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Sunday Worship from the United Reformed Church for Sunday 8 March 2023
Today’s service is led by the Revd Dr Phil Wall
Call to Worship
Today is Sunday, a day when Christians across the globe gather together. We gather as communities of faith in God’s created world.
We gather to celebrate that no darkness can extinguish light, to remember that love will always be more powerful than death
and to trust that God will never abandon us. Hope never dies. We gather, people of faith in the light of God’s love.
God’s Spirit is in my heart, He has called me and set me apart. This is what I have to do, what I have to do.
Just as the Father sent me, so I’m sending you out to be my witnesses throughout the world, the whole of the world.
He sent me to give the Good News to the poor, tell prisoners that they are prisoners no more, tell blind people that they can see, and set the downtrodden free, and go tell everyone the news that the Kingdom of God has come, and go tell everyone the news that God’s Kingdom has come.
Don’t worry what you have to say, Don’t worry because on that day God’s Spirit will speak in your heart, will speak in your heart.
Prayers of Approach, Confession and Forgiveness
Loving God, on this first day you began creation, bringing light and life out of chaos. On this first day you began your new creation, raising Jesus Christ as the first fruit of all creation. On this first day we once again join all your works in praising you for the glory of your creation, the limitless of your grace, the depth of your love.
So we thank you for the glimpses of goodness that we’ve seen this week – the food and drink which have sustained our bodies; the friends, family and strangers who have blessed our daily living; the words of hope that have graced our hearing. We thank you, too, for this beautiful, fragile world in which we live and for the possibility of responding to you through it in wonder and service.
Magnificent God, we soak ourselves in your grace. Rid us of any shame, guilt, or fear that clings to us. Help us to believe that, as children of your love, we are free to begin again – to love and be loved – through Jesus Christ our brother and Saviour. Amen.
Prayer for Illumination
God who listens and speaks today, give us open ears, hearts, and minds, that we may hear your words of wonder, challenge, and comfort. Amen.
Sermon Part 1
After eight amazing years in Pontypridd, South Wales, last November, I packed up my worldly belongings, crossed the Severn, and headed to Wolverton near Milton Keynes, where I have joined a fab new church, dipped my toe into Christian community living, and started work as chaplain to the children and staff at Oakhill. It’s been quite the ride and a somewhat steep learning curve!
My current role is certainly no more challenging than being a pastorate minister – it just comes with different challenges and blessings, not least the opportunity to work with and learn from a group – in terms of age, social demographic, and context – with which the wider church has difficulty in engaging. I’m still working out what church and God’s good news looks like inside but I do know, from the experience of a close family member, that prison chaplaincy and a welcoming local church community, can both play a crucial role in helping individuals transform their lives, with a whole dollop of God’s grace, of course!
For those of you who might be interested in reflecting on these issues further, I recommend you looking up The Welcome Directory and the Prisons Week website for more ideas on how you could support those who are residing or working in prisons. After all, while committed Christian Fyodor Dostoevsky claimed that ‘a society should be judged not by how it treats its outstanding citizens but by how it treats its criminals’, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus puts it even more starkly than that!
This year’s Prison Week material is taken from the Psalms – that wonderful collection of poetic and powerful, wistful and wrathful, sensual and sublime songs of praise that have echoed down through the generations. And – as someone who can never resist a list or a ‘top 3’ – I wonder…do you have a favourite?
Is there a psalm you come back to on a regular basis; one which resounds with God’s goodness for you; or one which reminds you of a beloved person or place? Do you go for the classic 23rd, or hum along with Boney M to 137? Do you, perhaps, ‘look to the hills’ (Psalm 121) for help or are you more a ‘crying for mercy from the pit’ (Psalm 28) type? Do you gaze into the mirror each morning and declare ‘I am fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139) or do you end your days uttering the line that is so brilliantly and defiantly repeated in Psalm 136 – that God’s love endures forever?!
Perhaps, if you have time, pause for just a second, and consider that question – what is your favourite psalm – and, if you feel particularly daring, share your thoughts in twos or threes…
As for me, one that would definitely make it into the top 3 would be Psalm 40. Not least because U2 often end their live gigs with a captivating version of it, miraculously turning a loud stadium rock concert into a thin place of praise. Let’s hear from that Psalm now…
Reading: Psalm 40:1-11
I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord. Happy are those who make the Lord their trust, who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods. you have multiplied, O Lord my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts towards us; none can compare with you. Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted.
Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt-offering and sin-offering you have not required. Then I said, ‘Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.’
I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O Lord. I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.
Do not, O Lord, withhold your mercy from me; let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe for ever.
Sermon Part 2
It’s a beautiful Psalm, isn’t it? One of David’s best, I reckon. ‘I waited patiently for the Lord…He put a new song in my mouth…You have multiplied your wondrous deeds and thoughts towards us’ – uplifting, encouraging stuff. And that’s where the lectionary usually leaves things – at the end of verse 11 with David petitioning God to ‘let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe for ever’. In fact, most versions of this psalm – from U2’s song to contemporary translations like ‘The Word on the Street’ – end things on that note. Which is more than a little odd for David has given us six more verses to ponder and things take something of a turn!
Reading: Psalm 40:12-17
For evils have encompassed me without number; my iniquities have overtaken me, until I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails me.
Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me; O Lord, make haste to help me. Let all those be put to shame and confusion who seek to snatch away my life; let those be turned back and brought to dishonour who desire my hurt. Let those be appalled because of their shame who say to me, ‘Aha, Aha!’
But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation say continually, ‘Great is the Lord!’ As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God.
God! When human bonds are broken and we lack the love or skill to restore the hope of healing, give us grace and make us still.
Through that stillness, with your Spirit come into our world of stress, for the sake of Christ forgiving all the failures we confess.
You in us are bruised and broken: hear us as we seek release from the pain of earlier living; set us free and grant us peace.
Send us, God of new beginnings, humbly hopeful into life; use us as a means of blessing: make us stronger, give us faith.
Give us faith to be more faithful, give us hope to be more true, give us love to go on learning: God! Encourage and renew!
Sermon Part 3
“For evils have encompassed me without number” David continues, “Iniquities have overtaken me until I cannot see. They are more than the hairs of my head and my heart fails me.”
What on Earth has happened here?! Where have the joy, delight and praise suddenly gone? We started by waiting patiently for God and now David tells God to make haste and not delay (v 13 & 17). Before, it was God’s wondrous deeds that could not be counted; now it’s the evils which have encompassed the psalmist. Earlier, we were hearing of God’s love and faithfulness to everyone, now the psalmist cannot even see because of the sins which have engulfed him!
No wonder the psalm gets unceremoniously chopped in two, for it’s all just a bit awkward! I mean, do we really want to bring in these negative thoughts right in the middle of our praise? It feels a little like being stuck with the grumpy uncle at a family Birthday party!
And yet…I wonder how many of us can relate to this tension? I wonder how many of us have felt anxious or angry, in doubt or difficulty, struggling with our lives, relationships or faith but hide or chop that part of us off when at church, for it’s so much easier to give a ‘I’m fine thanks”, after coffee than to open that can of worms!
Certainly that’s true of a lot of the young people with whom I work. In fact, within the field of criminology, there’s even a frequently used term for this – it’s ‘knifing off’. It means severing yourself off from the parts of your life or even yourself that have led you to the place you find yourself in today. At it’s best, it can mean trying to find more healthy environments, peer groups, values which can lead to a better life and a decreased chance of making the same mistakes of the past. But the shadow side of this can lead to the unrealistic view that the more damaging, painful, dangerous parts of ourselves have been cut out forever and left with ‘those other there’ so that ‘us over here’ can be healthy and whole, pure and perfect, with no risk of making those same mistakes again.
And if that’s a view you want to be endorsed, there are plenty of self-help books which will confirm that possibility. The Bible, thank God, seems to offer us a different picture. One that says we can be like the former shepherd-boy who was a man after God’s own heart, and like the power-crazed King who abused Bathsheba and killed Uriah. One that says one day we can be on a mountain top with God, and the next get told to ‘get behind me, Satan’. One that says we can confidently sing God’s praises and question God’s apparent distance in the very same psalm, with no need for self-censure.
And isn’t this the very model we find in Jesus? At a time when the religious leaders said that only the right people could approach God once they had performed the right rituals in the right ways, Jesus invites tax collectors, fishermen, sex workers to ‘come and see’. At a time when it was said that some were too unimportant, too young, too criminal to approach God, Jesus spent time with the outcasts, welcomed children, and promised paradise to a thief on a cross. At a time when many felt excluded, different, awkward or unloved, God came as a human, to eat with us, laugh with us, cry with us…to live, die and rise again to show us that God loves us completely and unconditionally. With our flaws and our foibles, God loves us. With our public mistakes and private doubts, God loves us. In times of thanksgiving and times of despair, God loves us. Every one of us.
Does this mean that we have to be bare all when at church? Of course not. Does it mean that there is no place for repentance and change for the offender – by no means. Does it mean that we have no need to wrestle with the darkness? No – get your spandex on and get stuck in! Yet what it does mean that even in those shadow times when doubt or guilt or anger, even with God, may seem to engulf us, God says back to us, ‘Here I am, my beloved child, I know you completely; I love you unconditionally’. It means trying not to judge others on the worst mistake they’ve made, rather to seek out God’s image that is yet within them. It means daring to be honest about our doubts and disappointments, safe in the knowledge that God’s pool of grace has no lanes or limits.
This week, then, we might want to use the prisons week prayers to remember those who are so often ‘knifed off’ from society but who are welcomed, worthy, and wanted in God’s house. We might want to return again to the words of Psalm 40, sharing both our troubles and our triumphs with God. We might want to just take a moment to be thankful that we can bring our whole selves to the God whose kingdom, good news, and love are for us all. Amen.
I will speak out for those who have no voices. I will stand up for the rights of all the oppressed. I will speak truth and justice. I’ll defend the poor and the needy. I will lift up the weak in Jesus’ name.
I will speak out for those who have no choices. I will cry out for those who live without love. I will show God’s compassion to the crushed and broken in spirit. I will lift up the weak in Jesus’ name.
For the beauty of misty mornings, shiny conkers, and the hush of evening light… For the comfort of Strictly and Bake Off, the wonder of a new day, the chance for a fresh start… For the kindness of strangers, the familiarity of friends, the love of family…
Gracious God, in all that is good and beautiful and life giving we encounter you and we give you thanks.
Now let’s look again at the past week, because woven in amongst the good stuff will have been events and experiences- in our lives, the lives of others, or in the life of our world – that have been difficult and challenging or sad and frightening…and in God’s presence let’s remember them…
(a time of stillness)
For those who suffer in mind, body, or spirit…(pause) For the dying and bereaved…(pause) For those imprisoned by bars, addiction, or poverty…(pause) For those striving for the transformation of the world…(pause) For the people and places on our hearts and minds today…(pause)
Living God, we pray for justice and healing; for grace and transformation; for compassion and understanding. As we think of those who reside in prisons; who have been victims of crime; or who work within the criminal justice system, we pray the prison week prayer remembering that –
Lord, you offer freedom to all people. We pray for those in prison. Break the bonds of fear and isolation that exist. Support with your love prisoners and their families and friends, prison staff and all who care. Heal those who have been wounded by the actions of others, especially the victims of crime. Help us to forgive one another, to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly together with Christ in his strength and in his Spirit, now and every day.
All this and more we ask in the name of Jesus the Christ, who taught us to pray, saying: Our Father…
For the healing of the nations, Lord, we pray with one accord, for a just and equal sharing of the things that earth affords. To a life of love in action help us rise and pledge our word.
Lead us forward into freedom; from despair your world release, that, redeemed from war and hatred, all may come and go in peace. Show us how through care and goodness fear will die and hope increase.
All that kills abundant living, let it from the earth be banned: pride of status, race, or schooling, dogmas that obscure your plan. In our common quest for justice may we hallow life’s brief span.
You, Creator God, have written your great name on humankind. For our growing in your likeness, bring the life of Christ to mind that by our response and service earth its destiny may find.
May the Christ who walks on wounded feet walk with us on the road. May the Christ who serves with wounded hands stretch out our hands to serve. May the Christ who spoke forgiveness from a cross open our hearts to forgive.
May we see the face of Christ in everyone we meet. May everyone we meet see the face of Christ in us.
And may the blessing of God – Creator, Christ, and Comforter – rest on us and spill out on those we meet this week, so that all may know of God’s extravagant, eternal love. Amen
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