Call to Worship
Come all you travellers, tired from the journey. Come to the feast; there is room at the table.
Come all you questioners, looking for answers. Come to the feast; there is room at the table.
Come let us worship God, who welcomes us in with love and grace
Hymn 125 – Lord of all being
Prayers of adoration and confession
Welcoming God, we join together to offer this time of worship. We are glad to come as we are, each one unique, different and each loved just the same. We are aware that you meet us here, may we notice your presence all around us.
You are the host, and we are invited to be here to join together in worship, in song, word and silence. May we remain humble and faithful to you here and now and always.
We come to show our love for you and all you have revealed to us in Jesus. We come to hear your word afresh and learn more of you. We come to offer ourselves just as we are and to give our gifts to help build your kingdom.
we confess we too often fall short of the kindness and compassion we meet in Jesus.
You have welcomed us like guests to a banquet,
yet we find it hard to welcome a stranger in church.
You have shown us what matters most in life,
but we are distracted by worries,
busy with things that really do not matter.
Forgive us, O God.
Teach us to honour you and those we meet
in all we do and say, for the sake of Christ, our Lord.
Dear friends, while it is true that we have sinned and fallen short of God’s hope for us,
it is a greater truth that we are forgiven through God’s amazing love. Praise be to God.
Readings – Jeremiah 2: 4-13
Luke 14: 1, 7-14
Hymn 489 – Come down, O Love Divine
Heavenly Father as we humbly come before you this day help us never to forsake you, our spring of living water. Help us to focus our priorities and our thoughts on heavenly things, as well as placing our treasures in heaven. Give us eyes to see and hearts to understand not only what you do on our behalf, but what you call us to do on your behalf. Amen
n the old days of air travel, there used to be smoking at the back and non-smoking near the front, though it didn’t seem to matter. In the old days of air travel, you could sometimes ask for an upgrade and, if you were lucky, find yourself in business class. It happened to me a couple of times, and it felt really good having slightly more space and some nice food. I don’t think you would get anywhere nowadays if you asked.
Have you ever been upgraded? Maybe it has been on a train or you have been given a sea-view in a hotel or a special cabin in a cruise. Once I had cheap tickets for a concert, but found myself in a box, though that was because the person I was with knew one of the ushers. It can make us feel good, when we are upgraded. It can make us feel special.
Jesus was at a dinner party; in a way, he was the star attraction. He was fascinated to watch as people positioned themselves, all vying to be near the top, to be in the places of honour. The guests at the dinner party would have been wealthy, they would have been people with influence, people with clout. They would have all felt that they were entitled to be at the top table. But imagine their shame, if they were asked to give up their place for someone else and be moved down. Jesus taught that it was far better to humble yourself and sit at the back or further down the table and be given the honour of being brought up to the front. Though in your average church of Scotland congregation, people might prefer to remain at the back!
In Zambia, whenever there were meals, the clergy would always be ushered to the front and given the best pieces of chicken, and I was never comfortable with that. Only, when I went to the back of the queue, others were not comfortable and always ushered me to the front, which I had to accept. I think we have moved on from that in Britain now!
But honour and shame still play a part in our everyday lives. I don’t know whether you use social media or not? In Facebook, for example, you can post a photo or write a few lines, and people can ‘like’ it. If there are lots of likes, then we are happy. However, if there are ‘dislikes’ or negative comments, it can really be quite devastating. I don’t use Twitter, but I know that comments can be retweeted, which makes you feel good, but again, negative reaction can be very hurtful. Most of us can take it in our stride, but for younger people, it can have a big impact and they can feel bullied and depressed, shunned and excluded.. Their sense of self-value damaged, for somehow people measure their status with how many likes they have, and it is so damaging. In God’s eyes all of us are valued, all of us have worth; we need to see ourselves through God’s eyes.
Jesus was at the meal, because he had received a bunch of ‘likes’, you could say. People wanted to hear him, especially if he was controversial. He didn’t disappoint, for he questions who we should invite to our dinner parties. Do you invite those who will invite you back or who will be able to help you in some way? Or should you invite the overlooked and the marginalised? He gives a glimpse of the Kingdom, where all are welcome and where social distinctions are turned on their head.
There is a story told, and maybe it is apocryphal, of a big church in the States who were waiting for a new minister. The day of the induction came, and the church was absolutely full. There were young and old, rich and not-so-rich. There was even a homeless person, judging from his clothes, who had wandered in. The elders were all at the front. The homeless person made for the front, but the team on duty soon took him to the back and fund a seat, though the family next to him felt obliged to move. The organist was playing, but where was the new minister? People were excited, but there was no sign of him yet. Someone went to the microphone and appealed for the new minister to come to the front, but no-one came forward – except for the homeless person who was on his wanders again. I am sure you have guessed it… the homeless person was the new minister, who had dressed incognito to see how welcoming his new congregation really was.
The gospel reading today doesn’t give us much wriggle room. We are encouraged to reach out to the poor, to the outcast, to those on the margins. The people without any influence, but they are the ones who get a place at the table. The Kingdom is not about popularity, but is a place where everyone is welcomed, everyone is valued. So, if you see someone sitting alone, draw a seat up and sit with them. You may well find that Jesus draws a seat up and sits beside us. The Pharisees liked their distinctions, but in God’s kingdom all are welcome.
Hymn 543 – Longing for light
Prayers of Dedication and Intercession
God of all good things, take our humble offerings of money and time and talent and multiply them, that through our resources which we return to you, our world may be changed.
Good and generous God, in Jesus Christ you came to us, promising us life in abundance.
We give you thanks today for the abundant gifts we receive in him –
assurance of your love day by day;
relief of mercy when we recognize our own failings;
hope when things seem bleak;
energy to make a difference through our work and our witness;
peace that comes when we trust ourselves in you.
These are the gifts that matter, O God,
especially when the future seems uncertain:
Generous God, today we pray for all whose lives seem empty:
For those whose lives are empty of joy
because the going is tough and friends seem far away…
because sorrow surrounds them…
because hearts are filled with anger or disappointment…
Generous God, we remember before you those whose lives are empty of purpose
and those who do not know the respect of their neighbours:
because they are without work…
because they face discrimination in their communities…
because they have made poor choices and cannot find a way forward…
Generous God, we remember before you those who lives are empty of peace & hope:
because they struggle with illness or disability…
because they are powerless in the face of violence…
because old animosities rankle & opportunity for reconciliation is elusive…
Good and generous God,
fill us with the energy & compassion of your Spirit
to reach out to those whose lives seem empty.
Hymn 458 – At the name of Jesus
We welcome all visitors to our services this Sunday at Yetholm (10am) and Morebattle (11.15). Please take sign the visitors’ book.
Call to Worship
With all our hearts, let us praise the Lord.
With all that we are, we will praise God’s holy name!
The Lord forgives our sins, heals our weakness, and gives us life everlasting.
Let us worship God who is merciful and patient, God’s love never fails.
Hymn 210 – Awake my soul, and with the sun..
Prayers of adoration and confession
O God, our strength and refuge,
We come together to worship you and praise your loving kindness.
In your presence, we rest from what distracts us,
to focus on your truth and goodness.
You call us to live in relationship with you.
Through the love of Jesus Christ, you repair our lives.
Through the power of your Spirit, you engage us to serve you in the world.
Receive our prayers and our praise this day,
Creator, Christ, and Spirit,
revive our hope and our energy
and make us ready to answer your call.
O God, our judge and our hope,
we confess we often turn away from your truth,
and ignore your call to do justice.
Forgive us when we say one thing in worship
but do another in the ways we live.
Forgive us when we ignore how others are treated
and think only of ourselves. Let your judgment awaken us and your mercy refresh us.
Merciful Creator, remind us that we are loved,
and transformed by love. Help us to let go of the hurt we have caused others, and enable us to forgive those who have hurt us, so that we can flourish.
Jesus delighted in setting people free,
May we know forgiveness for the hurt we have caused, and be able to forgive the hurt we have experienced.
Readings – Jeremiah 1: 1-10
Luke 13: 10-17
Hymn 251 – I, the Lord of sea and sky
Everlasting God, forgive us for overlooking your power and trying to live in our own strength. Help us to understand that we can’t do it on our own, and thank you that even before our birth your gracious hand was upon on our life providing everything that we need. Amen
Every Friday I receive a message on WhatsApp from a friend in Israel, saying ‘Shabbat Shalom’. It is the traditional greeting in Israel to welcome in the Sabbath. At dusk on the Friday night, buses stop running for 24 hours, and families come together for a special evening meal. The Saturday morning is quiet, and peace reigns where usually there would be the hubbub of traffic and horns. The Sabbath is still important; some might even go to synagogue, but most secular Israelis still see it as a day to keep different from all the others, to rest or to meet up with family and friends. Some people work on the sabbath, because they have to, but are paid extra. Though for the Orthodox Jew, Sabbath is a day to keep holy, and the more extreme even have a Gentile, maybe a Filipino or Indian worker, to fetch water or even turn on light switches, because that would be deemed work. But for all, the Sabbath is a special day – because in Pharaoh’s Egypt the Hebrew slaves had no day off; it was work 24/7. So the enshrinement in the Law of a day of rest was so important.
I am sure many of us grew up with Sunday being a distinctly special day. No shops would be open, apart from the newsagent to sell the Sunday papers in the morning. It was a day for church. How things have changed over a relatively short time, and not always for the best.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus is at the synagogue on the Sabbath and has been invited to preach. But he stops his sermon half way through when he notices a woman bent over. He speaks with her and heals her, and it causes a furore. Some people praise God, because they have witnessed something wonderful; a woman who had been disabled in this way for 18 years has been healed. But the leader of the synagogue takes exception. The service has been disrupted, but also he feels the law of the Sabbath has been violated and he remonstrates with Jesus and breaking the law. Could you not have come back tomorrow, you almost hear him say – she has waited 18 years; one more day wouldn’t make a difference.
For the Leader of the synagogue, the law mattered and he was upset over what he saw as an infringement of the law in his synagogue. The law does matter – it is there to keep order. But Jesus challenged this, by quoting from the Law, and by healing the woman, showed how grace and mercy brings life. The woman was restored to life and for the first time in 18 years could look people in the eye. Love trumped legalism; The broken spirit was put before the broken command.
We don’t know the woman’s name. Maybe she had attended worship at that synagogue for 18 years or more, always looking down. How was she treated? Maybe people just grew used to her and her condition. But it does raise the issue of how we treat those who are disabled in one way or another. In Zambia I was in touch with a group of disabled young people who made rugs out of rags; they were very colourful. But they told stories of other people who were blind or crippled who were kept at home; their families somehow ashamed of their condition. Thankfully in Britain great strides have been taken for the disabled to feel more accepted in society. There are disabled presenters on TV, while at the recent Commonwealth Games races for the disabled were not kept separate from the other races but rather integrated. As the Church we also have to be conscious of those who are disabled and make such there is accessibility and that all are included. The wonderful thing about this passage is that Jesus noticed the woman and saw her need and was able to include her in God’s love. She was restored to the community and had her part to play.
All of us have our part to play. That comes out in our Old Testament reading, when Jeremiah is called. Like Moses, he recites the reasons why he can’t possibly take up the role God has in mind for him. Moses wasn’t comfortable speaking, remember, but Jeremiah complained that he was too young. But God had other ideas, and Jeremiah is duly commissioned. All of us have our part to play in the life of the church. In Christ’s service all of us can walk tall, for all are included and all of us loved.
Hymn 718 – We cannot measure how you heal
Prayers of Dedication and Intercession
We offer our gifts as symbols of our lives.
Help us to use these and all of your gifts wisely,
Bless our offering of money and of ourselves
and use all to build your Kingdom and share your love
God, Creator, Healer, Sustainer, we bring to you our prayers. We pray for the world in all its beauty and pain: the land stripped bare of resources by human greed, the animals and plants driven to extinction the oceans overfished and exploited. We pray for those who call us to account for our misuse of the planet
Give them courage to speak and give us courage to act to protect the globe. We pray for the healing of the world.
We pray for your people, each one made in your image: those caught up in war, living in fear, fleeing in terror, those dying in places of famine, where enough is a distant dream, those burdened by poverty in lands filled with wealth.
We pray for the people of Afghanistan, especially those who live in fear and in poverty.
We pray for all who speak for justice and equity among peoples and nations:
those who broker peace in the face of hunger for power. Give them courage to speak
and give us courage to act with and for those in need.
We pray for the healing of the nations.
We pray for your Church in every place
sent out by the flame and wind of Pentecost
to tell your story and be your love.
We pray for the unity that comes through Christ.
We pray that your Church may rejoice in diversity of worship and style and that all may be pleasing to you.
We pray that your Church may serve you in Spirit and in truth.
We pray for ourselves:
carrying the burdens we bring and cannot let go of, the unspoken and unhealed hurts, grief in its fresh rawness or the dull ache of time.
We pray for those we know in need of your presence today and in the days to come.
Hymn 459 – Crown him with many crowns
Call to Worship
O God, our Shepherd,
gather us together and lead us like a flock.
O God, our Gardener,
plant us like a vineyard so that we produce good fruit.
We bow before you, O God,
and offer our worship with glad and humble hearts.
Hymn 173 – Sing to God new songs of worship
Prayers of adoration and confession
when we consider your creating power, we stand amazed. You spoke, and worlds came into being:
the star-spangled universe, the beautiful green-blue earth, the expanse of the heavens, stretching beyond our imagination; the abundance of nature on land and in seas, from the tiniest insect to the great beasts that dwell in forest and savanna, from minnows to the great whales that frolic in the seas, every one the work of your hands.
when we consider that out of dust
you created human beings, we stand amazed.
Flesh and bone, muscle and sinew, life and breath,
all working in harmony; each unique and precious, the same yet different, gloriously diverse.
we barely dare to stand before you -
you who are both mystery and yet present with us. And yet you call us to you. You open your arms to greet us. In Jesus you share our lives;
our sorrows and joys, our disappointments and anxieties, our hopes and dreams.
we respond to your call and come to worship you.
And even as we sing your praise and reflect on your goodness
we are aware of our own shortcomings and failures.
Though we seek to follow Jesus, we often give up when the path is hard, We follow our own desires instead of listening to your voice. We harden our hearts to the needs of others and put ourselves first.
We bring to you what we would have you change in us.
love is your nature and forgiveness freely given.
Renew and restore us to live your ways and be your people.
With thanksgiving we accept your mercy and grace, newness of life and endless fresh beginnings.
Gracious God let us trust in your words of healing and life. For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is Your love for those who fear You;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far have You removed our transgressions from us.
Readings – Isaiah 5: 1-7
Luke 12: 49-56
Hymn 522 – The Church is wherever ….
Faithful God, as we go from today’s worship, enable us to see each individual we meet as uniquely made in Your image and worthy of our love and respect. Help us to judge what is right and show Your love through our lives in some small way today as we seek to demonstrate the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The church lay empty, its windows bricked in and the grass outside overgrown like hayfields. It was a sad sight.
Italy was the first part of my holiday, but for the second part of my break, I had travelled to spend a few days in Ayrshire, back to my roots. I returned to the area where I grew up and spent a night in the hotel in which I worked the summer before going to University. It had changed, but then the whole area had changed; Dumfries House has opened to the public with a lot of input from Prince Charles, and there has been an emphasis on redevelopment in the community. But when I went back to Auchinleck, it just looked as rundown as ever. I hadn’t been back for 30 odd years and have no connection with anyone. I passed my old secondary school, which was split new in the early 70s, but now it was all shuttered up, because a new state-of-the-art school complex has been built for the area in the next town. But then I drove to Peden Kirk, the church where I had been baptised, where I had been confirmed and joined the church, and I found it closed and uncared for, the ground overgrown. It had been built in the 1950s as a hall church right in the heart of the new housing scheme, and the sanctuary was full of light, but now the windows were bricked in. It had been full of activities and people, but now it was empty. It didn’t, I must admit, come as a surprise, for in the 1980s, the two churches in the village had very sensibly been united, and the older, slightly grander church on the edge of the village had been chosen, but Peden was in the heart of the community and to be used as the halls, but obviously that isn’t the case now. But I had passed new community halls, and perhaps the church uses them. They perhaps provide better facilities. I don’t know. Looking at my old church I didn’t feel emotional but just sad, but the congregation there could well be a vibrant one, just adapting to new situations.
In Yetholm/ Morebattle there were several churches at one time; now there is just one in each village. The Church has had to adapt over the years, especially as numbers have fallen and buildings are not so adapted for present needs. Certainly, over the past years, a lot of churches in Britain have been faced with falling numbers and buildings requiring a lot of work and money spent on them, and the Church of Scotland is no different. We are challenged to be the Church in the 21st Century and to look at new ways of expressing our faith. And so it is with Jedburgh Presbytery. Whereas 10 years ago there would be 11 ministers in parishes within the bounds of the presbytery, the figures we have been given now are that there will be 5.5. The 0.5 would mean that someone would be part-time. But that obviously means sacrifices have had to be made. In the Kelso area it means that there will be two ministers; one for the Kelso North/ Country Churches area and one for Cheviot Churches/ Kelso Old and Sprouston, that will be either when I leave or sooner. It will mean big changes with our worship leaders and elders and indeed members having to rise to the challenge. It will be a linkage, so we will keep our Cheviot Churches name and identity, but share a minister and also, I would hope, doing some things together. The Plan does, however, mean that some of our buildings are not deemed ‘well-equipped spaces in the right places’, and Hownam and Linton are in the B category which means that they will be closed, though we will try to keep them open as long as we can. We also hope that at least Linton will be taken over by a trust and kept open. It is a painful process, and all around Scotland people are in the same boat, facing the closure of buildings they love. Our Luke reading talks about division. Jesus didn’t come to bring peace –that is the status quo, but the effect of his message can often divide. Certainly there will be a lot of unhappiness with this plan, but it also presents a way forward
However, we have been singing that the ‘Church is wherever God’s people are praising’, and one of the reports that I always found challenging was the call to be the Church without walls. We are called to use the facilities available to us in the community to be the church and to be relevant. The thrust of this plan is very much missional, as we show the love of God in action.
In Isaiah, we had another desolate picture. A vineyard, but one that bore sour grapes. On the news this week there have been pictures of land in France where the crops, including the vines, have all shrivelled up in the heat. This vineyard that Isaiah talks about was like that. So much had been invested in it – time, money, love. It was to be the best. But when the harvest came, the grapes were sour. So angry was the owner that they were set to destroy the whole enterprise. But the owner was God, and the vineyard was Israel. So much love had been lavished on them, but the fruit they bore was not what was expected. It was sour. That is our challenge as we go into the future; in all we do, we have to bear the good fruit of the Kingdom. The Church is going to be somewhat different in the years to come, but the question is what do we do, and that is to live out the kingdom values wherever we may be and to be church where we find ourselves. Pray for the Church of Scotland as we go through painful times for many, but also let us be aware that in these storms, we cling to the rock which is our Saviour. Our earthly endeavours may change, but God and God’s love remains constant
Hymn 565 – My life flows on in endless song
Prayers of Dedication and Intercession
Faithful God, bless the gifts we offer to you today. Use them to plant seeds of faith, hope and love in the world, so that your goodness will grow among your people, and your name be honoured for Christ’s sake.
God, in whom we live and move and have our being:
As we gather in your presence today,
we give you thanks for your faithfulness to your people across many generations and in so many situations.
Thank you for the faithfulness we meet in the world around us: In friendships that endure, in communities that pitch in when someone is in trouble, in workers who go that extra mile, in countries who offer safety or sustenance when disaster strikes and strangers are in desperate need.
Faithful God, hear our prayer,
we are aware of many challenges in our own lives,
in the lives of those we care about, and in the world around us. Show us how our care and concern can respond to the prayers of those we love:
We pray for the Church around the world and especially for our Church of Scotland, as she seeks new ways to respond to falling numbers and income. We pray for all who feel a sense of anguish and hurt and pray for vision ever to seek ways of building your kingdom and showing your love.
We pray for our country, as the cost-of-living crisis hits everyone. Be with all who are anxious about paying bills and may we ever seek to help those who struggle most. As we enjoy the summer sunshine, we pray for those whose water supply is under threat.
May we wake up to the signs that are all around of a world in need: Fuel poverty Food poverty Homelessness Migration War Greed Complacency Help us not to look away but to keep on staring until we see a way by which we can make a difference. The signs confront us every day. May we respond with love. May we respond with compassion. May we respond with action
We continue to remember our world. We pray for the war in Ukraine and all affected by it. We think of those who have taken refuge in other countries, a more prolonged stay than was perhaps expected. We pray for East Africa and the drought there. Be with Christian Aid as it seeks to assist.
We pray for all those who have lost people dear to them and feel the pain of separation. We think of those who are ill and those who are anxious and lay awake at night and for all who worry about the future.
We pray for our children and teachers as they return after the summer break; for those starting school and for those starting new schools. We pray for those who received results which will affect their future and rejoice with those who have done well, but pray for those who are disappointed that you will open up a way for them.
Hymn 501 – Your hand, O God, has guided
Where there is discord: harmony. Where there is division: unity. Where there is dogmatism: vulnerability. Open our hearts, O Lord, open our minds; open our arms wide to share your love, that each moment, each minute of our allotted time be a sign of the coming of your kingdom. May the blessing of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be with you, this day and even forevermore. Amen
· We welcome all visitors to our services this Sunday at Yetholm (10am) and Linton (11.15). Please take sign the visitors’ book. Stuart Kelly is leading worship for us today.
Hymn 189: Be Still For The Presence Of The Lord
Prayers of adoration and confession
Dearest Father, we come before you in reverence and prayerfully, aware that our minds are too limited to comprehend your magnitude and magnaminity, that our hearts are too hardened to understand the extent of your love and care for us, and our souls too fickle to grasp how steadfast and faithful you are. You are beyond all experience and knowledge and language, and yet you have reached out, constantly and tenderly towards us.
You reveal yourself in your creation, and patiently teach us how to read your world around us. We can discern its beauty and its necessity, each thing fashioned and crafted and curated for us and for your delight. We hear you whisper to us in all things, your promise of return and renewal and resurrection inscribed through all of creation.
You reveal yourself in your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, wholly human and wholly God, whose life was a template for us to follow; whose sinless earthly existence was the fulfilment of the law and a new yardstick by which we shall be measured. You reveal yourself in the Spirit, the gift of communication, inspiration, conscience and grace.
You have given us every opportunity to draw nearer to you and better to be the beings you long for us to be. Yet we have been obstinate and petulant. We have been negligent and deliberately set ourselves against you. When good things happen or we succeed we take credit for ourselves which is due to you, when bad things happen or we fail, we have the audacity to blame you and not look to our own waywardness and disobedience. In myriad ways we let you down multiple times each and every day.
Yet, even though you could give up on us, you do not. You are a merciful God, and grace is available to us if we truly confess, truly repent and truly try. Let us, in silence, lay before you all that we feel guilty about, all that we regret having done, all that we have done that caused harm. You are a forgiving God, and with all earnestness, we join together in the prayer you taught us, committing ourselves anew to uphold it: [Our Father…]
Isaiah 1: 10-20; Luke 12:32-40
Hymn 473: ‘Thy kingdom come!’ – on bended knee the passing ages pray
Weekly Prayer: Everlasting God, we give thanks for this new day and worship you with all of our hearts. We pray that through our belief in you we will act justly, overflowing with love for you, and for all who we meet along our journey. Amen.
Over the past month we’ve been hearing about the Old Testament prophets – Elijah and Elisha (who don’t have books), and then from Amos and Hosea (called the minor prophets which always seems a bit disrespectful to me). This week and next week we move on to Isaiah. It’s a bit of a gear change because Isaiah well – these are my comparisons – Beethoven’s 9th, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Turner’s Snow Storm – with Isaiah we are unequivocally in the realm of indisputable masterpiece. Isaiah is almost the entire Bible in miniature. It deals with how we alienate ourselves from God and how God is reconciled to us. It is about judgment and promise. It is about exile and return. Isaiah has the clearest prophecies about the Messiah; both in glory and triumph and as the suffering servant. It is no wonder that some of the early Church Fathers referred to the book of Isaiah as the “fifth gospel”. It is the most frequently quoted Old Testament book in the New Testament – it is quoted 65 times, right from Matthew through Acts and the Epistles (both of Paul and Peter) and up to Revelation. Parts of it have become part of everyday language, even for those who aren’t of the Church – the voice in the wilderness, beating swords into ploughshares, eat and drink for tomorrow we die, mount up on eagles’ wings, man of sorrows and so on.
And if Isaiah is the Bible in miniature, Isaiah chapter 1 is Isaiah in miniature. The part we heard today begins in an uncompromising, even shocking fashion, with Zion, Jerusalem, being compared to Sodom and Gomorrah. The fate of those cities showed God at his most wrathful. They were by-words for sin and the consequences of sin. The Lord eradicated them, and threatens to do the same to the beloved Zion. He is, officially, not mucking around. The stakes are high. The next part is even more startling, as God tells the people that their sacrifices and offerings and incense and congregations and prayera are meaningless, detestable, a burden: in fact they are an abomination to him. But let’s scroll back a little bit. Who instituted the Temple rules? God did. It was not Aaron or Moses but God who gave them: over 100 out of – well, the figure is disputed, but the earliest say 613 mitzvot or commandments. If God is sickened by their devotions, we really have to ask “Why?”
The next section makes it abundantly clear. Yes, they have followed the letter, but not the spirit, and one suspects they followed the letter grudgingly – and don’t tell me none of us has ever woken up on a Sunday feeling weary duty rather than joy. God sets out quite basic ethical principles to do with justice and particularly how we treat the vulnerable. We see the same pattern in the life of Jesus, berating the vipers and whitened sepulchres of the pious and setting out a simple command: feed the hungry, give the thirsty something to drink, clothe those without adequate clothing, visit the prisoners, receive the stranger or foreigner or outcast, tend the sick. God is saying no amount of box-ticking and aye-been performances can compensate for a lack of love.
I was reading this week a new biography of the 17th century poet John Donne and it had a very interesting section on Donne wondering (he was a courtier before he became Dean of St Paul’s) whether it was possible to flatter God. He concludes, rightly, that it was impossible: God doesn’t need flattery, and God sees through the attempt at flattery. But this is what the Temple priests were doing. Some expensive perfume, the best cuts of meat and God would be placated. Boy, is God not. The great Biblical commentator Matthew Henry, a contemporary of Donne’s expresses this better than I can: “When sinners are under the judgments of God they will more easily be brought to fly to their devotions than to forsake their sins and reform their lives.” God is not taken in by us. But we are taken in by him. This part of chapter 1 ends with the most staggering turnaround: “your sins are like scarlet, but they shall be as white as snow”. What is almost more unbelievable is the point where God changes the story: “Come now, let us reason together”. This is God as the one who placates, the one who is willing to hear humanity out, the one who grants us responsibility and agency. That is unlike anything in other religions. What Zeus wants, Zeus does; what Odin desires, Odin gets; but our God says “right, sit down, let us talk this through”. Would that more of the world took that to heart.
The Gospel reading seems somehow disconnected, but some parallels can be seen. The opening has Jesus giving both practical and emotional advice – to his little flock he gives a daunting task and a supreme hope. But the real link is in the parable; in its overturning of expectations. The servants – slaves even – get a little forgotten. It’s not like the parable of the wise and foolish virgins which has a similar moral; since here, there are no foolish servants (there are if you read on, when Jesus has to explain the parable). They have stayed awake, they were prepared and their master or owner does a radical thing. He dresses like them, bids them sit and he serves them. Yet again, God is upending convention: he critiqued the hollow observations of Judah, he makes himself the servant. Why does he do this, endure this? Because, simply, out of love. God, at any point, could say “I have had enough of humanity, it is irredeemable, it is wicked” but, but and but again he does not. He says sit down and we shall think about this; sit down and enjoy because you have been faithful servants.
Hymn 134: Bring many names
Prayers of Dedication and Intercession
Father, you have made it clear that merely going through the motions disgusts you. In giving our offerings, we give ourselves as the offering, that you dedicate what we contribute and what we do to the greater glory of the Kingdom, which is coming and so we must be prepared.
Lord God, we think of your world, a place made to be home and turned into a wasteland of refugees and displaced people, those made homeless by conflict and those made homeless by never feeling truly at home. We think of how fragile the world is, and how its beauty is scarred and marred by our selfishness. We ask you to make change us, that we might nurture the world and the people of the world.
Lord God, we think of your Church, and ask earnestly that we do not succumb to being people who mouth the words but do not believe in them, that we are, as Church, never the dried husk of tradition but the living water of replenishment. We pray for all ministers, deacons and readers that you guide them as they guide us.
Lord God, we think of those in power, those who so frequently kneel at the altar and turn on their heel. Give to all those, in any position of influence, a proper sense of their responsibilities and duties. Make them more like the servants who stayed awake, and less like the rulers who drowsed as their cities fell.
Lord God, we think of those who are thought about thoughtlessly, if at all. We think of those who think their sins are so scarlet, there is no possibility of white, those who feel unloved, unrecognised, incapable and undermined. We think of those whose basic needs are not met by a fair wage, those whose hearts are stricken by grief, or sickness, or despair, or feeling lost in a confusing and uncaring world. Make us strong, and brave, to be the hand that reaches out, the candle in the darkness, connection to the world of those who feel left behind by the world. There are those whom we have a personal knowledge of, to whom your care and grace and comfort are needed.
Lord God, we think finally about the bereaved, confident in the knowledge that those gone know more about your love and mystery, feel no further pain or anguish and sing to you as we hope one day so to do. And finally, Lord God, we think of those for whom we struggle to pray; for those whom we resist forgiving. Make us more open-hearted in the hope that where we lead, others may follow.
Hymn 449: Rejoice! the Lord is King
Father, send us from this place reinvigorated and ardent to do, not just say, to change and not just be stale, to wait and stay awake. And the blessing of Lord God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, rest with us and remain with us and propel us into the world, this day and every day. Amen.