Sunday Worship 11 June 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 11 June 2023


 

Today’s service is led by the Revd Sarah Hall

 
Call to Worship
 
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, 
and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. 
Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.
 

Hymn    Jesus Calls Us Here To Meet Him 
by John L. Bell and Graham Maule. © 1989, WGRG, Iona Community
Performed by Ruth and Joy Everingham 

Jesus calls us here to meet him
as, through word & song & prayer,
we affirm God’s promised presence
where his people live and care.
Praise the God who keeps his promise;
praise the Son who calls us friends;
praise the Spirit who, among us,
to our hopes and fears attends.

Jesus calls us to confess him
Word of life and Lord of all,
sharer of our flesh and frailness,
saving all who fail or fall.
Tell his holy human story;
tell his tales that all may hear;
tell the world that Christ in glory
came to earth to meet us here.

Jesus calls us to each other,
vastly different though we are;
creed and colour, class and gender
neither limit nor debar.
Join the hand of friend and stranger;
join the hands of age and youth;
join the faithful and the doubter
in their common search for truth. 

Jesus calls us to his table
rooted firm in time and space,
where the Church in earth & heaven
finds a common meeting place.
Share the bread and wine, his body;
share the love of which we sing;
share the feast of saints and sinners
hosted by our Lord and King.  

Prayers of Approach, Confession and Declaration of Forgiveness

Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, 
all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden, 
cleanse the thoughts of our hearts 
by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,
that we may perfectly love you 
and worthily magnify your holy name,
through Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Our hearts are open to you, loving God.
You know the times we have reached out to you in prayer.
And you know the times we’ve turned away,
too busy to seek your guidance,
or all too well aware of what your response would be.
So now we bring to you the week that is past,
the times we have lived in love and the times we have not, 
and we give it all to you,
asking for your forgiveness when we have hurt others, 
asking for the strength to forgive others when they have hurt us.

Listen: here is good news. Christ Jesus came into the world 
to forgive us in our failure, to accept us as we are, 
to set us free from evil’s power and make us what we were meant to be. Through him God says to each of us:
You are accepted. You are forgiven. I will set you free. 
Amen. Thanks be to God.

Prayer of Inspiration

Guide us, O God,
by your Word and Spirit,
that in your light we may see light,
in your truth find wisdom,
and in your will discover peace,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

Reading     Genesis 12:1-9

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

Comment 

Do you know – or remember – how it feels to be lined up on a school sports field to be picked for a team? The best sportspeople will be chosen first, of course – maybe that was you! Then the people who are the captain’s friends. Then the choosing gets harder, as both team captains try to avoid having the slowest or least agile people on their side. I was usually one of the last two to be chosen. Though I had – and still have – long legs, my hand-eye coordination was – and is – terrible. I wouldn’t have picked me! And on the whole, others didn’t either. Not that it made me bitter and marked me for life, you understand. Well… not much, anyway. I knew I wouldn’t be much good at whatever sport we were playing, so I wasn’t too worried about being chosen. On the other hand, when it came to the classroom I was one of those annoying kids who had a hand up for every question. Sometimes I was asked; sometimes I thought the teacher couldn’t have seen me, even though I’d been waving my hand frantically. Now, having led many Bible studies over the years, I see how the teacher was trying to get other people to answer questions too! 

Abram wouldn’t have expected God to pick him to do anything, let alone to set off on the trek of a lifetime. He wasn’t a youngster any more – let’s face it, he’d passed his three score years and ten. His joints creaked, his seat on camelback wasn’t as secure as it had been, decades earlier. He was settled in Ur, and to tell the truth, he was set in his ways. Why would God choose somebody like that to do something new?

But God saw things differently. God saw not someone at the end of life, ready to put his feet up and let others take the strain, but somebody who still had much to give. And God must have been right in seeing all this, for when God said, Up you get, Abram! Pack up your belongings, pay the milkman, lock the door: you’re off on a mystery tour of the Middle East! Abram didn’t argue. He didn’t say, Don’t pick me for your team, God! He just got on with it. Impressive, really. Though to my mind the one person who’s more impressive than that doesn’t even make a speaking appearance in this story. And that’s Abram’s wife, Sarai. When it came to being called by God, Sarai was even further down the pecking order. God called Abram, Abram called her – and she had to oversee the packing, get the milkman’s final bill and decide where to hide the doorkey, all without the benefit of a direct invitation from God.

Maybe it wasn’t that way. Maybe Sarai did have her own private conversation with God, one which never got into the official record. After all, if it was a man writing down the Hebrew Bible – and odds are, it was – then would he be allowed anywhere near someone else’s wife to hear her story? Would he think it was important enough to use his precious papyrus on it? We just don’t know. But if Abram could be described as the patron saint of people who think they’ve been crossed off the list by age or other circumstances, and then find God’s call is making them think again, maybe Sarai’s the patron saint of those who didn’t think they’d made the list to start with.

When I do lead Bible studies, often it’s the people who’ve read a lot who talk a lot too. I’m sure you’ve been to the study where one person knows such a lot they find it difficult to stop talking and give somebody else a turn – and if that doesn’t ring a bell, maybe you are that person! But sometimes it’s the person who thinks they know nothing who asks a really good question, something that leads us all into a new way of thinking. 

God doesn’t just call the obviously gifted, whether it’s in athletics or academics. God called Abram and Sarai to start on a whole new way of life. Maybe God’s calling you!

Hymn    To Abraham and Sarah
Judith A. Fetter (born 1937) © Judith A. Fetter sung by performers at Seraphim Music Studio
 
To Abraham and Sarah the call of God was clear:
‘Go forth and I will show you a country rich and fair.
You need not fear the journey, for I have pledged my word
that you shall be my people and I will be your God’.

From Abraham and Sarah arose a pilgrim race,
dependent for their journey on God’s abundant grace;
and in their heart was written by God this saving word:
that ‘You shall be my people and I will be your God’.

We of this generation on whom God’s hand is laid,
can journey to the future secure and unafraid,
rejoicing in God’s goodness and trusting in this word:
that ‘You shall be my people and I will be your God.’

Reading     Romans 4:13-25 

For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”) – in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.

Gospel  St Matthew 9:9-17

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”On hearing this, Jesus said, ”It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?”Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.  No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse.  Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”

Comment

You’ll remember God’s promise to Abram: I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
In our reading from Romans Paul’s homing in on the nature of that promise. Is it a reward in the ordinary sense of the word? Has Abram done something special to earn God’s favour? Does the divine blessing on his family come about because Abram’s particularly wise, or holy, or law-abiding? Has he ticked the right boxes?

Nope, says Paul, none of that. It’s because Abram’s relationship with God is one of trust. We can see that by the reaction I was commenting on just now. When God calls him and the family to move off, Abram doesn’t argue or ask questions: he just gets on with it. Clearly he believes God’s word is reliable. With Abram, God would get a high rating on Trustpilot or Checkatrade.com. To put it in religious jargon: Abram has faith in God. 

Considering his age, and Sarai’s too, Abram’s faith that God will help them conceive even one child, let alone a nation of descendants, is touching. Looking in from outside, you might even describe such a hope as unrealistic. Yet without that commitment, there’s no possibility of offspring. And that hope springs not from Abram’s goodness but from God’s trustworthiness. 

Now if, when it comes to God’s blessing, it’s not someone’s moral standing but the quality of relationship between them and God which counts, that’s very good news for us. For Paul’s been wrestling with the problem of how God can possibly be in relationship with people who aren’t morally perfect, who don’t keep all the Jewish law, the Torah, as described in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. And except for those of us who happen to be Jewish, we all come into that category. How, Paul asks himself, could law-breakers like you Gentiles possibly inherit God’s promises given to Abram? Well, if we can answer God’s call the same way Abram did, that demonstrates we have a trust in God equivalent to his. Except that our particular call isn’t necessarily like that of Abram and Sarai, to up sticks and leave our homes. Our call – the call of every Christian – is to show that very same level of trust in the God who raised Jesus from death. When we dare to trust God that much, when we dare to follow Jesus right through death to resurrection, then nothing has the power to separate us from him. Nothing at all. 

It can be a relief when we realise that our lives don’t need to be totally perfect for God to call us. But what about the others, though? What about the people whose lives are, to put it politely, rather less than perfect? You’ll know who I mean. The ones you’d be embarrassed to be seen with on the street. The ones you warned your children to steer clear of at school. The ones you really worried if your teenagers wanted to be like them. 

Now depending on your lifestyle and indeed your time of life, the people who came to your mind as I went down that list may be rather different from those the next person is frowning about as they think of them. Might be pro- or anti-abortion. Might be racist Brits or dodgy foreigners. Might be Extinction Rebellion or oil barons. Doesn’t matter. They are the sort of people who affront our deeply held values, either by what they do and refuse to do or even by just who they are. And given that, obviously, God isn’t going to call them. Not if God calls us, anyway. Because we don’t want to find ourselves anywhere near them. We have got standards!

Something of this sort may have been going through the minds of Peter and Andrew, James and John as they started out as apprentice followers of Jesus. After all, they’d given up good solid professions to join him, even if some snobs did turn up their noses at fishermen. They might have bunked off Sabbath school a few times, but they’d been brought up right by their parents. They knew what crossed the line. Who crossed the line. And pretty high up that list of people nobody wanted to know were the tax collectors. 

They were well off, yes, but where’d they get all that money from? Overcharging their neighbours on taxes, that’s where. Creaming a few shekels off the top of every tax bill, defrauding honest working people. It was disgusting, it really was. And who were their paymasters? That’s right – the Romans. They were making you pay not just for roads and drainage but for the heathen soldiers that swaggered round the streets, doing whatever they pleased to whomever they pleased. They were funding the occupation. No good Jewish boy wanted to be a tax collector. But what does Jesus do? He goes right up to one of them and engages him in conversation. As if he’s hoping people will take him for a collaborator! And more than that – he invites this man, this tax collector, to follow him! To be one of his disciples! Alongside us, the comparatively speaking good ones!

It looks as though we may need to think again. God does indeed call those like Abram who thought they were past it, God does indeed call those like Sarai who thought they were too low down the pecking order to count. But God also calls those we’ve written off, the ones our families or our friends warn us against. God sees the good in them. Even more shocking, if Jesus is anything to go by, God expects us to start to do the same. 

For though Jesus calls us where we are; he doesn’t leave us where we are, any of us. We may find ourselves in strange company – though others travelling with him may think the same of us! But according to Jesus, God’s more interested in helping people who want to change than in making them jump through hoops to show how sorry they are. That’s why the Psalmist’s trust in God can be ours too, whoever we are, wherever we are on life’s journey.

Hymn    I To The Hills Will Lift Mine Eyes
Francis Rous (1579-1659), William Barton (c.1597-1678), Scottish Psalter  (1650)
The Scottish Festival Singers

I to the hills will lift mine eyes:
from whence doth come mine aid?
My safety cometh from the Lord,
who heaven and earth hath made.

Thy foot he’ll not let slide, 
nor will he slumber that thee keeps.
Behold, he that keeps Israel,
he slumbers not, nor sleeps.

The Lord thee keeps; the Lord thy shade
on thy right hand doth stay;
the moon by night thee shall not smite
nor yet the sun by day.

The Lord shall keep thy soul; 
he shall preserve thee from all ill;
henceforth thy going out and in
God keep for ever will. 

Comment

OK, so it looks like God calls those who think they’re past it, those who think they’re out of it and even those who’ve blown it. That may be a shock to the system. But at least we know how it is we want God to call people. So that everyone will eventually turn into disciples behaving more or less like us. That’s right, isn’t it? 

That’s what the disciples of John the Baptist were assuming, anyway. OK, so John kept on saying that he wasn’t God’s new leader, but John’s teaching was clear. Back to basics. Back to God’s commandments. Take care to do what God wants, the way we’ve always been told, and then we’ll all be OK in the end. Even the Pharisees and their followers did that, though they went over the top about the rule following. And little things, like fasting, could make a real difference to your life. It only made sense. But the followers of this new rabbi were letting the side down. Not doing the right thing. Not following God’s rules like everyone else. What was that all about? Well, Jesus explains, circumstances alter cases. Right now, my friends have me with them, so the best thing for them to do is to focus on what I’m saying, what I’m doing, who I am. When I’m gone, that’ll be the time for them to examine what they do and why. Then they can decide, in the light of what they’ve learned from me, what should stay the same in their lives and what needs to change.

Circumstances do alter cases. A few years ago, before March 2020 to be precise, if you’d asked me about the practice of handwashing, I’d have said something like, Yes, I guess it’s fairly importantl  But now? Now, post-Covid, I wash my hands every time I come into the house, as well as the normal times, like before meals. Now my practice comes from experience, not just tradition, and it’s that much stronger as a result. 

For Jesus’ friends, learning from him was the most important thing they could possibly do. And though they didn’t know it at the time, they only had three years to do it in! But looking in from the outside, other people who were equally motivated to live their lives the way God wanted couldn’t understand this. All they saw was an impatience with the tradition they valued, the tradition they took as from God. And that made them think even less of this rag-tag bunch of disciples Jesus had called, including tax-collectors, freedom fighters, even women. Judging by externals, they couldn’t see how God’s Spirit was doing something new. And sometimes I wonder if we fall into the same trap.

Take Jesus’ example of old and new wine. I understood that better when a few Octobers ago I went on an exchange visit to Winnweiler in Germany, where Avenue St Andrew’s has a partner church. The new wine – feather wine, they call it – was just ready, so our partners laid on a trip to a vineyard. I only drink alcohol at Communion, but it felt rude not to take a little, so I sipped cautiously. The wine was very bubbly. When I commented on this, people explained that it was still giving out carbon dioxide from fermentation. I believe the same is true for home-made wine: unless you let it all ferment before you put it into bottles, you’re liable to get a loud explosion followed by wine and shattered glass all over the airing cupboard, or wherever you’ve stored it. In Jesus’ day, of course, not glass but leather bottles, wineskins, were used, but the basic principle still holds. 

So does God want enthusiastic new wine, bubbling over with the love of God; or should we be older, mature wine, rich with the years of tradition? My answer to that is: Yes! Both!

Maybe you’re quite new to the faith, or new to the URC, or new to your congregation, with many questions: what does it all mean? What should we do about it? That’s great! Our branch of Christianity came about because we didn’t want to leave thinking about the faith to other people who’d tell us what we had to do. And if following Jesus isn’t exciting, what on earth is? Yet I reckon more of us first made that choice to hear and answer God’s call years or decades ago. Maybe you’ve been a Christian your whole life long. Such deep experience is also a treasure for a church’s life together, as a witness that through all life’s ups and downs, you can still hold to God. 

The enthusiasm of the young in faith, the richness of the mature in faith, they’re both necessary. Where things go wrong is if we expect others, whose experience is different from ours, to believe or to behave in exactly the same way as we do. From time to time, if the behaviour of Jesus’ own disciples is any guide, we are liable to squabble with each other, and to misunderstand his call. Yet Jesus is the centre of our lives, the core of our being. And he has called us to live in love with one another as well as him. So when we do get things wrong, we can turn to God for forgiveness and ask for the ability to trust in God’s call to others as well as us: to leave the place we know – our own expectations of ourselves and of others – to let God transform us, and to pass that good news of new life on to others. 

Hymn    Jesus Calls Us O’er The Tumult
Cecil Frances Alexander (1852) Sung by the virtual choir of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, Chapel Hill, NC

Jesus calls us o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless sea;
day by day his voice invites me, saying “Christian, follow me!”

As of old St Andrew heard it by the Galilean lake,
turned from home and toil and kindred, leaving all for his dear sake.

Jesus calls us from the worship of the vain world’s golden store,
from each idol that would keep us, saying “Christian, love me more.”

In our joys and in our sorrows, days of toil and hours of ease,
still he calls, in cares and pleasures, “Christian, love me more than these.”
 
Jesus calls us! By Thy mercy, Saviour, help us hear Thy call;
give our hearts to Thy obedience, serve and love Thee best of all!

Affirmation of Faith

We believe in an innovative God,
who does not wait for us to find ourselves
but comes seeking the lost and calling us into a new way.

We believe in Jesus of Nazareth as God’s crucial initiative,
that when he calls us to follow, 
Christ also gives us the power
to become, both in creed and deed, 
the children of the living God.

We believe in the Spirit 
by whom Jesus still comes to us,
calling us to follow him into an obedience which is true liberty
and to a humble service which is the fruit of holy friendship.

We believe in the Church 
as the fellowship of Christ’s people,
called to respect and support one another 
through joys and tribulations
as we travel the road towards 
the “promised land” of God’s future.

Offertory

God loves a generous giver. So let us pray for a spirit of generosity as we offer back to God our money, our time, and ourselves.

Yours, Lord, is the greatness, the power, the glory, the splendour and the majesty, for everything in heaven and on earth is yours. All things come from you, and of your own do we give you. Amen.

Holy Communion

Jesus often shared food and drink with those he loved. Outcasts and ne’er-do-wells, fishermen and tax-collectors, deniers and traitors, his friends and his family. Today, Jesus wants to share bread and wine with you. So I invite you now to prepare yourself to eat and drink with each other and with him.

Lift up your hearts
We lift them to the Lord

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God
It is right to give our thanks and praise

Generous host, 
you made the whole world for us to enjoy and to share.
You came in Jesus to teach us how to be your guests.
Your Spirit joins us together in the joy of hospitality.
So we praise you, saying:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

Come to us where we are, God our Host,
Worshipping, may we meet around your table
as we remember Jesus, who, on the night before he died, 
took bread and wine, blessed them 
and gave them to his invited guests,
saying: ‘This is my body; this is my blood. 
Eat and drink to remember me.’
And I invite you to join with me in saying:

Pour out your Holy Spirit, 
on this bread and this wine; and on these your people.
May we worship you with body, heart and spirit
online and face to face,
now and in the whole of our lives.  Amen.

Let us proclaim together the mystery of faith.

Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.

As Jesus taught his friends, let us pray together:

Our Father…

Among friends, gathered around a table, Jesus took bread and broke it and said, ‘This is my body, broken for you.’

Later he took a cup of wine and said, 
‘This is the new relationship with God made possible because of my death. Take it, all of you, to remember me.’
So eat this bread. It is the bread of life 
And drink this wine. It is the cup of blessing.

Music For Communion  Jesus Invites His Saints

Prayers of Thanksgiving and Concern 

As we come to our prayers of thanksgiving and concern, 
I invite you to pause as you pray.
How has God called you in the past?
Give thanks to God for that call and that care. 

How is God calling you now?
Ask for the Spirit’s encouragement and comfort. 

I invite you to bring to mind the variety of people 
who hear Jesus’ call to follow:
older and younger, people who think differently, 
act differently, love differently from us,
as well as those of our own family and tribe,
giving thanks for everyone God has made,
asking that we may recognise each other’s calling. 

Consider those you know and those you will never meet,
people in our families, in our streets, in our world,
in need of healing, in need of justice, in need of peace. 
May God call people to help; 
may we hear when God calls us 
to be the answer to our prayers.

In a moment of silence,
I invite you to share with God the concerns of your heart. 
All our prayers, all our fears, all our hopes, 
we give to the God who has called us, 
and who will always be faithful. Amen.

Hymn    Will you come and follow me?
John L. Bell (1949 – ) and Graham Maule (1958 – 2019) © 1987 WGRG, Iona Community. BBC Songs of Praise
 
Will you come and follow me
if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know
and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown,
will you let my name be known,
will you let my life be grown
in you and you in me?

Will you leave yourself behind
if I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind
and never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare
should your life attract or scare,
will you let me answer prayer
in you and you in me?

Will you love the ‘you’ you hide
if I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside
and never be the same?
Will you use the faith you’ve found
to reshape the world around
through my sight & touch & sound
in you and you in me?

Lord, your summons echoes true
when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you
and never be the same.
In your company I’ll go
where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow
in you and you in me.

Blessing

May God who is light shine in our darkness.
May God who is love be the love between us.
May God who is life be our life, everlasting.
And the blessing of God, Creator, Christ and Holy Spirit
is with us and all people, now and always. Amen.

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