Sunday 28th June

man holding card with seeking human kindness text

Service sheet

Call to worship

Some of us are hurting,

some of us are smarting.

All are welcome in this place.

Some of us are very young,

some of us are getting old.

All are welcome in this place.

Some of us have hearts of gladness,

some of us are filled with grief.

All are welcome in this place.

The strong and the weak,

the faithful and doubter,

the saint and sinner,

the regular and visitor.

All are welcome in this place.

Hymn: Let us build a house (Singing the Faith 409)

Opening prayers

Welcoming God, we come to you as we often do,

knowing that you are waiting with open arms,

ready to welcome us, your family, here in this place.

Welcoming Jesus, so often the recipient of hospitality

and yet willing to sit with anyone,

saint and sinner alike,

we come to you

knowing you are prepared to budge up and let us sit with you.

Welcoming Spirit, so often hidden from sight

and yet so large a part of any gathering of God’s people,

we come to you

knowing that the whispers of welcome are all around us.

Knowing we are welcomed

and yet knowing that we have not always been deserving of that welcome,

your wide arms of grace, O God, are too much to take in.

When we come with our heads dipped in shame

you gently lift our chins, gaze into our eyes,

and say: welcome child, so good to see you.

Lord, may we never take this for granted,

try harder to live up to your gracious welcome,

accept your love and, in turn, offer that same love

and welcome to all whom we meet.

Lord, gracious Lord, hear our prayer. Amen.

Reading: Genesis 22:1-14

Reflection

We our lectionary readings just seem to be getting tougher and tougher. When people are asked to describe the God of the Old Testament, most might think of a belligerent being, full of wrath and punishment rather than full of loving kindness; a God of violence and fear.  And I’m afraid this story of Abraham and Isaac does nothing to dispel this myth.

Last week we spent some time thinking about the cost of discipleship – was Abraham really prepared to pay the price with the life of his son? Because I need to get one thing straight – that’s a price I am absolutely not prepared to pay.

Neither God nor Abraham come out of this story well. God appears like an arbitrary trickster, testing Abraham with cruel dares, who then drops the game of Russian roulette at the very last second. English translations use the word knife, but in the original Hebrew it was more like a cleaver, a tool for butchering. This is frightening and gruesome. Isaac must have been deeply traumatised by this event; his trust in his parent and God shaken to the very core. Make no mistake, what is being described here is child abuse. If the purpose of this event was to make Abraham fear God, then it probably worked, but it certainly won’t have made Abraham, or indeed Isaac, love God.

And what of Abraham, and his willingness to appease God in this way? Who in their right mind would ever agree to such an act? Years ago, I struck up a conversation in a café with a woman who told me that she believed God had told her to give away all of her possessions. Which she did. All of her furniture, including her son’s bed. Inevitably social services got involved and her son was removed into a foster family. I looked aghast at her story, at which point she told me not to feel sorry for her, because she was following the will of God and although she might not understand his reasons, who was she to question the Almighty? I could only conclude this woman had some fairly serious mental health issues resulting in her making some catastrophic choices.

And where is Sarah in all of this? I can’t think Abraham has discussed murdering her beloved much longed-for only son. The fact he sneaks off early in the morning suggest he’s left her sleeping in blissful ignorance. How was he going to tell her? What was he going to tell her? Would he use the excuse of Nazi guards: I was only obeying orders?

If we were to judge the bible on this one story, well, I’m not sure I would have stuck with it. But if we choose to stick with it, to wrestle with the complexities of these challenging stories, like the woman looking for her lost coin, there is treasure to be found here. When we have doubts, when we lose faith in where we can find the good news in the bible, if we spend time searching, sweeping away the debris of our assumptions, we can be surprised by a nugget, a gem, that will sustain us.

So how on earth do we redeem the story of Abraham raising a knife to his son who he had tied down? Well, upon closer examination, there’s plenty that resonates in the story of Abraham and Isaac.

What if we have been wrong all this time in assuming that the test God sets for Abraham is the one he passes? What the real test were to see if Abraham would reject the notion of sacrifice and killing? What if the real test were to see if Abraham was prepared to stand up for the rights of someone else and at the point he is failing this test, God has to step in and prevent the very thing God abhors? What if Abraham’s leap of faith was in the wrong direction? What if the test was to see if Abraham would protect the vulnerable one placed in his care? What if the test was to see if he would stand firm, to step up, to say no? What if God did what God always does, to save and redeem?

Human sacrifice was widespread throughout the various other religions at the time when Abraham and Sarah lived. The other gods people worshipped demanded spilling of human blood, including that of child sacrifices. These gods required offerings to keep them happy or there would be terrible consequences. To keep life secure and safe, the appetite of the gods had to be fed. Sounds dreadful doesn’t it? Who would worship such gods? But the people believed in the superstition of these religions that by making such sacrifices they would be able to prevent bad things from happening. And if bad things did happen, they had a reason: the gods needed more.

At first glance this seems so removed from our experiences as to have nothing in common with how we live today. But let’s take a deeper look. God is not interested in sacrifices or offerings or any attempt to curry favour. When we read many of the prophets, this is the message we get: ‘you’re worship is unacceptable because you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. I want your heart not lip service. I want your life not your death.’ If we look a bit closer into the God of the Old Testament, we will find this is not a God of fear and punishment, but a God who wants a genuine relationship, a covenant written on our hearts not on tablets of stone.

Today, we sacrifice people in all sorts of other ways. We might not have blood sacrifices, but make no mistake, in a profit-driven society where the economy rules, some lives are expendable. Lives are lost on the altar of consumerism when, as if we were gods, we demand cheap clothes and don’t ask questions about the horrendous working conditions of sweatshops. Lives are lost on the altar of energy consumption when, as if we were gods, we demand cheap airfares and cheap electricity and don’t ask questions about who dies as a direct result of climate change. Lives are lost on the altar of non-seasonal vegetables when, as if we were gods, we demand a full variety of cheap food all year long and don’t ask questions about land in developing nations being turned over to cash crops causing malnutrition to locals. Sacrificing people is a way of keeping economies afloat. Perhaps we are being tested like Abraham and we are failing to protect the vulnerable ones, failing to step up and take responsibility, failing to say no to this sacrifice.

God still has some explaining to do in my book about why Abraham was put to this test in the first place. When I read the bible, I hear stories of liberation and redemption woven throughout. I read about the God who notices suffering and steps into that experience, but is not the cause of it. I read about Jesus who was an ally to the poor, the disabled, the marginalised, who healed and offered hope. So I still have issues with this passage of scripture and cannot justify the scene of abuse we witness. But I also need to locate myself as one who unwittingly and occasionally deliberately causes pain to others. And for today, this story is making me question myself and the role of the church in those times when abuse has happened, for us to own up to that, to accept our responsibility, to repent and for God to allow redemption to flow through us.

Isaac was bound to a place of pain and death. Many of us bind ourselves and by our actions bind others to places of pain. It is through the salvation Jesus offers us that we are released from this bondage. In Jesus there is freedom and life.

There is a phrase repeated three times in this story – “Here I am”. It isn’t God who says that, but Abraham. Can we imagine God calling us now, by name? Calling us to into freedom, calling us into a transformed life. And we don’t need to do anything else but say, ‘Here I am’. God transforms our pain. God provides what we need. When everything looks desperate, our faithful and eternal God stands firm and true and can redeem even the most hopeless of times. And that, my friends, is where I have found good news in this story of Abraham and Isaac. That it actually isn’t about abuse or sacrifice or making wrong choices, but that it’s really about saying to God, ‘Here I am, take me, bind me to you, transform me.’ Amen

Hymn: O, the love of my Lord is the essence (Singing the Faith 431)

Reading: Jeremiah 28:5-9

Reading: Matthew 10: 40-42

Reflection

We’re back to our theme of hospitality again with Jesus, and if we remember, this is all part of the chunk in Matthew in which Jesus is giving his disciples instructions for their mission. This is about both giving and receiving. This is a no-strings-attached gospel message. And it rather flies in the face of the cynical move from our government, recently merging the Department of International Development in with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, stipulating that our foreign aid will now come with strings attached. And those strings are there has to be something beneficial to the UK. I struggle to find the gospel within that decision.

Jesus, as we know, didn’t keep respectable company. He didn’t stick to his tribe. He didn’t stay in his lane. Instead, he behaves in a Spirit-filled way, taking risks, determined to take good news to whoever he meets.

Jesus brings light and life to all he meets. By expecting the best from people, it encourages hospitality. It raises everyone’s behaviour. Because as we know, laughter and kindness and love are more infectious than a virus. If we want others to know the good news found in Jesus, in order for them to find that, to be able to see Jesus in us, we need to behave like he did. Uncompromising in our compassion.

Discipleship doesn’t need to be heroic. Sometimes it’s offering someone a glass of cold water. Small actions may not change the world, but they may change someone’s day. If we were turn to Matthew 25, the story of the sheep and the goats, we would hear that if we respond to the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, we are doing this to Christ and our challenge is to see Christ in those we meet. Our passage for today turns the concept on us – when we are doing these things, people might just be able to see Christ in us. By allowing people to welcome us, they are welcoming Christ.

I was listening to the Rev Samuel Wells during the week talking about the time when he visited a hospital in Malawi, surrounded by overcrowded wards full of frail emaciated bodies. He felt uncomfortable as people reached out to him and as the medical staff told the patients that someone would attend to them later. As they were leaving he felt a tug on his clothes. He turned around, unable to hide his irritation knowing he had nothing to offer this person and snapped, ‘What do you want? I can’t help.’ The sick man was lying on the floor and said to Sam,’ You look tired doctor. I thought you might need to share some of my food,’ and the man pushed his plastic plate of watery food towards Sam. Sam found himself staring into the face of Christ.

In whose face will you see Christ today? For who will you be the face of Christ today?

Prayers of Intercession

For those who have been abused; for those who are experiencing abuse now; for those who work with survivors of abuse; for all of these and more, we pray…

For those who cause pain deliberately; for those who cause pain through their neglect; for those who cause pain unintentionally; for all of these and more, we pray…

For children with inadequate parents; for children who go hungry; for children who are forced into work; for all of these and more, we pray…

For those living with the effects of climate change; for our own complicity in damaging the environment; for corporations putting profit above care for the earth; for all of these and more, we pray…

For those who are dying; for those who are grieving; for those who work in the funeral industry; for all of these and more, we pray…

For the ones I love; for the ones I struggle to love; for me; for all these and more, I pray…

Holy and ever-present God, you hear our prayers. The polished articulate ones. The mumbled desperate ones. The silent groaning ones. You hear them and you envelope your loving presence around our concerns. We are grateful we are never alone and we hold onto your promise that you are always with us. Amen

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins

as we forgive those who sin against us.

Lead us not into temptation

but deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power,

and the glory are yours

now and for ever.

Amen.

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

Blessing

May the beauty of God
be reflected in your eyes,
the love of God
be reflected in your hands,
the wisdom of God
be reflected in your words,
and the knowledge of God
flow from your heart,
that all might see,
and seeing,  believe.

Sunday 21st June 2020

Sunday 21st June 2020

Service sheet

two hands

Call to worship

“The student is not above the teacher, 

nor a servant above his master.”

We are here to learn of Christ’s ways.

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? 

Yet not one of them will fall to the ground

outside your Father’s care.”

We are here in gratitude for all God’s care.

“Whoever finds their life will lose it,

and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”

We are here to find ourselves by losing ourselves in worship.

Hymn: Speak, O Lord, as we come to you (Singing the Faith 161. Not in Hymns & Psalms)

Opening prayers

st hilda community prayer

be silent
be still
alone empty
before your god
say nothing
ask nothing
be silent
be still
let your god
look upon you
that is all
she knows
she understands
she loves you with
an enormous love
she only wants to
look upon you
with her love
quiet
still
be

A poem by Benjamin Zephaniah : People need people


Reading: Genesis 21:8-21

Reflection

Our lectionary reading picks up from where we left off last week. We spent time with Sarah & Abraham, thinking about laughter and we finished with the joyous birth of Isaac.

This week: not so much laughter. Our story shifts focus onto Hagar. Remember Hagar? She’s the slave who Sarah tells Abraham to sleep with. When Hagar becomes pregnant, Sarah treats her so badly that she runs away.

But now Isaac has been born and that changes everything. Sarah sees Ishmael as a threat. Up until now she has been able to ignore this foreign woman’s child – a child born out of wedlock to a woman with no rights – there’s a name for children like that which I won’t repeat.  Whilst Ishmael was younger Sarah could pretend he didn’t exist. But now he’s a lanky teenager, and Sarah has a baby to protect. A baby whose inheritance rights she wants to protect. A baby whose financial security she wants to protect. A baby whose reputation and family name she wants to protect. She’s doing what every mother, every parent should do; put the protection of their child over all else.

Sarah sees this teenager playing. She sees Ishmael playing with Isaac – she can’t have them being friends. She can’t have Isaac being sympathetic to this cuckoo in their nest.

The fact was, Sarah had legal rights over Hagar. She had the power to order Hagar to have sex with her husband and that meant she also had the right to claim any children Hagar bore as her own. Hagar not only has no rights over her own body, she has no rights over the child she birthed from her body.

And so Sarah uses the power she has and tells Abraham to get that slave and her mongrel son out of her house. It is so easy to see Sarah as the villain of this story – a pantomime baddie who we all want to boo off the stage. She’s behaved appallingly with unnecessary cruelty – of course our sympathies are with Hagar, who has done nothing wrong.

But where exactly is Abraham in all of this? The supposed head of this household. The voice of authority. The man who would have countless descendants. To reduce this to a win-lose scenario, where Sarah wins and Hagar loses somewhat misses the point. These women are both bound by the disempowering force of the patriarchy. A system where inheritance only goes to the sons and not the daughters. A system where status comes through fertility. A system where women have restricted freedom, restricted choices, are subject to ownership by firstly their fathers and then their husbands. Under this system, everyone loses, even the men.  And so, a bit like with Mary & Martha in the gospels, I’m much less interested in setting these two women up against one another, and much more interested in the lack of agency of both women. Now, that’s not to say that they have equal status in this story, or that they equally suffer. But we do the bible and ourselves a disservice if we reduce everything down to binary issues, where there are always sides to be taken.

Ishmael, like Isaac, is promised he will have many descendants. History suggests that through the lineage of Abraham and Isaac, we have both the Jewish and Christian faiths, whereas through the lineage of Ishmael we are brought to the Muslim faith. Another reason why it would be easy to pit these two women and their sons against one another – the clash of these world religious – and why it is so important not to see them as victor and victim, goodie and baddie.

Spineless Abraham sends Hagar packing with some bread and water for her journey for who knows how long. She has nowhere to go. No home. No family. No friends. What on earth was she supposed to do? How was she supposed to protect her son in the wilderness? And our story takes a dangerous turn; the water has been drunk, her son is sleeping in the shade of a bush and Hagar has run out of options. So she cries to God: don’t let my son die. And God hears her. God promises her that her son will be the father of a great nation. Remember this is Ishmael, whose descendants will be the Ishmaelites, also known as the Arabians, also known as the Muslims. A great nation, God says.

God then opens Hagar’s eyes and she sees a well. Salvation. Relief.

Tomorrow is Windrush Day. It was on 22 June 1948 that several hundred people arrived from the Caribbean on board the HMS Empire Windrush to start a new life in Britain. Caribbean people who had served in the British armed forces were encouraged to come to Britain to work. More people followed. It is estimated that around 500,000 people living in the UK are part of the Windrush generation. Windrush Day celebrates these arrivals and seeks to honour the diverse contributions the Caribbean community has made to British society.

Like many migrants, they arrived in a spirit of hope. But very quickly they faced discrimination. They have lived with and in a hostile environment.  On Windrush Day we are invited to reflect on what it means to be a migrant, to be the descendent of a migrant. We are invited to reflect on our own responsibility towards those whose nationality or ethnicity prompts racist reactions.

This week I’ve watched the BBC programme, Sitting in Limbo, based on the true story of Anthony Bryan. He came to the UK from Jamaica aged 8, with this mother, who worked for the NHS. 50 years later, under the government’s Hostile Environment policy, he was detained and threatened with deportation because he failed to satisfy the Home Office that he had a right to live and work here. It made my blood boil, but I strongly recommend you watch it – it’s still available on iPlayer.

Delores Williams, a black womanist theologian, sees the story of Hagar through the lens of the experience of many black women. She says Hagar, like “many black women, goes into the wide world to make a living for herself and for her child, with only God by her side.” Like many black women throughout history and for some living today, they have no expectation of receiving justice, little control over their lives, whose colour subjects them to unfair treatment and abuse.

For African-American women in particular, whose ancestors were slaves, the story of Hagar is far too familiar. For foreigners living a life of servitude, the story of Hagar is far too familiar. For single mothers living in poverty, the story of Hagar is far too familiar. For women who have experienced sexual abuse, the story of Hagar is far too familiar.

So for those of us who are not black, and those of you who are not female, what can this story tell us today? Well, firstly, this story can help us identify if we ever react like Sarah, with petty jealousies and vindictiveness. Sarah had power over Hagar but wanted more. Hagar’s suffering was increased through Sarah’s cruelty. So maybe, we need to ask ourselves, might we be part of the problem? In an age when we hear the slogan, Black Lives Matter, is our first response to shout back, but hey, I thought all lives matter? It’s important to sit with that slogan, Black Lives Matter, because the fact it needs saying implies that some people need reminding that black lives matter at all. In the same way that women’s lives matter or disabled lives matter or old lives matter. People who treat others as less than equal need reminding that these specific lives matter and not just their own. And that’s about recognising the stamp of the divine put within all of us at creation, when God points at humankind and said that’s good, I’m pleased with that. 

Abraham sends Hagar out with a skein of water which quickly runs out. God provides a well, where the depth of water is virtually fathomless. Our generosity so often has limits, but God’s generosity is without boundaries. Are we generous with our time, our money, our space, our love, or are we people who sit back and allow a hostile environment to perpetuate, putting limits on who we think deserves our help or attention?

Finally, God hears the cries of those who are hurting. As we think about Windrush, and Grenfell, and George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and Stephen Lawrence and countless other names whose names are forgotten by us but eternally remembered by God, as we think on all of these tragedies, these acts of abuse against black people, we can add our voices to those who cry out to God, don’t let them die. Don’t let any more of them die. God sees and hears the suffering, the abuse, the racism, the discrimination and God is with them. We sometimes hear that there is no favouritism in God, but I read this story of Hagar and am struck by how God shows favour to her, because God is there in her need. To God, Hagar and Ishmael are fully human, when they have been treated as commodities, their humanity trampled on. We cannot limit God’s mercy. God hears the cry of the abandoned. God hears the cry of the outcast, and God saves. Perhaps now is the time to listen to those who suffer, to be instruments of God’s salvation, to enact God’s generosity with those we know are suffering. 

Hymn: We turn to God when we are sorely pressed (Singing the Faith 640. Not in Hymns & Psalms)

Reading: Matthew 10:24-39

Reflection

Oh my goodness, there is so much in this passage in Matthew that causes problems. It certainly raises more questions than I have answers for:

  • It speaks of slavery without condemnation
  • It speaks of the ‘one who can destroy both soul and body in hell’ – is Jesus talking about the devil?
  • The sparrows bit doesn’t seem to follow
  • I’m very uncomfortable about the idea that Jesus will deny anyone – what about Peter’s three denials on Good Friday?
  • As a pacifist I really want to push back about Jesus not bringing peace but a sword – perhaps my least favourite bible verse
  • Jesus is talking about disunity, disharmony, causing deliberate rifts among families – this isn’t the Jesus I know and love

So what is going on here?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian. He was a major critic of the Nazi Party and their rise to power in the 1930’s and he eventually joined a plot to assassinate Hitler. He wrote The Cost of Discipleship years before this, in which he lays out what it actually means to be a Christian, and the demands discipleship places upon each of us. Bonhoeffer paid the ultimate cost of discipleship with his own life as he was executed shortly before the end of the Second World War. I’ve read this book and was troubled by it – Bonhoeffer was arguing that being a Christian was hard. It involves making tough choices. I found nothing in his book about people who are heavy laden coming to Jesus and being given rest. There was nothing about joy or happiness or even much about love and relationships. In short, I hated it.

But I now look at Bonhoeffer’s book through a different lens. Because our challenge is about what we might be prepared to lose in order to ensure the suffering of others cease. For those of us who live comfortable lives, and by that I mean, having the finances to afford decent housing, three meals a day, and heating, for those of us whose sleep is uninterrupted by money worries, we are wealthy. We are very wealthy by comparison to those who lack these basic necessities. For those of us who are white, it is very unlikely that we will suffer lack of opportunity because of our skin colour. We may experience lack of opportunity for all sorts of other reasons, but our ethnicity is unlikely to be the reason.

But hang on a minute Rachel, you might be asking. What about quotas? What about companies who are now committed to employing a certain percentage of people from ethnic minorities? Doesn’t that mean white folk lose out? What about positive discrimination? All black or all female shortlists? Isn’t this political correctness gone mad?

If we truly seek God’s justice – God’s kingdom come here on earth as it is in heaven – if we mean it when we pray it, what are we prepared to lose in order that others can win? What cost to us are we prepared to pay? Because in order that those who are marginalised are given the same opportunities, the same dignities, the same standards of living, as those of us who have more than our fair share, we might be expected to relinquish some of it. To have fair wealth distribution, fair food distribution, fair education distribution, those of us who have never questioned these matters might be being asked by Jesus to take a long hard look at ourselves.

This is a hard passage to read, and I don’t have the answers, I just have more questions. But what if we read this passage about hell, and denial, and division, and swords and recognised that in living our comfortable lives, in choosing to ignore suffering , we are allowing these things to flourish. What if the cost to our discipleship was to make us a bit less comfortable? The gospel forces us to make choices that disrupt us. Those choices may disrupt our lifestyles and our relationships. What are we prepared to risk for Jesus? Are we prepared to risk our reputation, our social status? What injustices have we been willing to accept to ensure our own comfort?  Because that is a discipleship that requires no cost at all.

Hymn: Show me how to stand for justice (Singing the Faith 713. Not in Hymns & Psalms)

Prayers of intercession

For our prayers of intercession, I firstly invite you to listen to John Holt’s Stick By Me, and imagine God is singing to Hagar and Ishmael

Lullaby God, we hear you soothe in the desert, singing to a crying child – Ishmael, Isaac climbing Mt Moriah and the Exodus children facing the Red Sea. We hear your comfort: ‘Don’t be afraid, when you cry, I cry too. Stick by me, I’ll stick by you.’ 

Lamenting God, we hear you sing in the wilderness, hope for a grieving mother – Hagar, Hannah, Elizabeth. We hear your peace: ‘Don’t be afraid, when you cry, I cry too. Stick by me, I’ll stick by you.’ 

Serenading God of the Blues, who mourns in the wilderness for all families torn apart by bitterness, envy and strife. We hear your promise: ‘Don’t be afraid, when you cry, I cry too. Stick by me, I’ll stick by you.’ 

Harmonizing God, for all churches facing a crisis, help us hear your melody, harmonize with your desert lullaby.  May we open our arms to all those estranged in our community. We hear your voice: ‘Don’t be afraid, when you cry, I cry too. Stick by me, I’ll stick by you.’  Amen

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins

as we forgive those who sin against us.

Lead us not into temptation

but deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power,

and the glory are yours

now and for ever.

Amen.

Hymn: There’s a wideness in God’s mercy (Singing the faith 416. Hymns & Psalms 230)

Blessing

So now we leave this space of worship

And while so much of the road ahead is uncertain,

the path constantly changing,

we know some things that are as solid and sure

as the ground beneath our feet,

and the sky above our heads.


We know God is love.

We know Christ’s light endures.


We know the Holy Spirit this there,

found in the space between all things,

closer to us than our next breath,

binding us to each other,

until we meet we again,


Go in peace.

by Rev. Nora Vedress, Calvary United Church in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada

Zoom service from Sunday 14th June

Below there are two videos from yesterday’s service. The first half contains prayers, readings & reflections. The second half comes after people have come back from ‘breakout rooms’ where we hear the feedback from the congregation on the two bible readings. I would values your feedback as I intend to upload these live services each week. Please be assured, people were asked their permission prior to recording and were given the option of stopping their video function.

Sunday 14th June

smiling woman looking on right side during daytime

Service sheet

Call to worship

Back then there was the twelve. 

Here and now there is us.

We are your disciples today 

and today we gather to worship you.

Back then they followed you in the flesh. 

Today we follow in your Spirit.

We are your disciples 

and today we gather to follow you.

Back then there were but a few.

Today we, numbering billions, 

are part of a worldwide Church.

We are your disciples today 

and today we gather to serve you.

Hymn Born in Song (Singing the Faith 21. Hymns & Psalms 486)

Opening prayers

Loving and Holy God,
it is such a privilege
to bring our honest prayers to you,
to open the Scriptures and discover not only that ordinary women and men,
but also Jesus himself, offered to you the gritty ‘stuff’ of their lives –
it gives us the permission we need to be that honest
not just ‘polite’ prayers,
but the questions and challenges
and anger and hurt
of our very human emotions
bursting from our hearts and minds and flung out at you.
Thank you for listening to these too.
And thank you for being in this day with us – with me – in whatever unfolds.

Whatever this day brings,
your will be done;
even if I’m struggling,
your will be done;
because I cannot believe otherwise
than that you will the good
of every single one of your children –
including me.

Jesus gave us the way to follow, but we don’t always get that right. Sometimes going our own way is on the same path as yours, but sometimes we follow a selfish path and leave you behind. Thank you that you wait for us, give us signs through the Scriptures, through our friends, through the news, to bring us back to the right way of living. Your grace  is extraordinary and expansive and tells us every morning, today is a new start.

We ask now that you fill us with your Holy and life-giving Spirit, giving us hope, enriching our worship and filling us to overflowing with love. Glory be to you, God our creator. Glory be to you Jesus, our Redeemer. Glory be to you, Holy Spirit, our Sustainer. As it was from when time began, is in this present moment and will continue to be, world without end. Amen

Reading: Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7

This week’s reading tells of Sarah’s laughter. Below is a video and your challenge is to watch it without laughing:

Reflection

Sarah & Abraham were old. I mean REALLY old. Abraham would be at that age where he’d soon be expecting a telegram from the Queen – that old. They didn’t have children and Sarah experienced that awful title of being ‘barren’. Because of course it was Sarah’s fault. Or, that was what was always assumed. Never the man’s fault. It would be easy to look at these bible stories and say how much life has improved and how things are different now. Except, for many couples, the experience of infertility remains a matter of shame. Churches can be amazing places of hospitality, but they can also be intrusive, nosey environments, where personal questions are considered normal. Questions to single people about whether they’ve got their eye on someone. Questions to married couples about when they’re going to start a family, or have a second child. These questions might be well-meaning, but for people who do not want to be single, or are childless for a multitude of reasons, it can make the experience of coming to church something to dread.

Sarah had taken matters into her own hands. She knew Abraham would want an heir, so she told him to take their female slave and sleep with her. What pain must Sarah have endured to suggest such a thing and then live with the consequences? What pain must Hagar, that slave, have endured, lacking in all agency, even over her own body? But God promises a child to Sarah. Ridiculous. Impossible.

And so we come to our story for today, where Abraham entertains three unnamed strangers. His hospitality is extravagant – he tells them he’ll fetch a little water and a little bread, but then has a calf slaughtered.  All of this happens before one of the strangers repeats the promise God has made: Sarah will have a son. Sarah isn’t invited to this gathering of men, this conversation in which men are talking about her private issues, her fertility, but she’s eavesdropping about them talking about her, and when she hears this promise, she laughs. She laughs at just how ludicrous it all is. She was a post-menopausal woman of advancing years. I’m sure we all know some pretty sprightly 90-year old’s, but can you imagine them becoming pregnant? No wonder she laughs.

For a collection of books which contains the depth of the human experience, there’s actually not much laughter in the bible. So let’s sit with this for a while. If we continue our story, fast-forwarding a couple of chapters, we encounter Sarah again, having just given birth. ‘God has brought laughter for me. Everyone who hears will laugh with me,’ she says. Her initial laughter was mocking God. God had made empty promises as far as she was concerned and she finds it funny that God is showing her any interest, because it’s just too late. Sarah’s second episode of laughter isn’t tinged with cynicism. This time it’s genuine. And infectious. A hearty belly-laugh that brings joy to all who hear. Perhaps you have a friend or a family member that you know, who when they laugh you find yourself laughing with them until tears stream down your face and until you can’t remember why you started laughing in the first place?

We all find different things funny. I wonder what your favourite comedy programme is. What jokes make you laugh? Who makes you laugh? Personally, I like the gentle humour of comedians like Susan Calman or Sue Perkins. I’m not keen on Mrs Brown’s Boys – I just don’t find it funny. We all laugh for different reasons. Laughter can help you discover courage because it diffuses fear. There’s a reason why there’s such a thing as ‘gallows humour’ – laughing at the most traumatic situations. A couple of years ago I went down to London to protest against President Trump’s policies – whilst I was happy for him to visit the UK, I wanted him to know that many here did not endorse his politics. And on that march, with hundreds of thousands of others, there were banners ridiculing the president. Using the laughter of resistance, using a subversive humour. Now let’s see if I can say this right: one placard pronounced ‘Super Callous Fragile Racist, Sexist Lying Potus.’ Another one stated ‘It’s so bad even the introverts are here.’ Now, maybe you don’t find these particularly funny, but humour is a way of dismantling oppression. Liberation can be found through collective laughter. To laugh in the face of your oppressor is a way of saying, you can try and control my situation, but you cannot control my spirit. You will not have the last laugh.

For Sarah, she had endured hardship which brought her a hollow laugh, but of course, eventually this was subsumed into the laughter of joy. The laughter of the sceptic turning to the laughter of pure uncontrollable delight. And her son is named after this expression – Isaac in Hebrew means laughter. Sarah is not judged for being cynical. She is not judged for her disbelief. She is not judged for giving up.

Even before Sarah’s hardship is brought to an end, she says, ‘Is anything too wonderful for God?’ Perhaps if we were to sum up the entire bible, this short verse would be the one. We find this echoed throughout the story of God and God’s people, throughout our own story of faith, throughout the story of the church – is anything too wonderful for God.

The story of Sarah & Abraham (including the terrible abuse of Hagar) is full of tricky elements that we shouldn’t skirt over or even excuse. But the laughter will come. For many of us we are in a period of waiting. Waiting for restrictions to end. Waiting for churches to reopen. Waiting for black lives to actually matter. Waiting for an end to the climate emergency. Sarah had waited and then given up hope. And when finally she allows herself to imagine a different future, she is bursting with joy. We too can use our waiting to imagine a different future. To become better people, a better church, a better government, a better world. In visualising God’s justice, does that bring a smile to your face? Because it does to mine.

Hymn: Lord, you sometimes speak in wonders (Singing the Faith 158. Not in Hymns & Psalms)

Reading: Matthew 9:35-10:23

Reflection

Once we get past the story of the birth of Jesus and into the bit where he actually starts his ministry, we have a chunk of Matthew taken up by the Sermon on the Mount. This is where Jesus is directing his teaching to the crowd. We’ve now entered a new chunk, this time, the teaching is directed to a much smaller group – the inner circle of the followers, the disciples of Jesus. We now have a series of more focused, more specific instructions.

Now, Jesus has not been teaching for very long, and already he’s sending his disciples out, giving them authority to preach and heal. I wonder, how did they feel? They’re pretty new at this stuff. Surely they just wanted to carry on being his followers, to let Jesus take the lead. Did they feel ready I wonder? Well, Jesus think they are. But of course, they are not sent out alone. They are expected to go with the support of others, to share the experience of proclaiming good news, to rely on each other. Because Jesus knows it will get pretty tough for these disciples and they will need the strength of each other. If were to read on, Jesus says, ‘I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.’ This is not an easy mission, which makes me question why any of them volunteered, or didn’t back out. This is a risky business. It’s not going to be a popularity contest. They will experience failure.

These instructions, although pretty specific, only take the disciples so far. Jesus doesn’t tell them what happens if someone offers food that isn’t acceptable. He doesn’t tell them who to go to first. He doesn’t tell them the words to say. Sometimes we get bogged down with specifics because instructions will only take us so far. The words of Jesus and the bible in general is not an instruction manual, covering all eventualities. The church needs to move beyond Jesus himself and work it out. The bible doesn’t tell us specifically how to behave in a pandemic. It doesn’t go into details about committed same sex relationships. It doesn’t speak about motoring, or computer technology or the etiquettes of texting. Of course it doesn’t. Our journey of faith is about being sent out, with a grounding of good advice, and the rest we need to make up as we go along, to react to whatever we encounter within the broad framework of the mission before us.

The disciples are told to go on their mission without money, without food, without luggage, without a change of clothes, without firstly booking an Airbnb. They are unprepared in every sense. What a foolish mission. They were ill-equipped, vulnerable, and will be utterly dependent on others to provide for their most basic of needs.

So let me get this straight. Jesus is sending out his followers, the ones he’s trained up, to continue his ministry of preaching and healing. But rather than going into communities without taking anything from them, they are to be reliant. Rather than giving, they are expecting to receive. This is counter-cultural stuff for us. We value independence. Being able to look after ourselves is considered a good thing. Most of us hate having to be dependent, unable to meet our needs but needing someone else to provide. How good are we at receiving rather than giving? And when we do receive, do we feel a debt to be repaid, an obligation that needs responding in kind?

At Pentecost, we were thinking about being a good guest rather than a host, and this reading reaffirms the fact that we are needed in spaces that are not our own, rather than to act as custodians of our own spaces.

A significant part of the mission Jesus gives his disciples is to cast out demons. We tend to skip over that bit, just focusing on the proclamation and healing. I did exactly that at the start of this reflection. Exorcism isn’t something in the Methodist church we spend a great deal of time discussing. I am deeply uncomfortable of churches that offer exorcisms as part of worship, praying demons out of people. I worry that this is potentially very damaging to people who are highly vulnerable or mentally unwell. I’ve recently read Vicky Beeching’s autobiography, Undivided. Vicky was a prolific Christian singer-songwriter who less than 10 years ago was filling stadiums. But she had a secret that she kept hidden: her sexuality. It was something she felt was deeply shameful. As a teenager she attended a Christian rally where she heard an altar call for anyone who needed prayer. She came forward and admitted to the adults gathered around her that she didn’t want these gay feelings, and suddenly she was exposed to these Christians trying to exorcise demons out of her. She has never previously associated her sexuality with demon possession and this became a burden to her for decades afterwards, damaging her mental health. Eventually she came out, but her career dried up as fundamentalist evangelicals stopped booked her and buying her records. She now spends some of her time campaigning for equality and diversity. Amazingly, she is still a Christian.

Yes, exorcism can be used in a manipulative and dangerous way. But what if exorcism wasn’t about casting out demons, but casting out that which torments people? What if we took a stand against violent structures that hold people captive? What if we were to imagine liberation from all that binds us, freedom from that which constrains us, release from powers that prevent us from being truly human? I believe that being actively involved in social justice is the modern form of casting out demons. The demons of debt. The demons of modern-day slavery. The demons of white supremacy. The demons of addiction. The demons of domestic abuse. The demons of poverty. People are incapable of hearing the good news Jesus brings until they are liberated from that which possesses them. In each of his healings and exorcisms, Jesus removed the barrier first before expecting the person to listen to the gospel or respond.

Like the early followers of Jesus, we may not feel ready. We may feel ill-equipped, under-resourced, feeling there must be someone better qualified for the task. But we are all given the missional task of proclaiming the good news, of healing and casting out demons. What can this mean in practice? Proclaiming good news is also about living good news. It’s about being a person who can see God in all things, in all people, even when people let us down. Its about being a person who pours a healing balm onto volatile situations, rather than that person who fans the fire of hatred. Its about being that person who cannot be silent in the face of injustice. It’s about being the person who celebrates diversity but resists divisions that cause fracture. These are not easy things to live out, but we are not alone. We are not left to our own devices. We are firstly given God’s Holy Spirit, who does equip us, does sustain us, does lead us. And we are given each other, to support and build each other up. And thank God for that. Amen

Hymn: Everlasting God (Singing the Faith 46. Not in Hymns & Psalms). This worship song is by Vicky Beeching

Prayer of thanksgiving and intercession

In long summer evenings when light lingers and sunsets have time to deepen from light pink to deep red – we offer you our thanks and praise. 

We remember and hold before you people in your world where the fading of the light brings not only darkness but sadness and discomfort.  May they know your light. 

When we are able to buy, cook and eat food, enjoying the abundance of what is available, especially those of us who can eat together with loved ones – we offer you our thanks and praise.  

We remember and hold before you those who today will share meals tainted with sadness, those who through no choice of their own eat alone, those who are hungry and have little food. May they soon know joy and plenty.  

When we have been offered hospitality that was generous or unexpected – we have been blessed and we offer you our thanks and praise. 

We remember and hold before you refugees and those who are strangers in a foreign land, those for whom exceptional warmth and hospitality would mean so much. May they know a rich welcome and ongoing support.  

When someone who knows us a little, but not well, remembers our name – we offer you our thanks for their care and attentiveness. 

We remember and hold before you those who have been forced to change name  or those who forget their name – the overseas student in a culture that feels alien,  those who have been trafficked,  those living with dementia. May they know liberation and freedom.  

And hear us too as we take time to remember and hold before you…(list a few situations from the week’s news ….) Minister to their needs we pray. Ever creating, ever loving, ever encouraging God, we offer you our deep thanks. Use our gifts, talents and skills in the world so that our lives may tell out your praise and where possible aid those whom we have remembered before You today. Hear our prayers, through Jesus Christ our loving Saviour. Amen

The Lord’s Prayer 

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins

as we forgive those who sin against us.

Lead us not into temptation

but deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power,

and the glory are yours now and for ever

Worship Song: Joy of the Lord (not in current hymn books)


Blessing

May God bless you with impatience at waiting for peace

May God bless you with intolerance of injustice

May God bless you with righteous anger at poverty

And may God fill you with the spirit of hope, found in that newborn child who can change the world

Some material is taken from © 2020 Spill the Beans Resource Team, and from The Church of Scotland ©Faith Nurture Forum

Trinity Sunday – 7th June

This week, as I have been on study leave, the service comes to you via the Methodist Church Ministries: Vocations & Worship Team. Next week we will be back to our normal format

Sunday 7th June 2020 – Trinity Sunday This short act of worship has been prepared for you to use whilst we are unable to use Methodist Church premises. If you are well enough why not spend a few moments with God, knowing that other people are sharing this act of worship with you.

Opening Prayer

Father God, Holy Three-in-One, We join with the saints on earth and in heaven as we bring our worship to you. Come and meet us now by your Holy Spirit, and gather our dispersed voices into one single church of praise. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Hymn: Holy, Holy, Holy (StF 11) Sing/ Read /pray /proclaim the words or listen to it here

Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty!

Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee:

holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty,

God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!

Holy, holy, holy!

All the saints adore thee,

casting down their golden crowns

around the glassy sea;

cherubim and seraphim

falling down before thee,

who wert, and art, and evermore shalt be.

Holy, holy, holy!

Though the darkness hide thee,

though the sinful human eye thy glory may not see,

only thou art holy;

there is none beside thee,

perfect in power, in love, and purity.

Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty!

All thy works shall praise thy name in earth and sky and sea;
holy, holy, holy,

merciful and mighty,

God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!

Reginald Heber (1783-1826) (alt.) Based on Revelation 4:8-11

Or enjoy this wonderful Jamaican Gospel version from the Grace Thrillers:

Let us pray together

Eternal God, We worship you, creator and sustainer of the universe, and we praise you for the gifts of life, health and strength. Lord Jesus, We worship you, Saviour and Lord of the world, and we praise you that you have found us, washed us, forgiven us and given us a place in your church. Holy Spirit, We worship you, sanctifier of the people of God, and we praise you that you have renewed us and blessed us with your gifts. Amen.

Prayer by Revd. Aian Ferguson from the Methodist Prayer Handbook 2014-15 p4

Today’s Reading from the Old Testament Isaiah 40.12-17,27-31

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? Who has directed the spirit of the Lord, or as his counsellor has instructed him? Whom did he consult for his enlightenment, and who taught him the path of justice? Who taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding? Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as dust on the scales; see, he takes up the isles like fine dust. Lebanon would not provide fuel enough, nor are its animals enough for a burnt offering. All the nations are as nothing before him; they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Today’s Gospel Reading: Matthew 28.16-20

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Time to Reflect

How do you explain the Christian doctrine of the Trinity to a child? The answer of course is that you don’t – there’s no need!
Of course, it’s correct that the word ‘Trinity’ can’t be found in the Bible. That’s because it is a summary of the whole of Scripture. It’s about trying to capture in a simple way the mystery and awe of passages like our Isaiah reading today. How do you imagine God? I’m sure it varies widely according to context. God reveals something of what God is like through Scripture, through Jesus, through God’s Spirit in us. God reveals the God-self to the world through the church; through people like you and me. We even (especially?) see something of what God is like through the eyes of a child. In your baptism, you were baptised as Jesus commanded, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. You didn’t need to hold a master’s degree in Systematic Theology to understand that. As you grew up, you simply needed to know that this mysterious God is love, that you are loved, and that God loves us all in many ways, especially through the witness of the church – the body of Christ on earth. Just love – with no strings attached. It’s so easy, a child could get it.

Take a time to sit quietly

A time of prayer

Father, in whom we live, In whom we are, and move, Glory and power and praise receive Of thy creating love.

We pray for your church throughout the world, continually exploring new ways to be in fellowship and to offer worship. Unite us by your creative power across earthly boundaries of time and space to bring you our united voices of praise and glory.

Incarnate deity, Let all the ransomed race Render in thanks their lives to thee, For thy redeeming grace.

We pray for all those who have revealed Christ to us in past months. For key workers, carers,
intercessors and strangers – we give you our thanks, and pray that we in our turn might reveal Christ to our neighbour too.

Spirit of holiness, Let all thy saints adore Thy sacred energy, and bless Thy heart-renewing power.

We pray for all those who need the comfort of your Holy Spirit today. The lonely, the anxious, the bereaved; the sick, the distressed, the dying; those facing difficult decisions and those forced to make new beginnings – bring your peace to them.

Eternal, triune Lord! Let all the hosts above, Let all the sons of men, record And dwell upon thy love.

We bring all our prayers to you, O God our Father, in the name of Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This week’s intercessions based on the hymn (StF No. 5) by Charles Wesley (1707-1788)

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours. Now and for ever. Amen.

Hymn: Listen to StF 15: The Splendour Of The King


or sing a verse of a hymn that comes to mind


The splendour of the King,

clothed in majesty;

let all the earth rejoice, let all the earth rejoice.

He wraps himself in light and darkness tries to hide,

and trembles at his voice, and trembles at his voice.

How great is our God, sing with me,

how great is our God, and all will see

how great, how great is our God.

And age to age he stands,

and time is in his hands;

beginning and the end, beginning and the end.

The Godhead, Three in One, Father, Spirit, Son,

the Lion and the Lamb, the Lion and the Lamb.

How great is our God, sing with me,

how great is our God, and all will see

how great, how great is our God.

Name above all names, worthy of all praise;
my heart will sing: how great is our God.

Name above all names, worthy of all praise;

my heart will sing: how great is our God.

How great is our God, sing with me,

how great is our God, and all will see how great,

how great is our God.

Chris Tomlin (b. 1972), Ed Cash and Jesse Reeves


A prayer of blessing based on Romans 15:13

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit; and the Blessing of God, the Holy Three-in-One, be with you, and all those whom you love, and all those who love you, today and always. Amen.

Original Materials by Revd. Stephen Froggatt


Matthew 28:16–20 (NRSV)

Sunday 31st May – Pentecost

black metal bench

Service sheet

Call to worship

Come and worship!
We will praise the One between, within, and over.

Trust in the One who co-creates the was, the now, and the will-be.
Our hope is in the One who creates expansive love

calling us to do the same.

Follow the One who never breaks covenant.
We follow the One whose extravagant love calls us

to co-create justice for the oppressed,

feed the hungry, unlock prisons,

and welcome strangers, orphans, and widows.

Praise the One whose justice is grace-full and inclusive.
We praise the Spirit that spans the ages. Amen! 

~ written by Tim Graves

Hymn

Holy Spirit, we welcome you (Singing the Faith 385. Not in Hymns & Psalms)

Opening prayers

Holy One,          

breath of the big bang,          

idea of creation,

you who make spring come forth,          

who make life out of nothing,

breathe yourself into me.

Create me.

you are the flame,          

I am your light. You are the nerve,          

I am your muscle. You are the Word,          

I am the story. You are the song,          

I am the singing.

I am one with you         

 and one with all Creation. One Spirit,          

one flesh, many forms. In your Spirit          

I am we.

Holy One, live in me;          

I am your body. I remember,          

and I live.

~ written by Steve Garnaas-Holmes

For ignoring the vision

breathed by the living Spirit

churning deep within our souls;

Lord have mercy,

Lord have mercy,

Have mercy upon us.

For refusing to look at the vision

alive within those

who look or act or sound different from us;

Christ have mercy,

Christ have mercy,

Have mercy upon us.

For choosing familiarity, ease, and comfort

rather than risking the opportunities

afforded in the vision

Lord have mercy,

Lord have mercy,

Have mercy upon us.
~ based on Habakkuk 2: 1-4.  Written in 1998 by Katherine Hawker for the Evangelical United Church of Christ

Readings

Psalm 104: 24-34

Genesis 11: 1-9

Hymn

Breathe on me breath of God (Singing the Faith 370. Hymns & Psalms 280)

Readings

1 Corinthians 12: 3b-13

John 20: 19-23

Acts 2: 1-21

Reflection

I have teenage boys who love all of the superhero films. We’ve had conversations about which superpower we would choose.  Invisibility? How about the power to fly? Teleportation is a pretty popular choice in our house, but for me, I’d like the ability to speak fluently every known language. For any Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy fans, you might know this as the babelfish. The fish which fits into your ear and is a universal translator giving the ability to both speak and understand.

I can speak a smattering of French & German – I can get by, order food, ask for directions, but proper conversation is beyond me. The last conversation I had with a German, I left her confused by my clumsy attempt. So yes, to effortlessly communicate, to understand nuances, cultural references, idioms; that would be my superpower.

I’ve actually been learning a new language for just over 6 years now, but I’m still struggling with it, the grammar is very different from what I’m used to and the rules seem to continually change; that language is Teenager. Somehow when I attempt some of their sentences, it just doesn’t sound right; they can say something is ‘sick’ (that means fantastic by the way), but if I say it, my boys cringe with embarrassment. I think to really get a language, you have to live amongst those who are fluent, absorb yourself in their world and perhaps acknowledge that even then, you will still make mistakes.

Babies are particularly good at copying, it’s how they learn, but all humans are excellent at mimicking; it is hardwired into us to pick up on what others do, and if we want to be accepted by them, we do the same. We imitate them. My brother lives in central Liverpool – when I visit, I do have to be a bit careful not to slip into a Scouse accent when we are shopping for fear some might think I’m taking the mickey. Assuming that accent is something I do without thinking. 

Today is Pentecost – the date in the Christian calendar when the church celebrates God’s Holy Spirit and how that spirit became a real presence for the followers of Jesus. It’s the third most important day in the church after Easter and Christmas. It wasn’t originally a Christian festival – it is a Jewish day of celebration and simply means 50; 50 days since Passover when Jews continue to mark their liberation from slavery in Egypt. Us Christians are very good at imitating and copying and we copied the Jews and borrowed this idea. For us, it’s 50 days since Easter Day – well, technically 49, but who’s counting? Jesus had gone, but had left his followers with a promise, that the Advocate or Spirit would be given to them very soon and they were told to wait for this. The passage reads, ‘When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.’ Those mates of Jesus had continued to gather, looking after one another, praying together, and on that day they were all in the same house.

When The Advocate, the Spirit comes in a blaze of excitement, it is to this gathering, so I would assume the Holy Spirit like company. We live in a highly individualistic culture, but God’s spirit meets us when we come together – there’s something special about being in community that is part of God’s intention. It’s why being forced apart at the moment is so hard and for some of us this separation has been damaging to our mental health. We sometimes refer to Pentecost as the church’s birthday – and like all birthday parties, the best ones are where many people are invited.

Back to the story: ‘All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.’ The apostles rush outside into the cosmopolitan city of Jerusalem, and here were crowds of people from all different nations, very much like most big cities today where under normal circumstances wandering to sightseeing points you can hear many different accents and languages.

The Apostles were given that superpower I most desire – God’s Holy Spirit gave them the ability to speak in other languages and be completely understood. If we go back, right back to Genesis chapter 11 we’ll find a story which comes just after the story of Noah and the flood and how the descendants of Noah scattered over the whole earth, and this chapter tells us that at this point in human history everyone on earth spoke the same language, the same words. Well wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t that encourage peace and harmony? No need to learn GCSE Spanish, spend money on phrase books or employ translators. They could understand each other with no issue of interpretation. But these people had decided to build a tower, one so high they thought it would reach ‘up’ to heaven so that they would have access to God, because God is ‘up there’, right?  Remember, we spoke about that last week when we were thinking about the Ascension of Jesus. The people of Shinar had failed to understand that God is not ‘up’, not remote, not someone to be reached by climbing lots of stairs, distant from the earth, someone disconnected from humanity.  And this frustrates God, that the people hadn’t recognised when God was right in front of them, down here. So as a consequence, God confuses their language and causes them not to be understood – and all this happens in the city of Babel; where the babelfish gets its name and it’s also where we get the word babble from, that incomprehensible language of babies.  It is possible to think of Pentecost as a reversal of the story of Babel; people were divided because of their differences and their lack of understanding, and God’s Holy Spirit comes and unifies them, making them understand again.

But I think something else is going on here. Those apostles were not speaking one language and suddenly everyone around was given the ability to understand them; it was the apostles who were given the ability to speak the words of the people.

If you come to church regularly you will speak at least 2 languages fluently; your own native language which for many of us is likely to be English, but you will also speak another language: Christian. And it’s a language for those who don’t come to church very often increasingly find hard to understand. Because we use words we wouldn’t use in any other context; words like salvation, redemption, sin, trinity, grace, kingdom, mercy, heaven. And some of us might even think we know what these words mean. We also have this confusing way of speaking and singing as if we lived at least 200 years ago, as if words like ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ are fundamentally more holy than ‘you’ and ‘your’. We are particularly bad at providing any translation and as a church we expect people to come and speak our language, to learn our words, rather than the other way around.

The story of Pentecost, the story of the power of the Holy Spirit shows us that God has the ability to break down barriers, allowing us to enter other people’s space and talk their words. How good are we at communicating the story of Jesus, explaining the difference he makes to us, showing people God’s love for them and speaking this in ordinary ways?

As the decades go by, we have had to face the reality of declining numbers in the Methodist Church. It would be easy to think that evangelism had been a failed project and trying to reverse the trend is like turning round a super tanker. But all too often we have assumed that people just need to come to us. If only people would walk in off the streets and join us, be like us, sing like us, pray like us, speak like us. And if they did that, they could belong. The welcome provided by so many Methodist Churches is excellent, but we do rather like being a good host. The message of Pentecost provides us with a serious challenge to be a guest in someone else space. To speak their language. To go to where they are and not expect them to come to us.

The lockdown over the past couple of months has forced us to rethink evangelism and worship. It has forced us to reimagine our church. A church without walls. I recently attended a webinar where we were talking about how things might change for the better after lockdown restrictions are lifted. Evangelism for many of us is a tricky word that carries uncomfortable baggage. But the Evangelism & Growth Team at the Methodist Church are trying to get us to have a better definition of proclaiming the good news of Jesus. This is about speaking of the goodness of God, but it is also about listening for the goodness of God and living out the goodness of God. Evangelism is relational and works best when we seek depth in our relationships and demonstrate vulnerability. Evangelism seeks to do good and not harm. Evangelism isn’t shaming, it is not good news for some and bad news for others, it is good news for ALL. Finally, evangelism is inclusive and is rooted in social justice, because if we want to share the good news of Jesus, we seek the best for everyone and this means challenging unfair structures that push some people to the bottom of the pile. We are not free until all of us are free. Whilst some of this can and does happen within church buildings, we should not be confined to our spaces. The challenge of Pentecost is to widen our vision and to step outside. Lockdown had already engaged up to 1 in 4 adults in some form of online act of worship. That’s good news! People are curious about spiritual matters. To borrow a phrase of one of my theological tutors, we need to scratch where it itches. We need to go where the need is.

The main image of Pentecost is what? Let’s go back to the text: ‘Divided tongues as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.’ It’s fire – holy fire. As a point of interest, when you think of hell, perhaps you have those classical images by Botticelli inspired by Dante’s Inferno? A hot place of torture. Dante has a lot to answer for and it is a stubbornly enduring image. But in the Bible, fire is more often a holy thing – the people wandering in the wilderness were guided by God providing a pillar of cloud in the day and a pillar of fire at night. Remember when God spoke to Moses through a burning bush. And now God’s Holy Spirit comes like fire.

If all of this sounds like a huge responsibility and you are worried that you will use the wrong words, that like my attempt at speaking German, you will leave people baffled, don’t be. Pentecost can show us that these ordinary folk decided to reach out to those around them; they were brave enough to speak. And they were given help.

We have an incredible message, an amazing story to tell, of the Jesus who is not a bland nice man who passively smiles and does little else; our story is one which reaches out to all who are hurting, all who feel marginalised and left out, all who feel they don’t quite belong and we can tell them, Jesus stands with you, and we’ll do a bit of the shouting with you about how unfair things are, we’ll speak up for you because we know you’re important to Jesus and important to us. We’ll show you respect, treat you with kindness, but that doesn’t mean we won’t challenge your prejudice or agree with everything you say. But despite all of that, we’ll love you because Jesus loves you anyway.

We have been living fractured lives, like the people in Babel, we haven’t understood one another. But what God’s Holy Spirit does for us is to allow us to say, hey you Parthian over there, I’m an Elamite, and I comprehend you, I understand you, or to translate it into teenager, I get you. Even though you are different from me, I get you. I am from Devon and you are from Gloucestershire, but I get you. I’m straight, you’re transgender, but I get you. I vote this way, you vote the other, but I get you.

This is the beginning of the church – this is how it all started. Not trying to force us into the same model but celebrating our differences and doing so together. Stepping into each other’s space and learning to talk each other’s language. Because God shows no favouritism. You, me, him, her, them, yes even you – we belong, let’s start talking and really understand. It’s called radical inclusivity – it’s a gift of the Holy Spirit and it’s how it all began. Amen

Hymn

She sits like a bird, brooding on the waters (Singing the Faith 393. Not in Hymns & Psalms)

Intercessions

Flaming God of Pentecost,

Let us speak in tongues of comfort
to those weeping over the bodies of their loved ones

Let us speak in tongues of courage
to those living in fear;

fear for those they love, fear of death, fear of making the next rent payment

Let us speak in tongues of condemnation
against laws and policies that promote violence,
prioritizing the preferences of some over the lives of others.

Let us speak in tongues of care
for the most vulnerable in our world–
human beings, animals, and ecosystems.

Let us speak in tongues of love
for you and for your people,
that Your language might be our language.

And when our tongues are still,
when we have no words to speak,
let our hearts burn with your fire,
let our ears hear your words in our own native tongue,
let our skin feel the wind of your Spirit–
a mighty wind, blowing where it will.

Amen

Worship Song

Dancing Generation (Not in Singing the Faith. Not in Hymns & Psalms)

Blessing

The Spirit of truth lead us into all truth,

give us grace to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

and to proclaim the word and works of God;

and the blessing of God,

Spirit, Son and Father

remain with us always. Amen

(Methodist Worship Book: Pentecost liturgy)

Sunday 24th May

Service sheet

As we prepare to worship, I invite you to watch the following video, sung by the Birmingham Citadel Salvation Army Singers, giving us assurance that wherever we are and whatever we face God will always be with us.

Call to worship

Come near to God and he will come near to you (James 4:8)

Lord God, we come to worship you (this morning/evening) with your command to draw near to you ringing in our ears. It sounds so obvious Lord, so simple, but we find it so difficult. A thousand trivial things get in the way such as our appetites, the television, our hobbies, or even the tickle we have in the small of our back.  Help us this morning Lord to forget all these and to bring you our whole attention so that we can hear you speaking to us. And when we have heard, help us to obey. Amen

Jennifer Martin – The United Reformed Church

Hymn

Sing Praise to God who reigns above (Singing the Faith 117. Hymns & Psalms 511)

Prayers of Adoration, Praise & Confession (written by Tony Rowntree of Bishops Cleeve)

Almighty God , at this time we come to You together in spirit rather than as a physical congregation, to praise you for all that you are and all that you do for the world. You have shown us your truth and your love through your Son Jesus Christ. Help us at this time to worship you in spirit and in truth. Help us to be aware of your presence with us at this time so that we may pray to you in faith, may sing your praise with gratitude and listen to your Word with eagerness.

Almighty God, you are infinite and eternal in wisdom, in power and in love. We know that our words can never fully describe your nature and that our minds and only begin to glimpse a little of your greatness.  But we come as we are, and we bring what we are to offer You our worship as a sign of our love and an expression of our praise. We praise you again for the world in which we live and all the beauty and wonder of your creation. We praise and thank you for the lives you have given us and for all that you have done in and through your Son Jesus Christ.

Almighty God, we thank you again this morning that in this difficult time in all our lives we know that we are never alone; you are always here with us and that we can always depend on you. We thank you that always you are faithful, you are true, you are loving, and you are merciful.  We thank you that at this time, day by day, week by week, month by month you are still working out your purposes; that seen or unseen, recognised or unrecognised, through your Holy Spirit, you are still moving and building your kingdom in today’s troubled world.

Almighty God, as we bring you our praise and thanks, we also recognise that there have been times when we have not lived faithfully as your disciples. That there have been times when we have not loved you as you have loved us; times when we have not loved our neighbours as we love ourselves  and times when we have preferred our ways to your ways. We come to you now, repenting of our failings, seeking your forgiveness, and asking for your help to change, to become people whose lives clearly witness to your love and who live in ways which are consistent with what we believe and are honouring to You. Help us always to remember that your Son Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners and that to all who turn to him he says, “Your sins are forgiven”

We bring this our prayer in the name of your Son Jesus Christ in whose words we all now pray together “OUR FATHER WHO ART IN HEAVEN……….”

Readings

Psalm 68: 1-10, 32-35

Acts 1: 6-14 – read by Beth Guttridge of St Mark’s

Refection – Acts

It’s been six weeks since Easter Sunday, and only now do we have the story of the Ascension. Jesus isn’t gone for long though, because next week we have Pentecost, a reminder should we need it, that Jesus is eternally present.

I wonder, when you think of heaven, what spring to mind? We are all influenced by the artists of the past, so for many of us, despite our rational minds telling us it can’t possibly be so, our thoughts go ‘upwards’. Wherever heaven is, it seems to be ‘up there’. When my son’s friend tragically died a couple of years ago, the tributes has a common theme for him to ‘fly high.’ I found it fascinating that despite most of these teenagers declaring no religious faith, the language they reached for at a time of grief was deeply religious, confirming that life wouldn’t end for their friend and that whatever happened to him after death, he was still somehow alive. For many of us, when using our hands in worship, we point ‘up’ to God, we raise our eyes and hearts heavenward. Up is good; it is where we assume God and heaven are found.

So we might all have sympathy with the disciples, when confronted with an actual cloud that seems to lift Jesus beyond their sight, they are left standing and gazing upwards. How unreasonable then, when a couple of people (are these angels?) give the disciples a ticking off for looking in the wrong place. They had just witnessed Jesus go ‘up’; of course that’s where their eyes were searching.

But this seems to be a continuation of the disciples getting it wrong – a familiar scene for anyone who has read the gospel accounts of disciples frequently misunderstanding, asking the wrong questions, being in a state of confusion about who Jesus was and making mistakes. This story starts with them talking to Jesus in expectation. They asked him, so you’ve hung around for a while now after your resurrection, we assume that’s because you’re about to do something spectacular. Is now the time when you’re going to make everything better? You seemed to be doing so well, and then you got yourself killed and we were massively disappointed, but your resurrection confirmed your ability to put things right. What they’re actually asking is, when are you going to be the Messiah we want you to be?

Jesus replies, it’s not for you to know. It’s not for you to dictate when or how God’s purposes will be worked out. It’s not for you to determine whose side God is on. But just in case the disciples yet again felt hurt and confused, Jesus reminded them that with God they are never alone. They will receive God’s holy spirit and through that power will be able to fulfil the mission of Jesus to the whole world. And that’s the point when he vanishes.

I wonder how the disciples felt. They had just placed all of their expectations on Jesus, and in putting the responsibility for action on his shoulders, they were of course, denying that they had any part to play. As we will learn next week, the one thing we can say about God’s Holy Spirit is, she loves company. Jesus cannot fulfil his mission independently and in isolation. He needs the disciples to step up.

In the Methodist Church, or at least in those churches that I have been a part of, Ascension Day has never been a big deal. Perhaps we don’t like emphasising the absence of Jesus.  When we read of Jesus being lifted up out of sight into a cloud, it all feels a bit implausible, the stuff of magic. We want to ask, how is it done. Since the age of Enlightenment we have become fixated on the notion that facts equal truth, that the things of the Bible are problematic because myths are not facts. We worry about the corporeal being of flesh and bones; where is that if the tomb is empty? Where did the body of Jesus actually go? In our modern age, we might want to send a drone up with Jesus with a camera on board to capture on film the events happening in real time. And some of our theology has tied itself up in knots because if we cannot establish these things as fact, they cannot be held to be true.

The disciples are being so heavenly minded they are of no earthly use, as the phrase goes. Jesus calls us back to terra firma. To the reality of where life is, to where people are and where the need is greatest. The mission of Jesus was to promote love and justice and he did that not by daydreaming and stargazing, but by embracing the gritty reality of peoples lives and entering into their spaces to heal and restore.

The story of the ascension is a universal one – Jesus is not left in just one geographical place at one particular point in history. His ascension and the arrival of the holy spirit soon after releases Jesus to be in all places in all time. That’s why we refer to the risen Jesus; Jesus is alive because he is no longer subject to a historical life. If all we do is get bogged down with what happened to his actual body, we consign this story to an event which only occurred 2000 years ago and has little or no relevance to us today.

The post-resurrection Jesus is different – he tells his followers not to hold onto him, he appears not recognised and disappears without warning, he enters locked rooms and now we have him disappearing into the weather. It is only Luke who tells us this story as a continuation from his gospel when he is writing about the activities of the new disciples, the apostles. And in this story Luke is drawing a line under the life of Jesus – scene one has ended, the curtain has come down and we’re just about to witness the start of scene 2. The ascension is absolutely necessary – the resurrection was such a dramatic twist – like the Spanish inquisition, no-one expected that to happen. But the drama of the resurrection would have just petered out if we didn’t have a final moment. It was necessary Jesus should come into this world, and just as necessary that he should leave it.

The ascension can remind us not to be pulled down, but to be set free; to be liberated to allow the holy spirit of God to enter our lives, to be the living presence of Jesus. So, don’t look for Jesus thinking he is a long way above us; rather than looking up, we can look within ourselves to find him. Jesus has not left us. Jesus has filled us.

Hymn

When circumstances make my life too hard to understand (Singing the Faith 641. Not in Hymns & Psalms)

(for a reflection on this hymn, see: https://www.methodist.org.uk/our-faith/worship/singing-the-faith-plus/posts/when-circumstances-make-my-life-too-hard-to-understand-stf-641/ )

Readings

John 17: 1-11

1 Peter 4: 12-14, 5: 6-11 – read by Stephen Varley

Reflection

The reading from 1 Peter speaks to an audience suffering an ordeal, reminding them to ‘cast all your anxieties on God’, with the promise of restoration, support, and strength. I find this particularly relevant at the moment, when most of us are finding this lockdown increasingly difficult. It seems to become more of an ordeal with every passing week. There is much anxiety around and mental health crises have increased.

Today marks the end of Mental Health Awareness Week and The Mental Health Foundation has chosen this year’s theme to be ‘kindness’. Studies unsurprisingly show that both those who are being kind and those who receive kindness find an increase in their wellbeing. If we can be kind, we see a reduction in our own stress levels, and we are more able to reimagine a better world and help to make that happen. For those on the receiving end of acts of kindness, these acts do not have to be extravagant or time consuming to have a significant impact on a reduction in anxiety levels. A simple act of kindness can transform a person’s day.

Peter is writing during the reign of Emperor Nero, a known hater of Christians, who mercilessly persecuted the church for over a decade. Peter knew that trouble was brewing and potentially heading their way. He’s trying to give these early Christians, these Followers of the Way greater understanding about why they might suffer, and to provide them with reassurance of the strength of God.

I wonder, how many of us are feeling anxious at the moment? How many of us are worrying about this virus, about the health of the ones we love, about when and how the church can meet again, about how we can safely get our shopping done this week, about whether this years crop of strawberries will be any good. There are many things that cause us to worry and feel anxious.

Jesus said, ‘Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.’ (Matthew 6:34)

I am an optimist. My husband is a pessimist. He says a pessimist can never be disappointed. But I’m a glass-half-full kind of person and in the immortal words of Monty Python, will try and always look on the bright side of life. So why have I found the last couple of weeks so difficult? Why am I struggling to cast off my anxieties and look to God for restoration? I was listening recently to a sermon by Nadia Bolz-Weber (I’ve mentioned her before – she’s worth checking out) who talked on exactly this issue. She told the story of some prisoners of war during the second world war. When they were eventually released, one of them was asked, out of their group, who coped the best during their confinement. The pessimists, came the reply. The optimists were constantly hoping and expecting rescue and kept getting disappointed and eventually this had a crushing effect on their morale.

I know in my conversations with many of you that we’ve all been experiencing the occasional wobble. For some of us, it might feel more intense than a wobble, a bit more serious that is perilously close to crushing our morale. So my message for you, which is a message I need too right now, is not to worry about tomorrow and to cast your anxieties on God. Try not to get sucked into thinking too far ahead. Most of us did not initially reckon on the lockdown lasting this long and our worries are now being propelled to a future worry.

Jesus reminds us that today has worries of its own and that’s enough to be coping with. There is no point in trying to paint a rosy picture about the pandemic – the statistics are grim. It can be very helpful to be honest about how we are all feeling; by expressing how we feel can be helpful to mental good health. Suppressing our feelings is the opposite of this. But this isn’t the end of the story. Today is just one day. For now, it might be a bit rubbish, but our hope is in the eternal and extraordinarily gracious God. And that hope can restore our soul. It doesn’t always make today better, but it can remind us that today will pass.  If we can rest within God, to rely on God’s strength and support, we can be assured that eventually all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.

Worship song

You will never run away

Prayers of Intercession (written by Tony Rowntree of Bishops Cleeve)

O Loving God we give you our thanks that you are always with us ; that you are with us in both good times and bad times – particularly that you are with us as struggle to cope with the impact of the coronavirus . When we are uncertain about what lies ahead may we turn to you for guidance. When we are discouraged or depressed may we turn to you for inspiration. When we are in despair may we turn to you for hope.  

We thank you for your love, your mercy and your faithfulness. As we remember that your love never ceases , that your mercy is renewed every day and that your faithfulness is so great may this give us the confidence that in the days that lie ahead whatever problems we may face , whatever disappointments come our way, whatever sadness we may experience , you will grant us the hope that stems from the confidence that you will always be with us and will have a continuing purpose for us.

At this time we pray for the leaders of the Christian church that they may be enabled to use the opportunity given by the impact of the coronavirus which has both disrupted our set ways  and also highlighted the really crucial links in our communities. May the church be enabled to reassess our priorities and make changes that bring us closer to our neighbours and closer to You.

At this time there are so many people for whom we want to pray that you are with them at this their time of need. We think of those who are now ill from the corona virus and those recovering (sometimes over a lengthy time) from such illness. We think of the thousands of bereaved relatives and friends of the victims of the virus.   

We think of the doctors, nurses and other health and care workers treating and caring for those suffering from the virus – sometimes at great risk to themselves. We think of the millions whose daily lives have been disrupted by the “lock down” arrangements some who do not know whether they will have a job in the future and some isolated at home on their own. We think finally  of the leaders of our nation who must  take  decisions and make choices  which will have life and death  consequences for so many – that they be given the wisdom and the strength to discharge this task in the best interests of all.         

Finally, a (slightly edited) prayer by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century:-

Give us O Lord:-                                                                                                                                                          a steadfast heart which no unworthy affection may drag downwards;

an unconquered heart which no tribulation can wear out; 

an upright heart which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside;                                                              

Bestow upon us also O Lord our God:- 

understanding to know You;  

diligence to seek You; 

wisdom to find You;    

and a faithfulness that may finally embrace You, 

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Hymn

Faithful One, so unchanging (Singing the Faith 628. Not in Hymns & Psalms)

Blessing

May the God of strength support you

May the God of healing restore you

May the God of grace surround you

May the God of hope embolden you

And may the God of love enfold you and those you love, today and every day. Amen

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