A MID-WINTER Service

This service was prepared by the Rev. Ashley Sedon for The Stewardship Resource
‘Common Ground, Holy Ground”.

Introduction

This service has been written for use over the winter months.

  • When worshipping congregations are able to acknowledge that winter, death, decay and rest are all part of God’s good creation it may help people come to terms with the “winters” of their own lives.
  • At a time when many congregations are struggling to remain viable it may also prove a timely message.
  • This service may also help re-awaken people to the rhythms of nature which are so important in restoring and preserving the earth, and encourage them to work more actively for a “sabbath rest” for creation by “reducing, restoring and recycling”.

It at all possible, have the call to worship, prayers of praise and the first hymn outside the church.

A. Call to worship
  Come let us worship God with reverence
  For we stand on Holy Ground
  all around us is evidence of God’s good creation.
  Take off your shoes
  and walk humbly with your God.
  Come to God with the trust of a barefooted child
  secure in the knowledge that God will meet all of your needs.

A prayer of praise
Praise God for the wonders of creation, particularly those you are aware of as you stand outside the church.  Include such “wintry” things as the bare tree branches and the biting wind.

As a possible framework for your prayer you may choose to use each of your senses in turn.  For example, first praise God for what you hear, then see, smell etc.  (Different people can be invited well in advance to prepare a prayer using one of their senses.)

Possible hymn  “For the beauty of the earth” (With One Voice No. 77)
(Because you are outside this may be a good opportunity to invite someone in the congregation who plays an instrument - flute, guitar, violin etc. to accompany the singing.)

Now move inside the church (perhaps during the last verse, to avoid an awkward gap in worship) and firmly shut the doors.

Pause for reflection
Some of the following thoughts may helpfully be shared with the congregation to introduce them to the theme of the service.

You may comment positively on the warmth of the heaters and the brightness of the artificial light which add to the congregation’s comfort.

One of the privileges of living in the twenty-first century is that we are able to protect ourselves from the discomforts of nature - the cold, the heat, the rain.  We are proud, and rightly so, of our abilities to fertilise arid land and grow crops, to reclaim land from the sea, to harness electricity, to don spacesuits and walk on the moon.
But there is a downside to the way we have made nature work for us.  A downside for our world and a downside for the way we see ourselves as human beings.

World wide we are fast running out of some resources and hopelessly polluting others - in our need for productivity we seem to have set in motion something we can’t stop - we just don’t seem to be able to step back and give the earth the rest it needs to keep on going.

There are challenges for us too, living in a society that encourages us to install a hot water system that never runs out or take mid-winter holidays in Fiji, or to try such and such a product that will keep us young.  In this way we overinsulate ourselves from anything that winter might be able to tell us.  We can miss out on the message that rest, and even death, are part of God’s good creation.  That, like the winter trees, we also need times to recharge our batteries so that we can go on to do new things, as individuals and as a congregation.

Possible Hymn:  “How Great Thou Art”  (With One Voice No. 628)

A prayer of confession
Loving God,
Forgive us for the careless ways we sometimes use the resources of this earth.
Help us to learn to live more simply.
Risk taking God,
forgive us for the times when we choose to keep on our shoes, and indeed all our armour plating rather than risk being hurt or changed in some way.
Help us to know when it is time to stop our planning and organising for a minute;
When it is time to wait and listen for your “still small voice”.
For many of us our life has been full of hustle and bustle and there has been little time for rest or reflection.
Help us to slow down a little in this coming week and take stock of our lives.
May the bleakness of winter remind us to do this honestly.
For others of us our week has been an empty wintry one.
Help us not to give up hope.
May the early buds of spring remind us of your resurrection love.
Amen.

Possible readings

Leviticus 26:3-11, 32-35   Psalm 139:7-16
Eccl. 3:1-8     Jeremiah 8:4-9
Matthew 6:24-34    Matthew 10:5-10
Romans 8:28-39    John 12:24-26

Possible hymn  “First set your mind....”  (With One Voice No. 635)

A reflection

(You may choose to use this poem for a time of reflection before, or instead of, the sermon.)

The Sacrament of Letting Go - ©  Macrina Wiederkehr  used by permission

I worry too much.  Autumn trees ask me not to worry.  They, like Jesus, suggest trust rather than worry.  So often in autumn I want to lean my head against a tree and ask what it feels like to lose so much, to be so empty, so detached, and then simply to stand and wait for God’s refilling.  It sounds so simple, so easy.  It isn’t easy.......

Slowly
she celebrated the sacrament of letting go
first she surrendered her green
then the orange, yellow and red
finally she let go of her brown
shedding her last leaf
she stood empty and silent, stripped bare.
Leaning against the winter sky
she began her vigil of trust.

And Jesus said:
Why do you worry about clothes?  Remember the flowers growing in the fields; they do not fret about what to wear; yet I assure you not even Solomon in all his royal robes was dressed like one of these.

Shedding her last leaf
she watched its journey to the ground.
She stood in silence
wearing the colour of emptiness,
her branches wondering:
how do you give shade with so much gone?

And Jesus said:
Do not be troubled or needlessly concerned
and then,
the sacrament of waiting began.
The sunrise and sunset watched with tenderness.
Clothing her with silhouettes
they kept her hope alive.
They helped her understand that
her vulnerability
her dependence and need
her emptiness
her readiness to receive
were giving her a new kind of beauty.
Every morning and every evening
they stood in silence
and celebrated together
the sacrament of waiting!

And Jesus said:
Now if this is how God cares for the wild flowers in the fields which are here today and gone tomorrow, will he not care all the more for you...?

A children’s talk
Read to the children, or retell the story of “The Secret of Beaver Valley” by Buffet Goodman & Spicer.
(This book is out of print but readily available from the Public Library)

A suggested sermon outline
If you look closely at the bare winter trees, what at first seems dead and barren already holds the buds of new life.  They remind us that the cycle of death to life, winter to spring is a God-given rhythm within everything.

Jesus’ parables carry many messages, depending on the hearer.

The stories of the lilies of the field, seed that dies etc. bring challenge to the comfortable, but hope and consolation to the suffering.

You may choose to explore these two strands in turn.

How did the first hearers of Jesus, of Matthew or John’s gospel respond to these stories?  How do we respond in the pews?  What about starving people in developing countries?

Even in our own relatively affluent community there are many for whom winter is a present reality because of loss, illness or change.

Fears of having to let go of everything (the last few leaves of an autumn tree) are by no means only selfish fears.  “What can I offer to others now out of my emptiness” is a very real concern for some older people.

Perhaps we need to recognise that winter is part of God’s good plan not just for plants and animals, but for us too.  Can we learn to see that just as God is with us in the summer of our busyness so God is with us in the winter of our enforced rest and finally death.  There is no circumstance in our life when God is not lovingly involved.

For many of us though, Jesus’ words are a sharp reminder which pierces our comfortableness.  A reminder that we too need to stop an take stock; that we too may be called upon to “shed some leaves” to make way for new growth - for the new thing that God wants to do in our lives individually and as a congregation.

The idea of being born again is a recurrent one in the New Testament.  It carries with it a call to shed all unnecessary encumbrances, to risk losing things which we see as important.  Only when we do this can we enter into the fullness of life which is the Kingdom of God.

What might this mean for your congregation?  Are you struggling, stagnating? - the buds on the winter trees offer hope of new life.  Are you very busy doing things?  What times might you set aside to listen for God’s small voice, to take stock of who you are and where you are going.  Have you some “leaves” - traditions? possessions? power structure? - that need to be shed before you can experience new growth?

To end...

You may choose to end by inviting the congregation to support one positive action which is relevant to your congregation’s position.  For example, a mid-week prayer meeting or a more reflective service once a month.  A “pruning” activity which examines how welcoming and affirming your congregation is to all people.

An alternative plan for the sermon would be to focus on the rest that the earth is so badly in need of, using the readings from Leviticus as a starting point.

Possible hymn  “Yes as the clay”  (Alleluia Aotearoa No. 162)

The response

Some suggestions have been given at the end of the sermon outline.

  • Another possible way to respond to God’s message of winter would be a positive affirmation of the joys of winter.  People could bring to the front of the church and display such winter symbols as bare branches and ice, seasonal fruit and vegetables, winter sport and recreational gear.  You will be able to think of many more possibilities.
  • Another, long-term response could be a commitment to reduce some of the possessions or power we use to insulate ourselves from our mortality, and to share these things with others.  Special thought could be given to the way we use and abuse the finite resources of the earth in this way.

People could be asked to think about their response over the next week or so and then bring their ideas (or belongings) for sharing at a special organised time.

  • A further long-term response could involve the symbolic planting of seeds such as Alyssum or the distribution of dormant bulbs.  People could plan to use the waiting time (perhaps ten minutes of each day) to reflect on what God wants them to do in the coming year.  This could be an individual or congregational commitment.  As the bulbs or seeds flower then people could start to act on their plans.  Again the emphasis could be particularly on ways to care for creation.
  • The immediate response will involve the offering.

An offertory prayer
God, our provider
as you have dressed the camellias in all their splendor
so you have provided for us
as you have given rest to the trees in the winter landscape so you meet all our needs.
With thankful hearts we bring you our offering.
May our money and other gifts of time and abilities be used to meet the needs of others in our community so that all may rejoice in Your goodness.
Amen

A prayer of intercession
God of life and death
We pray for those who are facing the end of life with fear.  May they come to know that your love reaches out to enfold even in death.
We pray for those, and we are many, who find it hard to accept ourselves the way we are and choose to hide behind the masks of possessions and power.  Help us to risk living with a little less of these and to look at ourselves without fear through your eyes of love.
We pray for those in our world for whom it always seems winter, who have no hope of the warmth and brightness of a spring just around the corner.  Those who have no food, no home, no money, no work.  Help us to find ways to share what we have with them.
God of creation, we pray for your world teetering on the brink of a long bitter winter brought about by human neglect.  Help us to work to restore a balance.  Help us to rediscover and observe the rhythms of creation which you wisely put into place.  So that spring will follow winter and autumn, summer and all may enjoy the fruits of your good creation.

We pray for our congregation as we face the challenges of the future and look for your will for us.  Help us to run the risk of losing things which we hold as precious so that we are more able to reach others with your good news.  Help us to be wise in deciding what, if anything, to discard, what new vision, if any, we should pursue.  Help us trust you for the new spring life which can flow out into our community.
Amen.

Possible hymn  “Our life has its seasons” (Alleluia Aotearoa No. 113)

Benediction
Go now.  May we not be in too much of a hurry to cocoon ourselves against the chills of winter.  Let us go out with new eyes to see the beauty of winter’s time of rest for all creation.  Let us use our rest times wisely to find the essentials of life, to be refreshed and ready to serve.  Amen.

An alternative way to finish
A small group could begin singing “All will be well” (Alleluia Aotearoa No. 2).  As they move around the church they “pass on” the blessing to others until the whole congregation is singing.