Epiphany 5B (07-02-2021)

The following service was streamed live via Zoom from the Ocean Grove church on February 7th at 10:30am.

The entire text for the service is printed below for home use by those who are not ready to return to public gatherings or who are otherwise not able to be at church on the day.   Even though the service is streamed live, those who are unable to participate online may use this material at any time for their private devotions.  If ‘two or three’ are gathered with you, you may choose a ‘leader’ in order to use the responsive prayers and readings as you would in church. 

There  are also links to YouTube files for music and, should you rather listen than read, sound files for some of the text, including the sermon .  [I’m sorry about the commercials that sometimes come with YouTube clips. Be sure to click on the “Skip Ad” box if and when it appears in the lower right of the YouTube clip]   When a YouTube clip has finished, simply click on the ‘back’ button of  your browser to return to this page. Pictures can be enlarged by clicking on them.

This week’s service includes Holy Communion.  The Uniting Church has declared that, until March 31st, lay people may preside at this sacrament, blessing the elements as clergy do.  This means that everyone can partake of Communion in their homes. If you wish to do so, please prepare the elements before beginning this service.

-oOo-

When Moses threw the wand into the Red Sea, the sea, quite contrary to the expected miracle, did not divide itself to leave a dry passage for the Jews.Not until the first man had jumped into the sea did the promised miracle happen and the waves recede.  (Jewish legend)

CALL TO CELEBRATION

There is, under the mystery that is ‘us’, a deep, abiding sense of oneness. As we gather and celebrate today, may we be filled with an awareness of that oneness, and may it soak into and through the whole of our living.

LIGHTING OF THE CANDLE   (if you are using a candle at home)

For gathering today in this sacred space, we light this flame.
For the opportunity to be together as a community, to remember the past,  to claim our future, to be alive in our present, we light this flame.  

HYMN 441 – “Behold the Mountain of the Lord”

OPENING SENTENCES  (based on Psalm 147)

L: We thank you, God, for heaven and earth and all people.

R: It is good to sing praise to you, God.

L: God sits above the circle of the earth, and stretches out the heavens like a curtain, spreading them like a tent to live in.

R: It is good to sing praise to you, God.

L: God is the creator of the ends of the earth.

R: It is good to sing praise to you, God.

L: We who wait for God will find our strength renewed; we shall mount up with wings like eagles.

R: It is good to sing praise to you, God

L: We shall run and not be weary; we shall walk and not faint.

R: It is good to sing praise to you, God.

PRAYER OF AWARENESS

We are part of all that sustains or destroys life.
Creation and destruction occur in continually unfolding ways.
And so may we open our ears to the continually unfolding Word.
Life speaks to us in new and vital and imperative ways.
With all the power we have been given, let us be silent and open to listening for nourishment, for comfort, for challenge and new focus.

JOURNEY TO SILENCE

     Meditation – “Lord of this Day” by  Corrymeela Community

Lord of this day and of our whole life thank you that each day we can change our ways to your way.
Thank you for the people we have met today; those who challenge how we think; those who accept us as we are; those who forgive us.
Thank you that their response to us helps us to accept ourselves and others and to find new ways to love our neighbours and ourselves.

     Silence

Let us claim some silence in the midst of the busyness of our lives.  (Pause)
May we look with gratitude upon this day, for the beauty of the world, for the first radiance of dawn and the last smouldering glow of sunset.
And for the countless other blessings present in our lives, let us be grateful.        (30 seconds silence)

WE REFLECT ON OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD

Loving God, whenever I call out you answer me, you make my soul resilient with strength. Others may give ashes, but you give a garland; they offer misery, you give gladness; their spirits faint, you clothe us with praise. Saving God, glorious in your mercy, please save your people from their sins.

Even though we live under bright Australian sunlight, our souls often slink into the spiritual shadows and become resentful of your light piercing to the deepest secrets of thought and feeling: please call us back to you.

When too readily we become accustomed to the half light, and after a while forget what it is like to be exposed by undiluted truth and selfless love: please call us back to you.

Because you have not come to embarrass, discourage or to condemn, but to save and restore us to our true glory: please call us back to you.

Most loving God, Saviour and Friend, come with your undiluted light, bring us to our knees and to our senses. Lift us up from shame and ineffectiveness to learn once more how walk in the light of Christ, with our heads held high and our hands ready to assist a stumbling neighbour.  For your name’s sake. Amen.

THE ASSURANCE

L: Have you not heard that God is with us today?

R: Have you not known?  Have you not heard?

L: Have you not heard that God is with us all the time?

R: Have you not known?  Have you not heard?

L: Have you not heard that God is in the sunshine, the sound of the birds, the fruit of the creation, the wind?

R: Have you not known?  Have you not heard?

L: Have you not heard that God is with us when we laugh, when we cry, when we sleep and when we are awake?

R: Have you not known?  Have you not heard?

L: Have you not heard that God is with us when we are alone or when we are with friends?

R: Have you not known?  Have you not heard?

L: God is always with us.

R: God is with us wherever we go in all the journeys of our life.  Thanks be to God!

FROM THE HEBREW SCRIPTURES  – Psalm 41 (NKJV)

1 Blessed is he who considers the poor;
  The Lord will deliver him in time of trouble.

The Lord will preserve him and keep him alive,
And he will be blessed on the earth;
You will not deliver him to the will of his enemies.

The Lord will strengthen him on his bed of illness.
   You will sustain him on his sickbed.

I said, “Lord, be merciful to me.
    Heal my soul, for I have sinned against You.”

My enemies speak evil of me:
   “When will he die, and his name perish?”

And if he comes to see me, he speaks lies;
   His heart gathers iniquity to itself;
   When he goes out, he tells it.

All who hate me whisper together against me;
   Against me they devise my hurt.

“An evil disease,” they say, “clings to him.
   And now that he lies down, he will rise up no more.”

Even my own familiar friend in whom I trusted,
      Who ate my bread,
   Has lifted up his heel against me.

10  But You, O Lord, be merciful to me, and raise me up,
      That I may repay them.

11  By this I know that You are well pleased with me,
Because my enemy does not triumph over me.

12  As for me, You uphold me in my integrity,
And set me before Your face forever.

13  Blessed be the Lord God of Israel
From everlasting to everlasting!
Amen and Amen.

FROM THE GOSPELS – Mark 1:29-39 (The Message version)

29-31 Directly on leaving the meeting place, they came to Simon and Andrew’s house, accompanied by James and John. Simon’s mother-in-law was sick in bed, burning up with fever. They told Jesus. He went to her, took her hand, and raised her up. No sooner had the fever left than she was up fixing dinner for them.

32-34 That evening, after the sun was down, they brought sick and evil-afflicted people to him, the whole city lined up at his door! He cured their sick bodies and tormented spirits. Because the demons knew his true identity, he didn’t let them say a word.

35-37 While it was still night, way before dawn, he got up and went out to a secluded spot and prayed. Simon and those with him went looking for him. They found him and said, “Everybody’s looking for you.”

38-39 Jesus said, “Let’s go to the rest of the villages so I can preach there also. This is why I’ve come.” He went to their meeting places all through Galilee, preaching and throwing out the demons.

HYMN 638 – “O Christ the Healer, We Have Come”

A CONTEMPORARY WITNESS  “Back to the Wilderness”

     Part 1

“Everyone is searching for you.”  And he said to them, “Let us go on to the next town, that I may preach there, also; for that is why I came out.”  (Mk.1:38)

Good news travels fast. Good news about a miracle cure of incurable illness – yes, that would travel especially fast.  Imagine if today it were announced by a doctor here in Ocean Grove/Barwon Heads that she had discovered a cure for cancer, and any who would come to her, she would gladly heal for free. Can you imagine what the streets of Ocean Grove/Barwon Heads would look like tomorrow?!

Mark says. “That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door.” (1:32-33)

What is Jesus’ response? He sneaks out before dawn and prays. When the disciples hunt him down, excitedly telling him, “Everyone is searching for you,”  Jesus says, “Let’s get out of here so I can do what I came to do.”

The disciples are confused, and why shouldn’t they be?  “We have only begun to follow you a few days ago, you’ve only been preaching a short time, and look at the crowds!”

But numbers, popularity and success seem to bother Jesus rather than please him.  Why?  He says that he must go out and preach; that is why he came. Well, preaching is fine; I do it myself.  But why is it better than these miraculous healings?

Picture this:  You have some pressing personal problem next week, some great pain in your life, and you call me, as your pastor.  But when you call, you get my answering machine saying:  “Bob will be unavailable all week because he is working on next Sunday’s sermon.  Preaching is more important than your personal problem.”

Why was the preaching more important than the healing?  And why did Jesus seem to avoid the crowd and seek time alone for prayer rather than minister to the people in need?  We’re left with a bunch of questions, and I suspect that questions aren’t popular.  We like to have answers from Scripture; many people come to church to have things explained, not to get more questions. And maybe in the unpopularity of questions lies the answer….popularity is dangerous.

I think that Jesus is concerned about the crowds and the success because he knows that people will follow anybody almost anywhere who they think will give them what they want.  What is more, he is tempted by it; tempted to become the popular hero of the crowds.  He had been tempted by it in the wilderness when Satan called him to throw himself down from the temple; a display of power which would bring people flocking to him.

Hitler gave people what they wanted, and they gladly followed.  Crowds flocked to him.  More recently, Donald Trump did the same. Is the Messiah some form of Santa Claus, come to give us everything our hearts desire?  Come, like a conquering general to oust the Romans and set Israel free?   I think Jesus sought time in prayer, as he did elsewhere in Mark’s gospel, to gain clarity about his mission in the face of temptation. He had to go back to the wilderness to seek the courage to walk the narrow way commanded by God, just as he would pray in the garden of Gethsemane before his capture and crucifixion.

He returned from prayer refocussed on his reason for being: to proclaim the kingdom of God, a message that can only be heard and taken on board by faith.  Healing people and exorcising demons is fine, but not if it gets in the way of spreading the good news.  And for us, being rid of our infirmities is great, but if means that we start chasing after healers and miracle workers for what they can give to us, rather than committing ourselves to living the way of kingdom, then it is better that we remain sick and listen instead to the good news.

     Part 2

The noted preacher William Sloan Coffin once said, “The trouble with much so-called evangelism in Christianity is that it begins with selfishness – come to Jesus and get your life fixed, your marriage healed, your kids made chaste, your bodies made whole – and I don’t see how you begin with such self-centred selfishness and end up with Jesus who says things like, ‘You find your life by losing it’ and ‘in giving you receive.’”

In this era of ‘user-friendly’ churches and programs for church renewal which urge us to find out where people are hurting and then help, Coffin’s question is very relevant.  There is a great gap between merely meeting people’s needs and calling them to discipleship.

We occasionally, and enviously, hear people speaking of a spiritual revival in some churches, and there are often great crowds at worship to back up their claims.   However, spiritual revival can be just another term for idolatry.  When you look closely, you too often find that the crowds are not there to follow Jesus on the road to the cross, but are there only to worship their hero and to get what they want from Jesus the Superstar, the heavenly vending machine: Jesus the idol.    When the good feelings wear off and they find that salvation is not as easy as saying ‘Jesus is Lord,’ they eventually drift away to look for another easy way out. 

Neil Postman, in a far-ranging study of American television, including religious broadcasting, wonders if the presentation of the gospel in such a ‘user-friendly’ medium as TV does not actually undermine the gospel.  He writes, “I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion.  When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.”

David Wells, the author of God in the Wasteland, insists that the fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is not inadequate technique or insufficient organisation or antiquated music.  The fundamental problem is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church.  God’s truth is too distant, God’s grace is too ordinary,  God’s judgment is too benign, God’s gospel is too easy, and God’s Christ is too common.  Most churches advertise themselves in terms of ‘Come, feel better.’  Why? To be popular; to get bottoms on pews and money in the plate.

Jesus’ temptation here is ours, too, of course, and our church’s.  Who doesn’t want to be popular.  How often have we each chosen a course of action, not because it was the best or the most faithful to our God, but because it would be popular, and would encourage people to like us or favour us.  You can bet that politicians do it all the time.  As we look forward to this year of transition, perhaps it comes with dreams of filling this sanctuary on a Sunday morning.  If so, we, too, must go back to the wilderness with Jesus and pray for direction. Our calling is not to be popular or to make God and Jesus popular, but to do the will of God, regardless of cost: to spread the good news that the kingdom of God is near; and that means living as if the rules of God’s kingdom have already replaced the rules by which the world does its business.

Jesus triumphed over the temptation to be a popular hero, and the good news arising out of his triumph over temptations is that he became the revelation of God.  This Messiah is not pliable.  If he would go on and save us, he must first be able to hold out against our demands.  He will go ahead and be God in human form, and not just some projections of our egos.  Not our will, but God’s will be done.

Is Jesus our Lord, or our errand boy?  Are we his faithful followers or only his pestering clients?  Come to the table, where the one who fed the hungry will feed you.  But as you come, pray for a vision of what Jesus requires of you to help feed his brothers and sisters in this world and make the kingdom of God a reality for all to see.

A CELEBRATION OF FAITH

L: We celebrate a God

R: who lives and speaks in sunsets, in love-wrapped gifts, and fleeting butterflies.

L: We celebrate a Christ

R: who honoured our humanness, who climbed trees, skinned knees; who laughed and cried, loved and wept, bled and died.

L: We celebrate a Spirit,

R: who mystically joins us to people everywhere, and incorporates us into Christ.

L: We celebrate a church,

R: seeking, however imperfectly, to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

HYMN 598 – “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”

WE OFFER OUR CONCERNS TO GOD

L: Most holy Friend, you have sent us Jesus to mend that which is broken, bridge that which is alienated, and to heal that which is diseased. In his name our troubled hearts speak to you, God, of the people whose needs are great and whose comforts are few.

We speak to you of our concern for places where there is conflict, violence, and misery: war ravaged countries, domestic cruelty, bullying in school grounds, workplace intimidation, gang warfare on streets, or terrorists attacks. Loving God, hear our prayers,

R: Holy Friend, save your people.

L: We speak to you of our concern for all displaced people: refugee camps, fugitives from oppression, those crowded on unseaworthy boats, those in our Australian detention centres, separated families and traumatised children. Loving God, hear our prayers,

R: Holy Friend, save your people.

L: We speak to you of our concern for neighbours, workmates, or members of our own families who are ‘doing it tough;’ the unemployed and the disabled, some fighting terminal illness, others in despair from broken relationships, some grieving a death, many caught up in predicaments for which there seems no obvious answer. Loving God, hear our prayers,

R: Holy Friend, save your people.

L: We speak to you of our concern for the church: with its flourishing or weak congregations, some living in comfort and others surviving under persecution, some filled with self doubts and some with over self-confidence, churches without priests and ministers or those where sadly there is conflict between clergy and laity. Loving God, hear our prayers,

R: Holy Friend, save your people.

L: We speak to you now loving God of ourselves: Help us, in our own small way, to be more like your compassionate Christ. Shape our thoughts, sift our feelings, supervise our efforts, bless our abilities, that we may get the best out of each day and give the best to those around us. Through the grace of Jesus our brother and friend, who taught us to pray: “Our Father…”

THE LORD’S PRAYER

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name; your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.  Save us in the time of trial and deliver us from evil.  For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and forever. Amen.

CELEBRATING COMMUNITY through HOLY COMMUNION

     The invitation

Jesus invited all to the feast of peace and new life. Jesus risked everything in compassion. Jesus promised to make himself known in the breaking of the bread.  

     Thanksgiving

L: God is the heart of life.

R: And we are the heartbeat.

L: May our hearts be filled with thanks and praise and songs of joy.

R: We rejoice in the miracle of life  and delight in our participation.

L: We give thanks for the invitation to be at this table, for here we are shown our lives: the daily bread of our work and care, the wine of delight, pressed from the fruits of our creativity and our brokenness, with all its pain and self-knowledge. We celebrate the life that is ours for we know we are precious in your sight. We celebrate the life that is yours, pattern of reality for us: life that is love revealed, love given and received love in action. Therefore, with all your lovers throughout the ages we praise you singing:

R: Holy, holy, holy, Lord, God of power and might,
heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

     The Celebration

L: Jesus gathered with his friends to tell them of a re-imagined way of living and being. A way that did not conform to the standards of the Roman Empire or any other system of governance that suppressed people until starvation and deprivation resulted in death. He knew that human nature was such that despite good intentions it often betrayed itself…And he named the betrayal when he said, there is one among us who will deny what I say.

     The Bread and Wine 

L: So let us break bread together. We remember: at the end of a journey, among friends, gathered round a table, Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and broke it: ‘This bread is broken, as my body will be’. And he handed it to his friends, and invited them to eat: ‘Remember all that I have been to you’. We remember: Jesus poured a cup of wine, offered thanks for it, and gave it to his friends: ‘This wine is poured out as my life will be. As you drink give thanks for all I have given’. 

Bread, the very stuff of life. Wine, fruit of the vine. May the spirit within us… 

R: be a source of healing and consolation. 

L: May the spirit within us…

R: strengthen us when we feel weak, warm us when we are cold-hearted, bend us when we are stubborn, move us when we are uncaring, guide us in the way of love.

L: May the spirit within us….

R: shine in all we do.

     Communion 

By eating this bread and drinking this wine we become one in hope.

     After Communion  (all say)

God of love, God of compassion, may the celebration of the wonder  and the mystery of your presence, strengthen and enable us to be your body the church.  Amen.

HYMN 537 – “ Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ”

WORD OF MISSION

L: As we leave this place of worship and celebration: may we remember that each day offers more things than we can do.

R: May we do what needs to be done, postpone what does not, and be at peace with what we can be and do. 

L: Therefore, may we learn to separate that which matters most

R: and that which matters least of all.

BENEDICTION

The peace of this ancient earth to you:
of the high blue heavens which embrace it,
and the winds which blow freely over it.
The peace of splintered light sparkling on gum leaves,
and gentle rain falling on parched earth.
The peace of star-jewelled skies and full-orbed moons,
of breathless dawns and splendid dying suns.
And the peace of the God of Peace to you.

-oOo-

An open, virtual door to the world