Materials for Worship at Home on the Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Moira writes, As you light your candle in preparation for worship this morning, you may wish to focus for a minute on this image of Jesus in the Synagogue by James Tissot, as he prepares to read from the scroll of Isaiah.

The words that Jesus reads sets out a manifesto (or agenda) for a way of living and says that “this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” In this final sentence Jesus was claiming that the words of Isaiah were about himself. That is why the people in the synagogue were so upset. Nazareth was the home town of Jesus and everyone knew him as the carpenter’s son, so what right did he have to make such a claim.

You may wish to pause here to read Luke 4.14-21.

In the prophecy from Isaiah Jesus was given to read in the synagogue, we see set out, what Jesus’ ministry will be and who He will seek out to serve, just as Isaiah declared in the prophecy what his ministry would be.

In this opening address, some of the themes sound familiar to those set out by our own political leaders – issues of freedom, finding new ways to help those in need, how to tackle those oppressed by war, the nations’ health. But the impetus that Jesus had is different from our political leaders. Rather than a new commitment to an old ideal, with Jesus a new reality is offered. The hope that Jesus proclaims is a reality, not a pie in the sky promise which may or may not come to fruition.

The words of the prophet Isaiah serve as an outline for Jesus’ life and mission and within it we can discern two things; the people to whom Jesus is being sent, and the nature of his ministry to them. So who are the people that Jesus is being sent to? Luke tells us that Jesus will tend the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed. Some like to interpret Luke’s words with a spiritual meaning, the poor in spirit, those caught up in material things, those blind to the word of God and those weighed down by sin. But it would seem that this would not be fair or true to the life and ministry of Jesus if that was all we could see in these words.

Surely the people mentioned here by Luke are not just symbols, but real people. They are the socially excluded, those who by circumstance of birth are not allowed to be a part of the mainstream of society. In Jesus’ day they were the Gentiles, Samaritans, lepers, women and tax collectors. In our day they are the homeless, the refugees, and those who do not conform to our idea of ‘normal behaviour.’

They are the religiously excluded. In the time of Jesus, they were the uncircumcised, the publicans, the sinners, and women taken in adultery, whom the Pharisees would rather stone than redeem. In our day they include murderers, abusers, addicts and others we would rather condemn than redeem.

They are the economically excluded. In Jesus’ day and in ours, they are the poor, those who are dependent on others for support. Because of their economic circumstances they have no power, no influence and no real place in society. They are easily discounted, dismissed and defeated.

But what is this freedom that Jesus proclaimed in his address in the synagogue? Well firstly it points to a relationship with God. The only way that our brokenness, the brokenness of the human condition can be overcome, is through our relationship with the one who overcomes the world. In other words, we need to have a redemptive relationship with God. This is the only way we can be truly free. Freedom to live only happens, when we commit ourselves and our lives to the one who is ultimately free. Personal freedom doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Not only do we need to be in a redemptive relationship with God, we must also have a redemptive relationship with those around us. Throughout scripture we find a strong sense of togetherness, of the need for fellowship, the need to ‘love one another as God loves us.’

The need to be aware that what one person does has an effect on others. How can we be free if there are people around us who are being oppressed! We cannot be truly free unless we join together with Jesus in attempting to free others.

Perhaps here you could read 1 Corinthians 12.12- 31a.

The Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the people of Corinth, reminds then, and us, that we are all part of the body of Christ. We are not alone when we live in God’s love. Just as we need each part of our body to work together, we need the support of each other as we journey on in faith.

Jesus also makes it clear in this address that he will bring freedom to those who are discriminated against, those who face economic deprivation, those who face religious hatred. He tells the people that he has been sent to free the hungry from want, to give refreshment to those who are thirsty and to set free those who have been enslaved.

God wants all of us to be free. That is why he sent his son Jesus into the world to be the proclaimer and bearer of liberation. Jesus seeks to bring about a community of free people who will carry out his mission and who will by doing so, make freedom a reality. As long as one person is not free, the work of God’s liberation is unfinished, and God has chosen us to join with Jesus in his ministry of liberation. How will we respond? Proclamation is more than just words, it’s putting those words into action. And so, this week, we are being challenged by this passage to be the people of God, and our mission is to join with Jesus in fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah. We are to be the ones to bring good news to the poor and to do whatever we can to fight against injustice and oppression.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”

In our prayers this morning let us all pray for an end to poverty and hunger. An end to human trafficking and abuse of any kind. An end to vaccine poverty and for all to be able to access medical treatment.
Please pray for those you know who are ill at this time or who are struggling with difficulties in their lives.
Pray for God’s Good News to be spread to all who have not yet heard it.

I wish you all a good week ahead and God’s blessing on you and those you love.

Moira

Materials for Worship at Home on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Nerys writes: One of the many joys of my ministry here at St Mary’s is that the chapel of Cromlix House is part of my charge and this means that I get to conduct more weddings than most Scottish Episcopal priests.  I find it a great privilege to accompany young couples at such a crucial time in their lives and also  to work closely with the staff of the hotel. I have got to know Sharon, the events’ manager, very well during the last three years and I’m always impressed by her great attention to detail. There are so many things that can go wrong at a wedding which could ruin, not only the day itself but the memory of it for years to come.

In today’s Gospel passage, John 2.1-11, however, running out of wine would have been much more than a social embarrassment for the hosts.  In Jesus’ day, weddings weren’t just private family affairs. They would often involve the whole community and would last up to seven days, with guests coming and going to the house of the groom. It was his family and friends who were responsible for providing refreshments. Failure to do so would have been viewed as a scandalous disgrace which would have cast a shadow over the young couple’s marriage and dishonoured the whole family.

We don’t know why Jesus’ mother felt that she needed to do something about the situation or what she was thinking when she turned to her son for help.  This is the first of only two occasions when we meet her in John’s Gospel. As we’ve seen during the last few weeks, in Luke’s Gospel, Mary is prominent in the stories of Jesus’ birth and childhood and we even get to know her thoughts and feelings. Here she a distant figure who isn’t even given her name.  We can only guess what she was expecting to happen when she told her son that the wine had run out,  but as the story unfolds, I find the dynamic between her and Jesus as fascinating and illuminating as the miracle itself.

I invite you to read the story again, focusing on Mary’s words and actions.

It would not be appropriate for a mother to make a demand of her adult son, so Mary’s first words are a simple statement, though clearly with the expectation of some response. I wonder if her expectation of Jesus was based on what she had seen, pondered and treasured in her heart years previously?  She clearly regarded him as one who could and would meet the needs of others.

It’s difficult to interpret Jesus’ initial response.  Addressing one’s mother as ‘woman’ is not usual. It may not have been as harsh as it sounds to us but it does suggest that there was a distance between the two of them. Were her expectations of her son causing tension between them?

Jesus makes it clear that her worries about the wine was somebody else’s problem but Mary persists.   She doesn’t tell her son what to do but turns to the servants, instructing them to follow his directions. She leaves the initiative to Jesus, showing her absolute trust in him.

Could this be why Jesus gives in to her request despite his initial objection?  So often in the Gospels, it is on realising the depth of a person’s faith that he performs miracles.

John doesn’t mention Mary’s response to this revelation of divine glory, only that of the disciples who witness the miracle  and come to believe in Jesus through it, We don’t meet her again until the day of his crucifixion, standing  at the foot of the cross. The witness of her faithful discipleship is  like a thin but long thread running through the Gospel.

You may wish to spend some time reading this modern Coptic icon of the  Wedding at Cana by Rania Kuhn.

Take a moment now to think of times in your life when you’ve witnessed God’s provision and give thanks.

Bring to mind situations in the world, in the church,  in the life of family or friends or in your own life where resources are running out and bring them to the attention of God.

How can you co-operate with God to meet these needs?

Do you need to  confess your lack of trust in God’s transforming power? Is anxiety or fear clouding your compassion?

Are you willing to persist in prayer and do whatever God says so that God’s gracious abundance may be witnessed in the world?

Ask God to fill you to the brim with the Holy Spirit and use your life for the good of the world.

Materials for Worship for the Epiphany

 

Ven Peter Potter writes: In some parts of Switzerland and other countries you will see this inscription above the lintel of people’s front doors.

20 * C + M + B + 22

The letters stand for Christus Mansionem Benedicat or “May Christ bless this house”. They are also the initials of the names traditionally given to the Wise Men, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. The crosses could be taken as standing for the three crosses on Calvary or they could be an indication that blessings are usually given in the name of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The star reminds us of the star that led the Wise Men to the place where the infant Jesus was to be found. As such, therefore, it is a pictorial prayer that Christ may be found in our homes too. It expresses our belief in the incarnation, that Jesus took our human nature and dwelt among us, or made his home among us as St John says in the Prologue to the Gospel that bears his name. Like the white candle on our Advent wreaths that we light on Christmas Day the star also reminds us that we have the light of Christ to guide us.

Jesus shared the life of an earthly family and, in blessing our homes, we are witnessing to our living faith that sustains us in our daily lives. We ask God’s protection on our homes and pray that Christ will increase the faith of all who live in them, strengthen their hope and keep them in love for one another throughout the year.

The inscription is renewed some time between New Year and Epiphany to show the date of the year just beginning, the latest in the progression of years numbered since Jesus’ birth.

Writing the inscription above the door is done by the family themselves and is accompanied by a little ceremony. The family gathers together at the front door (in the porch or outside, depending on the weather!). Then someone lights a candle and another family member reads a passage from the Christmas story (preferably Matthew 2:9-12). You might like to sing a carol and this is followed by some prayers.

Another tradition as it is Epiphany, is to light an incense stick or incense scented candle as a sign of the sweetness of God’s presence with us and also of our prayers rising to heaven.

After the prayers of blessing, the letters are written above the main door, usually in chalk. If that is not practical, you could write them on a board and display where they can be seen daily as family members and visitors go in and out. The candle is kept and can be lit at times when we feel a special need of God’s protection or guidance – as we did during the lockdown in 2020, for instance.

Here are some prayers of blessing for you to use.

Lord God,
may your bright splendour shine upon us and enlighten us;
may we be ever closer to you
and ever better perceive the work of your Son,
the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Lord, bless our family, our home
and all who come in and go out from here.
Lord, hear us.

Protect us from all dangers to body and soul.
Defend us from hate, envy and enmity.
Give your peace to us all.
Grant to the departed life eternal.
Lord, hear us.

May the Lord keep us
in work and play,
in rest and busyness,
day by day.
In the name of Christ. Amen.

You may also wish to read the Gospel for the Feast of the Epiphany, Matthew 2.1-12

Materials for Worship on Second Sunday after Christmas

Moira writes: As you prepare to light your candle for worship this morning you may wish to read through our lessons from scripture.  The first short reading is from the book of Numbers, chapter 6, verses 22-27 and the second short reading from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, chapter 4, verses 4-7.  Finally, our gospel passage is from Luke, chapter 2 verses 15-21.

In the gospel passage, there were two words which stood out for me as I read it through.   The words “hear” and “see.”   After the angels had gone back to heaven, the shepherds went to “see” what had taken place.   They “saw” all that had been made known to them and they returned to their fields telling everyone who would listen, all they “saw” that day.  They “heard” the message from God, spoken to them by the angels, and all who listened to them on their return, “heard” the wonderful story of the birth of Jesus, and all who “heard” it were amazed.   Two simple words, “see” and “hear,” words which are echoed in Acts chapter 4 verse 20, when Peter and John were brought before the council in the earliest days of the church and were warned not to speak or teach again in the Temple about Jesus.   Peter and John reply, “for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

 Over the season of Advent and into this season of Christmas, we have “seen” and “heard” many passages of scripture leading us to the birth of Jesus.   These passages are not just for us alone to think and ponder over (just as Mary pondered over the words from the shepherds) they are to be shared and treasured not only in our hearts but shared with others, so that they might “see” and “hear” God’s word spoken to them.   As we move on to verse 21 in today’s gospel reading, right at the end, we hear a short passage about Jesus’ presentation in the Temple.  Circumcision on the eighth day was a standard Jewish ritual and, easy as it is to overlook, it’s a reminder that Jesus was born and brought up in an observant Jewish household.  Therefore, it’s a useful reminder that the Jesus claimed by Christianity was a Jew, and an observant Jew at that, and the clues to support that are there to be found throughout the Gospels, sometimes to the surprise of many.

Something more than circumcision happens to Jesus on his eighth day, He receives his name.   In the Jewish tradition, circumcision is when a boy receives his name, and the name Jesus receives is heavy with significance.  It is the same as that of Joshua, the Old Testament hero who leads Israel into the land of freedom.  The name means literally “The Lord is salvation.”  This is the name that Gabriel, at the Annunciation, tells Mary to name her child.  And so, it is not a name thought up by the baby’s parents, it is a name that comes from God.  The name of the Saviour, the salvation he brings, and he himself all come from God.  We would miss the significance of the name of Jesus if we took that name as only a label, a way to distinguish one person from the next.  The name of Jesus points us to who he is and who he is for us: the Saviour, the one who delivers us, rescues us; leads us, as did the Old Testament Joshua, into a land of freedom, and a different way of life.  The name of Jesus is, as today’s collect states, “the sign of our salvation.”  Given to us by God, this name is a sacrament in word, something spoken which conveys to us the grace of God.   When this name is used by us with faith and reverence, it is for us a prayer.   No other prayer is so simple, and none is so great.  And so today for us, may our prayer be that we continue to “see” and “hear” all that God wants us to hear and that we not only ponder his words to us, but that we share the good news with others, just as the shepherds did over two thousand years ago, as they returned to their fields.

“The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told to them.”     Amen.

As you focus on this image of the circumcision of Jesus you may wish to pray for babies born in difficult circumstances throughout the world.

For all who are fleeing persecution and violence.

For all who find this time of year difficult as they remember loved ones no longer with them.   For anyone God has placed on your mind and in your heart.

Pray that we might be observant in “seeing” and “hearing” the needs of others around us and give thanks to God for all the good things in our lives.

 

May 2022 bring joy, peace, love, good health and happiness to you all.

 

Take care and God Bless,

 

Moira

 

 

Materials for Worship at Home at Christmas

Nerys writes:
As you know, my native Wales is a bi-lingual country. Road signs appear in Welsh and in English. The translations usually make sense but a few years ago I saw a temporary sign near Cardiff where instead of being asked to dismount, Welsh speaking cyclists were instructed to ‘overthrow cystitis’. Not far away in the Vale of Glamorgan there was a sign that urged drivers to ‘follow the entertainment’ rather than take a diversion. I remember a quarry sign in Gwynedd which warned in English that blasting was in progress but in Welsh that ‘workers were exploding’. And there is a shop sign near my brother’s home on Anglesey which advertises in Welsh  ‘wine and ghosts’ rather than wine and spirits.

It is so easy for meaning to be lost in translation.  It can also be lost through familiarity. We hear the same passages of scripture year after year at Christmas and often, because we know the words so well, we stop listening for the message. This is true of the Gospel for today, John 1.1-14, which is full of truth and beauty if only we could hear it as if for the first time. So in order to help you to do that, I offer you  a version that is probably unfamiliar to you. The Message by Eugene Peterson is a paraphrase rather than a word-for-word translation. It uses language and  imagery drawn from contemporary culture to convey the ideas and concepts of the text.

Before you read the passage, I invite you to still your hearts so that you hear God speaking to you through it.

The Word was first,
the Word present to God,
God present to the Word.
The Word was God,
in readiness for God from day one.

Everything was created through him;
nothing—not one thing!—
came into being without him.
What came into existence was Life,
and the Life was Light to live by.
The Life-Light blazed out of the darkness;
the darkness couldn’t put it out.

There once was a man, his name John, sent by God to point out the way to the Life-Light. He came to show everyone where to look, who to believe in. John was not himself the Light; he was there to show the way to the Light.

The Life-Light was the real thing:
Every person entering Life
he brings into Light.
He was in the world,
the world was there through him,
and yet the world didn’t even notice.
He came to his own people,
but they didn’t want him.
But whoever did want him,
who believed he was who he claimed
and would do what he said,
He made to be their true selves,
their child-of-God selves.
These are the God-begotten,
not blood-begotten,
not flesh-begotten,
not sex-begotten.

The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.

I wonder if a particular word or a phrase struck you as you read? I wonder what God is saying to you through it? I suggest that you make a mental note of it and make time to return to it  over the next few days.

For me, when I read this paraphrase for the first time, it was,  ‘The Word … moved into the neighborhood’ that jumped out at me.  Eugene Peterson’s homely American phrase sounded so incongruous in this poetic, mysterious overture to John’s Gospel that it set me scurrying away to examine the text again.

Most modern translations say that the Word ‘made his dwelling’ or ‘lived’ or ‘made his home’ among us but the Greek verb literally means  ‘lived in a tent’. It’s from the term used for the tent of the tabernacle which represented the presence of God among the people of Israel. When they were wandering in the wilderness, Moses met with God on Mount Sinai and was given instructions concerning the tent that was to be built. ‘Have them make a sanctuary for me’, says God, ‘and I will dwell among them’. This tabernacle  guided the people in the wilderness,  leading them  into the Promised Land. Eventually, it was incorporated into the Temple in Jerusalem. Hidden deep inside the temple courts, it was accessible only to a few and the intimacy of God dwelling among his people was lost.  Down the centuries, prophets like Isaiah longed for God to return to Jerusalem to  ‘pitch his tent’ among his people again. And now, John is declaring that God has chosen to ‘tabernacle among us’ in a new way, to become flesh and blood, to appear as a human baby in a manger in Bethlehem.

On the one hand, this  is an astonishing surrender  of power – God choosing to be confined in human form. The Creator of the Universe emptying himself to shrink to the size of a tiny helpless baby. On the other hand, when the tabernacle is a living, breathing, human being, we humans cannot pretend to be in control of God’s presence. It can’t be carted around from place to place. It can’t be confined it to a holy building with controlled access.  But do we want a God like this? A  God who became flesh and blood. A God who moved into our neighbourhood? A God who can turn up at any time to call us to prayer or action. A God who knows us intimately, who will challenge us to change our priorities, to look afresh at our relationships, to see our world through different eyes. How do we respond to this uncomfortable, inconvenient, uncontrollable God?

 

In the beginning – you were.
In this moment – you are.
You are strength and weakness.
You are light and glory.
You are God and you welcome us:
You listen for our prayers …

We pray today for peace, peace in Bethlehem, peace in the dark places of our world. We pray for leaders and negotiators, for peacemakers and peacekeepers, for fighters and prisoners, for all who are caught up in conflict, violence and fear. We pray for peace with integrity and with justice.

We pray for children everywhere, for the newly born, for those growing up among us, for those growing up in places where there is poverty and danger. We pray that they may be loved and welcomed and that they may know smiles and hope.

We pray for all who sit and eat with us today. We thank you for our families, for our friends, for those who love us, for those who share our laughter and pain. We pray for those who, by choice or by circumstance, eat alone. And we pray for justice for those who are hungry.

We pray for all who are sick and for those who care for them and pray for them. We pray for those who have died, for those we miss at our table. Tell them how much we love them, we miss them, we carry their stories in our lives.

We pray for ourselves, for our needs, our concerns, our hopes and our dreams. Bright loving God, Emmanuel, God-with-us, help us to recognise you today and to welcome you into our lives in wonder, in truth and in holy joy. Amen
(Adaptation of Bidding Prayers written by Ruth Burgess)

Materials for Worship on the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Nerys writes: Today we light the Candle of Love and, as we listen to Luke’s account of God’s calling of Mary and her response, we reflect on the challenge of its message for us personally and as Christ’s followers.

God of perfect love,
you help us to face our fears,
to know the truth about ourselves
to be set free to grow and change.
You call us not to be afraid.
Meet us where we are,
speak to us through the words and the silence,
touch us with your healing love
so that we may share your peace
in and though Jesus, the child who is to come.
Amen.

Today I invite you to deviate a little from the lectionary and to reflect on all of the story given by Luke surrounding the conception of Jesus, rather than Mary’s response to the angel’s message only. Read Luke 1.26-56.

Something wonderful happened to me this month. Since the age of three I had dreamt of being Mary in a Nativity play. Year after year, when I was in Primary School, I would get my hopes up only to be disappointed. When I was five, I was cast as the second Wise Man and after that I was usually a narrator or sang in the choir until I was too old to play the part, or so I thought. But this year, at the grand old age of 59, I got to be Mary as part of the Christmas Journey event. I got to dress in blue and sit at the manger with Joseph, gently cradling baby Jesus in my arms, smiling serenely at the shepherds and the wise men as I received their gifts. And it got me thinking …


It got me wondering, is this passive, gentle, agreeable person, put on a pedestal by so many, the Mary I have got to know over the years? Is this the Mary of Luke’s Gospel? The story you’ve just read, and especially her song, the Magnificat, the longest speech given to a woman in the New Testament, insist on a very different picture …

Mary was a nobody . She was a poor girl living in a rural village in an occupied country. Everyone around her would have discounted her. But God did not.

Mary has no special qualifications to have been chosen by God. She was an ordinary young woman. She could have been anybody. She is chosen simply because she is chosen. She was given an invitation from God’s unconditional love, to receive a gift.

Mary could have refused God’s gift. Instead, she held out her hands, received it and unwrapped it. It is her response to God’s approach that singles her out. She said yes to God’s risky and seemingly impossible plan.

Her cousin Elizabeth was part of that plan. Both women had shared the ancient dream of their people. A dream that one day all that the prophets had said would come true. Both women had searched the scriptures, soaked themselves in the psalms and prophetic writings that talked of their faithful God of mercy, hope and compassion coming to the rescue at last. And now they celebrate together what God is going to do through the sons God will give them.

Filled with God’s Holy Spirit, both mothers-to-be pour out their delight in shouts and songs of blessing, praise and prophecy. Mary’s song speaks of a world turned upside down. A world where the powers that kept their people in slavery would be toppled and the economic and social order transformed. The poor would become rich and ordinary people would take the reins of power. Mary echoes her son’s preaching and promises of coming of God’s kingdom.

Mary’s own life would be turned upside down as God’s promise grew within her. Her son and Saviour would bring her tears and pain as well as great joy as he brought his Father’s kingdom to birth, through his life, death and resurrection.

Mary’s song challenges us to respond as she did to God’s invitation to join in with his plan to make things right in our lives and in the world. Pray for those in need today and for those working for justice.

To finish you may wish to spend time with this Orthodox icon of Mary with the Christ child and with a personal prayer of commitment based on the words of Annie Heppenstall-West.

Grow in me, love child.
Grow and fill me with life;
make me your home.

Grow in me, Christ-child;
be born of tears and pain
in unshakeable love.

Grow to fullness in me;
open me and live through me;
I am yours.

 

Materials for Worship on the Third Sunday in Advent

Moira writes:  As you light your candle and prepare for worship, you may wish to read our Gospel passage from chapter 3 of Luke’s Gospel verses 7-18.

The season of Advent, as we know, is a season of expectation, it’s a season of waiting and it’s a season of preparation. Times were harsh for the faithful Jews who followed John the Baptist. They were under the heavy hand of their Roman rulers. Rome had granted them permission to follow their religious beliefs, but they could and did crack down on them any time they wanted to.
The whole future of the Jewish population was, to all intents and purposes, in jeopardy. So, what did John the Baptist lead them to expect when they came out to hear him preach? Many of them would remember prophets of the past and maybe heard an echo of their preaching in John as he called the people to be baptised in the River Jordan and I expect that excitement was running high.

But what did John lead them to expect when they came out to hear him?

If we look at the opening words from this passage, it would be no surprise to find that the people were expecting the full wrath of God to fall upon them. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
There was even talk of trees that didn’t bear good fruit being chopped down. Not exactly encouraging words. Expectations are hard to define most of the time. They frequently are quite ambiguous. We “hope” for something better . . . but just, exactly, what the “better” is that we hope for, whether we “expect” it or not, is hard to identify. Better health for those whose bodies are troubled with physical distress. Better wages for those who are struggling to feed their families. Better circumstances for those enduring difficult circumstances of various kinds those oppressed by war and conflict, those suffering abuse, warmth and comfort for the cold and homeless, a return to safety and security for refugees in many parts of the earth, food and drink for the hungry . . . the list is endless. Those are the things people desperately “hope for” much of the time.

(Perhaps you might like to pause here and think about what expectations and hopes you have this Advent Season.)

I wonder if John, himself, fully understood what to expect? Sometime after this, when he was in prison because of Herod’s displeasure with his ministry, John sent some of his followers to ask Jesus, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”   Instead of the fire and brimstone that he evidently expected at the hand of Jesus, “John has heard of little other than love and compassion and grace and mercy. He has become uncertain. Were his expectations wrong when he had preached on the banks of the Jordan . . . or had he failed to identify the proper person?

Luke tells us in chapter 7 verses 22 and 23, that Jesus replied, “Report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”   So many of the followers of John, and perhaps John himself, thought that Jesus would be the one who would take on Rome head-to-head, restoring again the glory of Israel as an independent representative of the presence of God among the nations of the earth. Jesus makes clear that his mission is of quite another sort.

This leads us back to our question, for what, or for whom were the people to be expectantly waiting?

The end to which the people were to wait is not all that clear at first hearing. The word was given without a clearly identifiable object by John. Just wait! They would see in due time what God was doing when God did it! He will surprise them, for he will do what they least expect . . . or even what they least thought possible . . . perhaps even what they are not particularly interested in getting, for that matter! He would do what he would do.

Yet they “were in expectation!”   The object for which they were to wait was not immediately apparent. One thing, however, was quite clear: They were to wait for what God would do, not what they would accomplish!
And there, in a nutshell, the whole of John’s mission and message is laid bare. Wait! Wait for what God is going to do! They, like we, were living in an Advent time . . . a “waiting time.”   It is not a “going toward” time. It is a “waiting for One who is to come” time. When he comes, God will do a great thing! Wait and see! Expect God to do what you cannot imagine. Only he knows what he will do, but what he will do will exceed any and all human expectations. This is the “Joyful Sunday,” the Sunday of Advent when the central theme is the certainty that God’s coming will bring full release from all that binds us and holds us fast in the clutches of things that appear terrifying to us. We can live with high expectations, for God comes, acting on our behalf! With Paul, in the midst of all this, we cry out, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand!”
                                                             St. John Baptising by Nicolas Poussin

This Advent, like the people gathered at the River Jordan to be baptised, let us all be filled with great expectation of what is to come.

As you prepare to pray, you might like to read the Epistle from Paul to the Philippians chapter 4 verses 4-7

  • Pray for Nerys and all who are involved in worship at this busy time.
  • Pray for the Christingle service and all the families who will attend.
  • Pray for the work of Aberlour, our Advent Charity.
  • Pray for those who find Christmas a difficult time.
  • Pray for each other that we will find that expectation and hope to which we are called in Advent.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”. Amen.

Materials for Worship on the Second Sunday in Advent

Nerys writes: Today we light the candle of peace and listen to the words of God’s messengers as they call on us to prepare a way for the Christ who is here and still to come.

Gracious God, you prepare a way in the wilderness,
a table for our sustenance,
good things for our journeying.
You call us to prepare a way in our hearts.
Meet us in this place,
speak to us through the words and the silence,
touch us with your healing love
that we may share your peace
in and though Jesus, the child who is to come.
Amen.

In our first reading today, Malachi 3.1-4, we hear the voice of the prophet Malachi, the author of the last book of the Old Testament and the most mysterious of all the prophets. We know nothing about him for certain. Even the name given to him which means ‘my messenger’ in Hebrew, was probably not a proper name. He must have been writing at a particular moment for a particular audience, but we can’t now easily tell when that time was. Luke, however, in his introduction to the words of John the Baptist, Luke 3.1-6, makes a point of fixing the last of the prophets in a particular context with his detailed account of exactly when and where he appears. John is a prophet with a difference and yet, as the quotation from his predecessor, Isaiah indicates, he is the last of a long line of messengers sent by God to shake up his people and prepare them for the coming of his Word.

Jane Williams in her commentary on these passages points out that in Malachi’s time and in the time of John the Baptist, the people have made themselves unable to recognise God, because they are trying to make him meet their standards rather than trying themselves to meet his. Malachi, clearly writing at a time of discontent and disappointment in Judah, voices the people’s scornful question, ‘Where is the God of justice?’ The response is that a messenger will be sent who will draw them back to their covenant relationship with God. They are to be purified and refined by fire until they recognise God’s justice again. Luke presents John as that messenger, and Jesus as the coming King. Neither John’s ministry of repentance for the forgiveness of sins nor Jesus’ life, marked with mercy and compassion, correspond to the expectations of the prophets. Instead, they have caused what the prophets said to be read with new eyes. The Lord has come and continues to be at work in and through us, his followers, to bring in his kingdom of justice and of peace.

As you prepare to pray, I invite you to read or to sing a new Advent hymn by Pat Bennett which calls us to watch out for and proclaim the coming of Christ. (The tune is ‘Little Conrad’ which we use for ‘Hills of the North rejoice’.)

Watch – though the length of night
makes courage fade and fail:
God has sent out his Word –
darkness will not prevail!
As softening sky announces dawn
Emmanuel comes – hope is reborn.

Watch – though the bleak of day
leaves spirit bruised and numb:
God has sent out his Word –
healing and peace will come!
as steadfast hearts hold on through pain
Emmanuel come – joy flows again.

Watch – though the winter’s chill
binds all with barren cold:
God has sent out his Word –
death cannot keep it hold!
as frozen earth turns quick and green
Emmanuel comes – new life is seen.

Lift up the Advent cry,
shout for the world to hear:
‘God has sent out his Word –
hope, joy and life are near!’
Those watching will not wait in vain –
Emmanuel comes to bring God’s reign!

Today at the end of our Whole Church Service, we will be taking the light of peace from our Advent candle out of the church and into our homes, our community and the wider world. Please join us as we pray this week for the light of God’s peace to shine amidst the darkness.

Materials for Worship at Home on Advent Sunday

Nerys writes: Whether you have an Advent candle set or just one candle, I would invite you to join in with the following prayer as you light it today:

God of our deepest longing,
all our hopes are met in you.
You hear our heart’s cry,
You know our deepest need.
Meet us in this place,
speak to us through the silence,
Touch us with your healing love,
that we may share your hopes
for the whole creation,
in and through Jesus,
the child who is to come.
Amen.

For anyone who thinks of Advent as a straight-forward Countdown to Christmas, today’s readings will come as a bit of a shock. There is nothing straight-forward about Advent, the most puzzling and unpredictable of all the seasons of the church year. A time when we’re called to bend our minds around the idea of the Kingdom of God which is already here and yet to come. This is not a time for head-knowledge but for an understanding that comes from the heart, a time to draw on our past experiences of God as we face the reality of our present struggles, trusting in God’s promises for our future. It is this process that we see at work in all three of our readings today, Jeremiah 33.14-16, 1 Thessalonians 3.9-13 and Luke 21.25-36, a process which encourages us to see signs of hope in the midst of disaster and, by proclaiming and living that hope, to become a light in the darkness for others.

The prophet Jeremiah speaks at a time of terror and great suffering for the people of Judah. The enemies of Jerusalem were besieging the city as Jeremiah had said they would. Imprisoned by his own king for being right, the prophet speaks to the people who are at the edge of despair. But instead of the usual dark prophecies of doom which would be expected from him, Jeremiah utters words of hope and light. He offers a vision of a time when God would fulfil his promise to his people, a time when Judah would be saved and Jerusalem would live in safety, led by a king who would promote justice and mercy in the land. He encourages his listeners to imagine this alternative future which is far removed from their current circumstances, so that, instead of seeking to make the best of a bad situation, they would hold on to their faith, longing for the day when God’s promise of a just and peaceful world would become a reality.
St Paul and his companions were also living in a time of distress and persecution when he wrote his letter to the fledgling Christian community at Thessalonica. Having been forced to leave them earlier than he would have wished, Paul would naturally have been terribly worried about them especially when he heard that there had been unexpected deaths among their number. Did they in their grief still remember what he had taught them? Were they still constant in their faith? He could have easily despaired of them, but instead his letter contains expressions of joy and gratitude based on faith-filled hope. The understanding of these new Christians may not have been complete, but Paul gives thanks in advance for the mature faith that is yet to come. Like Jeremiah, he encourages the readers of his letter then and now to imagine an alternative future where they would grow in holiness and in love for one another.

In today’s Gospel, we see a side to Luke that we might prefer to overlook. He is a writer we associate with heart-warming stories and picturesque details, not with apocalyptic images warning of global disaster. But Luke, like Paul and Jeremiah, was writing at a time of great distress. Jerusalem had again been under siege, its people had endured starvation, civil strife and military defeat, and many Christians had been caught in the middle. Twenty years later, with the temple in ruins, Luke’s first audience were still trying to make sense of what had happened whilst living amidst great uncertainty. Luke draws on the prophetic language of earlier writers to express the convulsions that the world was experiencing in his day as the Roman peace was shattering from the inside. But he turns traditional imagery on its head so that, instead of announcing the end, the sun, moon and stars and roaring seas proclaim a new beginning, the coming of God’s promised kingdom. Luke’s Jesus, talking to his disciples just a short time before his arrest and death, encourages them not to be overwhelmed when disaster threatens but to stand head up, like a dog sniffing the air for the familiar scent of his master who is coming to save him. He calls them not to give in to fear but to look out for signs of the kingdom which are like the buds on the tree heralding summer.

Like Luke’s first readers, as we struggle to stay positive in these tough, turbulent times, we are called to always be on the lookout for signs of God’s presence among us now, and of the coming of God’s kingdom of justice and mercy.

Like the Thessalonians, we are called this Advent to encourage one another to grow in holiness and to live lovingly, following the examples of Christ.

Like the people of Judah, we are called to trust in God’s promised alternative future for our world today as we pray and work together for a society free from inequality, division and violence.

You may wish to reflect on Van Gogh, ‘The Starry Night’ which depicts an apocalyptic sky like that described by Luke’s Jesus and captures the mood of Advent and/or on the words of Ally Barrett’s new Advent hymn as an introduction to your time of prayer today.

Longing for a hope-filled morning,
kingdom of the Son, draw near!
Waiting for the day soon dawning,
light of love that casts out fear.
Dayspring, come from heav’n, in lowly birth,
come to warm this cold, dark earth.

Sorrow through the world is sweeping,
bitter conflict rages still,
heaven hears its children weeping:
price of humankind’s freewill.
Come, O Prince of Peace, in lowly birth,
come to mend this broken earth.

Reaching out through human history,
bring your scattered children home,
such an act of love! What mystery:
God appears in flesh and bone.
Come, Emmanuel, in lowly birth,
show how heaven embraces earth.

(to be sung on the tune Picardy used also for ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’)

Materials for Worship for Sunday 21st November, ‘Christ the King’.

Jeanette writes: Power! In today’s gospel (John 18:33b-37) we have two diametrically opposed definitions of power put before us. The question is which one do we choose to  live by?

Jesus has been brought before Pilate on charges of sedition, but Jesus, to Pilate, does not look like a serious revolutionary; he looks far more like a peasant. As yet the formal charges have not been made, so Pilate asks Jesus, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’  This is not a straight- forward enquiry, but asked rather in a tone of derision, implying that surely that could not be the case. It is not an idea that Pilate can accept.

Jesus’ response is to take Pilate seriously, to ask how Pilate came to ask this, when it wasn’t the charge against him, where did the question come from, from Pilate himself, or suggestions from others? The Jews were not Pilate’s favourite people, in fact he despised them; he was a Roman, one of the races that rules most of the known world. Jesus is a Jew, and his own people have handed him over to the Roman authorities; he can’t possibly be their leader. So, he asks, ‘What have you done?’

Jesus’ response is to talk of his kingdom, which is not of this world. Not of this world’s thinking or acting. If it were, Jesus rightly points out, his disciples would be fighting to rescue him. But a kingdom of love cannot use force to gain its ends. It is love which will keep Jesus on track, and on the cross, not weakness or lack of power. Jesus’ kingdom is one which captures hearts and wills.

What Jesus has to say is just so much gobbledygook so far as Plate is concerned. He doesn’t understand a word of it. It doesn’t fit in with his definition of kingly power, or any other kind of power come to that, at all. Because of Pilate’s limited understanding of kingship, that involves power, which is used to force and control people, Pilate asks again, ‘So you are a king?’   Jesus is unable to answer the question, and simply goes on to state why he is on earth, which Pilate doesn’t understand either, for Jesus has changed the whole nature of kingship by becoming the Servant King, and the Suffering Servant as well.

Our terms are too limited when it comes to describing the majesty of Jesus. A sad comment comes from the chief priests, who declare, ‘We have no king but Caesar’ sadly all too true, as they had rejected Jesus as their king.

The question for us then is have we chosen Jesus to be our King? Have we accepted his definition of Kingship, and welcomed it as the one we will live by? Do we strive always to live by his way of love, whatever happens to us or to those around us? Do we seek to let Jesus rule in our hearts and wills, or do we let other powers and events rule our lives? That is a question of crucial relevance, not only for us, but for the wider world, as it decides what our response to acts of terrorism should be, for instance. If Jesus is our king, then he is King in every situation which affects us, however good, or however horrendous, and if we follow him we accept his definition of kingship, the Kingdom of love. Let’s find the grace to pray earnestly, Your Kingdom come, your will be done, in us as it is in heaven. Amen.

Intercessions

(Please take time to form your own response to the petition before you move on to the next one; as you ponder on these huge issues think too on what Jesus’ response, the Servant King and the Suffering Servant would have been. What response would a kingdom ruled by love make?)

 As we look around at the injustice in our world, help us to discern what we can do to help right the wrongs.

We have heard much about Climate Justice during Cop 26, help us to discern our responsibility, and our countries’ responsibility for the plight of the poorer nations who are suffering because of the way we and our country has lived for the past 200 years, and to be prepared to work to change our own and our countries response to this.

As we approach the annual 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence, we remember the many countries where women are mere chattels with no standing in their communities to be abused on a whim, with no access to education. We remember the girls who suffer Female Genital Mutilation, the women abused in their own homes in our own country, we remember too that men are abused, on occasion just as badly, but not nearly as many of them, but they too need justice.

Help us to play our part in caring for our beautiful and fragile planet, so that it may thrive and regenerate, help us to discern the changes in our own life styes which will help this to happen.

We bring our prayers in the name of Jesus our Lord, our King, and our Saviour. Amen

 

 

 

Materials for Worship on Remembrance Sunday 14th November 2021

The readings for this Sunday are: Psalm 90 and  John 6 37-40

 Peter Potter writes:

Armistice Day, 11 November, is also the Feast of St Martin. I do not know whether this day was deliberately chosen in 1918 but, if so, it would have been appropriate. St Martin is the patron saint of soldiers. He was born into a military family in what is now Hungary around 317 and he was named after Mars, the Roman god of war. He seems to have spent his childhood moving from one garrison to another but at some stage he came into contact with Christianity. Before long his ambition was to become a monk but his pagan family had other ideas and he was enlisted into the cavalry.

Like many in the armed forces Martin had to find a way to be true to his faith whilst under military discipline. We are told that his example in doing so, and his courage in the face of the enemy, encouraged others to turn to Christ. Eventually though he got his wish and was released from the army. He founded a monastery in Tours (where he probably mentored Ninian of Galloway). Later, and very reluctantly, he became a bishop.

The most famous event of Martin’s life, however, occurred when he was still in the army. One day in the depths of winter he was riding with a column of soldiers through Amiens, in northers France. At the gate of the town was a beggar, shivering with cold. The other soldiers ignored him. Martin, so we are told, had already given away his spare rations and money in other acts of charity. But that did not stop him. Drawing his sword, he took off his cloak, cut it in half and gave one half to the beggar. This seems a strange thing to do. Jesus, citing the example of the widow’s mite, said we should give the whole of our possessions. But, one half of a soldier’s equipment belonged to the emperor, so Martin was actually giving away all his possessions. All the same a soldier in half a cloak must have looked ridiculous but the others who saw it were ashamed that they had not acted when they could have.

That night Martin had a dream. He saw Jesus standing nearby, dressed in half a cloak. “What you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do also for me.” In some parts of Germany today, children hold lantern processions on 11 November in honour of St Martin and sing songs telling of his generosity.

It also reminds me of a life-changing moment experienced by Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy, a famous army chaplain. In 1917, running towards his own lines under shellfire, he came across the body of a young German soldier. “Then there came a light” he wrote in his diary. “It seemed to me that the boy disappeared and in his place there lay Christ on his cross”. Studdert-Kennedy realised that Christ is present in the battlefields of the world, amidst the strife and destruction we make in our own lives. He has been there already and shares our pain. He also calls us not to leave it there but to respond. As Martin did. His generous act transformed a naked, freezing beggar into a child of God.

Prayers of Intercession

Most holy and loving God, hear our prayers –

for all who strive for peace,

all who seek to keep this world secure and free;

and all who fight for justice.

Help us, who today remember the cost of war,

to work for a better tomorrow;

and, as we commend to you lives lost in terror and conflict,

bring us all, in the end, to the peace of your presence;

Lord, grant us peace.

 

For all who are in danger this day, for their family, friends

and all who pray for their safe return;

for women, children and men

whose lives are disfigured by war or terror,

calling to mind in penitence

the anger and hatreds of humanity;

Lord, grant us peace

 

For all who bear the burden and privilege of leadership,

political, military and religious;

asking for gifts of wisdom and resolve

in the search for reconciliation, justice and peace;

Lord, grant us peace.

 

Help us to lift our eyes above the torment of this broken world,

and grant us the grace to pray for those who wish us harm.

As we honour the past,

may we work for a better future,

putting our faith in you;

the source of life and hope,

now and forever.        Amen

Materials for Worship on All Saints and All Souls Sunday

Ven. Peter Potter writes: This time of year we celebrate and give thanks for the lives of the saints, the Church Triumphant in Heaven, and remember our own loved ones, souls in transition, the Church Expectant.

The notion of Purgatory was attacked during the Reformation but I actually find it a reasonable and comforting concept. I once heard an eminent Lutheran theologian say “God had not finished with us when we die”. He himself was comforted by this thought; it is a response to the sadness we feel when someone’s life has been cut short and their promise unfulfilled. This year sees the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alligieri and I have been reading his Divine Comedy lately. His section on Purgatory ends with the poet feeling “remade, refreshed, as any new tree is, with the foliage anew; pure and prepared to rise towards the stars”.

And what of Paradise? Our imagination fails us. One hymn refers to “those endless Sabbaths the blessèd ones see”, which might not seem very exciting, especially if we think of the typical Scottish Sabbaths of yesteryear! Dante, on the other hand, imagines it as a place of eternal springtime, where the song is “Hosanna … winter’s done”. For him, heaven is a place of pleasing melodies where many different voices blend in the manner of the polyphonic music of his day. He even imagines the saints dancing complex figures together – Strip the Willow at a perpetual ceilidh.

The illustration is a poster for a lecture marking Dante’s anniversary. It shows him, together with Beatrice, standing at the gate of Heaven (actually a real gate on the bank of Lake Lugano). Across the lake is Monte San Salvatore and at its foot the district called Paradiso. Heaven is nearer than you think!

For Dante, the life of Heaven is not a flat sameness but one that expresses the conviction that the variety and difference we find in this life will be preserved and will produce, not strife and dissension, but a true harmony. God’s great gift of free will is now purified by his love so that we wish “no more than we have … and our own wills are thus made one with the divine”. The harmony that humans were intended to enjoy is restored. This is what we are actually praying for when we ask “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”.

Dante’s guide to Paradise is Beatrice, a young woman to whom he was devoted but who died an early death. Now, having arrived in Paradise, she embodies the full range of possibilities that she, made in the image of God, was intended to enjoy. Dante ends his Commedia with the realisation that, in seeking God, we discover what we had truly been all along: “Now my will and my desire were turned … by love that moves the sun and stars”.

This is God’s will for us all ? the joy, peace, light and truth that awaits us in Paradise.

Prayers

Lord, give us wisdom and courage to strive for a better world. May we to care for and respect the life that you give to all you have made. May we follow the example of the saints and all your faithful people in past ages.

Give wisdom to all in authority that they may learn from all in the past who have governed according to your will. May they remember that they are mortal and the works of their hands will not last for ever. May that knowledge draw them to a closer harmony that will enable them to tackle the problems of our day.

Guide the Church to follow the example of your saints in this and every age. May we be lights to the world in our generation and witness to your love with joyful praise, reverent worship and faithful service.

Bless our community and help us to share the grace which we have seen in the lives of the saints.
As we pray for our families and friends, we give you thanks for those whom we have loved but see no longer and for the generations from which our lives are drawn.

Have compassion on the bereaved. Grant them the support of human love and may they know the comfort that comes from a firm faith in the Resurrection. Receive the souls of the departed, may they be made ready to come into the light and glory of your presence.

Together with the saints, we make our prayers in the name of Jesus, our Saviour whose death has given us life. Amen.

Materials for Worship at Home for 24th October 2021

Nerys writes: At Night Service this Sunday we are joined by Hugh Donald, former director of Place for Hope and an old friend of St Mary’s. Hugh is part of a team that leads reflections at Refugio, a monthly evening gathering at Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh. Refugio is a reflective, quiet space in which people are invited to stop, and listen, and to simply be with God. I have invited Hugh to share with us a written version of his reflection and to give us a taste of Refugio in our Materials for Worship this week.

The service usually starts with a stilling practice that helps set aside the busyness and concerns of the day and enables you to become aware of who you are and of what you are feeling and experiencing in that moment. Before you read Hugh’s reflection, I invite you to take some deep breaths allowing the muscles in your body to relax so that you’re comfortable in your seat. Take a moment to fix your gaze on a candle flame or the view through your window, to listen to the sounds in the room and clear your mind of any anxious thoughts.

Hugh writes: A few years ago I was introduced to the word ‘hefted’. In his book The Shepherd’s Life, James Rebanks who is a shepherd in the Lake District talks about a kind of sheep which are described as hefted. These special sheep live out on the wild mountainsides of the Cumbrian hills. Without fences or walls, they are free to roam, always knowing the land to which they belong.

The word re-emerged for me following a recent conversation with a friend , as we talked about what church means to us, and on reflecting upon how the past 18 months bears upon that question. We explored together our need for community, places where we can encounter God through being alongside others in a mutual spirit of openness and vulnerability. So I began to wonder. Am I hefted? Where am I hefted? What might this mean in living life? As I am enjoying exploring these questions, I offer them to you.

Where am I hefted?

I look upon those sheep
roaming so freely,
out on the high crags
no fencing or walls to enclose.

Hefted sheep I am told, who
through the generations
from ewe to lamb taught
to know the land to which they belong.

Finding the right paths to take,
the places to shelter from the storms,
freely wandering, always
knowing the land to which they belong.

Where am I hefted
in these changing and uncertain days?
Anxious thoughts and doubts
that fence me in.

Might I like these sheep
need to know that I am hefted,
that place where I belong,
am held, loved, free to roam?

Take your time to think about the idea of being hefted, the sense of belonging and the freedom it contains.

Where are you hefted? Is it to a place, or to a way of being, or to someone? What does it feel like to be hefted?

Might there have been times when you have wondered away from where you are hefted and sense a need to return? These sheep seem to know the right paths to take. Do you know how to find those pathways? Who can guide you?

Having reflected on the image of the hefted sheep you may wish to turn to the verses in John chapter10 where Jesus speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd.

 

You may finish your time of reflection by listening for the voice of the Good Shepherd and responding to it in a time of prayer.

Materials for Worship at Home on 17th October

Nerys writes: I wonder what picture comes into your mind this morning when you think of Jesus? Perhaps, with Christmas goods starting to fill the shops, you’re thinking of the child in the manger. Perhaps it is a depiction of Christ on the cross – a familiar painting or a sculpture – or an image of Christ in majesty from a stained glass window.

What we find in today’s Gospel reading, however, is a dynamic image of Jesus striding purposefully towards Jerusalem with his amazed disciples just behind and a fearful crowd following at a distance as in this painting by James Tissot.

He leads the way, fully aware of the horror which lies ahead, having just warned those closest to him of it for the third time: ‘The Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the teachers of the Law. They will condemn him to death and then hand him over to the Gentiles, who will make fun of him, spit on him, whip him, and kill him and after three days he will rise again.’ With this picture in our minds, I wonder what we make of today’s passage, Mark 10.35-45?

James and John must have heard all Jesus had said but they clearly hadn’t grasped it. Their request for seats beside him in his glory couldn’t have come at a more incongruous moment. How could they have so badly misunderstood what their teacher was saying to them?

I wonder if these naturally ambitious young men had heard only what they wanted to hear? Had they fastened on to the words ‘the Son of Man’, that majestic title with its association of glory in the Old Testament, and filtered out what Jesus had said about the way his mission would be achieved? They knew he was the Messiah, the one sent by God. They had seen God’s power at work in him. It would be natural for them to think that when the victory was won and the triumph was complete, they might become chief ministers of state in God’s kingdom. If they were thinking of a Messiah of earthly power and glory, Jesus’ talk of humiliation, rejection and death didn’t make any sense. It would be easy to blot it out.

Or had they misunderstood Jesus because of wishful thinking, because they were desperate that the story of his life and theirs would have a glorious ending? I wonder if like many of us, their focus was on the end result, not the process, like children on a car journey who are only interested in the destination. Were they so fixed on the glory to come and their part in it, that they were unable to countenance the notion that the way to it would be through death on a cross?

You can’t blame them for being confused. God, through Jesus, was turning everything upside down and inside out, including the world’s ideas of power, authority and glory. Jesus had come, not to lord it over others, but to serve and to suffer and in doing so he would fulfill the great prophecy of Isaiah 53.4-12, our Old Testament reading today. He would become God’s suffering servant and any of his followers who wished to be great would need to follow his example.

Jesus makes it clear that to seek greatness is to miss it completely. The first will be last in God’s upside-down kingdom and glory will come to those who are servants of all. It’s about living for what we can do for other people rather than what we can get for ourselves. It’s about wanting to be useful – not important – enjoying working for the good of others without recognition, happy for what we do to go unnoticed and unappreciated because we are doing it in love. In God’s kingdom, glory comes from being willing to serve and to suffer. This is far from the kind of glory James and John had in mind. It is no wonder that they get it so badly wrong.

I find it so helpful that Mark here presents James and John as ordinary people, bewildered and blinkered – people that we can identify with. And yet, there is an amazing confidence and loyalty in their response to Jesus. Misguided they might be about the nature of his glory, their hearts are in the right place. They accept the challenge of their master, naively confident that they will be able to drink the cup of suffering he drinks and be swallowed by the baptism he will endure. And Jesus, in his love for them, acknowledges that they will. These are the people with whom Jesus chooses to set out to change the world. And we know that these two did suffer and die for their faith: James as one of the first Christian martyrs and John, according to tradition, after many years in prison.
October is the month in which we remember St Francis. As you prepare to pray for others, take some time to reflect on the song attributed to him which asks for a servant heart.

Make me a channel of your peace,
where there is hatred let me bring your love,
where there is injury, your pardon Lord,
and where there is doubt true faith in You.

Oh, Master grant that I may never seek
so much to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love with all my soul.

Make me a channel of your peace,
where there is despair in life let me bring hope,
where there is darkness only light
and where there’s sadness ever joy.

Make me a channel of your peace,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
it is in giving to all men that we receive
and in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Make me a channel of your peace,
where there’s despair in life let me bring hope,
where there is darkness only light
and where there’s sadness ever joy.

Material for Worship at Home for Sunday 10th October 2021

The story of the rich, young, ruler appears in three Gospels. In Luke the man is a ruler; in Matthew he’s young. Here, in Mark 10.17-31, he is simply a man who has many possessions. He’s comfortable enough in life not to come to Jesus looking for healing, or food, or with worries about his harvest, but free to pursue the good-life-to-come. That’s what wealth meant in his day. Wealth earned fairly was a blessing from God that freed a person from the daily grind so that they could serve Him. Therefore, the man approaches Jesus with no shame about his many possessions. If anything, they are his credentials which show how obedient he has been, and give him the right to ask his question, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Maybe he expected to be asked to buy shoes for everyone in Palestine, or better yet, to put all his luxurious furs into storage and accompany Jesus on his travels. Jesus, however, gives him the bog-standard, learned it in Sunday school, just like everyone else, answer: keep the commandments.

“I’ve done that, my whole life”, the man replies. And Jesus loves him. Just like that, because it’s not a pompous or frustrated reply but a plea – “I’ve done all of those things, but I know it’s not enough. I’m a rich man but I know that that’s not enough either. Neither the law nor my wealth can get me where I want. Jesus show me the way”.

He is ready for God and Jesus looks at him deeply and with compassion, longing to make the man whole, to offer him life transforming healing. Loving him, Jesus says, “You’re missing just one thing”. These aren’t words of condemnation or criticism but a call, an invitation, to confront a weakness and walk more closely with Christ. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven”, Jesus says tenderly. “Then come, follow me.”

A rich prescription for a rich man. It’s supposed to ease the anxiety of his heart, to lift the burden from his back. To enable him to be more agile by closing his earthly accounts and opening one in heaven instead. It’s a challenge to him to become something new and to interact with the world in a different way. To be defined not as rich, powerful, educated, or obedient, but free – free to God.

I’m sure that most of us know this story well. And I’m sure that a lot of us wish it was one of those forgotten instances in Jesus’ life, then we wouldn’t have to scratch our heads and wonder if Jesus really means that we have to sell all our possessions and give the money to the poor.

There’s no escaping it, however, this passage is about money. For Jesus, money is like nuclear power, or social media: able to do a lot of good in the world but only if it’s carefully regulated and contained. Most of us aren’t very good at handling it: we get contaminated by its power and contaminate others by wielding it carelessly ourselves – we want it too desperately, use it too manipulatively, believe in it too fiercely or defend it too cruelly. Every now and then someone manages to use it well, but the odds are about as good as those of a camel passing through a microchip.

However, if it were a story that was only about money, then we could scrap most of St Paul’s writings about grace and the rest of Christ’s teaching about faith, and just buy our way into heaven. But we know that that is not how it works. None of us, no matter what we do, can earn eternal life. The poor cannot buy it with their poverty any more than the wealthy can buy it with their riches. It is God’s gift to the world.

The catch is that you have to be free to receive it. You cannot be tied up in other things, have your hands full, or be otherwise engaged. I think that is why the man went away sorrowful. He understood completely that his wealth had not freed him to pursue God after all but was a ball and chain dragging behind him. And poverty scared him more than such bondage. He couldn’t believe that the opposite of rich was not poor, but free.

Eventually our friend Job will realise this (Job 23.1-9, 16-17). He’ll say that before his ears had heard of God but only now that he’s lost everything (and at the point where we’ve joined him this morning it seems like he’s lost God too) do his eyes truly see.

Afterward the man left, the only person in Mark to walk away from Christ’s invitation to follow, Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”. They were amazed, totally astonished, even though they themselves had left so much behind to follow him: their fishing nets and boats; their families; a lucrative career as a tax collector; a political cause. They had all left something. Not because it was required of them but because they wanted to. Jesus called and nothing else seemed as important anymore. Jesus was so much more real to them than anything else in their lives that following him wasn’t heroic. He’d set them free. It wasn’t their achievement. It was Christ’s gift.

And I know: the children and grandchildren, the mortgage payments, the doctor’s appointments, the climate emergency, the fuel prices, the future. I know that there are days when it does indeed seem that threading a camel through the eye of a needle is easier than following Jesus.

So, who can be saved? Who is brave enough to be free?

The questioned hasn’t changed much. But neither has the answer. For us it is impossible. But not for God. For God, all things are possible.

Loving God, you know what holds us back and the things it’s hard for us to let go of. Help us to trust in you. Give us courage. Renew our hope. Set us free by your grace to follow you and be your healing touch in the world. In Jesus name, Amen.