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Sunday Worship from the United Reformed Church for Sunday 29 October
The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, Saint Petersburg, Russia (Image: Mitya Ivanov | Unsplash)
Today’s service is led by the Revd Andy Braunston
Hello and welcome to worship. As Mumford and Sons’ song Lovers Eyes fades into the background we gather to worship anticipating All Saints Day which falls on Wednesday this week. In the song the lover wonders about the price that had to be paid for love and asks the Lord to forget youthful sins. An unhappy relationship leads into a stronger sense of walking the way. I hear the song having a sense of stumbling discipleship – the discipleship the saints were called to and to which we are also called. Our discipleship is often muddled, confused, doing the best we can and offering all that we are to God – just as the saints of old did. My name is Andy Braunston and my muddled discipleship has led me to serve as the United Reformed Church’s Minister for Digital Worship up here in Orkney – a land of warlord saints on the edge of the two kingdoms of Norway and Scotland with which it’s been connected with over the last 500 years. So now, in our muddled yet eager discipleship we come to worship and reflect on what it might mean to live as the saints did.
Call to Worship
Come all you saints, from west and east and from south and north: we come and worship God. Come all of us sinners, with our fumbling attempts at holiness: we come and worship God. Come, God’s people, saints and sinners, victorious failures and stumbling disciples: we come and worship God. Come and worship, find here, at this table, strength for the journey, forgiveness for failure and inspiration from Jesus our wounded yet triumphant Lord: we come and worship God.
HymnFor All the Saints William Walsham How 1864 sung by the choir of Worcester Cathedral
For all the saints, who from their labours rest, who Thee by faith before the world confessed, Thy Name, O Jesu, be forever blessed. Alleluia, Alleluia!
Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might; Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight; Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light. Alleluia, Alleluia!
And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong. Alleluia, Alleluia!
The golden evening brightens in the west; soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest; sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed. Alleluia, Alleluia!
But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day; the saints triumphant rise in bright array; the King of glory passes on His way. Alleluia, Alleluia!
From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast, through gates of pearl streams in the countless host, singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost: Alleluia, Alleluia!
Prayers of Approach, Confession, & Forgiveness
O Most High, we come to rest from our labours and offer our praises to You, our Rock, Fortress, and Might. We come to meet You in word and song, movement and silence, and bread and wine, knowing You hold us in the silence of Your love.
O Incarnate Word, we come to confess Your name, as committed yet muddled disciples. We see Your saints of old, Lord Jesus, and admire their tenacity, faith, and determination to proclaim You despite the cost. Forgive us when we’re distracted disciples, when our faith fails and when our Christianity is compromised, when we’d prefer to flee to ocean’s farthest coast rather than proclaim You as Lord.
O Eternal Flame of Love, give us time to change, time to see the world around us, grace to understand what proclaiming Jesus as King of Glory may mean for us now, and time to see the more glorious day that awaits us and all the saints. Amen
My friends God is gracious and kind, running with arms stretched wide in welcome when we turn back. Your sins are forgiven, have the grace to forgive yourselves and those who’ve wounded you. Amen.
Prayer of Illumination
Break open the Scriptures for us O God, that in them and in the sermon we may hear Your voice, calling, encouraging and leading us as we stumble after You. Amen
ReadingRevelation 7: 9 – 17
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
HymnHark How the Adoring Hosts Above Isaac Watts’ paraphrase of Rev 5: 11 – 14 sung by the Scottish Philharmonic Singers
Hark how the adoring hosts above, with songs surround the throne! Ten thousand, thousand are their tongues; but all their hearts are one.
Worthy the Lamb that died, they cry, to be exalted thus; worthy the Lamb, let us reply; for he was slain for us.
Thou hast redeemed us with thy blood, and set the prisoners free; thou mad’st us kings & priests to God, and we shall reign with thee.
From every kindred, every tongue, thou brought’st thy chosen race; & distant lands & isles have shared the riches of thy grace.
To him who sits upon the throne, the God whom we adore, and to the Lamb that once was slain, be glory evermore.
ReadingSt Matthew 5:1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Each morning the United Reformed Church sends out an email reading, reflection, and prayer via email and social media. These range from reading through a Biblical book or looking at various themes. Earlier this year we looked at a series on Edgy Saints. These folk were edgy because they lived on the edge of their civilizations, challenged the status quo, threatened the Church or, in one memorable case, because they were a dog! Look up the story of St Guinefort when you’ve a minute. Feedback indicated people liked to hear about these unusual saints who were rather different to the alabaster images we’re used to.
On Wednesday the Church celebrates All Saints Day when we’re invited to remember and give thanks for all those who have gone before us in the faith and whose lives and loves have influenced us. Christians disagree a bit about what a saint is. St Paul referred to the readers of his letters as saints, the writer of today’s passages from Revelation – which we’ve read and sung – saw saints as those who were martyred for the faith. The Catholic Church created a long and complex process to recognise someone as a saint, whilst older forms of the Church simply recognised locally those whom the people saw as saints – that’s how St Guinefort the canonised greyhound made it – the people acclaimed him. Churches were dedicated to saints – often in places associated with the saints. Here in Orkney St Magnus’ Cathedral contains the relics of St Magnus, who allowed himself to be martyred to keep the peace. People came to tell stories of the saints and came to love them as treasured friends. The Reformers were suspicious of all this; images and statues of saints, they held, detracted from the worship of God and much religious vandalism took place depriving Christians of images and stories that had sustained them for hundreds of years. Happily in more recent years we’re more relaxed about aspects of other Christian traditions.
Saints were supposed to inspire us to live good Christian lives. Unlike Jesus they were ordinary humans who had no special divine powers yet managed to live out the values of Jesus as exemplified in the Beatitudes we read earlier. The fact that ordinary people could live as devoted Christians was used to inspire the rest of us to live out our discipleship too. Of course saints attracted their own followers, people liked to go on pilgrimages to see relics of their favourite saints and the Church soon learned to both control the devotion to the saints and to make money from it – whether that’s something as simple as pennies for candles or donations from the rich to further the work of the Church or build a better building. And, of course, the Church had to control the stories that are told about the saints to make sure the correct lessons were learned.
Graham Greene wrote about this in his book The Power and the Glory which tells the story of the last priest who remained in a Mexican State in the 1920s persecution of the Church. In that era priests had to be licensed, foreign born priests and bishops were expelled, the Church’s property was seized and some states outlawed priests totally. In this context we meet Greene’s priest who wanders around the vast area of his parish, saying prayers for those who’d died since his last visit, officiating at marriages, baptising babies, and – in great secrecy and danger – celebrating mass for his people. As we read on we realise the priest is an alcoholic, has fathered a daughter, and becomes ever more careless – leaving his breviary at the dentists’ surgery for example. He has several chances to escape but refuses to take them and, eventually, he’s betrayed and shot. Everyone knew he was, simultaneously, a bad and a heroic priest. At the end of the book, shortly after the priest’s execution, two new priests arrive bearing little holy cards with pictures of the now martyred priest proclaiming him a saint to inspire the people. It’s fiction of course, but gets to the heart of what the Church does to make the saints safe.
In 1980 Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador was gunned down by government forces whilst celebrating mass. His crime? He’d spoken out, written and broadcast about the terror and crime inflicted by the El Salvadorean government. Originally a conservative he became more and more radical as he protested the actions of the government who, eventually, had him killed. The people proclaimed him a saint immediately; he wasn’t declared to be one until nearly 40 years later in 2018 by Pope Francis. He’d been ignored by the previous two popes both suspicious of an archbishop who challenged the status quo. Or there’s the American socialist Dorothy Day who had a rather lively youth, became committed to left wing politics, worked as a journalist and social activist before becoming a Catholic without abandoning her politics. She sheltered the homeless and tried to organise the workers along Catholic socialist lines rather than let them be evangelised by Communists. She opposed war in all its forms, becoming very unpopular in the process and was arrested several times. She died in 1973 at the age of 75 having become rather grumpy about the flower power generation. Now she’s on the way to being made a saint and it remains to be seen how much the Church try and control the stories we’ll tell about her.
Saints, of course, have always been edgy and the Church has, of course, always tried to control the stories we tell about them. Those martyred saints we read and sung about in Revelation were, of course, rebels. They refused to conform to the laws of their day choosing to worship just one God not the huge array of gods and goddesses to whom Roman society demanded lip service. Instead of asserting, as good Romans should have done, that the Emperor was Lord, they asserted that Jesus was. An assertion that means little to us now but was dangerous in the first Century. A Lord was the one who had power over you, originally the Greek meant the head of the household but the term came to be used of the Emperor, the head of the Empire. Now Christians proclaimed that Jesus, not the Emperor, was Lord. Jesus’ popular message that there was a Kingdom greater than even Rome’s, that God would provide for our needs and that even the poorest members of society would find relief and hope. This message both excited and troubled those who heard it. The belief that God raised Jesus from the dead in order to vindicate his message energised the Church with the proclamation of the Lord’s coming Kingdom. Those who then proclaimed and followed Jesus had an early statement of faith – Jesus is Lord.
This simple proclamation understood that Caesar wasn’t Lord, Jesus was. The Empire wasn’t the greatest power in the world, the Kingdom of God was. Roman Law wasn’t the ultimate authority – God’s law is. This is edgy, dangerous, political stuff. No wonder those early Christians risked martyrdom. Archbishop Romero’s assertion of these facts in his own context of a military junta ruling El Salvador in the 1970s led to his bold proclamation of God’s Kingdom and his own martyrdom. Those who, this day, gather in secret in Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and in underground churches in China risk the same for the simple proclamation that Jesus not the Ayatollah, not King Salman bin Abdulaziz, not Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un, not President Xi Jinping, is Lord. An assertion that gives life and, for some, the risk of martyrdom. Being a saint is edgy stuff.
Perhaps the saints fascinate us because they are ordinary people who do extraordinary things; like our fellow believers who gather in secret today simply to worship, pray, read the Bible, and share Communion. Dom Helder Camara, a saintly old bishop, once said that when he gave food to the poor they called him a saint but when he asked why the poor had no food they called him a Communist. Maybe it’s the saints who have to ask the hard questions; maybe that’s our role now.
Jesus’ message is, at once, simple, compelling and hard work. It’s hard to be peaceful, meek, poor, hungry and thirsty. Maybe that’s why the editor of St Matthew made Jesus say “poor in spirit” and “hungry and thirsty for righteousness” rather than Luke’s simpler, starker, “poor” and “hungry.” Matthew’s Jesus doesn’t mention the rich – Luke’s Jesus’ condemns them. The editors of Matthew were clearly early church thinkers making dangerous legacies safe.
So how might we both honour the saints, the one whom they, and we, call Lord and see paths of sanctity for us now?
First, we need to, as the saints of old did, see that the cry Jesus is Lord is deeply subversive.
• Jesus, not the market is Lord. • Jesus, not the various politicians who vie for our votes, is Lord. • Jesus, not fate, is Lord.
If we truly believe this we put our faith in God despite the buffets of the markets, political failures and the vicissitudes of fate. Jesus is Lord.
Second, we need to see the our world from the perspective of Jesus’ message. Trusting in God’s provision and not building up storehouses of treasure is a scary message in a society which holds that everyone should aspire to own their own home, have adequate pension savings, and a vibrant rainy day fund – even when more and more people can’t afford any of these things. Would a deep trust in God’s provision free us or are we too Presbyterian to leave aside our trust in both our prayers and our preparations for the future? There’s no easy answers here, other than we need to work out for ourselves what trusting in God’s provision means for us.
Then, thirdly, what might it mean to realise there’s a greater Kingdom demanding our loyalty than the passing empires and realms of our world? I like to follow politics in the rest of the UK as well as in Scotland. I’m interested in the Machiavellian moves of our leaders and our wannabe leaders; like many of you I’m more than a little interested in American politics and wonder if Mr Trump’s trials will help or hinder his bid for the White House or whether, by the time this service goes out in October things have moved on. Yet perhaps, important as these things are, I should spend a little more time thinking about the politics of God’s Kingdom and how they may be enacted in our earthly kingdom. What might it mean to show that the poor are blessed and that the hungry and thirsty will be filled with good things?
Saints are the ones who get all this. They aren’t ones who are holy in the sense of being separate, odd, or sanctimonious. Instead, saints are the ones who know that the simple claim Jesus is Lord is one that has profound implications for how we live, love, and structure our society. Saints follow as committed followers even as they are muddled disciples, confused disciples, difficult disciples and stressed disciples! Saints know that the journey of discipleship is one that takes us to the Cross; a journey where Jesus Himself stumbled and fell at least once. Let’s pray:
Lord Jesus, help us to follow You, to understand the demands that come from proclaiming you as Lord, and give us strength when we’re confused, muddled and stumbling, that, at the end, we may rise with You and see our world transformed. Amen.
A cloud of witnesses around us, a thousand echoes from the past, proclaim the One who freed and found us, and leads us on, from first to last. For such a gift, let all uplift a thousand alleluias.
A crowd, that clamours pain and anger, prevents us from nostalgic pride; the cries of poverty and hunger recall us to our Saviour’s side. There we entrust, to God most just, a thousand alleluias.
A throng of future shapes and shadows, a world that may, or may not be, names us the servants and the stewards of all the Spirit longs to see. In awe we bend, and onward send a thousand alleluias.
A rainbow-host of milling children, God’s varied image, from all lands, awakes again our founding vision, that onward, urgently expands. Give all, give more. Let love outpour a thousand alleluias.
Affirmation of Faith
We believe in God, creator of all things, who called us into being and set us in our place, in whose love we live, move, and have our being.
We believe in Jesus, son of Mary, poor carpenter from Nazareth, preacher, teacher, and challenger of empire; struck down by the powers and principalities of his age; crucified, died, and buried, but God raised Him on high, defeating death and evil; who calls us now to follow him, and acclaim him as Lord.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, fire of God’s love, sustainer of God’s people, guide through life’s complexity and comforter of the broken hearted.
We believe in the Church, the community of God’s muddled disciples, who, together, seek to love, challenge, and change our world to be a sign of the coming Kingdom which shall last to the end of the ages. Amen.
The saints’ proclamation that Jesus is Lord is a profound statement of giving. It’s about the giving up of personal choice, natural desires, and our own inclinations to follow our Risen Master. For some it’s an affirmation that endangers life even as abundant life is received. The saints understood the paradox of giving – as we give we receive so much more. We know that we have to give to sustain the work of charities for which we care about, to support loved ones and to support the work of the Church. We give in many ways, through the bank, in envelopes, through loose cash on the plate. God loves cheerful givers and is even pleased with grumpy ones! And so we give. Let us pray:
Generous God, you fill your saints with good things, showering us with blessings, easing our longings and stilling our anxieties. Bless now, we ask, these gifts that we’ve given, that we may use them wisely as we proclaim Jesus’ Lordship with our lives and our resources. Amen.
Most High, we thank You for the saints of old who understood and followed Your will; we thank You for their faithfulness and perseverance, despite opposition, stumbling paths and muddled motives.
Give your grace now to those who seek to follow you in our age: we pray for where the Church is persecuted and meeting in secret, that You give grace, energy, assurance, and purpose to those who dare lead and follow in those places;
we pray for where the Church is met with suspicion due to our sins and failings, that those who have been wounded by Your people will find healing, perpetrators find justice, and Your people find renewed humility;
and we pray for where the Church is met with indifference, that we may live out our calling to understand the meaning of our proclamation that Jesus is Lord.
Lord, in your mercy…hear our prayer.
Risen Lord, Your mother proclaimed that the world was about to turn, and You preached good news to the poor, freedom to the captive, and release to the oppressed. Yet we prefer the world as it is, to accumulate more rather than trust in God, seek ways of war rather than paths of peace, and find ever more ingenious ways to imprison people. Help us to be faithful and, like your saints of old, persevere, despite opposition, stumbling paths and muddled motives. Teach us, Lord Jesus, to truly live our calling to understand the meaning of our proclamation that You are Lord.
Lord, in your mercy…hear our prayer.
Most Holy Spirit, despite appearances we believe You guide the Church, and that You guide us. Help us to listen more keenly when You speak to us, help us to hear You when you use unlikely voices, social movements, and people outwith the Church, to inspire us to follow. Help us to be faithful and, like your saints of old, persevere, despite opposition, stumbling paths and muddled motives. Teach us, Holy Wisdom, to truly live our calling to understand the meaning of our proclamation that Jesus is Lord.
Lord, in your mercy…hear our prayer.
Eternal God, light in our darkness, comfort of the saints, guide of the perplexed, we lift before You, in the silence of our hearts, all those whom we love and worry about.
We join all our prayers together as we pray as Jesus taught….
The Lord’s Prayer
HymnJesus Invites His Saints Isaac Watts sung by Lythan and Phil Nevard
Jesus invites his saints to meet around his board; here pardoned rebels sit, and hold communion with their Lord. For food he gives his flesh, he bids us to drink his blood; amazing favour! matchless grace of our descending God!
This holy bread and wine maintains our fainting breath, by union with our living Lord, and interest in his death. Our heavenly Father calls Christ and his members one; we the young children of his love, and he the first-born son.
We are but several parts of the same broken bread; one body hath its several limbs, but Jesus is the head. Let all our powers be joined his glorious name to raise; pleasure and love fill every mind and every voice be praise.
O Most High, before the ages You loved and called us to be Your people, through fire, cloud, and precious law, You guided our stumbling footsteps, tabernacling with us as we followed You into the wilderness. Later, Your prophets reminded us, again and again, to look to You and not to human rulers for salvation. In the tragedy of defeat and exile You taught us to hope. In the fullness of time You came to tabernacle with us; Jesus, born of Mary, taught us to rely on You, to feed the poor and hungry, free the imprisoned, and proclaim liberation to the oppressed. He healed the sick and through stories taught us how to love, value and care for each other. He sent his confused disciples out to proclaim the Gospel, and subverted the powers of his age. For this he was betrayed, given over to torture and shameful death. Yet You raised him on high, vindicating his message and his ministry, and sent the Holy Spirit on us, muddled disciples that we are, to continue Jesus’ work of loving subversion.
Send now that same Spirit on these gifts of bread and wine, that as we eat and drink these gifts, You lift us into your presence, fill us with Your love, empower us anew, and feed us with Your very self.
Surrounded by the mighty cloud of Your saints, we remember the night when Jesus was betrayed and handed over to the powers and principalities of darkness. Before his betrayal he sat ate with his friends and, during the meal, he took some bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them saying:
Take this all of you and eat it, this is my body, broken for you.
Later, after Supper was over he took some wine, blessed it, and gave it to his friends saying:
Take this all of you and drink from it, for this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for many so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me.
Let us proclaim the mystery of our faith:
Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!
Risen Lord Jesus, You meet us here in these simple gifts of bread and wine, through which You feed us Your body and blood. Strengthen our stumbling footsteps, encourage our muddled discipleship, renew our faltering energy, that we may proclaim you Lord in our lives and our loves, in our society and in our values, that we may subvert the powers of this age, as the saints of old subverted the principalities of theirs, that Your Kingdom may come and all Your people be freed. Amen.
These are God’s holy gifts for God’s holy people. The body and blood of Christ are given for us, let us eat and drink in God’s holy presence.
Music for CommunionA Mighty Fortress is Our God sung by Koine
Post Communion Prayer
Strengthen for service, Lord, the hands that holy things have taken; let the half blocked ears that now have heard your songs to clamour never waken. May the faltering tongues which ‘Holy’ sang keep free from all deceiving; the half-closed eyes which saw your love be bright, Your blessèd hope perceiving. May the stumbling feet that tread in Your holy courts not be banished from Your light; the famished bodies by Your Body fed be replenished with Your new life. Amen
My soul cries out with a joyful shout that the God of my heart is great, and my spirit sings of the wondrous things that you bring to the ones who wait. You fixed your sight on your servant’s plight, and my weakness you did not spurn, so, from east to west shall my name be blessed. Could the world be about to turn? My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!
2 Though I am small, my God, my all, you work great things in me. And your mercy will last from the depths of the past to the end of the age to be. Your very name puts the proud to shame, and to those who would for you yearn. You will show your might, put the strong to flight, for the world is about to turn. My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!
From the halls of power to the fortress tower, not a stone will be left on stone. Let the king beware for your justice tears ev’ry tyrant from his throne. The hungry poor shall weep no more, for the food they can never earn; there are tables spread,ev’ry mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn. My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!
Though the nations rage from age to age, we remember who holds us fast: God’s mercy must deliver us from the conqueror’s crushing grasp. This saving word that our forebears heard is the promise that holds us bound, ‘til the spear and rod can be crushed by God, who is turning the world around. My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn!
May the One who inspired the saints of old, who guided them in good times and bad, and who urged them to subvert unjust social orders, inspire, guide and urge you – God’s humble, stumbling, saints to be all you were created and called to be. And may the blessing of Almighty God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be with you and all whom you love, now and always, Amen.
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