Sunday Worship 14 May 2023

Order of Service

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Sunday Worship from the United Reformed Church
for Sunday 14 May 2023

Today’s service is led by the Revd
Anne Sardeson 

Call to Worship

Come now to worship God – the Giver of Life,
the Ground on which we stand,
the air we breathe, the love that we share.
Come, let us worship God, here with us now, and always.
Hymn   Be Thou My Vision
              Irish traditional arranged by Robin Mark, used with his kind permission. 
Be thou my vision, 
O Lord of my heart;
naught be all else to me, 
save that thou art.
Thou my best thought, 
by day or by night,
waking or sleeping, 
thy presence my light.
Be thou my wisdom, 
be thou my true word;
I ever with thee, 
thou with me, Lord.
Thou my great Father
I thy true child,
Thou with me dwelling
and I one with thee.
Be thou my battle-shield, 
sword for the fight.
Be thou my dignity, 
thou my delight,
thou my soul’s shelter,
thou my high tower.
Raise thou me heavenward, 
O Power of my power.
Riches I heed not, 
nor vain empty praise;
Thou mine inheritance, 
now and always.
Thou and Thou only, 
first in my heart,
High King of heaven, 
my treasure thou art.


High King of Heaven when vict’ry is won
may I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heav’n’s Sun!
Heart of my heart, whatever befall,
still be my vision, O Ruler of all.
Prayers of Approach and Confession
Living God, it is so easy to praise you sometimes.
For we look around and we see your wonder everywhere:
in the love of friends and family
in the wonder of nature
in words that encourage and cherish
in stories of joy and love.
Living God, it is easy to praise you sometimes.
Living God, it is hard to praise you sometimes.
For we wonder at what is happening
in the pain of our world
in the unsettledness of our lives
in the uncertainties we face
in the fear that grips creation.
Living God, it is hard to praise you sometimes.
In all timed and in all places
let us seek your strength and your continued presence,
and let us remember your promises.
Help us recall what you have done.
Living God, it is easy to be your people sometimes.
our hearts are full of love, 
our words encourage,
we know how to serve you. 
And then at other times it is so hard.
       We know those times so well,
              our discouraging words, 
              our thoughtless actions.
       We lay them before you and trust in your mercy.
silence as we recall the ways we fail God.
Living God, you are merciful. Hallelujah!
In Christ Jesus you lived among us, full of grace and truth.
To those who had fallen 
you reached out a hand.
To those who thought themselves unworthy 
you spoke a word of love.
To us now, in our lives,
       you say again that we are forgiven.
Help us receive your forgiveness,
Strengthen us to forgive ourselves,
Teach us to forgive one another,
And let us live in peace.
Living God, you are our God, and we are thankful for your compassion.
Strengthen us for your call on our lives,
and open us now to your Living Word this day.
In the name of Jesus, our crucified and risen Lord, Amen
Reading:      Acts 17:22-31 
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.  For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”
Reading:      St John 14:15-21 
Jesus said: “If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.  I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.  On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”
Hymn    Don’t Be Afraid, My Love is Stronger
John Bell © WGRG The Iona Community 1995 GIA Publications
sung by Sojourners United Church of Christ, Charlottesville, Virginia 
Don’t be afraid,
my love is stronger,
my love is stronger than your fear.
Don’t be afraid,
my love is stronger and I have promised,
promised to be always near.
This week could be taken as a week to prepare for Pentecost, which is just 2 Sundays away. Just as we prepare for Christmas through Advent and Easter through Lent, we also need to give ourselves time to prepare for God’s extraordinary breaking into our time and place at Pentecost. So, as I share my reflection on the readings this week, I want you to hold in your mind what we need to do to prepare ourselves to celebrate God’s great gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Our readings this week give us some helpful insights. The gospel tells us of Jesus promising the Holy Spirit to the disciples as he prepares them for his departure, and he tells them they will not be left as orphans: powerful words for those who were soon going to find themselves very very frightened and fearful of what would happen next and how they could possibly cope. I’ll come back to the gospel later, but my main focus is the reading from The Acts of the Apostles, or The Gospel of the Holy Spirit, as Liberation Theologian Justo L. González calls it.
It’s one of those readings that is quite well known, and so we might read it or hear it and think we know what it’s all about. For this reason it’s important to pause and just make sure we’ve really picked up all that is going on in the story and noticed what God might be saying to us in our particular time and place.
The first thing is to think about the place where the story is set: Athens. We’ve all heard of Athens, and some of us may well have been there and seen some of the places that are mentioned in the text here. It’s one of those places that conjures up an image of ancient wisdom and power, and even those of us who have never been there can imagine something of what it was like. In the time that Paul finds himself there it is a place that is still extraordinary, with magnificent temples, but not what it used to be. It is now one of the poorer places in the Roman Empire and its population has declined, but it still has its reputation for great philosophy. Luke is rather dismissive about all this philosophy and tells us in the verse before our reading start that it is a place where people would “spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new” (17:21).  
Athens is also a multi-cultural place, where, despite a fall in population, people from all over live alongside each other with their different faith views and life outlooks and it is a key place where those of the Jewish diaspora have found themselves living. It is here that Paul finds himself waiting and getting stressed.
Paul has come to Athens because things had gone horribly wrong for him in Thessalonica (17:1-9). He had fled there and gone to Beroea, but once his whereabouts had been discovered he had to flea again and that’s when he comes to Athens (17:10-15). And he is there to wait, that is all (17:16). And while he is waiting, he becomes deeply distressed.
Paul is a man steeped in the Torah, and so knows, like all the Jews dwelling in Athens, that idols have no place in religion and his destressed leads him to argue with anyone he can find and I wonder if his arguments with the “Jews and devout persons” (v.17) was about how they can possibly live in this place in the midst of all this idolatry. For those of the diaspora would know that God is not held in an idol and would know to have nothing to do with them, but they are surrounded by them. Paul cannot get his head round it. And then something happens, and this is surely the Holy Spirit at work.
This is Paul’s equivalent of Peter’s vision in Acts 10 and subsequent visit to the home of Cornelius. It is God telling Paul, as God told Peter, do not ignore a strange unknown world where God is found. Paul is called out of his distress by the Holy Spirit to speak a new word. a new word that will, in the words of one writer of this passage, “join the synagogue to the marketplace, encircling all the creatures that traffic these sites with the love of God”. Paul reaches out with the love and inclusion that God has for all creation. Inclusive love for the ones whose lives are filled with idolatry. Inclusive love for the ones whose way of living causes deep destress to those who see themselves as the people of God.  
From this encounter between Paul and Athens I draw three things that might help us prepare for Pentecost.
First, the constant need for us to be ready to find God at work where we don’t expect God to be. The “unknown God” is not always seen by us who might claim to know God. Preparing for Pentecost is something about being open to God and the world where God is at work. In Paul’s time of deep destress when he arrives in Athens I image he thinks it a Godless place, but then the Holy Spirit opens him up to a new possibility: God was here all the time, and he now has a task to shine a light on that truth. But he wouldn’t have been able to do that if he hadn’t been willing to be open to God being there, and neither can we.
Secondly, there is something in this story about living as if no place is hopeless. We live in difficult times: that is a fact. We could give into that and live in despair and destress, but our faith calls us to have hope. Paul must have had a smidgen of hope, which made is possible for him to see that God was still at work, even in this strange and destressing place. Hope is faith driving. It moves us on, it is about doing things. One young hopeful writer puts it like this: “If we remain in anger, then we foreclose the possibility of reconciliation with ourselves, with each other, with the rest of creation. We are called, therefore, to move beyond despair, beyond anger, to abandon our hubris and our need for certainty. Hope is not impossible, nor does it need to be endlessly deferred until a tomorrow that may never arrive, but instead we can and must learn to dwell in hope in the present…. There an ethical necessity to our practice of hope.” Paul did not remain in his anger and so he opened the possibility of a new connection because he enacted hope.
We are about the enter Christian Aid week, an organisation that takes on board the ethical necessity to practice hope. As well as being a time to think about how we support their work every year this week provides an opportunity to learn the work as well and the impact that it has in local communities. It also provides a point for us to notice that because of their work, along with the work of other organisations who enact hope across the globe, no place is hopeless. So Christian Aid week is also a week of celebration – the celebration of what happens when we live believing that no place is hopeless and so put hope into practice. Christian Aid week is preparation for Pentecost!
Back to the story of Paul in Athens and the third thing: it is a story of divine compassion in response to human ignorance. Which we might also call grace. This at the heart of Paul’s message to the people of Athens, but it is also the gift of the Holy Spirit for Paul. In his destress he becomes quite ignorant of where God is in this place where he is waiting. But with boundless compassion God opens Paul’s ignorant eyes and says, “I am here!”. And this brings us to the gospel, for there Jesus promises the Holy Spirit: God’s gift to some well-meaning but fairly ignorant disciples. This is the promise to us too. This is what we are preparing to celebrate at Pentecost. God gives us what we need to live in our time and place, prompting us to notice where God is and giving us the possibility of enacting hope when everything seems hopeless.
So let us live as if this is true: as if God is actually in the places where we don’t think God could possibly be; by enacting hope and living hope-filled lives in a world that is desperately lacking hope; and by believing in divine compassion in response to our human ignorance.
May God bless us and strengthen us and open us to all that is possible. Amen.    
Hymn    Living God Your Joyful Spirit
© Estate of Jill Jenkins  
Sung by the Rev’d Malcolm Fife to his tune Lambley Lane 
Living God, your joyful Spirit
breaks the bounds 
of time and space,
rests in love upon your people,
drawn together in this place.
Here we join in glad thanksgiving,
here rejoice to pray and praise:
Lord of all our past traditions,
Lord of all our future days.
As your bread may we be broken,
scattered in community;
we who know 
your greatest blessings
called to share Christ’s ministry.
May we gently lead each other,
share our hunger and our thirst;
learn that only 
through our weakness
shall we know 
the strength of Christ.

Lord, when we grow tired 
of giving,
feel frustration, hurt and strain,
by your Spirit’s quiet compulsion,
draw us back to you again.
Guide us through 
the bitter searching
when our confidence is lost;
give us hope from desolation,
arms outstretched upon a cross.
Living God, 
your power surrounds us,
as we face the way Christ trod,
challenge us to fresh commitment
to the purposes of God:
called to share a new creation,
called to preach a living word,
promised all the joys of heaven,
through the grace 
of Christ our Lord.


Prayers of Concern and Commitment
Dear God, we thank you that you reveal yourself in the wonder of nature, in seed and shrub, in fruit and flower.
We thank you that all creation teaches us of your ways.
We prayer with our precious earth.
With the groaning of creation and the pain of misuse.
We give thanks for those who work to challenge our part 
in the fractures of our world,
and pray God’s wisdom and courage to do more than we already do.
Dear God we thank you that you reveal yourself in our community.
in people and places, 
in the strange and familiar.
We thank you that you are not limited to that which is like us.
We prayer with our precious community.
       With the needs that we are all too aware of and the ones we miss.
       With the ones we can reach and the ones we cannot.
       We pray Dear God that we will be open to all you are doing,
and dare to get involved.
We prayer with those who are precious to us.
       Members of our faith community who are struggling at this time,
              those we know well and those who are less well known.
space for silent or shared prayers
Dear God, we thank you that you reveal yourself in us,
even when we do not feel worthy or able or ready.
You have plated your seeds in our hearts, 
and called us to bear your image in the world.
Give us the courage we need and help us care for each other
so together we will tend the seeds you have planted.
We give thanks for all that you give us and offer now all we can to you,
       our prayers, our lives, our gifts of money and so much more,
accept now all that we offer, 
We pray in the holy name of Jesus Christ, 
knowing that you hear us better than we can pray.
Hymn    O Lord all the World Belongs to You
Patrick Appleford © 1965 Josef Weinberger sung by members of the congregation of Our Lady & St Joseph’s Church, Keighley
O Lord, 
all the world belongs to You
and You are always making 
all things new.
What is wrong, You forgive,
and the new life You give
is what’s turning 
the world upside down.
The world’s only loving 
to its friends,
but You have brought us love that never ends,
loving enemies too;
and this loving with You
is what’s turning 
the world upside down.
This world lives 
divided and apart,
You draw us all together, 
and we start
in Your body to see
that in fellowship we 
can be turning 
the world upside down.
The world wants 
the wealth to live in state,
but You show us a new way 
to be great:
like a servant You came,
and if we do the same,
we’ll be turning 
the world upside down.

O Lord, all the world belongs to You
and You are always making all things new.
Send your Spirit on all,
let your Church whom you call
to be turning the world upside down.
The blessing of God, known and unknown,
be with us and the world this week.
Guide us in our distress,
strengthen us in our hope,
and lead us in your peace. Amen


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