WELCOME TO WORSHIP WITH THE BARWON HEADS & OCEAN GROVE CONGREGATIONS
Below is the entire text for a service of worship for home use while public worship is not available in the church buildings 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.
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CALL TO CELEBRATION
From the wintry white wastes of the Antarctic to the burning summer heat of the Equator, the seasons of the year spice and flavour our universe. Let us then celebrate the richness and diversity of life.
WORDS OF PREPARATION
L: The smallest thing, under the influence of the eternal God, is made infinitely precious and eternal. If we come to worship focussing on our needs,
R: we will go away feeling let down.
L: If we come wanting a God made in our own likeness,
L: If we come rigid in our ideas and set in our ways,
R: we will leave as empty as we arrived.
L: If we put God first,
R: we shall never worship in vain.
L: Listen to this, you people of God: The Lord you God is One and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your strength
ACT OF AWARENESS
This place is a sacred place. May we greet one another with open hearts and minds; inspire each other to consider new questions and seek deeper meaning; and cultivate both wisdom and compassion. And may this time together empower us to take some new steps so all our living is transforming and the yearning of our hearts become reality.
JOURNEY INTO SILENCE
Meditation – “3rd World” by Bruce Prewer based on Mt. 10:38f
I saw this mechanical press stamping out brass crosses at forty per minute; very cost efficient. Nearby some beggars sat outside a bishop’s court waiting for a few crumbs from tonsured consciences. A cathedral squatted huge, hoarding its golden soul, serving wine to its priests from rubied chalices. Outside in long shadows cast by the chancel wall, gaunt and ragged children fought over a plastic ball. The machine spewed out crosses enough to pave the land, each one smooth and shiny and comfortable in the hand.
Let there now be a silence among us. May God’s stillness and peace rest upon us.
May God’s presence permeate all our living. May God’s blessing bloom around us. (Keep at least 30 seconds of silence)
WE REFLECT UPON OUR RELATIONSHIPS
R: Too readily we adjust to the values and attitudes of the rest of the community; sometimes there is nothing distinctive or winsome about us.
L: Regretfully, loving God, we confess that we do not make the most of our faith;
R: In the times we have to ourselves in this busy life, we do not make space for reflection and prayer; we leave you at the edges instead of embracing your at the centre of our days.
L: Regretfully, loving God, we confess that we have looked for you in remarkable people and spectacular events;
R: Yet we have ignored you in the ordinary circumstances, in ordinary friends and neighbours, and in ordinary church members.
L: Regretfully, loving God, we confess that we have not been very fair to ourselves;
L: Regretfully, loving God, we unfold our lives before you.
R: Please forgive and expunge the things that are sloppy, unloving or rotten. Please mend the things that are torn or distorted or fractured. Please rehabilitate that soul-image of yourself that exists in each of us, and give us the desire and the will and the strength to make a good fist of living by faith in this new week. In the name of Jesus our brother and friend, we pray. Amen
WORD OF ASSURANCE
L: In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, I ask you to accept God’s saving grace, putting your mistakes behind you, and letting go of regrets and fears. Now face the future with the measured optimism of those who know they are destined to ultimate victory. By saving grace you are released; you are at liberty, and so I can declare to you, the door to life has been opened to us.
R: Thanks be to God!
FROM THE HEBREW SCRIPTURES – Genesis 22: 1-14
22 Now it came to pass after these things that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”
2 Then He said, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”
3 So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son; and he split the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. 4 Then on the third day Abraham lifted his eyes and saw the place afar off. 5 And Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you.”
6 So Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife, and the two of them went together. 7 But Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, “My father!”
And he said, “Here I am, my son.”
Then he said, “Look, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”
8 And Abraham said, “My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.” So the two of them went together.
9 Then they came to the place of which God had told him. And Abraham built an altar there and placed the wood in order; and he bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. 10 And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.
12 And He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.”
13 Then Abraham lifted his eyes and looked, and there behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 And Abraham called the name of the place, The-Lord-Will-Provide; as it is said to this day, “In the Mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”
FROM THE GOSPELS – Matthew 10: 34-42
34-37 “Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy. I’ve come to cut—make a sharp knife-cut between son and father, daughter and mother, bride and mother-in-law: cut through these cozy domestic arrangements and free you for God. Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies. If you prefer father or mother over me, you don’t deserve me. If you prefer son or daughter over me, you don’t deserve me.
38-39 “If you don’t go all the way with me, through thick and thin, you don’t deserve me. If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.
40-42 “We are intimately linked in this harvest work. Anyone who accepts what you do, accepts me, the One who sent you. Anyone who accepts what I do accepts my Father, who sent me. Accepting a messenger of God is as good as being God’s messenger. Accepting someone’s help is as good as giving someone help. This is a large work I’ve called you into, but don’t be overwhelmed by it. It’s best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing.”
A CONTEMPORARY WITNESS – “What Price Faith”
Part 1 of audio file
How much is OUR faith worth? What price do we put on it? That is the unsettling question the Bible puts to us this day. It is stated plainly in the Gospel reading, and placed in story form in the reading from Genesis 22.
Just in case your mind was wandering at the time the Old Testament was being read (as mine has been known to do on occasions) let me remind you. We heard again the primitive story of a man who was, albeit reluctantly, willing to offer up a human sacrifice to his god, with his precious son as the unsuspecting victim. Abraham took Isaac up a mountain and there bound him and placed him on an altar.
Let me immediately confess that I have major problems with this story, and I would not be a bit surprised if the story bothers you, too. I can still remember the picture book from which my Sunday School teacher read the story. It showed a terrified little Isaac tied up on his back and flat on a stone altar, and a tall, long-bearded Abraham bending over him with a knife raised for the sacrificial kill. The knife, by the way, was a very large curved one, almost big enough to be a scimitar. Nearby, caught in some scrub, was a ram, but Abraham had not noticed the ram yet.
That scene was the stuff from which children’s nightmares are constructed. It troubled me greatly. Would a loving God ask a man to kill his child as a means of proving his faith? Would my father kill me if God asked him to?
What would we do with any man today who was caught taking his son up a mountain in order to sacrifice him? We would arrest him and put him behind bars. If he continued to insist that he was obeying the Word of God, we would insist that he receive psychiatric care. The idea of human sacrifice is repugnant to us. We would see it as utterly immoral, and suspect that the poor fellow was not dealing with God but with the Devil.
Does that mean that we are morally superior to the God of the Old Testament? How can one reconcile the Old Testament God with the God of Jesus? Are agnostic humanitarians today more ethical than the God of Genesis?
These are not new questions posed by us, the extra clever little citizens of the twenty first century, who are inclined to feel superior to the generations that went before us. It troubled early Christians also. One such person was a fellow called Marcion, the son of a bishop. Marcion went to Rome and taught that the God of the Old Testament was a fickle, cruel secondary being (Demiurge) who had nothing in common with the true God of Jesus. A powerful sect formed behind Marcion, and only permitted a Bible made up of the Gospel of St Luke and ten epistles of St Paul.
Marcion’s views were strenuously rejected by the main body of Christianity. His own father, the Bishop of Sinope on the Black Sea, excommunicated his son Marcion (Which no doubt confirmed Marcion’s opinion of the bad God of the Old Testament?), and today he is listed among the heretics of the early church.
But the story of Marcion reminds us that we are not the first to have reservations about some of the Hebrew Scriptures. His answer was unsatisfactory, but we can feel for him. Some passages are offensive to our sensibilities; the very same sensibilities that Jesus has shaped within us.
There are two things of which I need to remind myself, and maybe remind you, this morning if we are to keep things in perspective.
The first thing: Jesus was a Jew, moulded by the Hebrew Scriptures
Listen to the whole Old Testament; don’t get bogged down in the awkward bits. These ancient Hebrew Scriptures also reach the mighty heights of belief:
- The trusting, intimate faith of the twenty-third psalm,
- The opening of Genesis with the declaration that God’s own breath is in us,
- The high morality of the ten commandments,
- The glorious, honest faith of Job,
- The universal love of God depicted in the little book of Jonah,
- The lofty ethics of social justice of prophets like Amos, Micah, and Amos,
- The compassion of Hosea and Isaiah, the loyal love of Ruth,
- and the beauty and faith of psalm 139:
That which we later find in the lovely, loving Jesus of Nazareth, is already there, to some degree, in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Old Testament must be understood in the light of the New Testament, for it prepares us for, leads us to and helps us understand Jesus.
Part 2 of audio file
I must tell myself to always keep in mind the importance of reading things in their cultural context.
The story of Abraham stands at the early stage of the developing faith of the Hebrew people. Their understanding is limited, but they knew that God must come first in all things. Maybe the story tellers got the way to express their faith wrong when they told this narrative, but they had the priorities right, for it does show complete faith and love for God.
Ethics have evolved over time, so each generation is limited in the ways people can comprehend. Maybe even today God has to settle for using aspects of our life, which will be repugnant to future generations, in order to help us grow in faith. If human sacrifice in Abraham’s day was the highest expression of devotion to the gods, and if the offering of one’s own child was widely seen as the highest expression of devotion, then maybe this had to be used to extend the faith of the people to fullest extent. (Remember, in the story as it is handed down to us, at no stage does God intend that Isaac will be killed.)
It is right that we, today’s followers of Jesus, should find the idea of human sacrifice repugnant. But that does not mean that it should have seemed wrong to Abraham that God wanted him to do such a thing. We must not judge the story by our modern day consciences.
Rather than get distracted by the morality of child sacrifice, it will be more enlightening for us to focus on the main feature of that old story: the reason for its telling; namely, for Abraham God came first. Absolutely first. No conditions. No fine print.
Is our faith and love anywhere near that level? If it is not, then let us be humble in the presence of the story of Abraham.
The gospel relates the same story; for Jesus, God came first. Absolutely first.
In a very different setting, Jesus takes up the same issue with his disciples: “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. He who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. He who find his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Notice that there are two warnings in this hard saying of Jesus. The first is that our loyalty to no person, no matter how dear to us, can take priority over our loyalty to God.
The second is that our own life must not precede God’s claim on us. Taking up the cross is the metaphor to describe putting one’s own life on the line for Jesus.
Unlike the Abraham story, Jesus is not asking us to sacrifice our loved ones on some altar, but he is making the same point: he is asking us to put them second to our loyalty to God.
Many people are still offended by this saying of Jesus. They accuse him of cutting across that which is most precious and dear. I don’t see it that way. He is asking us to allow nothing to limit that which is the most precious and dearest and enduring thing of all: our love of God.
Factually, in most cases, putting God first will enable us to express our love for dear ones much better than we ever have before. In a minority of cases, putting God first may cause a rift from which it is hard to love our dear ones in practical ways, but it does not stop us loving them at a most profound, intense, God-deep level.
God first. We must be willing to lose all for God. This is what matters most.
Whatever the faults in the story of Abraham and Isaac going up the mountain, there is an admirable message there.
We hear the voice of the curious child asking: “Father, I can see the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” To which the poor father, already grieving, can only say: God will provide a lamb for the offering, my son.” Abraham had it right in putting God first. God had it right in providing another lamb for the sacrifice. After that event, Abraham experienced even a greater sense of blessing. It was the blessing of those who, being prepared to lose their life, everything most precious, find life in greater fullness. That is a blessing worth coveting, indeed, says Jesus, it is the only way to fullness of life.
A CELEBRATION OF FAITH
L: In response to the word reflected on let us stand and share together a celebration of our faith.We give thanks for the shared life we experience in each other and that the way we live and celebrate together will encourage that life.
L: We affirm that in each of our sacred places life can be sustained,
R: that in us new life can emerge and grow, and that hope for life is to be cherished every day.
L: And as we gather in this our sacred place during this season of winter, we hold ourselves open to all the new possibilities before us.
R: We commit ourselves to go on trying to care for each other, giving and receiving in a sharing of gifts and graces, that we may continue to be part of the transforming life of God.
PRAYERS FOR OTHERS (for two voices)
For ourselves, for those named or remembered, and in solidarity with those who have not the freedom to express their concern or celebration for fear of discrimination or condemnation, we now offer our concerns to God. In all our joys and in all our concerns, may we be ever mindful of the presentness of the sacred among us, and to see the new possibilities of the now. Let us pray.
2: Please hear our prayers, correct their errors, and bless all that is wise and loving.
1: We pray for the young and the strong, and all who are full of joy and high hopes today.
2: We pray for the elderly and the weak, and all who are utterly weary and disheartened today.
1: We pray for the wise and the generous, and those who are looking for new challenges today.
2: We pray for the foolish and the selfish, and those who evading their responsibilities today.
1: We pray for peace-keepers and peacemakers, and all who work for justice and peace today.
2: We pray for the hostile and the treacherous, and all who will resort to violence today.
2: We pray for the hasty and the judgmental, and all who will create some misery today.
1: We pray for the healthy and the buoyant, and those who will share much happiness today.
2: We pray for the dying and the sad, and those who will weep inconsolably today.
1: We pray for the faithful and the loving, and all who will worship with delight today.
2: We pray for the faithless and the cynical, and all who will find life a drag today.
1: We pray for our loved ones and our friends, and those whom we will meet casually today.
2: We pray for strangers and enemies, and those who will think evil of us today.
1: Loving God, please bring the day nearer when our prayers and our deeds will work in perfect harmony, praying as Jesus taught us, “Our Father…
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 and the power and glory are yours now and forever. Amen.
L: We have come together to share our concerns, to speak words of inspiration and to sing words of hope.
R: May we now commit ourselves to do what we can to ease the burdens of others who suffer, and to work for a more wholesome environment for us, and for the generations that will follow.
WORDS OF BLESSING
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