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Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Then he said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’ But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’ He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.
When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’
By Rev'd Dr. Alan Billings
Inevitably, and rightly, all our media this week have been dominated by stories and images from Ukraine. The one that has stayed in my mind most vividly was a brief interview with a young Ukrainian woman in a town in the east that had just been bombed. She stood, dazed, looking around at the smoking ruins of the block of flats where she lived.
Everything was destroyed. She had survived because she had been in a basement. The reporter – I suspect not quite knowing what question to put - asked her what she had lost in the bombing. I think he expected her to talk about material things – the destruction of her home and all her possessions. She paused for a moment and then said, ‘I have lost my future.’
I have lost my future.
She didn’t mean she has no future. But the future that beckons for her, if Russia takes over her country, is a future that will be determined by others and not her, by strangers and not her fellow citizens.
There’s been a lot of speculation about whether the Russian president is mentally unhinged. I don’t know about that; but what I do so see in him is a form of behaviour that we have become very familiar with in other contexts in recent years. We call it coercive control.
We see it, for example, in domestic situations where one partner, usually male, seeks to control his female partner. He must know where she is, what she is doing, who she is seeing. He may control the finances. He may insist on looking at her mobile phone. Psychological and sometimes physical abuse. The partner becomes an anxious or frightened victim, always on edge, always trying to please or at least not displease for fear of the consequences.
When a mother who is financially dependent on her male partner, is subjected to this coercive and controlling behaviour, she can feel hopelessly trapped. Her future is taken from her. To protect the children she suffers the abuse, fearful of what the consequences might be if she should try to challenge or leave. There is support available, but it is a big and brave decision to get it.
Coercive control and the feelings of fear and menace it produces. This is the atmosphere that tyrants generate around them.
And you can see it in today’s gospel. As Jesus gets closer to Jerusalem, those in power start to notice him, and don’t like it. The country is occupied by the Romans but they have installed a local ruler, a Jewish king, Herod, to act for them. He finds the teaching of Jesus threatening and seeks to control him by inducing feelings of fear and menace. Some of those around Herod, Pharisees, come to Jesus to tell him that his life is in danger. In other words, do as you are told, stop teaching, stop healing, otherwise you’ll be taken off the streets and done away with. Coercive control.
Jesus, however, takes the bold decision not to stop but to challenge. “Go and tell that fox”, he says, “Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow; and the third day I finish my course.”
He refuses to be controlled. But there will be a price. We know what that price will be, because we know the full story. But those around Jesus at this moment don’t. But the menacing words the Pharisees bring - “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you” - must have caused at least a frisson of fear to run through them.
What had they got themselves into? Do they stick with Jesus or get out now, while they can. And if they stick with Jesus, do they arm themselves? You’ll remember that at least one of the disciples did just that, and in the Garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus was being arrested, struck a servant of the High Priest and cut off his ear.
What tyrants – whether political or domestic - in the end fear most is challenge that robs them of their power. We know that right to the end, those in power in Jerusalem think that Jesus is after worldly power. Later on Jesus will say to Pontius Pilate ‘My kingdom is not of this world, else would my servants fight’.
Christ’s kingdom is a spiritual one. A kingdom of values, if you like. But values which can’t be imposed on us. We must freely commit to them – to be loving, to be kind, to be open-hearted, to be generous, to be forgiving.
This is the kingdom Jesus seeks to bring, the kingdom of God. It is not a kingdom of this world but it is threatening to those who rule by coercion because it introduces a quite different power dynamic.
King Herod and Pontius Pilate want coercive control. They have power. They can break human bodies. And that is a fearful thing. The power that Jesus has is nothing like that. It is the power to influence human hearts. To show us a better way of living – better for all and not just a few. But it has to be freely chosen.
And that free choosing is what disturbs the tyrant.
Prepared by Lizzie Ilsley
God, who is Compassion
We come to you as bewildered children, trying to make sense of the world we find ourselves in, asking questions about our place, our role, our complicity and our purpose.
Gather us, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, in our bewilderment.
Help us to turn to your Love as a source of strength and clarity; to fasten our hearts to the truth and to inform our decisions and responses to unfolding crises, near and far.
Help us to speak truth to power.
We pray for those who hold responsibility for decisions which have the power to change peoples’ lives – may they discern what is right, and reject that which is harmful to others.
Lord in your mercy,
Hear our prayer
God, who is Mercy
We hold before you all in acute shock and suffering today.
We pray for healing for the families of those killed recently in ongoing ethnic violence in western Ethiopia.
We pray for all people who are suffering the effects of individuals’ thirst for power and control, particularly in Yemen and Ukraine.
We pray for mothers who are giving birth in war zones – particularly the women of Mariopol maternity hospital, bombed earlier this week.
We call to mind families who are grieving the sudden or unexpected death of loved ones – in road traffic accidents, through murder or suicide. We particularly call to mind the family of the 19 year old man stabbed in Bury on Friday. May his family know your love through the care and support of his community.
Lord in your mercy
Hear our prayer
God, who is Justice
In the week of a formal apology at Stormant for historical abuse, we hold in our prayers all those who are living through abuse, and for survivors. We pray for those who do not speak out, and suffer daily, for fear of not being believed. We hold those who have spoken out, and were not believed.
We pray that the Church, and those who are in authority within it continue to be open and accountable for past and present abuses. Help us to acknowledge and understand that forgiveness is not the opposite of justice and that forgiveness does not remove the need to protect the vulnerable.
We pray for all those working in safeguarding. May the Church be known as a safe and nurturing place to be, where your grace and compassion is not earnt, but encountered freely and lavishly.
Lord in your mercy
Hear our prayer
God whose love is all
We pray for those who are mourning, unwell, and those recovering from illness or accident, particularly those in this congregation and their families
We pray for those who have died, in this community and beyond, and for all those who mourn their loss, including Sunita
Remembering those whom we love, but no longer see
God of justice, truth and love
Inspire us with your Spirit to let your Kingdom come.
Lord in your mercy
Hear our prayer