Musical Prelude: I will play some gentle, reflective music to centre myself, before the start of the service. Roots and Wings by Elizabeth Hornby
In this time of insecurity and social upheaval,
When we are unable to meet in person,
I invite you into this time of online worship.
For this short time,
Let us put our worldly cares aside,
Close our eyes and imagine ourselves
To be in our places of worship,
Surrounded by members of our beloved community,
And be together, if only virtually,
For this short time.
Chalice Lighting (you may wish to light a candle in your own home at this point. I will be lighting my chalice for worship at 11.00 am on Sunday morning)
We light our chalice today
Remembering with gratitude all the front-line staff
Of our hospitals, shops and public services,
Who are selflessly carrying on,
To meet the needs of the people they serve.
We light our chalice in the hope
That our loved ones may be safe,
That all people may be safe,
And in faith that normality will return,
And that we will return to normality
As kinder, more compassionate people.
Opening Prayer (words by Martin Whitell, shared with permission)
Spirit of God and Lord of the morning,
we come together and to you
in the coolness of the beginning day.
We thank you for the hope that is ours
in the community of faith and in the determination
of the best of humanity to make this world
and every situation one of kindness and care.
We think today of those who are very sick,
those who are worried and those who are bereaved.
May they find comfort in the presence of loved ones, carers,
and the unfathomable resources of the Divine.
Be with us and help us to be what we are called to be.
Reading from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
Then a lawyer said, But what of our Laws, master?
And he answered:
You delight in laying down the laws, yet you delight more in breaking them.
Like children playing by the ocean who build sand-towers with constancy and then destroy them with laughter.
But while you build your sand-towers, the ocean brings more sand to the shore, and when you destroy them, the ocean laughs at you.
Verily the ocean laughs always with the innocent.
But what of those to whom life is not an ocean, and man-made laws are not sand-towers,
But to whom life is a rock, and the law a chisel with which they would carve it in their own likeness?…
What of the ox who loves his yoke and deems the elk and deer of the forest stray and vagrant things?
What of the old serpent who cannot shed his skin, and calls all others naked and shameless?
And of him who comes early to the wedding-feast, and when over-fed and tired goes his way, saying that all feasts are violation and all feasters law-breakers?
Alternative Lord’s Prayer
Spirit of Life and Love, here and everywhere,
May we be aware of your presence in our lives.
May our world be blessed.
May our daily needs be met,
And may our shortcomings be forgiven,
As we forgive those of others.
Give us the strength to resist wrong-doing,
The inspiration and guidance to do right,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
We are your hands in the world; help us to grow.
May we have compassion for all living beings,
And receive whatever life brings,
With courage and trust.
Reading from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
What shall I say of these save that they too stand in the sunlight, but with their backs to the sun?
They see only their shadows, and their shadows are their laws.
And what is the sun to them but a caster of shadows?
And what is it to acknowledge the laws but to stoop down and trace their shadows upon the earth?
But you who walk facing the sun, what images drawn on the earth can hold you?
You who travel with the wind, what weather-vane shall direct your course?
What man’s law shall bind you if you break your yoke, but upon no man’s prison door?
What laws shall you fear if you dance, but stumble against no man’s chains?
And who is he that shall bring you to judgement if you tear off your garment, yet leave it in no man’s path?
People of Orphalese, you can muffle the drum, and you can loosen the strings of the lyre, but who shall command the skylark not to sing?
God, our Father and Mother,
Great Spirit of Life and Love,
All of us need love and connection,
In order to thrive as human beings,
To grow into our best selves.
In this time of social isolation,
Help us to show our love in other ways.
May those of us who are well,
Give generously of our time and effort,
To help those around us who are in need,
And to make them feel less alone,
By keeping in regular touch.
May those of us who are vulnerable, or ill,
Receive the help we need, and accept it with grace.
Although e-mails and phone calls
Are no substitute for the warmth
Of closer human contact,
May we all share whatever love we can,
And grow together in virtual community.
Reading from The Gospel of John, Chapter 8, verses 3-12.
The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
Time of Stillness and Reflection
Let us now join in a time of stillness and reflection. The Buddhist Mettabhavana, or Prayer of Loving Kindness, is often used in Unitarian services, or for personal meditation. This is my version of it. After each line, I invite you to close your eyes, and pray for the people concerned, using the words given, if you wish…
First of all, we pray for ourselves: May I be well, may I be happy, may I be free from harm, may I find peace.
Next, we pray for our loved ones, those people who are dear to us: May they be well, may they be happy, may they be free from harm, may they find peace.
Next, we pray for someone less well-known to us, about whom we have no strong feelings, but whom we might know better, if we made the effort: May they be well, may they be happy, may they be free from harm, may they find peace.
Next, we pray for people we don’t know, for all the people who are doing their best to make a positive difference in the world, and for those who are lost in places of scarcity, grief and fear: may they be well, may they be happy, may they be free from harm, may they find peace.
Next, we pray for someone we dislike, or find it difficult to get on with: may they be well, may they be happy, may they be free from harm, may they find peace.
Finally, we pray for the world: may all be well, may all be happy, may all be free from harm, may all find peace.
May all find peace, today and always, Amen
Musical Interlude A Welsh Wedding by Elizabeth Hornby
Address On Law
In the last couple of weeks, our government has begun to introduce plans to slowly transition out of lockdown. So it is appropriate that this week’s readings from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet are concerned with laws and how people respond to them. Because although the lockdown regulations of the first weeks may have seemed harsh, at least we knew where we were with them. They now seem to have been replaced by a lot of very ambiguous advisory stuff, and it is far less easy to know what to do for the best. In our Unitarian context, the stage 3 transition allows for the possible re-opening of our churches and chapels from 4th July, the issues involved in ensuring our safety and that of our congregations are complex. I have sent a document formulated by the LDPA working group to all our congregations, as it lays down some of the factors which we need to consider.
Enough politics. Our attitudes to laws are fascinating… are we like the children building sand-towers in my first reading, who “delight in laying down the laws, yet… delight more in breaking them”? Or are we more like those “to whom life is a rock, and the law a chisel with which they would carve it in their own likeness”? Or are we more like the ox and the serpent, who are bound by their own laws, and resent those who break them? Or are we like “him who comes early to the wedding-feast, and when over-fed and tired goes his way, saying that all feasts are violation and all feasters law-breakers”?
I find the varying responses of people to laws are intriguing. I have found that they make more sense if we think of them in the light of Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Four Tendencies. In this fabulous book, which I cannot recommend too highly, she divides people up into four categories, depending on how they respond to expectations, which could be interpreted as how they respond to laws…
The Upholder responds well to both inner and outer expectations. They are good at keeping resolutions, working through to-do lists and doing what they believe is right, which are inner expectations, and also to complying with outer expectations, such as obeying laws and turning up to meetings and fulfilling their responsibilities to others. When I first picked up the book, I thought I was an Upholder.
But I soon discovered that I am a Questioner. Who is a person who turns all expectations into inner expectations – they will only meet outer expectations, such as obeying laws etc, when they make sense to them. So, for example, although I have a high sense of responsibility, I will struggle with obeying a directive from “on high” (whatever form “on high” takes) unless it makes sense to me. If it does make sense, then I will obey. But never unquestioningly. So I’m really struggling with these new, very ambiguous directions that we’re now getting.
Obligers are those who will always fulfil the expectations of others, for example, doing something if another person or people expect it of them, but find it hard to keep to inner expectations, any “rule” they try to lay down for themselves. Such people struggle to lose weight on their own, for example, but are good at doing so, if they are held accountable by attending a weekly meeting of a slimmers’ group.
Finally, there are Rebels, who resist both inner and outer expectations. They will only do something if they feel like it. Or if they can be persuaded that complying will be fun. So they will respond negatively to any outer recommendations, such as are in force at present. Being told to do something will lead to a negative reaction. No, I won’t. Try and make me.
It seems to me that there are many responses to laws: we can be like the people who see life as “a rock, and the law a chisel with which they would carve it in their own likeness”, who believe that everyone should do what they say. Or like the ox, who cannot imagine not being yoked by laws. Or like the serpent, who is unable to do something, so calls anyone who can do whatever it is, a law-breaker. Or like the kill-joy who sates himself early, and judges all those who enjoy themselves in different ways. According to the Prophet, all these are people who mould the law to suit themselves, and judge anyone else who doesn’t think as they do.
But there is also the opposite problem – people who “delight in laying down the laws, yet… delight more in breaking them.” And who think it is fine to disregard laws if they believe that it will have no effect on other people, regardless of the evidence. For example, from last Wednesday, we have been advised to wear masks when doing our food shopping. Because it has been proved that wearing a mask helps to prevent the corona virus infection from spreading. Yet my husband went to our local Tesco on Friday, and he estimated that less than 10 per cent of the people in the shop were wearing masks. Why not?
I think Jesus must have been a Questioner. In the Sermon on the Mount, he engages with the Jewish Law and offers alternative interpretations. And in the passage I shared with you, from the Gospel of John, he subverts the law completely with one simple sentence: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
This is an entirely different attitude towards the law. He seems to be saying that it is only possible to judge others if we are completely blameless ourselves. But of course none of us are… So I think that his attitude towards the law must remain aspirational, while I mainly agree with his attitude towards judgement. If that makes sense…
Yet without laws, how would our society function? If anyone could do whatever they liked, whether it was safe for themselves and others or not, I believe that society would soon break down. I think that most people will obey laws if they are seen to make sense. For example, when the seat belt laws were introduced, back in the 1960s, or the motorcycle helmet laws in the early 1970s, there was a lot of grumbling about restrictions on freedom. But both these laws have been clearly proved to be beneficial, saving many lives, so we now obey them without thinking about it. And we buy our children car seats, so that they can be safe in our cars. Whereas when I was a child, even when seatbelts were the law in the front seats, we never had to “belt up” (or at least not in that sense!!) in the back. And when my own children came along, I would not have dreamed of taking them anywhere without the car seats.
I suppose that the real question is, how do we discern the difference between “good” laws, which should be observed and followed, and “bad” ones, which we may flout, if they don’t seem to make sense to us. I believe that this dichotomy applies not only to legal laws, but also to societal expectations. Which can be as harsh as any law. So for example, although many in our society still condemn anyone who is not strictly heterosexual, we, as Unitarians, were delighted when the law changed to allow members of the LGBT+ community to marry in our churches and chapels. And we worked hard to bring this law onto the statutes. This is an example of discerning a bad law, and seeking to change it.
In the end, each of us can only use our own judgement, and do the best that we can to live as responsible members of society. May it be so.
Our time together is drawing to a close.
May we return to our everyday world refreshed,
May we share the love we feel,
And do the work that is ours to do.
May we look out for each other,
And may we keep up our hearts,
Now and in the days to come,
Musical Postlude For My Beloved by Elizabeth Hornby