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Virtual Worship - 26 September 2021


Welcome to worship with the churches of the Bradford North Methodist Circuit this morning.

We hope you will find this time, whether you are reading the printed service or watching on a screen, both helpful and challenging. When we share in worship we open ourselves to both hear the good news God has for us, and to be ready to respond in practical ways to what we have heard. As we are blessed, so we know we need to share that blessing with others.

The gospel reading we will be focusing on today (chosen for us by the lectionary) is not an easy one, with Jesus using some vivid and challenging language as he encourages his followers to live the best lives they can. We’ll have to work at it!

Let’s use today’s psalm to draw us into worship, reflecting as it does on God’s ways and praying we might respond rightly to them.

Call to worship

Psalm 19:7-14 (NIVUK)

The law of the LORD is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
The precepts of the LORD are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring for ever.
The decrees of the LORD are firm,
and all of them are righteous.
They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the honeycomb.
By them your servant is warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
But who can discern their own errors?
Forgive my hidden faults.
Keep your servant also from wilful sins;
may they not rule over me.
Then I will be blameless,
innocent of great transgression.
May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.

Prayer

Let us pray: Guiding and gifting God, whose ways are wise and wonderful and full of love, touch our hearts and lives with your amazing grace this day, that even our flawed humanity might reflect your plans to bring joy, peace and justice to all. Amen.

Hymn

You might like to sing, or reflect on Jan Struther’s hymn at Singing the Faith 526, Lord of all hopefulness, Lord of all joy, whose trust, ever childlike, no cares could destroy, be there at our waking, and give us, we pray, your bliss in our hearts Lord, at the break of the day. 

Reflection

A few weeks ago, on the Sunday when we were thinking about our bags of gold - the gifts God has entrusted to us and how we use them - I asked you to pause and look at the photographs and pictures around you. I invited you to think about the people, places, occasions which they captured, and let that lead you into prayer, both counting blessings and asking help. Today I want to invite you to look at your furniture and decoration. Some will tell similar stories to pictures – items inherited, or received as gifts, which remind you of the family home or the one who chose the gift. Let such thoughts lead you to prayer. But also look around and notice how your surroundings reflect your taste or style, or your circumstance. What will your furnishings tell a visitor about you, how is your character captured in your ‘stuff’? We are all different, and what is comfortable for one will not be for another, what is stylish to one person will clash for another. In one home a table is piled high, in another it is clear (and polished). We will have our personal view, but there isn’t right and wrong here, rather issues of practicality and taste. As you reflect on what is around you, and how someone else might see it, think about the judgements you make about other people, and their choices. Might those judgements be a barrier in your relationships? Might this lead us to prayer?

Prayer

Loving God, thank you for the difference and diversity we experience in your creation, not least in the people we meet and with whom we share our lives. Help us to be open to one another, and forgive us when we rush to judgements which create barriers between us. Touch us with your grace, and make us grace-full too. Amen.

Reading

Mark 9:38-50 (NIV UK)

38 ‘Teacher,’ said John, ‘we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.’ 39 ‘Do not stop him,’ Jesus said. ‘For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us. 41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.
42 ‘If anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung round their neck and they were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, 48 where ‘“the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.”
49 Everyone will be salted with fire.
50 ‘Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.’

Reflection

See what I mean about today’s gospel not being easy! And Jesus using some vivid and challenging language as he encourages his followers to live the best lives they can. Millstones around necks and limbs cut off and eyes plucked out has the sound of a horror film, even salted with fire carries drama.

Let’s put the horror on hold for a bit and look back. If we’d started our reading a few verses earlier we’d have eavesdropped on the disciples arguing on the road about which of them was the greatest, with Jesus challenging them – ‘If anyone wants to be first, they must be the very last, and the servant of all.’ We’d have seen Jesus set a child amongst them and say, ‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.’ Yet as we begin our reading we find the disciples still scoring points. ‘We saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.’ They are clearly expecting Jesus to agree with them, commend them for their rigour. He will have none of it – approving of those who his disciples would exclude, letting their actions speak – a cup of water in my name.

It’s clear from these exchanges that the disciples still haven’t got it. They seem concerned with status, their place in the way of things, their outcomes. They are linked with a successful and popular figure, a worker of miracles, a mover and shaker, and they are enjoying the feel of the stardust.

Jesus, on the other hand, is aware of what ‘the first becoming last’ will mean for himself, of the price that will be paid before the end, of the suffering that is to come, and he is trying to prepare his disciples for this. Trying to show them, to get through to them, the way things are in God’s kingdom. And the way things are means putting the other person, especially when the other is vulnerable, first. Not allowing their self-interest to get in the way of the well-being of ‘one of these little ones‘. This is taking some getting through to Simon Peter and John and the rest! Hence the hyperbole that follows. The millstone referred to is not the domestic one which would be familiar, usually in a woman’s hand, to the disciples. This is a great millstone, literally ‘turned by a donkey’. In his commentary on the Gospel of Mark, Hugh Anderson writes, ’The element of hyperbole in the expression reminds us that we are dealing only with a vivid metaphor designed to emphasise God’s rigorously just concern for his little ones.’ In other words, the image is making the point how important it is to live life in ways that don’t do harm to those little ones.

And so with the graphic images that follow. There is no threat implied here, no action by one on another. Rather, there are pictures trying to get through to those slow disciples just how important it is to strive to live the best life possible, with the little ones put first. This is not just about not acting in self-interest; it is about the interest of the little one being paramount. The dramatic references to cutting off one’s hand, foot, plucking out one’s eye, amplify the challenge on Jesus’ lips elsewhere -‘If anyone would come after me they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.’ (Matthew 16:24).

So this is not about threats of what will happen if we do not comply, rather it is about the importance of grasping the kingdom’s priorities and living by them. Jesus knows that in time his disciples will be tested. The reference to being ‘salted with fire’ arguably refers to persecutions to come, and it may be that ‘have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other’ is about being ready for that time.

We can only look at this episode from distance, and through the eyes of a very different culture. It may be that images of Islamic extremism (not Islam) come to mind. Or perhaps the curse of child abuse, from which the Methodist Church’s Past Cases Review made clear we are not immune or untainted. Or it may be that we find some other example of ‘little ones’ at risk of harm arising in our thoughts, be it minorities being persecuted, populations denied vaccines, island peoples threatened by sea-level rise through climate change.

As we look, perhaps we can still hear the frustration in the voice of Jesus as he tries to get through to those slow disciples, resorting to dramatic hyperbole to make them notice. Stop your inane chatter about things that don’t matter, like who’s the greatest, he says, and for heaven’s sake, put my little ones first. Amen.

Prayer

Let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ, who did not enter glory until first you suffered pain, you call us to deny ourselves for the sake of your little ones. So plant your kingdom in us that we might reflect your self-less love with generosity and sacrifice, and put those little ones first. Amen.

Hymn

We sing or listen to Bryn Rees’s hymn – StF 255 The kingdom of God is justice and joy, for Jesus restores what sin would destroy; God’s power and glory in Jesus we know, and here and hereafter the kingdom shall grow.


Praying for others, and ourselves.

We use this Taize chant as a response to our prayers: (StF 783) 


Ubi caritas et amor, ubi caritas, Deus ibi est. (Where there is charity and love, God is there).

Loving God, thank you for the difference and diversity we experience in your creation, not least in the people we meet and with whom we share our lives. Help us to be open to one another, and forgive us when we rush to judgements which create barriers between us. We pray particularly for any to whom we find it difficult to relate, and we open ourselves to your healing of any past hurts, given or received. Touch us with your grace, and make us grace-full too. Response: Ubi caritas …….

Lord Jesus, we acknowledge our slowness sometimes to understand your ways, or to respond to situations in a manner which reflects your kingdom. We pray particularly for your ‘little ones’, including children at risk of, or experiencing, harm; those suffering because of, or fearing, extremism; those living in places where vaccines are scarce; those losing livelihoods or homes through extreme weather and climate-change. Response: Ubi caritas …….

Holy Spirit, you are the one who touches our hearts and changes our minds. Lead us to the places and people who need us most. Fill us with your compassion and purpose, and equip us with the wisdom, sensitivity, courage and understanding that we need to be your people in those places and situations. We pray particularly for those for whom we already have some responsibility, and for those to whom we sense you leading us. Response: Ubi caritas …….

Trinity of Love, Father, Son, Spirit, in you we experience community and find our place. We thank you for calling us to be your own within your church, and for all those relationships through which we are nurtured, challenged, held by you. We pray for those who have pastoral responsibility for us, and any for whom we have such responsibility. Particularly we pray for any who are unwell, unhappy, uneasy, unsupported. In all our prayers help us to realise when and how we can be part of your answer to those prayers. Response: Ubi caritas …….

We bring our prayers together, as we pray, with all God’s people, the Lord’s Prayer.

Hymn

We sing or listen to Bernadette Farrell’s hymn StF 706 – Longing for light, we wait in darkness. Longing for truth, we turn to you. Make us your own, your holy people, light for the world to see. Christ be our light! Shine in our hearts. Shine through the darkness. Christ be our light! Shine in your church gathered today.

Blessing

We go in peace, in the power of the Spirit, to live and work to God’s praise and glory. Amen. Thanks be to God.

We bless one another, and all those we have touched with our prayers today, as we share the Grace:

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all, now and always. Amen.

(CCLI 79951. Service prepared by Rev’d Nick Blundell )

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