Sunday 17th May 2020

We are pausing to acknowledge and grow in the presence of God in our lives. We are meeting as part of a church community, albeit a scattered one. We are stilling ourselves, our fears, our anxieties, and all the distracting things around us, to seek and delight in God’s life with us.

Let us worship God!

We are called into worship today with words from Psalm 66

Bless our God, O peoples, let the sound of his praise be heard, who has kept us among the living, and has not let our feet slip. For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.

Prayer on the Way

Creator God, our ground of being, you sing and the universe comes to life;

Breath of life, you blow and all things are animated from within;

Divine Word, you speak and creation is sustained;

Word become flesh, you are born among us;

Ever dancing Spirit, you fill all that has been formed;

Eternal life, you are the heartbeat of all that is.

In delight and awe, in wonder and celebration we come to know;

In you, all things live and move and have their being,

And as part of this, we choose again to join our lives, living in this fully;

As much as we are able, joining in with the eternal dance of your life.

Your life.

Life itself offered freely to all the world.

In the times when we mistake this life,

Being only for ourselves, forgive us.

May we know again and anew, the vastness of your love, all-encompassing.

We bless you this day.

With Christ, we journey, Amen.

Bible Reading: Acts 17:22-31

Reflection: Anne Stewart

The setting

Paul is on his second trip to the outlying areas to support the new Christians and the churches as they begin to find their way. In this instance, he is standing on an area known as Mars Hill and he is addressing a crowd of Gentiles. The Areopagus is a hill near the Acropolis where the Athenian Council met. It is a place where the council would deliver its judgements, but it is also a place where Greek philosophers would gather to debate, and where crowds would gather to enjoy the intellectual jousting. The word Areopagus is used to refer to the council as well as the hill. When Luke says that Paul stood in front of the Areopagus, he probably means that he stood before the council.

What is striking about this context is that Paul went to where the people and the powers that be were, and he spoke in the language they understood; in this case, the language of philosophy. His speech was sophisticated, and shows he was alert to his context. But he did this without losing anything of his solid theological Christians beliefs. This way of relating, immersed among the people, speaking in words they could relate to, was to become a hallmark of Paul’s ministry. He adapted his speech so as to be accessible to his audience, and sought to address them in terms that were familiar to them.

Worshipping the unknown god. The first thing that struck me was the idea of worshipping something ‘unknown’. I find that thought quite troubling. To worship something unknown, to me, feels like it could, all too easily, become the worship of a ‘good idea’. I think I would find it difficult to worship, or indeed to submit to any ‘way’, ‘thing’ or ‘one’ that I did not know well. Although I can accept that it is in the act of worshipping that we may well come to know God more fully. Some of us need to take a leap of faith and ‘fake it till we make it’ so to speak. From my own experience, and from what we know of God through the witness of scripture, doesn’t the God we worship constantly seek to engage with us relationally? I can find no evidence of God hiding from us, avoiding us, or being unknowable. God is known and knowable.

Do we find God, or does God find us?

However, God making Godself known to us is not always a popular way to see things these days. Such thoughts are often dismissed as overly ‘supernatural’ or ‘unreal’. Instead, we like to be the starting point, and we tend to struggle with the tension between what we can’t see and what we can. If we can’t see it, some of us say, then it can’t exist. Seeing something confirms for us that it is real. So, if we can’t see God, as such, can’t we just redesign the idea of God according to how we would like God to be? Taking that a bit further, it follows that if we can create our own God then isn’t God simply a figment of our imaginations? God then becomes a creation of something whose existence cannot be proved and is therefore easily dismissed.

But this is not the experience recorded in scripture, and nor is it the experience that many of us are familiar with. To know God at all, we have to be prepared to let God reveal who God is. We have to be open to how and when God comes to us in order to know more of God.

How can we know an unseen God?

So how does God go about making Godself known to us? The classic response is through Creation and, Jesus, Scripture and Tradition. We see the hand of God in the created order that is often beyond our own ability to understand, or describe. In scripture we read in many places that we can and do know God through who Jesus is. For me, it’s a merry old mix of all of these things, often presenting themselves to me as an ‘aha’ moment. A ‘knowing’ that I often find quite challenging to articulate; but a knowing that feeds me deeply, nevertheless.

Can we keep God in a building? The second thing that stood out for me is Paul’s statement that, “The God who made the world and everything in it, [God] who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands…”

We know, don’t we, that God is not contained in the walls of any building even if it is designed and built for the purpose of worship! It is the worship that makes the building sacred not the other way around. It’s the people who do the worshipping who are the church, not the building. We talked a lot about this after the earthquakes shook our old assumptions about what church was.

Yet we also know that where we meet for worship is important to us. These places that we set aside for the purpose of worship take on new significance for us because of those experiences. Because these buildings are important to us, we have, over the centuries, enlisted the help of our best architects and artisans to help us create these purposeful spaces. But even if it the most beautiful of spaces, we still know that God is not contained in it. God is not to be contained! The life of God is in and around us – and free.

The church where Martin ministered in in Dunedin had a sign that greets you as you leave the building. It always intrigued me. It read, ‘You are now entering the mission field.’ While I have to say that the mission field is also within the building, I like the sentiment. It says to me, go out from this building and take the God you have met and known inside the building into the world where God may not be so well known. Whatever the building represents, it does not exist to contain, define or constrain. Instead, don’t we look for signs of God’s presence in every corner and in every part of God’s creation?

Does God call us to worship to fulfil God’s needs, or ours?

The third thing that caught my attention was this, “…nor is [God] served by human hands, as though [God] needed anything, since [God] gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.” Which brings me back to the idea of worship. We are ‘called’ to worship, yet, says Paul this is not something that God needs. God is not served by human hands, as though God needs anything we can offer, since God is the One who gives to us all life and breath and all things, including our hands. So, if we are not called to worship to satisfy God’s needs then whose needs are being attended to here?

I want to suggest that the call to worship is to satisfy our need, even if we are not aware that we have such a need. In worship we are re-established in our rightful place before God. We are re-formed and re-membered as children of God, as part of the Body of Christ, refitted into the community of saints, and reminded again of our call to serve God by serving one another. But most importantly, we are re-established as being something ‘other’ than God. We are not God. We are not in control! We are not able to contain God and we are certainly not safe when we try to do this. We are God’s – not the other way around!

Offering & Prayer for the Road

Collectively now at this moment as we turn our hearts and minds outwards let us be grateful for God’s ongoing gifts, the many different ways we experience the generosity of God, and be grateful that many of us can still give to the ongoing life and work of our church community in various ways and dedicate ourselves to the presence of God in our various lockdown spaces.

Prayers for the Road

[including an adaptation of a prayer by Ted Loder’s book Guerrillas of Grace]

In the quiet, we ponder what response we will make to what we have been reflecting on.

Usually at this time in the service of worship, when we are face-to-face, we make an offering prayer as a sign of our Yes to the life of God unfolding among us. It is an act of re-commitment. We can so that sitting where we are, and we can do that anywhere and anytime where we are.

We do that again today as we ponder the road ahead and the way God journeys with us on it.

Teach us your ways, Lord,

that we may be open to the same Spirit who moved

over the face of the waters in the first day of creation

and moves also over the chaos of this time to fashion a day like this,

a world like ours, a life like mine, a kingdom like leaven in bread,

like a treasure buried in the fields of the daily lives we lead;

and make us aware of the miracles of life, of warm and cold,

of starkness and order, of screaming wind and impenetrable silences,

and of the unfathomable mystery of the amazing grace in which we are kept.

Teach us your ways, Lord

that we may praise you for all the surprising, ingenious ways you bless us,

and for all the wondrous gifts you give us through artists and poets and dreamers

who introduce us to the beauty of holiness,

who usher us into awesome worlds of understanding and seeing,

and help us as we negotiate our lives with their joys, sorrows, triumphs and struggles.

Before you, we quietly name the concerns and cares that come to mind.

Teach us your ways, Lord, that we may accept our own talents for what they are

and partner with you in being a blessing in the lives of the people about us.

Teach us your ways, Lord, that we may live and love with courage and conviction,

and kindness and compassion, and so bear your light in every corner that we come across.

Teach us your ways, Lord, that your name is known, and your life among us, and for us,

is at the heart of our desire and our motivation.

Teach us your ways, Lord, that the fire of your light will continue to illuminate

and inspire this world you have brought into being and loved so wholeheartedly,

as we make our prayers in the name of Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.

A Blessing:

As you go about your week, look for Jesus!

Seek him as a treasure in this great wide world.

Seek him in the eyes of your loved ones

and in the eyes of strangers.

May your heart burn within you

as the Lord draws close to you this week.