Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

The Mission and Discipleship Council would like to thank Rev Kathy Galloway, Head of Christian Aid Scotland, for her thoughts on the fifth Sunday of Pentecost.

Download a printable version of this Weekly Worship

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

This passage is extracted from the much longer story of Rebekah, one of the matriarchs of the Jewish people, and of how she came to be the wife of Isaac. The tales of the matriarchs have recurring narrative patterns typical of traditional literature, which mark the life history of the women at the turning points of youth, marriage and parenthood. The women often first appear by wells or springs as Rebekah does here. The association between fertility and water is an ancient recognition of our watery origins on earth and in the womb, and of the source of life upon which we still depend. The women are often soon to become wives, they are often barren women who become mothers and they are often women who engage in acts of deception in order to further the interests of their sons or husbands.

All of this is true of Rebekah, and the story is a reminder of the importance of marriage within the kindred or clan; Abraham’s servant is sent back to Abraham’s home of origin, for he does not want his son Isaac to take a wife from among the Canaanites. Marriage from within the clan or family, and the children born from it, is an important part of safeguarding group identity. When the servant meets the young and beautiful Rebekah beside the spring of water, her hospitality and their exchange of words are a sign to him from God that she is indeed the right bride for his master. He gives her gifts, ascertains who she is, meets her family and showers them with gifts also. The men of the family give their permission for the marriage, giving Rebekah their blessing and hope that she may have many children, and Rebekah and Abraham’s servant set off immediately. On their way back, they meet Isaac, who brings her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He marries her, he loves her, and she becomes an emotional replacement and comfort for him after the death of his mother.

Psalm 45:10-17

This is one of the Royal Psalms, and it’s a wedding song or epithalamium, a song written particularly for a bride on her way to her marriage bed. Here, it is written on the occasion of the marriage of a king to a foreign princess. She is implored to forget her people and her father’s house; rather, in honouring her husband, she will find favour and wealth, and their union will produce many sons and the promise of God’s blessing. The emphasis here is different from the story of Rebekah with its strong theme of kinship marriage, and the psalm has often been understood as a Messianic analogy, with the king representing Jesus and the bride as Israel.

Song of Solomon 2:8-13

Many have found it surprising that this beautiful collection of love songs, this ‘song of songs’ should have been included in the canon of the Hebrew bible. It makes no mention of God, it contains the only unmediated female voice in scripture, as in this particular passage, and it is an unashamed and jubilant celebration of human sexual love. These factors have not always commended themselves to commentators.

Some have seen the book, traditionally attributed to King Solomon, as a collection of wedding songs, perhaps drawing on ancient fertility rites uniting deity and nation in a sacred marriage. And both Jews and Christians have interpreted it allegorically, describing in the lover and the beloved, the relationship between God and Israel, or Christ and the church, or God and the soul, or even Christ and Mary. But the Song does not read like a conscious allegory, and the language is too directly sensuous for a Hebrew to have used in describing Yahweh.

Perhaps we should simply be glad that the Wisdom literature of which it is part, based as it is on experience and reflection rather than exhortation, is a religious tradition which sees erotic love both as divine gift and as a reflection of God’s self.

Romans 7:15-25a

Paul’s letter to the Romans is unusual in that it is to a church which he has neither founded nor visited. Though he seems to have known a few of the believers in Rome, and is greeting them in part to strengthen his ties with the church there, he is writing to a congregation of strangers, seeking to identify himself to his readers, and to lay out the major themes of the gospel he preaches. First, he stresses the impartiality of God (Romans 2: 11), the fact that God evaluates without reference to the usual human values of wealth, power and religious status. In the Hebrew Bible, the claim that God is impartial forms the basis for admonitions to protect the widow, the orphan, the stranger and outsider. Paul radicalises these convictions, applying them not only to Gentiles who live within Jewish communities, but to all people without exception. Without privileging any group or community, God both judges and redeems each human being.

A second theme of Romans is the universality of sin. While sin manifests itself in many different forms, at their root is one single sin; humanity lives in rebellion against God. This is the human condition, not just our separation from and offences against others, but from and against the Creator. But the great third theme, emphasised over and over in the letter, is the radical nature of God’s grace, which operates in spite of the universality of human rebellion against God. God’s grace is more powerful than human sin, for the grace inaugurated by Jesus Christ has brought life and hope for all people, regardless of their condition. No one can, or needs to earn that favour; it is already granted in Jesus. Grace is received, not achieved.

Today’s verses from Romans 7 recapitulate all three themes vividly and almost heartrendingly. Paul uses himself as an example-no special pleading or favours are being sought here. He recognises what is good, that it is expressed in God’s law; in his inmost being, he delights in the law of God. But it seems that the more he sees the good, the greater is his tendency to do the opposite. It’s almost like a law of nature, that he does not do the good he wants to do but instead he does the evil that he does not want to do. And it is when he most wants to do good, that evil is closest at hand. The law of sin or rebellion within him contends with the law of God-he can will what is right, but he cannot do it. Never has the human predicament been summed up so acutely. He is confused, furious with himself and utterly wretched! Who will save him from himself? And then the last verse in the reading, this great cry of relief and gratitude; ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!’ Grace, received, not achieved.

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Here is another evocative example of the irrational and contrary ways in which human beings behave. Verses 16-19 read rather like a critique of tabloid sensationalism- if a man is ascetic and abstemious, they say ‘he has a demon’; but if he eats and drinks and shares a table with friends, they say ‘Look at him, he’s a glutton and a drunkard, and he makes friends with the lowest of the low.’ Jesus compares his generation to capricious children, who complain ‘you don’t dance when we play music for you, and you don’t mourn when we’re wailing’. Whatever he does, they are determined not to be happy about it. One can sense a frustration in Jesus’ words here. His response is enigmatic; wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. Given a people who are singularly lacking in discernment, in wisdom, he recognises that they are not receptive either to himself or to John the Baptist, the representatives of Wisdom (Sophia). Throughout this chapter, Jesus is drawing on the wisdom tradition and literature of the Hebrew Bible. The passage stresses the connection between Jesus, the new manifestation of the divine on earth, and personified Wisdom, the traditional image of the divine presence.

And yet in verses 25-30, having compared the crowd to children who have not yet gained wisdom, or been receptive to it, Jesus suddenly softens his tone. He reflects on the limitations of wisdom and intelligence. Perhaps he is recognising that what we see as common sense or expertise may prevent us from real openness to the new or unfamiliar; perhaps he is reminding himself (for this reflection is taking place in an intimate dialogue with God) that it is their very powerless and vulnerability that makes infants so trusting and receptive. But more than these, this reads as gratitude to God that it doesn’t matter if the wise and learned don’t easily accept his message, because its nature is that it is most evident to the humble, the small and the unlearned. You don’t need a degree in theology or many years of experience to hear and receive – and this is the divine intention. It is almost as if Jesus has experienced a degree of anxiety, even a loss of confidence; but this quiet prayerful moment is one of assurance and reassurance. He can return to his mission renewed in his faith.

And the chapter ends with a great pastoral invitation to all those who feel that they deserve nothing, can expect nothing and know only their own insufficiency. To the tired and weary, to those who are weighed down by the burdens of life, to the poor and overlooked and silenced, Jesus offers rest and kindness, encouragement and love, the love of one who is humble and gentle. Compared with the oppressive yoke of injustice and poverty placed upon them by their society, or the stifling, fear-ridden religious yoke of always having to get things right, the yoke of grace is easy, and its burden is light. Jesus himself becomes the new personification of Wisdom: mediating knowledge, living in intimacy with God, providing comfort and encouragement.

Sermon ideas

As always, there are many directions which a sermon based on these scripture readings might take. But the central theme, which unifies a set of readings which don’t obviously at first cohere, is that of grace, received not achieved. There is also a distinctly female note in the texts, and it might offer opportunities to explore a dimension of the Bible which is often overlooked.

The Old Testament readings (and preachers might like to use the alternative Song of Solomon reading from a book which rarely features in preaching and worship) all celebrate the gift of love and marriage, though in quite different ways. Genesis introduces us to Rebekah, one of the great matriarchs of the Bible, the mothers of the Jewish people. Rebekah has an arranged marriage, perhaps the ultimate arranged marriage, since God plays a decisive part in it. It’s worth taking time to read the whole chapter, since it makes clear the intervention of the Lord in the recognition of Rebekah as the chosen wife for Isaac. Aspects of this story might seem alien to us,
(not least putting a ring through Rebekah’s nose) but there will be people in some of our communities for whom arranged marriage is a familiar practice, including returning to their native land to find a wedding partner; this has a biblical precedent. As with many arranged marriages, this was a loving one, especially for Isaac, who found comfort in his bride after the death of his mother Sarah.

Psalm 45 is a straightforward song of rejoicing, this time in the marriage of the king to a foreign woman. Like Rebekah’s, this is likely to have been an arranged union; female agency with regard to marriage negotiation was limited, especially higher up the social order where marriage had symbolic as well as practical significance, in dynastic continuation, or in bringing an end to conflict. The praise singers were official temple singers, somewhat like the Hebridean bards, whose duty it was to compose songs for great occasions. But by contrast, the passage from the Song of Songs is unmediated and personal, and its unnamed woman singer is overflowing with anticipation and joy. It catches the sweet constraint of anticipation, the discipline of waiting for something eagerly hoped-for. It is perhaps one of the most difficult and yet most deepening aspects of our humanity: it is the last weeks of pregnancy, the last days of the school year before the holidays, the last long miles of the weary traveller’s journey home. It is the waiting of Advent before incarnation, and the longest Saturday before the resurrection. It is the ending of winter and the coming of the spring. Now is the time for singing! And who could disagree that, in truth, the singing is not more joyous, the source not more deeply carved into our being, because of the anticipation.

The gospel passage connects us again with Sophia, Wisdom, in both her strengths and her limitations, and again it’s worth reading the whole chapter, for in it we follow Jesus through the frustration with the crowds, so lacking in wisdom and unable to hear him, to his gradual realisation that this is what God intends. It is to the poor and vulnerable, the small and powerless that his word will speak; they are the ones who will receive the true wisdom of kindness, humility and gentleness. These are not what worldly wisdom thinks of as characteristic masculine qualities -do we need to challenge our definitions, or even our church practices? Who do we admire, consider suitable for high office? Who lets the light in, if not the people whose need and vulnerability makes them transparent?

After the financial crisis, a report from the St Paul's Institute, 'Value and Values; Perceptions of Ethics in the City Today' made fascinating reading. Its survey found that 64% of more than 500 financial professionals in London said that salary and bonuses are their most important motivation. However, they also tended to think that bankers, stock brokers, FTSE 100 chief executives, lawyers and city bond traders were being paid too much. Moreover, most FS professionals in London thought that deregulation of financial markets results in less ethical behaviour. They tended to be positive about Corporate Social Responsibility. They also tended to reject the notion that CSR has a negative effect on shareholder value. Most notably of all, 75% agreed that there is too great a gap between rich and poor in this country, and 58% agreed that companies should invest directly in deprived communities.

How interesting this is, and how troubled. These somewhat contradictory findings do not suggest that this group of intelligent professionals have no moral compass. On the contrary, they seem to have a clear understanding of what might constitute ethical behaviour. But in important ways, they seem unable to practice this. Is this because it conflicts with their own self-interest, or is it because they work in an environment that, while professing some values, actually rewards completely different values? Or is it, that, knowing the right thing to do, they do not have the motivation, will or capacity to do it, that they are not actually free in their choices and decisions? What a striking example of Paul's words in Romans: 'For even though the desire to do good is in me, I am not able to do it. I don't do the good I want to do; instead I do the evil that I do not want to do.' But they are not different from us. They simply operate in an environment in which all the moral conflicts, all the competing desires which all of us experience, show up in extreme and visible forms because the stakes are so high, and affect so many.

This is just one instance of the universality of Paul’s anguish in Romans. A whole sermon could easily explore the ways in which we don’t do the good we want to; rather do the evil we don’t want to. Are we driven by the need to justify ourselves-either by our worldly achievements or by our spiritual perfectionism? What does it mean to let go of our striving? When are we most open to grace?

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.”
― Leonard Cohen

Time with Children

Since this Sunday falls in the school summer holidays, there may well be no Sunday School or many children in church. But for those who are, you might like to think about heavy burdens. Have several kinds of luggage available, of sizes from very small handbags to larger backpacks, and to enormous suitcases. You might like to fill them, e.g., with books, to differentiate the weights. Introduce by asking what kind of luggage people might take on holiday with them. Invite children, or adults, to pick up the luggage. Invite them to compare the weights; you might, for example, ask the smallest child to pick up the largest bag, and the largest adult the smallest bag. Is that fair? Is it sensible? Then suggest to children that people carry many kinds of burdens, and not just physical ones. Sometimes worry or illness can feel like a heavy weight for people to carry-what else might feel like a burden? Explain that Jesus helps people with their burdens. Invite them to share or distribute the baggage they have more fairly. Finish by singing a short song; if you are not using ‘Come, bring your burdens to God’ (see Intercessions below) then the following are suitable:

CH4 771 If you believe and I believe
CH4 351 Jesus’ hands were kind hands.

Prayers of Approach, Confession, Thanksgiving and Intercessions

Approach

Blessed be God who creates all out of nothing
Blessed be Jesus who gives all for nothing
Blessed be the Spirit for whom nothing is impossible
Blessed be God forever

Creator Spirit, wellspring of our lives,
As Your faithfulness is deeper than the deepest ocean
CARRY US SAFELY ON THE TIDE OF YOUR LOVE
As the refreshing rain falls on the just and unjust alike
REFRESH US WITH YOUR MERCY, WHO KNOW OUR OWN INJUSTICE
As a river flows steadily on, defying all the odds of stone and water
FLOW OVER EVERY BOUNDARY AND BORDER THAT SEPARATES US FROM EACH OTHER
As we were once held in the waters of our mother’s womb,
HOLD US IN THE PEACE AND POWER OF YOUR ABIDING PRESENCE
As the waters of our baptism washed us and welcomed us
RENEW US NOW IN FULLNESS OF LIFE AND UNITY OF LOVE
AMEN, THANKS BE TO GOD

Confession

O God,
source of all wisdom and understanding,
have mercy on your divided and quarrelsome people.
Because we have knowledge but lack self-knowledge,
because we speak of peace but depart from the paths of peace,
because we wish one thing but do another,
Lord have mercy on us.

By Your justice, hold us to account,
in Your kindness deliver us from evil,
through Your love restore us to right relationship,
that we may live with undivided hearts
centred on You.
Let us in silence acknowledge our need of You.

Silence

God of justice,
we are so grateful that You are also a God of grace.
repaying us not for our poor hearts but for their potential,
forgiving our debts as we forgive our debtors.

Gracious God,
persistently loving
insistently faithful,
comfort with Your healing touch
all who carry heavy burdens.
May Your spirit of healing
breathe through our prejudices,
and may we share in Your transforming love.
In the name of Jesus, who taught us to pray…
Our Father….

Thanksgiving

Christ our beloved,
whose persistent care for us is painstaking and joyful,
to whom we are free to cling without fear of refusal
or loss of who we are,

We celebrate those who have been willing to share the intimacy of their pain
whose tough compassion surpasses common sense
who choose commitment in the place of despair.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life
AND I WILL DWELL IN THE HOUSE OF THE LORD FOREVER

We celebrate those times when our hearts have sung with surrender
when it has been easy and obvious to give ourselves
when our love has been accepted
surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life
AND I WILL DWELL IN THE HOUSE OF THE LORD FOREVER

We celebrate those who have been our companions on the road
who have declined to abandon us when bitterly invited
whose arms have been for us the arms of God
surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life
AND I WILL DWELL IN THE HOUSE OF THE LORD FOREVER

(Janet Morley, from ‘All Desires Known’, SPCK 1992)

Intercessions

(You might like to use this simple but profound song from South Africa from ‘We Walk His Way: Shorter Songs for Worship’ by John L Bell, Wild Goose Publications 2008, p.33 as a sung response during the intercessions.)

Sung:
COME BRING YOUR BURDENS TO GOD
COME BRING YOUR BURDENS TO GOD
COME BRING YOUR BURDENS TO GOD
FOR JESUS WILL NEVER SAY NO

God of love and grace,
we pray for all those today who are weary,
for those who carry heavy burdens;
give us the courage and humility to know
that the invitation is also for us.
Sung: COME BRING YOUR BURDENS TO GOD

We pray for those who are ill
or worried about a diagnosis;
for all who are bereaved,
and for everyone who is a carer.
Sung: COME BRING YOUR BURDENS TO GOD

We pray for those on low incomes
experiencing the stress
of managing a budget
where there just isn’t enough
to make ends meet,
especially for any known to us…
Sung: COME BRING YOUR BURDENS TO GOD

We pray for those who are homeless
weighed down by memories of the past
and dragged before the world’s criticism.
We pray for those who have lost families and countries
especially the many refugees who face an uncertain future…
Sung: COME BRING YOUR BURDENS TO GOD

We pray for the millions across the world
who will go to bed hungry tonight
and who have no choices at all,
but know that getting through today
stacks up worries for tomorrow.
Sung: COME BRING YOUR BURDENS TO GOD

God of love and mercy,
We pray for ourselves that
we may have courage
to refuse to turn against those in need
and instead to stand with those You love and care for.
We pray in the name of Jesus who is gentle and humble
And whose burden is light.
Amen.

Musical Suggestions

CH4 157 Sing of the Lord’s goodness (a powerful invitation to worship)
CH4 212 Morning has broken (there are sometimes mornings like this in Scotland in July!)
CH4 358 The great love of God is revealed in the Son (a hymn of assurance)
CH4 555 Amazing grace
CH4 540 What a friend we have in Jesus
(two of the best-loved hymns of sin and grace)
CH4 557 O love that wilt not let me go
CH4 540 I heard the voice of Jesus say
(two hymns of conviction)
CH4 694 Brother, sister, let me serve you

Or people might like to try this one by New Zealand songwriter Shirley Erena Murray

Song "Let my spirit always sing" (Tune: either Dix CH4 326 or Lucerna Laudoniae CH4 181)
Let my spirit always sing,
though my heart be wintering,
though the season of despair
give no sign that you are there,
God to whom my days belong,
let there always be a song.

Though my body be confined,
let your word engage my mind,
let the inner eye discern
how much more there is to learn,
see a world becoming whole
through the window of the soul.

Let your wisdom grace my years,
choose my words and chase my fears,
give me wit to welcome change,
to accept, and not estrange,
let my joy be full and deep
in the knowledge that I keep.

Let my spirit always sing,
to Your Spirit answering,
through the silence, through the pain
know my hope is not in vain,
like a feather on your breath
trust your love, through life and death.

(Shirley Erena Murray)