Sunday 6 February 2022
The LORD your God is in your midst. He will rejoice over you and be glad; he will show you his love once more. Zephaniah 3: 17
Hymn 165 Praise tot the Lord for the joys of the earth
We give you thanks for all your goodness to us
for your care and concern for us
you know us and you notice us
you are aware of what we are doing, thinking, feeling
you want the best for us
you have blessed us with good things
you have given us friends and family
people to care for, people who care for us
you have given us food, clothing, shelter
access to fresh water, sanitation, healthcare and education
we have freedom to meet, to worship, to go largely where we wish
we can express our thoughts and feelings
we can exercise some control over our lives, communities and environment
you have given us guidance on how to live
you have shown us how to live
you have given us your Son to be our Saviour
so that we know we are loved, valued, forgiven and given new chances
But all too often we take you for granted
we don’t say ‘thanks’
we don’t think about what you do for us
or how weak and poor our response is
Fill us again with glad and thankful hearts
ready to serve you in all that we do
Through Christ our Lord we pray. Amen
All age time
Each week we finish our service with The Blessing. In the Book of Common Order (the Church of Scotland’s suggested form of words for services) there are Blessings for a baby, a civil marriage and a new home. When we have a baptism we sing ‘The LORD bless you and keep you’. But what do we mean, what are we doing, when we bless someone?
In the Ancient World, ‘blessings’ were seen as things done by the gods for the good of human beings. It usually meant material benefits such as prosperity, an abundant harvest, good health, long life, a large family, peace, happiness, freedom from worry or anxiety. In the Old Testament we find many examples of such blessings, either pronounced by God himself or through people specially appointed by God to say them (but it was always God who gave the blessing, not them). Later OT writers often began to think of more mental and spiritual blessings such as wisdom, understanding, peace of mind, confidence that in the face of so much adversity goodness and truth would triumph.
The Jewish priests were specially authorised to pronounce blessings [Numbers 6: 22-27]. We sometimes call ‘The Lord bless you and keep you’ the Aaronic blessing. Although there is no longer a Jewish Temple or High Priest, there are still Jewish priests – they have the surname Cohen. One of their few remaining tasks is to pronounce that blessing on people. In the Christian faith we don’t have an order of priests like the heirs of Aaron, but (at least in the Reformed tradition) we regard the whole church as a priesthood – the priesthood of all believers. That’s why all the people are invited to sing the Aaronic Blessing at a baptism.
Some Christian traditions like spontaneity in worship, and everyone involved in decision-making, others prefer more order and formality in worship, and prefer leaving the decision-making to others. The Church of Scotland falls into the latter category. So in the Church of Scotland – as in a number of other traditions – the decision-making body (in our case the General Assembly) decided long ago that, for the sake of good order, only ordained ministers of Word and Sacrament can pronounce the blessing, can say ‘God bless you’, other people leading worship say ‘God bless us’. It’s not that ministers have special powers or special status, it’s just for good order. And the blessing is God’s – caring for our material, mental and spiritual needs.
Hymn 65 Jubilate everybody
Luke 6: 17-26
Over the past couple of years there has been much debate about statues, wall plaques, street names and other dedications to philanthropists and benefactors who made their money through activities that involved things like slavery, land clearance, factories and mines with awful working conditions and so on. We aren’t going to engage in that debate this morning, but simply use it to note that in many cultures, with different religious settings (and none) it has long been the practice to acknowledge and publicise substantial donations to charitable works or community facilities.
[Kaisergruft] I don’t know whether the Habsburg’s initiated that practice, or the Capuchin monks, but in an age when your title, ancestry and status in the community very much mattered, it is interesting that they accepted that at death in the eyes of God they were the same as anyone else – humble sinners dependent on the Grace of God. Generally, in whichever culture you look, those with higher social status or more wealth tend to be the ones with the bigger tombs, the more splendid places of worship and the better seats (or places to stand) within them – study any old plan of pew rents, and compare them with the pricing of theatre seats. At various points in the New Testament we hear that there seems to have been a common practice of seating anyone who looked wealthy on a good seat at the front.
There were a couple of competing views within Jewish society in Jesus’ time about wealth and poverty. The first, supported by the religious and civil authorities (who tended to be better-off), was that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing for their good behaviour, while poverty and misfortune were punishments sent by God for bad behaviour. ‘If they improved how they behave, life would be a lot better for them’. The other view arose among faithful, religious members of the community who were not well-off financially, or who suffered many misfortunes that seemed unfair and undeserved (the Anavim). They were highly critical of those in authority, with wealth, which they saw as ill-gotten through corruption, excessive taxation, rents etc. In their eyes, to be rich was to be bad.
Luke appears to align himself with the latter viewpoint (it is of course in Luke that we find the Magnificat – he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty).
Today’s reading begins with Jesus appointing the Twelve, calling them ‘Apostles’. Some commentators think Luke was being careless here, because they are usually ‘disciples’ until Easter or Pentecost, and only Apostles after they become witnesses to the Resurrection and are sent out, strengthened by the Spirit. But maybe it is deliberate. Luke may have lived in a situation where there were many preachers about teaching very different accounts of who and what Jesus was, some saying that he wasn’t divine, others that he wasn’t properly human. The orthodox Christian faith (to which tradition we belong) put great store in following the teaching of the Apostles: they were there, they heard Jesus preach and teach, they witnessed his death and resurrection. Just before he starts to recount Jesus’ teaching, Luke may want to emphasise that those who were to become the Apostles in due course where present from the start and heard everything he said. Calling them the Twelve is probably symbolic too: just as Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Commandments and Law that would make the former Hebrew slaves the Twelve Tribes of the Israel, so now there was to be a new Israel, a new People of God headed up by twelve leaders.
Jesus begins his teaching (which parallels, but slightly differs from, Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount) with the Beatitudes (Blessed are you…). He emphasises how inclusive God’s love and care are, that God reaches out to the poor, hungry and suffering. There is no question of God saying, ‘you deserve the condition you are in, and I won’t help you until to pull yourself together.’ God sees need and has a passionate concern for those people, wanting to change life for them for the better. The new way of life that Jesus has come to inaugurate will be different from the conventional understanding found in cultures everywhere, in terms of how people should behave towards each other, what their values and standards should be, and how they organise themselves in terms of social structures and economies. He brings Good News, hope, the promise of change.
But there is also a sting in the tail of what he has to say, very much in the tradition of the Anavim. Those who accepted, and even justified, inequality and deprivation, as well as their own comfortable condition will find things very different under the new regime. We like to think that God will call to account tyrants, and all who have engaged in corruption, violence or abuse. But Jesus indicates that God’s calling to account extends much more widely. In the end rich and poor, weak and strong, are all dependent on God’s mercy and grace – there is nothing that we can do, nothing that stems from our background or heritage, that can win God’s favour. It is only through his incredible loving-kindness that we can be part of his family in his new People of God.
Hymn 724 Christ’s is the world in which we move
Prayers for others
Help us to recognise and appreciate your many blessings
to recognise our dependence on you
to consider carefully how we steward our gifts and treasure
In this time of rising living costs
we pray for all who are struggling to cope
having to choose between eating and heating
guide those in government to do the things that will help people in need
support those seeking to provide help
through Foodbanks or whatever
we pray for those living in multiple deprivation
where financial poverty is compounded by issues such as
poor education, complex family life, physical or mental health problems
loneliness, addictions, poor diet or whatever
we pray too for those in need in other countries
the refugees living in tents in bitterly cold weather
those who lack so many facilities we take for granted
we pray for all who are ill,
those who look after them
and those who worry about them
those waiting for or receiving treatment
and those for whom there is no treatment
those who are lonely, feeling down, or grieving a friend or loved one
those who are worried about home, work or money
a friend or a relative
those who are living with the after-effects of natural disasters
those who do not have enough to eat, or somewhere to call home
those who long to live in peace and safety
those who have fled from their homes seeking safety
We pray for the Queen, the Government
all in positions of leadership in this and every land
we pray for you church
the worldwide church
the wider church in Dumbarton
our own congregation
help us always to be faithful to Jesus our Lord
We bring to you our prayers for people and situations of special concern to us
And we sum up our prayers in the words of the prayer Jesus gave us
Hymn 348 Praise the one who breaks the darkness
Blessing (3-fold Amen)
May the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ
shine in your hearts,
transform your lives,
and brighten the world
and the blessing of God Almighty
Father, Son and Holy Spirit
rest and remain with you
today, and every day, and for ever