URC Daily Devotions Sunday Service for 19th June 2022 – The Revd. Andy Braunston

Daily Devotions from the United Reformed Church
Worship for Sunday 19th June 2022

 

 Picture Credit: Dr Ian Wilson, The Beach at Rackwick, used with his kind permission 
The Rev’d Andy Braunston
 

Living Stones

 
Opening Music  We have Come This far by Faith arranged by Sweet Honey in the Rock sung by the virtual choir of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. 
 
Welcome
 
Hello and welcome to worship.  My name is Andy Braunston and I am the United Reformed Church’s Minister for Digital Worship.  My role is to co-ordinate the provision of digital resources to churches in order to help them plan worship and work out their journeys of discipleship.  We have just moved to Orkney, the first set of islands above the Scottish mainland, and are settling into life this beautiful part of Scotland.  We attend the Peedie Kirk – our most northerly URC – and live in the West Mainland not far from the ancient Ring of Brodgar (a stone circle similar to its famous, slightly younger, sibling at Stonehenge.  The ring is thought to have been built between 2,000 and 2,500 years before Jesus and very near the even older Standing Stones of Stenness which date back to 3,100 years before Christ.  In worship today we are going to think about stones – the rock that gave the People of Israel water in the desert – a story set around 1,300 years before Jesus – and the living stones that we are described as by the writer of 1 Peter – living stones which make up the Church.  So, with those rocky thoughts let us worship God.
 
Call To Worship
 
Come and worship the God of our salvation who gives water from the rock!  Come and follow Jesus our saviour and friend our manna from heaven.  Come and be filled by the Holy Spirit, who fashions us into living stones.
 
Hymn       Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation
Joachim Neander (1680); Translator: Catherine Winkworth (1863)



Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,
the King of creation!
O my soul, praise Him,
for He is your health and salvation!
All you who hear;
now to His temple draw near,
join in profound adoration.
 
2 Praise to the Lord,
above all things so mightily reigning;
keeping us safe at His side,
and so gently sustaining!
Have you not seen
all you have needed has been
met by His gracious ordaining.
 

3 Praise to the Lord,
who will prosper our work
and defend us;
surely His goodness
and mercy here daily attend us.
Ponder anew what the Almighty can do,
who with His love will befriend us.

4 Praise to the Lord!
O let all that is in me adore Him!
All that hath life and breath,
come now with praises before Him.
Let the Amen
sound from His people again;
now as we worship before Him.

 

Prayers of Approach
 
We come to you, Eternal One, our rock and our salvation, to worship, to find, in the wilderness of our lives, water from the rock and bread from heaven.
 
We approach you, O Christ, divinity embodied, coming in awe and wonder, finding in your Way, love and grace, water from the rock and bread from heaven.
 
We feel your presence, O Spirit, energy of all creation, knowing you form us as a mason works stone into things of beauty, living stones which reflect Your glory.  You are to us water from the rock and bread from heaven.
 
Confession
 
As we come to You in worship, Eternal One,
we gaze upon You and become aware of our lack of holiness.
We become conscious of the times when our lives
have reflected malice and guile instead of kindness and grace;
insincerity and envy, instead of honesty and sharing;
slander and quarrelling, instead of love and peace;
we demand milk instead of feasting on the meat of Your Word.
Give us time to change O God,
time to see ourselves as we really are –  beautiful yet in need of work;
living stones yet in need of polishing, glorious, yet fallen.  Amen.
 
Declaration of Forgiveness
 
As of old when:
the Eternal One forgave the quarrelsome disobedient pilgrim people;
the Lord Jesus forgave those who hardened their hearts;
the Holy Spirit forgave the living stones who didn’t wish to be changed;
so God forgives you, and gives you the grace to change your lives.
Have courage, forgive yourselves and change!
 
Introduction
 
I’ve always been interested in rocks.  They come in many shapes, colours and sizes.  Some, like diamonds, are incredibly valuable, others like flint or granite not so.  Our new house is built on rock – this caused the builders some problems when digging the foundations and making a very deep hole in the garden for the septic tank and reed bed.   Some rocks are very fertile – magma which is formed from erupting volcanoes is wonderful for things to grow – it’s why often people farm on the slopes of volcanoes.   One of my newer hobbies is to polish rocks.  There are loads of stones on Orkney – we’re an island chain after all – and often the sea has smoothed stones through the action of movement and crashing into other stones.  The stunning beauty of Rackwick in the north of Hoy is enhanced by huge boulders which have been smoothed by the action of the sea over the years.  I try and mimic this, in a very small way, by using a stone tumbling machine.  In this I put rocks, water, and some grit leaving them to tumble for a week or so.  After that I change the water, wash the now smoothed stones and put them on for another week’s tumbling with finer grit.  After that they are polished for another few days in the machine.  Eventually what went in as dull rocks come out shining.  Beautiful colours and shapes that have lain hidden under the surface are now revealed.  In worship today we are going to explore these theme of the hidden beauty of rock and think about some of the many ways the Bible uses images of rocks  – the water from the rock which fed the people in the wilderness and the idea of the Church being a Temple made of living stones.  Through all this we think of how rocks can crash against each other, have their rough edges made smooth, and can shine with God’s reflected glory – just as we can.
 
Prayer of Inspiration
 
Break open Your Word to us, O Rock of our salvation, that as we hear, ponder and understand, You may shatter our resistance to Your uncontainable word, that we may follow You wherever You call.  Amen.
 
Reading   Exodus 17: 1 – 7
 
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.  The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’  But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’  So Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’  The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go.  I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.’ Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.  He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’

Hymn       O God of Bethel
Paraphrase 2, Scottish Paraphrases 1781.
            

O God of Bethel, by whose hand
thy people still are fed,
who through this earthly pilgrimage
hast all our fathers led;
 

2 Our vows, our prayers,
we now present
before thy throne of grace;
God of our fathers, be the God
of their succeeding race.
 
3 Through each
perplexing path of life
our wandering footsteps guide;
give us each day our daily bread,
and raiment fit provide.
 
4 O spread thy
covering wings around
till all our wanderings cease,
and at our Father’s loved abode
our souls arrive in peace.
 
5: Such blessings from
Thy gracious hand
Our humble prayers implore;
And Thou shalt be our chosen God,
And portion evermore.

 

Reading   1 Peter 2: 1 – 10
 
Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.  Like new-born infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation—  if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and  like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  For it stands in scripture: ‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’ To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner’, and ‘A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.’ They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
 
Hymn       Everyday God
© 1996 Bernadette Farrell
 

Earth’s creator, Everyday God,
Loving Maker, O Jesus,
You who shaped us, O Spirit,
recreate us, Come, be with us.
 
2: In your presence, Everyday God,
we are gathered, O Jesus,
You have called us, O Spirit,
to restore us, Come, be with us.
 
3: Life of all lives, Everyday God,
Love of all loves, O Jesus,
Hope of all hopes, O Spirit,
Light of all lights, Come, be with us.
 
4: In our resting, Everyday God,
in our rising, O Jesus,
in our hoping, O Spirit,
in our waiting, Come, be with us.
 
5: In our dreaming, Everyday God,
in our daring, O Jesus,
in our searching, O Spirit,
in our sharing, Come, be with us.

6: God of laughter, Everyday God,
God of sorrow, O Jesus,
Home and Shelter, O Spirit,
strong & patient, Come, be with us.
 
7: Way of freedom, Everyday God,
Star of morning, O Jesus,
timeless healer, O Spirit,
Flame Eternal, Come, be with us.
 
8: Word of gladness, Everyday God,
Word of mercy, O Jesus,
Word of friendship, O Spirit,
Word of challenge, come, be with us.
 
9: Gentle father, Everyday God,
Faithful brother, O Jesus,
Tender sister, O Spirit.
Loving mother, Come, be with us.
 
10: Our beginning, Everyday God,
our unfolding, O Jesus,
our enduring, O Spirit,
journey’s ending, come, be with us.

 

11: Alleluia, Everyday God,
now and always, O Jesus,
alleluia, O Spirit, through all ages,
Come, be with us.
 
Sermon
 
I love the stories in Exodus of the wandering people of God – perhaps we should call them the quarrelling people of God as, it seems, every time they took a few steps forward they were consumed with the need to complain.  They willingly followed Moses dry-shod through the sea but no sooner had the Egyptian army been routed they were complaining they were hungry.  Led by fire at night and cloud during the day, seeing at first hand God’s marvellous salvation they whinged they were thirsty.  Of course God decided that whilst it took a night to get the people out of Egypt it would take 40 years to get Egypt out of the people.  We remember of the stories of how God provided meat, through quail, and bread from heaven – something we immortalise in the hymn we’ll sing later, Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer – but we forget today’s curious story about getting water from the rock.  We don’t, at first, associate water and rock – yet the great pilgrimage sites of the world have these two most basic elements together – the grotto at Lourdes in the Christian tradition or the Zamzam well near the Ka’ba stone in Mecca in the Muslim tradition.  Yet these two elements are linked.
 
Rock is something we associate with security, firmness, good foundations, solidity, maybe difficulty – the builders were not impressed at the firmness of the rock in our garden when trying to break through and dig some of it out.  We decorate rock – not just through stone tumbling machines, but highly polish marble for grand buildings or churches.  Think of the beauty of rock in a cathedral.  Even modern building trends like the beauty of stone with the fashion for granite work surfaces in the kitchen or polished concrete floors which grace Kevin MacLeod’s Grand Designs programme.  We want our homes to offer shelter and security, safety and solidity.  It’s natural, it’s a basic human need and the scenes we’re seeing played out in Ukraine affect us as we can so readily imagine the horror of being driven from the safety of our homes.
 
Water is the most basic need we have in life; without it we die.  Of course the people of Israel were worried – they’d wandered into a desert which are places seemingly devoid of water.  How would they live without the ability to drink, give sustenance to their animals, to wash.  Deserts fascinate the imagination – places of harsh sterility yet which, with water, can be fertile places.  Water coming from the rock combined the need for security and life itself.  These would have comforted the people of Israel who, at this point in the story, had no security, no home, no grand houses, but flimsy tents.  Instead of permanence they were on the move.  Their security was not to be found in their possessions, their usefulness in Egyptian society, their economic resources but, instead was to be found in God and God’s provision – the water from the rock embodied the only source of their security.  And before we get too smug at their grumbling I’m not sure we’d manage too well if our security, our very life, depended on a daily miracle!  We take our resources, our security, even our water supplies for granted. 
 
We have built our houses and our churches; using rock or materials made from rock and have found security and beauty in those buildings.  Yet this is quite new really in the history of the Church, and of humanity.  The writer of Peter was not writing to a church with a building but to a newly formed group of people who lived on the edge of the law.  Until 4th Century it was illegal to be a Christian as all Roman citizens, aside from the Jews, had to follow the imperial religious tradition.  In practice that might mean little more than going to the Temple every so often and offering a sacrifice, maybe saying a prayer to the emperor, nothing too onerous but too much for the Church who only worshipped God.  Sometimes tolerated, sometimes persecuted the Church wasn’t able to construct buildings and found other places to worship.  Catacombs – the graveyards of the day – or caves on the edge of the cities, or the homes of wealthier members of the group (with all the risks that involved) or simply out in the countryside.  Given that the writer’s words about Jesus being the living cornerstone and believers being living stones that are built into a spiritual temple are interesting.  Writing to a group of people who could have no building the author uses images of stone and strength to an insecure people. 
 
Instead of commending the new believers to get or maintain a building the writer tells them they are living stones who come to Jesus the living stone “and let yourselves be built into a spiritual house…a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ.”  It’s quite an image – instead of pagan temples we are to be a living temple dedicated to God.  It’s back to Exodus where the people were always on the move but were always God’s people.  It’s quite an image for us to ponder in an age where we both love our buildings and worry about the cost of maintaining them.
 
Understandably the Church, like the people of Israel of old, has wanted security.  We’ve wanted good stone buildings, funds to pay our ministers, the false security of stone and solidity.  Sometimes the buildings have become idols, sometimes the buildings speak of terror.  Years ago we visited the lovely city of Albi in South Western France.  We parked up in a little public site for campervans and wandered into the main city square to see the huge cathedral.  It is one of the largest, most striking and, I must say, one of the ugliest cathedrals I’ve ever seen.  I noticed the windows were very high indeed.  After a bit of research we learnt the reasons.  In the Middle Ages a reform movement arose in this part of France, the reformers, named as heretics by the Church, were known as either Albigensians – after the city – or Cathars.  The heretics were mercilessly hunted down and persecuted – a special crusade ordered and many people in and around Albi were butchered – heretic or Catholic – the priests famously telling the soldiers to kill all and let God sort it out in the hereafter.  This Cathedral was built after that bloody crusade.  It had to have high windows so the clergy and church authorities could take shelter inside without the fear of the people, who understandably hated them,  breaking in through the windows or sending torches in to fire the place.  This stone building is a symbol of fear and repression as much as it is about God’s light and love. 
 
If only the medieval church had re-read today’s passage.  “Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.  Like new-born infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation—  if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.”
 
If they, if we, had taken this passage to heart we would, like those stones I like to polish, have our rough edges knocked off us.  If they, if we, had submitted to the tumbling, grinding, polishing process we’d have seen our inner beauty, our inner glory shining through. Of course if we could ask the stones we’d hear that this isn’t easy, it’s the opposite of what we think about stones – safe, solid, secure, immovable.  The stones are worn down, rough places made smooth, the abrasive action would hurt if stones could feel.  So it is in the Church – here we find a space where our rough places can be made smooth, where our jagged edges can be knocked off, here we find a place where we will be challenged and changed.  It’s not easy, it’s not always nice, it’s hardly ever comfortable.   Yet the end result is a smoother, polished, more beautiful end result. 
 
Of course the writer wasn’t suggested that this process was a beauty regime.  He wasn’t suggesting that the living stones are polished for their own good.  Instead the writer is clear – we’re to be a living temple where sacrifices of praise are offered to God.  This isn’t about ourselves but God.  What those sacrifices of praise might be will be different in each of our contexts; of course there is the regular round of worship where we join, week after week, with people in cathedral and chapel, plain meeting house or gathered around a screen, to bring our praise and our pain, our joy and our need for justice to God.  Our sacrifice of praise will, of course, involve more; it might mean offering a room in our home to an asylum seeker, it might mean giving our money to God’s work in our world, it might mean giving our time to listen to a friend or neighbour in need, it might mean volunteering with a cause to bring change to our world.  As living stones we are to be used; to be built into a living Temple where God is honoured. 
 
The people in the desert knew they’d been freed but it took them some time to realise they had to be formed, re-created in order to be the people God wanted them to be.  The earliest Christians knew they were on the edge and, from that place of disadvantage and oppression saw the world as it really was; of course over time the Church became powerful and oppressive letting living stones of faith become entombed in vast caverns of pride.  Now, the Church is increasingly on the edge, ignored, laughed at, seen as a place only for the old or seen as dangerous and unsafe.  It’s time again to look at our foundational documents and see what we’re called to be.  It’s time to see public perceptions to be the grit that wears us down, changes our shape, polishes us so that we shine not so much with our own beauty but with the glory of God.  Will you pray with me?
O God of stone and security,
teach us to trust in you.
 
O God of tumbling change,
give us grace as you knock off our rough edges,
grind down our resistance to your Holy Spirit,
and transform us.
 
O God of motion and momentum,
help us to see in you our way through the desert,
to see how our society needs your grace
and how we can be part of the solution to the world’s pain,
that, as Living Stones, we may reflect your beauty and love.
Amen. 

Hymn       Bring Many Names
Brian Wren
 

Bring many names,
beautiful and good,
celebrate, in parable and story,
holiness in glory,
living, loving God.
Hail and Hosanna!
Bring many names!
 
2: Strong mother God,
working night and day,
planning all the wonders of creation,
setting each equation
gen-i-us at play:
Hail and Hosanna,
strong mother God!
 
3: Warm father God,
hugging every child,
feeling all the strains of human living,
caring and forgiving
till we’re reconciled:
Hail and Hosanna,
warm father God!
 
4: Old, aching God,
grey with endless care,
calmly piercing evil’s new disguises,
glad of good surprises,
wiser than despair:
Hail and Hosanna,
old, aching God!

 

5: Young, growing God,
eager, on the move,
saying no to falsehood and unkindness,
crying out for justice,
giving all you have:
Hail and Hosanna,
young, growing God!
 
6: Great, living God,
never fully known,
joyful darkness far beyond our seeing,
closer yet than breathing,
everlasting home:
Hail and Hosanna,
great, living God!

 

Affirmation of Faith
 
We believe in God, whom Jesus called Father,
who created all things in love.
We believe in the Holy Spirit,
who was with God the Father from the beginning
who co-created the universe, and holds it in being.
We believe in Jesus Christ – one with the Father and the Spirit –
who came to live a human life
and gifted the Spirit as comforter and guide.
We believe in God who is three in one
who was and is and is to come. Amen.
 
Prayers of Intercession
 
God of the ages, we praise you for the ways you:
cared for your people of old, 
fed and quenched their thirst in hard times, 
and enabled our forebears in the faith
to be fashioned into your holy people.
Guide your people now, O God, throughout the world
as we seek to follow you, obey your commands,
and treasure your creation.
 
Pause
 
In your mercy….hear our prayer
Eternal One,
in an age of change, insecurity, terror and fear
we cling to you our rock and our salvation,
bless with your love
those who struggle against oppression in all its forms.
Bring to justice the despots and dictators of our own age,
that the crimes of our world which cry out to heaven
will be met with justice.
 
Pause
 
In your mercy….hear our prayer
God as a mother you care for your people,
feeding us with your very self,
and teaching us of your loving kindness
in the hope we will reflect this in our lives.
Help us to love those we find difficult,
to pray for those we don’t vote for,
to wish the best for those who would do us harm.
 
Pause
 
In your mercy….hear our prayer
 
Eternal One, Sovereign of the ages
we bring to you those who lead in our world,
all those who hold elected or appointed office,
and those whose grasp on power is through war, terror and oppression;
enable all who lead to know your law and justice,
bring to judgement those who use their office for service of self, for greed or for unworthy ambition.
 
Pause
 
In your mercy….hear our prayer
 
God of transformation as you form us into living stones
we bring before you in a moment’s silence
those whom we love and worry about
 
Pause
 
In your mercy….hear our prayer
 
And so we join all our prayers together as Jesus taught us…. Our Father…
 
Offertory
 
In a culture where material goods are valued, and security is measured in how many possessions we have, giving is radical.  In an economic system which favours the wealthy, giving seems foolish. In a political culture which is obsessed by appearing to cut taxes, giving is a stumbling block to those who see themselves as wise.  In an age where power and fuel bills rise way faster than pensions and wages, generosity is counter cultural.   In worship we challenge the way things are as we long for the age to come which will be radical, foolish to the wise of the world, a stumbling block to the powerful, and where our culture is inverted.  And so we give.  We give to challenge the wisdom of the world.  We give to further the work of the Church.  We give to show our gratitude to God.  Let us pray.
 
O God you call us to envision a different age,
a different economic model,
a different political structure,
a different way of being wise,
where generosity is life giving.
Bless these gifts and help us to use them wisely
as we proclaim your coming Kingdom.  Amen.  
 
Hymn       Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer / Arglwydd, arwain trwy’r anialwch – William Williams, 1717-1791, translated Peter Williams, 1723-1796
 

Guide me, O my great Redeemer,
pilgrim through
this barren land;
I am weak, but thou art mighty;
hold me with thy powerful hand.
Bread of heaven, bread of heaven,
feed me till I want no more
feed me till I want no more.
 
2 Open now the crystal fountain,
where the healing streams
doth flow.
Let the fire and cloudy pillar
lead me all my journey through.
Strong Deliverer, strong Deliverer,
be thou still my strength and shield,
be thou still my strength and shield.



3 When I tread the verge of Jordan,
bid my anxious fears subside.
Death of death, and hell’s Destruction,
land me safe on Canaan’s side.
Songs of praises, songs of praises
I will ever give to thee,
I will ever give to thee.
 
Blessing
 
May the One
who gave the thirsty water from the rock,
who told us to build on firm foundations,
and who formed God’s people into living stones,
quench your thirsts,
enable you to build on the rock of faith,
and trim your rough edges,
that you be transformed from glory into glory,
and may the blessing of Almighty God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
be with you all, now and always,  Amen.
 
Closing Music  Maddy Prior How Firm A Foundation
 
Sources
 
Affirmation of Faith by the Rev’d Ruth Whitehead.  All other liturgical material written by Andy Braunston.
 
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation – Joachim Neander (1680); Translator: Catherine Winkworth (1863) Sung by Michael Eldridge
O God of Bethel – Paraphrase 2, Scottish Paraphrases 1781.  Sung by the Virtual Choir of Troon Old Parish Church and used with their kind permission.
Everyday God © 1996 Bernadette Farrell, sung by Ruth and Joy Everingham who kindly give permission for use.
Bring Many Names – Brian Wren © 1989 Hope Publishing Company, 380 S Main Pl, Carol Stream, IL 60188 sung by the virtual choir of the First Congregational Church, Bellevue United Church of Christ, used with their kind permission.
Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer / Arglwydd, arwain trwy’r anialwch – William Williams, 1717-1791, translated Peter Williams, 1723-1796 BBC Songs of Praise
 
Thanks to Graham Handscomb, Pam Carpenter, Anne Hewling, Sue Cresswell, David Shimmin, Hilary Eveleigh, Geoffrey Roper, Chris Watson and Lorraine Webb for reading various spoken parts of the service.

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