Sunday Worship 7 July 2024

 
Today’s service is led by the Revd Andy Braunston

 
Welcome

As Labi Siffre’s haunting song, about the barriers he faced due to prejudice against some of his own identities, fades we think today about who we are.  Many of us don’t have to think too hard about who we are as we’re perceived as being normal; others of us are aware of the various identities we have that make us a little different – and of course in today’s society simply being a Christian makes us a little different too.  We think of identities we claim, and which are imposed upon us but, most of all, we think of the single most important identity we have – that of being a disciple of Jesus.   

My name is Andy Braunston and amongst my many identities is the fact that I am the United Reformed Church’s Minister for Digital Worship.  I live in the beautiful island county of Orkney off the far north coast of Scotland.  Let’s worship together.

Call To Worship

When we were strangers, O God, 
You sought and saved us.
When we wander O Jesus, 
You rescue and raise us up.
When we become more attentive to sin than grace, O Spirit,
You take and seal our hearts.

Hymn     Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing
Robert Robinson (1758); Alterer: Martin Madan (1760) Public Domain. Sung by Moristown Uke Jam and used with his kind permission.

Come, thou Fount of every blessing; tune my heart to sing thy grace;
streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above;
praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it, mount of Thy redeeming love!

Here I raise my Ebenezer here by thy great help I’ve come
and I hope by thy good pleasure safely to arrive at home
Jesus sought me when a stranger wandering from the fold of God
He to rescue me from danger interposed his precious blood.
 
O to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be
Let thy goodness like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it prone to leave the God I love.
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above

Prayers of Approach, Confession and Grace

Our lives, O Most High, flourish in your love;
You call us from the highways and byways of our world,
meeting us where we are, loving us in the complexity of our identities,
and sheltering us in life’s storms; 
You are our true security.

We are complex creations, Lord Jesus,
renewed through sacrament and discipleship,
a curious mix of the old and the new,
being ever refined in your love,
eager to follow yet reluctant to change,
simultaneously aware and unaware of who we are.
You help us to know ourselves even as You fully know us.

You, O Holy Spirit, call us to change, and grace us with love;
when we are aware of our sin, You shower love and peace upon us;
when we struggle to change, You give us the energy we need.
When we groan under the weight of sin, 
You remind us our debt is cancelled 
and we can be free.

Forgive us, O God, when we cry to You,
give us the time we need to grow and change,
to be aware of who we are and who we can be, 
that our lives may reflect Your life,
and our love reflect Your love.  Amen.

My friends, God is like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child,
like a father who runs to welcome home the estranged,
like a rock upon which we can securely stand.
God is loving and faithful. God forgives you, 
so have the strength to forgive yourselves. 
Thanks be to God!

Introduction

Our readings today are not the ones set for the Lectionary – we’re taking a little detour – but each make us think about identity.  The pampered younger son who wants his inheritance and squanders it – known to posterity as the “prodigal son” – the term means one who wastes money.  The Psalmist who is fixated with his own sinfulness – but sees a way out by a realisation that the One who forgives will shelter him giving the memorable line about God being a hiding place.  In our reading from 2 Corinthians Paul muses on the new creation that we become, the new identity, that we take on as disciples who are “in Christ”.  Let’s pray for grace as we listen to the Word – read, proclaimed, and lived.

Prayer for Illumination

Holy One, beyond our reach, 
break open Your word for us.
Liberating One, beyond our expectations,
help us to perceive Your presence.
Energising One, beyond our wildest imaginings,
breath your life into us 
that we may hear, understand and follow. Amen.

Reading     St Luke 15: 1 – 3, 11b-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:

“There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.  When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So, he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!  I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’  So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

Hymn     How Blessed Are Those Who Have Received Forgiveness
Verses from Psalm 32 Sing Psalms Version (slightly altered to inclusify)  © 2003 Psalmody Committee, The Free Church of Scotland sung by Paul Robinson and used with his kind permission.

How blessed are those who have received forgiveness for their sin!
Whose sins are covered from God’s face, 
whose debt is cancelled in God’s grace; 
there’s no deceit in them. 

When I kept silent, all my bones with groaning were worn out. 
Beneath your hand I felt entrapped 
both day and night; my strength was sapped 
as in a summer drought.
 
Then I laid bare my sin to you, the guilt that lay within. 
I said, “O LORD, I have transgressed”— 
and you forgave when I confessed; 
you pardoned all my sin. 

You are my hiding-place, O LORD, my true security. 
You keep me safe in troubled days; 
You circle me with joyful praise 
when you have set me free. 

Reading     2 Corinthians 5: 11 – 21

Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. What we are is plain to God, and I hope it is also plain to your conscience. We are not trying to commend ourselves to you again, but are giving you an opportunity to take pride in us, so that you can answer those who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart. If we are “out of our mind,” as some say, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So, from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Hymn     Before the Throne of God Above 
Charitie Lees Bancroft Words Public Domain Tune OneLicence # A-734713. Sung by Michael Lining Music and used with his kind permission.
 
Before the throne of God above I have a strong and perfect plea;
a great High Priest whose name is love, who ever lives and pleads for me.
My name is graven on His hands! My name is written on His heart!
I know that while in heav’n He stands No tongue can bid me thence depart.

When Satan tempts me to despair and tells me of the guilt within,
upward I look and see Him there who made an end to all my sin.
Because the sinless Saviour died my sinful soul is counted free,
for God the Just is satisfied to look on Him and pardon me.
 
Behold Him there, the risen Lamb, my perfect, spotless Righteousness;
the great unchangeable I Am! The King of glory and of grace!
One with Himself, I cannot die, my soul is purchased by His blood!
My life is hid with Christ on high; with Christ my Saviour and my God.

Sermon

When I was baptised I was, I am told, wrapped in a white Christening shawl.  The garment is meant to be a symbol of purity and cleanliness.  When I die I’d like the Catholic practice of a white pall, or sheet, to be placed on my coffin – and no other symbols.  The pall reflects my baptism and life as a Christian – any other symbols are secondary to this central truth.  Why might I be thinking of baptismal dress and garb for a funeral I sincerely hope is decades away?  Well today’s readings encourage us to think about identity – our identity as being in Christ and the realisation that this identity is newly constructed.

We live in an age where identities matter – and can be contested. English people, for example, can see the words English and British as synonyms; Scottish and Welsh people really don’t!   We each have multiple identities which sometimes fit us like a glove or at other times can be imposed on us, and given meaning, by others.   The Independent minister, John Robinson, would have understood a little of our modern thinking on identities after his deepening sense of call and conversion which changed his life from being an apprenticed barber to becoming an Independent Minister working with Congregationalists and Baptists in the 18th Century.  He wrote about the change in his identity in the hymn Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing with the words Jesus sought me when a stranger wandering from the fold of God | He to rescue me from danger interposed his precious blood.

Our world is very interested in the various identities that we inhabit.  Recently I attended some anti-racist training where we were helped to think about the many identities we have.  We had to place our various identities in concentric circles deciding which were more important than others.  Amongst mine were:     Husband | Dad to two dogs | White | uncle | Male | Leftie | Gay | Friend | Minister.  There were others and some aren’t as straightforward as you’d think.  I find, for example, class complicated; my grandparents were all working class – a lorry driver, a grave digger, a cleaner, and a housewife.  My parents, whilst having working class jobs as a police officer and care assistant, had middle class aspirations.  I was the first in my family to attend university. I read a broadsheet and listen to Radio 4 – is that, I wonder, a middle-class lifestyle? Yet am aware of where I’m from.  
Then there’s identities bound up with place – Orcadians, for example, will talk about “going to” Scotland often making me wonder if Orkney has moved.  Is my national identity English or have I become a new Scot?  Brexit meant that those in the UK who might have described themselves as European can no longer do so with the same level of accuracy.  This identity thing can be rather confusing.

And then each of our identities is imbued with meaning – meanings we place on them ourselves or meanings and interpretations others place upon us.  It can still be a bit edgy to introduce one’s same sex partner as it involves a risk of judgement or rejection; albeit a much smaller risk these days than it ever was.   Those who can’t hide their identities may find that prejudice is all encompassing;  those whose identities are hidden may find pressure to conform and not reveal more of themselves.

Then I wonder about other identities.  Do I think of myself as white or male in the same way that I might think of myself as gay?  One identity is a minority, another is seen as normal in this society.  And what might follow from actively thinking of myself as male and white – what changes might that mean I have to make when I consciously remember that in some ways I inhabit a position of perceived power and influence.  Then assumptions can be made about our identities which may, or may not, be accurate.  It can be very confusing, especially in an age where identities seem to be very important.  

We see various identities at play in our readings today.  Our Gospel reading starts with Jesus’ opponents making him sinful due to his association with people they deemed to be sinners.  An imposed identity if ever there was one!   Of course, to see Jesus like that could marginalise him.  Then Jesus plays with some identities in the parable of the two brothers.  We still identify the younger son as “prodigal” meaning one who is reckless with money.  We see the prodigal identity as if there were no others.  Yet the story makes clear his identity as a Jew was important – the horror the crowd would have felt about him living with pigs would have been immense.  Perhaps the reckless living meant the identity as a son was forgotten – yet at his lowest moment the son realised this identity was key to his loving relationship with his father.  His identity as brother however was rather strained; the older brother speaks to their father about “this son of yours” forgetting his own identity as brother and what that might mean.  And then we see the older son as resentful as if that was all there was about him.

Psalmists knew themselves to be sinners – as if that is all there was about them; yet by the end of today’s Psalm there’s the start of a new identity – one who is sheltered and hidden by God.  A new identity as one protected by the Almighty who hides the supplicant from some of the world’s horror.

This then brings us to Paul’s startling claims in the passage from 2 Corinthians.  In a longer passage about reconciliation Paul taught that we are new creations when we are in Christ.  The old has passed away; we have been made new.   I wonder if Paul was being a bit overoptimistic about the old passing away but Paul asserts being a Christian gives a new identity that transcends all others. Paul – a Jew who became a Christian, a Roman Citizen who was executed by the state, a sexist who championed and worked with women, a latecomer to the apostleship, a zealous persecutor of the Church who became its greatest asset, a man who was both traditional and radical knew something about identities and how they mix and merge.  

Life as a Christian is about working out what that new identity in Christ is about.  What might we mean when we say we are “in Christ” or that we are a Christian.  We don’t mean we live as Jesus lived – we’re not nomadic preachers with minimal possessions.  We’re not Jewish.  We’re not first Century Jews living under an imperial system of oppression.  What it means to be a Christian has changed over the ages.  What it might have meant to be a Christian in 3rd Century Rome in an age of persecution might have been different to being a Christian in post-Soviet Russia where the Orthodox Church enjoys huge prestige.  What it means to be a Christian now in the West is different again.  So, what might it mean for us?

First, there is something about attitudes and values.  Jesus taught us to love, to be truthful, to turn the other cheek, and to see God at work in – and at one with – those on the edge.  How good are we are showing those same attitudes and values?

Then there’s something about God being the reason for those attitudes and values; Jesus didn’t just believe in abstract notions of God but saw God’s love and dignity in every person he encountered speaking gently to women and the poor and sternly to those who misused power.  Jesus’ faith in God was made manifest in how he treated others – is ours?

For Jesus, God’s presence seemed to be, most of the time, tangible; in quelling the storms Jesus knew God to be there, in quiet places on mountains and in busy crowds Jesus seemed to be sure of God’s presence.  Only on the Cross, after the agony of unjust trial and brutal torture did Jesus seem to think God had abandoned him – and in doing so quoted a Psalm so even in his darkest hour he held fast to God despite a sense of abandonment.  How firm do we hold on to God’s presence, perceiving it in coast and crowd, in mountain and mayhem.

This is, perhaps, what being a Christian means for me – having attitudes and values which are informed by Jesus’ own, showing faith in God through how God’s people are treated, and in holding fast to faith in God in a variety of settings and circumstances.  What it means to be Christian might be different for you. 

We started by thinking a little about our various identities.  Identities are not fixed or rigid; they intersect and refine each other.  Living in Scotland makes me more aware of my English upbringing and rather challenges it.  Long ago, the realisation that I am gay made me reconsider what I believed about the Bible and Church tradition as well as seeing the world as a bit of an outsider.  Being married has made me more aware of Paul’s views on the self-giving love required for marital bliss.  Being a man makes me more aware of how men have used, and abused, power over women.  Being white makes me aware of how poisonous legacies of slavery lead to racist structures and systems now.  

Being a Christian, however, affects all those identities too; they feed into, merge, refine, and enrich each other – and what it means to be a Christian for me is also affected by all those other identities.  We are, indeed, new creations, but complex, interconnected, and sometimes confusing creations!  So, I need to remind myself that I have multiple, and ever changing, identities.  At the heart of my various identities, however, I am a Christian.

My own journey of life and faith has been complex but every other identity I claim, or have thrust upon me, is secondary to that primary identity of being a Christian, being in Christ.  And so, when I die I’d rather like to have a simple white pall placed on my coffin, superseding, and crowning all the other identities I have.  Whether or not these wishes will be followed is something I can’t know – and by then, of course, won’t really mind.  I have no idea if my URC or the local undertakers on this Presbyterian Isle even possess such a thing as a pall!  But the hope is there!  

Let’s pray,

Lord Jesus,
You have many identities we project onto you
Saviour, Lord, King, and Master,
Suffering Servant, Table Turner, persecuted Jew.
Help us as we recognise our own varied identities,
that they all find their fulfilment in our ultimate identity,
of being your disciple.  Amen.

Hymn     O Lord of Every Shining Constellation  
Albert F Bayly (1950)  © 1950 Oxford University Press BBC Songs of Praise. OneLicence # A-734713  
 
O Lord of every shining constellation
that wheels in splendour through the midnight sky;
grant us your Spirit’s true illumination
to read the secrets of your work on high.

You, Lord, have made the atom’s hidden forces,
your laws its mighty energies fulfil;
teach us, to whom you give such rich resources,
in all we use, to serve your holy will.

You, Lord, have stamped your image on your creatures,
and, though they mar that image, love them still;
Lift up our eyes to Christ, that in His features
we may discern the beauty of your will.

Great Lord of nature, shaping and renewing,
you made us more than nature’s heirs to be;
You help us trace, with grace our souls enduing,
the road to life and immortality.
 
Affirmation of Faith

In the competing voices of this world, we strive to listen to the Most High who runs to welcome us home.

When our bones are worn out by groaning, when we have no words and  feel entrapped by failure and sin we find in Jesus our true security as we are encircled with joyful praise.

The Eternal One, has imprinted the divine image within us and we believe that being Christian is the most life-giving identity we have and shapes, and is shaped by, our various other identities.  In the divisions that exist in our world we know the Holy Spirit calls us be bridgebuilders – ambassadors for Christ.

Intercessions

We bring to God our prayers for our world, for the Church, for those we love and for ourselves.  

Eternal One, 
our world is diverse and delightful 
yet divided and dangerous.  
We rejoice in the differences which make us complex and wonderful
yet weep over how those differences are weaponised.
Instead of exploring and enjoying different cultures
we are tempted to retreat behind barriers of fear
and watch politicians bludgeon those on the edge 
with words and policies.
Deliver us from ourselves O God!
Help us to appreciate the wonder of your creation,
to explore and know ourselves better,
and to respect difference.

God, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.

Lord Jesus,
You call us from the highways and byways of our lives,
loving all that we are, 
rejoicing in our complex identities,
uniting us with You and making us new creations.
As we are continually renewed, 
help us to use our faith to inform who we are, 
and who we are perceived to be.
Enable us to reflect on what it means to be Your disciples
as the unique individuals that we are.
Deliver us from all that would oppress us O God!
Help us to build bridges with those who are marginalised,
to be your ambassadors to those fearful of speaking their truths,
and signs of Your love to those who are hated.
God, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.

Holy Spirit,
You call us together and empower us to be the Church;
forgive us when we try to turn the Church into a battlefield,
when we decide who is or is not worthy of Your grace,
and when we do not speak up against injustice.
Bless those who lead the Church – 
elders and ministers, councils and committees,
that as we discern Your will,
we may be a sign of love and vitality to a broken world.  
Deliver us from ourselves O God!
Breathe Your peace on to those who are troubled,
especially for those for whom we now pray…

silence

Speak Your words of wisdom in our hearts,
that we may know Your will and follow Your way.

silence

Accept our prayers, Eternal One, which we make in the power of the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus our saviour who taught us to pray saying,

Our Father…

Hymn     I Come With Joy To Meet My Lord
Brian Wren 1971 © 1971, 1995, Hope Publishing Co.  unknown choir on Youtube. One Licence # A-734713   

I come with joy to meet my Lord,
forgiven, loved, and free;
in awe and wonder to recall
his life laid down for me.

I come with Christians far & near
to find, as all are fed,
the new community of love
in Christ’s communion bread.
 
As Christ breaks bread and bids us share,
each proud division ends;
the love that made us, makes us one,
and strangers now are friends.

And thus with joy we meet our Lord;
his presence, always near,
is in such friendship better known:
we see and praise him here.
 
Together met, together bound,
we’ll go our different ways;
and as his people in the world,
we’ll live and speak his praise.

Holy Communion

We have shared bread and wine many times in our lives, in many places, for many different reasons.  The bread that we now break and the wine that we now share, are a sharing in the life of Christ.  May our acceptance of it today be a sign of our faith:

and may this recognition of You call forth such joy in us 
that we might never lose sight of Your goodness.

We pray, O Holy Spirit, that You will come upon us 
and lift us into Jesus’ presence in the heavenly places,
that as we eat these gifts of bread and wine, 
which Mother Earth has given and human hands have made, 
they might be, for us, the communion with the Body and Blood of Christ, 
our saviour and brother: who, before dying, took some bread,
said the blessing, broke it, gave it to the others and said,

“Take this all of you and eat it. 
This is my body which will be broken for you, 
do this and remember me.”

Later on, Jesus took a cup filled with wine, 
said the blessing, gave it to the others and said: 

“Take this all of you and drink from it,
for this is the cup of my blood, 
the blood of the new and everlasting promise of God 
which shall be shed for you and for all,
do this and remember me.”

We remember Jesus now, O Most High, 
as we say together the mystery of our faith…..

Christ has died!  Christ is Risen!  Christ will come again!

Eternal One, we pray that this bread and wine 
will inspire such love in our hearts 
that we may continually keep alive Your memory and promise.
May this meal provoke such a longing for truth in us 
that we may never be satisfied until the whole Earth 
experiences Your justice and Your peace. Amen

So, friends, let us eat and drink as Jesus taught, inviting the stranger to our table, and welcoming the poor.  May their absence here serve to remind us of the divisions this meal seeks to heal. May their presence here truly transform us into being the Body of Christ which we share.  

Let us share this meal knowing that our lives are forever changed
by this and every breaking of bread and sharing of wine.

Music for Communion     Gifts of Bread and Wine
Christine McCann © 1978 Kevin Mayhew Ltd One Licence # A-734713. Sung by Emmaus Music and used with their kind permission.

Post Communion Prayer

We did not presume to come to this table, Lord Jesus, 
trusting in our own righteousness 
but in Your manifold and great mercy.
Grant, therefore, good Lord, that in coming to You,
hungry and thirsty for justice,
we may be satisfied and filled with your Spirit,
and ever more dwell in You, and You in us.  Amen.

Hymn     In Christ Alone
Keith Getty & Stuart Townend © 2002, Thankyou Music BBC Songs of Praise. One Licence # A-734713  

In Christ alone my hope is found, He is my light, my strength, my song;
this Cornerstone, this solid ground, firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace, when fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My Comforter, my All in All, here in the love of Christ I stand.

In Christ alone! – who took on flesh, fullness of God in helpless babe.
This gift of love and righteousness, scorned by the ones He came to save:
till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied –
for every sin on Him was laid; Here in the death of Christ I live.

No guilt in life, no fear in death, this is the power of Christ in me;
from life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no human plan, can ever pluck me from His hand:
till He returns or calls me home, here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.

Blessing

May the One who loved and knew you before the ages began,
the One who died so that you might be free,
the One who guides you through the complexity of life,
love you, liberate you, and guide you,
that you may love, liberate, and guide others.
And the blessing of Almighty God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
be with you, now and always,
Amen. 

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