Saturday, 7 October 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 8 October 2107 Pentecost 18

Readings:  Psalm 19, Isaiah 5: 1-7,  Matthew 21: 33-46

We pray:  O God open to us your word from scripture – may we hear your truth for us and take it into our hearts and minds, forever changed, forever challenged, forever encouraged.  In Jesus name we pray.  Amen.

The parable of the wicked tenants. One of the more bloodthirsty parables of the Gospels, our reading for today is graphic in its challenge.  Innocent people killed and greed and power prevailing.  It has an obvious and pointed message – the prophets and then the son killed by the people who they wanted to restore into right relationship with God.  They didn’t want to know.  Like all the stories that Jesus tells, we are compelled to engage and dig deeper, and with this parable in particular all the more so as it is remarkably helpful for us as church today – this is not a story we can leave in the mists of a less enlightened time but one we need to bring right into the living rooms of today.

The analogy of the vineyard is not new in the scripture – and we have heard today the same imagery from Isaiah where we have a God who is perplexed and weeping over the destruction of his vineyard, of Israel.  A vineyard planted with all tenderness, nurtured with love, all the supports put in place, but despite the preparation and the care, the vineyard turns toxic - producing thorns and briars – ruin and destruction because of unfaithfulness. 
Jesus is drawing on this teaching from the Hebrew Scriptures as he paints a picture for the people of his time.   And we too need to put ourselves into the contemporary vineyard that is God’s place of welcome and provision in the 21st century.  And we find some unsettling moments when we do.

And so we begin to unpack the parable of the wicked tenants in our history and for today.
John Calvin, writing 500 years ago certainly saw the significance of this parable for his time – and identified two main points that a church of any time should consider:  one is that we are to expect rejection of the Gospel, rejection of Jesus not just from people outside the church but also from those within, from religious leaders who are given responsibility for making Jesus Christ know but who in fact completely reject the cornerstone of their church and go the wrong way.  Secondly Calvin reminds us that, whatever contrivances are mounted against the church from inside or from without, God will be victorious.

Let us think about the first of these propositions – that of rejection. And the first thing to define is what is being rejected.  The rejection is not in the end of the bible or a system of ideas or propositions inviting assent.  It is instead a rejection of the defining issue of our faith – a rejection of Jesus.  The tenants did not kill an idea, a principle or a system of doctrine, they killed the landowners son!  The gospel comes to us as a person. 

So how might we be rejecting the person of Christ, the cornerstone of our faith, today?
Of course we know well the attack on faith, any faith, from without - people especially swallow the persuasive words of those who aggressively and in the name of rationality reject any form of ‘greater than’.  Their books are on the best seller lists these days, in the airport bookshops, make the news online.  We don’t see nearly as much space given to the well thought out and engaging writings on faith or belief. They’re just boring unless they are extremist writings in which case they are either placed in with comedy on the shelves or labelled terrorist and, whichever way, usually the entire faith community is tarred with the same brush.  And then there is the other effective rejection -  the apathy, mockery, irrelevance, ears unable or unwilling to or not bothered to hear.

The attack from within, though, is much more insidious and dangerous.  For we trust those in leadership generally, and this parable is a timely reminder that it is so easy for us to be led (or lead) by the nose into paths that are completely at odds with the way Christ leads us.    
‘Let us kill him and get his inheritance’ takes on a dark meaning when we see the tenants in the light of leadership in the church today – money rules, hatred, violence, self praise.  But we are not like that are we? Oh yes.
I have a story that beggars belief but one that point us to the distance we can put between Jesus love for the world and the way in which so called Christian leaders have usurped that to their own understanding, killing the landowners son again and again and again.  Hear this and weep:
Written by an evangelical pastor in the U.S.:
Sitting at a dining room table full of fellow evangelical pastors, I asked how many were “carrying” (a euphemism for being armed with a concealed handgun). They all raised their hands. Then I asked, “What determines when you draw your gun and prepare to shoot another human being?” There was awkward body language and mumbling. After a few seconds passed, one older man said, “I’ll tell you what determines whether I draw the gun or not. It’s the man’s skin colour”.  And he went on to say black people don’t belong and are so much more dangerous for thinking they do – so I shoot ‘em.  Everyone around the table nodded in agreement.  The writer was unable to reconcile that he was one with them in faith but not, as he put it, in guns and race.  But I would challenge that – and say that their faith has gone toxic if it allows them to justify such attitudes in the name of Christ. By all that is holy, church leaders who act like this are not Christ followers.

Perhaps this story to us is just an anathema – too outside of our experience to begin to comprehend – but there will be things we are doing and attitudes we are living by that are also abhorrent to the one who is the cornerstone of our church.
Some thoughts (and I suspect you will have more):
Ø  Where preachers and leaders have made the rules of being church in direct conflict with the teachings of Jesus’ for example feed the hungry, look after the poor – then we are turning on our fruitful vineyard into desert. 
Ø  Where we are only concerned for self or denigrate those who think differently, we have lost sight of the complexities and rhythms and differing talents needed in the vineyard – then we are turning the nurturing soil into wasteland.
Ø  When we preach hatred and division, supremacism rather than equality and violence rather than peace – well then we have truly become the same as those wicked tenants – actively killing all that is right and good and loving and replacing them with our ideas of right inheritance – actually not so far from that story from the States after all.  Think the holocaust, slavery, subjugation of women, Soviet gulags, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, treatment of Maori in this country….

But before we get too down, let us remember that Jesus does not leave us in the depths of despair, nor does he allow that God gives up on us.  He reminds the leaders of the church of the day that those who choose their own way over the way of Jesus will fall, and that others will be found who will produce the fruits of the kingdom, who will follow the teachings of the person of Jesus, who will persevere, will be faithful because they see the purpose of the vineyard owner through the son who comes to reconcile and heal.

The cornerstone is secure, nothing will move it.  The attack on Jesus is ultimately fruitless – because, we are told,  nothing we can do will alter that fact that God has provided the vineyard that will bring forth fruit for the kingdom.  And those who think they can change the nature of that fruit to their own purpose will fail.   
God has prepared everything we need for fruitful living – planted a vineyard for us that offers us all we need and placed Jesus at the centre of it - it is for us to respond, welcoming and walking in the way of Jesus or rejecting him in false living and blind teaching.   
And only each of us can answer what our response will be – but please let us not be the tenant farmers, blind to the approaches of a God who loves us, nurtures us and delights in us, people who have lost sight of the one who gives us all that we could ever want or need. 

It seems right to finish with the words of the psalm, the words that remind us of God’s gift to us, the people of God.  The law of God is perfect, reviving the soul;  the decrees of God are sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of God are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of God is clear, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of God is pure, enduring for ever; the ordinances of God are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. 

Margaret Garland

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 1 October 2017 Pentecost 17 World Communion Sunday

Readings:  Philippians 2:1-13  Matthew 21:23-32

Jesus table manners based on a writing by John Bell[1]

We pray:  Loving God, we pray that we will hear your word for us today – that our ears, our hearts and minds would be open, hearing again your words of encouragement and anticipating new truths for us to explore.  Amen.
I often wonder if we realise just how radical Jesus was.  For the time he was seriously subversive, somewhat rude and definitely a thorn in the side of those who wanted people to behave decently and in good order. In the reading from Matthew he is speaking his mind – and in the way of great debaters, tangling his opponents with questions that have no obvious answer and stories that turn you back to front and upside down. And invariably, as we read in scripture, Jesus makes his final verbal thrust with clarity and precision.  No one could go away from that encounter in the temple without a very clear understanding of the point made.

And John Bell suggests that one of the places that Jesus was at his challenging best was around the table – which is a little surprising considering how we can see the table as a place of peace where all differences are put aside in the unity of Christ.   Let us see where John Bell takes us.  He begins with a table story of his own experience but I suspect many of us might well have our own example to recount:
First of all he speaks of three things that people in his home town of Kilmarnock referred to in muted tones – generally to keep the peace we suspect.  They were cancer, Catholics and women’s troubles.  And he recounts the story of a Mrs Dunlop who was particularly adept at random embarrassing asides– and she saved her best for anything Catholic.  The whispered ‘Did you know that she is descended from a Catholic great grandmother?’ as a women walked by.  So the day came when, with great trepidation, her grandson came to dinner with his fiancé –who happened to be Catholic.  And the extended family were on edge, hoping against hope that no inappropriate words would suddenly emerge from the Dunlop matriarch.  And all went well until, in the middle of a particularly stodgy rice pudding, apropos of nothing out came the words: ‘Well there is one thing I have always said about Catholics – they are good singers.’  Lousy timing, embarrassing moment, choking in the indigestible rice pudding.  And John Bell finishes the story by saying how like Jesus was this woman.

That brings us up short for a moment.  Because, says Bell, Jesus at a meal, inevitably said the right things at the wrong time.  At the least people were upset, and at best he created livid consternation.  Makes us think twice about speaking of the passive ‘unseen’ guest that Jesus is at table and I wonder too if it challenges our insistence on silence at we eat and drink the bread and wine of communion?  Be good to think about that sometime.

What were Jesus’ table manners really like?  In the gospel of Luke, says John Bell, there are ten different occasions of Jesus at table and every single one has an element of surprise at least. 
In Levi’s house he sat down to eat with tax-gathers and sinners – and he insults his critics by saying that perhaps they need his company more than those who are pickled in self-righteousness.
He insults Martha, the industrious housekeeper, by telling her to stop fussing about whether there is enough gravy in the stew and to sit down and listen to him.
He dines in the house of Simon the leper and disgusts his host by not only allowing a woman to wash his feet with her tears, but by telling Simon that the woman is showing him up when it comes to real hospitality.
He confounds the disciples in an upstairs room when, in the middle of a fellowship meal, he reveals an awkward truth - that one of the company is going to betray him.
Remember him being chastised by his distinguished Pharisee host for forgetting to wash the hands, and his reply ‘You Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and the plate. But inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools…..’
Can you imagine the silence that would follow that outburst?
Makes Mrs Dunlop seem positively benign.  You can’t imaging the rotary club of the day inviting Jesus as the after dinner speaker can you?

But there is another point that Bell makes: that meals taken in the presence of Jesus are a blessing to some and a provocation to others.  Think of each of those examples. So what is Jesus trying to do.  Why so abrasive? 
John Bell suggest that it is really quite simple – that Jesus is exposing what no one else has noticed – that their obsession with detail, their prissiness about what is right is covering up the fraudulence of their existence, that in identifying the wrong in others was all about preventing others recognising what was wrong in them. 

His words: ‘But Jesus is not impressed by the outward display, be it piety or righteousness or good manners or perfect procedure, if that is at odds with an inner self which is emaciated, damaged or denied. 

And he suggests that when we come to sit around the Lord’s table, we are offered a fragment of bread and a sip of wine through which Jesus Christ in his fullness enters into us to deal with the dirt and the frustration and the yearning which too often our external lives disguise.  And in that same moment of sacrament God provides a specific moment and a specific means whereby we can be healed, forgiven, blessed and made new again.

And with John Bell I say to you:  around the table, Christ enters our soul – will we make room? Amen.

Margaret Garland

[1] Table Talk from States of Bliss and Yearning by John Bell, Glasgow: Wild Goose Publications, 2008 p. 93-99

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 24 September, 2017 Pentecost 16

Readings: Jonah 3:10 - 4: 11 Matthew 20: 1-16

We pray:  Gracious and merciful God, we pray that you would speak your truth into our hearts today, that we would challenged, encouraged and renewed to your service. Amen.

A sermon of two parts today – but one message: the grace and mercy of God is abundantly generous and is for all people. 
A statement that Jonah in our first reading absolutely disagreed with – when asked by God to deliver a message denouncing their wickedness to the people of Ninevah he ran in the opposite direction, not so much because he was afraid but because he suspected that if they listened they might repent and then God would forgive them. Because he knew his God’s ridiculous capacity for mercy. And Jonah didn’t think that they deserved any second chance. 

Whatever else you might think about Jonah – he had gumption.  Not a lot of wisdom but a heap of attitude. We know the story of his flight and God’s relentless pursuit – we all know the story of the his voyage at sea, his being chucked overboard, his encounter with a whale  – and his realisation that it was his own actions that had led him to this.  His prayer to God when he realised his predicament was deeply contrite for he realised how foolish he had been  – ‘as my life was ebbing away I remembered the Lord’. 
But then the graphic emotive description of life and death storms and grief that accompanied Jonah on the sea voyage become somewhat pedestrian when we hear the next part of the story. He was spewed up onto the land and walked to Ninevah. – he entered the city, cried out the words, ’40 days more and Ninevah shall be overthrown’.  The people heard the truth of his words and threw themselves on God’s mercy.  Jonah was right about the outcome, he knew that God would respond with compassion and thought that was wrong – that they should be punished for their evil ways. 
Jonah, who himself had pleaded for forgiveness and with it his life whilst in the belly of the whale wasn’t prepared to see that same mercy offered to the people of Ninevah! Seriously double standards here.  Hence the episode outside the city - the sheltering bush being eaten by the worm – lesson number two for Jonah – that if he valued the shade of a bush he had no other relationship with, how much more would God be concerned that the 120,000 people of Ninevah should see the error of their ways and come to a way of right living again.  We don’t know if Jonah needed more lessons in his life but we would suspect he did.

The teaching for us from this story – the persistent love of God that pursued both Jonah and the people of Ninevah for as long as it takes to get them on the right path and understand the justice and love that is the way of God.  Do we recognise that same guidance to shape our lives in the way of Jesus – that we are forgiven seventy times seven, that God’s grace and mercy are beyond generous when we stumble and fall and that no amount of turning our back will remove God from our lives and our living.

And it was lesson time too in the parable of the labourers in the vineyard.    Whether this speaks into the relationship of long-time Jewish Christians with newly arrived Gentile converts or the fact that some work hard and long hours for the kingdom and want others to prove themselves before they are fully admitted – Jesus reply is the same:  All I have promised you I have given you – I choose to offer that same to all who come to me! 
The complaining servants remind us that we can be so busy worrying about what it is that we don’t have or a perceived inequity in our lives that we forget to be grateful for what we do have
Where we see equal pay for equal work – Jesus offers a living wage to all.  Where we would carefully watch to see that fairness is upheld – God distributes generous grace so extravagantly that it actually deeply troubles us – it upsets our sense of right and wrong, our belief that we earn our way and receive that which we have worked for. 

There is a fundamental difference here: it's actually a place where our culture and our faith clash quite profoundly.  The abundance of God’s grace and mercy to us is hard for us to replicate to others.  We, like Jonah, like the labourers, get angry if we feel people haven’t paid their dues in some way.
We see it in the ethic that says people at the bottom of the economic heap don’t deserve decent housing, medical care, work opportunities.
We see it in the policies of governments that allow tax avoidance by those with money to burn when that money would contribute to the good of all.
We see it in the demeaning walk of shame that those in the welfare system encounter every day.
We see it in a society that says self comes first and community second.
We see it in the child poverty, the crisis in mental health, the consumer culture that exploits the poor and the powerless…. and so the list goes on.   

At the time of writing this I do not know the outcome of the election but I would hope and pray that our generosity as a nation to those who are still standing waiting to be picked at the end of the day would be the same as that landowner.  That our plenty would be distributed in a way that values all people despite their marketable skills or lack of them.  That would be the Jesus way and so is our way.

And that is for me the teaching from this story: God’s generosity is a gracious and undeserved gift to all people.  Where we look for equity, we are surprised by generosity.  Where we talk about deserving, we find love poured upon us without conditions.  When we look inwards at the fairness or not of our own situation, unexpected generosity is happening all around us and we have missed the celebration.

Our challenge is to turn our world view upside-down; to stop insisting that the books balance and instead to see the world through the love and grace and mercy of an insistently generous God who will not take no for an answer.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

Friday, 15 September 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 17 September, 2017 Pentecost 15

Readings:  Genesis 50: 15-21, Romans 14:1- 4, 7 – 12, Matthew 18: 21-22


We pray:  may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, our rock and our sustainer.  Amen.


In our very short excerpt from the Gospel reading today we have the beginning of another Peter/Jesus moment.  Peter speaks - thinking he is on the right track – and so he is because he recognises that we need to be much more generous in how many times we forgive someone who slights us.  But Jesus urges him to a greater understanding and responds with the parable of the unforgiving servant – the one where a slave comes before his king with an enormous debt –one that he could not hope to pay off in his lifetime and against all expectation and after some pleading his debt is forgiven.  Completely, utterly.  And then this forgiven soul, this person saved from being sold to pay debts, goes from his salvation to deny the same to one who is in debt to him.  He has his small time debtor thrown into prison, with no hint of mercy or understanding.


And Jesus suggests to Peter and to us, that as God forgives us completely and time and time again so too we should forgive and show mercy rather than judge – judgment, in the end belongs to God and God’s alone.


There is sweeping extravagance in this statement that doesn’t necessarily sit well with us.  Much of that has to do with our understanding of forgiveness, mistakenly feeling that to forgive is to condone or to forget or invite ongoing mistreatment.  That is a whole big discussion all by itself but today I would like to us to think about how our sense of who we are as beloved children of God impacts how we do relationship and therefore what we choose to take umbrage at in the first place.  I’m going to suggest that it is much easier to feel slighted by others than try to understand where they are coming from.  That we seem to have a culture of seeing different perspectives as a personal affront rather than a way of growing and learning. 

How can we instead create a way of living that invites truth telling without adversity- which in turn requires less in the way of forgiveness because we don’t feel wounded?  Now there is a big challenge.


Each of the readings from the lectionary today speak into this understanding of forgiveness in a different way.  Joseph, the young man betrayed by his brothers, sold off into slavery chooses, when his moment of potential retribution arrives, to say that there is no need for his pound of flesh, that although his brothers intended harm, he saw what happened as God’s plan for a greater good.  Now I am pretty sure that would not have been his thinking as he was bundled off into slavery but over time and in prayer he recognised that his forgiveness was a given well before his brothers asked for it.  He had worked out that it served no purpose, especially God’s, to exercise judgement on those who had harmed him and so he welcomed them with a truly open heart and welcome.  I wonder if the brothers learned from this in their interactions with others, unlike the servant in the parable.


Then from Romans we have Paul talking into a volatile situation – where a rather ‘self righteous’ group are saying that there is but one way to know God and it happens to be their way. They judge as wrong those who think differently and with that judgement comes a sense of superiority that then justifies them despising those with different views or approaches.

And Paul asks: who are we to put down those who God welcomes?  ‘Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgement on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.’[1] 

We stand or fall before God, not each other.  I’m not sure that this is completely understood in the church’s often very judgmental, exclusive approach to faith. Encouraging the people of God to follow the way of Jesus is just that – encouraging, discerning, listening, praying so that together we allow the Spirit to guide us in truth and love.  The way is not the noisiest pushing others off the path that they and not God have designed and operate the toll gate for!


There was a really good illustration of this in an online reading this week.  It was a blog re the election – the writer didn’t see how anyone who called themselves a Christian could possibly vote for Labour because they supported same sex marriage, abortion etc etc (ignoring the fact that the MPs had conscience votes by the way) – oh and the leader used the word comrade so she was a commie.  Then the replies came back – how could you not when National had done nothing about social justice, environment.  Into this maelstrom of oneupmanship came a voice of perspective – Malcolm Gordon – his words to the writer of the blog are to us all: A more useful approach might be to ask your Christian friends that might be voting Labour to help you see how their faith is leading them to do so.  It might garner more interesting responses with starting with increduility!”

It is not for us to judge the way in which others approach God or where they are at in their journey but rather to be in community with each other where respectfully hearing their story is as important as telling ours.  And when we want to challenge an approach not reacting in this adversarial way where words are spoken that need forgiveness but instead being good listeners as well as .


Instead there are other ways and a couple of conversations of this past week have got me thinking about this.


One is the way in which discussion and debate happens in the context of the marae – where the intent always is that each speaks their truth and that truth is respected if not agreed with.  In other words you don’t point score by dissing the other but by stating your position clearly and truthfully.  We could learn a lot from that form of sharing. I have listened to Rev Wayne Te Kaawa, ex moderator of Te Aka Puaho, the Maori Synod a couple of time speak into a wrong with integrity and respectfulness – to state the truth without insult, to challenge in a way that does not invite retaliation, to influence from his faith understanding without stepping on another’s.


The other is a research study that I have been involved in on Women in Ministry.  While there are a number of issues that arise from the respondents, one of the clearest is that the style of right and wrong, adversarial debate in our church meetings is an unhelpful and sometimes unsafe environment to speak into.  When we have majority voting that elates one side and sends the other into despair we are not being the church of Jesus Christ – we are being people who judge other people and seek to sort them out.  That is for God to do not us!


So today we have not so much addressed the issue of how to forgive and what forgiveness is but rather the way in which we use it as a weapon and a tool of judgement. 

As the beloved people of God how can we better understand that it is not just us who are welcomed (whoever ‘us’ might be) but all who turn to God.  When will we realise that it benefits no-one and certainly not God’s purpose in Jesus Christ for us as Christians to either create situations that require forgiveness or to withhold the power of forgiveness when we have been forgiven for all that we get wrong.  Are we unforgiving servants like the parable or does the power of God’s love transform us beyond ourselves into God’s purpose for the world – showing a new way to live together in love and respect and mercy, to forgive those who sin against us as God forgives us and to treat all whom we meet as God’s beloved children.  Amen.  So be it.


Margaret Garland

[1] Romans 14: 2

Monday, 11 September 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 10 September, 2017

Readings:  Proverbs 8: 22-31  Revelation 22: 1-5

We pray:
May you speak into our hearts and minds today O God, guiding us in your way and encouraging us and strengthening us for the journey in Jesus name.  Amen.

Our readings for today are, we could say, the bookmarks between which we exist – the beginning of time when the expectations for a world deeply cared for by humankind were strong , and the final chapter where the revelation of the end time when Christ comes again is imagined.  Both are places of great exuberance and beauty, of peace and reconciliation, of surplus and healing.  And if we want to imagine what that might look like today hear these words by Rob Ferguson from a ‘A Springtime Carol’ that picture a world where that same creation has the freedom to be full of all it could be. 
Look around you, see the bursting, life is breaking out, the earth is full.
Yellow, purple, green refreshing, snow is melting fast upon the hills.
Hear the river waters chuckling, [the] blossoms blowing, [the] flowers glowing, [the] mountains shine!
Look around you, see the bursting, life is breaking out with love divine!
It is a powerful picture – creation at its most productive, beauty surrounding us, at one with nature and with God.  And that sense of love just bursting out, unable to be contained is so compelling.

It is the same sense of awesomeness when we hear the words of Sophia, Wisdom from the Proverbs reading – rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race.  Sea, sky, land and all that inhabits it is blessed by God. 

I feel fortunate indeed to live in a land that enables me to imagine the possibility of that – to have an upbringing that includes communing with nature in that life defining way – to have children that understand it too – one of them wrote a poem about being down at a place we call ‘The Heads’ at the outflow of the Owaka River which I have in from of me in my office – it grounds me.
Celtic Christian spirituality understands that deep connection with the land – that we are intricately bound and earthed in the seasons and the dirt and the water that sustains us and that we are responsible for nurturing and caring for creation.  In Maori spirituality too is a deep understanding of being anchored in the land – it is who we have been, who we are and who we will walk into the future with.

And as Christians we are asked to have that same connection with God’s creation: we are asked to do more than simply experiencing this amazing world, we are asked to care for it, nurture it and sustain it for those who are yet to come. 

Yet we are pretty much doing the exact opposite – our planet is in pain, even in this slice of what was/is considered a veritable paradise.  Our rivers, our land, our skies, our flora and fauna, the ocean that surrounds us all full of chemicals and plastics and poisons that are killing it.
The world has fallen prey to a ‘don’t care’ attitude from the vast majority of our people.  Humankind no longer delight in this world but treat it as ours to exploit, trash, use in whatever way we desire.  When money is valued over environment, convenience over sustainability, the now over the longterm then the earth and all that is in it suffers.

Why is our Christian voice not shouting into this disaster?

Hear these words from Shirley Murray:

Where are the voices for the earth?
Where are the eyes to see her pain, wasted by our consuming path, weeping the tears of poisoned rain?

Sacred the soil that hugs the seed, sacred the silent fall of snow, sacred the world that God decreed [of] water and sun and river flow.

Where shall we run who break this code, where shall tomorrow’s children be, left with the ruined gifts of God, death for the creatures, land and sea?

We are the voices for the earth, we who will care enough to cry, cherish her beauty, clear her breath, live that our planet may not die.[1] 

This is a lament for our world; do we hear it?  You know if you read the book of Lamentations from the Hebrew Scriptures, as some of us have just done, you have this overwhelming sense of despair – of the people of God realising that they have got things so wrong that is appears there might be no way out this time.  Is that where we are at today? 
And even if we are not, if we still allow hope for better care of our earth, some don’t seem to grasp the urgency of it.  Our governments don’t – our retailers don’t, our consumers don’t, we don’t.  And in fact within the church some of us don’t actually see care for the environment as part of our Christian purpose.  Pope Francis has something to say to that:
"It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an “ecological conversion”, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience."[2]

Wise words, challenging words that give us no wriggle room at all.

Where is the hope for saving of our world?  We are it – as Christians we walk alongside and sometimes in front of all those others who care deeply and passionately for this earth and its inhabitants.  It is essential that we recognise our close relationship with the land, with God’s creating presence  here on this planet and beyond - and that it has been given into our care, our responsibility until the end time.

Imagine this:  springs abounding with clean water, mountains piercing an unpolluted sky, earth and fields and soil without rubbish and chemicals and with time to rest, seas without plastic - once again safe for the creatures of the ocean, sustainable farming and ecologically responsible urbanites, landfills running out of business and air that is sweet.  This our prayer, and God grant that what we pray for we would work to bring about.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

[1] Words Shirley Murray from Faith Forever Singing  #75
[2] Pope Francis, Laudato si', §217.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 3 September, 2017 Pentecost 13

Readings:  Romans 12:9-21 Matthew 16:21-28

We pray:  Holy God, God among us, give us ears to hear and hearts to understand that which you gift to us today from scripture.  May we know your will for us and walk in your way we pray.  Amen

At the close of the first Harry Potter book, headmaster Albus Dumbledore awards the winning house points not to the heroes who battled dark forces, but to a loyal friend who tried to prevent them seeking danger.  Dumbledore recognised that the courage it takes to stand up to one’s friends can be greater than the courage needed to stand up to one’s enemies.  Here today we have a courageous Peter, just a few days ago named the rock on which the church would be founded, stepping in and confronting Jesus about his pessimistic view of his ministry to come, his obvious wrong direction, telling him that he would do everything he needed to do to protect Jesus from this litany of suffering about to befall him.  ‘Not if I have anything to do with it’, he proclaims loudly and proudly.
Unlike Neville of Potter fame, poor Peter didn’t get rewarded – quite the contrary - his confidence, his grasping of the mantle of leadership shot down in front of everyone:  ‘Get thee behind me Satan!  The most scorching rebuke of the entire Gospel tells Peter that he has got it seriously wrong!
The rock becomes the stumbling block - the church makes its first false steps.

What we have here are two different narratives for the way forward.  Peter’s way is one of keeping Jesus apart from that which will cause him pain and anguish, keeping him safe so he can do his work.  He is arguing that they can’t let Jesus go through the tears and sweat, the blood and muck of humanity because after all he is God and he needs to be kept apart from that gungy reality, kept pure shall we say.
Jesus’ way is one of diving right in, immersing himself in the suffering of the world – that is his work.  That is why he came, to be visible in a world that is a mess, a world that desperately needs the hope of his walking alongside them and knowing firsthand the reality of its pain.

And we can’t help but ask if that same divide of narrative is still alive and well in our church today.
Do people prefer to keep the church safe and slightly detached rather than ‘endure in love the mess of the visible church’[1]
It happens.  Developing this theme a little more we can see times and approaches in our history, and now, where this desire to keep God’s church pure and unsullied often seems to be a driving force of our faith –following Peter’s narrative in other words.

For instance would it be possible that in Catholicism the elevation of Mary, the mother of God to being immaculately conceived is an example of not allowing anything touching God to be seen ordinary, human? 
Is it true that for some, the doctrines expounded by both Luther and Calvin have in some way been seen as descending straight from heaven, in their own way immaculately conceived: a way of keeping us safe within their understandings.
Is there a sense where the elevation of the immaculate church of the elect has triumphed over the need to be involved in the mess of the visible church in the world?  Some would think so.
And then we can come a little bit closer to current times - there is the Biblicism of fundamentalism, seen in America for sure but also throughout the world and here, where select and particular interpretation of scripture has allowed the keeping out of the marginalised, the different, the messy.  You may have heard of the Nashville Statement that has come out of the States recently.  The Statement, says Brian McLaren who was responding to the document, encourages a way of reading the Bible,[2] ‘to justify slavery, anti-Semitism, the suppression of women, the rejection of good science and the slaughter of native peoples.’  It appears to be creating a pure and pristine ‘us’ unsullied by sexual weirdos and people with different coloured skins and deviant views – pushing the ‘dirty other’ to the margins.  McLaren however says the release of this Nashville Statement is actually a good thing – for it makes explicit what has for a long time been practiced but not said, and clearly shows which churches are not safe nor accepting.  It also encourages, in its extremism, those churches that are engaged in living the Jesus narrative to clearly state their case and open their doors even wider, to be the visible face of the Christ who engaged with the edges of society rather than a sealing himself off in citadel on a hill.
A quote from Jin S. Kim: Our concern is not first and foremost the purity of the church or the rightness of our doctrine but our willingness to follow Jesus into the world and onto the cross.[3]
So Peter was rightly rebuked, his narrative had to be rethought and he had to endure the ignominy of getting it badly wrong – ‘Get behind me Satan’ was required!  But interestingly, if we dig a bit deeper here, the verb that is used for ‘get behind me’ is the same verb used elsewhere for ‘follow’!  So, we ask, as well as a rebuke is this also a call to Peter to follow the path of Jesus and to leave his own worldly narrative behind?
On Thursday of last week I attended a seminar at Holy Cross in Mosgiel – where the subject was ‘The Spirituality of James K Baxter’ – a man who totally chose to walk away from the world’s narrative and enter that of Jesus.  And it was a fascinating journey into a complex and driven man who has contributed to our life in New Zealand in many ways but most especially in his exploration of indigenous spirituality in this country.  He saw Maori society as aligning much more naturally with the path of Jesus, particularly in the care of and engagement with the marginalised, prisoners, homeless, addicts, the broken and the bottom of heap as he saw them and as he himself had experienced both in the fallout from his family’s pacificism and his own alchoholism.  He talked about the five stones that David used to take down Goliath (a metaphor for today’s evil and corrupt ways of living – a anecdote from a person there who was a young nun at the time in the convent by Jerusalem – Baxter said she worshipped the wrong trinity – in her case school certificate, the dollar note and respectability – don’t mince words Hemi); these stones that were fundamental to living in the Christian path of communion with God, stones that he found easily as values within Maori Society.
They were:
Arohanui – the love of many – communion of all no matter who.
Manuhiritanga – hospitality – the welcome of friend and stranger and outcast, each of whom always brought a gift for you if you were open to receiving.
Korero – speaking truth without fear.  All are to be heard and no-one told that they had lesser voice than another.
Matewa – night life of the soul – the place of darkness, of void, unsafe but the place you most truly meet God.
Mahi – work by the members of the community on behalf of the community.  Not about employment but sourced in your love for the community
Baxter talked about the surprising voice from the margins, the truth found in the broken and despised, the need for community for all.
His God was a welcoming, muck and all God who found worth in all people and especially in the broken.  He would have had some things to say (and did) about churches and people of faith who tried to keep detached from the reality of life all around them. 

Baxter, for all his human frailties and failings and arrogances, definitely chose to follow in the footsteps of Jesus – to be the indiscriminate love of Jesus in this unquiet world wherever it takes us.  He chose the narrative of Jesus.

When we gather at the table, when we leave here today, as we sing our final hymn ‘will you come and follow me…’ can we remember that the mark of one who follows the way of Jesus is to live in the world that took Jesus to the cross, into all the messiness and pain which are our lives, so that we might know the power of love and truth and service in all of our community.  Amen

Margaret Garland

[1] Jin S Kim in Feasting on the Word Year A, Volume 4  p.24
[3] Jin S Kim in Feasting on the Word Year A, Volume 4  p.24

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 27 August, 2017 Pentecost 11

Readings: Romans 12:1-8 Matthew 16: 13-20

We pray:  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our sustainer.  Amen.

In this past week, not for the first time, I have been contemplating the nature of community.  Aware as we are of the many different personalities and backgrounds and experiences of those we end up in community with, it begs the question of how we manage to maintain a togetherness that gets us through the ups and downs of close relationship.  And the truth is that sometimes we don’t and it doesn’t.
Sometimes the hurt is too much, the lack of attention too consistent, the division too high a wall to climb to the top of when you might not find anyone else there.  Other times the priorities you have change or, as we say, life moves on.
Communities that jell usually have a strong under pinning ethos – like the co-housing development in High Street focussing on sustainability and communal space – or an over-riding commonality of purpose like supporting the community you live in to support you.  It takes effort and enthusiasm and communication and even then it doesn’t take much to fracture the relationship, at least for some.
Good community allows for diversity but encourages common ground.  Community has to work hard to ensure no-one is intentionally ostracised and individuals have to work hard to grow and sustain community despite the odd hiccup. And to be effective community we need to help each other - generous at sharing our gifts but also at receiving the help of others, something we are not always good at.
Allow me a moment of nostalgia here: I was reminded of how a good rural community works the other day when I watched a video of cattle droving down in the Catlins – doesn’t happen so much these days of course – but there was a farmer and a neighbouring farmer, their horses and dogs moving cattle from Tahakopa down to Tautuku – helping each other, cars stopped and patient, cattle off the road on the beach where they could, greetings exchanged as they passed by……

In the readings for today we explore both what it means to be a strong community of faith and what the foundation of that community is.
In the letter to the Romans Paul is exhorting the Christian community to live out their faith in a way that reflects their baptism, their commitment to the way of Jesus and to recognise that holy living is in itself an act of worship to God. 
And the way he drives this home is by using the analogy of the body – made up of many parts, each of which needs the other to be effective.  Smell, touch, hearing, seeing, tasting, engine rooms and things they make work!
And why is he needing to paint this picture for them – because he is warning them against becoming too haughty, too proud, thinking themselves better than others.  For that only tears the community apart and rips up its foundations.  The rock on which the church is built becomes, as the hymn so wonderfully puts it, sinking sand.
It’s not the only thing, of course, that shakes our foundations but it is symptomatic of the dangers that Paul was aware people needed to be alert for in the new born church inRome.  Good community works when we remember why we are community.  And for us it is because of Jesus, the Messiah, the son of the living God.  He is the rock and it is his purpose that holds us close and demands a way of living that is not easily of this world.

As we have been going through the books of the bible, at this stage the Hebrew Scriptures, on Thursday nights there is one absolute that keep leaping out of the pages and that is what God continuously/repeatedly asks of us: to act justly, to care for the widows and orphans, the weak and the vulnerable, and to live in the way of love and reconciliation and mercy.   And time and time again the people of Israel turned their backs on caring for the community to which they belonged, the community that God had entrusted to them, and instead looked to their own desires and sense of importance and power.  It was this waywardness that God was constantly hauling them back from, redeeming them from the exile, the wilderness of self importance and self absorption. 
It’s what we do for each, how we act as community that stands witness for God’s love in our lives, the transforming power of Christ as our guide and light.  Not that we come to church or put Christian or Presbyterian in our census forms but how we live our lives as the community of faith.  We all have responsibility for caring for the body, for helping each other out, for caring for the needy (which includes each of us by the way), for the law of God is written on our hearts and we can do no other.

Remember those wonderful words, also from Jeremiah: “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. …[1]  We can do no other.

We here in this community of faith, we need each other, we support each other, we miss each other when we are separated, we have our ups and downs but as long as the foundation on which we are built remains Jesus, Son of the Living God then we keep strong to our purpose as community – and that foundation is: to love God, to walk in the way of Jesus, to care for each other, to speak up for the downtrodden and shelter the homeless, to make Jesus Christ known in our living.  Our understanding of what it means to be Christian has to be constantly discerned so that we are not distracted by those things that draw us away from worshipping God in our living as well as our words. 

I think we have some big conversations coming up as a church and as this community.  And I think we here will participate well in those conversations because we do have a strong community.

As the public perception of church is leaning more and more to total rejection, as the world sees Christianity being used to promote bigotry and hatred and violence, we need to be outspoken in our tolerance and love and reconciliation.  We can no longer keep silent hoping it will go away or afraid of showing that there is a different way.

As traditional church as we know it – parish, full time minister, a building for Sunday mornings, an ‘open the doors and they flow in’ mentality – is squashed between mega churches and strapped funding, we are challenged to think about how today we best function as the body of Christ – do the clothes need changing?

What of the community of Christ in this place – what happens when we are faced with making decisions on our future – building, ministry, mission.  Will we have the courage to be bold and outward facing as God’s community of faith putting our focus and our resources into being the gloriously creative and trasnforming body of Jesus, working together with all our skills and perspectives, vulnerabilities and strengths to make Jesus Christ known.  And the answer is:  Amen

Margaret Garland

[1] Jeremiah 31:33