Sunday 29th August – 14th Sunday after Pentecost – 13th after Trinity
WORDS OF WELCOME
Welcome to the last of our collections of prayer, readings and music suitable for the Sundays during the closure of St Andrew’s URC in Sheffield. Next week, on 5th September, our church will be opening again for live worship. Because our choir is still on holiday, I will be taking a short break in order to travel, and to visit friends and family. Thank you for your company for the last eighteen months. I hope you have derived as much spiritual nourishment from sharing such a rich wealth of worship from so many parts of the world as I have from bringing them to you here. So, for the last time, I welcome you to our worship selection. Today is the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, and this week’s Reflection on the Gospel has been provided by our friend, Chris Limb. Next week’s service will be held in our church on Upper Hanover Street, Sheffield, S3 7RQ at 10.45am, when the preacher will be Revd Canon Adrian Alker, formerly vicar of St Mark’s Church in Broomhill, Sheffield.
The Lord is my light and my salvation:
He will guide, uphold and strengthen me.
This is the day which the Lord hath made:
Let us rejoice, and be glad in it!
INTROIT HYMN – Lord of our life and God of our salvation (tune: Iste Confessor) led by the choir of York Minster
LORD of our life, and God of our salvation,
Star of our night, and hope of every nation,
Hear and receive thy Church’s supplication,
Lord God Almighty.
See round thine ark the hungry billows curling;
See how thy foes their banners are unfurling;
Lord, while their darts envenomed they are hurling,
Thou canst preserve us.
Lord, thou canst help when earthly armour faileth,
Lord, thou canst save when deadly sin assaileth;
Christ, o’er thy rock nor death nor hell prevaileth;
Grant us thy peace, Lord.
Peace in our hearts, our evil thoughts assuaging;
Peace in thy Church, where brothers are engaging;
Peace, when the world its busy war is waging:
Calm thy foes’ raging.
Grant us thy help till backward they are driven,
Grant them thy truth, that they may be forgiven;
Grant peace on earth, and, after we have striven,
Peace in thy heaven.
who called your Church to bear witness
that you were in Christ reconciling the world to yourself:
help us to proclaim the good news of your love,
that all who hear it may be drawn to you;
through him who was lifted up on the cross,
and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.
OLD TESTAMENT LESSON – Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the LORD your God with which I am charging you. You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today? But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children.
HYMN – Let us build a house where love can dwell (All are welcome)
EPISTLE – James 1:17-27
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfilment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act–they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
GRADUAL PSALM – Psalm 15
Domine, quis habitabit?
LORD, who shall dwell in thy tabernacle : or who shall rest upon thy holy hill?
2 Even he that leadeth an uncorrupt life : and doeth the thing which is right, and speaketh the truth from his heart.
3 He that hath used no deceit in his tongue, nor done evil to his neighbour : and hath not slandered his neighbour.
4 He that setteth not by himself, but is lowly in his own eyes : and maketh much of them that fear the Lord.
5 He that sweareth unto his neighbour, and disappointeth him not : though it were to his own hindrance.
6 He that hath not given his money upon usury : nor taken reward against the innocent.
7 Whoso doeth these things : shall never fall.
GOSPEL – Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
HYMN – Blest are the pure in heart (tune: Franconia) led by the choir of Brentwood Cathedral
REFLECTION – Chris Limb
Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23
I have a confession to make. As I was reading through this morning’s Gospel passage, I developed something of a wry grin on my face. You see, I don’t know about anyone else, but ever since the start of this pandemic, Pat and I have developed a fixation, when it comes to cleanliness. We always carry hand sanitisers whenever we leave the house (fully masked, of course). We’ve also developed the habit of spraying one another with antiseptic spray whenever we return home and wiping down all the groceries we bring home, before packing them away. Two years ago, I would never have imagined going to such extraordinary lengths, but hey – these are strange times! However, it was only as I was reading through today’s Gospel passage, (and it’s a passage I’ve read many times before,) that I suddenly realised that Pat and I seem to be copying these Pharisees (the guys who Jesus is pointing the finger at), and if that doesn’t give you something to think about, I don’t know what will!
Of course, there’s very little comparison. For one thing, those first century religious leaders weren’t really trying to cope with a global pandemic. Or were they? Perhaps they believed they were. Not an actual pandemic, of course, but they did seem to be preoccupied with the need to be protected from spiritual or moral ‘uncleanness’. They felt it was important to distance themselves from most other people; the regular folk who perhaps weren’t as rigorous in maintaining the high standards they sought to preserve. They believed that they needed to look the part. Keeping up appearances was paramount for these guys. The only issue was (as Jesus pointed out) they’d missed a bit! A very important ‘bit’ at that! They’d somehow managed to overlook the need to ‘clean their inner selves’; their attitudes, motives and thoughts.
And therein lay the problem. Physical, outward cleanliness and smartness is all well and good, but if it isn’t reflected by the same commitment to inner cleanliness, then it’s really a little like bolting the stable door long after the horse has disappeared over the horizon. Or, if you like, using pristine cutlery and beautiful, fine china crockery to serve nasty, mouldy food that really belongs in the bin. Indeed, it’s a point Jesus made elsewhere:
“You Pharisees clean the outside of cups and dishes, but on the inside, you are greedy and evil. You fools! Didn’t God make both the outside and the inside?” (Luke 11:39-40 CEV).
Now this whole situation is triggered at the beginning of the passage by a team of religious experts, who have come all the way from Jerusalem to investigate reports about this controversial ‘healer-come-teacher’, and they’re questioning Jesus as to why his disciples aren’t washing their hands in the ritually prescribed manner (that’s not to say they aren’t washing their hands at all; just not in the way they thought they ought to).
It needs to be said that the disciples aren’t doing anything wrong; meaning they’re not breaking any of the Laws, as laid down by Moses in the first five books of the Old Testament. What they are doing is failing to comply with the so-called ‘Tradition of the Elders’; the thoughts and interpretations compiled over the ages by generations of scholars and scribes, which (and here’s the rub) had so grown in importance as to be considered equal to the actual Scriptures themselves. Now, what these ‘trouble-shooting’ clerics are trying to do here is to accuse Jesus of urging his followers to deliberately break the actual Law of Moses. By implying that the Law and Tradition are one and the same, they’re actually twisting the facts. We’d probably call it ‘gaslighting’ today! They’re trying to manipulate and provoke Jesus. But of course, Jesus isn’t going to play their games. Instead, he goes to the heart of what’s really going on by quoting from Isaiah:
‘The prophet Isaiah was right when he wrote that God had said, “All of you praise me with your words, but you never really think about me. It is useless for you to worship me, when you teach rules made up by humans.”’ (Mark 7:6-7 CEV).
And in the following verses, Jesus begins to spell out some the ways in which these religious ‘legal-eagles’ have found ‘loopholes’ in the Law enabling them to avoid technically breaking the ‘letter of the law’ while at the same time riding roughshod over the ‘spirit of the Law’. The example he quotes is a clever way in which people could be allowed to get out of providing for their aged parents, by claiming the money they’d have spent looking after Mum and Dad had been ‘earmarked’ for the Temple, thereby ‘legally’ breaking the fifth commandment:
“Honour your father and mother.”
The words “double standards” and “hypocrisy” come to mind; some of the very things Jesus could not abide!
And he takes the argument beyond the realm of ceremonial ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’, and literally goes to the heart of the matter. By this time, he’s no longer with the Scribes and Pharisees or, indeed, with the crowds. Now he’s ‘opening up’ to his disciples as he says these words:
“What comes from your heart is what makes you unclean. Out of your hearts come evil thoughts, vulgar deeds, stealing, murder … All these come from your heart, and they are what make you unfit to worship God.” (Mark 7:20-21, 23 CEV).
These are hard words. The enemy within. Or as the American animator and satirist, Walt Kelly, once wrote:
“We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
And if I could paraphrase Abraham Lincoln:
“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can fool God none of the time”.
And that’s really the point, isn’t it? Something which involves each one of us. There are no exceptions. We can convince other people (and we may convince ourselves) that we’re really decent sorts; that we’ve never really done anything wrong. And yet the truth is God sees absolutely everything about us. He’s sees beyond all the masks we wear to impress other people. He sees right to our very core. He understands us completely.
All of this would be very disconcerting indeed if it wasn’t for the fact – the incredible, world-changing fact, that God loves us despite all our faults. He loves us.
As the presbyterian minister and author, Richard Halverson, once said:
“There is nothing you can do to make God love you more! There is nothing you can do to make God love you less! His Love is unconditional. Impartial. Everlasting. Infinite. Perfect.”
And that really embodies the entire Gospel message in a nutshell.
As we heard Jesus say in this morning’s passage, when he laid bare the dilemma we all face (whether we recognise it or not):
“All these come from your heart, and they make you unfit to worship God.”
And yet God broke his own heart by entering into our world, sharing all our fears; our anxieties, our pain, our nightmares; and taking them to the cross, in order to heal our damaged and broken hearts, and bring us home.
The Lord Jesus – the ultimate bridge-builder – bringing healing, reconciliation, and a whole new beginning, for each and every one of us.
As Isaac Watts, the hymnwriter, so beautifully put it:
“Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul my life my all.”
And that’s the point, isn’t it? It all comes down to Love.
John writes in his first letter:
“My dear friends, we must love each other. Love comes from God, and when we love each other, it shows we have been given new life.” (1 John 4:7 CEV).
And of course, when we talk about this type of ‘love’ we’re not merely speaking about warm, fuzzy feelings. We’re talking about an active, muscular, nitty-gritty kind of love.
Those well-known verses from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians are an eloquent definition of ‘Love’:
“Love is kind and patient, never jealous, boastful, proud or rude. Love isn’t selfish or quick-tempered. It doesn’t keep a record of wrongs that others do. Love rejoices in the truth. Love is always supportive, loyal, and trusting. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8 CEV).
Have you ever tried reading those verses, and replacing the word ‘Love’, with your own name? I have, and it was a bit embarrassing as well! (To be honest, I don’t come anywhere close to this standard.)
I’ve always thought that these words are really a beautiful description of Jesus himself. Love incarnate.
And here’s the thing.
It’s his Love which makes all the difference; at work inside us, enabling us to become channels, conduits, that he can love other people through us. That we in turn become a part of his bridge-building work of cosmic reconciliation.
And with God, all things become possible.
ANTHEM – Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels (Sir Edward Bairstow)
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope and charity, but the greatest of these is charity.
Dear Lord, it is sometimes difficult to bring our prayers and petitions before you. We know that you know us better than we know ourselves. As we cast our eyes around us, we see evidence of great goodness working in our world in some places, yet at the same time we also despair at the inhumane acts wrought upon others by those with wicked and evil minds and intentions. As followers of our your son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, we advocate a life of peace and goodness; and we aim to do your will and to keep your commandments to preserve life and love and respect one another.
Yet, Lord, there are some who do not acknowledge your existence, or accept your authority, and show contempt for your Word. There seem to be many who have other gods; those who crave power or wealth, leaving others poor, weak and helpless. There are some who mock your holy Name, and many who no longer keep a holy or sabbath day. There seem to be more liars, cheats, thieves, adulterers and murderers in society today than our justice systems can handle. Despite the best efforts of good people to maintain, restore and encourage what is right, the forces of darkness seem to gain strength, and in some parts of the world, threaten to overwhelm the shining lights in the hearts of those who love you and strive to follow the path you have prepared for us. Help us, Lord, to remember that we are beneficiaries of the gracious gift of your love, and that you give us the strength to face you every day in confidence that we do our best to serve you. Help us to shine as a light in the world, reflecting the power at work in us through your Holy Spirit. In the words of St Francis, we pray first for ourselves as individual members of your body, and then in the words our Saviour taught us, the prayer for all your people:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done;
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever.
Go forth into the world in peace; be of good courage; hold fast that which is good; render to no-one evil for evil; strengthen the fainthearted ; support the weak; help the afflicted; honour all people; love and serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be with us, and remain with us for ever. Amen.
FINAL HYMN – The Church’s one foundation (tune: Aurelia) led by the Scottish Festival Singers
ORGAN VOLUNTARY – Sonata No. 2 (Paul Hindemith), played by Wanying Lin on the organ of Stuttgart School of Music and Performing Arts