Saturday, 27 May 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 28th May 2017 Ascension Sunday

Readings:   Ephesians 1: 15-23 Paul’s Prayer Luke 24: 44-53 The Ascension of Jesus

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

We have heard in the reading today from Luke an account of the last great commissioning by Jesus – you are the ones who will continue to witness in the power of the Holy Spirit, you are the ones who will continue the story begun before time, made known through the law of Moses, the prophets, the psalms and revealed in the personhood of Jesus, whom we call the Christ and passed on to his church, his body.  And the people went on their way – blessed, anticipating, worshipping……waiting for the day of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

In Ephesians we hear how a church that has lived to that commissioning is functioning – not perfectly but with a sense of purpose and clarity that is effective and focussed on whose they are. 
This reading expresses with great passion and almost without stopping for breath the joy to be found in a unified and loving church and the immeasurable greatness of that church’s work in the world through Christ. For the Church, says the writer of this letter, completes Jesus, completes the work that Jesus was born to. ‘And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.’ 

For we too are commissioned – we use those words each Sunday – ‘we go in the name of Christ’ – we are the completion of the mission of Jesus.   This is the never ending story really and we are part of that penultimate chapter,  – a journey of faith begun we might say, with the exodus, continuing through the ups and downs of Hebrew scripture and then made know in Jesus and entrusted to his church to continue.  A never ending story – perhaps at times it seems like it - never ending until it is finished.

So how has it been, this journey?  I think we could safely say patchy!  It didn’t take the church long at all to fall into some of the same traps that the Hebrew people did in their journey.  We became institutionalised, self important, impatient, divided, hierarchical, rulebound, arrogant and self satisfied. I find myself wanting to qualify that – of course not all were like this but on the whole the entity known as the Christian church struggled and still struggles to be an active and effective continuation of the ministry of Jesus.  So much gets in the way.  So much deflects us from the being the witnesses Jesus asks us to be. 

Why is that?  Why do we get so distracted, so much off track sometimes? 

One thought is that we are too often onlookers.  On the outside looking on.  As individuals, perhaps as Sunday Christians, as a church community we can be observers of the world rather than participants in it.  And any time we limit our involvement to the familiar and comfortable, only looking inwards, we have detoured around a huge part of who we are to be as the body of Christ – a witness to the world.   Sometimes it is fear that keeps us separate, or a sense of entitlement perhaps  or ‘what me? – I’m not the person for that’.  Larry Brouchard suggests that changing our perspective on how we view the Ascension  might help us here.  When we think of the images that have been around for centuries, most of them take the scripture literally and are something like these – the followers watch Jesus being taken up to heaven – they are onlookers to this moment of the Son returning to the Father.   What happens, says Brouchard, if, instead of being observers, we look out from within the ascension, participants in the moment of reunion, part of the body. He speculates that then we would not be concerned with the way in which Jesus leaves us but would be looking out into the world through the eyes of the risen and ascended Christ, loving the world as God loves us.

Another thought is that we get tied up with things we don’t need to be doing – there is an interesting book I am reading at the moment called ‘When the Church was young’ and it considers the immense differences today, well even within a couple of hundred years of the establishment of the church, Christ’s body and witness to the word.  The author, Ernest Loosely, proposes a list of the things that the early church did not have and still managed to act in an effective and faithful manner – it did not have buildings – when chucked out of the temple it was to people’s homes or occasionally a hired space that they went to meet and eat and worship.  They did not have denominations – differences, yes but bound in the one unity of Christ.  Neither was there much in the way of organisation or rules – a stark contrast to today.  There was no New Testament canon to debate – it was all by word of mouth and there was neither theological terminology that had to be explained nor rule of dogma to adhere to. 
What they did have said Loosely, was experience of walking with Jesus, in the light of Jesus, they had the teachings of Jesus, firsthand, public and private and they had the dynamic of the gospel message, the great joy of knowing that following Jesus was a transforming experience for all whom it touched.  
Obviously there is more to it than this but it give us thought on how many of the ways we do church now distract our energy and focus from being who we really want to be as Christ followers.

And, finally, we can become rigid: in belief, in judgment, in expectation.  I have a friend that I am often conversing with about faith – they came out of a highly dogmatic, rule bound church that was quite specific about what you had to believe to be accepted as Christian.  They have left there, no longer able to accept the tenets but are struggling to believe that there is anything else they can do but reject Christianity completely – we have conversations about other ways of believing and witnessing.

 And how does it look when we are not onlookers, not distracted, not rigid.

It looks like the pastoral carers meeting I was at yesterday – stories of compassion and care and understanding in the church and in the work place and the neighbourhood, sometimes going into uncomfortable places but still going, accepting of, and actually really delighting in the diversity that is this community of faith.

It looks like a church where questions are welcome and ‘I  don’t know’ is heard, where faith differences are respected and all are welcome.

It looks like a people who engage with the community, who know their neighbours, who talk about their faith, learn and listen and encourage, who are open to new thoughts and sure.

It looks like a community of faith that has taken to heart the command to witness to the world the great joy of being part of the body of Christ, continuing the journey of faith that those first followers began with such courage and hope.

Hear these words
To the people of Opoho: I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 

May we too be courageous and hopeful in this place.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

A reflection on our gifts

Readings:  Acts 2: 42-47   Corinthians 12:1, 4-13

Celebrating our Gifts 
Once upon a time, in a place far from here, there was a young boy – loved, secure, full of life and hardly ever grumpy.  He was surrounded by music at home – you could say it was in his dna.  He thought singing was just like breathing – an essential part of life and living.   And then he grew a little older and got to go to school.  He thought that was fun too – new people and learning new things.  And then one day, a few years in, it happened.  The moment.  A teacher, the music teacher actually, told him that he couldn’t sing in the choir because he didn’t know how to sing properly.  The comment went deep and resurfaced often.  And the teacher didn’t ever know the harm done.

We are all gifted with skills – some we have the opportunity to develop and excel at, some are just who we are, some are locked away by denial of self or by a careless comment of others.
This community has its fair share of skills and talents – we have orators, writers, crafts people, artists, musicians, organisers, experts in theology and a number of other academic disciplines, we know after yesterday that we have some extremely effective sales people.  And often when we are not good at something, we are in awe of those who are. 

But when Paul talks of gifts, of skills, given to us by God, he includes every person the community of faith and there is this expectation of us being as good as we can be in whatever we do because they are gifts of God for the work of the kingdom.  All of us has some gift to develop, some manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  So what are our gifts, our skills and do we recognise and celebrate them all?  That is what we are going to do today. 
For each of us has capacities that we don’t necessarily see in ourselves.  Last night I heard this story of a man who was saying to an accomplished crafts person (let call him Trevor) that he wished he had even a tiny bit of creativity like him.  Trevor’s reply was to the point.  Do you know he said that your creativity comes through in one of the most amazing vegetable gardens I have ever seen, and that meal you cooked for us tonight – brilliant. Don’t ever tell me you aren’t creative. 
And we all know that person who, simply by being at peace with God and themselves, is an oasis of sustenance for those who don’t have that gift.  All of us have received encouragement in the kind word, the comforting hug, the smile and the listening ear. I think the ability to listen is one of the most important gifts we can offer.
I came across a helpful understanding of the way our gifts are seen and it is from Saddleback Church in the United States.  The God given gifts and abilities we have represent as person’s SHAPE: spiritual gifts, heart, abilities, personality and experience – they make you who you are and set you apart from other people.  And these talents are to benefit others and theirs to benefit you.  They may be small in your eyes but they matter to God and they matter to those whom you serve through them.

Paul’s list is comprehensive: his list of the gifts go from wisdom and the sharing of knowledge to faith, healing, the working of miracles, prophecy, discernment and finally to the ability to speak in and interpret what is called tongues.   

How might we know those gifts within this faith community today?  We have teachers, wise ones, encouragers, people who make beautiful bread, paint evocative canvases, choose great images for the service sheet… that is a beginning – I invite you to fill this space with gifts that you have recognised and received in yourself on one side and a gift that has served you from others.

Then when you are ready, bring them up and put them on the table where we gather soon to share as one people the gifts of God, our skills and talents, the bread and wine with each other and with Jesus.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 30 April, 2017 Easter 3

Readings: Acts 2:14a, 36-41  Luke 24:13-35 

Two friends walking a dusty road, returning home for what is the point of staying.  They have heard the rumours of miracle from the women but cannot believe them so they go home, weary and disheartened. Talking, listening, sharing pain and confusion.
Another walks with them, a stranger, looks into their eyes, listens to lost hopes and wild rumours.
He speaks: they hear the story of salvation as though for the first time, as they travel on.
They arrive: he wants to go further on his way; they ask him to stay, as dusk falls on the dusty road.
They go indoors, sit, tired, at a table to share a meal – hospitality to one they don’t quite want to let go.  He takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and offers it them – they see then who their companion is – but he has gone.
They remember: the journey, the words heard, the everyday presence of road, table and broken bread – they know the news must be shared.
They cannot stay put, but, here and now, they set out, back along the dusty road – feet getting ahead of them in their excitement, two people on God’s way.

This narrative from scripture of the two on the way to Emmaus is one of the most enticing and intriguing stories of Gospel literature.  It is also one that I greet with expectation every time – for every time something new presents itself. 

We have these two people – Cleopas and an unnamed other, who could well have been his wife – trudging home in despair, they had gambled their hopes on this saviour and, well, it ended back there on the cross.

We all know those moments don’t we?  We have had high hopes – and they are dashed on the rocks.  What do we do?  Find sanctuary, go home, get back into normal routine and try to forget the crumbled hosannas and hallelujahs.  T.S. Eliot in ‘The Cocktail Party’ succinctly and insightfully describes the return to the human condition by those who have travelled far in hope:
They may remember the vision they have had, but they cease to regret it, maintain themselves by the common routine, learn to avoid excessive expectation.

In the same way as the people surrounding Peter in our reading from Acts are asking ‘What do we do?’ so these two were facing how to respond to a vision, a hope that had proved to be of excessive expectation. 

And one of the first things they did was to leave the despondent community and return to what had been. Go home, hunker down, try and find some normality, get on with life.  Even the astounding news from the women at the empty tomb was not enough to penetrate their gloom.

So when a stranger comes along and asks what’s wrong, the response is best described as a verbal outburst – all the disappointed hopes and dashed expectations poured out.

I think we have all at some stage in our lives had some kind of experience like this – where our response is to retreat, to chastise our hearts for being so hopeful when our head told us all along that it the odds were against us.

Sometimes we get so that we won’t let any vision into our lives again – don’t want to get disappointed like that again.  So we at best expect status quo and have no real hope that anything will change for the better in the future.  We lower our sights – I may have told some of you that when I was a student here at the university my academic record was not exactly inspiring after my first year.  So when I came to try again I remember going to see the results under the archway at the registry and having looked through the c passes for my subject went away disappointed that I had failed.  It wasn’t until a friend congratulated me that I realised I had passed with a better mark.  I was all too ready for failure.  That taught me to raise my sights – a little anyway.

Then some of us can be at that point where we are hearing and sharing the words of faith – without recognising the very heart of the message. We are not listening, engaging in conversation with God but rather with each other only. As the two did not recognise Jesus, so we can be very good at the rhetoric, the debate, the dogma and be blind to the way we are judging our fellow human beings, being exclusive or moralistic or simply detached from the reality of need around us. The head is well catered for, the heart is kept on a leash.  Jesus came to those two on the road and the passage says, ‘interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.’  And they began to hear. 
The interesting question for us – what is it that prevents us from allowing the way of Jesus to be a driving force in our lives – and you are listening here to someone who was the world champion at holding a bit back, rationalising the need to stay slightly detached, just in case.  The Emmaus experience has been mine a number of times - recognising who walks on this road of faith with me and through whose eyes I must see and whose heart I must be.    Without it I would not be here today.

I love that Jesus seems to require the strongest urging to come into the home and eat with them.   Was it their sense of hospitality that made them so insistent or maybe it was because the words of teaching of this stranger were beginning to stir them in an exciting way?  They wanted more, they no longer desired to shut themselves off from community for they sensed something special was being revealed.
And they were right – there among the bread and the wine, the ordinary things of the table, Jesus himself was recognised.  And there they had a name to put to this sense of – how did they put it – their hearts burning within them as he opened the scriptures to them.
How could they have not seen, not recognised the living Christ walking with them!  Easily it seems.

So I guess the first question for each of us is where we are in our Emmaus journey? Have we left the empty tomb, disappointed, perplexed that our plans have come to nothing.  Are we on the road trudging home, eyes so downcast that we do not see the Christ beside us?  Or has the fire in our hearts been ignited, even in the smallest way, to recognise and respond to the Christ with us.

And the second question is what are we to do now?  Like the crowd that surrounded Peter, we too ask constantly for guidance and direction, for interpretation of the scriptures through the teachings of Jesus. 

I don’t know about you but I am over people using scripture to bolster their own agendas, to use as a hammer of judgement or a badge of righteousness.  Without Jesus at the heart of interpretation and as the reason for walking this road of faith we can head off into all kinds of blindness.  As a church, as members of that church, what are we doing that disgraces the teachings of Jesus, or shows shallow understanding and limited vision?  And more importantly, what are we to do about it?  Knowing who journeys with us, do we have the courage to hear his interpretation and act on it with hope?

Do we live our faith as a disappointed people avoiding excessive expectation or as a resurrection people hearts burning with hope and vision of what can be when we walk knowingly in the company of Jesus?   That is our challenge as we explore the Emmaus experience for each of us today.

Hear the good news, where ever we are at in our journey of faith Jesus gives us the light of the gospels and the presence of the spirit to guide us,  the courage of the empty cross to speak out and to endure and the wisdom and love of community to encourage us.  Thanks be to God.

Margaret Garland

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 16 April 2017 Easter Sunday and Holy Communion.

Readings:  John 20: 1-18    Acts 10: 36-43

We pray:  May our hearts be open to your word for us O God as we join this day with Christians throughout the world who celebrate the Good News alive in our world. Amen.

Today I want to talk about the women.  The women who walked the way with Jesus – from Galilee and places along the way, who were there in Jerusalem, at the gates, at the cross, at the tomb. 
And, one suspects, at the Last Supper.  At our Maundy Thursday service Tui read a poem of the experience of gathering around the table at Opoho and I was particularly struck by the last few lines: 
No-one left quietly. Instead
they ate more bread,
drank more ‘wine’ and chatted
about how the last supper
was incomplete
without women, without children.

Was that meal a men only affair?  Would the Jesus who encouraged Mary and chided Martha have excluded all but the men?  At the very least they would have served and listened even though they did not get a mention.  Whatever, we know the role of women in Jesus time of ministry is incredibly understated and often ignored.  But when it came to the tomb – there was no hiding the fact that it was all about women.  Women who found the empty tomb, women who encountered the good news of the risen Christ, women who told the men and were disbelieved.
 ‘While men were in hiding, women delivered the greatest news the world has ever known.’  That was the somewhat controversial title of a reflection written by Jim Wallis this Easter. 
And right enough the story of Easter Day belongs to the women; to Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, Joanna, Salome, Mary mother of James and all the other women who were with them.  Each Gospel names them differently but all agree that it was the women followers who came to the tomb that morning, come to mourn awhile, to anoint his body, to sit with him.  

There was danger – after all this was a convicted political criminal and there was every change that the guards could see them as conspirators and arrested arrest them too. 
There was helplessness – the politicians and priest had made sure the tomb was securely sealed – how would they get in to anoint the body.
There was fear too – all the followers of Jesus would have been afraid and bereft.  But it seems that the men and women responded differently.  Most of the men seem to have accepted the unthinkable, that it was all over, and were staying well out of the way – even hiding for fear of being identified.  But there was something in those women that couldn’t let them do that.  Their love for Jesus was born out in their actions, their determination to minister to him even in death overcame their fear.  It was like they couldn’t abandon him, even when all was dark and hopeless. They came with a strength of purpose that would not be ignored.
Jim Wallis calls the women of the tomb as history’s midwives of hope for they birthed the good news of the risen Christ.
And the hope they brought to the  world was not hope we think of as that fleeting sense of possibility or that the tide must turn sometime but rather hope as a choice, a decision, an action based on faith, where we plough ahead despite all evidence to the contrary. 
I wonder if we can put ourselves into the minds and emotions of those disciples, men and women, that Sabbath day.  If we can pause in the moment, accepting that we didn’t know what came next, be those disciples reeling from the death of their beloved leader.  There could be no possible way in which they could go on.  What would it have been like?
For they could do nothing until the sacred day had ended, so it wasn’t until the third day that they could make a move of any sort: and for most of them it was to go to the tomb or to stay in hiding. And while it was the women’s role to anoint the body, the men could have gone too. They didn’t.  Not one.

That response of the women on Easter morning to the death of Jesus is a pivotal moment in the Gospel story.  Imagine if they too had stayed away, unwilling to act, to go and be with their saviour, dead though he might be.  
They, none of them, men or women, knew what was ahead.  But the hope was stronger in the women – embedded in their faith was a trust that in Jesus all things were possible and so they got on with loving him, even in the blackest circumstances.
And it seems that we can find times throughout history when the sheer dogged hope of women has transformed the course of human history:
the women in Ireland who were determined to end the deep abyss that was sectarian violence,
the Mothers of the Disappeared in Latin America who stood alone before the military and the world, testifying for their loved ones and for the truth,
the Mothers of the Movement in the States, standing for justice and reform in the face of gun violence against young people of colour, calling for justice and hope in the face of unspeakable personal tragedy.  The Black lives Matter movement, the women marching throughout the world in response to the policies and rhetoric of Donald Trump.

Midwives of hope – all of them.  And this is who we are called to be – men and women both – to be as those women were at the tomb, continuing to live in hope even when the most optimistic amongst us can see no way forward.  That is what faith in Jesus Christ is – a hope believed in and lived out. 
How are we to live out that hope today?  When we see no way forward we are to believe in and act on the love that was unable to be destroyed on the cross, the love that overpowers death and darkness and aloneness and is with us always.  For no matter how unlikely or far-fetched our hope for justice, for peace, for equality, for food, for shelter for all people might be, we are to surge forward believing all things are possible in the name of God. The hope that realises the breaking down of barriers, the challenging of the powerful, the showing of compassion to the unloved and mercy to the undeserving is with us –it was for the healing of the world that Jesus died, that we might believe the power of love over death, that we might trust that the risen Christ works in and through us, even when we can see no way out of the mire this world is in.
So this Easter Sunday, can I ask you, for a while, to sit with the women who stayed with Jesus through the darkness into the light and to ask what it means to be a midwife of hope, seeing the impossible and the unachievable and entering into it anyway, confident in the hope and promise that is the resurrected Jesus.  Amen

Margaret Garland

Friday, 7 April 2017

Reflection Opoho Church Sunday 9 April 2017 Lent 6: From Palms to Passion.

Readings:  Matthew 21: 1-11,  Matthew 27: excerpts from 11-54

‘The Gates of Jerusalem’
Prayer:  Open our hearts and minds, living God, to what it means for us to journey with you – speak to us of truth and endurance and love and hope this day and into this week we pray.  Amen.

As I pondered the readings for today, it struck me that the gates of Jerusalem saw Jesus pass through them in two very different processions.  The entry was full of hosannas and shouts of welcome and extravagant gestures of honour and adoration.  The exit was painful, dragging a cross, soon to die, surrounded by soldiers and exultant accusers and a crowd who had changed sides and bewildered, shell shocked followers. 
He came in those gates in triumph and went out cursed.
They laid coats and palms coming in and spit going out.
They called him the Messiah but that changed to criminal.
They yelled hosanna, later it turned to crucify.

It appears that Jesus disappointed the crowds!  He took a wrong turn – he wasn’t meant to turn to the temple, to the cross but rather to head for the political power and overturn it, free them from tyranny, set up a new and better rule.
Well, he did that but not quite in the way expected.  And when our expectation are not met, we can be quite angry, ready to accuse that which we had such high hopes for.  And so the crowd turned from hosanna to crucify him.

And he probably disappointed those who journeyed with him too – for all the teaching and the preparation, they weren’t prepared for this, this horror, this seeming giving up.  It wasn’t right, it wasn’t how you do it.  Like the story of Lazarus – the belief in the man they called Jesus didn’t quite make it past the gates of death.  A step too far.  Feel for his disciples, his family, his whanau.  The humiliation, the pain, the anguish, the inability to stand alongside would have trampled hearts already well broken.

I want to use the words of Malcolm Gordon here from a post he titled ‘Doing Palm Sunday Justice’[1] as he ponders the changeableness of we humans when faced with something that doesn’t work out as we might expect. 
There is this bizarre situation that develops where Jesus understands he will die, and that his death will be the way to salvation for his people. His followers reject that idea because they believe he is the Messiah and dying isn’t part of their plan, while his opponents reject his claim to being the Messiah and want to kill him for it, and in the end, everyone conspires to kill the one true Messiah! It makes my head hurt, and my heart ache.

And so the gates saw Jesus leaving the city knowing that he is following the will of his Father but journeying alone in the midst of the crowd, holding his pain and suffering and knowledge of what was to come between himself and God, deserted by those he had hoped would walk alongside him.. 

The gates spewed out the crowd of accusers, come so that their wrath might be satisfied, their disappointments placated.

The gates felt the passing of the heart broken, wandering along the edges oblivious of anything but that their hope, their love was to be crucified.

Between the coming in and the going out there is five days.
I wonder what those days are like for us.  It doesn’t do to just pick up the Sundays – palms and hosannas to empty tomb – there is quite a bit missing in the middle there.
And it is that missing bit that I want to encourage you to engage with this Easter time – five days of turmoil, of farewells, betrayals, anger, expectations, injustice, teachings, preparing, wine and bread, thorns, ridicule – and in the middle, this man Jesus – the Messiah.  Are we prepared to journey with him all the way to the cross.
I want to finish with a further piece from Malcolm – a poem I guess of expectation – ours and Jesus’.

O Jesus our king, riding into the capital city 
For the great show down with the powers of evil and corruption
You are known as a man of peace but you might want to think about that
For those you are up against are merciless and cruel
And the only place you’ll end up by turning the other cheek
Is high on a criminal’s cross.

O Jesus our king, riding into our hopes for redemption
Where is your sword and where is your army?
This ragtag rabble of rascals and rednecks from the sticks
aren’t going to fill any of your enemies with fear
Just say the word, and we’ll throw down our palm branches
And take up our spears, hidden away all these years.
Cast off the disguise of peace maker and we will rally to you in a heartbeat
O Jesus our king, beware my friend.
There are rumours that some who are close to you cannot be trusted
That some want to force the fight you seem eager to lose
And this talk of taking up your cross
Its making the troops nervous
Give us victory, fire us up, we’re ready to fight and kill and die
We are like a storm cloud ready to burst
A wave ready to swell up and then break
Just tell us which way we should surge
Make it soon, or there’s no telling what we’ll do.
O Jesus our king, you mock us
You refuse to claim the throne we offer 
You’ve taken hold of our hearts, 
But you have rejected our fists
And anyone can tell you that’s no way to rule
So we’ve no use for you, you peacemaking poet from up north
For the villains we face come with razor sharp swords
Take your stories and die, they’re no good to us
It’s going to take more to save us than your foolish love.
O Jesus our king, all the clamour and noise
For you to reign on high
For you to be cursed and die
Have all faded and gone, 
Like seed that springs up in the shallow soil
But you were still like sleep
In the midst of the storm

You were the point of persistent peace
While we all wanted war
Now our rage is all spent
We wonder

Are you?

Margaret Garland based on Malcom Gordon’s Doing Psalm Sunday Justice


Sermon Coastal Unity Parish Sunday 26 March 2017: Lent 5

Readings: Ephesians 5:8-14    John 9:1-41

Let us 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.

What is our immediate reaction when we emerge out of a darkened space into full bright light?  We tend to squint a bit until our eyes get used to it.  Other times it is altogether too much and we head back indoors for our sunglasses.  But however we react it is a time of blindness.  Imagine how it must have been for the man who had been blind from birth.  Whether surgery or glasses, one suspects, and specialists will know this, that it is a gradual awareness as your eyes get adjusted and your whole system copes with this new perspective on how life looks.  It was very much like this for the man who encountered Jesus one Sabbath day all those years ago.  Blind from birth he was suddenly given the gift of sight – both physical and spiritual.  And certainly spiritually he took some time to understand what was going on, who this man Jesus was and the depth of the change that he brought to his life.
Both readings today are about blindness and the coming of the light.  Both encourage us to question how we respond, how we understand the coming of Jesus into our lives. Here blindness is defined not as the loss of physical vision but as our capacity to understand the provision of God in our lives and how it transforms us into people of the light.

Let us look at the story from the Gospel today a bit more closely. 

We begin with disciples and their concept that blindness is the result of sinning – either of the man or his parents – which Jesus quickly puts to bed.  He tells us that this healing is a sign of God’s work in the world, and that being differently abled as we can call it is not a judgement on our living.  The work of healing was about revealing the glory of God, the light that had come into the world through Jesus.  The light that would sustain through the darkness that was to come.

And he goes on to suggest that the people around this man suffer from a blindness far in excess of the one he healed.  There were the neighbours who walked by him each day but didn’t know him enough to be sure of who he was outside of the context to begging.  Is this the man??

How often do we see people as types rather than actually getting to know them ad individuals, each wonderfully made and each precious in God’s sight.  The homeless, the silent, the belligerent – is the encounter just to solidify our preconceptions or do we spend time hearing their story, offering our own for who knows, we might be the object of  their preconceptions too.

Then there are the Pharisees – fixated on their understanding of how to live in the way of faith.  There were so many things Jesus had done wrong: spit and mud was just unclean, disrespectful, ungodly as a means of healing.  Then it was an affront to God to heal on the Sabbath.  The argument went something like this: you can’t be from God if you heal on the Sabbath.    But he seems to have healed someone so how can he be a sinner? So, ipso facto, the man was never blind to begin with.  The fact that the parents swore he was born blind kind of put a hole in that argument but it probably didn’t put much of a stop on their condemnation of him as a sinner.
In other words, they committed all sorts of theological gymnastics to rationalise doing things that circumvent the way of Jesus almost entirely.

How often do we hold fiercely to our arguments and conclusions because to allow that Jesus might be pointing us in another direction would mean giving up our vested interests and views.  Do we sit in the safety of rules and regulations or do we have the awareness and courage to acknowledge that we might head off down the wrong track with the best of intentions?  What do we do in our faith life that, if Jesus were to walk in on us unexpectedly, he would say our sight is dimmed if not gone altogether?  I was part of a church that was divided over the minister staying or going – and it became a kind of flinging back and forward of rules of the church but each was held separate from the anchor of God’s love – forgiveness without accountability, judgement without reconciliation, and it was a situation that hurt a great many people. Likewise each time we adhere to rules that are far removed from how it is that Jesus teaches us to live: in love, reconciled with God and each other, compassionate, merciful, full of grace then our sight and our light is dimming, is it not? It is good to ask ourselves often if what we hold so tightly too is still anchored in Christ or has taken on the inflexibility of institutional blindness.

Then we have the parents – they were somewhat lacking in courage one could say.  Either that or they were politicians, hedging their bets.   Yes he was definitely blind at birth, no we don’t know how he can now see, no we don’t know who did it (I mean wouldn’t you be wanting to at least say thank you) and he’s of age – why don’t you ask him?  We are told that they were frightened of the possibility that they might be asked to leave the synagogue if they appeared to side with this man Jesus so they sidestepped instead. 

These people remind me of the times when we do not question or challenge that which is challengable simply because we are frightened of the consequences.  Doesn’t’ Jesus tell us that he will be with us in all that we do?  Doesn’t he tell us that we each have a responsibility to become mature in faith so that we as a congregation, as a church can walk the way of the cross in truth and light?  We have a responsibility to stand up against that which we believe is leading us away from God, to constantly be alert to the crooked paths of convenience and safety.

And finally we have the man himself.  When he was first asked what had happened he gave the story in a very practical way – well first he mad mud then he spread it on my eyes and then I washed it off and then I could see. When the Pharisees questioned him it was the same answer and it was only when they pressed him for an insight into the man who had healed him all he could say was that he was a prophet, a man of God. Trying to lead him into words of condemnation, the next time they talked they began the conversation with the statement ‘this man is a sinner…’ – and again his reply is quite pragmantic – you say he is a sinner – I don’t know about that - all I know is that I can see again. And then the light begins to increase.  He takes them on at their own game:  Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’ Their answer comes from their place of defensive rightness, hitting out at someone who has a troubling truth: ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ Like we might say as children “ I don’t’ care, I still hate you.  And they drove him out.  Recently blind man 1, Pharisees nil!
And then the light becomes even brighter – Jesus seeks him out and presents himself and the man says: Lord I believe.  The blind have become sighted and the ones who should have sight have shown themselves to be blind. 

Jesus elaborates on this, the nature of sin at the end of the reading, offering the priests a troubling challenge – that if you have never known the light, your blindness is understandable but if you know the light you need to be aware of the lurking darkness, be careful that your light does not dim and takes you away from the truth of living in the light of Christ.

Paul tells us that the fruit of light is to be found in all that is good and right and true and that we are to be constantly finding out, discerning what pleases God and exposing that which is unfruitful, of the dark.

Christ is that light, the one we follow, the one who challenges us and asks us to be vigilant and imaginative and open always to the spirit guiding us in new and better ways. For it is then that we will be walking the way of the cross here in this place.   Then the light of Christ will shine in us and through us for the healing of the blindness of the world.  Amen

Margaret Garland

‘Singing the Psalms’ Opoho Church Sunday 12 March 2017

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.

We have had a friend staying for the last few day – a cricket lover no less – and we were going through some photos from back in 1985 at a folk festival in Amberley.  Goodness we looked young and full of energy.  But it seemed such a long time ago.  BC as in before children, even!
Imagine then how we get our heads around 500 years ago – when the beginning of what was to become the reformation in the church happened.  Martin Luther nailed his 95 thesis to the doors of Church Castle in Wittenberg, hoping upon hope that the church of Rome would listen and reform.  It wasn’t until 3 years later that the actual break with the church came when he burned the Papal Bull excommunicating him.  It was the beginning of a journey of rediscovery for many of what it means to be church, to worship, to live in the way of Christ.  From Luther to Calvin to John Knox – those are our antecedents, a big part of our story as the Presbyterian church in New Zealand.  And it is a story of highs and lows, stumbling and getting up again, constantly seeking to know God better in prayer and praise and scripture and community. Reformed and reforming – that ‘ing’ word again. 

A part of that journey has been in around church music, and especially participatory or congregational singing.  Small wonder then that I was particularly drawn to Scotland explore some of the stories of music in worship for my study leave last year. 

The very early church, in the years after Jesus, came out of the tradition of music within the synagogue – the songs of David, the sound of cymbals and drums and flutes raised in praise to God.  Chronicles details how music is to be used in the temple for instance.  Catriona mentioned on Tuesday night two passages of Hebrew Scriptures that had passed me by before where there is mention of the music of God. 
One is from Zephaniah 3 "The Lord your God in your midst, the Mighty One, will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing".  [1]

And in Isaiah we hear whistling attributed to God.
He will raise a signal for a nation far away, and whistle for a people at the ends of the earth.[2]
On that day the Lord will whistle for the fly [Egyptians] that is at the sources of the streams of Egypt, and for the bee [Assyrians] that is in the land of Assyria.[3]

We hear that Jesus and the disciples sang hymns in the garden of Gethsemane and Paul, in Ephesians 5 talks of the close connection that singing hymns has to the Holy Spirit, the presence of God, in our worship.

But it wasn’t long before the church started to discuss the right and wrong use of song by the church.

You could categorise the continuing debate on the place of music in worship in the church as being between the head and the heart.  Much as King David was told off by Michal as showing too much passion in dancing for the Lord so the early church was suspicious of too much emotion or soaring notes being included in the singing – it was seen to take the mind off the Word, the focus of all worship.

Then, 1500 or so years later, when John Calvin came along, part of the response to the excesses of the Catholic church was to remove instruments from worship, seeing them leading us away from focussing on the words of scripture in our singing.  To some extent this has produced an inheritance that has turned some of our church singing into why could best be described as a dour, passionless experience, more concerned with serious reverence than                 exuberant praise.  And at other times and places singing or music in church has been used to emotionally persuade without engaging the head at all, a dangerous practice. 
I was on a search for ways in which we worship God where both the Word and the heart are brought together as the path to the sacred in our music and singing, a place of emotion and reflection and particularly connection.  And I found out that in the end it has nothing to do with instruments or not or particular tunes or words but rather with a desire to praise God with heart and mind, with passion and purpose.

In our travels we visited a congregation of the Free Church of Scotland in the outer Hebrides on the Isle of Lewis where Catriona was born.  It was there that I heard in real time the singing of the psalms in gaelic, without instruments, familiar yet not, incredibly moving, beyond words pretty much.  That is all they sing – from the psalms.  They sing from their bibles – no need of hymnbooks, they sing the words of scripture.  There was a sense of timelessness and connection – with Calvin, with the people who came from Scotland especially to Otago, with the Word that has fed generations of Christ followers, with the sense of praise and encounter with God, even though I had no idea what words they were singing.

The psalms – the hymnbook of the bible – the heart expression of what it means to be a person of faith for the people of Israel.  The psalms have a lot of emotion in them, anger, awe, lament, indignation, remembering, hoping…  They are real: intimate, tender, reminiscent and bombastic all at once.  When we bypass the psalms, we are missing a vibrant part of scripture that speaks of heart and mind faith in God.

Now I would like to invite Catriona up here to speak a little about the worship that she grew up with in Lewis and the place of the Psalms in her life before we sing a psalm in gaelic together here  in Dunedin, with our settler ancestors alongside and our Scottish forebears forgiving our pronunciation and style because we are all, after all, raising out voices to God in praise and thanksgiving and hope.

Margaret Garland

[1] Zephaniah 3:17  (New King James version).

[2] Isaiah 5:26
[3] Isaiah 7:18