COVID-19Sermons

Worship from the URC – 28 June 2020

This service is published by https://devotions.urc.org.uk/ .

It is also available via telephone on 01252 978319 – if you know anyone who wishes to worship but who is unable to do so via the Internet, please share this phone number with them.

Today’s service is led by Rev’d Dr Susan Durber.

Introduction

Good morning, and welcome to worship! My name is Susan Durber and I am the minister of the United Reformed Church in Taunton, the county town of Somerset. I’m sitting in my home, in the beautiful red-walled dining room of The Old Manse, in a village on the edges of Taunton. In this village, during the past weeks and months, there has been a real deepening of community spirit and concern for others. All of us, in different ways, are discovering the things that matter most to us. For many of us, prayers have come more readily to our lips and our longing for God has grown, even while the usual practice of the church’s worship has taken a new shape. We might have found, in a new way, the importance of our faith as a daily habit, a practice for home as much as church, a gift that can sustain us through the most disturbing times. Whether we are lonely in isolation, or oppressed by too much company in a small space; whether we are working harder than ever or finding new ways to spend our time; whether we are afraid for our own health or worried about the economy that supports all our lives – we are connected to one another through the God who made us, in the church that welcomes us, in the company of the saints who surround us. So, come people of God, let us worship together.

Call To Worship

We meet in the name of God, the Holy Trinity of Love
who knows our needs, hears our cries, feels our pain, and heals our wounds.

God is our light and our salvation. In God’s name we light this candle and are reminded of Jesus, the Light of the World, God’s own Voice who came to live with us.

May our hearts be open to you, O God, now and always. Amen

Hymn: All Creatures of our God and King

W H Draper (1855-1933) altd based on St Francis of Assisi

All creatures of our God and King,
lift up your voice and with us sing
O Praise Him, alleluia!
Thou burning sun
with golden beam,
thou silver moon with softer gleam,
O praise Him,
O praise him,
alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

2 Thou flowing water,
pure and clear,
make music for thy Lord to hear,
O praise Him, alleluia!
Thou fire so masterful and bright,
that givest us both
warmth and light,
O praise Him, O praise Him,
alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

3 Let all things their Creator bless, 
and worship Him in humbleness,
O praise Him, alleluia!
Praise, praise the Father, 
praise the Son,
and praise the Spirit, 
Three in One,
O praise Him, O praise Him, 
alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

Prayers of Approach and Confession

God of all creation, though we are scattered, you call us together, alone, you bring us into a great company, in unfamiliar times, you draw us into the story of the Gospel.

Lord Jesus, teacher of wisdom for all ages, crucified one, enduring every pain, risen Christ, alive and present with us, we come to meet you here.

Holy Spirit, blowing where you will, never confined, never locked down, bringing the presence of our holy God, we open ourselves to your touch.

A silence for praise…

In your loving and merciful presence, we look back over the last week and we review our living and our lives. We lay before you our regrets and our sorrows, our weakest moments and our strongest flaws, and we pray for forgiveness and grace, for your Spirit to change us and your love to move us.

Pause..

Jesus said, ‘Your sins are forgiven’. We too may rise to new life and rejoice. Thanks be to God.

The Lord’s Prayer

Prayer of illumination

O God who speaks to us and who longs to be heard, who gives us the words of the Scriptures and the living Word in Jesus Christ, come to your people today as we long to hear words to live by, words that bring good news of eternal life, living words that shine light into our darkness and bring alive the silent pages. Speak, living God, for your people are listening. Amen.

Romans 6: 21-23

So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Matthew 10: 40-42

‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’

Hymn: Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing

Robert Robinson (1735-1790)

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing
tune my heart to sing Thy grace.
Streams of mercy, never ceasing
call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet
sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount, I'm fixed upon it
mount of Thy redeeming love.

2: Here I raise my Ebenezer.
Here there by Thy help I come.
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure
safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger
wandering from the fold of God.
He, to rescue me from danger
interposed His precious blood.

3: Oh, to grace how great a debtor 
daily I'm constrained to be.
Let that goodness like a fetter 
bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it 
- prone to leave the God I love.
Here's my heart, oh, take and seal it 
seal it for Thy courts above.

Sermon

I’m always impressed when people can quote the Bible, or Shakespeare or anything really. There are days when I can barely manage the Lord’s Prayer, though I keep trying. But there are some phrases that stay with me when I rather wish they wouldn’t – and some that escape me when I really want to carry them round with me and say them again and again because I know that they are the ones that bring me life and hope and in which God is made present in my days.

‘The wages of sin is death’ is one of those memorable phrases from the Bible that many of us can quote. It reminds us of that old-time hell-fire kind of religion. ‘The wages of sin is death’. There are echoes of the sinners’ bench of a former chapel culture, of the preachers who once used the high-up now abandoned pulpit in lots of our churches, or those cross-stitched Bible texts that you see sometimes in antique shops.

Why is it that we don’t remember the next phrase anything like so well? Paul wrote, ‘but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’. I have to use copy and paste to get that phrase right, whereas ‘the wages of sin is death’ is safely secured in my memory. Is it that I’ve heard the ‘wages of sin’ one more often? Is it that I find sin and death more interesting than goodness? Is it that I just have an ear for a portentous phrase?

And as I look at Paul’s writing closely, as you do when you have to preach a sermon, I see that what he actually says is not what my brain was expecting. There is something in any reader, I suspect, that is expecting the verse to be something like, ‘the wages of sin is death, but the reward for goodness is life’. That’s the way I often construct a sentence and the way my mind works. Not this, but that. Not death, but life. Not sin, but goodness. But the wonder is that Paul doesn’t say that at all. He talks about sin and its deathly reward, but he doesn’t give goodness a mention at all. He just tells us that God gives us life as a gift. It’s not a reward, it’s not a wage, it’s a free gift. We are suddenly in a different realm, with a different offer and a different deal. In fact, it’s no ‘deal’ at all, it’s just gift and grace.

My reader’s brain, even all these centuries later, seems determined to find some kind of deal, some kind of scheme, so that I can know how to make it work for me or for anyone. I’m somehow hardwired to look for the ‘pay’, so much so that I overlook the gift. I think that’s why I know the ‘wages’ idea better. It fits better with the world I know. It means I can make the world work for me. It puts me in control. But Paul tells me this is not the way of the Kingdom of God. In God’s kingdom I don’t earn a wage, I receive a gift. And he tells me that life is not a ‘reward’ or even a punishment, but always a gift. He talks about eternal life, not in terms of length but of quality, as something that couldn’t be construed in terms of payment, karma or reward, but just as gift.

One of my very favourite writers, Frederick Buechner, has said this…

“People are prepared for everything except for the fact that beyond the darkness of their blindness there is a great light. …. They are prepared for a God who strikes hard bargains but not for a God who gives as much for an hour’s work as for a day’s. They are prepared for a mustard-seed kingdom of God no bigger than the eye of a newt but not for the great banyan it becomes with birds in its branches singing Mozart. They are prepared for the potluck supper at First Presbyterian but not for the marriage supper of the Lamb….”

(Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale, Harper and Row, 1977, p. 70)

I know that I am one of those people, that I am not prepared for the gift of life that is so much a gift that I can’t earn it, that I lose sight of the miraculous grace of it all, that I sometimes have a way of asking God for my wages, when all the time God wants to give me more than anyone could ever earn or expect from life. I need moments, so many, and people in abundance, to remind me always that ‘…the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’.

I realise I’m not alone. There is something in us all that wants life to be ‘fair’, in the sense of somehow a kind of return for what we put in. That’s why, sometimes, people say ‘Why me?’ when they don’t think it’s fair that they’ve become ill or infected or been bereaved. And it’s why sometimes we can’t quite believe the things we have been given in this life are quite ours to enjoy. But life isn’t a deal – it’s a gift. And, strangely enough, it’s often the very people who have got what many would think ‘a raw deal’ who show us most powerfully that life is a gift. Even in the deepest pain there are gifts to be found and treasured. Life is not a perfectly balanced account. It’s not even one that will be balanced out in some future reckoning. It is, first of all, a free gift of grace. And that’s the best way to receive it and live it – whatever ‘happens’.

It’s amazing how strong this inclination to see life as ‘wages’ really is. Even in that little piece of Matthew’s Gospel that we heard today the invitation to hospitality is given with a promise of a reward. It ends with the instruction that ‘…whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’ Of course it’s right and good to give a cup of cold water to a little one, but to do it in the name of Jesus Christ is not to do it for a reward. Later in Matthew’s Gospel, in the very same Gospel, Jesus tells the story of the sheep and the goats. And he tells how those who gave a drink to those who were thirsty didn’t do it for a reward. They didn’t really know the significance of what they were doing. And they get, not a reward, but an inheritance, a gift of grace.. the gift of life. And Matthew also shows us the thirsty Christ on the cross, the one who longs for a cup of water, but gets only a sponge soaked with vinegar, and yet who forgives and wins salvation for us all, the free gift of God that is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In this time that we are living through now we are learning a great deal about the wages of past wrongs. Many tell us, and even sometimes take a rather unkind delight in telling us, that the sufferings of the present months are the wages of things we have done wrong. A pandemic is the wages of a globalised, exploitative economy, the inevitable result of our taking too much from the creation we are part of, and our predicament is the price we are paying for our hubris. And, of course, there is truth here. But it is not the way of God to give us ‘wages’, or to punish us like this. The suffering, in any case, falls unequally, and falls most on those who bear least blame. God does not work on wages or rewards, on punishment or cost. God works with gifts and grace, with beauty and hope, with salvation and redemption, and in the person of Jesus Christ who told us that he came to bring life in all its fullness. That is where we will find God coming to us; in all the ways that we re-connect with life as gift and grace. In the moments when we grasp that life is not a reward or a punishment, a wage or an investment, but a gift, pure gift.

For many of us, for all of us, we have learned, over the past months that we can take little for granted. We have seen our lives change radically. Some of us have suffered losses and griefs, anxieties and fears. We have lamented and sorrowed, been angry and afraid, grasped at silver linings, thrown ourselves into heroic kinds of coping. We have tried to make it better. In some ways we can, and in other ways we just can’t. But sometimes, in the midst of it all, we have, maybe, sensed something of the God who comes to us even in the darkest and least ‘rewarding’ of our days, to offer us once more the free gift of eternal life. We have found that we have been given the cup of life again, and we have drunk of it with eager thanksgiving, for life is beautiful. It is not our ‘wages’, because life doesn’t work like that, but it is the most precious and lovely of gifts. So, so as St Paul says in another of the letters he wrote, ‘Thanks be to God for this gift beyond words’. Amen.

Hymn: There’s a Wideness In God’s Mercy

F W Faber (1814-63)

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, 
like the wideness of the sea;
there’s a kindness in His justice, 
which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows 
are more felt than up in Heaven;
there is no place where earth’s failings 
have such kindly judgment given.

2: For the love of God is broader
than the measures of our mind;
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
But we make His love too narrow
by false limits of our own;
and we magnify His strictness
with a zeal He will not own.

3: There is plentiful redemption
in the blood that has been shed;
there is joy for all the members 
in the sorrows of the Head.
There is grace enough for thousands 
of new worlds as great as this,
there is room for fresh creations 
in that upper home of bliss.

If our love were but more simple, 
we should take Him at His word;
and our lives would be all gladness 
In the joy of Christ our Lord.

Affirmation of Faith

We believe in God.
Despite His silence and His secrets we believe that He lives.
Despite evil and suffering we believe that He made the world
so that all would be happy in life.
Despite the limitations of our reason and the revolts of our hearts,
we believe in God.

We believe in Jesus Christ.
Despite the centuries which separate us
from the time when he came to earth, we believe in His word.
Despite our incomprehension and our doubt,
we believe in His resurrection.
Despite his weakness and poverty, we believe in His reign.

We believe in the Holy Spirit.
Despite appearances we believe He guides the Church;
despite death we believe in eternal life;
despite ignorance and disbelief,
we believe that the Kingdom of God is promised to all. Amen.

Offering

As we respond to God’s free gift of grace, so we too offer freely what we have and own to God, in the name of Jesus Christ.

O God, who created and redeemed me, I offer you my heart and my life, all I have, all I am, and all I might yet become. May I speak love to my neighbour, do good in your world and look always to your Kingdom, in Jesus’ name, Amen.

Prayers of intercession

In what follows suggestions are made for prayer, with a pause after each phrase. Please add in your own petitions… either in silence or spoken aloud.

Let us offer prayers for the world:

for all who suffer and struggle…
for the grieving and the dying…
for carers and for policy makers…

Let us offer prayers for the church:

for all who nourish faith in us…
for those seeking meaning in dark times…
for all who are simply following Jesus with us…

Let us offer prayers for those known to us:

for our families and loved ones…
for those whose stories have touched us…
for all who cry out for prayer…

O God, who promised through Jesus that, when two or three are gathered, you will hear us, we offer these prayers, in confident hope that you listen and will have mercy upon us, in the name of Jesus with whom we are united, and through whom we pray, Amen.

Hymn: Be Still and Know

Lex Loizides

Be still and know that I am God:
I will be glorified and praised in all the earth.
For My great Name I will be found,
and I can never be resisted,
never be undone;
I'm never lacking power
to glorify My Son.
The gates of hell are falling
and the Church is coming forth,
my name will be exalted in the earth.

2: Be still and know that I am God;
I have poured out My Holy Spirit like a flood.
The land that cries for holy rain
shall be inheriting her promises
and dancing like a child;
a holy monsoon deluge
shall bless the barren heights,
and those who sat in silence
shall speak up and shall be heard:
My name will be exalted in the earth.

3: Be still and know that I am God;
My Son has asked me for the nations of the world.
His sprinkled blood has made a way
for all the multitudes of India and Africa to come;
the Middle East will find its peace through Jesus Christ My Son.
From London down to Cape Town, from L.A. to Beijing,
My Son shall reign the undisputed King!

Blessing

In a time of distancing, God bless us with the company of the saints.
In a time of suffering, God bless us with the comfort of the Holy Spirit.
In a time of anxiety, God bless us with eternal peace.
The blessing of God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be upon you, this day
and always. Amen.

Sources and Thanks

Call to Worship from the Church of England’s New Patterns of Worship.
Affirmation of Faith from the Reformed Church of France (translated by Andy Braunston)
All other liturgical material from Susan Durber.

Thanks to
John Wilcox, Elfreda Tealby-Watson, John Young, Karen Smith, and the choir of Barrhead URC for recording various spoken parts of the service.

Copyright

All Creatures of Our God and King, BBC Songs of Praise
Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing (to Nettleton) performed by All Sons and Daughters
There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy, BBC Songs of Praise
Be Still and Know, Lex Loizides. © 1995 Thankyou Music performed at the Stoneleigh Bible Week.