This week’s service has been prepared by Rev. Tony Parkinson
‘We gather together’ – that’s how we often began a service of worship in our churches – but at the moment ‘gather’ doesn’t seem the right word! We meet with God just the same as we used to, but not in the immediate company of many others (for some not in company with anyone at all). And yet, somehow, in the mystery that is God, we are together – not just with the others who we used to meet on a Sunday at church, but with a whole host of others who are part of God’s family. So let’s pause for a moment, and give thanks for those we can’t see, but with whom we meet in Jesus’ name here and now.
we thank you for the amazing company
of which we are a part.
Thank you for our church family
as they too meet with you.
Thank you for your welcoming and generous love
which holds us all together.
Let us pray.
Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour,
we meet in your name to rejoice
in what you have done for us.
Even before we knew we had any need of you,
you gave up your life – willingly –
so that we could live close to you all the time.
Lord, we know there are times
when we have become distant from you
– when we let go of your best for us
and ‘do our own thing’,
when we make mistakes
– and we are truly sorry.
[Pause to remember]
Please Lord, forgive us and make us whole again.
Jesus is always ready to forgive us when we repent.
He reaches out to us now
and embraces each one.
We are “welcomed in to the courts of the King”,
finding mercy, warmth and comfort.
Holy Spirit, Comforter and Sustainer,
we welcome you into our hearts today.
We thank you for all you have done for us in the past,
worship you in the here and now,
and trust you for all that is to come.
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
we worship you. Amen.
Genesis 28:10-19a (NIV) – Jacob’s dream at Bethel
Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. There above it stood the Lord, and he said: ‘I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.’
When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.’ He was afraid and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.’
Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place Bethel, though the city used to be called Luz.
Let us pray
Jacob’s memorable night in the wilderness came when he was at rock bottom. Alone and afraid he discovered God was with him, and in a powerful way that Jacob never forgot. Right now, we are all going through something of a wilderness moment. Many of us are cut off from our families and friends in ways we have never been before, and lots of us are struggling. Let us acknowledge our own problems now – loneliness, fear and anxiety about the future, dulled sense of belonging, dryness in our relationship with God, depression, anger …
Loving Father God,
we acknowledge and own our difficulties of this time.
We feel trapped between a rock and a hard place.
We cannot see the way forward.
Our faith tells us that you are with us always,
no matter where we are or what circumstances we find ourselves in.
Help us to believe and feel this truth deep within us,
so that we can say, along with Jacob,
‘Surely the Lord is in this place’. Amen.
We continue in prayer:
Into this place of sanctuary, we bring our families
siblings, parents, children,
as well as our Church family
and hold them in our hearts.
fill them with your love,
comfort them when they are distressed,
and give them strength to meet the challenges of the days ahead.
We think of those we see when we are outside our homes
shop workers, nursing and care staff,
delivery drivers, postmen, other shoppers …
give them strength and patience to keep going
even though circumstances make life stressful,
and help us to show our appreciation with thanks and smiles.
We pray for people who bear heavy responsibilities
Boris Johnson and those who govern our country,
managers and those working out how to re-open their businesses,
teachers making plans for the return of pupils in September …
fill them with your wisdom,
that they may lead justly and fairly,
in ways that give confidence and keep us safe.
The difficulties we face are mirrored all over the world.
We think particularly of countries
where medical facilities are stretched much more than ours,
where access to clean water is not assured,
where lack of education means lack of opportunity
and a huge divide between rich and poor.
you love all of these people too,
no matter what their circumstances.
We often find it hard to see how they can experience that
when their lives are so impoverished,
but you can and do reach out to them
through aid workers,
small acts of kindness,
the gift of gentle rain,
a smile …
We pray for relief for all who suffer
and for ‘richer’ nations to take the initiative
in bringing about equality and justice for all.
We say the prayer that unites God’s family everywhere: The Lord’s prayer.
We all know the story of Jacob’s ladder, I’m sure. There he was, Jacob the trickster, on his own in a strange place, with an angry brother behind and who-knows-what in front – and out of the darkness came that amazing vision of God who offered him protection and promise at what must have been the lowest point of his life. No wonder he exclaimed ‘This is nothing less than God’s house – the gateway into heaven!’ No wonder he set up an altar for worship, and gave the place the name Beth-el – House of God; and no wonder that countless chapels have taken that same name, as their proclamation that God is to be found in their place of worship.
But it’s not as easy as that. Jacob met God at Bethel – but he only went back there once (Gen.35.1-15). It was a place of great religious significance (and indeed continued to be so after the Israelites conquered Canaan), but Jacob had no need to revisit it frequently. He knew that the God of his fathers was not limited to one place. Heaven has many gateways, many ‘thin places’ where we might meet God.
What does that tell us about being church, especially in a time when we can’t actually use our churches? We don’t have to be reminded that the church is the people of God, not the buildings – indeed, one architect designed churches as empty shells, which only ‘became church’ when the people arrived. In this time of ‘disorientation’ (as the new President of Conference calls it), when we have little hope of meeting in church for worship and fellowship for months to come, how do we view our church buildings? Will their importance have changed once we have the freedom to assemble again? What we do in them may change radically (and I don’t just mean social distancing and no hymns). Might we even decide that we don’t need them?
Indeed, what does our church building represent for us? Is it central to how we think about ourselves (like the Welshman on the desert island, who built two chapels, and explained when he was rescued that ‘this is the one I go to, that is the one I don’t go to’)? Is it a place of security, where everything is predictable and familiar in a world of rapid change? Or is it just one of the places where we find spiritual nourishment on our journey of discipleship – a service station on the Way?
When lockdown began, many of us asked ‘how will we manage with no churches?’ We only have to look around now, three months on, and realise that we are managing pretty well; we can take part in regular services (of a new pattern), fellowship continues in new ways through telephone calls, emails and on-line meetings, and ‘virtual’ bible study is flourishing. Indeed, there is evidence that more people are connecting with God through these new points of access than ever came to look for God in our church buildings. As we adapt to new ways of being church (or maybe reinvent how the church originally was – small groups of believers meeting as and when they could), it would be good to think carefully about how church might look post-Covid. But it should not simply be our own thoughts. As we move towards a ‘new normal’, can we be brave enough to invite the Holy Spirit to be part of our reorientation – perhaps taking us in new directions in worship, or encouraging us to open up our churches to new uses and to invite the community in? If so, our Bethel will become truly an open gate to heaven, a place where all may meet God – but (just as Jacob found) on His terms, not ours.
Thank you O God
(Tune 492 – Trisagion – Christ be my leader by day as by night)
1 Thank you, O God, for the time that is now,
for all the newness your minutes allow,
make us alert with your presence of mind
to fears and longings that move humankind.
2 Thank you, O God, for the time that is past,
for all the values and thoughts that will last.
May we all stagnant tradition ignore,
leaving behind things that matter no more.
3 Thank you for hopes of the day that will come,
for all the change that will happen in time;
God, for the future our spirits prepare,
hallow our doubts and redeem us from fear.
4 Make us afraid of the thoughts that delay,
faithful in all the affairs of today;
keep us, Creator, from playing it safe,
thank you that now is the time of our life!
Fred Kaan (1929-2009) © 1968, 1998 Stainer & Bell Ltd
Used By Permission. CCL Licence No. 61615
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you and give you peace,
now and forever. Amen.