neighbour told you they had been burgled, would your first reaction be to ask whether they were telling the truth? Would you suggest it might have been their fault in flaunting their goods through their windows and frankly, what did they expect? No, of course, you wouldn’t. You would feel sympathy and offer to help. For millennia, the account of a woman is somehow less trustworthy than that of a man. She must be wanting attention, or she must have done something to deserve her treatment, or she must have sinister ulterior motives for ruining the reputation of a man with false sexual accusations.

The women at the tomb were not believed. It simply wasn’t credible. They must have fallen into a hysteria (as women are apparently prone to doing) and they cannot tell a story accurately and dispassionately. Unless it can be verified by a man, it must be a lie. At best, this is women’s gossip. If we look at verse 11, the testimony of the women is dismissed as an ‘idle tale.’ Actually the Greek is a bit more colourful than that, one which I might put in a rather more crude Anglo-Saxon way, but I’ll spare you that for today.

This stranger, who up until now has been pretty quiet, turns to them and says, ‘You fools.’ That’s the bit of the story I like the most. Had they never paid attention to how Jesus lived? His birth was entrusted to women; of course his resurrection would be the same. It is the women who attend births and rebirths, it is women to whom Jesus turns and gives life, proves that life conquers death. It is the good news of this life that Jesus chooses to entrust to those on the margins of respectability. And when he calls these disciples fools, he is saying, ‘Now do you believe her?’ These men, who thought the women foolish, who maybe even thought the same of Jesus, they are the ones who are shown to be the real fools.

Those who are powerful always expect to be first in line. It is a hard blow when they realise the world Jesus inhabits doesn’t react to status. Instead, he prefers to share good news and life with those who have the least of these things. Perhaps because they need it the most, they need it first, but also because they are the ones who won’t react with scepticism. They are the ones open to being transformed.

The women were the first witnesses and their testimony was a fragile thing. But from their evangelism, their preaching of the good news, a world-wide movement started which we are a part of today. Our own testimony might feel like a fragile thing, something we wonder if it is worth telling. We might doubt if our testimony has any power to change the listener and perhaps we even fear being boring in our ordinary tales of encounters with God we have experienced along the way. Maybe we worry about our testimony being ridiculed, like those first women at the tomb; an unbelievable tale. Perhaps we are simply scared of sharing our stories.

We can all learn from the witness of those women at the resurrection. They decided not to stay quiet, they risked being doubted and ridiculed. They spoke out and thank God they did. So my challenge for you this week is to pick up the phone and share your story. Have a conversation of depth in which you tell someone how the risen Christ has made a difference in your life. We each have a story to share and you might be surprised at the difference it makes. The Bible weaves together the story of God with the story of humanity. God continues to do that today, weaving our stories together, and when we entrust our story with another person, they become more deeply connected to us and suddenly we can find their story is now woven into our own.

Hymn

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2h-wlsGDnUE On the journey to Emmaus (Singing the Faith 308. Not in Hymns and Psalms)

Prayers

Holy One,

There are so many people needing our prayers at the moment, we feel overwhelmed. There is so much suffering and grief as this pandemic takes hold, we don’t know where to start, we don’t know the words to find. Speak to us, O God, so that we don’t have to.

We know your love is extraordinary and your generosity extravagant. Send them to those who need them and maybe even include us in that too.

Are you happy with lists, Holy One? Because that’s all we’ve got at the moment. Lists for shopping. Lists of those to phone. Lists of books to read. Lists of concerns. So we’re going to list to you now those things that bother us the most, knowing that they must bother you too:

  • the medics on the frontline and the cleaners behind the scenes in every hospital in every country
  • those who lie in hospital beds, or in their own beds in care homes, whose bodies are being weakened with this disease
  • those at home, panicking because they cannot hold the hand of their dying beloved
  • the ones whose mental health is just getting worse and worse
  • the ones whose addiction is bubbling under the surface and simply getting through to the end of each day takes a monumental effort
  • the kids and the parents who are pushing each other’s buttons, especially those with no gardens to let off steam
  • the decision-makers and the ones in charge who we have no idea whether they’re getting it right or not
  • (space for the ones who bother you, including yourself)

Locked away, inside our homes, most of us can’t do much to help expect stay put. O God, give us wisdom and courage to face each day not with dread but with enthusiasm. Give us a voice to speak to those who need us. Give us a heart to care and tears to cry for those who suffer and may the solidarity of our compassion reach out to them, so that they know they are not alone. And let some of that compassion bounce back to us, because we need that too right now.

Above all, step into our lives and become obvious to us. Because we do not want to face the days ahead without you beside us.

We offer these prayers in all the holy names of God. Amen

Hymn

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fu6Z-P2y2WU Calm me, Lord, as you calmed the storm (Singing the Faith 624. Not in Hymns and Psalms. Hymns Ancient & Modern 832)

Blessing

Already a blessing
in the walking

already a blessing
on the road

already a blessing
drawing near

already a blessing
in the listening

already a blessing
in the burning hearts

already a blessing
in the almost evening

already a blessing
in the staying

already a blessing
at the table

already a blessing
in the bread

already a blessing
in the breaking

already a blessing
finally known

already a blessing
give us eyes

already a blessing
let us see.

(Jan Richardson: paintedprayerbook.com)

(some resources taken from Liturgy in a Dangerous Time complied by Simon Cross and is free from copyright)

Easter Sunday

Service sheet 12th April 2020

Today, as we celebrate the risen Christ, we might feel more connected to those disciples, scurrying around in hidden places. We might feel entombed and isolated, waiting and not daring to hope. But Easter has come. Jesus is alive and as the church we are the ultimate symbol of resurrection today, because the day will come when we will break free. This year may feel like we’re not doing Easter properly, but what better symbol of the resurrection than a scattered church surrounded by death; Easter reminds us that nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even death. Easter reminds us that death will never have the final say because life is triumphant. Easter reminds us that we live as resurrection people and to that I say a loud Amen.

Call to worship

After nights of deep darkness,
we come in the bright light of this Easter morning.
We come in search of something.
We come in search of the living.
We come in search of the Living One
The Resurrected One.
We come with eyes open to the dark emptiness of the tomb.
We come with ears tuned to hear the angel proclamation:
Christ is not here, for he is risen.

(with gusto)

Halleluiah. Jesus is risen.

He is risen indeed. Halleluiah

Hymn

Our opening hymn was introduced to me by a supernumerary minster many years ago. He told me when he was a young man he sang this at one of the large Christian rallies where gave his life to Christ. Whenever I sing this I remember John and how his passion for Christ did not diminish with his years and it gives me goose bumps every time.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xM-fpXayUg – See what a morning (Singing the Faith 309. Not in Hymns & Psalms)

Prayers

When everything was dark
and it seemed that the sun would never shine again,
your love broke through.

Your love was too strong,
too wide,
too deep
for death to hold.

The sparks cast by your love
dance and spread
and burst forth
with resurrection light.

Gracious God,
We praise you for the light of new life
made possible through Jesus.
We praise you for the light of new life
that shone on the first witnesses of resurrection.
We praise you for the light of new life
that continues to shine in our hearts today.

We pray that the Easter light of life, hope and joy,
will live in us each day;
and that we will be bearers of that light
into the lives of others.
Amen.

(Revd Michaela Youngson)

Forgive us when we fail to see your love.

Forgive us when we deny your life is present amongst us.

Forgive us when we dare not dream.

Forgive us when our despair becomes infectious

In the transformation of your resurrection, you declare our sin is no more. Guide us so that we may live as your Easter people. Amen

Readings

Acts 10:34-43

Colossians 3:1-4

John 20:1-18

Hymn

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-M3cuTAINo – Christ is alive! Let Christians sing (Singing the Faith 297. Hymns & Psalms 190)

Reflection

Easter morning begins in darkness. The story has confusion and tears and misunderstanding. The first Easter Day did not begin with loud alleluias and tears of joy and celebration. It began with heartache and pain. Today, many of us are struggling with the concept of a different Easter where we don’t get to celebrate with our church family surrounded by spring flowers and singing our hearts out to magnificent organ playing. But actually, finding hope in the midst of our estrangement means encountering God. We may feel broken and hungry for each other’s company, but here we have the ultimate story of humanity finding an unimaginable love.

When we read the resurrection story we rush to the moment Mary meets Jesus, or even beyond, when later that day he appears to the disciples. But of course, way before any of that, the resurrection happened in darkness, when no-one was watching. The secret of the resurrection happened in the hours before dawn, with no witnesses. Out of death God works the great mystery to bring about life. Because whatever we believe happened (and we can argue about what a video recorder might have captured in that tomb had they been invented), we can all agree that this is mind-blowing stuff. The question isn’t whether we believe or not; the question is whether we have experienced the risen Christ.

Our story from John begins with Mary and a couple of the other disciples, early that morning, coming to attend to the remains of Jesus. Mary was diligent in her duties, though she must have dreaded seeing the broken body of the man she had given her life to. Of course, when they get there, before they are even in half light, they see disturbance. The tomb has been ransacked. The pain of their grief is multiplied. The two male disciples go inside, but Mary’s grief is too much to bear. She will not go in and see the reality of the stolen body. She didn’t think it could get any worse.

Two people appear; angels we are told. They strike up a conversation with her and ask a ridiculous question – why are you crying? Isn’t it obvious? Mary turns and practically bumps into someone standing there. He asks the same thing – why are you crying? Did Mary wonder why she was being asked this? Didn’t they know? Hadn’t they heard what happened a few days ago? This is the point that we always shift the narrative to Mary’s mistake – she mistakes Jesus to be the gardener. How on earth didn’t she recognise him? I mean, I know it was dark, but she’d spent years with this man. I am not persuaded that this is about Mary not expecting Jesus; many of us have experienced visions of those we love who have died and known it wasn’t entirely real. But in my reflections recently, I have been considering the resurrection and how Jesus is no longer confined to one place and time but released to be in all places and in all times. So perhaps, Jesus was the gardener, or rather, the gardener was Jesus. Jesus was released through the resurrection to be everywhere, in everyone. Jesus has become every man and every woman. Mary didn’t recognise him because Jesus had been utterly transformed so as to resemble an ordinary working man, but I don’t necessarily think Mary made a mistake. She finally recognised Jesus in an altered form when he spoke to her with the kindness she knew to be of God.  And Jesus continues to do that, becoming recognisable in the faces of ordinary people today.

Mary doesn’t recognise Jesus until he calls her by name. This encounter is personal. And finally, when the darkness is lifted, when Mary sees the illuminated truth, Jesus tells her not to hold onto her. I have always read this as if Jesus is a bit tetchy. I have read this as if he has a stern teacher voice on, starting a sentence with ‘’Don’t”, in the same way I might speak to my dog. But in re-reading this, I have found a different intonation in the voice of Jesus. I think he might be telling Mary not to hold onto the things of the past, not to cling to relics, not to look back and be consumed with grief, not to grasp onto those things we think give us comfort but turn out to be unreliable. Maybe Jesus is telling Mary to look for the resurrection with hope, to be present to the now and not weighed down by history, to hold onto something much more sure, to hold onto the love of God that is the strongest force in the universe. To hold onto the fact that love never dies, it is eternal.

Jesus isn’t always in the places we expect him to be. We don’t always recognise him. Perhaps at the moment we can glimpse the face of Jesus in those NHS staff wearing masks and face shields, seeking to bring healing and comfort to those who are in pain. Perhaps we can glimpse Jesus in the refuse collectors, clearing away our mess. Perhaps we can glimpse Jesus in the supermarket shopworkers, bringing nourishment to our hunger and generosity to our meagre expectations.

It’s hard for many of us at the moment to expect to see Jesus when we are not seeing each other. But there are some unintended consequences of this lockdown and if we pay attention we can find resurrection happening around us. I am told that for the first time in decades, there are dolphins swimming in the canals of Venice and the waters usually churched and full of diesel, is clear and blue. I am told that the smog that has been a constant factor in many east Asian cities has lifted and pollution levels have dramatically decreased. I am told that the Himalaya’s are visible from the Punjab district of India for the first time in 30 years. Just as we are being forced to rest, the earth itself is resting and healing. Creation itself is demonstrating resurrection.

Some of you, I know are gardeners, and I have delighted to hear of the work you are doing with time on your hands. I can’t think that you appreciate the humble dandelion, in fact many of you will see this weed as a real nuisance, despoiling your lawns and flowerbeds. It is one of those plants enormously difficult to get rid of, because even the smallest amount of root will sprout again. At this time of year dandelions are coming into their own, and here we have a fantastic symbol of resurrection. A plant you thought you had got rid of forever, is yet again sprouted new life. We may think of beautiful spring flowers such as tulips and daffodils as an emblem of Easter, but perhaps the dandelion is more appropriate.

The religious and political authorities thought they had eliminated the problem of Jesus. They assumed with Jesus out of the picture, his followers would disperse and the memory of him would quickly fade. But they hadn’t factored in love. Love cannot die, it merely gets transformed. According to the funeral liturgy of the Roman Catholic church, ‘Life is not ended, it is merely changed.’ Jesus lived over 2000 years ago in Roman-occupied Palestine. His resurrection means that this single human being has been released beyond the limits of time and place, to be alive within the whole of creation. 2000 years ago Jesus was limited and restricted. Through his resurrection, he becomes present to us all.

We put a great emphasis on St Paul and his writings to various early churches. Perhaps today we can remind ourselves that Paul was never a disciple, he never met Jesus in person, he was not a witness to the resurrection. This makes him the perfect voice to name the experience of the risen Christ and the reality it became for him. Let me finish with Paul’s words: ‘When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.’

Where will we see Christ revealed today? Where will we notice the risen Christ today? Who will be the face of Christ for us today? When we manage to find Christ, to recognise the life of Christ in us and in those we encounter, we can be immersed in the glory of God. And even in our struggles and pain, we can shout alleluia to that.

Hymn

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kYA0tFX2tV4 – Now the green blade rises (Singing the Faith 306. Hymns and Psalms 204)

Prayers

O God, with faces touched by the light of a new day,

and hearts warmed by our prayers and praises,

we come before you to pray

for the needs of our world.

Into the light of Easter morning

we raise those who are struggling with illness,

with despair over their lives, or with

the breakdown of relationships.

Into the light of Easter morning,

we bring those places in our world

where war, violence, poverty and need

are the experiences of everyday life.

May the light of Christ shine upon them.

Into the light of Easter morning,

we bring the headline news of this weekend.

We hold in our hearts the pain

of those suffering violence, bereavement or conflict.

May the light of Christ shine upon them.

And into the light of Easter morning

we bring ourselves, the private struggles,

the heart’s yearnings, the hidden dreams,

the unfulfilled potential.

May the light of Christ shine upon us.

AMEN.

 (Ann Siddell)

I invite you now to say out loud The Lord’s Prayer, knowing that around the world countless Christians are reciting the same prayer through different languages and traditions.

Hymn

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UPH7-dNrwb8 – Thine be the glory (Singing the Faith 313. Hymns & Psalms 212)

Blessing

When it takes hold, resurrection doesn’t let go,
it shakes the dead awake,
it shakes the darkness from the light,
it shakes the silence from our throats
and it wrestles death from all that is dying

Let us go out into the world
and in the upheaval of resurrection
seek out the life

(Roddy Hamilton)

Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday – A METHODIST LOVEFEAST

Thursday 9th April 2020

Because we are unable to share in Holy Communion, I invite you this evening to experience a Methodist Love Feast in your own homes.

Introduction  

The Love Feast, or Agape, is a Christian fellowship meal recalling the meals Jesus shared with disciples during his ministry. The service expresses the koinonia or sharing, belonging and fellowship enjoyed within the body of Christ.

The Love Feast, in common with other acts of worship includes prayer, praise, scripture, preaching and mutual fellowship and an offering, but in addition the Love Feast contains a time of Testimony and the sharing of the Love Feast cake and the Loving Cup.

Preparation  

Traditionally the Love Feast has a specially prepared cake and there are many recipes you could try. Alternatively, use whatever you have at home where you can eat something; suggestions could include crackers, teacakes, biscuits or bread and butter. You will also need what is known as the Loving Cup (usually a cup of tea or glass of water) and the suggestion is both are covered until they are required and are placed on a table in front of you.

 Hymn

 ‘All praise to our redeeming Lord’ (Singing the Faith 608. Hymns & Psalms 753))

Prayer

Jesus of the Emmaus Road,

Come as we walk the lonely path,

and be our companion.

Come when life mystifies and perplexes.

Come into our disappointments and unease.

Come at table where we share bread and hope,

and coming, open our eyes to recognise you.

(Donald Hilton)

Testimony

Usually during a Love Feast, people are invited to give a short testimony. Today, I invite you to consider where you have noticed God in your life recently. Spend some time on this, don’t rush past. You may remember a particular occasion where God was very real to you and this changed the direction in your life. You may remember something much more ordinary that has happened in the last few days, the kindness of a friend perhaps, or the birds singing outside.

 Readings

Isaiah 55:1-3

Romans 5:1-5

Matthew 26: 20-29

Reflection

One of the events during the Last Supper I had previously missed was how Jesus predicted the betrayal of one of his disciples but didn’t then restrict who could participate in this holy meal. I think it highly likely Jesus knew about Judas but continued to let him sit at the table and share in the food and wine. The brokenness of his body and the shedding of his blood was for the world, including Judas. I find that grace and forgiveness extraordinary; the love and sacrifice did not exclude Judas. We are prone to offering love and forgiveness only to those we think are deserving, and in some circumstances this can be extended to excluding people from participating in Holy Communion. If Jesus didn’t exclude Judas, if the response of Jesus is to be inclusive and say yes, shouldn’t our response be the same?

Richard Rohr believes that when Jesus spoke those familiar words, ‘This is my body,’ he was not just speaking about the bread in front of him, but that all of physical creation should be seen as being sprit-filled. When we look closely, we can notice God everywhere. One of my favourite films is Love Actually and the opening lines are:

Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.

 There is a difference between pantheism (the belief that everything is God) and panentheism (the belief that God is in all things) – I firmly stand in that second category of belief because I believe that God’s divinity is to be found through all of creation. It is a challenge to find the Christ in the face of everyone I meet – I certainly don’t always remember this and I confess I struggle to find Christ in some of our world leaders – but if I accept that Jesus came to save us all, to show us the face of God in us all, I have to accept the face of Christ in everyone I see.

I have a fairly low theology of Holy Communion and have some Quaker sympathies that every shared meal is potentially an act of communion. It is the sharing that is crucial for me, which is why for a long time I didn’t think it possible to celebrate communion alone. This is certainly the Methodist perspective. However, a few years ago I read Terry Waite’s autobiography of when he was held in captivity and spent many years in solitary confinement. One morning as his guard brought him some bread and water, he asked what day it was. Sunday, was the reply. And so, in his isolation, Terry recited the words of the eucharistic prayer as he turned his simple meal into an act of Holy Communion. But the reality is, although he was physically apart, he was worshipping in solidarity with Christians all over the world and wasn’t really alone.

Richard Rohr believes that when Jesus says, ‘This is my blood’, he is actually saying that ‘This is all of my blood’; all bloodshed, all suffering is his. All suffering is unjust and through his blood he stands alongside us, uniting those who suffer with him. The physicality of the act on communion is significant – Jesus didn’t tell us to think about it, to reflect on it, or to watch it done, but simply to eat it. And in suddenly the advice that you are what you eat takes on a whole new significance. When the bread is held aloft and the words ‘This is the Body of Christ’ are spoken to the Body of Christ, the Church, we are each experiencing God in each other.

As we near the end of Holy Week, I invite you to consider how united we are, how across the county, across the country, across the world, Christians are sitting in their homes to remember those events that led to the crucifixion. We are in solidarity with them. I invite you to consider how the body of Jesus means we can find God’s presence in every aspect of creation, and how the blood of Jesus means we can be in solidarity with those who suffer. In doing so, I believe we will find that love actually is all around.

Hymn

Charles Wesley wrote only one specific hymn for the Love-feast, Come, and let us sweetly join, (Hymns and Sacred Poems, 1740). There were 22 eight-line verses in the original!  Verses from this hymn appear in Singing the Faith 646 (Hymns & Psalms 756) and a shorter version is printed here. 

  1 Come, and let us sweetly join  

 Christ to praise in hymns divine;   

Give we all with one accord   

Glory to our common Lord,

  2 Hands and hearts and voices raise,   

Sing as in the ancient days,   

Antedate the joys above,   

Celebrate the feast of love.

  3 Jesu, dear expected Guest,   

Thou art bidden to the feast;   

For thyself our hearts prepare,   

Come, and rest, and banquet there.

  4 Sanctify us, Lord, and bless,   

Breathe thy Spirit, give thy peace;   

Thou thyself within us move,   

Make our feast a feast of love.

Eat and drink

Now as you consume the food and drink you have prepared, say the following prayer:

Be present at our table, Lord; 

be here and everywhere adored; 

thy creatures bless, and grant that we 

may feast in paradise with thee.  

Prayer

Jesus arrested, judged, found guilty and condemned to die

is held captive overnight.

If I were arrested and held this night what would I be found guilty of?

That I made friends with people irrespective of their colour, creed or class….
That I shared my bread with the poor….
That my words… and actions… brought healing and forgiveness….
That I made justice and didn’t count the cost ….
That I sought the truth and then spoke of it….
That I recognised my neighbour and loved them as my very self…
That I met God along the way in the healing and forgiveness I received….
That I accepted hospitality at many different tables….
That I was changed by the lives of others….
…. and often repented my arrogance and foolishness
in encountering their wisdom …
That friends and strangers sometimes paid the price for me….
That I never sought out suffering…
….. but journeyed with it to the best of my ability…
That the love of those about me taught me to love myself before God…

You call us out of brokenness
to mend and remake your creation.
Grant us the courage to stay
with all those who are held captive this night.
In the name of Jesus who is good news, Amen.

(Pat Pierce/CAFOD)

Hymn

Christ, from whom all blessings flow (Singing the Faith 676. Hymns and Psalms 764)

Blessing

Now the blessing of God,

Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer,

Be with you and those you love

Tonight and every night.

Amen

Palm Sunday

Service sheet 5th April 2020

Call to worship

The story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem,

tells us that after his celebrated arrival,

he went into the Temple

and looked around at everything.

As I prepare for worship today,

may it be with a sense that Jesus

has walked in too, and is looking around.

May my eyes be open to see him,

may my heart be ready to be seen by him,

may my worship be worthy of his presence,

and may I be transformed

so that I see the world through his eyes.

(Ann Siddall)

Hymn

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-F8mdyhRVmU – Give thanks to the Lord, our God and King (Singing the Faith 77)

Prayers

Loving God,

If we are ill, strengthen us.

If we are tired, fortify our spirits.

If we are anxious, help us to consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.

Help us not to stockpile treasures from supermarkets in the barns of our larders.

Don’t let fear cause us to overlook the needs of others more vulnerable than ourselves.

Fix our eyes on your story and our hearts on your grace.

Help us always to hold fast to the good,

See the good in others,

And remember there is just one world, one hope,

One everlasting love, with baskets of bread for everyone.

In Jesus we make our prayer,

The one who suffered, died and was raised to new life,

In whom we trust these days and all days,

Amen

The Revd Barbara Glasson, President of the Methodist Conference

Lectionary readings:

                Psalm 118: 1-2. 19-29

                Isaiah 50: 4-9a

                Philippians 2: 5-11

Matthew 21:1-11

You can see a dramatized reading of the entry into Jerusalem using Lego here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-4sX-fJosw8 )

For a lighter, modern version, you can also see Rev Phil Summers in action here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kXRWWDMaDv0

Hymn

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MD9rMkIS1yw  – Ride on ride on in majesty (Singing the Faith 265)

Reflection

For many of us, today would have been marked by a walk of witness through the streets, waving palm branches and singing loud hosannas. This year, of course, things will be very different, and perhaps like me, you are wondering how to celebrate or even feeling guilty that you’re not in the mood to cheer. It’s hard to feel triumphant in isolation.

It’s a shame the lectionary, yet again, cuts off before the story gets really interesting. Because, of course, after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem like the return of a wandering hero, Jesus heads straight to the temple and gets really cross. It’s almost as if he has a tantrum, pushing tables over and causing total chaos. This part of the story brings into sharp focus the contrast between the crowds who hail his arrival cramming the streets to catch a glimpse of their Messiah, and the authorities who are becoming increasingly agitated with the actions of this agitator. We all know the fickle nature of this crowd who less than a week later will be baying for his blood.

Jesus is an odd figure-head, rejecting power and choosing a different way. The crowd in Jerusalem were living under occupation by a foreign army. They were oppressed and ruled by fear. Their hope was that the Roman occupiers would be overthrown and life would be restored. Jesus was that hope and they pin their expectations upon him. When they cry ‘Hosanna’, this is as much a political cry as it is theological, for hosanna means ‘rescue’ or ‘save’ us. Its implication is that they are in need of rescuing; that their current conditions are far from perfect. ‘Hosanna’ is a challenge to those in power, a subversive criticism in a world where that kind of talk could end up getting you killed.

 No wonder then, that Jesus disappointed them and they quickly turned against him. This was a king without an army, without financial backing, who refused to look like a king, refused to act like a king. He had the opportunity to ride a magnificent stallion, but chose a ridiculous donkey instead.

With a bit more time on my hands, I’ve been exploring boxsets on Netflix and have stared watching The Crown. Those of you who know me may be aware I’m not much of a royalist, but I’m finding this series fascinating from a social history perspective and it is giving me a greater understanding of the British monarchy. Although the series has been fictionalised in parts, it seems that those around the ‘Crown’ are constantly terrified of the potential erosion of its power and will do anything to maintain the appearance of strength and leadership. I have never been terribly comfortable with attributing the title ‘King’ to Jesus, and The Crown is confirming my belief that Jesus is the antithesis of monarchical rule. I’ve never found Jesus to be terribly interested in doing or saying things for the sake of appearance. Just as Jesus defied expectations of being a Messiah, he does the same with our expectations of being a king.

The swift change of scene from the streets strewn with cloaks and branches to the tables of the temple money changers reminds me that the economy of Jesus is very different from the economics we are used to. One lesson the coronavirus pandemic is teaching us is our value judgements are having to shift. Suddenly supermarket workers are more useful than accountants (apologies to any accountants out there!). Our cars, holidays, nice clothes are all meaningless when confronted by the potential loss of health, the loss of family. Jesus is a populist leader who attracts large crowds, but he refuses to get drawn into their expectations. How easy would it have been to assert his influence and justify spending money on an elaborate campaign? How easy would it have been to throw on an expensive tunic to stand out and be noticed, to ride a horse to give him greater height so more people could see him? How easy would it have been to have a red-carpet moment, just for once? How easy would it have been to hold his tongue when speaking to the political and religious authorities because in diplomacy there always has to be compromise? How easy would it have been to stay alive just a little longer, to heal more people, to spread the good news a bit wider, if it just meant not getting under the skin of those in power? How easy would it have been to just behave himself, to keep that temper of his under check, to smile politely if it meant not facing arrest?

Put like this, his crucifixion could easily have been predicted. His execution inevitable.

Jesus does not conform to our expectations. He goes to those who are broken, those who can’t afford temple sacrifices. He provided free health care because his currency is life and love, not insurance and conditions.

John Dominic Crossan writes: ‘Jesus does not ride a stallion or a mare, a mule or a male donkey, and not even a female donkey. He rides the most unmilitary mount imaginable: a female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her.’ Stay with that image for a while. That the way of Jesus might be seen to be nonviolent is in contrast to the next scene where he overturns tables in a riotous act. These two Jesus’ seem incompatible, but I believe there is no inconsistency here. The temple scene demonstrates the passion Jesus has for justice and his anger at those who suffer. This is often described as being righteous anger, because he was taking a great personal risk by behaving in such a way. His decision to side with those who had little or no economic value is woven throughout his ministry, and his choice of a female donkey and his choice to overturn tables is consistent with his message of justice, mercy and love.

At every turn, Jesus provoked attention, and not always the good kind. The further through his ministry the more every action and every word was scrutinised and eventually determined to be a threat to the establishment. His civil disobedience could not be tolerated for much longer. Our passage for today might end with the crowd asserting Jesus as prophet and Son of David, but look again at verse 10 – the whole city was in turmoil. The entry into Jerusalem might have caused quite a stir and this crowd is volatile.

This turmoil is what stands out for me this week. I have always enjoyed the experience of Palm Sunday; the celebration before the contemplation of Holy Week, a chance to dance before the solemn waiting. But I have not noticed this word ‘turmoil’ before. Is there something here about the turmoil we are living through right now? The turmoil of the pandemic? The turmoil each of us is trying to keep a lid on? Does Jesus cause a turmoil – well, that’s not quite what I think Matthew is saying. It sounds to me as if the city would have been in turmoil whether Jesus had arrived or not, because people are living through difficult days. Jesus doesn’t always behave how we expect. Instead he is a living example of justice, of unifying his words and actions. What might that teach us as we sit in our homes for another week? There is much rhetoric spoken of regarding the coronavirus, much of it framed in the language of war, as if our words of violence can reduce this threat. Jesus doesn’t show up waving a ‘V’ sign at us, giving us platitudes that everything is going to be ok and then riding off to a disinfected palace. Instead, Jesus shows up and stays with us. He stays with us through the turmoil. He stays with us regardless of the pandemonium and panic.

Of course we read this passage in the knowledge of what comes next. But sit with this awhile. The Ignatian way of reading the bible is to immerse yourself in the story, to imagine you are there. So I invite you to read again this passage and put yourself there with the sights, sounds and smells. Who will you choose to focus on? One of the crowd? A disciple? A chief priest? What do you feel? Spend some time listening for God’s word speaking to you today and let that word wash over you.

Hymn

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CRUp5JiRFu0 – My Song is Love Unknown (Singing the Faith 277)

Prayers

For the layers of comfort and convenience that surrounded our lives and that we never considered a blessing but always just took for granted, forgive us.

For we who must grieve in isolation and not in community, comfort us.

For we who care for the sick, protect us.

For the ability to turn off the fear-mongering and unhelpful commentary and worst-case scenario click bait, strengthen us.

For the times when we are all out of creative ideas for how to get through this with cooped up kids, inspire us.

For we who are now cutting our own bangs at home, guide us.

For the grace to allow ourselves and others to just be less productive, shower us.

For the generosity needed from those of us who have more resources, empower us.

From our own selfish inclinations, deliver us.

For just being your children, none of whom have done a global pandemic before, love us.

For the days ahead, accompany us.

God, unbound by time, help us to know that you are already present in the future we are fearing.

Amen

(Nadia Bolz Weber)

Hymn

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dAiBntMtViY – Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest (Singing the Faith 263)

Blessing

We have gathered with the crowds crying Hosanna!

Because even if we were silent

the stones themselves would have called out.

We have shared the hope for a world about to be changed,

and then it changed.

We have walked with another crowd.

One that called words of scorn and condemnation.

And now we follow the crowd as it leads out to the cross,

and yet even as the world grows dark,

we cannot lose hope.

Because God is with us.

God will be with us.

Whatever happens.

We are not alone.

And so we watch the crowd and we follow…

(Rev Gord)

Sunday 29th March 2020

Service sheet: Fifth Sunday in Lent

Call to worship

Out of the depths, I cry to you,

O LORD.

Lord, hear my voice!

Let your ears be attentive

to the voice of my supplications!

O Israel, hope in the LORD!

For with the LORD there is steadfast love,

and with him is great power to redeem.

Psalm 130: 1, 7

God of Life, lift us out of the valley of bones.

God of Life, brings to life in all your abundance.

God of Life, breathe on me now, here in this place to worship you.

Worship song

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7PjSO5Ihl0M  – Faithful One, so unchanging (Singing the Faith 628)

Prayers

As you enter into a time of prayer, firstly focus on your breathing, on your inhale and exhale. Spent a few moments considering the breath of God within you. Consider the breath of life within you. Now spend some time thanking God for the gift of life, for the lives of those you love, for the life around you in the newness of spring. When you are ready, make this your confession:

We are in Your presence, Holy One, knowing that without you we can do nothing;

without the breath of God, we are dry bones;

without the word of God, we have stumbled and fallen;

without being part of God’s people, we have put ourselves above contradiction,

and lived as though we only had ourselves to answer to. 

We see that the world is not as it could be,

and we confess the part we have played;

things we have done which have been hurtful;

things left undone, and choices which have been unwise or worse.

We have failed to see you in our neighbour;

we have misunderstood, and we have not recognised your signs,

your work in the world through so many surprising partners;

Forgive us God; and hear us now in the silence as we make our own private prayers of confession, speaking those things which can only be offered in quietness.

(silence)

These words of Jesus are strong and true, so believe them: your sins are forgiven.

Amen. Thanks be to God.

Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14

Reflection

Well that was weird, wasn’t it? Don’t you think that was a very odd reading from Ezekiel? Bones, scattered, being talked at, and sinews and flesh growing back – it’s not a nice image. A bit spooky if I’m honest. Not being a fan of horror films, I’m not sure I want those pictures in my head.

If you’re of a certain generation, when you hear this passage from Ezekiel, there might be a song which springs to mind? About the toe bone being connected to the foot bone, the foot bone connected to the heel bone – dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones, now hear the word of the Lord… This was written by James Weldon Johnson, and African American who worked for Theodore Roosevelt and was a civil rights activist around the turn of the 20th century. He campaigned against racial segregation laws.

Ezekiel was writing at a time of civil unrest. He was used to seeing battle scenes and the backdrop to his narrative is one of war and his writing bears these scars. James Weldon Johnson lived in difficult times, in a divided land where violence against those of his skin colour was commonplace. And yet it is this passage he wants to sing about.

Ezekiel offers us hope in unexpected places. He shows us that through speaking God’s word even the most desperate situations can be improved. However deep those scars run, there are none so damaged that God’s love cannot reach them. James Weldon Johnson knew it, he kept hope that one day we would see an end to racism, that God can breathe new and transforming life into the most unlikely of places.

As we have entered into a period of lockdown, we can feel in a very ‘dry’ place, removed from some of the people we love the most, and possibly we might be feeling removed from God. Not being able to engage in collective worship means we are having to find new ways of being church. Of learning that church is definitely NOT the building, but the people. So one of the things I find in this passage is that even in this most desperate of times, God is seeking to breathe new life into us. God’s love reaches out to us wherever we are. Now that’s the word of the Lord I need to hear right now.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVoPG9HtYF8 – Dem Bones (well, it had to be this!)

Reading: John 11:1-45  – you can find Rev Phil Summers storytelling version of this reading: https://youtu.be/3eYiQgp6NAI

Reflection

Perhaps the lectionary could have given us a break this week and not a reminder of the presence of death. Or maybe I should have chosen one of the other lectionary readings and ignored this one. Both of our readings today are visceral, messy, putting the realities of our corporeal beings at the centre and showing us bits of ourselves we normally cover us. If you happen to be reading this passage from the King James Version (not one I normally turn to), in verse 39 Mary says, ‘Lord, he stinketh.’ Did we really need to be told that?

Let’s do a quick recap: Mary, Martha & Lazarus (all of them siblings) were good pals of Jesus. He’d eaten and socialised with them. He loved them and they loved him back. Jesus finds out Lazarus is seriously ill, but chooses not to go and visit, and stays put for two whole days. He seems indifferent. Mary & Martha must have been going stir-crazy at this. Did they feel let down I wonder, when Jesus doesn’t come in their hour of need? Then someone tells Jesus and the disciples that Lazarus has fallen asleep. The disciples say, ‘Phew!’ But only Jesus realises this is a euphemism. One we still use today, using words to cover up the messy reality, using words to put up a barrier between us and death because social niceties mean we can’t talk in plain language, as if the words we choose will lessen the hurt. Jesus heads to the tomb of Lazarus. He’s late. Four days too late. Martha sounds cross – if you’d been here, Lazarus wouldn’t have died, she cries. In other words, it’s your fault, Jesus. Jesus talks to her about death and resurrection and life and she says she understands, she says she believes, but she is grieving and all she can do is turn to God. Crucially she turns to the God with a human face. She turns to Jesus. Mary then appears on the scene and repeats Martha’s sentiment: where the hell were you? Everyone is crying. Including Jesus. Now why would Jesus be crying when he knows in just a moment Lazarus will appear alive again? Why is Jesus upset here? He asks for the tomb to be opened – Martha is horrified. After four days the body will have started to rot and that will stink. Please don’t, I can hear her say. Jesus prays and then calls to Lazarus, and like something out of a zombie movie, the walking dead appears. Except, of course, this isn’t the walking dead, this is the walking living.

And that’s where the lectionary cuts off.

Keep reading – go on, have a look at where this story actually ends.

The powerful ones, the religious leaders and not happy with what has happened, and they panic. They are terrified their power will be taken away by this man and his followers, that people will stop listening to them and start listening to Jesus. He has to be stopped before the whole fabric of society starts to crumble. The high priest, Caiaphas (we’ll come across him again in a couple of weeks) is plotting already, and in his arrogance says (and for anyone who has watched Game of Thrones we can’t help but hear these words in a northern accent): ‘You know nothing.’ The arrest, trial and execution of Jesus is now a foregone conclusion.

This is a resurrection story. Of course it is. We’re not at Easter Sunday yet but already we’re talking about death and life and resurrection. Jesus was killed because he offered life. All the Romans could do was offer fear and punishment and death. But Jesus offers life. He is life. He was powerful in a way that couldn’t be understood because he didn’t threaten, he didn’t condemn, he didn’t have long lists of rules and consequences.

He calls to Lazarus, ‘Come out,’ and he’s doing the same to us. Perhaps even more right at this moment, when we are cocooned in our homes and questioning how we can be together as the church. Please don’t misunderstand me: stay at home, don’t come out…but for some of us, the isolation and separation will feel like we are living in a sort of tomb, and even here, even in the depths of our solitude, Jesus calls to us, he reaches into the graves we dig for ourselves and he pulls us out. Jesus gives us new life in the most unlikely of places.

We have been given a unique opportunity through this lockdown, of doing things differently. And that’s scary but also exciting. It shakes us up and takes us out of our comfort zones. Who now is ever going to worry about what seat they sit on in church on a Sunday morning? Who now will ever worry about stumbling over the words of a bible reading in a church service? Who now will get upset if the service overruns by 10 minutes? This experience is giving us each a fresh perspective on what is important: life. That’s it. Life is the most important thing. Jesus understood that and offers it freely, unencumbered by convention or tradition.

We may feel like Mary and Martha right now, pleading with Jesus to come and save us, upset when we think all hope has been lost because he didn’t step in in time. The raising of Lazarus shows us that there is always hope and there is always life. We might be in that waiting period known as Lent (how apt for the lockdown to be now), we might be in a dark place, we might feel despair but in that despair Jesus weeps too. Jesus is waiting with us in this time. He is alongside us right now, reaching into those ugly, messy, stinking places and transforming them, showing us that it is never too late for hope. Although we are not protected from the realities of pain and loss, Jesus shows up, reaches out, calls our name and speaks life into us. Amen.


Now,
it is no longer
an exegetical puzzle
to be solved in our study;
it is no longer a pericope
with which to wrestle;
it is no longer a (really)
long reading to get through;
it is no longer a story
we blow the dust off every 3 years.
now,
it is our story;
now
it is about us;
now
it is us inside that
dank, dark tomb:
stinking of fear,
wrapped in the bands
of loneliness;
blinded by the handkerchief
of weary worry.
now,
we hope,
we pray,
we yearn,
we listen
for just a footstep,
just a tear dropping on the ground,
just a whisper of Jesus
pacing before the stone,
growling in his spirit
in anger and frustration,
before he cries out,
in hope and joy and life,
“come out!”

now,
we are not casual bystanders;

now
we are Lazarus

waiting . . .

(c) 2020 Thom M. Shuman

(Please note: additional lectionary readings set for today: Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11)

Worship Song

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cGoBJ6R18qg – Ain’t No Grave

Prayers

You already know what we’re worried about, Holy One. ‘Worried’ seems a bit of an understatement, though.

Some of us have already been laid off.
Some of us were already working three jobs.
Some of us are already living payday-to-payday.

Yeah, worried doesn’t quite cover it. We are tired. We are scared. We are grieving.

So because we’re really not sure what’s next or when ‘next’ will even come, we’re going to take the advice Paul was said to have given Timothy, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone,” so here we go.

For the teachers and education staff who know exactly how much their students rely on school for routine, inspiration, relationship, and their next meal, we pray.

For students who worked so hard to get to the finish line, but now everything is cancelled, we pray.

For the parents who are trying to work from home, but who now have tiny co-workers who really do not care about deadlines or toilet breaks or conference calls, we pray.

For the truck drivers, food preparers, shelf stockers, care givers, farmers, produce pickers, and the overlooked and underpaid on whom we are discovering the world actually turns, we pray.

For first responders and medical personnel who keep showing up, keep gloving up, and keep masking up, we pray. For first responders and medical personnel who keep showing up, even when there are no more gloves or masks, we pray.

For the spirit of community effort that puts the whole before the one that we might all get through this, we pray.

Help us hold fast, Holy One, for we have a way to go. You’ll be hearing from us again. Amen.

(Prayers by Rev Lori Walke, Mayflower Congregational UCC, Oklahoma)

Hymn

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxpPIa-BskY – All I once held dear (Singing the Faith 489)

Blessing

May the spirit be with you

The spirit takes brokenness, dust,

absence of life, and long time death.

The spirit gives life, renews, it revives,

it gives life, it causes hope, it causes joy.

 May the spirit put breath in your lungs

and you will come to life.

The church has left the building

We are only at the beginning of learning news ways to be church in the current pandemic. We will experiment, get things wrong, enjoy the novelty of some things, horribly miss collective worship and still remain part of something bigger than ourselves. Inevitably this experience will transform us and change how we exist as the church in the future. Over the past few days I have been pondering on what it means to be church in the time of lockdown and am concluding the building has ceased to be important. There is a difference between saying it doesn’t matter and it doesn’t matter at all, but our community of faith exists for the people and not for the building.

There is a church in Atlanta called the Church of the Common Ground. The website reads, “We’re like any other church—we just don’t have a building.” They meet in a public park where worship is conducted, encouraging those on the margins. The Birmingham District of the Methodist Church has run an initiative called ‘Church Without Walls’, but this takes no walls to a whole new level. They are both host and guest within a shared space.

This current lockdown will have severe and negative implications for many people. But maybe not for the church. Maybe, in time, after many discussions and heartfelt prayer and theological reflection, maybe at some point in the future we will be able to look back at this time of isolation and claim the church was with us because we are the church. Maybe we will see the church with fresh eyes.  G.K. Chesterton wrote, ‘Your religion is not the church you belong to, but the cosmos you live inside of.’ I pray that during this time, despite not being able to physically gather in our church buildings, that you may feel connected to your faith community like never before. Because for now, the church has left the building.