We are still family even while we are apart, so while we are unable to gather because of the ongoing health crisis, I will be sharing prayers and reflections on the blog each Sunday morning, and posting notes to those unable to access the internet. Of course you are free to use this material at any time, but my hope is that as many of us as possible will be reading these words during our usual service time - Sunday at 10:30 if you're new or need a reminder! - gathering in time if not in space.
There have also been calls for a global wave of prayer, with people praying between 12pm and 1pm, so that the world is covered in prayer for twenty four hours; and a national day of prayer, with people being invited to pray and put candles in their window at 7pm. As part of this, the General Secretary of the Baptist Union will be leading a prayer broadcast, which you can access here.
This is the strangest service I have ever prepared, but I hope that having this shared set of prayers and readings and reflections will help us to remember that we are family even when we are apart, and will allow us to have a sense of continuing to worship together even while we cannot meet.
I have a keen sense that we need to saturate ourselves in prayer right now. God knows what we are walking through and doesn’t need to be asked or told to care, but we need to hold one another in love and concern and we need to keep our minds and hearts as peaceful and hopeful as we can. Sitting with God and bringing all that we feel and fear is the best way I know to do that, and so I encourage you to pray often. (The Church of England have just made their ‘Time to Pray’ app free to use, if that would be helpful for you.)
Song | O Lord Hear Our Prayer
A prayer for the current health crisis
God, we find ourselves in a situation none of us expected or prepared for. In these difficult and uncertain times, we pray for your peace in our anxiety, your hope in our fears, your presence in our isolation, and your wisdom in our efforts to make the best way through. Give grace and strength to all who work to care for the sick, prevent the spread of the virus, and keep us safe and supplied. Help us stay calm and connected, drawing on all that is available to us.
We acknowledge that this time will carry a great sense of loss, but we pray that there will be gain too. May our grief at being separated teach us again the joy being together. May the slower pace of our days teach us anew the importance of rest. And may our new vulnerabilities teach us afresh to reach out to and rely on one another. We will all be changed by this time, so may it be for the better.
A prayer for Mothering Sunday
God, on this day we give thanks for the gift of mothers and mothering, remembering not just those to whom we have been born and given birth, but all those who have nurtured us and we have nurtured in turn. We pray particularly for all those for whom today is hard, whether because of bereavement or separation, bad relationships or unfulfilled hopes, and we seek your healing and grace in that pain.
We also remember that this day began as a celebration of Mother Church, and we thank you for all that being part of this family brings. Help us to hold one another in love and show us the best ways in which we might care for one another. Give us fresh wisdom and creativity as a community, that we might discover new ways of being church, for each other and for the world to whom we witness.
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For your is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.
Reading | John 10:1-18 (NIV)
In an attempt to keep some sense of continuity and normality, I will stick to our pattern of working through John’s Gospel. This morning we reach chapter ten, and our reading is the first eighteen verses.
“Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me — just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
The image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd in this passage is surely intended to recall the words of Psalm 23. It is a beautiful psalm full of wonderful promises which we need to hold onto now more than ever, so let’s begin by reminding ourselves of them. I invite you to read through these words slowly, to give them time to sink in.
The Lord’s my shepherd...RELATIONSHIP
I’ll not want...PROVISION
He makes me lie down...REST
He leads me by still waters...REFRESHMENT
He restores my soul...HEALING
He leads me in righteous paths...GUIDANCE
For his name’s sake...PURPOSE
I will fear no evil...PROTECTION
You are with me...FAITHFULNESS
Your rod and staff comfort me...PEACE
You prepare a table for me...JOY
You anoint my head...CONSECRATION
My cup runs over...ABUNDANCE
Your goodness and mercy will follow me...BLESSING
I will live in your house forever...SECURITY
Turning to look more closely at the passage from John 10, there is a lot of language that seems quite exclusive. Jesus is protective and even possessive of his sheep, placing a boundary around his flock. It is easy to read that and imagine that some are in and others are out, and I imagine that’s how the language of shepherds and sheep had been used or understood before, but then Jesus says that there are other sheep that are not of this sheep pen, and that he must bring them into one flock.
This speaks of a widening circle of embrace, a clear expression of a desire to draw others in. Last week we saw that Jesus backed up his words with actions, but he also explained his actions with words. He invited in those who had been kept out, but he also told us what he was doing and why he was doing it, so we couldn’t miss it or mistake it. Jesus welcomed in both word and deed, and that is why I was so pleased by our decision last week to share our own statement of welcome (which you can now read on our About page) to make clear to everyone that we seek to be a place and a people of welcome for all.
Psalm 23 was full of promises and we find the promises of protection and guidance and relationship repeated here in John 10. Perhaps the promise that is most well known from this passage is that of life to the full, although properly translated, it should really be life in abundance. It seems God is even more generous that we often give credit for.
Life probably doesn’t feel very full right now, with so much closing down and stepping back, but God’s promises do not fail. Even as life empties of many of the things that have filled it, God wishes to fill it with new things. With more of us needing to practice self isolation and social distancing, giving up work and meetings and commitments, we may find we have been given the gift of more time. We could spend that time anxiously scrolling through Twitter or half watching the twenty four hour news channel, or we could use it in ways that feed our souls and lift our spirits.
We could read the books that we’ve piled up on the bedside table, or finally sew the cushion cover we pinned then put away four years ago. We could have long phone conversations with those we love and miss the most, or spend time deep in prayer with the one who most desires to hold us. I’m not going to say that this situation is a lesson or blessing, but I do believe we can squeeze lessons and blessings from it. God still longs to give us life to the full, so if you are feeling empty this morning, let yourself be filled with love and peace and the million small things that can still bring joy.
Song: Psalm 23
Finally, I offer this prayer, written by a fellow Baptist minister, Catriona Gorton. It has recently been shared by the Baptist Union and will soon be published in ‘Gathering up the Crumbs’, a collection of liturgies and reflections by women in Baptist ministry. I have cried a lot this week, but the tears that these words brought were healing. I hope the same will be true for you.
A Covenant for Troubled Times
'There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.'
These are troubled times
Times of violence and hatred in a world marred by war
Times of anxiety and uncertainty in a world wounded by greed
Times of sadness and loss in a world of vulnerability and finitude
Times when we must face tough questions with unpalatable answers
'Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no ill, for you are with me, your rod and your staff they comfort me.'
These are dark times
Times when we need to be reminded that God is with us
To guide our feet, one step at a time
To illumine our minds with new understanding
To protect us from despair, isolation and emptiness
To enable us to ‘prove’ our faith in resilience and fortitude
'Now the dwelling of God is with human beings, and he will be with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.'
These are, mysteriously, hopeful times
Times in which the promises of a faithful God offer encouragement
Times in which new possibilities can be glimpsed
Times in which we must live the hope of eternity
Times when past, present and future meet
So, let us profess our faith:
We believe and trust in God, creator of all, whose promises are faithful
We believe and trust in Jesus Christ, who redeems all, and who calls us to follow
We believe and trust in the Holy Spirit, who inspires and sustains us in hopeful service
Recognising that these are troubled times, let us covenant with one another and with God:
My brothers and sisters in Christ, I covenant to walk together with you in faithful discipleship for as long as God shall so direct and lead us
Faithful God, as a community of your people, we covenant to walk with you, individually and corporately, in ways we know and in ways that you will show us
Grant us courage to face the challenges and strengthen us with faith, hope and love
so that we may walk faithfully in the footsteps of him whose name we bear, Christ our Lord. Amen.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit remain with us all ever more. Amen.