Sunday Worship 1 October 2023

Sunday Worship from the United Reformed Church
for Sunday 1 October 2023

Today’s service is led by the Revd
Nicola Furley-Smith

Call to Worship

The Psalmist says:  teach me your ways and make them known to me. Teach me to live according to your truth – teach it to me – because you are my God who saves me.  I put my hope in you all day long. Remember, your kindness and constant love – they are forever!  Forgive the errors of my foolish and childish ways.  Remember me only according to your faithful love  for the sake of your goodness, Lord.
Hymn:   At the Name of Jesus
Caroline M. Noel (1870)  BBC Songs of Praise

At the name of Jesus
ev’ry knee shall bow,
ev’ry tongue confess him
King of glory now;
’tis the Father’s pleasure
we should call him Lord,
who from the beginning
was the mighty Word.
Humbled for a season
to receive a name
from the lips of sinners
unto whom he came,
faithfully he bore it
spotless to the last,
brought it back victorious
when from death he passed;


Christians, this Lord Jesus
shall return again
in his Father’s glory,
with his angel train;
for all wreaths of empire
meet upon his brow,
and our hearts confess him
King of glory now.
Prayer of Approach and Confession
O God who called the world into being, who calls us to follow Christ;
close our minds to distractions around us,
open our ears to hear your call,
open our hearts to receive your love,
and open our eyes to the needs of our community.
Help us to find space in our worship
to hear your voice calling to us,
to feel your Spirit present with us
and to know your love’s healing in our hearts.
In the name of Jesus.  Amen.
For those times when we have blamed others’ actions:
Gracious God: forgive us.
For those times when we have acted from selfish ambition:
Gracious God: forgive us.
For those times when we have been conceited:
Gracious God: forgive us.
For those times when we have regarded ourselves as better than others:
Gracious God: forgive us.
For those times when we have looked only to our own interests:
Gracious God: forgive us.
In silence we remember those times when we have fallen short of the example that Jesus set for us.
Gracious God: forgive us.

It is God who is at work in you, your sins are forgiven.

Let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus,
so that your love for all people may shine through our words and actions.
Prayer of Illumination
God, creator and giver of all wisdom,
we thank you for the gift of story in Scripture;
we thank you that Jesus challenged
his listeners to think for themselves.
May we be challenged as your word is opened to us
to not only think about your word
but apply it to our lives today.  
Reading       Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25- end
The word of the Lord came to me:  What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?  As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.  Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die… Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is unfair.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?  When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die.  Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life.  Because they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die.  Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is unfair.’ O house of Israel, are my ways unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair? Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel?  For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.
Hymn    May the Mind of Christ, my Saviour
Kate B. Wilkinson (1925) Scottish Festival Singers

May the mind of Christ, my Saviour,
live in me from day to day,
by His love and power controlling
all I do and say.
May the Word of God dwell richly
in my heart from hour to hour,
so that all may see I triumph
only through His power.

May the peace of God my Father
rule my life in everything,
that I may be calm to comfort,
sick, and sorrowing.
May the love of Jesus fill me,
as the waters fill the sea;
Him exalting, self-abasing,
this is victory.


 May I run the race before me,
strong and brave to face the foe,
looking only unto Jesus
as I onward go.
Reading        St Matthew 21: 23-32
When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 
“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go.  Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.
I like a good grumble!  Who doesn’t? The exiles in Babylon were no different. Why has this happened to us? Whose fault is it? Who’s to blame? And they remember the popular proverb: The parents ate green apples but it was the children who got stomach ache. 
So it’s our parents’ and grandparents’ and great-grand-parents’ fault that we’re now in this terrible situation,  they say.   Whatever they did, it must have been pretty bad because now look what’s happened to us.  It’s not our fault, it’s not fair, God’s not fair.
But it wasn’t just a popular saying in Ezekiel’s time. It was also a dangerous saying.
It was a proverb that would lead a people from sickness to death. These simple words had seduced them to surrender, to resignation, because in the face of horrible pain they could see no way out. Instead of asking what they could change, they told each other that they had no choice: suffering was the only option available. 
We may never have eaten a deadly sour grape or know exactly what it means to have our teeth set on edge, but we get the gist of the proverb in Ezekiel:  The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.  In other words, children suffer the consequences of their parents’ actions. They use the proverb to exonerate themselves of any responsibility for their situation: they are not in exile through any fault of their own but rather are suffering for the sins of their ancestors.
We need to remember the people of Israel lived as a community rather than a collection of individuals. They believed that their good or bad luck was a consequence of the good or bad behaviour of the majority.  And because there was no belief in life after death, the reward or punishment for the behaviour of that majority had to be experienced in this life; So because things were going badly, that was taken as punishment for what their ancestors’ had done.  
This communal experience of guilt and punishment explains their belief that God’s justice demands the iniquity of the parents is visited upon the children and the children’s children,  to the third and the fourth generation to quote Exodus. It’s hard to find fault with that.
Children sometimes do suffer from their parent’s mistakes. We only have to look at the mess of our world: What on earth were my parents and grand-parents and great grandparents thinking?
The exiles are digging themselves deeper and deeper onto a black hole of despair, 
blaming others for the state they are in.  And it is against this backdrop that God proposes an alternative understanding of the nature of justice .For God, the issue is not how the proverb is used, but that it’s used at all. 
God cuts them short:
As sure as I’m the living God, you’re not going to repeat this saying in Israel any longer. Every soul—man, woman, child—belongs to me, parent and child alike. You die for your own sin, not another’s.
God’s speech grounds their responsibility. God is a living God, dynamic, engaged in the present life of the people just as much as God had been in their past.
The verses that are omitted from our reading break the basic premise of the proverb. 
A wicked son does not benefit from his father’s righteousness,  nor does he jeopardise his son’s chance at life.  And because all life belongs to God, even the lives of the wicked, the future remains open, not only for children of the bad, but also for the bad themselves.
Somewhat surprisingly, the exiles protest: God’s way doesn’t add up they bleat.
It was the wrong thing to say. God throws it back at them: Isn’t it that your ways don’t measure up? My measures are certainly in order. It’s you who are using faulty measures. 
You are willing to throw away your own life, which is worth everything. 
By what measures would you prefer a life of suffering to the freedom of being able to repent, to change course, and to gain life? 
So perhaps the real riddle of this reading is why the people prefer their proverb and not God’s offer of life. To choose a fatalistic proverb over a God who delights in life makes no sense at all.
Although the exiles don’t get to answer that question, we can guess that the argument in chapter 18 forces them to acknowledge their own responsibility. They want to see themselves as innocents, children suffering for parents’ sins. If that perception gives them the freedom to remain victims of others’ actions, it also renders them helpless to move into new patterns of life.
Ezekiel challenges them “Yes, we’re having a bad time but we’re alive! There’s nothing to gain from blaming our parents; if we want to free ourselves we must take responsibility ourselves.  God doesn’t take any pleasure in anyone’s death  – so turn to him, and live!”. God’s offer of life stands. 
And that was Jesus’ message too. Repent, turn to God, for God’s reign is at hand! It’s close enough to see, if you have eyes for looking; it’s close enough to hear, if you have ears for listening.  The decision to accept or reject Jesus’ message, is ours and no-one else’s.  The responsibility is ours and no one else’s just as it was for the chief priests and the elders in the Jerusalem Temple.   
The question of authority is a theme in Matthew’s Gospel from the beginning. The acknowledgement that Jesus’ authority comes from God will be crucial for an effective discipleship follow-up programme at the end of his gospel All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations… Who gave you the authority do you do these things? they ask Jesus. It wasn’t in their own self-interest to find out but that didn’t stop them asking.  Of course, as they should have known, Jesus tended to prompt people to answer their own question by asking one of his own and this time was no exception.  But before the question, he told them that story of the two sons.  
Both sons knew their responsibilities to their father but when he asked them to do something for him, the elder one said  ‘no’ but later changed his mind, the other said ‘yes’ but didn’t follow through. 
In our understanding of the story, we tend to focus on the behaviour of the two sons and what this parable what it says about them.  We agree that the better son is the one who, even belatedly, did what his father asked.  Jesus, on the other hand lived in a culture that still exists in many parts of the world where honour and reputation were more important than what was morally right.  The chief priests and elders, would more likely be thinking about  the way in which the honour of the father was defended or defamed.  So to them the one who said “yes, I’ll go”, even though he didn’t, at least showed respect to his father’s position.  In that sense, according to their culture, he was the better son.  But Jesus rarely offers a neat ending to his parables. He leaves that to his hearers.  
So instead of asking which son had done the right thing by the custom of society,  Jesus asks “Who did his father’s will?” and to that, there was only one answer.  Perhaps to Jesus’ surprise,  the chief priests and the elders answered correctly, then realise they had implicated themselves in Jesus’ challenge. 
In the parable, each son made his own choice. Each son was responsible for his own response to his father’s request. That was also the choice open to the chief priests and elders.  But their love for their own reputations, their love of controlling other people, got in the way of living their faith and of doing God’s will.  They turned away from Jesus with his words ringing in their ears: Tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the Kingdom of God ahead of you.  
Where Ezekiel was talking to people whose bad situation had come about due to another’s power and control, Jesus was talking to the powerful who made situations bad for others.  
And yet to each group – the answer was similar:  take responsibility for your own lives with a love for others and ourselves which is both tough in the face of those who are proud, and compassionate in the face of those who are lost and the vulnerable.  God doesn’t take any pleasure in anyone’s pain– so turn to him, and live! God’s offer of life still stands.
We are at a pivotal moment in our church’s history. 51 years of Christian witness yet we, like most denominations, have a shrinking membership, tired buildings with less people to do all that we did in 1972 and more. We cannot leave it up simply to the good folk of the Church Life Review! Have we abdicated responsibility for our collective choices, adopting a pretense of powerlessness?  Is it easier to imagine that we can’t do anything to change what appears to be broken? 
Both Ezekiel and Matthew would say: What a lack of faith! What a lack of imagination! God calls this church, this generation, this people to stop making excuses, and stop hiding behind other people’s mistakes. We are to turn our honest gaze on ourselves and repent now, making life our ultimate value. We maybe a small church but we surely still have a big heart and even bigger ears to listen to God’s call?
God leaves it up to us to choose the way of life over the way of death. Perhaps we can understand the final words in that passage from Ezekiel Turn, then, and live ! God’s offer of life stands. Why don’t we turn, and live?     
Hymn    Christ’s is the World in Which we Move
             John L. Bell & Graham Maule © 1989 WGRG, Iona Community  BBC Songs of Praise


Christ’s is the world 
in which we move,
Christ’s are the folk 
we’re summoned to love,
Christ’s is the voice 
which calls us to care,
and Christ is the One 
who calls us here.
To the lost Christ shows His face;
to the unloved 
He gives His embrace:
to those who cry 
in pain or disgrace,
Christ makes with His friends
a touching place.

Feel for the people 
we most avoid,
strange or bereaved 
or never employed;
feel for the women, 
and feel for the men
who fear that their living 
is all in vain.
Feel for the lives
by life confused,
riddled with doubt, 
in loving abused;
feel for the lonely heart, 
conscious of sin,
which longs to be pure 
but fears to begin. 


To the lost Christ shows His face; to the unloved
He gives His embrace: 
to those who cry in pain or disgrace,
Christ makes with His friends a touching place.

The Psalmist makes a life of faith sound easy:
if we trust God, God will protect us and keep us from doing wrong;
God shows us the way and we simply need to obey.
Yet experience tells us that living out our faith 
is much more complicated than that:
bad things do happen to good people;
God’s guidance is not always as clear as we need it to be.
Ezekiel also makes things sound simple:
doing wrong brings death; turning away from doing wrong brings life.
So why do bad things happen to good people 
and some have very difficult lives?
Why do some ‘bad’ people seem to have easy lives?
Maybe we should worry less about these questions
and focus more on how we live our own lives and faith here and now.
Matthew calls us to simply repent:
to recognise his authority and to allow the Holy Spirit
to make us be more like Jesus each day – humble and faithful disciples.
Just and merciful God, the world needs this new heart and spirit that Ezekiel talks of. The Church needs the attitude that Jesus had
so that we too can be faithful, humble and obedient.

Jesus lived as a humble human being to show us God’s way
so that people may have life in all its fullness.
We pray for those in power, who have to make difficult decisions
which will affect the lives and well-being of many…teach us your way of love. 

We pray for those who are the victims of warfare or poverty, who are
calling out to us for aid… teach us your way of love.
We pray for those we know who are ill or anxious or bereaved, who
need to be aware of our care for them… teach us your way of love. 

We pray for those involved in the upbringing of children, who are
trying to show them right from wrong… teach us your way of love.

We pray for the Church, as we face the challenge of Christian living
in a modern society and world… teach us your way of love. Amen.
For gifts given unwillingly, for service rendered grudgingly,
for lives offered reluctantly, we ask for your blessing, O God:
to take, transform and use them for good,
adding them to those gifts given willingly,
to the service offered freely, and lives lived by love. Amen.
Hymn    The Love of God Comes Close
John L. Bell & Graham Maule © 1988, WGRG, Iona Community admin. GIA Publications Inc. Sung by Frodsham Methodist Church and used with their kind permission

The love of God comes close
where stands an open door,
to let the stranger in,
to mingle rich and poor.
The love of God is here to stay,
embracing those who walk His Way.
The peace of God comes close
to those caught in the storm,
forgoing lives of ease
to ease the lives forlorn.
The peace of God is here to stay,
embracing those who walk His Way.
The joy of God comes close
where faith encounters fear,
where heights and depths of life
are found through smiles and tears.
The joy of God is here to stay,
embracing those who walk His Way.
The grace of God comes close
to those whose grace is spent,
when hearts are tired or sore
and hope is bruised and bent.
The grace of God is here to stay,
embracing those who walk His Way.

The Son of God comes close
where people praise His name,
where bread and wine are blest
and shared as when he came.
The Son of God is here to stay,
embracing those who walk His Way.
Help us to follow your way; to obey your teaching; to trust in you.
Bless us now and always.
And the blessing of God Almighty Father, Son and Holy Spirit
be amongst us and remain with us this day and for evermore. Amen.


This material is only for use in local churches not for posting to websites or any other use.  Local churches must have copyright licences to allow the printing and projection of words for hymns.



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