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URC Daily Devotions Service Sunday 13th September 2020
The Rev’d Gethin Rhys
Bore da – Good morning from Wales – (or if, like us, you listen to this service as you light your ecumenical candle at 7pm – Noswaith dda – Good evening). Croeso – welcome to the study in my home in Heath in Cardiff.
I was working late in my office in the city centre on March 16th this year, and heard Boris Johnson tell us that we should start working from home. I collected up my things and since that evening this has been my work place, as I continue to represent Cytûn, Churches Together in Wales (including the United Reformed Church) in discussions with Welsh Government and the Senedd, the Welsh Parliament, not only about Coronavirus, but about all the things in public life with which we as churches are concerned. Fiona, my wife, who will also take part in this service, works in our lounge for Helpforce, shaping volunteering in health and social care. So although we may not often these days get out into the wider world, it certainly comes in to us. Call to Worship
One: To all who are imprisoned, Many: God says, “Come out.”
One: To all who are living in darkness, Many: God says, “Show yourselves”
One: To all who hunger and thirst, Many: God gives food and springs of water.
One: To all who are far away, Many: God makes smooth the way home. God will not forget us, we are inscribed on the palms of His hands.
Hymn: Dear Lord and Father of Mankind John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892)
Dear Lord and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways! Re-clothe us in our rightful mind, in purer lives Thy service find, in deeper reverence, praise.
2: In simple trust like theirs who heard beside the Syrian sea the gracious calling of the Lord, let us, like them, without a word rise up and follow Thee.
3: Drop Thy still dews of quietness, till all our strivings cease; take from our souls the strain and stress, & let our ordered lives confess the beauty of Thy peace.
4: Breathe through the heats of our desire Thy coolness and Thy balm; let sense be dumb, let flesh retire; speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire, O still, small voice of calm.
Prayers of Approach, Confession and Forgiveness
When we are irritated for the seventh time and it feels like 70 times seven… Help us to remember your patience with us.
When we are asked to be patient again and again…. Help us to remember your pity for us.
When our pity is taken for granted again and again…. Help us to remember your challenge to us.
When we challenge unfairness over and over… Help us to remember your love surrounding us all.
So knowing your patience, your pity, your challenge and your love, we humbly seek your forgiveness too.
It feels as if we are asking too much, but we know that if we do not ask, we cannot yet receive.
So hear our prayer for forgiveness for the uncaring and selfish things we have done, and the many good things we have failed to do, for the uncaring and spiteful words we have uttered aloud, and the many loving words we never spoke, for the selfish and resentful thoughts that fill our minds and the generous open hearted acceptance that so often eludes us. Loving God, hear our prayer.
The Lord says, ‘Your sins are forgiven. Accept my peace.’’ And so, as people touched by the forgiveness of God in Christ, let us say the words which he taught us:
Prayer of illumination
Loving God, as we listen to the words of Jesus and of Paul this morning, may they challenge our comfort and comfort us in our challenges. Amen.
St Matthew 18.21-35 (New International Readers’ Version)
Peter came to Jesus. He asked, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but 77 times.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to collect all the money his servants owed him. As the king began to do it, a man who owed him 10,000 bags of gold was brought to him. The man was not able to pay. So his master gave an order. The man, his wife, his children, and all he owned had to be sold to pay back what he owed.
“Then the servant fell on his knees in front of him. ‘Give me time,’ he begged. ‘I’ll pay everything back.’ His master felt sorry for him. He forgave him what he owed and let him go.
“But then that servant went out and found one of the other servants who owed him 100 silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he said.
“The other servant fell on his knees. ‘Give me time,’ he begged him. ‘I’ll pay it back.’
“But the first servant refused. Instead, he went and had the man thrown into prison. The man would be held there until he could pay back what he owed. The other servants saw what had happened and were very angry. They went and told their master everything that had happened.
“Then the master called the first servant in. ‘You evil servant,’ he said. ‘I forgave all that you owed me because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on the other servant just as I had mercy on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers. He would be punished until he paid back everything he owed.
“This is how my Father in heaven will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Romans 14.1-13 (The Message)
Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do. And don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with—even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently.
For instance, a person who has been around for a while might well be convinced that he can eat anything on the table, while another, with a different background, might assume he should only be a vegetarian and eat accordingly. But since both are guests at Christ’s table, wouldn’t it be terribly rude if they fell to criticizing what the other ate or didn’t eat? God, after all, invited them both to the table. Do you have any business crossing people off the guest list or interfering with God’s welcome? If there are corrections to be made or manners to be learned, God can handle that without your help.
Or, say, one person thinks that some days should be set aside as holy and another thinks that each day is pretty much like any other. There are good reasons either way. So, each person is free to follow the convictions of conscience.
What’s important in all this is that if you keep a holy day, keep it for God’s sake; if you eat meat, eat it to the glory of God and thank God for prime rib; if you’re a vegetarian, eat vegetables to the glory of God and thank God for broccoli. None of us are permitted to insist on our own way in these matters. It’s God we are answerable to—all the way from life to death and everything in between—not each other. That’s why Jesus lived and died and then lived again: so that he could be our Master across the entire range of life and death, and free us from the petty tyrannies of each other.
So where does that leave you when you criticize a brother? And where does that leave you when you condescend to a sister? I’d say it leaves you looking pretty silly—or worse. Eventually, we’re all going to end up kneeling side by side in the place of judgment, facing God. Your critical and condescending ways aren’t going to improve your position there one bit. Read it for yourself in Scripture:
“As I live and breathe,” God says, “every knee will bow before me; Every tongue will tell the honest truth that I and only I am God.”
So tend to your knitting. You’ve got your hands full just taking care of your own life before God.
Forget about deciding what’s right for each other. Here’s what you need to be concerned about: that you don’t get in the way of someone else, making life more difficult than it already is.
O the love of my Lord is the essence of all that I love here on earth. All the beauty I see He has given to me and His giving is gentle as silence.
2: Every day, every hour, every moment, have been blessed by the strength of His love. At the turn of each tide He is there at my side and his touch is as gentle as silence.
3: There have been times when I’ve turned from His presence and I have walked other paths, other ways. But I’ve called on His name, in the dark of my shame and His mercy was gentle as silence.
When I was brought up in Sunday School, just a mile or so from here, Jesus’s multiplication table of forgiveness was one of the teacher’s favourite lessons. It became one of mine, too, because I knew what 70 times 7 was (490 in case you’re interested), and I knew that Jesus was not actually saying we should count to 490 and then stop forgiving.
In later life, I am afraid that the lesson has soured somewhat. In church life, this text – and the Christian value of forgiveness – has been misused by abusers to buy the silence of the abused, by oppressors to buy the silence of the oppressed and by manipulative shepherds to buy the silence of the flock. “Forgive and forget” must be one of the most misused summaries of the Christian gospel – and, as we know, the abused, the oppressed and the mistreated flock cannot forget, however, much they believe that they should forgive.
So what say we of this text in the 21st century? Firstly, it’s useful to know that in the version we heard read today (where Jesus says forgive not 490 times but 77 times), he is deliberately referring back to the book of Genesis. In Genesis chapter 4, when God puts a protective mark on Cain, God says that if anyone kills him, 7 lives will be taken in revenge. Five generations later, Cain’s descendant Lamech increases the tariff – if he is killed, 77 lives will be taken [Gen 4.15,24]. As he so often does, Jesus subverts this ancient story of violence begetting violence with one of forgiveness begetting forgiveness. This is the transformation that Jesus brings when he gets involved in our lives.
Just as Jesus takes a story from one culture and adapts it for another, so we then need to do the same. I really like this re-telling of Jesus’s parable in John Henson’s Good as New paraphrase of the Bible:
There was once the head of a large business who decided to call in her debts from her associates. She looked at the books and found that one was up to his neck in debt, more than would take several lifetimes to repay. She made an appointment to see him and threatened to send in the bailiffs and deprive his wife and children of house and home.
The man, with tears in his eyes, pleaded for more time. ‘Give me a chance,’ he said, ‘and I’ll pay it all back!’
The woman’s heart melted. She released her associate from his debts and told him not to worry about it any more.
But that very lucky man, as he was on his way out, bumped into a member of his club who owed him a small sum, no more than a few weeks’ wages.
He grabbed him by the throat and said, ‘Where’s my money?’ The man, shaking all over, said, ‘Please don’t be hard on me. You’ll get your money back. Just give me time!’
But he wouldn’t hear of it. He took him to court on a charge of theft, and the poor man ended up in prison. He was also ordered to repay the money.
The other club members knew about what had happened and were disgusted. They made sure the company boss got to hear the story. She sent again for her associate.
She said, ‘You nasty piece of work! I released you from your debt because of the tears in your eyes. Wasn’t that the cue for you to go easy on your friend?’
In anger she severed all business connections with him, ensured that he was completely ruined and called for his debts to be paid in full from his assets. That’s how my Parent will treat you if you don’t in love pass over the wrongs others do to you.
John Henson, Good as New: A Radical Retelling of the Scriptures (O-Books, Winchester, 2004. pp 155-6)
John’s retelling helps us realise what a contemporary story this is – and how radical it is. These days, we hear that debt has risen alarmingly during the Covid crisis. While doorstep lending has been much more heavily controlled in recent years – not least because of campaigning by the churches – online payday loans and informal debt are growing. Christians Against Poverty and other debt counselling charities find their caseloads rising and the stories they tell are immensely distressing. People are ruined – and threatened with ruin – every day.
But in our story, the head of the large business (the king in Jesus’s original) decides to be magnanimous. It’s probably no big deal – she can afford to take the hit. She forgives the debt. But forgiveness, says Jesus, should multiply – just as revenge multiplied in the time of Cain and Lamech. That is where the one-time debtor gets it so wrong. Instead of multiplying the forgiveness, he multiplies the exploitation of the poor by the rich – which is the very foundation of debt. That is why the forgiveness first offered evaporates. We can choose to multiply forgiveness, or we can choose to multiply revenge. There is no middle way, says Jesus. When revenge takes over it soon runs out of control – and can easily consume whoever started the chain. When forgiveness takes over, a virtuous circle is created. Paul, in the letter to the Romans, brings this home to church life.
Of course, financial debt can be a worry in church, but often what really gets us worked up is our deeply felt moral convictions. Eugene Petersen in The Message, as we heard, helpfully brings this passage too right up to date. In every generation, church debates about food and drink can become very heated. A generation or two ago it was serving alcohol at church events which caused such arguments. In our day, as we become ever more acutely aware of our responsibility to God’s creation, we find ourselves asking – what matters most? Is it reducing food miles or supporting Fairtrade? Should we serve only vegetarian food? Or only vegan? Can we forgive our fellow Christians who decide that it is acceptable to eat meat (by the way, I recommend grass-fed Welsh lamb and Welsh beef)? As Paul says, legitimate and important debate soon becomes a blame game, and – like revenge – blame soon multiplies. Can we replace that multiplication with a multiplication of acceptance and forgiveness? Even in Church Meeting?
We deliberately went one verse further than the lectionary today, to hear Paul offer not only his critique of the church in Rome but also his solution. As the Good News Bible translates it, You should decide never to do anything that would make your brother [or sister] stumble or fall into sin. My first concern, says Paul, should not be about whether I am standing on the moral high ground, it should be about how I can stop you from falling. Which brings us back to the abuse of forgiveness. Manipulating other people into forgiving me is not what Jesus is talking about at all. He is talking about my forgiving others, from the heart, so that they can begin to multiply that forgiveness. It was an abuse of forgiveness which got the debtor in Jesus’s parable into such trouble, and meant that the value of the forgiveness so quickly unravelled. So-called forgiveness which is manipulated out of the forgiver multiplies only fear, guilt and – sometimes – revenge. It has nothing whatsoever to do with what Jesus or Paul had in mind. Indeed, it is the precise opposite.
All of this reminded Fiona of a song from her Sunday School days, which she is going to sing for us now. I wonder if you remember it? Love is something if you give it away, give it away, give it away, Love is something if you give it away, You end up having more. It’s just like a magic penny; Hold it tight and you won’t have any; Lend it, spend it, and you’ll have so many, they’ll roll all over the floor, for: Love is something if you give it away, give it away, give it away, Love is something if you give it away, You end up having more.
‘Forgive our sins as we forgive,’ you taught us, Lord, to pray, but You alone can grant us grace to live the words we say.
2. How can your pardon reach and bless the unforgiving heart, that broods on wrongs and will not let old bitterness depart?
3. In blazing light Your Cross reveals the truth we dimly knew: what trivial debts are owed to us, how great our debt to you!
4. Lord, cleanse the depths within our souls, and bid resentment cease; then, bound to all in bonds of love, our lives will spread your peace.
Affirmation of Faith
We believe in God, creator of all, whose word sustains the life of humanity, and directs our history. God is our life.
We believe in God’s Son, born amongst the poor, light in our night, first-born from the dead. He is alive.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, who gives birth to the new life of God, who breathes life into the struggle for justice, who leads us to hope. who is a living force.
We believe in the holy universal Church, herald of the Good News which frees people and brings new life. We believe in the coming of a new world where Jesus Christ, our Lord, will be all in all. Amen.
Many United Reformed Churches have been displaying the poster which says “Our church is open – it’s only the building that’s closed.” If anything, our ministry has reached more people during the pandemic than when things are supposedly ‘normal’. So much of that ministry is unpaid, and yet there are financial costs incurred in feeding the hungry, tending to the sick and ministering to the dying, and in administering our mission, and your contributions will be put to good use. So, even if your local church building is now partially open again, please take this opportunity to set aside your offering for the work of Christ’s church, whether it be cash, cheque or electronic transfer.
Let us pray.
Loving God, you have already today accepted our confession and turned it into forgiving love; you have accepted our prayers and turned them into loving purposes; you have accepted our praises and turned them into the song of heaven. Now accept our offerings of money and time and turn them into the tender ministry of the body of Christ in your world today. Amen. Intercessions
Let us pray to God, trusting in his mercy to all who call upon him in faith. We pray for the Church: guard her, we pray, from too much concern for lesser things, and from placing self-righteousness in the place of forgiveness.
We pray for those who work in the world of finance, that they may be just and compassionate in their dealings, especially with those individuals and businesses now facing financial hardship. Give them wisdom, and the grace to use their skill not for their own enrichment but for the welfare of all.
We pray for those distressed by debt or financial worry, whether through poor decisions, bad luck or because they never had a chance in life. Strengthen us and our churches to continue to serve those in need, not in smug judgement but in a multiplication of the love and forgiveness we have known.
We pray too for the greedy and the unforgiving, for those who exploit vulnerable people or the fragile earth for their own selfish ends. Turn by your grace, we pray, the hearts of those who oppress the poor and needy.
We pray for ourselves, that we may share forgiveness and love as we live and work with others. Since none of us can live to ourselves alone, help us to continue to care for our community, and help us so to forgive that we may be forgiven.
Loving God, we offer these our prayers to you in the spirit of your forgiveness, as we trust at the last to be forgiven in the name of Jesus. Amen.
Help us accept each other as Christ accepted us; teach us as sister, brother, each person to embrace. Be present, Lord, among us and bring us to believe: we are ourselves accepted and meant to love and live.
2: Teach us, O Lord, your lessons, as in our daily life we struggle to be human and search for hope and faith. Teach us to care for people, for all – not just for some, to love them as we find them or as they may become.
3: Let your acceptance change us so that we may be moved in living situations to do the truth in love; to practice your acceptance until we know by heart the table of forgiveness and laughter’s healing art.
4: Lord, for today’s encounters with all who are in need, who hunger for acceptance, for justice and for bread, we need new eyes for seeing, new hands for holding on: renew us with your Spirit; Lord, free us, make us one.
Ac yn awr boed i ras ein Harglwydd Iesu Grist, a chariad Duw a chymdeithas yr Ysbryd Glân fod gyda ni oll yr awr hon ac hyd byth. And the blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be with us all and those for whom we pray, today and always. Amen.
Call to Worship from Feasting on the Word Year A Affirmation of Faith from the Reformed Church of France. Prayers of Approach, Confession and Forgiveness extended from Rachel Poolman’s prayer for today in the URC Prayer Handbook. Intercessions adapted from Leading Intercessions, Raymond Chapman, bilingual edition, Canterbury Press, 2003 All other material from Gethin Rhys.
Dear Lord and Father of Mankind from BBC’s Songs of Praise Gentle As Silence sung by Kathy Nugent Forgive us our sins as we forgive by Koiné Help us to Accept Each Other sung by Ang Mo Kio Methodist Church, Singapore.
Opening Music:Procession by Arthur Wills (organ of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, Venice, Italy – 2014) Closing MusicFugue in G Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach (organ of The Spire Church, Farnham – 2020) both played by Brian Cotterill briancotterill.webs.com.
Thanks to Myra Rose, Walt Johnson, Liane Todd, John Wilcox, Ray Fraser, the choir of Barrhead URC and thanks to Kathleen & Callum Haynes, Elfreda Tealby-Watson & Greg Watson, David & Christine Shimmin, Elizabeth Kemp, Marion Thomas, Tina Wheeler and Myra Rose for recording, virtually, the Call to Worship and Affirmation of Faith.
Where words are copyright reproduced under the terms of Barrhead URC’s CCLI licence number 1064776, Some material reprinted, and streamed, with permission under ONE LICENSE A-734713 All rights reserved. PRS Limited Online Music Licence LE-0019762