Right or wrong? (26 July 2020)

24 Jul 2020 by by Sue (service), Bruce (sermon) in: Worship Services: 2020

Today’s lectionary readings range far and wide yet are very familiar: the Sunday-school story of Jacob and his wedding with Leah and Rachel; a hymn of praise in Psalm 105; Jesus’ brief parables of the mustard seed, the yeast, the treasure in the field, the pearl of the great price and the fishing net; and lastly Paul’s rousing words from Romans 8 promising the Spirit’s help, intercession, calling, justification and glory. 

Acknowledgement of country
This land is God’s land and God’s Spirit dwells here. We acknowledge the traditional custodians of the lands where we are worshipping today and how they have blessed this place through their care and concern. We acknowledge that we are the beneficiaries of a culture that has sought to silence their voices, and we commit ourselves to working for reconciliation in this land and to building a better future together. May we continue to think of, pray for and connect with our First Nations people.
Our hope that together in the spirit of Reconciliation,
we move to a place of justice and partnership,
As together we walk gently on this land.

Prayer Of Welcome 
Loving God, we praise you for the opportunity to gather in worship. We affirm that where we gather now is a safe place for all people to worship regardless of race, creed, age, cultural background or sexual orientation. Open our hearts as we bring ourselves before you in humble desire to follow your ways and know your wisdom. Open our eyes and help us see how our lives impact others and this created world. Open our ears and help us to hear the voices of those who have been silenced for too long. Open our minds and help us to understand our impact on the world and our more rightful place in it. Show us your glory, and guide our thoughts and reflections as we worship, we pray. Amen.

Call to worship 
To see yeast in action, to see a mustard seed grow, we must wait.
One: Waiting is never easy for us.
All: We are a culture of “instant” response.
One: Today, God is asking us to wait; to be patient.
All: It is not going to be easy for us to do that.
One: Quiet your spirits and open your hearts to God’s word for you today.
All: Lord, be with us. Help us to be ready to hear and respond to your word. AMEN.
Lord of mustard seeds and yeast, we come to you this day, seeking your Word and will for us. Make us people who care deeply about the well-being of others. Give us courage to be yeast for the rising of hope and peace throughout the world. Open our hearts to your redeeming love, for we ask this in Christ’s Name. AMEN.

Hymn/Song: “Wake up, my people” (Trish Watts/Monica O’Brien)
Wake up, my people, listen to my word,
Proclaim my love among you, let this song be heard.
Verse 1
Yahweh has spoken, and is speaking now to you.
The Spirit is longing to reveal the living truth.
We gather together and wait expectantly
For the fire of life that will set us free.
Verse 2

We’re one in the Spirit embodied in your love.
We’re brothers and sisters; as one family we come,
Praying for justice and freedom in our land.
Lord, our lives are in your hands.

Prayer of adoration and confession
Diligent Lord, who watches over us at all times, be with us all these days. We confess that we have allowed a host of worries and frustrations to crowd out your word for us. As you give us peace and your transforming love, also forgive all those times when we have been less than faithful disciples. Gently visit us again with your healing powers. Restore our hope and courage and joy for all the times ahead. We ask this in the name of the Master Healer, Jesus Christ. AMEN.

Words of affirmation
Here is some wonderful news! While we were worrying and fretting, God has been at work in our lives offering healing and peace. Receive these gifts in the name and love of the Lord our God. AMEN.

The reading from Matthew 13:31–33,44–52 lends itself to this conversation:
One: You are like mustard seeds. Praise be to God for the wonders that are hidden within you, yet to be uncovered and grow!
All: Mustard seeds? That doesn’t sound like much. They are just something to be thrown down in the dirt. What’s so good about being mustard seeds?
One: Within each of you are wondrous gifts and talents that you haven’t found yet. Be patient and wait. God will reveal those gifts and you will discover the many ways in which you are called to serve. You may be those who offer shelter and nurture for others who feel lost and alienated. Just wait and be ready!
All: God, give us patience and help us to wait for you to work within us.

One: You are yeast! Praise be to God for the wonders that are hidden within you, yet to grow!
All: Yeast? It is a mysterious thing, using sugar and sweetness to help it grow. Why in the world would God call us yeast?
One: Energy and joy abide within you! You may be those who influence people, who invite them to open their hearts to God. One thing is for sure, you will transform people’s lives in God’s name.
All: Lord, give us patience and help us to be ready to work for you!

One: You are treasures of great value. Praise be to God for the wonders that are hidden within you, yet to be discovered!
All: Treasures! Now that’s more like it! We are already special!
One: The luster that you have is only the beginning of things. Your deep and abiding faith will lead others to new lives of hope and courage.
All: Help us, O Lord, not to get too impressed with ourselves. Give us hearts that focus on others in your name.

One: Come this day and discover who God calls you to be.
All: (the whole congregation responds) We come, O Lord, offering our praise and our prayers to you in confidence of your abiding presence and creative intention within each one of us. AMEN.  

Sermon/Reflection (Bruce)Right or wrong?
SOAP OPERA?  Have you ever watched soap operas?  Or even just a melodramatic series of a few episodes?
The stories of Abraham’s family in the book of Genesis read like a soap opera.  As they do in these drama series on TV, let’s go over some of the background to today’s episode:
Abraham arranged for his son Isaac to marry a cousin, Rebecca, a young woman from the people Abraham had left many years before. Now, a generation later, Isaac has twin sons who have grown into young men.  They have been in conflict: Jacob has conned his older brother Esau into renouncing the older brother’s privilege and transferring the birthright to Jacob, then tricked his blind, aging father into giving him the special blessing that was meant for Esau.  Egged on by his mother and afraid of the anger of his tough, macho brother, Jacob runs away to the protection of his mother’s brother, Laban.

Today we read of how he falls for Rachel, the younger of his two cousins, and asks for her– as well as board and keep and protection – as his reward for working for his uncle for 7 years.  Laban, instead of saying “Sorry, the older sister has to be married first”, accepts the deal and then tricks him into marrying Leah.  A week later he’s allowed to marry Rachel on condition of serving Laban for another 7 years.  Looking beyond today’s episode, maybe you remember that through an arrangement with Laban during these 14 years he’s able to build up wealth for himself in the form of flocks and herds.  Even his departure from Laban to return to his parents’ home involves distrust and deception.

Professor Howard Wallace comments “These characters do not really seem the sort of people we would expect God to mix with.  The members of this family cheat and deceive at every opportunity.”  But in fact the Bible is full of stories of flawed human beings through whom God’s purposes were worked out.  Perhaps it seems as if Jacob’s whole life is built on upsetting the accepted norm:  He overturns the tradition of power and privilege to the firstborn son, whereas today many families believe in equal support for all children.  Jacob overturns the tradition that the older sister must be married first, and he sidesteps respect for elders as he tricks his father and his uncle.  On the way back home Jacob wrestles with God.  We might see this as a pattern of someone born to a position of disadvantage and lack of power struggling against repressive structures, and through that struggle God brings life.

But how can we approve such underhand behaviour, cheating and deception?  Do we need to make allowances for this being the Old Testament where things are primitive, where God is leading people towards the perfection of Jesus in the New Testament?  The parables in today’s passages from Matthew’s gospel might give cause to question that.

GOSPEL IMAGES OF IMPERFECTION.  We read that Jesus compared the kingdom of God to a mustard bush, which starts from a small seed and grows into a big tree.  Well, that comparison is rich with meaning.  The mustard plant isn’t so much a tall, impressive tree like eucalypt or pine, but rather a scraggy, branchy rambling bush that can grow very big.  Maybe it isn’t meant to depict the Kingdom as an elite, impressive, dominating power structure, but rather a broad embracing place of welcome and nurture for all.  How can we pray “Your kingdom come” and yet allow cruel, inhuman treatment of asylum seekers by our government? or continue to deny indigenous people true reconciliation?  Just as the branches of the mustard bush offer shelter to birds from all over, we hope for the Kingdom as a space of peace and reconciliation for all people.  

The image of yeast is also full of meaning, but scholars tell us that yeast was also seen as corruption.  It produces fermentation.  Jesus warns his disciples to “beware of the yeast of the Pharisees” and other Bible references to yeast seem to suggest that it’s somehow impure, even though it has a desirable effect on bread.  Even in the parables that say how valuable, how desirable, the Kingdom is, we might question the behaviour described – isn’t the bloke who finds treasure in a field rather unscrupulous in the way he gets it for himself?

So what are we to make of all this?  How often is God’s will fulfilled not only through the commonplace, not just by ordinary people without worldly status, but by the flawed and the unworthy?  How often is God’s will achieved even through unethical behaviour?

FLAWED HEROES.  These questions must not be an excuse for us to behave badly, to do wrong.  But how do we judge what other people do?  We live in a society which is very quick to blame and condemn actions people disagree with, to judge – with harshness and enthusiasm!  The gospel makes it clear that God wants to cure us of self-righteousness.
John Wesley’s father, Samuel, was a good preacher and theologian, progressive in matters of social justice.  But he was irresponsible in management of money, failing to provide properly for the 20 children he sired.  He was not a good husband and father.  Fortunately his skilful, intelligent wife Susannah managed to cope with the meagre resources and provided a nurturing and stimulating home and family life.  John himself was a great preacher and evangelist, but his marriage was a disaster.  With brilliant effectiveness he preached the love of God, yet between him and his wife there was bitterness, jealousy and contempt.  We all have our heroes, but we need to be reminded that even ‘spiritual heroes’ are flawed.  It is God who uses these flawed vessels to bring his message of love.

JUDGING LAWBREAKERS.  Often those opposing injustice have found themselves doing things that are at least unlawful, and sometimes downright bad.  Nelson Mandela was imbued with Christian ethics through his youthful education in the Methodist church.  He was opposed to violence.  Yet he was a leader in the African National Congress’ armed struggle against ‘apartheid’, and was jailed as a terrorist.  The ANC’s “terrorism” involved sabotage of material property that supported the oppressive racial regime, not assassinations, but it was still violent and illegal.  How do we react when protestors destroy property?  What do we think of the attempt by some Germans to assassinate Adolf Hitler during World War 2?  “Black Lives Matter” protests during lockdown have been criticised for being against the principle of avoiding crowded gatherings – criticised harshly by some commentators who have little to say about crowded pubs or sports events.  

When we look at imperfections in those who have been agents for good, and the dilemmas in current issues, we might consider that Howard Wallace’s comments about Jacob’s story apply to today’s world.  He sees God’s promise and blessing overthrowing “conventional social and political systems”, God involved in human activity even when it is of questionable integrity.  God’s struggle against the corruption of the world and for the blessing of the families of the earth happens by involvement in human affairs, working sometimes with and sometimes against human schemes.  This is the type of involvement and presence that will not only lead to the cross of Jesus, but will transform the world through it.

Some questions to consider:
•   In what ways do conventional notions of honesty and morality contribute to perpetuating injustices?
• How do we now regard those who complied with the laws and instructions of Nazi Germany? How do we now regard those who resisted and contravened those laws?
• How might we act in the face of unjust and oppressive laws in our own country?

We don’t usually say the Lord’s Prayer when it’s not communion time, but I found this version named ‘the Abba prayer’ and wanted to share it with everyone this week:
O Birther!  Father-Mother of the Cosmos
you create all that moves in light.
Hear the one Sound that created all others,
in this way the Name is hallowed
in silence.

Your rule springs into existence
as our arms reach out to embrace all creation.
Let all wills move together
in your vortex, as stars and planets
swirl through the sky.

Grant what we need each day in bread and insight:
subsistence for the call of
growing life.

Lighten our load of secret debts as
we relieve others of their
need to repay.

Keep us from hoarding false wealth,
and from the inner shame of
help not given in time.  (by Matthew Fox)

Prayers of the people 
God of surprising love, you have called us to be your treasures, to be those who love and serve you by helping meet the needs of others. 
Jesus reminded us that we were like mustard seeds that could grow into mighty shelters for those who felt abandoned; that we were like yeast placed in flour which causes the whole dough to rise and to be fruitful for the nourishment of God’s people, that we are also nets, cast into the unknown sea, gathering people for the Lord that they might be healed and saved. 
You place so much hope and trust in us. Please help us not to fail you. 
We bring before you this day persons and situations which need your healing love. Help us to be vehicles of that word for these dear ones. 
Give us courage and empower us to serve you boldly and joyfully, for it is in the healing love of Christ that we offer this prayer. AMEN.

Hymn/Song: Christ be my Leader by Night and by Day (John Bell)

Eternal Love, when the world fails us, we know You do not. 
When the world tosses us out of its nets, You catch us, and call us good, and love us and care for us. 
When the world rejects us, You embrace us. 
We don’t fit in, we sometimes feel we don’t belong, but we belong to You. 
You call us precious. You seek us from the shadowy corners of the world and bring us into Your light, Your warmth, Your love. 
Remind us of how precious we are, O God, and how much we are needed, when the world brings us down. 
Help us to go and seek others, like hidden treasure in a field, and share Your love and light with all. Amen.