August 30, 2020 – Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
A message from the Rev. Helen Smith
Blessings all round in our common worship. As always, these resources are provided to gather us together around God’s word, even when we are physically distanced. May the Spirit help us to sense the presence of each other in this time of worship.
Rev. Helen Smith
Book of Praise – 324 “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”
- video with on-screen words; one word only different from those in hymnbook.
- words (1923) by American songwriter Thomas Chisholm (1866–1960). Music (1923) by his friend, American composer William M. Runyan (1870–1957). Both in the public domain.
- this video from the February 7, 2010, episode of the BBC Songs of Praise program, recorded at Southwark Cathedral, in Southwark, London.
Prayers of Approach and Confession
Creating, living God, every day is a new day. Every day you show us the world that you have made, every day you show us the people who love us, every day you show us how you care for us. Teach us to see you in everything and everyone, and be the best for the world, for each other, and for you. You are a great God, whose love for us never ends, and we praise your holy name.
Lord, as we think of your greatness, our own failure to follow you becomes clear, and we ask you to pardon us, and draw us back into your way. For the times we have been too quick to speak without hearing what another is saying, forgive us and help us to be quick to listen. For the times we have been too timid, too uncertain of your power to work in our lives, too unaware of your presence and blind to the blessings all around us, forgive us, and help us to notice and appreciate your love. For the times when our minds are stuck on lesser things, and we have lived without hope, forgive us, lift our spirits, renew our faith, and enable us to sing your praises. We ask for these things in the name of Jesus, and we continue to pray in the prayer that he taught us:
Our Father, in heaven, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those
who sin against us.
Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours
now and forever. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon
God’s extravagant grace is doing a new thing. Can we not perceive it? Behold God makes all things new. Thanks be to God for the gift of new life. Amen
The Peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
Acts 5:27–42 <– this links to on-line text of the NRSV bible
While Christian Education Coordinator Laura Alary is on holidays, we’ll be featuring a few resources she has recommended. This week, it’s “Tucked In: Bedtime Stories and Prayers with Episcopalians and Others”, a Facebook page with stories and more. You can check it out here.
It’s déjà vu all over again.
Just a week ago the same defendants,
Peter and the group known as Christians,
stood on the carpet before the same prosecutors,
the High Council.
And the charge is pretty much the same thing.
It seems the stern talking-to that they received last week
went in one ear and out the other.
They went right back to their old tricks.
So here they are again.
For the second time in as many chapters
there is healing and the sharing of good news
in the name of Jesus.
And just as predictable as the disciples with their preaching
there is the opposition of the authorities
telling them to stop.
It’s strange when you think about it
that the good news of the grace of God
would be received as such a threat.
But it is,
so entrenched is the world in its own ways of doing things,
and so ready are some people to protect their own place in it
their own way of understanding it.
So there it is.
There is healing and acceptance and new life,
and the people in power manage to see it as bad news.
Jesus was on the receiving end of this kind of backlash.
The disciples now discover as his followers
that it will be no different for them.
So here is ‘round two’ in the confrontation
between the powers that be in Jerusalem
and the Spirit of God burning within the hearts of the disciples.
The real concern of the Council
is that public favour is swinging quickly
away from them and toward the disciples
and that they seem powerless
before this bunch of soap-box preachers.
The irony today is that the Council is already in session,
still trying to decide what to do
in the aftermath of last week’s confrontation with the apostles.
A messenger runs in, interrupting the meeting,
“They’re at it again —
the ones who were in jail.
They’re right on the temple steps as we speak,
preaching and teaching like before.”
For a few seconds,
no one on the council says anything.
The members are shaking their heads in disbelief.
They aren’t used to such brazen challenges to their authority.
This is going to be harder than they thought.
What are they going to do with these guys?
The chief priest finally says to one of the temple guards,
“Round them up and bring them in.”
When the prisoners arrive,
they stand straight and tall before the council.
The high priest, already furious with them, starts in,
“We gave you strict orders
not to teach in this name.”
It almost sounds like he’s wagging his finger at the disciples
like they’re a bunch of disobedient little children.
“How many times do I have to tell you?”
Their complaint is that the disciples continue to preach Jesus
even though the disciples have been ordered not to,
and that the disciples are trying to blame Jesus’ death on them.
Peter and the others respond.
“Number one, we obey God and not you.
Number two, you did have a hand in Jesus’ death,
even though he is the Messiah sent from God,
and the one who will redeem Israel.”
You would not call this
trying to soft-peddle their differences with the council.
Instead, their answer pushes the hostility factor in the room,
which was bad before,
up by a quantum leap.
The council explodes in a rage.
Some want to kill them on the spot,
others want to take a breath and then kill them.
The disciples are in very deep trouble.
However, there is one dissenting voice in the room,
and it belongs to Gamaliel.
He’s a Pharisee, and a member of the council,
and on top of that is highly regarded by everyone.
Somehow he manages to make his voice heard over the uproar
and calms everyone down a little.
The apostles are sent out of the room,
someone brings a glass of water to the high priest
who looks like he’s about to explode,
and Gamaliel brings a note of calm to the moment.
Now, let’s not be too hasty.
We need to be very careful what we do here.
This bunch is unlike any we’ve ever dealt with before,
and clearly, our way is not working.
I’d say these Christians are either right or wrong, right?
If they’re wrong about this Jesus fellow,
and it turns out their little movement
is a scheme they have cooked up themselves,
then it will soon fade away without our help.
It will certainly not live beyond
any of these leaders before us today.
But if they are right,
and Jesus is the Messiah,
and there is something of the hand of God in this,
then nothing that we can do will stop them.
We would be working against God.
Right now, what we need to do is nothing.
The council listens to Gamaliel, sort of.
They release the disciples,
but not before having them beaten
and ordering them again,
not to speak any more in the name of Jesus.
And what do they do?
“They go out
rejoicing that they are considered worthy to suffer dishonour
for the sake of the name,
and every day in the temple and in their homes
they do not cease to teach and proclaim
Jesus as the Messiah.”
They go out with sore backs,
but also with their lives,
and so their work goes on.
As Gamaliel says,
“If this is of God,
our little threats are not going to stop them.”
And they don’t.
Don’t you admire people like Gamaliel who have the nerve
to say something that is the opposite of what everyone else is saying?
to go out on a limb?
to risk ridicule and rejection and being thought wrong
by having the courage
to try to sway everyone to their way of thinking?
And don’t you admire them even more
when what they are saying proves to be true,
when they have the courage to stand alone,
and end up having the right solution.
How could they know?
Where did such insight come from?
That’s where leadership comes from.
There is a wisdom to Gamaliel’s words
that goes very deep.
What he says is one of those things that is obviously true,
at least to people of faith.
It’s just that no one has had the clarity of thought
to say it in quite that way until now
So Gamaliel is smart, and an independent thinker.
But what is his personal verdict on the disciples and their message?
Well, we really are not told.
We don’t know what motivates him.
Gamaliel could be no more than a pragmatist,
a reconciler, a deal-maker,
someone who can pick the easy, quick way out
that offends the fewest people.
Maybe he’s wishy washy
can’t make up his mind
decides by not deciding
avoids taking a stand,
and then picks the winner at the last possible moment.
Or maybe this teacher of the law,
steeped in the writings and the tradition of God’s holy people,
suspects that he hears some truth
in the words of these followers of Jesus.
Maybe this Jesus who was crucified was/is the Messiah.
Maybe Gamaliel and his friends on the council
are the ones who have missed the truth,
and these commoners from Galilee
are the ones who have found it.
Maybe in the disciples he can see the power and purpose of God
that he has been waiting so long to see
and for the people of Israel to experience.
I don’t know,
but I like to think it’s this latter line of thinking
that motivates Gamaliel.
That there is something of God’s Spirit
moving in his heart,
That what he has heard of the disciples’ message
sounds to him like truth from above
bringing life and hope to God’s people.
Why else would he take such a risk
at such a volatile time?
What do these trouble-makers mean to him
that he should stick up for them?
I wonder when the disciples are brought back into the room where it happens
where the council are deciding their fate,
what they figure happened
when they were standing out in the hall.
When they left, the council wanted to kill them,
and a few minutes later
it’s just a stern talking-to that they get,
along with the flogging,
and then they’re out, free on the street again.
Now sure, flogging is no picnic,
but it sure beats beheading.
What happened in there?
What did God do to intervene for them,
in there behind closed doors,
to save their lives?
What God does
is make sure that Gamaliel is there.
that his heart is stirred by the disciples’ teaching,
and that he has the courage to speak out.
It’s too bad the apostles are out of the room
when Gamaliel makes his little speech to the council.
The lives of these early Christian witnesses
are in the hands of these decision makers
who have almost unlimited power.
You’ve got to imagine that however charitably they view the council
these are the bad guys,
Too bad they’re not there to see first hand
that one of them, Gamaliel,
is on their side.
Not really enthusiastically, maybe,
but enough to save their lives from certain death.
Enough to get them out of the present danger,
and give them an opening to continue their holy work.
Enough to indicate
that he understands something
about the power of God to move forward any human endeavour,
and maybe even that he senses some of the presence of God
in these believers.
Later, when the disciples think back about it,
the most bewildering part of this encounter
is how God brought up support for them
from the most unexpected source,
from within the council itself.
Who would have thought?
Wherever we go
no matter how much against us the world might seem
we can look for someone God has put there
who will be on our side.
Wherever we find ourselves,
no matter how alone we feel
or how uphill the road seems
we can remain open to the possibility
that God will provide someone
who will speak up on our behalf
Whatever we are trying to do for God,
if we look around us and are open to it
we might just find that God is providing us
with a friend who has a sympathetic ear.
Gamaliel reminds us,
that God takes a broader view of things
than we often do;
that, despite how it looks to us,
God’s resources are never exhausted;
that when we are looking around
for signs of God’s Spirit at work in the world,
we should cast our gaze wide;
that when I’m seeking a kindred spirit
I should not rule out any quarter
as a place to look for it;
or that when I’m looking for truth
it might come to me from a source I’ve overlooked
or from an unexpected ally.
Listen for it,
that voice that is somehow distinct
from the other voices around you.
That voice which so unexpectedly
becomes the voice of God for you, saying,
“Go for it.
You’re on the right track.
God be with you.”
- “I Sing the Mighty Power of God”. Words (1715) by English minister and hymn-writer Isaac Watts (1674–1748). Music is the tune “Ellacombe”, first published in 1784 in the “Gesangbuch der Herzoglichen Hofkapelle”, Württemberg.
- This arrangement by Colleen Adent copyright © 2009 Fred Bock Music Company; used by permission of One License, license number 722141-A.
- Video recording © copyright 2020 Guildwood Community Presbyterian Church.
Listen to more music
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Prayers of Thanksgiving and Hope
Gracious, giving God, we thank you for all that you give us for the journeys of our lives, homes, families, schools, jobs, opportunities, friendships. We thank you that you are with us to guide us, for the unexpected ways that you encourage us. Give us the courage to follow you out into the unknown future, and the changes that lie ahead, in the confidence that whatever our future holds, you will be with us in it. We think particularly of our children and of their teachers and the uncertainties that lie ahead with the return to school. We pray for wisdom for our leaders, for safety for our children.
God who hears the cries of your people, we pray for a world in need, for people who do without, for people who are on the move, for people who have nowhere to go. For those whose daily experience is one of fear or loneliness, of uncertainty or need, we ask your blessings, and the means to live a life that is one of peace and well-being. Be active in the world, we pray, to save and release those who suffer.
Healing God, we pray for those who are sick, hospitalized, that you would bring your healing and your peace. And for those who are facing losses in their life, those who grieve the loss of a loved one, the loss of their own health, those who know they must soon lose life itself. Remind us that you are with us through every experience, and that nothing can separate us from your love, shown to us in your son, Jesus.
O God, in all the struggles and uncertainties, remind and assure us that you are there. In our personal lives, in our school, in our families, in our work, help us to look to you and depend on you to be our guide and provider. In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.
Book of Praise – 641 “One more step”
- video with on-screen words; one word only different from those in the hymnbook
- words and music (1971) by English poet and songwriter Sydney Carter (1915–2004); both copyright © 1971 by Stainer & Bell Ltd.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. AMEN (Romans 15:13)
© Copyright 2020 Guildwood Community Presbyterian Church
Updated: August 30, 2020 – added musical meditation video and descriptive text