The following service was streamed live via Zoom on March 14th 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.
THOMAS AQUINAS STOPS WRITING
The story goes that Thomas Aquinas, one of the world’s ablest theologians, suddenly stopped writing toward the end of his life. When his secretary complained that his work was unfinished, Thomas replied, “Brother Reginald, when I was celebrating the liturgy some months ago, I experienced something of the Divine. That day I lost all appetite for writing. In fact, all I have ever written about God seems to me now to be like straw.”
from Song of the Bird, by Anthony de Mello, S.J.
(used with permission)
CALL TO CELEBRATION
We have come from our own routine to this special sacred time. This is a time when we know we can share community and be blessed. So let us celebrate the richness and diversity of life in the presentness of God.
LIGHTING OF THE LENTEN CANDLES
(Those who are using the lenten candles at home should light 3 of the 6 candles plus the Christ candle.)
L: This time is for us. We step inside the sacred circle.
R: We see our lives as part of the continually astonishing mystery of life.
L: We know our lives are always lived connected with other people, wider communities, the eternal humanity.
R: This time is for us to come closer to Creativity God.
PRAYER OF APPROACH
In this season of Lent, may we become more aware of the presence of God. May we see this presence in each other, hear it in the music, and experience it, as we give and receive gifts of love. Amen.
JOURNEY INTO SILENCE
Let us now take a moment to settle into the silence of this sacred place…(Pause)… Let us listen to the depths of being, our busyness calling for quietness, our emptiness calling for renewed strength, our sadness calling for some consolation, our joy calling for some celebration. May we touch again that strength and wisdom that helps us to know again the helping resources that are given to us. (30 seconds silence)
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
God our Saviour, we confess our sins which are numerous, some recognised and some that go unnoticed by us. Among us are:
- the confused who need to spend more time under your revealing light,
- the ‘nit pickers’ who need a fresh encounter with unqualified love,
- the excuse makers who need to face up to responsibility,
- the sceptics who need to put doubts to the test,
- the intolerant who need a new appointment with free grace,
- the bored believers who need a revival of the first passionate faith.
Merciful God, by the vigour of your Spirit, challenge our evasions, expose our delinquency, forgive our misdemeanours, and deliver us from all evil. Through the grace of Christ Jesus our friend and brother. Amen!
L: It is written: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” My sisters and brothers, this is the gospel of grace. We are a forgiven people. Believe it, receive it, live it! For I declare to you, the door to life has been opened to us.
R: Thanks be to God!
FROM THE HEBREW SCRIPTURES – 2 Chr. 36:14-23
14 The evil mindset spread to the leaders and priests and filtered down to the people—it kicked off an epidemic of evil, repeating the abominations of the pagans and polluting The Temple of God so recently consecrated in Jerusalem.
15-17 God, the God of their ancestors, repeatedly sent warning messages to them. Out of compassion for both his people and his Temple he wanted to give them every chance possible. But they wouldn’t listen; they poked fun at God’s messengers, despised the message itself, and in general treated the prophets like idiots. God became more and more angry until there was no turning back—God called in Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, who came and killed indiscriminately—and right in The Temple itself; it was a ruthless massacre: young men and virgins, the elderly and weak—they were all the same to him.
18-20 And then he plundered The Temple of everything valuable, cleaned it out completely; he emptied the treasuries of The Temple of God, the treasuries of the king and his officials, and hauled it all, people and possessions, off to Babylon. He burned The Temple of God to the ground, knocked down the wall of Jerusalem, and set fire to all the buildings—everything valuable was burned up. Any survivor was taken prisoner into exile in Babylon and made a slave to Nebuchadnezzar and his family. The exile and slavery lasted until the kingdom of Persia took over.
21 This is exactly the message of God that Jeremiah had preached: the desolate land put to an extended sabbath rest, a seventy-year Sabbath rest making up for all the unkept Sabbaths.
22-23 In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia—this fulfilled the message of God preached by Jeremiah—God moved Cyrus king of Persia to make an official announcement throughout his kingdom; he wrote it out as follows: “From Cyrus king of Persia a proclamation: God, the God of the heavens, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has also assigned me to build him a Temple of worship at Jerusalem in Judah. All who belong to God’s people are urged to return—and may your God be with you! Move forward!”!
FROM THE PSALMS – Ps 137:1-6
1 By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down, yea, we wept
When we remembered Zion.
2 We hung our harps
Upon the willows in the midst of it.
3 For there those who carried us away captive
asked of us a song,
And those who plundered us requested mirth,
Saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand forget its skill!
6 If I do not remember you,
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth—
If I do not exalt Jerusalem
Above my chief joy.
FROM THE GOSPELS – John 3:14-21
14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
A CONTEMPORARY WITNESS – “When Things Fall Down”
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion.” (Ps.137:6)
I think we’re all familiar with the children’s game, “London Bridge is Falling Down.” It springs from an old nursery rhyme which recalls an event in 1014 when the Danes occupied Britain. To regain London from the Danes, who had their main defence on the bridge, King Aethelred enlisted the help of King Olaf of Norway. King Olaf had his men row under the bridge, tie cables around its pilings, and pull them away. Thus London Bridge came falling down, the Danes were defeated, and a nursery rhyme was born.
There are elements of the nursery rhyme, however, which go back a long way before 1014, for added to it are references to another famous bridge found in Persian mythology. This story goes back before Britain was even discovered. The Persians believed that three days after death – (see, there’s nothing new under the sun) – the soul comes to the Chinvat Bridge, the Bridge of the Decider. There a great conflict takes place between good and evil forces in order to determine who will have possession of the soul. After a great tug of war, one side or the other wins, and the soul either goes off to prison for his or her misdeeds or, if the person has led a good life, he or she meets their conscience in the form of a beautiful lady who leads them across the Chinvat Bridge to Paradise.
So, as the game of London Bridge is usually played, two children clasp hands high to form the arch of the bridge, through which the other players march, singing verse after verse of “London Bridge is Falling Down.” At the line, “Here’s a prisoner I have got,” the two guards seize the child who happens to be passing through the bridge, and all sing, “Off to prison you must go,” with the constant refrain, “My fair lady.” The two leaders then take the prisoner aside and ask him to choose which side he wishes to belong to. When all the players are caught, they line up behind their leaders for a tug-of-war. The taking of the prisoner, the reference to “My Fair Lady”, the decision the child must make, and the tug-of-war are all reminiscent of the Persian myth.
There aren’t any references to bridges in the Bible, but then it was a rather arid area. However, the concept of some structure falling down (usually walls or buildings) and the idea of moral decision-making connected with the downfall, are main themes. Our Old Testament lesson today tells of the corruption and disobedience of Israel that led to the destruction of the temple, the breaking down of the walls of Jerusalem and the taking off into exile in Babylon of its citizens – “Off to prison you must go,” as the nursery rhyme would have put it.
Our Psalm for the day expresses the sadness of the people in exile. The Persian myth of the Chinvat Bridge is a story of judgment; hence the other name of the bridge: the Bridge of the Decider. So, too, this Old Testament story: a story of judgment upon the abominable behaviour of God’s people.
As in all real myths, there is a Truth (with a capital T) about existence in this story cum nursery rhyme, yet the point can be missed in the gross over-simplification that occurs when people, as is their want, demand simple answers to the complex mysteries of life.
Children are taught, one way or another, that their behaviour will be judged – by their parents, by Father Christmas and even by a powerful someone called God – and, if their behaviour is acceptable, they will be acceptable; if not, they will be punished. It is even necessary that children should be so taught, because their ability to reason and make good decisions for themselves takes time to develop. But we do not stay children, nor is behaviour always a simple matter of right or wrong. Ultimately we must learn to take responsibility for ourselves and our actions, recognising that there is NO judge to say “right” or “wrong,” NO ultimate moral standard and NO one to whom we can ‘pass the buck’.
When the bridge or the walls of our lives come tumbling down around us – as they sometimes do – especially when it happens for reasons that are not obvious, it is so easy to believe that punishment is being dealt out for a plethora of unspecified sins, and so, in order to avoid such judgment in the future, we think we must become better people. And how do we become better? According to common wisdom, by obeying endless laws, ethical codes, and social mores.
It is easy to believe this, because it is so close to the truth. But it is NOT the truth. To believe we must please a higher being is to live a life of fear: a fear of punishment, a fear of making the wrong choice, a fear of living. To its everlasting shame, the church has been guilty of promoting such nonsense in days gone by in order to enhance its worldly power, and this certainly doesn’t reflect the good news that Jesus taught.
To be sure, there is a judgment that we all face, because our decisions both individual and collective, both conscious and unconscious, always have the potential to bring down the fragile structures of human society and the lives of individuals. The future is built upon our choices, and this is a fact of life that truly can be called judgment. Arthur Miller’s classic play, Death of a Salesman, centres on the sad ending of Willy Loman, whose life falls in on him. Willy Loman was the jolly good fellow who drifted through life convinced that to be well-liked and have the right contacts was the way to success. Willy lived by this creed and taught it to his sons. They saw him carry his deception almost to the end, when it collapsed in the awful discovery that his business associates, his boys and even Willy himself saw through the bluff. Judgment finally fell upon Willy Loman.
The response to the play when it first opened was startling. One day a reporter asked the author for his own opinion of the power of the play. Arthur Miller explained that his play dealt with a problem that concerns everyone. “It is,” he said, “the fear that one has lied to one’s self over a period of years in relation to one’s true identity and what one should be doing in the world. What the play does is to make the individual ask himself whether his rationalisations about himself are not leading him to a similar ultimate rendezvous with a dreadful reckoning.”
Judgment is all about taking responsibility for one’s self and the consequences of one’s decisions. There doesn’t need to be a judge. As in the Persian myth, WE decide the winner of the tug-of-war by virtue of our choices. Where God comes in is not as the final judge, but as the bearer of Grace. Wendell Berry in a sermon published in Harper’s, said, “Rats and roaches live by competition under the law of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.”
Sure, life is a tug-of-war, and sometimes, even often, because of less-than-ideal decisions, people get pulled-in, and life comes tumbling down on them. We all are prisoners of wrong-doing and bad circumstances. But, as in the last paragraph from our passage from Chronicles when King Cyrus frees the exiles, the good news comes to us of a God who gives yet again and again another chance to rebuild our lives; who always provides a future, bringing us again and again the chance to choose life, to choose to live in the kingdom.
THE DESCENDING DARKNESS
LENT IS A TIME FOR BREATHING: I’m breathing all the time., Lord, and I open my mouth and breathe and breathe. I feel my whole body is there for you, but I also feel the pain and fear. You lead me to my own wilderness, and I am frightened. I hold your hand very tightly.
(One of the lenten candles should now be extinguished in silence)
PRAYERS FOR OTHERS
Today, Christian friends, I ask you to especially pray for those people for whom we hold scant respect. The ones we tend to write off as no hopers. I ask you to pray for them because God loves each one of them just as much as each of us, and it is not God’s desire that even the worst rogue should perish. Let us pray.
God of the whole human family, we pray for drug addicts, dealers, alcoholics, gamblers, those who cheat and rob their own families, and those who mug vulnerable passers-by. In your mercy, gracious God,/ Hear our prayerWe pray for violent teenage gangs, for rebellious kids who run away for good homes, those who milk the social welfare system, and respectable business men who cheat the elderly out of their life savings. In your mercy, gracious God,/ Hear our prayer
We pray for prostitutes, pimps and their customers, for paedophiles, those who exploit children to make porn movies, and those who employ illegal immigrants in sweat shops. In your mercy, gracious God ,/Hear our prayer
We pray for terrorists in many lands, for underworld bosses, minders and hit men; for rapists, stalkers, seducers, and those who commit domestic violence. In your mercy, gracious God,/ Hear our prayer.
We pray for bank robbers and tax evaders, shop lifters and vandals, con-men, pickpockets, computer criminals, and burglars who bash the elderly in their homes. In your mercy, gracious God,/ Hear our prayer.
We pray for people who gravely abuse their positions of trust or power; corrupt lawyers, doctors, politicians, teachers, police officers, prison officers and ministers of religion. In your mercy, gracious God,/ Hear our prayer.
Most loving God, please do not allow us to become defeatist and bitter. Make us more eager for redemption rather than retribution, and encourage us to employ the tough love of Christ in the affairs of our neighbourhood and nation as we follow the one 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.
WORD OF MISSION
L: Those who dodge growing pains will never arrive at their full spiritual height. As you prepare to leave this special place, pray that you may have the courage to stretch once more towards the goals set by the Man of Nazareth.
R: There is no shame in failing, but there is in not trying.
Fall in love with living, wrestling with the chaos and the pain within yourself and within the world. Join the celebration of life, dancing with the angels and the clowns. And may the God of peace and joy, who is continually making all things new, embrace you as a partner In the divine creating. Amen.