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Sunday Service, 10th May 2020

Today sees the beginning of Christian Aid week and the content of this week’s service has been taken and adapted from material written and offered by Christian Aid for worship, in the light of the coronavirus pandemic.

First of all, a message from Christian Aid.

“We at Christian Aid are incredibly grateful to all who have delivered and collected Christian Aid envelopes by hand over these past 60+ years and for the hands that have made soup, put up bunting, sorted out books and art, have counted and returned money collected. Thank God for the hands that have put love into action. Thank God too, for the hands of those working at the medical frontline, the hands of those working alongside the most vulnerable in society, the hands of those who strive to bring justice to the oppressed and to those falsely imprisoned. May their times be in God’s hands, may God’s face shine upon them. May the unfailing, steadfast love of God be their constant strength.”

Like all charities, Christian Aid is heavily dependent on the financial support given by the public. This year all of our charities will find themselves struggling to continue their work. For Christian Aid, many of their sources of income will be curtailed, many suspended – their Book Sale, the Bridge Cross, their delivery and collection of Christian Aid envelopes, local fundraising events.

As a church and as individuals let us continue to support this great organisation in prayer and also in our giving. Donations can be given through their website. I encourage you to make use of this facility and by doing so adding to the resources available to them in the continuation of their work.

Gathering prayer

God of all the earth, be present with us now, in each of our homes as we connect together.

Build us into a spiritual house, a royal priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to you through Jesus Christ our risen redeemer and healer.

Amen 

Hymn 198, Let us build a house where love can dwell. Listen here.

It may seem strange to sing the lyric: “All are welcome in this place” at a time when no one is welcome into our home or to collective worship in our church building. However, at this time more than ever, we are learning that the church is not a building but it is us, the people Peter calls living stones in his epistle. Though separate, we can build up together into a spiritual house where love can dwell, and be lived out in our everyday actions.

Prayer of confession and absolution

How many times have you washed your hands today? We approach our prayer mindful of the ritual significance of handwashing in the Bible. Handwashing in Scripture is closely associated with innocence and cleansing from sin.

As we turn on the tap we turn our hearts towards you, O God.
As we wet our hands renew our thoughts so we might be transformed.
As we lather soap between our fingers and over our hands, purge us from all that bring us harm and might harm others.
Remove the invisible guilt and shame that so often keeps us from you.
As we rinse our hands we trust in your overflowing grace making all things new.

Amen

Readings

Psalm 31: 1–5, 15–16, 24 (NRSV)

In you, O Lord, I seek refuge;
do not let me ever be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me.
Incline your ear to me;
rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me.

You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord,
faithful God.

My times are in your hand;
deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
Let your face shine upon your servant;
save me in your steadfast love.

Be strong, and let your heart take courage,
all you who wait for the Lord.

John 14: 1–14 (NRSV)

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.’

Sermon by Rev. Robert Gemmell

The psalms take on even greater meaning in these exceptional days of the coronavirus global pandemic. While the context in which our psalm was written may not be the same as our circumstances, it expresses many of the honest emotions of grief and lament that many of us are currently experiencing.

The psalmist prays for the refuge and fortress of God to protect us and for deliverance from the hidden enemy which threatens our very existence: “God incline your ear to us; rescue us speedily. Be a rock of refuge for us, a strong fortress to save us. In your mercy hear our prayer.”

Perhaps in the midst of these days of isolation, when we have to retreat to the fortress of our homes, a new understanding of God, as our fortress, may come to mind, the place of security and safety we turn to in time of trial.

Jesus turned to the psalms for strength and courage when enduring suffering. He quotes verse 5 from the cross: “into your hand I commit my spirit.” A verse that takes on particular poignancy as we face the reality that coronavirus has, which will lead to the end of life for some of our neighbours, near and far. It is into the hands of God that we entrust them.

When our hands and the hands of others have become something of a threat, and when many are no longer experiencing the reassuring touch of a hand on the shoulder or being comforted by the embrace of a hug, the message of the psalmist – the touch and the influence of the Lord in our lives – takes on fresh meaning for us.

The absence of touch was a great challenge for communities in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak of 2014. The cultural practice of washing the bodies of the deceased was banned and made the process of saying goodbye to loved ones even more heart wrenching and painful. Equally painful has been the experience of some within our own communities in recent days, in as much as they, too, have not been able to say their goodbyes, their loved ones dying alone in hospital or a care home cut off from family and friends, and then they are not able to hold the kind of funeral they see as a fitting tribute to the deceased.

As already mentioned we don’t know the circumstances that led the psalmist to pen the words of this lament. The narrative certainly suggests he was living on the darker side of life: “my life is spent with sorrow, and my tears with sighing; my strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away” (verse 10). But from the darkness of that valley, light appears: “Blessed be the Lord for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me when I was beset as in a besieged city” (verse 21). And his final exhortation is one that comes as a challenge to us today: “Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord.”

From the lament of the psalmist, we turn to the promises contained in John’s Gospel and to the hope and reassurance that many have found within this passage. The comforting words of Jesus, “do not let your hearts be troubled”, were spoken to the disciples, disciples who had good reason to have troubled hearts. Our Lord’s message was delivered at the Last Supper, just after he had washed their feet, talked of Judas’s betrayal and of Peter’s denial and his imminent departure. These were words of comfort offered amidst unsettling and anxious times, and it is a message that is relevant in the challenges that confront us today. I like the Good News translation of this verse: “Do not be worried or upset, believe in God, believe also in me.”

The honesty of Thomas in verse 5, a prelude to his honesty after missing the resurrection appearance, is an honesty to be welcomed in these difficult times. Amidst the uncertainty and anxiety of today we can easily identify with the questioning mind of Thomas. We share his hesitation because we too don’t know what lies ahead. Coronavirus has disrupted our routine and has many of us saying: “we don’t know the way”. Thomas’s confusion invites us all to be honest in prayer before God and to be honest with each other as we seek to follow Jesus in these exceptional times.

In response to Thomas’s confusion, Jesus’ reply, “I am the way, the truth and the life”, takes on a new meaning today. Yes days of anxiety still lie ahead, the future an unknown quantity, but here we have the assurance that in it all and through it all the Lord will prove to be the way, the truth and the life for us. How precious our life has become when we have rubbed shoulders with our human frailty and vulnerability.

The Gospel passage concludes with a call to action, a call to prayer. Right in the middle of the Last Supper, Jesus encourages his disciples to ask for anything and he’ll do it. These are hard words to reconcile with the prayers that have seemingly gone unanswered in these difficult days. But they are words Jesus wants his disciples, his followers, to remember when he is no longer with them. He wants them to come to him with every cause, concern and request. These are words of hope and a promise of connection for us all and through all circumstances, but particularly in these days when we may be apart from each other, but never alone. Physical absence and separation do not mean abandonment, they didn’t for the early disciples and they don’t for us today, and by entering into the dwelling place of God in prayer, he brings us back to the way, the truth and the life, again and again.

Prayer

God our refuge, we come to you with open hands, some of us with hearts full of questions, some of us bruised by bereavement, some of us fearful of what the future holds, all of us stunned by the events of this year. Draw close to us now in each of our homes as we place our honest questions and hopes into your open, resurrected, yet scarred hands.

God in your mercy, hear our prayer.

With the honesty of the Psalmist, the wrestling questions of Job and the lament of the prophets we bring to you our questions or our silence.

God in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Hear the cry of our hearts, Lord, silent and aloud, for bereaved neighbours, near and far. Comfort those pained by being absent and hold close those who are hurting alone.

God in your mercy, hear our prayer.

In this season of Easter, renew us with resurrection hope that while weeping lingers in the night, joy will come with the morning.

God in your mercy, hear our prayer.

On this Christian Aid Week Sunday, we pray for and with communities across the world who are vulnerable to coronavirus. We pray for people living in refugee camps and city slums with limited sanitation facilities, who are unable to wash their hands regularly and have little opportunity to isolate. We pray for Christian Aid partners working to provide soap and buckets, communicating clear, accurate information, raising the voices of the most vulnerable and ensuring they are kept as safe as possible.

God in your mercy, hear our prayer.

We pray for wisdom and resources for those in local and national authority for all frontline and key workers here in Britain and throughout the world.

God in your mercy, hear all our prayers.

Amen

Hymn 465, Be Thou my Vision. Listen here.

The UK Blessing

At this unique and challenging time in the United Kingdom over 65 churches and movements, representing hundreds of others, have come together online to sing a blessing over our land. Standing together as one, our desire is that this song will fill you with hope and encourage you. But the church is not simply singing a blessing, each day we’re looking to practically be a blessing. Many of the churches included in this song have assisted with supplying over 400,000 meals to the most vulnerable and isolated in our nation since COVID-19 lockdown began. This alongside phone calls to the isolated, pharmacy delivery drops and hot meals to the NHS frontline hospital staff. Our buildings may be closed but the church is very much alive! Listen here.

Closing Blessing