Posted by: owizblog | January 25, 2016

New Every Sunday 24 January 2016: The Servant of the Lord 2: Mourning an Old Hope, Birthing a New…

1) Welcome

Good morning, and welcome to the Isle of Bute. My name is Owain Jones, and New Every Sunday comes this morning from the sanctuary of the United Church of Bute, one of the two Church of Scotland parish churches that minister to this island community along with our Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Baptist and Christian Fellowship friends. Come and worship…

2) Hymn       Morning Has Broken

3) Prayer

We wake from sleep to life in your world, Father,

A new day stretches before us,

And beyond it, a new week.

We receive this new morning in wonder and praise.

And we thank you for it.

We wake from sleep, contemplate the new morning, and reflect;

We have come here down paths and ways familiar and unfamiliar.

 

From yesterday, and from years ago,

We have travelled to today.

 

There is much in our lives that is routine, predictable, expectable,

Much in each day that requires no thought,

Presents no challenge

But as we trace the route

By which we come to this new day,

We recognize those things that surprised us then

And still surprise us now.

How our world has changed!

 

From yesterday, and from years ago,

We have travelled to today.

 

Yesterday we knew quite well,

Yesterday will have prepared us well for today;

But we look back longer, and are amazed

How far we have travelled, how much has changed.

 

The unexpected, we know, challenges us, Lord,

The new, the unlooked-for;

Change challenges our illusion that our world is ours to control,

Change unsettles us, our changing world terrifies us,

And how our world is changing!

How our world has changed,

How fearful and faithless we have become…

 

Lord, have mercy on us,

Christ, have mercy on us,

Lord, have mercy on us.

 

Forgive us, Lord when we fight tooth-and-nail

Against the recognition that all things are not in our control.

Forgive us when the half-recognition

That we are not in charge

Turns to defensive panic, and aggressive denial.

Forgive us when we fail to trust you.

 

Draw from us the recognition

That you in Christ stand with us in the flux;

That you, in Christ, walk with us on our way,

That you, in Christ, bring us through all things.

Teach us to trust; work in us your gift of faith.

 

We do trust, Lord; help our unbelief.

We do trust, Lord, and we place all things in your hands.

AMEN

 

4) Reflection 1

I’m a fan, and something of a collector, of those quirky alternative definitions that float around in the culture; you know the kind of thing – “Psychologist: a psychologist is someone who goes to the theatre to watch the audience….” Or “Accountant: an accountant is someone who, when you ask him ‘What is two plus two?’ will say ‘What would you like it to be…?”

Or this one: “Imperialism: imperialism is somebody else’s plan for world unity…” Like all of these alternative definitions, there’s a touch of profundity there, a twist, and an unexpected depth. I loved Gerry Anderson’s wonderful puppet science fiction series Thunderbirds, when I was a child. I still do. All of Anderson’s “Supermarionation” series – Stingray, Fireball XL5 – were set in a future that presupposed a united world government, with perhaps one or two rogue states, evil practically by definition, holding out against the marvellous unity one could simply presume was based on, and would emerge out of, our shared values. This was the world’s future, and it was to be shaped by our present.

And since it was “us” we were talking about, we could simply presume the basic benignity of all this. This, after all, was our plan for world unity, not someone else’s…

And who were” we”, the great, good, collectivity out of whose values this wonderful unity would emerge? Well, that wasn’t really specified. People like us, societies like ours, democracies whose politics were compatible, free societies whose industries and markets were compatible, progressive societies which fostered science and technology… The future of the world, and the future unity of the world was societies like ours, people whose beliefs and assumptions were like ours, rationally walking forward along converging roads, and bringing – admittedly at different speeds – the rest of the world along with us.

And this, of course, was progress. Cool, rational, the way things would be, because it was the way things really were.

It’s hard to reconstruct the confidence of the sixties now, even for those of us who were there, and impossible to convey properly to those of you who weren’t.

It’s even harder, to wind back to a world in which, despite the cultural challenges to it, Christian faith was essentially completely at home in a progressive, technologically-oriented society, its institutions adapting to the shifts of population after the war, to new social needs, new patterns of living, new questions, its theologies and big voices speaking confidently, from a central and accepted cultural position, to a world they engaged directly with, because it was a world we all shared and understood.

The historian Calum Brown has ventured the very counterintuitive view that, far from a steady decline from the Industrial Revolution on, Christianity in British society actually retained pretty much all its cultural power and authority right down to the iconic year 1963 – and that it was possible for some time after that to assume, within the communities of faith, that not much had changed, despite the clear evidence that everything had changed

Fifty years ago, it was still possible to assume that progress on the Western model was the future of the world, and that because “we” – in inverted commas – had hit on it, because it had emerged from, and shaped, “our” – in inverted commas – societies and cultures, that we were the pattern for the future of the world, the unifying mould into which everyone else was destined to be fitted, and that we were the model, the framework, around which the future would coalesce – for everyone.

“Imperialism: someone else’s plan for world unity….” Not ours. Our plans and dreams for world unity were uniquely benign, because they were rational, cool, realistic.

And it was possible still to see all of that in a Christian light…

So be it, Lord! Thy throne shall never

Like earth’s proud empires pass away,

Thy Kingdom stands, and grows for ever,

Till all thy creatures own thy sway.

Fifty years ago, the institutions of the Christian faith saw themselves as not just fitting into that project, often deeply and constructively critical of it, always in dialogue with it – but as being in some real sense the deep meaning of it. This was the world of the future, and this is the world the Western Church addressed, and the world we imagined we’d be living in by now. I remember it. I’m fifty-eight. I was there!

Grief is always mourning for many things. For a lost person, yes, but also for a lost relationship, and since our relationships define us, for a part of ourselves. But grief, mourning, is always, also, for the future that will not now be. For a world that has changed, and, in part, for a world that has gone. The institutions of the Christian faith – the churches – sit amid the unrecognizable landscape of a world which is no longer shaped by our plan for world unity, but is stalked by the plans, the often hostile-seeming and threatening plans, of others.  (Did we ever wonder how our plans for world unity seemed to others?) And we mourn the world that has gone. And we wonder who we are in this new world. And sometimes, we wonder where God is to be located in it.

 

5) Hymn:  On God alone I wait silently

6) Reflection 2

We mourn, we said, a world that has gone. And we wonder who we are in this new world. And sometimes, we wonder where God is, in it.

Two and a half thousand years ago, that was the situation of a small, battered group of exiles. The certainties of the ages, their certainty of the centrality of their place in the world, had been under siege for a long time, but only now had it been swept away completely. And they had been literally, physically, torn from the world as it was, and landed in exile in an alien world, controlled by other people, whose empire this was. There sat the Jews, by the waters of Babylon, wondering what their present could possibly mean, let alone what future they might have.

And there arose a prophet. His words, transmitted and preserved, are bound in with those of Isaiah of Jerusalem, in the book which bears Isaiah’s name. We don’t know his name; we have to call him the Second Isaiah.

And four poems in his work speak of a figure, a human figure, the Servant of God. Some scholars think this figure is the prophet himself. Some think that the Servant is a personification of God’s people, this embattled little community. Some think it’s someone he knew, or knew of; some think it’s a sketch, a delineation of someone he somehow expected would come.

But to a powerless group of people, in the hands of others, who shape a world over which they have no control, these astonishing words come:

7) Reading: Isaiah 49]

Listen to me, O coastlands,

and hearken, you peoples from afar.

The LORD called me from the womb,

from the body of my mother he named my name.

He made my mouth like a sharp sword,

in the shadow of his hand he hid me;

he made me a polished arrow,

in his quiver he hid me away.

And he said to me, “You are my servant,

Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

But I said, “I have laboured in vain,

I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;

yet surely my right is with the LORD,

and my recompense with my God.”

And now the LORD says,

who formed me from the womb to be his servant,

to bring Jacob back to him,

and that Israel might be gathered to him,

for I am honoured in the eyes of the LORD,

and my God has become my strength –

he says:

“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant

to raise up the tribes of Jacob

and to restore the preserved of Israel;

I will give you as a light to the nations,

that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

8) Reflection 3

We can only imagine the resonances that this extraordinary song of hope and vision set up in the minds of its first hearers. It speaks of vocation, and of frustration, of a sense of call, and purpose, and preparation, and then of thwarting and disappointment, and of a clinging to an original vision in circumstances which didn’t go as they’d been envisioned. “I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity…”

It speaks of a difficult recognition of the way things really are, now, in a changed world.

And then it speaks of a new understanding, a new vision, a new mission, and a recommissioning, something which grows out of the difficult, shadowed present, and opens out onto the future, unknown, except for this: it’s filled with God’s presence.

It speaks of hidden things suddenly made manifest, their time finally come, the sorts of things we don’t know about ourselves until times and circumstances arrive which draw them out of us – and then, we discover what they mean.

The experience of the Servant of the Lord is that frustration and futility, are dissolved in new hope, and that horizons once closed down and denied are now reopened, and redefined, with new and limitless scope.

We began by exploring the difficult, often agonizing, experience of inhabiting a religious tradition whose purchase on society was unquestioned, whose place in the world seemed obvious, and which is now obviously in radical decline. How different the expressions “a Christian country” or “the Christian West” seem today, from a few decades ago.  It’s very difficult to avoid the sense that we are, perhaps, living through the death of something, and that we are mourning it as it happens.

Fear is understandable, because death is fearful. But death has not the final word…

The English New Testament scholar, theologian and priest Sir Edwin Hoskins had a firm and critical understanding of that sort of thinking. It ran, he argued, completely counter to the fundamental core of Christian faith, which isn’t anything to do with survival. The core of Christian believing, Hoskyns held, was two words linked by a hyphen, which form the title of his last book, written with his long-term collaborator Noel Davey, and which form the only inscription on his headstone, apart from his name and his dates. Two words, and a hyphen. Crucifixion-Resurrection.

That’s the heart of it. It is not by retaining anything that the Church lives, but by relinquishing everything. The Christian tradition may look back and understand the mysterious Servant of the Lord as a figure foreshadowing Jesus, but it’s inescapable that there are elements in the Servant of the community of the people of God. And that’s us.

Our New Testament reading this morning comes from that point in the Gospel story at which the ministry of Jesus spills over into the mission of the Church. And the newborn Church spills out onto the pavements of the world with no institutional purchase or privilege, no establishment in society, no hegemony over culture, nothing of the things whose passing we mourn. The newborn Church faces the world with a faith, a proclamation and a Gospel. And for now, that seems to be enough.

And is that, in the end, not enough for us, in our day?

 

9) Reading: Acts.2

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.

And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were amazed and wondered, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?  Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

10) Hymn: Make me a channel of your peace…

11) Prayer

Let us pray:

We pray for the Church, Lord, and we pray for the world,

And we pray for them in relationship;

And we pray as the Church.

We pray for the world as the glory and richness of creation,

Entrusted to us, sustaining us, maintaining the shared life of the human family, and all creatures.

We pray for the world as the profusion of beauty and splendour,

That excites the creative mind,

Stimulates the scientific intellect,

And resources the ingenuity of technology.

We pray for the world as the society of human societies, the home of human community,

The site, too, of conflict, injustice, domination,

But also of liberation, peace-building and hope.

A small blue sphere given into our stewardship,

The vast, diverse, terrifying and thrilling backdrop of our living.

 

We pray for the Church in her timidity,

When she is daunted by the complexity of the world,

When she mourns the loss of influence,

When she fears the death of the institution,

And confuses that with death.

 

We pray for the Church in her boldness,

When she embraces the world for which Christ died,

In all its fearful complexity, and lovely diversity;

When she bears witness to his risen Lordship

By looking for the coming of the Kingdom,

When she humbly serves as he served,

Who washed the feet of the disciples,

And ate the food of tax-collectors and sinners,

And rejoiced in their hospitality,

And articulated God’s love to them

So that they understood.

 

Give us faith, Lord, to look with love

On the new world of today and tomorrow.

In our lives, whatever they are,

Help us to understand our deepest need;

Not to be in control – for often, we are not –

But to be in the hollow of your hand.

 

And as Jesus taught us, so we pray:

 

Our Father, which 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 debts

As we forgive our debtors

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

AMEN

 

12) Hymn:  14 Look Forward in Faith

13) Benediction

Faith will lift us out of fear,

Trust dissolves the fetters of the known,

Hope releases us from the need to control,

For all things are in God’s hands.

 

Go into this new day, and know

That you and all things are in God’s hands

And the Blessing of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Be with you now and evermore

AMEN

 

 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: