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Sunday Worship from the United Reformed Church for Sunday 5 November
Today’s service is led by the Revd Walt Johnson
Call to Worship
O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good. God’s steadfast love endures forever! From the East and West, from the North and the South, we come. And the Lord has saved us. In our times of need, we have cried to the Lord. And God has led us out of our distress. Wonderful are the Lord’s works to humankind. Let us tell of God’s deeds with songs of joy. Let us call on the name of the Lord, our God: Who was, who is, and who is to come.
This lively song, written by Sidney Carter in 1963 and sung to The Shaker Melody, retells Jesus’ time on Earth. It was not an easy life. He was questioned, criticised, persecuted and eventually executed at the hands of the religious leaders of His own people. In today’s Gospel reading, we read Jesus’ words against hypocritical religious leaders.
I danced in the morning when the world was begun, and I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun; and I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth, at Bethlehem I had my birth.
Dance, then, wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the Dance, said he, and I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be, and I’ll lead you all in the Dance, said he.
I danced for the scribe and the pharisee, but they would not dance and they wouldn’t follow me. I danced for the fishermen, for James and John – they came with me and the Dance went on.
I danced on the Sabbath and I cured the lame; the holy people said it was a shame. They whipped and they stripped and they hung me on high, and they left me there on a cross to die.
I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black – it’s hard to dance with the devil on your back. They buried my body and they thought I’d gone, but I am the Dance, and I still go on.
They cut me down and I leapt up high; I am the life that’ll never, never die; I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me – I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.
Prayer of Approach
Creator God, we come to come You today as we are. We give You thanks for the freedom we enjoy to worship You. We remember our brothers and sisters in Christ who must worship You in secret. We come with the joy and the sadness in our hearts. We come with our strength and our weakness. We come with our health and our illness. We offer this time to you today: to bring to You the burdens of our hearts and minds; to raise our voices and our souls in worship to You; to hear Your word – that we might be strengthened and renewed in the days ahead. You lead us in Your truth in the perfect example of Your love in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Help us by your Spirit to worship You. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Prayer of Confession
There are times when we have all failed to love others, failed to love God, and we have even failed to love ourselves. We bring these now to God. Listen for the Words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
Short period of silence
Lord God, most merciful, we confess that we have sinned, through our own fault, in thought, word and deed, and through what we have left undone. We ask to be forgiven. By the power of your Spirit, change us to do good, help us to forgive others, and keep us in Your ways of righteousness and love; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Our second song was written by Isaac Watts over 300 years ago. Its message is just as relevant today. How can we respond to God’s mercy and forgiveness, that we do not receive what we do deserve? How can we respond to God’s grace, that we receive that which God freely gives.
Hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross Isaac Watts, 1707, Public Domain. Courtesy of St Andrew’s Cathedral & Choir, Sydney, Australia.
When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died, my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.
Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, save in the death of Christ my God! all the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to His blood.
See from His head, His hands, His feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down! Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?
His dying crimson, like a robe, spreads o’er his body on the tree; then I am dead to all the Globe, and all the Globe is dead to me.
Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.
Prayer of Illumination
Lord Jesus, You who are the Word made flesh: You say to us: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes the mouth of God.”
Lord Jesus, You say to us: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
Lord Jesus, our prayer is in the words of Your disciples at Emmaus: “Were our hearts not burning within us while… he was opening the scriptures to us?” Amen.
Shortly, we will hear the Scriptures read us to. We put into song our prayer for illumination.
In my life, Lord, be glorified, be glorified. In my life Lord, be glorified today.
In Your Church, Lord…
In our hearts, Lord…
In my life, Lord….
Leaders. We find them in every expression of human community. The dictionary defines a ‘leader’ as “a person who rules, guides or inspires others”. In many ways, parents lead their children. At school, the class teacher leads the children; in turn, the headteacher leads the school. Many young people have their first experiences of leadership in roles such as form-captain, team-captain in sport, even specific roles in uniformed organisations such as the Scout-movement or cadet forces.
In our democracy, individuals are selected by their peers as having the necessary skills to lead – their suitability and on-going service is determined in elections.
In business and public service, individuals are promoted to lead others based on their merits and achievements.
What about the church? That depends on the denomination. In the United Reformed Church, the authority rests with the church meeting to elect elders, who alongside the minister, lead the congregation. These elders and ministers comprise the other councils of the church – Synod and General Assembly.
If we take a moment to reflect… who are the leaders whom you have experienced in your life who have been good, and those who have inspired you?
And what about poor leaders – ones who have been ineffective or absent? Or worse, those who may have abused their positions and power?
In the UK today, 5 November, some will be remembering Guy Fawkes and the plot which sought to overthrow the incumbent leaders of his day. Do you remember the 1980s political comedy “Yes, Minister”? Jim Hacker once said: “It’s the people’s will. I am their leader. I must follow them.”
And what happens when leadership changes? When there is a new headteacher of a school? A new boss at work? A new political party in power? A new minister in our church pastorate? Uncertainty and expectation are just two emotions which may ensue.
When we start reading the Old Testament with Exodus, we read about Moses, the leader of Israel. With God’s help, he led them out of slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness and receiving God’s law at Sinai, and as far as the Promised Land.
The book of Deuteronomy ends with Moses’ death: he only gets to see the Promised Land from the top of Mount Nebo, where he died. The leadership passes to Joshua. The reading we are about to hear concerns the start of Joshua’s leadership.
Reading Joshua 3: 3 – 17
The Lord said to Joshua, ‘This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses. You are the one who shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, “When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.”’ Joshua then said to the Israelites, ‘Draw near and hear the words of the Lord your God.’ Joshua said, ‘By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites: the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan. So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap.’
When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people. Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing towards the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho. While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.
Sermon Part 2
Moses is revered as a great leader of the people; and he led them under God’s guidance. But he was far from perfect. After all, he had killed an Egyptian and fled to Midian which led to his first encounter with God at the burning-bush. Moses was often annoyed by the stubborn people he led. His own impatience at Meribah was the reason cited in Numbers why Moses was not allowed by God to enter the Promised Land.
Joshua is the new leader. In this passage, we see God’s action to confirm Joshua in this role – “in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that [the Lord] will be with you, as He was with Moses.”
This reading is a retelling of the crossing of the Red Sea (sometimes called the Sea of Reeds). We see the familiar dividing of the water. The flow of the River Jordan is held back, and the people cross over on dry land. (The Jordan river flows South through the Sea of Galilee down to the Dead Sea.) There are three things which confirm Joshua as leader over Israel and Moses’ successor. Firstly, we have the Divine action damming the river and allowing the people to cross dry-shod, fulfilling God’s promise to lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land.
Secondly, we have the Ark, the symbol of God’s covenant – the Law – which directs all aspects of the lives of God’s people.
Thirdly, we have the Lord commanding Joshua to select one person from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, symbolic of the whole people. The Twelve have a further role if you keep reading into Joshua chapter 4.
If you watched the Coronation of HM King Charles III back in May, you will have seen similar symbolic actions and words spoken by individuals who represent the people of the UK and the Commonwealth, thus recognising the new King’s authority and position.
While ceremonies are important, the words and deeds of a new leader are more important. That is how they will be respected (or not) by those whom they lead; and how history will judge them.
Reading on, in Joshua 4:14 we find: “On that day, the Lord exalted Joshua in the sight of all Israel; and they stood in awe of him, as they had stood in awe of Moses, all the days of his life.”
If we are a leader, or if we have been a leader – what will be, what is our legacy?
For Israel, the quality of leadership went downhill from there: if you read further in the Old Testament through the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, there are plenty of bad leaders – just as we would find in any history textbook about any country or empire.
This week’s Lectionary readings also offer us responses to poor leadership. In Psalm 43, we read of the cry to God in the face of oppression and injustice. In Micah 3, we find God’s word through the prophet condemning corrupt and unjust leaders. In 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul describes good and Godly leadership in the church.
But the harshest words against bad leaders were spoken by Jesus. While Jesus could have spoken out against the Imperial Roman rule, He didn’t. While Jesus could have spoken out against the corrupt and decadent rule of Herod, He didn’t.
Jesus’ harshest words were against the Jewish religious leaders, which we find in this week’s set Gospel reading, but I’ve deliberately extended the reading by two verses to include the harshest of Jesus’ harsh words.
ReadingSt Matthew 23: 1 – 14
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practise what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
‘But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.’
Sermon Part 3
When I read the Gospels, I always find it useful to consider the passage in the wider context of the book.
This passage is in the final block of teaching which begins in Matthew 21, after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and continues to the end of Matthew 25. In these chapters, there are occasional references to Jesus’ teaching taking place in the Temple.
The preceding chapter (22) ends with Gospel writer telling us that no-one (meaning the Pharisees and other religious leaders) dared ask Jesus any more questions! So even though today’s passage does not explicitly mention the Pharisees and other religious leaders being present, it is very likely that they were there, or not too far out of earshot.
But the passage is silent as to the crowd’s reactions. Were there murmured noises of agreement? Depending on the tone of Jesus’ delivery, He may have reduced the crowd to laughing in His parody of the Pharisees’ misuse of power? Imagine perhaps the tone used by modern-day political satirists…
Jesus begins His criticism of the religious leaders with reference to Moses’ seat. This is the seat mentioned in Exodus 18:13, where Moses acted as judge for the people and their day-to-day issues which required adjudication. For Jews, Moses is the example of a good and Godly leader. Jesus, however, sees the Pharisees and others as anything but: they are usurpers, unfit to lead.
That, too, was Guy Fawkes’ assertion when he conspired with Thomas and Robert Wintour to destroy the building where the most powerful in the land ruled.
Jesus goes on to explain, summarised in these words: “they do not practise what they teach”. He then gives examples, particularly the things they do for show. At the end of the passage, Jesus bluntly calls such people “hypocrites”.
Rarely does a week go by without some new revelation in some organisation where the leadership has been woefully lacking. For over two years now, UK politics has been dealing with the aftermath of Party-Gate: hypocritical politicians who made rules for the many, but they chose to act as if those rules did not apply to them. What are the consequences? Respect for elected lawmakers is eroded. Leadership has failed.
Hypocrisy is often a criticism also levelled at churches and Christians, often cited as a reason why some people do not attend church. There are too many occasions when those frequent scandals in the news have involved church organisations. Again, leadership, and leadership by example has failed.
For me, Jesus’ harshest words to the Pharisees are in verse 13: “you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven”. Elsewhere in Matthew, Jesus’ likens His death and resurrection to the miracle of the prophet Jonah. Jonah was grumpy prophet – instead of rejoicing over Nineveh’s repentance, he was angry at God for saving them!
Who did Jonah think he was? Who did these Pharisees think they were? Who do some churches think they are? It is not up to humans to choose whom God loves.
In my time, I have met so many people who have felt that the church has rejected them. Many of them have even been told so to their face by church leaders. How dare they! God loves every person – everyone in the amazingly diverse creation!
Going back to my introduction, when I invited us to consider examples of good leaders we have met in our lives. They were almost certainly people who drew others in, welcomed and encouraged them. They were the people who spent quality time with us and got to know us. They were not just leaders: they were servants, too.
Moses and Joshua were such leaders. Jesus Himself is such a leader. On the night that Jesus was betrayed, he humbled himself, and as a servant, He washed His Disciples’ feet. Finally, Jesus teaches us that to be a good leader: “The greatest among you will be your servant”.
Our next hymn is called “Let Us Build A House”, but more commonly known by the first line of the refrain “All are welcome”. It may seem like a straightforward intention, but to be honestly welcoming to all is a genuinely difficult calling.
Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live, a place where saints and children tell how hearts learn to forgive. Built of hopes and dreams and visions, rock of faith and vault of grace; here the love of Christ shall end divisions:
All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.
Let us build a house where prophets speak, and words are strong and true, where all God’s children dare to seek to dream God’s reign anew. Here the Cross shall stand as witness and as symbol of God’s grace; here as one we claim the faith of Jesus:
Let us build a house where love is found in water, wine and wheat: a banquet hall on holy ground where peace and justice meet. Here the love of God, through Jesus, is revealed in time and space; as we share in Christ the feast that frees us:
Let us build a house where hands will reach beyond the wood and stone to heal and strengthen, serve and teach, and live the Word they’ve known. Here the outcast and the stranger bear the image of God’s face; let us bring an end to fear and danger:
Let us build a house where all are named, their songs and visions heard and loved and treasured, taught and claimed as words within the Word. Built of tears and cries and laughter, prayers of faith and songs of grace, let this house proclaim from floor to rafter:
Affirmation of Faith
We believe in God – the Shorthand: Shorthand for justice and love, Shorthand for dignity and compassion, Shorthand for humanity’s deep spiritual yearning, Shorthand for courage, beauty, and extra miles. The Shorthand of parent-language, of creator-language: speaking of the divine permeating all life. The Shorthand of son-language: speaking of the intimacy of this God, the human-being-Jesus expressing love and grace, beyond imagining. The Shorthand of spirit-language: speaking of the on-going desire to reach for tomorrow’s day, to be the doers of beauty and the tellers of good. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Prayers of Concern
At the bidding, “Lord of hope, lead us out of darkness…”, please respond with, “…and lead us into light”.
Loving God, our Prince of peace: we pray for those in the dark brutality of war and conflict. We cry out to You for the people whose lives are broken and torn apart by violence. We pray for those who put themselves in harm’s way to protect others. Lord of hope, lead us of out of darkness… …and lead us into light.
Son of God, your Word says to us, You have nowhere to lay Your head. We pray for those who no longer have a safe place to live. We pray for refugees and asylum seekers: for those fleeing war, for those escaping injustice and persecution. We pray for those who stand alongside others.Lord of hope, lead us of out of darkness… …and lead us into light. Lord Jesus, You who are the Cornerstone of the Church, we pray to you. We pray for ever-greater unity in Your church. We weep when we hear how some who claim to speak in Your name deny Your love to others. We pray for our United Reformed Church. We give thanks for and ask your blessing on those taking the first steps in faith… Lord of hope, lead us of out of darkness… …and lead us into light.
Compassionate God, we despair when we see those whom we love are in pain – in body, mind or spirit. We pray for wholeness. We rejoice when they again know peace. In a moment of silence, we pray for those known to us…. pause
Lord of hope, lead us of out of darkness… …and lead us into light.
Blessed Saviour, we pray for ourselves… pause
Lord of hope, lead us of out of darkness… …and lead us into light.
We bring all our prayers together, as we say the prayer Jesus taught to us say…
Our Father in heaven hallowed be your name! Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil. For the Kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever, Amen.
This lively, quirky song reminds us that our God is the best leader, and that on our journey through our lives individually and together, God will always be with us.
“Moses, I know you’re the man” the Lord said. “You’re going to work out my plan,” the Lord said. “Lead all the Israelites out of slavery, and I will make them a wandering race called the people of God.”
“Don’t get too set in your ways” the Lord said. “Each step is only a phase” the Lord said. “I’ll go before you and I shall be a sign to guide my travelling wandering race. You’re the people of God.”
So ev’ry day hey we’re on our way, for we’re a travelling, wandering race called the people of God.
“No matter what you may do,” the Lord said. “I shall be faithful and true,” the Lord said. “My love will strengthen you as you go along, for you’re my travelling wandering race, You’re the people of God.”
“Look at the birds in the air,” the Lord said. “They fly unhampered by care,” the Lord said. “You will move easier if you’re travelling light for you’re a wandering vagabond race. You’re the people of God.”
“Foxes have places to go,” the Lord said. “But I’ve no home here below”, the Lord said. “So if you want to be with me all your days, keep up the moving and travelling on You’re the people of God.”
Thank you for joining in with our worship today. We close with some verses from Scripture (John 14:27; Numbers 6:24-26)
Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord turn His smile towards you and give you peace. Amen.
Prayer of Confession from the URC Worship Book, 4th Order for Communion with an introduction by Walt Johnson. Affirmation of Faith from the URC Worship Book(Encircled By Prayer) by John Humphreys. All other material by Walt Johnson.
Opening Music: Adagio by Bennett (1735-1784), Jenny Gill Crawley URC
Closing Music: Trio du premier ton by Jacques Boyvin (1650 – 1706), Man IV, Jenny Gill Crawley URC – 2021
Thanks to Sharon Lloyd, Lorraine Webb, Graham Handscomb, Sarah Wilmott, Kath Haynes, Sue Cresswell, and Diana Cullum-Hall for recording the spoken parts of the service.
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