Sunday Worship 29 January 2023

Order of Service

Below you will find the Order of Service, prayers, hymns and sermon for today’s service.   You can either simply read this or you can
 

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Sunday Worship from the United Reformed Church
for Sunday 29 January 2023

 
Today’s service is led by The Revd Cara Heafey

Call to Worship
 

How shall we come to worship God? What gift can we bring to our maker? What rite or ritual should we perform? What sacrifice would be worthy?
       
The desires of God’s heart are no secret.
We know what is required of us:
       that we do justice, and love kindness,
       and walk humbly with our God.
(Based on Micah 6:6-8)
 
Hymn    In An Age of Twisted Values
Martin E. Leckebusch © 1999 Kevin Mayhew Ltd CCLI Licence No. 1064776 sung by Becky Messer for the United Japanese Christian Church and used with her kind permission.
 
In an age of twisted values, we have lost the truth we need;
in sophisticated language, we have justified our greed
By our struggle for possessions, 
we have robbed the poor and weak
Hear our cry and heal our nation; 
Your forgiveness, Lord, we seek

 

When our families are broken, 
when our homes are full of strife;
when our children are bewildered, 
when they lose their way in life;
when we fail to give the aged 
all the care we know they need – 
hear our cry and heal our nation; 
help us show more love, we plead
 
We who hear Your word so often 
choose so rarely to obey.
Turn us from our willful wandering;  
give us truth to light our way.
In the power of Your Spirit  
come to cleanse us, make us new.
Hear our cry and heal our nation  
till our nation honours You
 
Prayers of Approach, Confession and Grace
 
Loving God, our souls sing out in worship
and all of creation bursts forth with praise!
 
For you look with compassion on all who suffer.
You shed tears of sorrow with those in grief.
You kneel in the dust to lift up the humble
and shoulder the burdens of those who are bowed down.
 
Great and mighty is our God, who meets us in weakness.
Sure and strong is our God, who meets us in our fear.
Glory be to Jesus,
who stands shoulder to shoulder with those who are in pain,
who opened his arms wide on the cross
to hold all the hurts of the world.  
Amen.
 
Holy One:
You invite us to come to you just as we are.
Your arms are open wide to welcome us.
And so we approach you with trust and honesty,
asking for your forgiveness.
 
If our words and actions have done harm…
God of mercy, forgive us.
If our silence and apathy have done harm…
God of mercy, forgive us.
If we have failed to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with you…
God of mercy, forgive us.
 
Repair our relationships.
Redeem our brokenness.   
May our fault-lines be the cracks
through which your light can flood in:
liquid gold to fill the gaps
and transform our jagged edges into something beautiful,
our fragments into something whole. Amen.
 
Hear the good news and rejoice!
there’s nowhere we can go, and nothing we can do
that would put us beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness and love.
 
And so, liberated by grace,
Let’s say together the words that Jesus taught us to pray: 
 
Our Father…
 
A Prayer for Illumination:
       
God who speaks through scripture:
breathe life into these ancient words.
Infuse them with your Holy Spirit,
let us hear them afresh today.
Open our ears, our minds, our hearts, and our lives
to receive your truth and allow it to change us. Amen.
 
Reading     1 Corinthians 1:18-31 
 
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’
 
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
 
Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,  so that no one might boast in the presence of God.  He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption,  in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’ 
 
Reading        St 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
 
Hymn:   God of Justice, Saviour To All
Tim Hughes © 2004 Thankyou Music (Admin. by Integrity Music Ltd)  CCLI Licence No. 1064776; unknown singer from St Saviour’s Bournemouth, used with their kind permission.
 
God of justice, saviour to all,
came to rescue the weak & the poor.
Chose to serve and not be served.
 
To act justly every day,
loving mercy in every way
walking humbly before You God.
Jesus You have called us,
freely we’ve received, now freely we will give.
We must go, live to feed the hungry, stand beside the broken.
We must go; stepping forward, keep us from just singing,
move us into action – we must go.
 
Fill us up and send us out
Fill us up and send us out
Fill us up and send us out Lord
 
Sermon
 
When I was about 11 years old, I started a new school term with a shiny new keyring fastened to my backpack. It was a colourful enamel tag with rainbow stripes and the words ‘I *heart* Jesus’ in gold letters.  A boy in my class laughed at it. He held it up for everyone to see and pronounced “Jesus is for losers!”
 
It’s a mildly painful memory… but you know what?  Now, I think that maybe that annoying kid was onto something.  In fact, if I were to give this sermon a title, I might even call it “Jesus is for losers.”
 
Please bear with me… and I will try to explain what I mean…
 
The beatitudes, those words of Jesus’ that we heard from Matthew 5, are so familiar they risk losing some of their subversive impact.  Even so there is a jarring disconnect, isn’t there, between the reality Jesus describes and the way things appear to be.  Just now, when we thought about who we might consider ‘blessed’, we listed categories of people who seem to be ‘winning’ at life.  Next to this, Jesus’ words sound ridiculous.  What does he mean, “blessed are the poor in spirit?”  What does he mean, “blessed are those who mourn?”  He might as well be saying “the sky is green” and “the sea is dry” as “the poor are blessed” right?
 
In the passage we heard read from 1 Corinthians, Paul agrees. He admits that the Good News of the Gospel seems laughable, like “foolishness”, back-to-front and upside-down, a “stumbling block”, an impossible dream.
 
Jesus’ words might be in discord with the status quo, but they are in harmony with the prophetic tradition in which he stands. Prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures like Micah, Amos and Jeremiah also spoke of God’s solidarity with the oppressed, poor and marginalised.  Jesus’ mother Mary, in the words we call the Magnificat, spoke of God inaugurating a reversal of fortunes, the wealthy and powerful being brought low and the poor lifted up (Luke 1:52-53).
These are a reminder to us that yes, God does have favourites.  But they are not the ones we might think, the ones who appear to be winning at life. Jesus is for losers.
 
When we try to understand Jesus’ words in Matthew 5, it’s worth noticing who it was Jesus was speaking to. To find this out we need to go back a few verses, to the end of chapter 4. Verses 23-25 read:
 
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in… synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him…
 
This is important. Out of context we might misunderstand Jesus’ words. We might think he’s somehow glorifying suffering. But the end of chapter 4 reveals that Jesus is pronouncing God’s blessing on the very people he was speaking to. He was looking out at a crowd of people who were broken in body and spirit, who were colonised and oppressed, who had experienced persecution, who were exploited by those in power, and his heart was breaking with compassion for them. He was telling them, “Blessed are you… You will inherit the earth… You will receive mercy… You will be called children of God.” Jesus was saying, “you who are desperate for change… you who long for justice… you who are sick… you who are suffering… God sees you. God hears you. God is on your side. You are God’s beloved.”
 
Maybe you’re listening to this and thinking, “but that’s not enough.” Are the poor and the suffering supposed to be content with being told they are blessed? In my role as a hospital chaplain, I meet lots of people who have been dealt a really rubbish hand. People whose lives are going to be cut short by disease. People who are living with unthinkable amounts of pain and loss. People whose hopes and plans for their lives, or the lives of their loved ones, have been stolen from them.
Many of them, understandably, do not feel blessed. They feel cursed. They wonder aloud where God is, how God could have allowed this, what they have done to deserve it.
 
How do we reconcile the discrepancy between the reality Jesus proclaims and the realities people are living through? How do we live within this tension, and what is Jesus asking of us?
 
There are no easy answers to these big, hard questions. But I offer you three imperfect and tentative suggestions:
 
The first is to name, hold and acknowledge this tension. Jesus’ words expose injustice. They are a reminder to us that the way things are is not the way God desires them to be. In following Jesus we reject a “prosperity gospel” and the misuse of God’s name to sanctify the status quo. We pledge our allegiance to a different dream for the earth and its people, one that liberates and lifts up.
 
The second is to hear Jesus’ words as a call to action. In the wider context of Matthew’s gospel, this passage comes at the very start of Jesus’ ministry. He has just called his first disciples (4:18-22). Now, in the beatitudes, he lays out what it is he has called them to. These “blessed are…” statements can be read as a mission statement, a vision, a manifesto for the new community. 
 
I have read that the verb translated “comfort” in verse 4 is more forceful and active in the Greek. The verse could be translated, “blessed are those who mourn, for they will receive advocacy.”[1] This suggests more than just soothing a hurt. It calls for justice. We might think of comfort as a soft thing, like wrapping a blanket around someone’s shoulders, but perhaps what Jesus is talking about here is comfort that empowers, restoring agency. As followers of Jesus we are called into solidarity with the suffering. To grieve alongside. To listen and learn. To be allies and advocates.
My third suggestion is to hear Jesus’ words as a call to hope. We are in the season of Epiphany, a season that is all about noticing where God is present… about glimpses of what was hidden being revealed.
 
I wonder if there have been moments when you have caught a glimpse of the alternate reality Jesus describes in Matthew 5?
 
Here are two examples I can think of, from Oxford, where I live:

  • the Winter Night Shelter is an ecumenical project opening church buildings to give rough sleepers a safe, warm place to sleep during the coldest months of winter. I volunteered a few shifts there and I remember watching the guests being welcomed, served, treated with honour, and thinking: this is what Jesus is talking about.
  • St Columba’s URC here in Oxford has appointed a trans outreach worker. Part of her vital and beautiful ministry is about proclaiming to the persecuted, those who have experienced rejection and hate (even in God’s name) that they are God’s beloved, and the kingdom of heaven belongs to them

These are tiny glimpses. They are limited and imperfect. They seem like insignificant drops in an ocean of need. We can notice and give thanks for them, nonetheless.
 
When we realise how entrenched and entangled we are in systems that perpetuate inequality, it’s tempting to succumb to apathy and despair. The beatitudes dare to dream that things can be different (a bit like Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech). They paint a picture of how things could, and should, and will be. The parables Jesus tells about the kingdom suggest that it’s at work in the small and the hidden and the ordinary… an underground, grassroots movement. No act of resistance, kindness, mercy or solidarity is too small. “You are the salt of the earth… you are the light of the world…” (Matthew 5:13-14).
 
Here is the good news for us today:
 
Jesus is for losers.
God is with us.
And, in the words of the Indian author Arundhati Roy: 
“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”  
Amen.

Hymn    Heaven Shall Not Wait
Graham Maule | John L. Bell © Words: 1987 WGRG, c/o Iona Community, Glasgow, Scotland (Admin. by Wild Goose Resource Group) CCLI Song # 1080712 sung by Joy Everingham and used with her kind permission.
 

Heaven shall not wait
for the poor 
to lose their patience,
the scorned to smile, 
the despised to find a friend:
Jesus is Lord;
he has championed 
the unwanted;
in him injustice confronts 
its timely end.
 
Heaven shall not wait
for the rich 
to share their fortunes,
the proud to fall, 
the élite to tend the least:
Jesus is Lord;
he has shown 
the master’s privilege ̶
to kneel and wash 
servants’ feet before they feast.
 
Heaven shall not wait
for the dawn of great ideas,
thoughts of compassion 
divorced from cries of pain:
Jesus is Lord;
he has married word and action;
his cross and company 
make his purpose plain.
 
Heaven shall not wait
for triumphant Hallelujahs,
when earth has passed 
and we reach another shore:
Jesus is Lord
in our present imperfection;
his power and love 
are for now;
and then for evermore.
Prayers of Intercession
 
God of justice, we pray for those whose dignity is eroded by poverty.
Those whose choices in life are limited.
Those who are trapped by debt.
We know that you see and hear 
those whose suffering is hidden from view.
 
Help us to help in practical ways, to hold those in power to account,
and to use what power we have to dismantle injustice.
       
Your kingdom come, Your will be done.
 
God of compassion, bring your comfort 
to all who are walking through the valley of grief.
May they sense you walking beside them.
 
Make us gentle companions, generous and warm in our listening,
faithful witnesses to suffering and bearers of your peace.
       
Your kingdom come, Your will be done.
 
God of mercy,  
we pray for the places where mistrust and violence simmer.
Where communities are divided.
Where old tensions smoulder or are fanned into flame.
We pray for refugees, and those attempting to live their lives
amidst the carnage and wreckage of war.
 
This morning we remember… 
 
Into these places and situations:  
Your kingdom come, your will be done.
 
Holy Spirit, we give thanks for the way 
you move among and between us, 
overcoming barriers of class and culture,
driving us out of our comfort zones, leading us into encounter.
 
We give thanks for places and projects
where shining glimpses of your kingdom can be seen…
  
Through the small and the ordinary,
and through our own imperfect, hopeful actions:
 
Your kingdom come, your will be done.
 
Finally, we pray for ourselves.
In our suffering, may we know your solidarity.
In our apathy, kindle hope and a hunger for justice.
May compassion break us open, open to hear other perspectives,
open to dream new possibilities.
 
In our hearts and in our lives: Your kingdom come, Your will be done. 
 
Amen.   
 
Hymn    God of the Poor
Graham Kendrick © 1993 Make Way Music (Admin. by Make Way Music Limited)  
CCLI Licence No. 1064776  Sung by Graham Kendrick
 
Beauty for brokenness.
Hope for despair.
Lord in Your suff’ring world
this is our prayer:
bread for the children,
justice, joy, peace – 
sunrise to sunset
Your kingdom increase.
 
Shelter for fragile lives,
cures for their ills,
work for the craftsmen,
trade for their skills.
Land for the dispossessed,
rights for the weak,
voices to plead the cause,
of those who can’t speak.
 
God of the poor,
friend of the weak,
give us compassion we pray.
Melt our cold hearts,
let tears fall like rain,
come change our love
from a spark to a flame.
 
Refuge from cruel wars
havens from fear,
cities for sanctu’ry,
freedoms to share,
peace to the killing fields,
scorched earth to green – 
Christ for the bitterness
His cross for the pain.
 
Rest for the ravaged earth
oceans and streams,
plundered and poisoned,
our future our dreams.
Lord end our madness,
carelessness, greed,
make us content with
the things that we need.
 
Lighten our darkness,
breathe on this flame
until Your justice
burns brightly again,
until the nations
learn of Your ways,
seek Your salvation,
and bring You their praise

Blessing
 
This prayer of uncertain origin is known as ‘a Franciscan Blessing’. It seems a fitting sending out prayer for today
 
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
 
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
 
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain to joy.
 
And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done. Amen.

 
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