Sunday September 5th 2021
A warm welcome to you all to worship this morning.
Hymn 59 O come and let us to the Lord
Prayer of Approach and Confession
Loving and gracious God,
we come before You to give thanks for what You have done for us.
We celebrate Your Name and offer You praise because of Your Holiness,
yet You are a living God in whom we trust and believe.
Oh God, we thank You for the life we have,
for the air we breathe
and for our relationships with those who are both close and far away.
We thank You for Your infinite goodness,
which deepens our trust in You.
God of mercy, increase our faith
so that we may develop a deeper understanding of You
and a deeper relationship with You.
You know us better than we know ourselves,
there are countless times that we have sinned against You and our neighbour.
Have mercy on us and forgive us.
Consciously or unconsciously,
through our words, attitudes and actions,
we have broken our relationship with You,
with our neighbours and even with the environment.
Have mercy on us and forgive us.
Restore, oh gracious God, our broken relationships and guide us in Your paths.
For Your glory and the building of Your Kingdom
Have mercy on us and forgive us, for the sake of Christ our Lord, who taught us to pray together saying…
Hymn 159 Lord for the years
Reading: Ephesians 4: 14-24 (NIV)
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. 19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.
20 That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
Hymn 598 Come Holy Ghost, our hearts inspire
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen
As a student of the Bible since my youthful days in the church Bible class, and as a minister for twenty years, I have often had to consider in different ways why a book composed more than two thousand years ago still has so much to say to us today. It is a book that is rooted in its own history and yet speaks to our times with powerful ideas.
How can distant history and the needs of our contemporary world come together in this remarkable way?
That is a general question that was brought to my attention once more the other day in a rather different context when I read in the newspaper a curious little story about one of my favourite places. It seems that in October Stratford upon Avon is going to be holding something called a “Mop Fair”. At first I thought that for some strange reason the birthplace of Shakespeare was going to be the venue for an exhibition of household cleaning implements. But, no, this “Mop Fair” turned out to be something entirely different, something rooted in the distant past.
Wikipedia tells me that Mop Fairs in England go back to 1351, a few years after Europe was devastated by the Great Plague, the Black Death as it is called, when millions of people were wiped out by a great epidemic. In many cases the survivors found themselves in a difficult position: on the one hand, workers had lost their employers to the epidemic, and on the other hand employers had lost their employees. So the problem was how to bring together people offering jobs and people needing jobs. The answer was Mop Fairs.
At Mop Fairs people looking to hire workers would attend and people needing work would also turn up. To make it easier to see what sort of work people were seeking, every job-seeker would carry with them some typical tool of their trade: a carpenter might carry a saw, for example, a shepherd might bring a shepherd’s crook, or a dairymaid would have a milking stool. And housemaids would carry mops. Potential housemaids with their mops were apparently so numerous that the fairs themselves were known as “Mop Fairs”. They became in some sense the Job Centres of the Middle Ages.
In Stratford this year the Mop Fair has exactly the same purpose, and even for a similar reason. The Covid epidemic, along with the continuing damage from Brexit, has so badly affected certain businesses, particularly in the hospitality trade, that the town council decided, and I quote, to “bring back old traditions and host a job and apprenticeship fair.” Nowadays, of course, cleaning women won’t need to turn up carrying mops and the whole process is going to be modernised and computerised.
But what I found interesting about this is that, when you strip away the external differences between 1351 and 2021, the basic need is still exactly the same: employers have jobs to be done and employees want to earn a living.
I found that interesting because you often hear people repeating the old comment that “the past is a foreign country”, a strange place where everything is different and puzzling. I suppose it can be easy to believe this, if you concentrate on the shepherds’ crooks or the housemaids’ mops. It does all look different and rather quaint or even strange.
But it seems to me that, when you look at the underlying thing, what you see is not differences but similarities. Jobs were as important in 1351 as they are today and the whole economy depended on them then just as it still does today. If you could not find a carter in 1351 to transport your goods, you were substantially in the same position as Tesco is today if it can’t find HGV drivers to bring produce to its stores.
And at an even deeper level there is another and even more fundamental similarity: namely, that people are still people. On a mundane level they have the same practical problems and needs, and equally, on a spiritual level, they have the same longing for hope and meaning in their lives.
And that seems to me an important pointer towards the answer to my original question about how the Bible can be rooted in history and yet still be completely contemporary and meaningful in our own day.
The fact that people are still people, with the same spiritual needs and yearnings as people have always had, seems to me a really critical point to bear in mind, because we are often misled nowadays by short-sighted people who try to tell us that, because the external things are different, the fundamental things are also different. But that is like saying that because girls no longer carry mops to mop fairs, it means they no longer need jobs.
Or, to put it in a context closer to home, it is like saying that because people no longer go to church so frequently, it means they have no spiritual longings and needs. The problem, of course, is that if that sort of short-sighted argument is repeated often enough, people begin to believe it. They begin to think that the things of the spirit no longer matter, that religion is from that “foreign country”, the past, and so they think the church has no relevance or meaning in our modern world.
I suppose that in some respects there is nothing new in all this: you can see pretty much the same sort of thinking among some people even at the time of the Black Death in the 1340s. Historians tells us that there was a great division among people. Some people thought that the Plague showed that life was meaningless and you might as well follow the maxims of “Me First” and “eat, drink, and be merry”. Other people realised that what the Plague actually showed was that people needed each other’s help and caring even more and that spiritual inspiration was vital to console the victims and encourage the survivors. Historians say that this strengthening of faith among many people after the Black Death led eventually to a greater interest in religion and helped encourage the growth of spiritual movements that laid the basis for the Protestant Reformation.
And I would suggest that this is yet another example of the point that perhaps the past is not such a foreign country after all. I see many people in the church, and outside it, asking themselves whether the epidemic in our own day will also cause people to think more deeply about their need to develop the spiritual in their lives and to return to the source of help and support in that, the church.
I think this is a point that cannot be overemphasised, because, just as in the 1340s, so nowadays many people have been misled into believing that there is nothing spiritual in life, that people can ignore the spiritual element in their souls. But the people of the 1340s and later realised that denying the things of the spirit could not be right. Such a denial was wrong in the 1340s and it is wrong today.
And one can go even further back to New Testament times and find St Paul struggling with the same problem in his letter to the Ephesians at chapter 4, verses 14 to 24. He speaks about how the non-believers have separated themselves from the life of God by the “futility of their thinking” and the fact that they have “lost all sensitivity”.
Just as many people reacted against such “futility of thinking” after the Black Death, we can today see that people have been turning in greater numbers to the message of online worship. The stark challenges of the Covid pandemic have made many people aware, in Paul’s words, how futile is a life that has lost all sensitivity to the spiritual side of existence.
So when we hear from supposedly clever commentators that we live in different times and have different needs from the people of the past, we may usefully remind ourselves that the past is not such a “foreign country” as we have been told. The Bible can be rooted in history and yet speak to us today. We are, after all, not so different from the people of past ages as we thought, and like them, we may in these trying times still find the Bible guiding us towards a deeper faith for a more meaningful life.
Hymn 606 Lord you sometimes speak in wonders
Prayer of Intercession
Lord God, we thank you for your Word,
Stretching timeless throughout the ages, directing, encouraging, inspiring
We thank you for those who have translated the Bible into many different languages so that we can all read it in our own tongue.
We thank you for those who have risked many things to spread the Bible around the world
And we pray for those living in countries where it is illegal to own a Bible and who have to read it in secret
We thank you that your word endures forever
Help us to live by its teachings day by day.
We pray for those in special need of your care at this time
Those who are ill, in hospital, undergoing surgery or treatment for cancer,
Those who are worried about a family member or close friend,
Those who have been bereaved
And all whose lives are blighted at this time because of the pandemic
And we hold those who lie heavily on our hearts before you now in the silence….
Lord God we offer all these prayers in the name of Christ our Lord, Amen
Hymn 702 Lord in love and perfect wisdom
May the Lord of strong and stable relationships
help you to live wisely and in peace.
May the Son guide your paths.
May the Holy Spirit lead you into wisdom.
And may the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be with you all, this day and forevermore, Amen
Closing voluntary: Jean-Joseph Mouret - Rondeau from Sinfonie de Fanfares