Sunday Worship 17 September 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 17 September 2023

 
Today’s service is led by the Revd Cara Heafey

Welcome

Hello and welcome to worship on Sunday 17th September.  My name is Cara Heafy.  I’m a hospital and hospice chaplain in Oxford and an associate minister serving Marston and Wheatley United Reformed Churches. It’s a joy and a privilege to be sharing worship with you today.  Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey you are welcome here.  

Call to Worship

Come, all you weary ones, you hopeful ones, you hurting ones.
Bring your grateful hearts and your tender wounds.
You are welcome here.

Lean into the grace that invites you onto holy ground.
Breathe in the love that surrounds you. You are welcome here.

Come, Spirit of God, playful and wild.
Truth-teller, change-bringer: You are welcome here.

Hymn    Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing
              Robert Robinson (1758); Alterer: Martin Madan (1760) sung by All Sons and Daughters

Come, thou Fount of every blessing;
tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
streams of mercy, never ceasing,
call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
sung by flaming tongues above;
praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
mount of Thy redeeming love!

2 Here I raise my Ebenezer;
hither by Thy help I’m come;
and I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
interposed His precious blood.
 
3 O to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart; O take and seal it;
seal it for Thy courts above.

Prayer of approach and Confession

God-in-Trinity, we praise you.
In your very being, you are relationship, you are love,
and you long to draw us into communion
with you, with the earth, with one another.

Faithful one, we praise you.
You walked with your creatures in the garden,
you journeyed with your people in the desert,
you go where we go,
you meet us where we are.

Patient one, we praise you.
For not giving up on us.
For promising never to leave us.
For loving us, for better or worse.

Forgive us for the divisions between us,
the grudges we cling to, the hurts we cherish,
and the harm we have done in your name.

Shake us from our lazy assumptions and lame excuses.
Help us to heal broken friendships,
and all we have neglected to tend or repair.

Relieve us of the burdens that you never asked us to carry:
the burden of being right,
the burden of keeping score.

May we love one another, as you have loved us.  Amen.

Assurance of Grace

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me,
bless God’s holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all God’s benefits—
who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,

who satisfies you with good as long as you live
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.
God made known holy ways to Moses,
God’s own acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
God will not always accuse, nor will God keep angry for ever.
God does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is God’s steadfast love towards those who fear God;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far God removes our transgressions from us.

Prayer for illumination

Come, Holy Spirit.
Breathe life into the ancient words of Scripture.
Open our ears to hear; our hearts and our lives to be transformed. Amen.

All-age Introduction 

The reading we’ll be hearing today from the Hebrew Scriptures comes from the Book of Genesis. And it tells a little fragment of the story of Joseph and his brothers.  It may help us though to put this passage in the context of the bigger story and remind ourselves of what has already happened between Joseph and his brothers.  So to refresh our memories I am going to read a version of the story of Joseph and his brothers from the Lion Storyteller Bible.  This is called Joseph the Dreamer.

Jacob had 12 sons.  That’s right, 12!  His favourite son was Joseph.  Jacob spoiled him and gave him special gifts like a beautiful coat decorated with many colours.  Reds and greens, blues and yellows, purples and pinks.  Joseph was bright as a rainbow and proud as a peacock.  Joseph’s older brothers did not like this one bit.  But what they hated even more were Joseph’s dreams.  

I had a dream last night boasted Joseph.  “Oh no” groaned his brothers.  “I dreamt that we were all bundles of wheat and guess what happened?  Your bundles of wheat bowed down and worshiped mine.  And I had another dream” Joseph said.  “Go on” his brothers said.  “I dreamed we were all stars and guess what, your stars bowed down to mine as if I were your king.”  It didn’t take long for Joseph’s brothers to grow tired of this but that’s no excuse for what they did.  

The next time they were out of Jacob’s sight they grabbed Joseph, tore of his colourful coat and dropped him down a dry well.  They were just about to kill him in the back when they spotted a cloud of dust at the edge of the hill.  It was a band of traders bound for Egypt.  Their camels loaded with goods for sale.  “Why should we kill Joseph?” asked one of the brothers “when we can sell him to those traders and make some money for ourselves. He’ll be sold as a slave in Egypt and his foolish dreams will never come true.”  

20 pieces of silver.  That’s how much the traders gave them for Joseph and when the traders had gone the brothers ripped up Joseph’s coat, dipped it in the blood of a goat and carried it home to their father.  “Joseph is dead” they told Jacob and showed him Joseph’s coat, it’s long sleeves shredded.  The beautiful coat smeared with blood.  Jacob wept and wept.  And Joseph wept too as the traders carried him far from home.  

Joseph had many other adventures after his journey into slavery in Egypt.  It will be many  long years before he would see his brothers again but they will meet and the passage we will hear shortly picks up the story after their reunion. 

Reading     Genesis 50:15-21

Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’  So they approached Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this instruction before he died, “Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.” Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.’ Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept,  fell down before him, and said, ‘We are here as your slaves.’  But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God?  Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.  So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

Reading     Matthew 18:21-35 

Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’  Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

 ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him;  and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.  So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”  And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.  But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.”  Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.”  But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.  Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?”  And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt.  So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

 Hymn    Amazing Grace
               John Newton (1779)  BBC Songs of Praise
 
Amazing grace 
how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, 
but now am found,
was blind, but now I see.

2 ‘Twas grace that taught 
my heart to fear,
and grace my fears relieved;
how precious did 
that grace appear
the hour I first believed!

3 Through many dangers, 
toils and snares
I have already come:
’tis grace has brought me 
safe thus far,
and grace will lead me home.

4 When we’ve been there 
ten thousand years
bright, shining as the sun
we’ve no less days
to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun.
 
Sermon 

There’s a quote I heard once and have appreciated since, although I haven’t been able to find out who it comes from.  It goes something along the lines of this: “God is Master of the Arts and of all the Sciences. But God is terrible at Maths.”

Perhaps part of the reason why I like this idea is that I’m also terrible at Maths! 

But it’s true, isn’t it? In God’s economy the spreadsheet doesn’t balance, the numbers don’t add up. One sheep takes priority over ninety-nine. The widow’s penny is prized above the large contributions of the wealthy. Five loaves and two fish are enough to feed five thousand hungry people, with twelve basketfuls left over. 

Forgiveness is bad Maths, too. “An eye for an eye” seems proportionate, logical. “Turn the other cheek” does not.

Jesus talked about forgiveness a lot. And it really aggravated many of the religious people who heard him. Going around saying, “your sins are forgiven” was controversial, provocative, annoying. He seemed to offer these pronouncements so freely, no petition or penance required.

The trouble with grace is, it’s not fair! It makes a mockery of all our comparing and measuring, our attempts to earn our way to holiness, our scorekeeping and gatekeeping, our preoccupation with who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out.’ The trouble with grace is, it interferes with our sense of justice. We like to see the ‘bad guys’ get their comeuppance, their just desserts. 

I feel some sympathy for Peter, in our gospel reading for today, when he asks Jesus, “how many times should I forgive the person in the church who’s wronged me? Seven times?” To me, seven times sounds pretty generous. Surely there comes a point where enough is enough, where someone has used up all their chances and needs to be written off as a lost cause.

Jesus says no. The sky’s the limit. You can’t use up grace, it’s not a finite resource. To illustrate his point he tells a story, a story about a king who decides to call in his debts…

This is a strange parable, isn’t it? Some of it seems to make sense. The slave who has been forgiven is exposed as a hypocrite, asking for mercy and showing none himself. But what are we to make of the character of this king, his master, who retracts his forgiveness as swiftly and thoroughly as he had given it? The last two verses of the passage are particularly chilling with their reference to torture, their threatening tone, their implication that this king who swings from one extreme to another represents God. What, exactly, is Jesus saying here? Are we to forgive because we are forgiven, transformed by grace? Or are we to forgive on pain of punishment?

It might help us to recognise the tone Jesus is using. His hearers would have recognised the absurdity of this story. Ten thousand talents was a ridiculous, inconceivable amount for a slave to owe his master. A single talent would have been many years’ wages for a labourer. It was laughable for the slave to ask for time to pay off such an unpayable debt.

In comparison, a hundred denarii was a miniscule sum. The slave’s treatment of his fellow-slave, “seizing him by the throat” for such a tiny debt, was unreasonable to the point of comedy.

I don’t think Jesus is really describing God as a fickle, furious debt-collector. Jesus is being a storyteller, using hyperbole, language of excess, to lampoon Peter’s suggestion that there ought to be a limit to our forgivingness. In this light, maybe the details of the story aren’t meant to be taken too literally. Maybe Jesus is using an extreme illustration to poke gentle fun at Peter and drive home the central point: we have all been forgiven. We are to live in the light of this truth, breathing in and exhaling grace. When we comprehend the magnitude of God’s love and forgiveness towards us, many of our own grievances are exposed as petty and foolish.

What does limitless forgiveness, forgiveness that does not keep score, look like? Does it mean letting evil and injustice go unchallenged?

Absolutely not. This passage needs to be read in the context of the verses that go before. In verses 15-20, Jesus gives some specific, practical instructions about conflict resolution. He says that the community has a responsibility to bring issues into the light, confront abusers, support and empower victims, speak the truth in love. Forgiveness within the Church does not mean turning a blind eye, covering things up, protecting abusers and failing to protect the vulnerable.  
 
Forgiveness, in fact, has the power to do the opposite. To finally break cycles of violence and abuse. History, experience, and psychosocial research all teach us that unprocessed trauma is passed on through generations. When Jesus, from the cross, abused, tortured, betrayed and bleeding, says “forgive them, Father”… he is saying, “this goes no further. It ends here, with me. I refuse to meet violence with violence. The cycle is broken.” 

Lutheran preacher Nadia Bolz-Weber said this: “Maybe the Good Friday story is about how God would rather die than be in our sin-accounting business anymore.”

I find those words so powerful. I’m going to say them again, to give us chance to hear and absorb them: “Maybe the Good Friday story is about how God would rather die than be in our sin-accounting business anymore.”

For me, the central message of our faith and the Good News we are called to share is all about grace. If there is one truth, one shining little nugget of wisdom I want you to take away with you today, it can be distilled into just four words, words that change everything, words that Jesus was really fond of saying, words that got him into a whole heap of trouble: 

Your. Sins. Are. Forgiven.

It seems to me that the journey of faith is all about learning and leaning into the truth of those words. Believing their truth not just in our heads but in our hearts, in our bodies, in our bones. We are forgiven already, before we even ask. We are loved already, just as we are.

Knowing that we are forgiven means holding two, seemingly incongruous things together. We are flawed, vulnerable, broken, prone to making mistakes. And: we are beloved, blessed, redeemed, cherished, made whole. Knowing that we are sinners helps us to see our common humanity. Knowing that we are loved helps us to love.

Grace is not a finite resource, it is abundant. When we let it in and allow it to fill us up, it overflows, spilling out to heal our relationships and to bless and transform the world. Grace sets us free from all our measuring and comparing, our striving to achieve holiness. Grace sets us free from self-loathing and shame. Grace gives us eyes of compassion with which to look at our neighbour, even our enemy. Grace can heal. Grace can flood and fill the fractures within and between us.

Picture again that scene between Joseph and his brothers in the passage we heard from Genesis. They allowed grace in. They spoke the truth aloud, they embraced one another and wept, they shared their grief, they reaffirmed their kinship. They processed the trauma of the past rather than handing it on to the next generation. 

Your sins are forgiven. May you hear this today, may you live and breathe it, may you walk from here with a lighter step, ready to love and forgive and share the Good News and be known as people of grace.

Amen.

Hymn    There’s A Wideness in God’s Mercy    
              Fr Frederick Faber 1862, BBC Songs of Praise

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,
like the wideness of the sea.
There’s a kindness in His justice,
which is more than liberty.
There is no place  where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than up in heaven,
there is no place where earth’s failings
have such kindly judgement given.

For the love of God is broader
than the measures of the mind,
and the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind.
But we make His love too narrow
by false limits of our own,
and we magnify its strictness
with a zeal He will not own.
 
There is plentiful redemption
in the blood that has been shed
there is joy for all the members
in the sorrows of the head.
There is grace enough for thousands
of new worlds as great as this,
there is room for fresh creations
in that upper home of bliss.

If our love were but more simple,
we should take Him at His word,
and our lives would be all gladness
in the joy of Christ our Lord.

 
Prayers of intercession

These prayers have a simple call-and-response refrain which plays with a familiar phrase from the Lord’s Prayer. In place of “kingdom” I have used the alternative “kin-dom”, a word which conveys the idea that we are family, we belong to one another.
 
Merciful and Holy One, Mother of us all,
we pray for the world you so love.
Thank you for the beauty of this season, 
as summer begins to soften into autumn.
Thank you for earth’s bounty: enough for us all.

Nature holds and heals us.
But it bears the scars of our carelessness and greed.
Help us to learn habits that will restore harmony and balance.
Make us advocates for the earth and agents of healing and peace.

Your kin-dom come Your will be done

Today we pray for all who have been abused.
Those for whom home… or church… has not been a place of safety.
We pray for those who are unable to forgive
because the wounds they carry are too deep or too raw.

May those whose dignity has been stolen…
whose trust has been violated…
whose stories have been silenced… 
experience your solidarity and your healing.
Give us courage to speak the truth,
and to challenge evil and injustice wherever we find them.

Your kin-dom come Your will be done

Today we remember the places in the world where there is conflict.

[An opportunity here to name places of concern]

We bring to you the conflict within our own communities,
in our own friendships and families, in our own lives.

We pray for peace like a river, restoring life and hope
to landscapes devastated by war, and to hearts hardened by hatred.
Open our eyes to our common humanity.
Help us break the cycle of violence.

Your kin-dom come  Your will be done.
    
Lastly, we pray for ourselves.
May your grace wash over and around us,
casting out fear and shame,
healing the wounds we carry,
blessing and transforming every part.
May your compassion for us soften our hearts,
setting us free to love and forgive with generous and joyful abandon.

Your kin-dom come Your will be done.  
Amen.
    
Hymn      The love of God is broad like beach and meadow
                Fred Kaan © 1974 Hope Publishing Company sung by the Rev’d Paul Robinson

The love of God is broad like beach and meadow,
wide as the wind, and an eternal home.
God leaves us free to seek him or reject him,
he gives us room to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no.’
The love of God is broad like beach 
and meadow, wide as the wind, and an eternal home.

2 We long for freedom where our truest being
is given hope and courage to unfold.
We seek in freedom space and scope for dreaming,
and look for ground where trees and plants can grow.
The love of God is broad like beach 
and meadow, wide as the wind, and an eternal home.

3 But there are walls that keep us all divided;
we fence each other in with hate and war.
Fear is the bricks and mortar of our prison,
our pride of self the prison coat we wear.
The love of God is broad like beach 
and meadow, wide as the wind, and an eternal home.

4 O, judge us, Lord, and in your judgment free us,
and set our feet in freedom’s open space;
take us as far as your compassion wanders
among the children of the human race.
The love of God is broad like beach 
and meadow, wide as the wind, and an eternal home.

Blessing

Beloved, let’s love as we have been loved,
let’s forgive as we have been forgiven,
let’s allow grace to flow in and spill out of our lives,
healing and blessing as it goes.

And may the bountiful, beautiful, blessing of God,
Source, Saviour and Spirit
be yours today and always. Amen.
 
 

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