Sunday 30th August 2020

Call to worship

We come in our need to worship God

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

We come to God, who comes to us in Jesus

And who knows by experience what human life is like

We come with our faith and with our doubts

We come with our hopes and with our fears

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

And God has promised never to turn us away.

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

Opening prayers

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

So, for now I just ask that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 Adapted from Nadia Bolz-Weber

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

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

I unburden my heart.

I unburden my mind.

I unburden my whole being

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

To claim rest for my soul. 

(The Book of Uncommon Prayer)

Reading: Exodus 3: 1-15

Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy ground

Sacred space

Inviting intimacy

Facilitating vulnerability

Cultivating call

For even when our awareness is

of God who is the ground of our being

inhabiting every moment

present in every breath

still we are compelled

to turn aside

to glimpse that which is beyond

our familiar sightings.

Compelled to turn aside

to glimpse afresh

the intriguing

mischievous

butt kicking

playful God

who knows when we have settled for less

when we have resigned ourselves

to a life that brings peace

but not fulfilment

or the abundance God desires for us.

God knows

when we fear we are not enough

or even too much…

God shakes up our complacency

and offers new perspective

but only when we risk

stepping off the well worn

and perhaps hard won track

so that we might glimpse

an unimaginable future

that can only be forged

in partnership

with a pyromaniacal God.

Rev Liz Crumlish

Hymn: Purify my heart (Singing the Faith 508)  

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

Reading: Romans 12: 9-21

Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prayers of intercession

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

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

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

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

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

Be known to us in our church life here.

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

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

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

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

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

Be known to our world, especially…………

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

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

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

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

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

Be known to these people who we name before you…

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

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

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

Be known to the new politicians determined to make improvements

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

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

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

The Lord’s Prayer

          Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins

as we forgive those who sin against us.

Lead us not into temptation

but deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power,

and the glory are yours

now and for ever.

Amen.

Hymn: Everyone needs compassion (Singing the Faith 627)

Blessing

May the road rise up to meet you

May the wind be always at your back

May the sun shine warm upon your face

May the rain fall soft upon your fields

And until we meet again

May God hold you in the hollow of his hand

Sunday 23rd August 2020

grayscale photo of woman hugging baby

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

Prayer of approach and confession

Living God, we name You as immortal,

the Alpha and Omega of our creation,

the eternal living presence.

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

eternity dips into time,

and we are transported into Your nearer presence,

aware of Your greatness in this very place.

“Immortal, invisible, God only wise”,

we worship and adore You.

And we presume, now, when we choose,

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

be available to us, and hear our prayers.

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

And yet, You bid us come.

You are ready to listen.

You will us to enter Your courts.

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

“Unresting, unhasting”,

You are our God.

And, because of all of this,

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

wondering whether we are worthy;

questioning whether we deserve to be here.

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

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

And then You say, stand up, my friend.

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

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

which are fountains of goodness and love”.

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

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

You need us, You want us to serve.

Take us now; free us from all reticence;

call us by name; welcome us home …

so that we can say now in Your presence:

“We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,

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

These prayers we bring You,

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

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

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins

as we forgive those who sin against us.

Lead us not into temptation

but deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power,

and the glory are yours

now and for ever.

Amen.

Reading: Exodus 1:8 – 2:10

Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Psalm of Delivery

Deliver me, God

from the cramped quarters

where my spirit sojourns.

Deliver me into a freedom

where I can be myself and grow.

Deliver me from a dependency

on any but You

who are my Creator.

Cut the bonds that force me to feed

on another’s spirituality.

Deliver me into a brand new day

and into a new beginning,

where heart and mind and soul and spirit

can really start anew.

Deliver me into the wide-open arms

of Your Maternal Presence.

Let me cling to the Source

of my sustenance

until I have had my fill.

Deliver me into a world

that has some answers

to the questions

I have not yet dared to ask.

Deliver me into a household of faith

and an inner security.

Your blood is in my veins, God,

Your love is the milk

that sustains me.

Your touch is the feel

of the full ness of faith

when the night falls thick around.

I shall not want,

I shall not fear

for I have been within You.

I know You are near,

I feel You here

at home inside of me.

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

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

Reading: Matthew 16:13-20

Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Prayers of intercession

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Prayers by Jean Hudson for the Methodist Church)

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

Blessing

Who do we say Jesus is?

How do our lives reflect this?

We go now to live out our faith in word,

in action and in love.

And we go knowing the love of God the Father,

strengthened through know the risen Son

and inspired by the Holy Spirit,

in this place and at this time, always.

©2014 Spill the Beans Resource Team

Sunday 16th August 2020

Call to worship

We come as mothers, daughters and sisters.

We come as fathers, sons and brothers.

We know the lengths we would go for our family.

We understand the depth of family love.

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

Prayer of approach

God who calls us to praise,

let us be glad and sing for joy.

Guide us in our worship this morning.

Help us to be attentive to You

as we come together as a community of faith

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

Help us to listen for Your voice today. Amen

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

Opening prayers

“Be Still and Know that I am God.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We haven’t loved other people or ourselves.

We are sorry.

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

Walk beside us and teach us Your ways,

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

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

Reading: Isaiah 56: 1, 6-8

Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hymn: Community of faith (Singing the Faith 681)

Reading: Matthew 15: 10-28

Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intercessions

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

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


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


The Kingdom of God is justice and peace…

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


The Kingdom of God is justice and peace…


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


The Kingdom of God is justice and peace…

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

Blessing: Psalm 67:1

May God be gracious to us and bless us

and make his face to shine upon us

Sunday 19th July 2020

brown wheat in tilt shift lens

Service sheet

Call to worship (based on Psalm 100)

Come before the Lord with joyful songs,
because he is good,
because he is generous,
because we lack nothing.

Let us enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise.

Serve the Lord with gladness,
because of his greatness and justice,
because he puts an end to war,
and to all forms of violence.

Let us enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise.

Come before the Lord with joy
because he is faithful to his promises,
because his Word is eternal.

Let us enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise.

Know that the Lord is God,
and we are his people,
his community, his family.

Let us enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise.

It is he who has made us to the praise of his name,
and therefore today, in the same spirit,
we have a festival to celebrate his peace.

Let us enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise.

— from Fourth Sunday in Advent: Living Together in Peace, from the World Council of Churches website.  http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/

Hymn: Immortal, invisible, God only wise (Singing the Faith 55)

 A prayer of thanksgiving

Thank You God for all that You are.

My maker

My parent

My friend

My saviour.

Thank You that You are all these things, all the time.

Thank You for Your Spirit who helps me know which face of God to seek and when

– today do I need Your comfort, Your challenge or Your company?

Thank You that I find myself in You just as You dwell in me.

Thank You that my identity comes from who You say I am,

not from the world and not through my own broken lens.

Thank You for the holy scriptures that tell me that I am Your child

I am Christ’s friend

I am united with You Lord and one spirit

I am redeemed and forgiven of all sin

I am a saint, a holy one

I am a co-heir with Christ.

Thank You for all the building blocks You used to make me who I am.

Thank You for my past.

Thank you for what I learnt.

Thank You for Your daily provision – for my now.

Thank You for the peace I receive through knowing You

and the moments of joy in my life.

Thank You for my future hope.

Thank You for the gift of works to do for You

here on earth and the promise of eternal life.

Thank You for all I inherit because You have adopted me as Your child.

Help me to inhabit my inheritance. Help me live out my identity in Christ for all to see.

Amen

A prayer of confession

I confess Lord that sometimes I feel lost

Find yourself in me.

I confess Lord that sometimes the questions are too many

Concentrate on how much I love you.

I confess Lord that sometimes the answers don’t come

I have the answers, don’t worry about that.

I confess Lord that sometimes I know what is right and don’t do it

I know, I forgive you.

I confess Lord that sometimes I don’t even know what is right

That’s ok, my Spirit will guide you.

I confess Lord that sometimes I listen to other people more than I listen to You

Humans tend to do that. Thank you for saying sorry. Please keep trying.

I confess Lord that sometimes it is easier to be moral than it is to be holy

Look to my Word, it will be a lamp to guide you.

I confess Lord that sometimes I want to give up – what difference can I make?

You are the difference, you are my plan to love the world.

I confess Lord that sometimes my choices don’t match my words

I will give you new strength every morning.

I confess Lord that sometimes Your mystery scares me

Fear and awe is probably the correct response.

I confess Lord that sometimes I forget that You are a God of action

Don’t worry, I will remind you.

I confess Lord that sometimes I feel lost

I have found you, I am with you and I love you

Psalm 139: (to be read slowly and reflectively)

O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away

God has examined you and knows you inside out. God sees whatever you do and hears your thoughts. This is not a Big Brother God, storing up our wrongs to use them against us; this is a God who is ever-present. A companion who delights to share everything we do.

You search out my path and my lying down, you are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.

God is deep within you and understands your subconscious. God is the ultimate psychologist and knows why you act as you do, even when you don’t. You might hate yourself for those dark thoughts and careless words, but God loves you just the same

You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it

The knowledge that God is watching should not prompt any fear in you; this is not the purpose of God being behind and before. Think of the person you love most in the world; now imagine you heard all their thoughts, saw all of their actions, they were naked before you. Now imagine that that knowledge created even more of an outpouring of love for that person, despite their flaws and mistakes. This is what God does for you; God’s love for you is extravagant and spills over. Those places we’d rather keep hidden, God knows about and loves you anyway. This is beyond the capacity of our minds.

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend into heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.  If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night”, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

God made the whole of creation and is to be found in every part of it, including you. God delights to celebrate the good times with you, but also understands what it is like to descend into the depths of hell; it’s what happened to Jesus when he was crucified. Jesus reached the lowest point of despair and is with you when it happens to you. The love God has for you is unconditional and doesn’t stop, even when you want to shut out the world and hibernate.

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

All of those little imperfections; the bits that now sag, the hair that has changed colour and sprouts where you’d rather it didn’t, the extra pounds…all of this, taken as a whole adds up to a person of perfection. You are fearfully and wonderfully made! So give up your body-image hang-ups and try to see yourself as God sees you.

Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.

Your cells, nerves, muscles and organs collectively make up an incredible machine, developed in the perfect environment. And yet the formation of you is more than just a collection of cells; it is the development of what makes you unique. Your choices, your emotions, your spirit. And God is present for the whole of this process.

How weighty to be are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them – they are more than the sand; I come to the end – I am still with you.

God knows every part of you, from your 80 trillion cells and the 206 bones in your body, to exactly what makes you tick. What makes you laugh or cry. And what is incredible is that God knows your neighbour just as well.  God knows the 900,000 in Gloucestershire and the 7½ billion people on earth and the 107 billion people who have ever lived. It can blow your mind thinking like that, but don’t be worried that there might not be enough love left for you – there is. God is right here and will be with you until you take your last breath.

O that you would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me – those who speak of you maliciously, and lift themselves up against you for evil! Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies

It’s easy to get angry, and sometimes that’s ok. Anger at injustice, anger at those who do damage to creation. But do you sometimes think yourself better than others just because you come to church? Do you see the people out drinking on a Saturday night, or those who shout and swear and feel just a little bit smug that you’re not like them? It’s good to want everyone to know God, but not so good for you to feel any moral superiority over them.

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting

God looks into the very heart of you and despite your flaws and mistakes, loves you like none other. Look inside yourself right now; expose those things you’d rather be kept hidden. Tell God about them; tell God you’d rather not have them weigh you down… God knows you are hurting because of these things and would much rather you’d leave them behind. Do that now in the knowledge that God forgives you. Let them go and you’ll find a new freedom to live life in abundance.

Hymn: O God, you search me and you know me (Singing the Faith 728)

Reading: Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43

Reflection

I wonder whether you have ever heard this reading using the word ‘tare’ rather than ‘weed’? Most translations use ‘weed’, but ‘tare’ is much more accurate – a tare is a Eurasian ryegrass that looks remarkably like wheat, but it is poisonous causing nausea and drowsiness. It is a weed that is difficult to remove because it is difficult to identify. Tares are dangerous and can cause death if ingested.

Many of you, I know are gardeners, and are skilled at knowing which plants will thrive in which parts of your garden. Over the years you will have built up experience of knowing which shoots are weeds to be pulled up, and which to leave to grow. A weed is just a plant growing in the wrong place of course – you probably don’t want poppies sprouting in your vegetable patch for example. You’ll also know that some weeds come up easily and others are much more tricky. Dandelions, as I’ve mentioned before, are the ultimate resurrection flower – just when you think you’ve killed it, it springs back to life.

This is a confusing story Jesus tells about enemies and burning and evildoers and wailing and gnashing of teeth and the end of the age. It’s no wonder the disciples ask for an explanation. But there are a couple of things I want to focus in on. Firstly, in verse 29, Jesus tells us the householder instructs the slaves not to uproot the weeds, but instead, let them grow up with the wheat. Now why would he do that? Well, the tare gives us a clue – it’s not easy to spot the difference. In other words, it’s not up to us to judge.

God throws us together, desires for us live in community with us other, to celebrate our differences and not to create our own distinct ghettos. I cannot believe it is God’s desire that we segregate ourselves – it’s one of the many reasons why I resist the government’s aggressive immigration polices. We love to claim we belong and therefore that others don’t. Uproot them, is the cry, deport them is the policy. I think this story might challenge some of these assumptions.

How often do we notice other people’s behaviour and compare it to our own? We all do this, both positively and negatively and either way this can be toxic to our spiritual life. Psalm 139 tells us that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. One of my tutors at college, Eunice Attwood, told us the story of when she was a teenager and feeling pretty miserable about herself and her dad said to her, “God doesn’t make rubbish.” How often do we notice someone doing something amazing and immediately think, ‘but I’m not like them.’ No, you’re not – you’re amazing in a completely different way. Or do you sometimes notice someone and thank God you’re not like them? Human life is not a competition – we’re not given the objective of becoming better than those around us in order to win some prize at the end. That is not what life is about. Life is about growth with God, growing in relationship, growing in love.

Recently, the rapper Kanye West announced his intention to run for the US presidency. He’s declared a couple of policies already, including his intention to ban any vaccine for coronavirus. He’s not keen on any vaccine as it happens, suggesting that those who are vaccinated will not be allowed through the gates of heaven. I was left unusually speechless at this. Some elements of the church are unhealthily preoccupied with who will and won’t get into heaven. Karl Marx had a point when he claimed religion was the opium of the masses, a form of social control, because his example of religion was one in which people were controlled by being told their behaviour would determine their afterlife – and given a choice, who would choose the fiery pit when angels and harps were on offer? (Since originally writing this, I now gather Kayne West has already withdrawn his nomination for the presidency. And perhaps we should give thanks to God for that.)

This story of the wheat and tares suggests to me that judgment is for God alone. It’s not for us to say who God favours. And when I read about the story of creation, the story of the covenant God makes with the people of God, the story of the renewal of that covenant, the story of liberation from all that oppresses us, the story of love triumphing over death, I can only conclude that God’s love and mercy knows no limit. God’s judgement is not like our judgement. We need to stop telling people they won’t get into heaven, or that God might stop loving them, or that God will punish them. That’s for God, not for us to decide.

In his play, The Tempest, Shakespeare writes, “Hell is empty and all the devils are here.” If am persuaded that there is a hell (and I’m far from being convinced), I can only think it is empty, standing as a testimony to the extraordinary capacity God has to love and forgive. It’s one of those matters where I just don’t know, where I have to accept the limits of my own understanding on these matters, and to leave it to God. And I’m happy with that. I’m relieved it’s not me that has to do the deciding. Because I can be horribly judgemental. ‘Vengeance is mine’, we are told God says in Deuteronomy – maybe we need reminding of the character of God when we speak of God’s judgement and vengeance, and put this in the context of grace. Grace, freely given, never earned, available to us all.

The fact that there are tares around us, should not stop us from continuing with our discipleship. The householder in our story looks at these weeds, but doesn’t give up on the whole thing, saying, well everything is ruined now. How easy is it for us to get despondent just because things are not quite perfect?

I’ve heard arguments about why we shouldn’t give to charity for work in developing countries because of the corruption and potential for some of the money to be squandered. It’s a valid point. I’ve listened to friends and former colleagues tell me that they distrust the church, every church, because of the sexual abuse that has perpetuated. It’s an understandable point of view. I read that trust in politicians is pretty low because when the public hear lies, they assume all politicians are self-serving. It’s a compelling opinion. Charities, churches, politicians are all vehicles for goodness, but none of them are perfect. We deserve to be scrutinised, to be held to account, to be transparent in our activities and intentions, but we will all make mistakes. There are tares amongst us – personally I don’t define this as the devil, I think we each have the capacity to ruin things on our own, but one of the things I take from this story Jesus told is not to throw in the towel when things are looking bleak. As a community of faith, when we pull together, we can repair what has been damaged in the past. The presence of weeds will not destroy us and the presence of evil will never thwart God’s good intentions. God works amongst us and doesn’t give up on us. God sees the bad stuff that happens and weeps that it causes fracture, but in all things God works for the good. In Romans 8:28 we read, ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’

Finally then, we need to ask ourselves, what weeds threaten the abundance of life? What are the weeds that are currently stifling the capacity for growth and love? There are systemic evils such as racism, sexism, homophobia and prejudice of all kinds – prejudice that makes us judge one another, making one group superior over another. These prejudices entangle themselves in the roots of all of our institutions. We may not be responsible for rooting out these evils, but we can be honest about their presence and give name to them. To be aware of our own privilege and not to pretend these evils do not exist. Anthony Reddie recently said that black people do not need white people to speak for them, but he does need white people to be an ally, an advocate, when there are no black people in the room. The weeds of racism and all kinds of prejudice can make us sleepy and ignorant of the reality of the danger they pose. In order that we all may grow and thrive, we can act collectively, just as a harvest pulls in everyone in the community.  

Jesus ends his explanation to the disciples with that famous quote: ‘let anyone with ears, listen.’ Who doesn’t have ears? He means all of us, of course. No exceptions. Because God’s love and mercy is infinite and indiscriminate. Amen

Hymn: God bless the grass. This hymn has been written by Malvina Reynolds and seems to sum up the power of growth and persistence. The lyrics are below:

God bless the grass that grows thru the crack.
They roll the concrete over it to try and keep it back.
The concrete gets tired of what it has to do,
It breaks and it buckles and the grass grows thru,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the truth that fights toward the sun,
They roll the lies over it and think that it is done.
It moves through the ground and reaches for the air,
And after a while it is growing everywhere,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the grass that grows through cement.
It’s green and it’s tender and it’s easily bent.
But after a while it lifts up its head,
For the grass is living and the stone is dead,
And God bless the grass.

God bless the grass that’s gentle and low,
Its roots they are deep and its will is to grow.
And God bless the truth, the friend of the poor,
And the wild grass growing at poverty’s door,
And God bless the grass.

(Malvina Reynolds)

Intercessions

I invite you to spend time in silent prayer, praying for those on your heart, those who you compare yourself to either favourably or unfavourably, those who experience prejudice, those in the news, and for your own needs. When you are ready, say the Lord’s Prayer out loud.

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: Come, sinners, to the gospel feast (Singing the Faith 401)

Blessing

May you trust in God’s promises to God’s people:

  • peace
  • security
  • blessing

even when they are difficult to believe.

May you know that God’s news is good news,

  • nourishing
  • true

even when people tell you it is not.

And when you encounter doubt,

may you strengthen your belief

guiding you in God’s perfect wisdom and counsel.

~ posted on Jeff’s Blog. https://blog.wisch.org/category/benedictions-and-prayers/

Some material from The Church of Scotland worship resources

Sunday 12th July 2020: Action for Children Sunday

 

white and black happy birthday signage

“Act with justice and righteousness” (Jeremiah 22:1-5)

Watch the following video to find out more about the work of Action for Children

Call to worship

The theme of today’s service is ‘Choose Childhood’. Action for Children believes that every child should grow up safe and happy. To make this vision a reality, they offer practical and emotional care and support, make sure children’s voices are heard, and campaign to bring lasting improvements to their lives. Doing this lays the foundations for children to thrive. The work Action for Children does is only possible with our support. The Methodist Church has been by the charity’s side for more than 150 years. But, tragically, there are still thousands of vulnerable children who desperately need our help. With our worship, prayers and gifts, we can make a real difference to these children. Together we can choose safe and happy childhoods for every child.

Our service follows the resources provided for this special Sunday.

Prayer: Heavenly Father, as we gather today with thanksgiving and an open heart, help us to hear you. Fill our hearts with love and compassion for those you have sent us to. Stir up our hearts and strengthen our arms to act with justice and righteousness in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Prayer by Karis Kolawole, Head of Faith Partnerships

Hymn: O Worship The King, All-Glorious Above (Singing the Faith: 113)

Opening prayers

Lord, we lift up the work of Action for Children. We think of all the families who come into contact with the charity and pray your blessing over them. We think of those struggling with their physical or mental health, and pray your peace descends on them. Lord, remove any barriers that may prevent people from reaching out.

We thank you for the thousands of staff members and volunteers who serve children and families, and pray that you would sustain them. Give them the energy and enthusiasm they need to lovingly support those most in need.

We thank you for the infrastructure that makes Action for Children’s work possible: the buildings, the vehicles, the IT – all the variables that help them to reach and serve communities across the UK.

We pray for the leadership and the trustees – may your wisdom and guidance be present as they map out the future of the charity.

We pray for our wider society – we ask that your will be done; from Westminster all the way down to our communities. We ask that lives led by love – love modelled so perfectly by Christ – transform the world we live in. In the name of the King, Jesus, Amen.

Prayer by Megan Ludlow, Bid Manager and Action for Children Christian Network

Choose Childhood: theme for our service

A Responsive Lament based on Psalm 13:1-6

        How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
        Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

        How long will you hide your face from me?
        Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

        How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
        Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

        How long will my enemy triumph over me?
        Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

        But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.
        I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me. 

from https://sjbrown58.wordpress.com – Worship Ideas You Can Use

Reading: Jeremiah 22:1-5

Reflection:

Lyle’s story

Lyle* was physically and emotionally abused by his parents. They punched and kicked him, and he’d often go hungry. After turning to alcohol to numb the pain, Lyle ran away from home. Action for Children stepped in to find him a safe and stable place to live.

“Drugs were always a big problem in my family and there was a lot of violence,” Lyle explains. “I wasn’t fed at home and my big sister would sneak food into her room most nights. But we’d often go days without getting food.”

Lyle was left to fend for himself after his parents threw his sister out. “I didn’t have clean clothes. Mum and dad wouldn’t let me bath or shower. I wasn’t even allowed to get my hair cut,” he says.

After getting bullied at school, Lyle started to isolate himself. At 14, he started drinking. “Mum and dad would offer me alcohol all the time, and eventually I said yes. I’d get home from school and they’d give me glasses of things. I’d just drink them. I couldn’t feel anything. I thought nothing bad could ever happen when I was drunk.”

Lyle left school and found a job he really liked. But things at home got even worse. “I loved my job. But I was the only one putting money in the house. And if I didn’t give the money to them for drugs, they’d take it out on me.”

Lyle’s depression and anxiety started to take their toll. “I just knew I had to get out,” he says. “I left that house with nothing apart from the clothes on my back. I was in a really bad state. I came to Action for Children with nothing.”

Action for Children found Lyle a safe place to live in supported accommodation. “They reminded me that I’m enough,” he says. “They helped me recover from alcohol. Without them, I don’t think I’d be alive. I nearly took my own life and, if it hadn’t been for my support worker coming and just talking to me, I wouldn’t be here.” I’ve got no memories of my childhood. Well, no good “memories anyway. My childhood didn’t exist.”

*We’ve changed Lyle’s name to protect his identity.

Hymn: Beauty For Brokenness (Singing the Faith: 693)

Reading: Luke 4:16-21

Reflection

A prayer to begin: God grant us wisdom and courage for interpretation of words inspired by you as we seek to make them relevant in our lives. Amen

This passage from Luke contains the very first words Jesus speaks as part of his public ministry, when he enters the synagogue, takes the scroll, reads from Isaiah and then declares, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’.

If we were to read Isaiah chapter 61, where Jesus takes this text, we would hear about the ‘not yet’; they shall do this and I will do that – it’s all very future orientated. To give you some context, the Jewish people had been living in exile in Babylon and most had returned, but instead of being that beautiful safe promised land, it’s a bit of a mess and they are bitterly disappointed. Isaiah is assuming that the oppressed have not yet heard the good news, the broken-hearted are still living fractured lives, those in captivity have not been released. It’s a life of still hoping. But don’t worry, folks, God’s got it sorted and this won’t last forever and at some unknown point in time, God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before the whole world. But who knows when that will happen, in the meantime you will have to cling to hope.

And then Jesus comes along and starts as he means to go on by upsetting the respectable people; he turns it all upside down, saying a reckless and arguably blasphemous phrase when he says, it’s no longer in your future, it’s in your now and it starts with me. I’m the one. The one God has anointed. The anointed one is of course, the Messiah. Messiah being the Hebrew name, Christ being the Greek name.

I worry somewhat that we live as if we’re still waiting; still waiting for God to sort it out; still waiting for the kingdom of God. Still waiting as if it’s not already started. As if there are no signs. It’s as if we’re content with saying, well the world’s a pretty messed up place (have you seen the plastic in the oceans, have you heard what’s been going on in the Yemen, did you know about modern-day slavery, have you read some of the Twitter comments from President Trump?), but not to worry, because at some point God will come swooping in and rescue us all from this disaster of our own creation.

Jesus says it’s now. Now’s the time; through me the oppressed have heard the good news, the broken-hearted are being mended, liberty is here, prisoners released.

The Psalms are full of the lament: how long? Psalm 13 begins, ‘How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?’ For some of you, you may be thinking this lament rings true for you right now. How long will this pandemic last? How long until a vaccine is found?  I read these words with new meaning if I choose to put them into the mouth of a neglected child, or a teenager in care, or a couple waiting as they go through the adoption process.

How long? What are we still waiting for? How long are we going to push God’s promise of justice into the future? How long are we going to wait for God to do the rescuing?

It’s tempting to read about the oppressed, broken-hearted and captive and put ourselves into this, assuming it’s talking metaphorically and not literally. Isaiah and Jesus mean the spiritually captive, right? We all need release, all need freedom, all needs our wounds binding up. But what if there was a practical dimension to this too. Now, usually I’m not a biblical literalist – I’m keen to dig deep and shake it up. I firmly believe God’s word is to be found in the Bible and I’m want to apply robust scrutiny to it, to put the text under the microscope and through the lens of 2020. Jesus stood against the heresy of literalism – challenged those who took his words at face value and failed to see the beauty and salvation held within them. Nicodemus got it wrong when he was told he needs to be born again and asks how on earth he can crawl back into this mother’s womb. The Samaritan woman at the well gets it wrong when Jesus offers her living water and she replies ‘Man, you don’t even have a bucket’! It’s a loose translation…

But I just wonder if we’re missing something if we only think this text refers to the poverty of spirit and leaves the politics of prophetic witness along way behind us. I think part of the temptation to turn this message in on ourselves rather than to see it in a wider context of justice, is how culturally focused we are on the individual. We talk a lot about individual rights and responsibilities – because I’m worth it, we say. And whilst there’s nothing wrong with being kind to ourselves and taking care of our needs, we need to be cautious when our own attentiveness comes at the cost of ignoring  someone else’s needs.

John Wesley talked a lot about the need for holiness and whilst there was an emphasis on personal holiness and transformation, he also knew that we had to act collectively to eradicate systemic sin. Long before Martin Luther King, Wesley had a dream of a transformed society, spreading what was known as scriptural holiness.

There’s a great quote from Desmond Tutu: we need to stop pulling people out of the river – we need to head upstream and find out why they fell in. We can pull out individuals, but systemic change requires collective action – that’s one of the churches greatest strengths.

Jesus sets out what his ministry is by using the Isaiah text – it’s sometimes referred to as his gospel manifesto. And he makes it clear that that the work has started and continues with anyone who follows him. Jesus calls for freedom and an end to oppression.

There has to be something of a health warning here though – after Jesus had finished talking in the synagogue, do you remember what happened? Did he convince people listening? The crowd turned against him and wanted to throw him off the cliff. He spoke out, but it was risky. And he eventually paid the ultimate price for speaking out.

Speaking out is brave and it is risky – we might not make friends. Christians in UK culture are not really taken very seriously – often we’re thought to be pretty ineffectual, slightly inoffensive do-gooding hypocrites. In TV and film we’re rarely portrayed as radical, and yet there are some inspiring exceptions. A couple of years ago, Pope Francis declared Oscar Romero a saint, the archbishop in El Salvador executed in his cathedral as he presided over holy communion – he was murdered for taking sides with the oppressed and speaking out against the authorities.

Jeremiah writes, ‘God says: Act with Justice and righteousness and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed.’ So maybe instead of us lamenting and saying how long, instead of putting these words into the mouths of children whose childhood has been robbed, maybe instead we can put them into the mouth of God. Perhaps God is saying to us, how long, how long are you going to be silent? How long are you going to hide your face and not take any action? How long must I bear this pain and sorrow? How long will you deny responsibility for those who are oppressed, broken-hearted and captive?

For vulnerable children in the UK, childhood hurts. In recent years, the number of children at risk of abuse and neglect, poverty and poor mental health has increased. Every child deserves a safe and happy childhood.

So what can we learn from our bible readings today?

Jeremiah calls us to act with justice. Luke reminds us that we’re sent to people in our community who are marginalised or disadvantaged. By choosing childhood, we’re choosing to act with justice on behalf of those who God has sent us to.

So what can we actually do? How can we act with justice in support of young people like Lyle and how can we Choose Childhood? Action for Children have suggested lots of practical ways of acting with justice:

1. Give a regular cash donation to support Action for Children’s work.

2. Leave a legacy gift in your will.

3. Sign up to Action for Children’s Choose Childhood campaign and invite other people to do the same. Go to: actionforchildren.org.uk

4. Write to your MP about the state of childhood today and ask them to do something about it.

5. Find out if there are any volunteer opportunities near you.

6. Befriend a family or young person in your neighbourhood.

7. Pray for the work of Action for Children and the people they support.

8. Give to your local foodbank.

All of this is living out the gospel manifesto of bringing good news to anyone disadvantaged, healing those who are broken, ensuring liberty to those held in captivity. Because we need to stop waiting and crying out, ‘How long?’ Jesus started it – we are given the task of continuing it. The rescue is down to us, by accepting God’s spirit is upon us. That doesn’t mean we’re alone or God isn’t involved or interested, because God’s spirit is with us, equipping us, teaching us how to care.

Amen

Hymn: Pray For A World Where Every Child (Singing the Faith: 527) No video for this one I’m afraid, but the words are perfect, so have a read if you’ve got a hymn book to hand

Prayers for the work of Action for Children

Heavenly Father, in the name of Jesus, we ask that you bring healing to any child or young person who has been the victim of abuse or neglect. They are your children and have been called into your wonderful light. Show them that you see them and know what they are going through. Show them that you are right beside them. No matter how terrible the situation, we pray that they will know that they can lean on you. Open our eyes, Lord, to see any potential signs of abuse and remove every form of ignorance from us. Give these children and young people hope and provide healing in their body, soul and mind. Ease their suffering, Father, and cause a complete restoration in their lives. Amen.

Prayer by Alison Smith, Fostering Marketing Officer and Action for Children Christian Network

Prayer of committal

In celebration of over 150 years of work and witness, we commit ourselves afresh:

Where children cry in need: We will hear their cry.

Where children are denied the gifts of childhood: We will provide for them to delight in good things.

Where there is exclusion or deprivation: We will challenge injustice.

Where poverty is rife: We will share what we have.

Where others also care: We will work with them.

Wherever we see a need: We will pray for means to meet it.

Loving God, you have called us to be your people and to share in the ministry of your Son. Grant us, we pray, ears that are open to the cries of those in need, hearts that are eager to respond, voices that are ready to speak out for the oppressed, and hands that are active in sharing your bounty. In the name of Christ our Lord. Amen.

Prayer by the Reverend Dr Jonathan Hustler, Secretary of the Methodist Conference

The Lord’s Prayer

A final video from Action for Children about the particular difficulties of working throughout this pandemic:

Hymn: God of justice, Saviour to all (Singing the Faith: 699)

Blessing

And now many we go into the world in peace,

encouraging the faint-hearted,

helping the weak,

honouring everyone and always seeking to do good to all whoever we encounter.

May we rejoice always, 

pray without ceasing,  

give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Amen

(based on 1 Thessalonians 5: 13-22)

For details of how to donate to Action for Children, please go to: https://www.actionforchildren.org.uk/donate

Donate now to the Emergency Appeal – https://bit.ly/33JKUW3 – or by texting “URGENT” to 70175 to donate £10 and allow Action for Children frontline workers to continue their much needed services.

Sunday 5th July 2020

two person on green mesh hammock outdoor

Service sheet

Call to worship

Come to me,

all you who are weary and burdened,

 and I will give you rest.

We come, Lord Jesus,

we are weary and heavily burdened

and long for the rest you give.

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,

 for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

We take your yoke upon us, Lord Jesus,

make it easy and lighten our load.

I am gentle and humble in heart,

and you will find rest for your souls.

We come to find that rest for our souls.

Be gentle, Lord Jesus, and humble our hearts.

Hymn: All my hope on God is founded (Singing the Faith 455)

Opening prayer

That I have been given one more day, I give thanks.

That the birds still sing each morning, impossibly early outside my window, I give thanks.

For the sun rising once again in the East, I give thanks.

That for this day I have bread, I give thanks.

For drinkable water, for breathable air, and chocolate biscuits, I give thanks.

For one more day of mobility I give thanks.

For novelists who create worlds and characters and stories for our minds and not for our TVs, I give thanks.

For mobile phone reception, and I-guess-its-better-than-nothing Skype calls with my family and reliable internet service, I give thanks.

That I am loved, I give thanks

That I am forgiven, I give thanks.

That I am alive, I give thanks.

That you, O God are known by many names, I give thanks. 

That you, O God are present when I feel only your absence I give thanks. 

That you are God and I am not, I give the most thanks. Forgive me when I forget that one.

And for every other gift I am too self-obsessed to see, but that totally comes from you -Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. 

Amen.

(Adapted from Nadia Bolz-Weber)

Reading: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

Reflection

Our journey through Genesis continues, and this week we have a much nicer story about seeking a wife for Isaac. Our cultural differences might cause discomfort about the servant of Abraham finding Rebekah and arranging a marriage, or Rebekah’s brother Laban seeing the rings and bracelets this servant bestows on Rebekah and then being totally at ease with her being whisked away. But firstly I want to point to the fact that Rebekah’s consent was sought – ‘will you go?’ she is asked. ‘I will’, she replies. She has the choice to say no. And secondly that there are themes here about fidelity, loyalty, blessings and the guidance of God.

The unnamed servant trusts that God will provide. Prayers for guidance are made, that whoever appears at the well and offers water for him and his camels will be the one. The servant is seeking someone kind, generous, hospitable and Rebekah does not disappoint. Seemingly God does nothing throughout these events.  God says nothing and does not obviously appear to intervene. So how is this more than just a story of an arranged marriage – what has this got to do with God?

How often in life have you felt God’s guidance at the time? Perhaps the answer to that is, all the time! If so, what a blessing for you. But for some of us, we notice God’s guidance sometimes after the event. We look back and realise that God was working, unseen, unspoken, unnoticed, but silently guiding and it is our perspective of faith which looks back and sees that God was there all along. It’s only when we reflect on our life that for some of us, we can see that God has always been present.

There are certainly events in my life where at the time things were pretty grim and for some of those times I wasn’t aware of God’s presence. Now I’ve said before, I don’t believe that God engineers situations to teach us a lesson, and certainly not that God does anything to will us harm. But through those life events, good or bad, I now view them through the lens of my relationship with God and can see that God was working through them. It may not have been apparent at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight I can see. I understand those events better now than when I was going through them.

We live in a culture that demands proof, and when proof is not forthcoming, the only alternative is scepticism and denial. How often do we grasp for visible signs of faith? Do not put God to the test, we are told by Jesus. The workings of God are not spectacular or magical. They are not some parlour trick where we’re left wondering how it was pulled off. The workings of God are so very often ordinary.

One of the things this passage can help teach us, is to trust. Trust that God will provide. Trust that God is not idle. Trust that God cares about the mundane aspects of our lives, enough to care when we choose to share these snippets of ordinary delights and worries. Abraham trusts God that his servant will carry out his request. Abraham’ servant trusted that a wife would be found. Rebekah trusts God that this marriage is God’s will for her and Isaac.

I sometimes wonder at how God has time or the attention span or the emotional energy to think about me, to care about what I care about. But God is God and I am not God and God is not me, and thank God for that! Because one of the lovely things about this ordinary tale of how two people ended up together is that God is not so busy, not otherwise occupied that God will not give us the care and attention. Through creation God creates, creates life and creates relationships. God seems to delight wherever love is found. Through the covenant, God renews the commitment made at creation to be intimately woven in our lives. So if, like me, you sometimes wonder whether God might just be ignoring you, or too busy to care, remind yourself that God’s love for you is deeply personal. God created you, loves you, wills nothing but good for you, wants you to stay connected. The danger is we so often lead our lives as if we believe God isn’t present, or that God is idle. When we live in the knowledge that even when God seems to be silent, God remains faithful to us. And with that knowledge, we become more attentive to God’s presence. And when we are more attentive to God’s presence it strengthens our relationships, not just with God but with those around us as we notice the presence of God within them.

Our story today is about journeying and hospitality. It’s about strangers who become family. It’s about taking risks and finding a place to call home. It’s a love story and a faith story and a hope story. It helps us to be brave in the knowledge that God is with us, in our past, our present and our future.

Hymn: Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us (Singing the Faith 238)

Reading: Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30

Reflection

Imagine there was a relationship at the very heart of the universe that existed between a Father and a Son. Imagine if that relationship wasn’t tarnished by our own edgy, messy and often complicated relationships with our own father’s, or mother’s, but modelled exactly what each of us would seek to have and seek to be. Imagine if the very closest relationship was between a parent and their child, a picture of love in perfection, and that this relationship was the touchstone for every other relationship in the whole history of the cosmos. Then imagine that you personally have been invited into that relationship, not just to witness it from the outside, but share it from the inside. To share the intimacy, to share the shorthand each family uses, to share the bond.

That relationship is what we call Christianity. That relationship is at the heart of everything in the universe. It is cosmic and it is intimate. It is deeply immersed in love.

I read this week that there is a clear correlation between childhood trauma and abuse and addiction. It’s not very surprising actually, that those people who was subject to abuse in their developing years have deep issues of trust, and seek feelings of pleasure and security not from people but from chemicals, because chemicals deliver and people let you down. We know that if you have strong relationships in your life, you can do almost anything. And the opposite is equally true; you can do almost nothing if your relationships are damaging and dysfunctional. Have you ever had a job you hated? How much easier was it to go to work if you enjoyed spending time with your colleagues – we can endure hardship when we are supported through our relationships. Whilst I think weddings are always cause for celebration, how much more should we celebrate a Diamond Wedding Anniversary? To celebrate those many years of successful marriage that have developed over time and those individuals have become better stronger people because of the strength they gained from that relationship.

We are not designed to live separately. We are designed to live in relationships, whether with colleagues, with friends, with family, with church family. This is why lockdown has been so harmful for those who are either alone, or who live in a state of loneliness because of a bad relationship. It creates discord.  

The word ‘comfort’ may sound a trifle banal, but if we break down the word origin, we find ‘com’ means together and the ‘fort’ is a place of safety – to be comforted is to be surrounded by the protective fortress of another person. ‘Companion’ has the same initial word origin – ‘pain’, French for bread – a companion is another person we break bread with.

Jesus understood that though life might be hard, we can thrive if we exist in relationship. And because our relationships with our parents, our spouses or even our friends are not always positive ones, Jesus demonstrates that personal relationship with God as the one in which we can do all things. In Philippians 4:13 we read, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’ This is the relationship we need to model all other relationships on. The relationship we are invited to exist within. Amen

Wherever she goes

Wherever she goes, the boxes go with her.

Big boxes, medium, and small.

Different shapes. All individually wrapped.

 Some in simple brown-paper packaging,

others more elaborate,

and tied with an exuberance of ribbons.

Wherever she goes, the boxes go with her.

All of the boxes. All of the time.

And in each box, no matter how haphazard, or carefully wrapped,

the contents are, essentially, the same:

cans of worms, that do not bear opening.

Wherever she goes, the boxes go with her.

Over the course of time she has spent her life gathering boxes:

adding to her collection

until she can hardly walk under the soul-crushing weight of them.

There is guilt, and shame,

and a whole bundle of small boxed regrets, in purple wrap.

There is anger— wrapped red, and envy— a poisonous green;

a big, black box, where all her hurts are housed, and nursed.

Wherever she goes, the boxes go with her.

At the top of the pile is a small box, plain wrapped,

 in which only emptiness is found:

her lack of forgiveness to herself:

the harshness of the human heart, is a fearful and terrible judge.

Wherever she goes, the boxes go with her.

And she is exhausted, with the carrying of them.

So heavy and burdensome, that her back is bent,

and she can no longer see the sky.

In her bone-weary tiredness, she almost misses the invitation,

and the hand held, outstretched:

“Come to me, all you that are weary, and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

She tastes the word ‘all’ tentatively, and savours freedom.

The offer includes even her, with so many, many boxes.

She sniffs the word ‘rest’ carefully;

it smells sweet: and her back begins to straighten,

and the boxes begin to tumble all about her.

Wherever she went, the boxes went with her.

Until the day she chose the gifts of compassion and grace.

Now wherever she goes there is a lightness about her,

a spring in her step… and she never tires of seeing the sky.

Hymn : My soul finds rest in God alone (Singing the Faith 633) I confess I didn’t know this new hymn, but the words seem to fit so perfectly, it’s worth reading it through even if, like me,  you don’t know the tune.

Prayers of Intercession

Prayer is where we receive. For prayer is essentially the opening up of ourselves to the love, light and truth of God. Prayer is communion; it is that centred-ness when we touch the rock, when we have access to the very heart of things. Yes, prayer also involves work – especially the hard work of intercession; but true intercession arises first out of communion. The yoke of prayer is easy, the burden of prayer is light, for we pray in and through Jesus himself and in the Spirit who prays within us.

O Holy God, we are weary. Weary of staying indoors. Weary of not seeing the people we love. Weary of seeing the people we love but not being able to hold them. Weary of hearing about illness and death. Weary of feeling anxious.

We come to you because we are weary and heavy-laden. Give us your rest we pray

O Holy God, the medical staff are weary. Physically weary from those long shifts. Weary of seeing pictures on the news of people taking unnecessary risks. Weary of worrying about a second spike to this virus. Weary of not knowing how much more they can take.

We hold before you these precious ones you because they are weary and heavy-laden. Give them your rest we pray

O Holy God, the teenagers are weary. Weary of worrying about exam grades they have no control over. Weary of an uncertain future. Weary of only seeing their parents. Weary of the pressure of social media.

We hold before you these precious ones you because they are weary and heavy-laden. Give them your rest we pray

O Holy God, the politicians are weary. Weary of the worry of making a mistake. Weary of the responsibility. Weary of the criticism.

We hold before you these precious ones you because they are weary and heavy-laden. Give them your rest we pray

O Holy God, our planet is weary. Weary of the exploitation. Weary of the pollution and debris. Weary the attempts to heal are thwarted at every turn.

We hold before you this precious one you because it is weary and heavy-laden. Give it your rest we pray

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: Your hand, O God, has guided (Sing the Faith 692)

Blessing

In our weariness we come before you, God:

carrying our burdens.

We come before you, God:

confused and uncertain,

fragile and shaky.

In you we find what we need.

Support us and make us strong, O Holy One.

Unite us as people

and make the bonds between us stable.

Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer—three in one,

you are the arch of Divine Love

that holds together our whole existence.

(Some material taken from © Spill the Beans & The Church of Scotland worship resources)