Saturday, 10 March 2018

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 11 March 2018 Lent 4 International Woman’s Day

Readings:  John 4: 7-9a; 27-29, 39a     Mark 14: 3-9

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

In beginning this sermon, as part of a service focussing on women, I have to admit to not knowing where to start, which line to pursue, what to applaud and how much to get stroppy about.
You see, I have had multiple conversations recently about women in the church, in leadership especially.
I have always been a feminist – but my definition might not be yours and I stopped calling myself that as a defining characteristic years ago.
We are in a year of women finding their voice against inequality and abuse in employment situations and some men being called out for their blatant degradation of women in those contexts. 
We have the horror stories of women maimed, abused, de-valued, enslaved across the world – for there are many stories indeed where despicable acts of violence are perpetuated on vulnerable women.
It is easy to understand when the anger takes hold of some people after an eternity of male entitlement and power over women – is that the best way to respond?
But whichever path we go down today we can’t ignore the fact that we have to challenge the continuing inequalities in our societies and the way they deny women and men the full richness of all humankind living in the way of Christ.

For now we concentrate on gender – remembering that there are many other differences that are used as excuses for inequality and injustice.
So what does gender equality actually mean today – in a world where we recognise more than just male and female and where, some of us at least thought we had fought and won the battle for woman’s rights last century?  And especially what does it mean in this church that we are all part of and the faith that we live in?

Some of you will know that I have been part of a group gathering research on the role of women in leadership within the PCANZ – the stories that come out of that are mostly very positive – but there are others that are of real concern – of being shut out, treated as second class citizens, of the parenting questions that are not asked of men.
KCML has had two of the last three intakes all males. As were two of the three intakes when I was there.  And my intake was eight guys and three women. Why the imbalance?
Currently leadership roles in the church are overwhelmingly men – the last female moderator was in 2009 (five since then) and the current moderators of Presbytery and Synod, out of 10 positions, 2 are women.  Is it because women are not putting their names forward – if so why not?  I hope that it is not because they are thought still to be less capable or designed only for the home and hearth. 
For this is still a prevalent attitude in many parts of the western world  – there is that excellent quote from Helen Clark after her UN experience seeking the role of Secretary General:  “No-one should get a job because they are a woman.  They should get the job because they’re the best person, but being a woman should not count against them.”

So into this minefield let us introduce Jesus.  Jesus who counted women and men as his disciples, who recognised the strengths of each, the wholeness that both together brought to ministry, who raised up the value and dignity of women when the world preferred to subjugate them.  Our Christ–led church should be the last place to deny the equality of women, don’t you think?

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is a classic example of Jesus overturning the expected behaviour – his disciples were aghast that he was speaking with a woman of Samaria.  And at that point you want to ask – are they more aghast that it was a woman or she was from Samaria?  The next words seem to indicate which it was – ‘they were astonished that he was speaking with a woman.’
The fact that this was a woman was the shock factor to the disciples but not, I suggest, the primary focus for Jesus.  He saw a person struggling with life and belief and welcomed her into the kingdom and into ministry for his sake.
Yet through this ordinary, wrong gender, somewhat flawed person speaking the truth of Jesus, many in her city came to believe in Jesus. We don’t know if her somewhat sullied reputation or her being a women was more off-putting to those she shared Jesus message with but despite both, she spoke with such passion and belief that she convinced many in the city - perhaps more so because she was an unexpected teller of truths.  Jesus had found a new disciple and her proclamation changed a city.  You go, girl.

The woman who poured fragrant oil over the feet of Jesus teaches us a different lesson - how important it is to hear all the voices of the disciples, women as well as men, tangata whenua as well as pakeha, pasifika as well as refugee, children alongside our elderly, the marginalised into the established.  We hear that everyone in the room with Jesus – we tend to assume it was all men but may well not have been – had grasped an important aspect of Jesus teaching – that of sharing their physical wealth with the poor – but needed to learn from this unexpected visitor that there was another approach to mercy and love – the anointing of Jesus was an extravagant act of welcome and understanding, of peace and healing – for Jesus.  Her action, her voice offered a new understanding of living in faith.
The words of James K Baxter from Wednesday night worship come to mind - ‘Truth’ — he said, and — ‘Love’ — he said,  But his purest word was — ‘Mercy.’  We need all the voices in the room and beyond for us to grasp the fullness of Jesus mission in this world, not just the women but the culturally different, the dreamers and the systematic theologians, the doers and the healers and the listeners – our voices are all needed to bring about the kingdom of God.

And finally, for today, the way we interpret and use scripture needs to be closely looked at for where it encourages the continuing sidelining of women in our faith.  It’s not just about being inclusive in our translations but also about hearing the stories that aren’t told or glossed over.  John Bell[1] speaks of the time when he was part of a preaching weekend at a well-known church where the lectionary reading in the morning was from Exodus 1 – where Joseph and his brothers had died and the treatment of his people under the new Pharaoh went from bad to worse.  That evening the reading was Exodus 2 beginning at a grown up Moses.  John was preaching in the evening and began his sermon by saying something like: ‘I am sorry to tell you that somewhere between this morning’s service and this evening’s service, five middle-eastern women have gone missing in the sanctuary.’
People did apparently start looking around rather anxiously – until he filled them in – they were the part of the Exodus story missing from the set readings.  Verses that talked about Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives who defied Pharaoh and let the infant boys live by all sorts of clever ways, the mother of Moses who fashioned a floating cradle for him, his sister Miriam who stayed with him and devised a clever plan to reunite him with his mother when he was found by Pharoah’s daughter, who herself not only chose to let the child live but also raised him as her own.  Bell thought about these five audacious women who had saved the life of Moses – so that we could hear the words  ‘One day, when Moses had grown up…’  He completely acknowledged that there are plenty of audacious men in scripture and who are great models for our lives – but their stories normally get told – the stories of the women are not so well known.  And so he wrote the song we are going to sing in a few minutes
I want to finish with an affirmation of faith that reminds women and men that Jesus taught and lived equality – that through Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of us are one in Christ.[2]

We believe in Jesus Christ the liberator of this world
Who broke the culture of silence and affirmed and advocated for the status of women in society.
Who called us to follow his footsteps
To resist all the exploitative and oppressive systems to build a human community.
We believe in the holy spirit that empowers us to stand firm
Who renews and restores the integrity of the creation
Help all people to grow together towards wholeness of life. Amen.

Margaret Garland

[2] Galations 3:28

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 4 March 2018 Lent 3 Quarterly Communion

Readings: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 John 2:13-22

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

God has made foolish the wisdom of this world….for Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified……..

Ours is a topsy turvey faith – that which appears wise to the much of humanity is dubious in our eyes and that which seems foolish, weak, servant-like is what we proclaim.  Yet it is easy to slip back into the wisdom of the world, isn’t it?  To revere those who have power, to be persuaded into unholy practices, to convince ourselves that we have no need to look beyond ourselves and our needs. Today we examine our temple and if we have tables that we too need overturned.

I want to begin today with some words from Tom Gordon – the first two verses from a poem called ‘A divine clean out’.

The notice says its cleaning week – we need some volunteers
to give the church a good spring clean, the biggest on in years.
Before you rush to volunteer and contribute your part
perhaps you might like to give thought to this, and answer from your heart.

I wonder how we’d take it if our Lord offered his time
and rolled his sleeves up, did his bit, more human than divine,
to help us with the cleaning of our own most holy place?
And would he find it tidy, or an absolute disgrace?

Gordon precedes this poem with a story of a small village – one church that had a faithful gathering each Sunday but was not of any real import to most of the villagers.  Then one evening the farmer’s barn at one end of the village caught fire – and there was all sorts of mayhem and chaos – and it was a cold cold night – and the logical place to go was the church – well away from the fire, a few toilets and a kitchen and some heat – although it took a while to get that going.  So everyone piled in, including a good number that hadn’t been in the church for a very long time – they put some pews together so the children could sleep and spread the velvet communion table cover over them, piled pew cushions on the floor for extra seating, poured a million cups of tea, spilt some of them, and generally settled down to wait out the fire.  And eventually in the wee small hours they went home.  When the parishioners came in next day it was a mess.  And there were grumblings, cups broken, tea spilt, furniture all over the place – could have put everything back before they left muttered one who thought it was a disgrace.  And when it was all back in its right place – they were more than happy.  But did they notice that the following Sunday the congregation has expanded somewhat – by several folk who, apart from that night, hadn’t been in the church for a very long time!

So the question that Tom Gordon puts before us is whether we are doing things or being a people that might invite some cleaning out if Jesus was to join us today?  His poem goes on:

Oh, he wouldn’t find us selling things, like pigeons, and the rest.
…But he might find us peddling ill-will and discontent,
and selling truths so different from the truth he really meant?

Oh, he wouldn’t find us running our own money-changing booth.
..But he might find us selling short his openness and grace;
a love that’s unconditional that offers all a place.

I can think of any number of times when I have sold God’s grace short – or found a truth that suits rather than the truth which is painful.  When I have withheld unconditional love and cherry picked at the tasks Jesus lays before me.  We can all put our hand up at having tables that Jesus might want to overturn, I am sure.

I know, for instance, that I like a degree of order and things in their place especially in this place of worship - heaven forbid that the communion table should be out of alignment with the chair and the cross and the window.  Uneasy when the font is tucked away, I love the sense of everything in its place, the colour of the pulpit font changing at the right time.
I might have been one of those sighing and being a bit miffed that the evacuees had left the place in a mess. That   protocols and courtesy and good order snuck precedence over the joy of unexpected unconditional welcome and hospitality.
It gave me pause for thought – if my need for timeliness, say, or order, or formality becomes a barrier for what we can call those ‘Jesus moments of unexpected encounter,’ if I fail to see the God moments because I am too busy being annoyed by something that is simply different to my way, then I have a personal challenge, a personal table to overturn and that is to loosen up a bit– and to know that God is working in every situation and that welcome and relationship is built in many ways, not just mine.  So there are times for all of us when we all need to, metaphorically at least, loosen up, relax into someone else’s way and realise that the grace of God is especially present in such times.

The Corinthians had their own tables for overturning – pitfalls that they were falling into.  The Greeks believed in the persuasive power of great oratory and, while there were those who employed solid rhetoric and good argument, there were others who put on an absolute performance, who exercised powerful manipulation in their speaking to their own end. And they judged the fact that Paul didn’t necessarily show that same level of skill in performance oratory – it made him and his message less in their eyes.  Pauls makes the point to them that this is not how God works in the world, that it is not his performance skill that impresses on the hearts of his listeners but the truth that come from his mouth through the words of scripture, the proclaiming of a crucified and risen Christ who holds us in the enduring love of God.  Clever rhetoric muddied the waters at the very least.

And, as for the Jews, the signs were just all wrong – they expected strength, a full on challenge by a new power and authority to what was an oppressive worldly power against them.  They didn’t recognise the Messiah in this sad mess of a person nailed to a cross. The signs weren’t right, not what they expected.  And Paul explains the Christ he knows is one who completely shatters our human expectations and brings hope and truth to us in powerlessness and weakness, something the chosen people found hard to understand or accept.

Paul names the community in which Jesus message is birthed as one which is made up not of the people who have got it all together, who value powerful oratory and wisdom and status, but rather the weak and the foolish, the poor and the shunned and the stumbling. I am afraid that all too often we as the church have presented a face of righteous piety – and the behaviour in our temple has been downright arrogant and exclusive at times.

We are not an organisation, nor a club, a business on the (or decline) – we are a community of redeemed people who see the power of God at work in powerlessness and the gift of faith given to the least able – the tables we need overturned, the cleanout we invite when we ask Christ in to our lives are more to do with laying aside our own efforts and handing the control over to what God in Christ can do in us, through us and for us as the crucified one.  Be prepared for upheaval in our thinking and change in our carefully orchestrated lives when the Christ of the cross comes to visit.

Tom Gordon’s final verse:
Be careful when your invite calls for willing volunteers,
for Christ might slip in too and find what’s lain well hid for years,
and clear the very temple that you thought was just sublime
for with the human Christ you may get cleansing that’s divine.

Margaret Garland

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 25th February, 2018 Lent 2

Readings:  Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16     Mark 8: 31-38

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.

‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’ 
How would it be if each Sunday, as we leave this service, this church, we were to pick up a cross at the door and carry it very obviously with us through the week?  What would it do to our sense of peace and community as we leave to have a rough hewn cross shoved into our hand, a reminder that our walk of faith involves personal discipleship to a man who died on a cross that we might find ours.  This second week of lent is a hard week – the journey has begun to Jerusalem, the words of recognition have been spoken – yes Jesus, you are the Messiah – the teaching about betrayal and suffering and death has begun with a new intensity, the drama of Holy Week is still a long way away and the joy of Easter Sunday not really on anyone’s radar at all.  And in the midst of it all is the knowledge that something crucial has changed -for them, for us. 

It is no longer ok to just be the bystanders, the students at the knee of the master, the followers who stand back and let Jesus be the one who preaches, who heals, who feeds the hungry, who forges unlikely relationships and challenges and disrupts in the name of love.  Step up, Jesus says – this is your journey as well – your life is to be put on the line too and I am asking you to walk this way with purpose and belief. 

This was indeed a difficult time for the disciples who were with Jesus – not that life had been easy or predictable before but suddenly the reality of the words of Jesus begin to take hold.
‘To be my follower, take up the cross and follow me.’  After the euphoria of naming Jesus as the Messiah, this message of suffering and death must have seemed full of doom and gloom - and Peter was having none of it.  It didn’t fit in with his understanding of the way in which Jesus would be the Messiah – Martin Luther calls it the theology of glory versus the theology of the cross.  For Luther, the theology of glory anticipates what people want in their God, sees what ‘should be’ based on what seems self evident – power rather than a cross, accomplishment rather than  helpless suffering.  The theology of the cross is the path Jesus is taking – God’s self revelation found in the weakness of suffering and death – Luther believes that to know God truly is to know God in Christ, which means to know God revealed in the suffering of the cross.

This theology of the cross is a counter intuitive approach for many of us including Peter.  He was looking for wisdom and strength in this newly declared Messiah – Jesus was telling him it involved what the world saw as foolishness and weakness.  Imagine being those disciples, without the assurance of the resurrected Christ, grappling with the concept of death and suffering being the ‘good news’. 

Do we do much better, understanding the cross to be the good news of Jesus Christ and does the knowledge of resurrection invite us to skip lightly over the moment of absolute grace that is the cross?  Perhaps we can find some guidance in the story of Abram and Sarai and the covenant God made with them.

For it was a covenant of grace – a promise for Abram and Sarai to receive and it was on God’s terms – asking no response. ‘I will be their God’ - there is no rejoinder of ‘and they shall be my people.’
We can recognise their faithfulness as the fruit of the covenant but God’s promise was not dependant on their faithfulness.  And it is the same with the cross - we are on the receiving end of God’s movement to bring life and freedom – found in the unlikeliest of places - the cross of suffering and offered for all of humankind.  Open and unconditional extravagant grace – the good news indeed.

And as Sarai and Abram committed to the covenant with God, they received not only promise but the recognition that, in becoming the faithful people of God, there was a new beginning, a clear sense of purpose, a new path to walk with God.  And to write that on their hearts they were given new names – they became Abraham (father of a multitude) and Sarah meaning princess.

And for us, through the extravagant grace of God, our life in the church and the waters of baptism, the covenant established with Abraham and Sarah and brought to fullness on the cross has been opened to us too. And when we too choose to respond to the grace of God we also gain a new name – we become a ‘disciple of Jesus’ signalling our new purpose as people of faith.

We think of others in the bible and in life who choose to take a new name – and why they might do it.
Jacob was renamed Israel, Hoshea became Joshua, the mute Zechariah writing his son John’s name on a tablet - and we continue in our contemporary world – birth, circumcision, baptism, kings and queens and popes, entry into monastic life, gender change, marriage, immigrants and settlers alike.
A new start, an acceptance of new direction or responsibility, a desire to lay aside that which was not fruitful or safe or healing and begin again.  A new name for a new purpose.

What might that mean for us, and how might reflecting on our ‘new name’ be significant for us this Lenten time?

One of the things we encounter in a new name is that people see us differently.  When I began the journey of becoming a minister one of the most difficult things for me was realising that people approached me with expectations, that there was an assumption of some wisdom, of compassion, of knowledge, of certain behaviour.  As Christians, newly named or long committed, how are we perceived by others?  Does our behaviour reflect the good news of Jesus Christ or is there very little change in the direction of our lives to others?

And we see ourselves differently - a decision has been made, a commitment embarked upon that has changed our lives.  No longer are we our own person but walk the path that Christ has walked – much of it needing a great deal of trust and faith.  We embrace servanthood and forgiveness and vulnerability, we enter into the pain of the world so that we might transform the world – a far cry from being in control or persuasion from a position of power.

And we see each other differently – we build relationships based on selflessness and hope, we engage with those we would not normally approach and discover Christ in the least and the different.  We hear the voice of Jesus in those whom we discuss faith and scripture and theology with.  We see the hands of Jesus in the people who we minister with and who minister to us.  We know the love of Jesus in the saints that surround us and the stranger we encounter in the strangest of places.

I want to finish with some lines from the poem by Andrew Norton called ‘Hello’ that we shared at Wednesday worship.  For me it gathers together all the threads of what it means to respond to the faithfulness of God, the new journey that we embark upon when we become disciples of Christ.  At this Easter time we remind ourselves of what we greet when we choose to follow Christ.

Hello by Andrew Norton

I search the horizon but cannot see beyond today’s unfolding
Hello to the unknown.
My bones ache, my breath is short, my feet and hands hurt – Hello to pain.
The grace of tears – Hello to love.
Light painting an azure sky with puffs of white clouds – Hello to wonder.
A pathway into the mist – Hello to mystery.
Now you have it, now you don’t – Hello to loss.
A hand written card, pure gift – Hello to kindness.
Thicker than blood because it is a choice – Hello to friendship.
Stories of endings – Hello to grief.
As champagne to a weary heart – Hello to laughter.
“Hosanna” fades as the crowd turns – Hello to forsaken.
I ask God “why?” so I may gain wisdom – Hello to silence.
In the shadows I’m at home in the womb of creation – Hello to darkness.
Sunlight through the rain – Hello to hope.
Hello to life, yes, to all of it!

Margaret Garland

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 18 February 2018 Lent 1

Readings:  Genesis 9:8-17    Mark 1:9-15

I have recently taken up classes in weaving – it is a pleasure and something I have long wanted to learn to do properly.  Our teacher, Christine, is very patient and has much knowledge which she is keen to share.  And every now and then during a session we hear the words ‘teaching moment!’ when someone forgets to add a different colour to the warp winding, when the very fine fabric gets tangled, when someone is lost in the middle of a pattern – and we gather round and learn something new or remind ourselves of a way to be a better weaver.

A teaching moment arose at the Leadership Sub Committee meeting I was at on Friday too – we were presenting the completed report on Women in Ministry, we had a very positive response but I wasn’t  sure of the take-up when I said that it’s not enough to just agree with the principle of gender equity (that in itself a loaded term) but also to educate everyone as to how to live it out.  It was immediately after this discussion that one person, talking generally about ministers,  said something like ‘….but as a minister he needs to….’ And there were two people in the room who said immediately ‘he or she’ and I added the option of ‘they’ – a teaching moment if ever there was one – and the learning was impactful on a person who was still learning the living out required from a principle.
Maybe this is an approach that we can take to the reading for today from Mark - what are the teaching moments that help guide us on our faith journey in the midst of a world that desperately needs us to be knowledgeable in and committed to the way of Jesus.  That needs us to understand the teachings of Jesus and live them out in a way that transforms the world.

The poet Caitlin Curtice[1] puts it like this:
O God, this morning when we woke to your presence in and around us, we also woke to a heavy world,
and in this world, we can’t make sense of all the things
that are wrong and should be made right.
We cannot fathom that people are judged on the colour of their skin,
that lives are worth less because their pockets are empty,
that violence is an everyday occurrence, and it seems that no place is safe.
So when we wake to the sunrise and know that you are still good, teach us what it means to seek goodness when the world is dark.
O God, teach us what it means to live in grace — not just for ourselves, but for the collective whole.
Teach us.
Teach us because the future depends on it.
Remind us, we pray. 

The world that Noah lived in was dark, and it was out of a few people’s faithfulness to God that a re-creation of the relationship between the world and God emerged – a rainbow the symbol of God’s desire to for reconciliation with a broken world and a promise to never give up on us, ever. 

The world that Jesus came to was dark – the people had lost their way, the religious leaders were mostly blind and deaf to the teachings of God, the promised land was in thrall again, this time to the Romans.  Jesus came to teach us that we might again be reconciled to God.

He came as Messiah – to once and for all exemplify the meaning of grace and love and righteousness and truth.  He came to teach us with his very life that we are the beloved of God.  A principal the people might have grasped but not remembered how to live it out.

In a sense, the abruptness of Mark’s gospel encourages this sense of an explosion of Jesus into our world – in the baptism there is no small talk about who should baptise who for instance.  Nor is there a confession of sin or a call to repentance – rather we are straight in to the baptism as something that simply had to happen – a given.  Jesus is signalling that his former life has ended and that, in this new beginning, his living out of God’s rule, he is most definitely turning his face to the cross, to death.  For he knew that in the teaching us how to live in love and justice and grace, he would be violating just about every political, social, economic and faith principal that the world held dear.  And what happened at this moment - the heavens split asunder, the boundaries between heaven and earth dissolved at this moment.  Teaching moment – baptism places us in that same relationship with God through Jesus and on the same path of radical disruption in the name of Jesus.  Our old life is put aside and our new is begun. 
Mark likewise gives barely two sentences to the wilderness experience, leaving us to read other accounts of the temptations and hardships that 40 days of desert living could bring.  Instead we hear that the same Spirit that has come into him at his baptism now drives him immediately into the desert for forty days.  And the early Christians who read these words would have understood perhaps more than we do the symbolism of Jesus retracing Israel’s journey into the wilderness with Moses where, to be honest, they pretty much stumbled and staggered and rebelled and deviated from the path that God had set them on.  Jesus on the other hand – Jesus withstands whatever the wilderness throws, Satan and all – and rewrites the story of God’s people as that of victory over all that is evil.
He emerges to proclaim that the kingdom has come near – God’s rule in here, the old ways are gone and the good news is being lived out now and in this way. Another teaching moment for us here perhaps – everything that is good comes from God, and Jesus, as God’s son, is the teacher and exemplar of all that living in the good news means.

The world that we live in is a dark place.  Wherever we look we see senseless killing and violence and war, desperate need in the shadow of bloated excesses, ethnic and religious and cultural arrogance and deep grief at the way we are destroying this world we live in.

The words from Curtice again: ‘Teach us how to seek goodness when the world is dark, O God.  Teach us because the future depends on us.’

Perhaps the first teaching is to remind us that we cannot be bystanders – our baptism puts us on a path to revealing the good news of Jesus Christ not only in our declaration of faith and our attendance at church but in our daily everyday  lives.  Have we taken that on with the determination and understanding and focus that Jesus showed when he rose from those waters and began his ministry? Might we take some time in Lent to consider our participation in the life of faith and whether we might find some new beginnings that God is asking us to step out into.

And the second teaching might be that our wilderness experiences are our best learnings – for when it is on God alone we depend then that distance between heaven and earth is at its thinnest.  Could we spend some time over the next few weeks reminding ourselves of the times when we have encountered the living God in our silences and our difficulties and our temptations and how that continues to shape us as the people of God.

And finally the teaching of trust – Jesus fully and completely entrusted the direction of his life to his Father.  He knew that everything came from God and everything he did and said and lived was for God.  He came, he taught, he suffered and he died, trusting in God to make good that which was evil, to bring new life out of the darkness that is our world.  Might we take time this lent to learn to trust again that we live in the light of a faithful God, a rainbow God, so that in confident faith we can be the grace and the truth that is Jesus Christ in this dark world.

Margaret Garland


Monday, 12 February 2018

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 4 February 2018 Epiphany 5

Readings:  1 Corinthians 9:16-23  Mark 1:29-39

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

Today I would like us to think about what it means to serve God.  To explore the ways in which firstly Paul, and then Mark understand Jesus’ commission to us to proclaim the Gospel, to share the good news.

In the reading from Corinthians it will be helpful if we first remind ourselves of the words that precede the ones we heard today.  In the previous chapter Paul refers to the knowledgeable converts who quite correctly argue their right to eat the meat given to idols because they are aware that the idols have no power or status. It is just food.  But the difficulty comes from those without that clarity of understanding who see and copy, still thinking that the idols have some ability to impact their souls.  At this point you are not serving God but leading others astray – best to give up meat, says Paul.  And then, in today’s reading, Paul tackles the same question of how we best serve God but from a different perspective.   He argues that to be effective in service to God you actually need to put yourselves into other people’s shoes; to share in the blessings of the gospel, you must share in the cost of the vulnerabilities of those you serve.  Can I put that a different way?  It may well be our natural bent to want to deliver the message of the Gospel in and through the strength of our conviction and our blessing.  Whether it is preaching from the pulpit, leading study groups, hanging out with young people we find it easier to pray that our certainty, standing where we are, inviting others into our well organised space, will draw people to the church and to God. That our understanding of truth is sufficient, in itself, for everyone else. Apart from being somewhat arrogant, Paul is telling us that this is not being a serving church nor is proclaiming the freedom that Christ brings us into.  
‘Freedom in Christ’ says Bruce Rigdon, ‘means the radical freedom to identify with others in their otherness – the way in which Christ did by giving his life for the poor and the weak on the cross.’[1]
In the story of the eating of the idols food, Paul expressed the responsibility that the strong have for the weak – in this passage he insists on the responsibility that the weak have for the strong and that in serving relationship, transformation is for server and served.  That bears some thinking about does it not.

Christ came to serve, his disciples also must serve.
And so we come to the mother-in law of Simon (another nameless woman) who, in the Mark reading, illustrates exactly the point Paul makes.
An initial reaction is to wonder why the men couldn’t feed themselves but I want you put aside your outrage that she leapt off her sickbed so that the men would be properly looked after – and think about this. 
She is not commanded to do what she does, she is not doing it from any sense of a woman’s place but rather she has understood intuitively that the gospel message is one of service.  This is the Sabbath remember.  Jesus has healed in the synagogue – on the Sabbath.  He has healed in the home – on the Sabbath.  And she – on the Sabbath – overcame all the selfishness and restrictive teaching– and chose service to the people who had gathered in her house over the sacredness of the Sabbath – no matter the consequences.  She is not a menial – she is Jesus first deacon and, as Ophelia Ortega suggests, she joins Jesus as his first servant in the radical announcement of what the kingdom of God will look like. The healed mother in law and Jesus share the same liturgy!

But the disciples do not do so well.  Nor do the vast majority of the people.  Despite the desperate need there would have been for healing, they do not turn up until the sun had gone down and the restrictions are lifted.  And then they flood in.
Simon, in his turn, - well he should have taken notice of his mother in law – then he and the disciples might have figured out the servant path a great deal earlier.  But instead they see responding to the crowd as Jesus role, not theirs and their astonishment at his leaving while there is still work to be done is barely held in check. 

Can I connect this idea of servanthood this Waitangi weekend with the fact that it was just over three years ago when we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the initial contact of Maori and Missionary on the beach at Hohi (Oihi) in the Bay of Islands - where Samuel Marsden led worship and preached the Gospel to Maori and Pakeha alike. And I wondered how the bringers of the good news of Jesus Christ approached those important first encounters – with servanthood or with compulsion.  Almost certainly much of this relationship between church, settler and tangata whenua would have been characterised by not putting self in others shoes and seeking rather to command.    

But rather than dwell on the mistakes can I share some thoughts that give us hope here in Aotearoa.

For sure, we have not served God well in much that is associated with bi-cultural relationships in this country.  Even with the best of intentions all participants in the living document that is the Treaty of Waitangi can dominate, frighten, incense, and cause seemingly unrecoverable divisions.  And yet there is hope - and reconciliation – and where do we find it?  In the stories of the people!  I have a longtime friend called Dave who I have known since university days and Dave’s mother was Helen Jackman – a deaconess in the Presbyterian Church and a tireless and compassionate leader in education – she was principle of Turakina Maori Girls school among other things.  She is in the book out in the Morrison Lounge called “A Braided River of Faith” along with many other woman whose lives of service are a light to us all.
The story of Sister Annie Henry and her discerning and compassionate ministry of reconciliation to the people of Ruatahuna is nothing less than inspiring.  With her presence to guide, and in the light of her unselfish devotion to the welfare of the people, her care of them in sickness and in need, the most unlikely covenant was reached between the Presbyterian church and the Ringatu Church under their leader Te Kooti – where Christian mission schools would be set up for the children of the Tuhoe.  The co-existance of two faiths respecting and caring for each other still today could teach us a great deal about how to live in a reconciled and loving community.   I think of people like Rod Madill who succeeded Sister Annie in Ruatahuna, ministering within the tension of a pakeha dominated church in a Maori community and who, with vision and compassion, built a strong and remembered relationship with the people.  Many, many people have served God in this place of cultural reconciliation and restorative justice.
And finally I would speak of the work of Te Ako Puaho  When, as an intern I and others were invited, with some apprehension I might say, onto the marae in Ohope it was like no other experience of marae that I have had.  The sense of embrace and welcome was palatable, the conviction that God calls us all to serve each other was lived out in the teaching and the sharing of stories of faith and action, and, you know what, I got really excited about the ways in which we can grow in faith through the contributing lenses that each of our cultural journeys brings.  It was a moment of epiphany for many of us. 

There is much to hope for, I believe.
May we always seek to know how we might too serve God in bringing reconciliation, restoration and hope to the lives of all people in this wonderful country – working for a world that lives into the hope of all peoples, in all times. “He iwi tahi tatou” – we are one people .   Around this table of welcome as we share in the bread and wine “He iwi tahi tatou” – we are one people  And for this we say - thanks be to God.

Margaret Garland

[1] Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 1, p.328

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 11 February, 2018 Transfiguration

Opoho Presbyterian Church               Mark 9.2-9                              February 11th 2018

The year seems hardly to have begun, but we find ourselves already on the verge of Lent, and thus today in the last week of the segment of our calendar we call Epiphany.  And our Gospel reading today, relating what we call the Transfiguration of Jesus, is surely an ‘epiphany moment’ par excellence.  Epiphany means revelation, the visual appearing of something not normally seen, and during the season of epiphany we read a number of stories about the visual and social impact of Jesus: the journey of the magi, the baptism of Jesus, the call of the disciples, all of these announce Jesus and reveal his identity to the world.  But none of those do so in such a striking and mysterious way as our transfiguration story this morning.  Here Jesus takes his disciples up a mountain (a place of revelation, like Mt. Sinai), and here he is suddenly changed – metamorphosed – in front of their eyes, gleaming with dazzlingly white clothes.  He is then joined by Moses and Elijah – two figures from way-back in Israel’s past – before they are all overshadowed by a cloud (another echo of Sinai and Moses), and a voice from God declares: ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him.’
            There is something about this story that we find hard to get our heads around: it all seems a bit dream-like, unreal, otherworldly, and somehow out of kilter with the plainer, down-to-earth stories in the gospels that we find easier to handle, stories of normal human interactions, parables, and moral instructions.  We are used to a Jesus who teaches, eats, prays, and heals; but a Jesus suddenly transformed, suddenly shining with a blinding light, suddenly glorious and – frankly – supernatural, all that is a bit hard for us to wrap our rational minds around.  (When I told a friend I was preaching today on the lectionary reading, on the Transfiguration, he said ‘Oh no, poor you: that is almost as bad as having to preach about the Trinity!’).  So what is this story about?  What is it doing here in our gospels?  And why is it here, slap bang in the middle of Mark’s gospel, at a pivotal moment in the narrative?  In the transfiguration story, a voice from heaven says ‘listen to him’ (that is, to Jesus).  By placing this story here, Mark’s Gospel seems to be saying to us: ‘listen very carefully to this’. 
            What is happening here is not a meaningless blip in an otherwise straightforward story, but a glimpse through the veil, a sudden break in the clouds, a moment that reveals what is really going on, and what the narrative is truly about.  Living in Opoho, these last few months, when I read of a cloud coming down on the top of a mountain, it makes me think of Mount Cargill, with its frequent cloud-hat.  But this story as a whole and its place in Mark’s Gospel is more like one of those days when you wake up and the whole sky is covered with low, thick, grey cloud, from end to end, and you wonder for a moment how there is any light at all and where it is coming from; and then suddenly, about midday, a break appears to the north, over Flagstaff, and through a tiny slit in the clouds you see blue and then, through the slit, a shaft of brilliant sunlight falls direct onto Dunedin, and now you know what gives the day light.  The disciples have been with Jesus, day in and day out, in normal every-day activities, though he has an unusual authority and an extraordinary power to heal.  They could think – and we could think – that this is the life of a good and holy man, a prophet (like Elijah, perhaps), or a lawgiver like Moses, with a radical moral twist; but all of a sudden, to the eyes of his closest disciples, the clouds part and the truth is revealed.  All of a sudden, and with a light that both illumines and half-blinds, we see who Jesus really is.  The categories of our rational minds won’t fit, not because what we see here is untrue, but because it is more true than we can adequately grasp.
            This is a story rich in symbolism.  The mountain and the cloud remind us of Sinai, where Moses, also after a wait of 6 days, ascends into the cloud, and hears a voice from the cloud that reveals and imparts Israel’s constitution; he came down out of the cloud, you may remember, with his face glowing so brightly that the Israelites could not look at him directly.  No-one can be that near to the light of God and remain the same.  But here is Jesus not as the reflection of that light, but as the light source himself, the truth of his identity suddenly breaking out.  Elijah and Moses appear in this story, as figures of authority from the past who pointed forward to one greater than themselves.  Moses had spoken, famously, of a future prophet like himself, and he was recorded in Deuteronomy as saying of this prophet: ‘listen to him’ – words echoed here but now spoken by God from the cloud.  Elijah, whose mysterious removal to heaven in a fiery chariot we heard about in our reading just now, was also associated with a mountain and a voice from heaven (‘the still, small voice’).  More importantly, ever since the days of Malachi it had been thought that Elijah would return to usher in the last days, the time of the Messiah or the day of the Lord.  In Jesus’ day that expectation was certainly alive and well, and there was speculation about whether John the Baptist, or Jesus himself, was that reappearance of Elijah from heaven as the sign of the impending end.  But here is Jesus, not as Elijah, or as a Moses-like prophet, but as one they speak with, and, as it were, point towards:  Jesus, in other words, as the final, definitive embodiment of all the hopes of history.  And the voice from the cloud, which echoes the voice at Jesus’ baptism, puts us in no doubt about the special identity of Jesus: not, ‘this is my prophet’, nor ‘this is my lawgiver’, nor even ‘this is my friend’: but ‘this is my beloved Son’ (that is my unique, my only Son).  What we are dealing with here is no Galilean guru, but the Son of God.
            So right at the centre of this very early Christian text, and in the letters of Paul written even before this, stands the conviction that has been at the heart of the Christian faith all the way through history: that Jesus is the final, definitive, irreplaceable, and incomparable revelation of God.  The Son of God, the Word of God, the Wisdom of God, the Alpha and Omega, the Lord of the cosmos, these and many other terms have been the properly exalted language in which the Christian faith has tried to express a reality that breaks open all our language about God.  You will notice how Peter fumbles about in this story, not quite knowing what to say or how to say it, and we feel much the same.  There is a sense in which the truth about Christ will always be beyond our ability to capture, because it is simply too great for us to get our minds, and thus our words, around it.  But one thing is clear.  We cannot speak about God without speaking about Jesus as God the Son; we cannot speak about creation without speaking of Christ as the one through whom and for whom everything that is came into existence; we cannot speak about ourselves as human beings without speaking of Christ as the Image of God, after whom we are modelled and for whom we are made; and we cannot speak about history without bearing testimony to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, as the hinge point of all time.  Everything in our texts, our creeds, our liturgies, and our prayers is marked, inescapably, with this absolutely massive claim about Christ. The transfiguration reminds us not to whittle our language down: precisely in the very human life of Jesus is breaking through to us a unique light and truth that we can only name as the presence of God, in the unique person of God’s beloved Son.
            I was fascinated by the debate that has arisen recently about the prayer used at the start of each day in the NZ Parliament, which the Speaker altered, before much consultation, to remove reference to the Queen and to omit the clause, ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’.  The Queen: well, we won’t go into that here! That’s another whole topic! ‘Through Jesus Christ our Lord’: that raises interesting questions about what you do when many members of Parliament do not believe that Jesus is any kind of Lord, and certainly not theirs, and when, according to at least some surveys, the majority of New Zealanders no longer self-identify as Christians.  Far be it from me (as an Englishman) to comment on what New Zealand MPs should do with their prayer, but the larger question concerns us all: what does it mean to be a Christian when an increasing percentage of our contemporaries do not share our beliefs?  That may feel like a new question, but of course it is hardly new in the history of Christianity.  For its first three centuries Christians were a very small percentage of their communities, and being a minority is the context in which very many Christians find themselves around the world today.  What do we do in that situation?  The answer is not to lapse into a postmodern, ‘well, what I believe is true is true for me, but of course if you believe something else, that can be true for you, too’.  The Christian stance is to affirm, with all due gentleness, that Jesus Christ is Lord, whether people recognise that or not: Lord of all the reality that they and we inhabit, whether they see him there or not; Lord of all history, ours and theirs, whether they acknowledge him there or not.  Some MPs might not be able to say with any honesty ‘Jesus Christ our Lord’, but he is their Lord – in the sense that he is Lord of all – whether they know it or not.  Our task is not of course to force people to believe this or say it – as if we had to capacity to do that anyway; our task is to bear humble, but consistent testimony, to those of other faiths and none, that the reality we are all trying to grasp, and the truth we are all attempting to understand, is definitively, uniquely, and unsurpassably revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  The voice on the Mount of Transfiguration says, ‘listen to him’.   
            Jesus Christ is Lord: but how and where?  The story of the Transfiguration comes, as I have said, at a pivotal moment in the gospel of Mark.  We might expect that after this revelation of Jesus’ true identity to the innermost circle of disciples, the rest of the story would be the progressive revelation of Jesus’ glory and power to wider and wider circles of people until all Jerusalem, and all the world, bowled over by his glory, came to honour him as Son of God.  What we get, instead, is a story of increasing rejection and suffering, a road that leads from this mountain top to mockery, betrayal, arrest, false accusations, brutal flogging, and an infinitely cruel, lingering and shameful death by crucifixion. What an extraordinary story!  The Jesus revealed on the mount of Transfiguration in his true glory, with shining clothes, will be crucified on Golgotha, stripped naked and shrouded in darkness.  The Jesus revealed here as Son of God, creator of life, will die, giving his life as a ransom for all.  The Jesus to whom Moses and Elijah point as the climax of history will be tried, mocked and executed by the Roman authorities as a failed political insurgent.  So is what is said on the mountain only true for a while, or only partly true?  Not at all.  The voice from heaven says, ‘This is my beloved Son’.  The centurion who watches him die blurts out the very same truth: ‘Truly, this man was the Son of God’ (15.39).  So is this the story of the Son of God who was finally crushed and defeated on the cross?  No – and this is where the story of the gospel blows our minds – the Son of God reveals himself to the world as the Son of God precisely on the cross, in giving himself for others, in the self-emptying love which is the very nature of God.  If Jesus were no more than a Galilean guru, his death would be a sad end to a good life.  But if he is who we discover he is on the Mount of Transfiguration, he is the Son of God, taking on our sin, our degradation, and our weakness, God in love drinking our cup to the very depths – and in the process changing the very condition of the cosmos. 
            Because what is seen on the Mount of Transfiguration is not a temporary or a limited truth.  When the one who is there acclaimed as God’s beloved Son then cries out from the cross in that piercing cry, ‘My God, my God, have you forsaken me?’, we might be tempted to think that the Transfiguration vision was a dream, a piece of wishful thinking in which everyone was deluded.  But, whisper it quietly, say it with a trembling voice: there is a rumour at the end of Mark’s story, a claim that seems unbelievable, but suddenly makes sense: that God is not defeated by death, that the darkness that envelops Jesus and us at Golgotha is not the end of the story, that the light and the love of God is finally, inexplicably, but truly stronger than death.  Mark’s Gospel, in its original form, does not show us much of the resurrection of Jesus, but what it says points back to our transfiguration story.  It is as if we are given here, at the transfiguration, a glimpse of a reality that is true right through the story and will finally win out both in and beyond the degradation of death.  The Jesus we see here as the glorious Son is both present everywhere to the very depths of our human suffering, and finally triumphant beyond death, shimmering with the very life of God.
 I turn 60 this year, and I take that as a happy but also a sobering moment, as I know that whether I live now for many years or for few, there will be increasing moments in the years ahead of sorrow, of pain, frustration, limitation, and perhaps the steady loss of all I prize most about myself (just to look at the bright side of things!).  What we learn from the gospel is that God accompanies us, in Jesus, to all those dark places, right down to their very depth; that there is nowhere so desperate that God cannot be there.  But what we also learn, from the transfiguration and the resurrection, is that the Jesus who accompanies us in and through our suffering is the Lord of light and life, who has grasped hold of us and will never let us go.  So let this strange and wonderful story be our anchor: the Jesus whom we glimpse here transformed, metamorphosed into his true identity as beloved Son, the expression of God’s unquenchable love, is the Jesus who, as Paul says, will one day transform our weak and failing bodies to be like his glorious body according to the power by which all things are subject to him (Philippians 3.21).  In other words, strange to say, what we see here of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration gives us just a glimpse of what God has in mind one day for us as well.    Thanks be to God.

John Barclay

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 19 November 2017 Pentecost 24

Readings:  1 Thessalonians 5:1-11    Matthew 25:14-30

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 redeemer.  Amen. 

‘Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.’[1]
Words of affirmation by Paul to the church in Thessalonica.  Words of confidence and encouragement to a congregation in need of some reassurance, perhaps tired, perhaps finding the time of waiting for the coming of Jesus difficult, perhaps uncertain about their future, perhaps tempted to wander off course enticed by that which they can touch and engage with in real time.
We don’t know exactly what was going on in this conversation of faith 2000 years ago but we can recognise some of the same issues that we face today as we too wait and live in that waiting.
Paul exudes confidence: of course you are prepared, he says to a wondering people, because you live in the light, the faith, the life of the resurrection.  Don’t be anxious – trust in the sustaining love of Jesus present within us and work out our preparedness in everyday acts of love and service.  Be patient and be awake for we know it will happen just not when.  Straightforward really.  And yet not.  If these people were struggling with uncertainty and anxiety for their future after just a generation distant from Jesus death and resurrection, how do we, 2000 years later, find certainty and hope in a time when it’s no longer about how we do faith but whether we bother at all.

Maybe it is even harder for us.  But I don’t think so.  Perhaps different in its context but not in the need.  For in the end there are times when we all need reassurance of our purpose, our pathway and Jesus offers the same answer then as now – that he is present now and working in us and through us to bring moments of the kingdom alive now and here.  That is the sustaining truth that Paul is expressing, is it not – that we are a people of the light, always prepared to exercise our gifts and our faith in our living and service to God and others. Living in a state of readiness – for we know not where and when we shall meet the living Christ. 

For all people, communities of faith, who wonder what difference they are making, who can feel lost, helpless among the overwhelming dreadfulness of life, who retreat into their shells of anxiety and fear, personal or corporate, perhaps a helpful analogy is to live as if we are everyday opening the gifts that we are to God and to each other.  Imagine that – a present every day, an anticipation of what the day might bring, a fresh Alleluia when we realise the depth of love that has gone into that gift for us, a careful or careless unwrapping so that we can get to the thing that makes us spend the rest of the day with a grin on our face, the repeated realisation that we are loved, valued and gifted by God. 
How we open it will be different for each of us – some in prayer, others in grounding ourselves in creation, others impatient to see what the day will bring – but the important thing is that we acknowledge the gift of Jesus Christ, light in our lives.

Then the question is ‘what shall we do with it today’?  How will we use the talents we are given, fresh every morning, to encourage each other, build each other up, to live in the light of love and service that is Jesus Christ here and now?

Gifts, talents, whatever we call them are a tricky thing.  Sometimes they abound with possibilities, fit with who we know ourselves to be and our confidences, other times they are perturbing, challenging, confounding. Not an unexpected tension when we consider the ways in which Jesus encouraged, confounded and challenged and perturbed.  It’s called living in the Gospel message is it? And confident or perturbed, it is incredibly important that we place Jesus at the centre of their use.  For a confident gift can easily turn into thinking you know best for everyone and the troubling gift can cause grief if we try to ignore it.

Time for a story: it’s a once upon a time story – a king and queen needing to leave their kingdom and entrusting the needs of their country to three people: outstanding exponents of the three most important values of justice, love and peace.  Having scoured the kingdom the three were found.  When the queen and king returned the three were called to make an account – sound familiar?  The woman of justice said she had spent her time asking for people of wealth to share with the poor and people with power to listen to the powerless.  Well done and continue in this way, she was told.  The woman of love told of looking for the lonely and the unloved to share her love, of warming cold hearts and freeing people from their hurts and angers.  She too was thanked and asked to go on loving – and the king and queen would support her in her work. 
Finally the man of peace came: perplexed and troubled.  For he had tried to guard the peace within him so when he heard angry voices, he turned away, when he saw quarrels he closed his eyes to keep his peace intact.  But it didn’t work for the anger and the quarrels penetrated his heart and his peace was lost – a deep sense of failure troubled him deeply.
And the Queen and King replied:   ‘So it will ever be.  Until you use your gift, it will be lost to you.’

A retelling of the parable of today that speaks all too clearly of the perils of shutting ourselves off from exercising our gifts as people of the way.

For gifts are to be shared are they not?  Held close for a little while perhaps but then shared in service and love. 
Sometimes we are not good at sharing – perhaps scared that our gift might be tarnished in some way or that others will ridicule it as too small or unimportant.  But then we remember: its God’s gift to us – valued and valuable and to be used in God’s service.

But here is another thing – not every gift is to our liking.  Not at first anyway.  Think on the gift of the Christ child – totally unexpected, couldn’t see how that would work, not the expected parcel at all.  But for those who trust in the wisdom of God, the baby Jesus was a revelation of hope and deliverance.   We might ponder the talent that we have been given, think it more suited to someone else, but then we remember: God works in ways we do not always understand, God knows us before we are born and sees possibilities in us that we do not see in ourselves – perhaps a little trust here would be useful!

Gifts are not to be envied or given a place on the status ladder.  Personal story here.  I have often regretted that I am not a competent singer or musician, but also been in awe of those who can stand up and sing and play before others.  I tried it once and completely froze.  I felt inadequate – less than whole – but then I realised that I had a skill that others were intimidated by and that was the ability to stand up and talk before others, both in this ministry role and my previous life as a librarian. I am also in awe of those who can arrange flowers, run a marathon, or build a house.  We can’t all do everything but we can stop envying other’s gifts and begin appreciating our own.

And so, people of God, are we aware of the talents we have been gifted, are we eager to use them the building of the kingdom, today and the time to come, and is the driving force for how we live our lives Jesus Christ, made new every morning? 

May we continue to encourage one another and build each other up in the faith so that we are the undeniable light of Christ for our time.  Blessed be God who has given to us Jesus Christ in our lives.  Amen

Margaret Garland

[1] 1 Thessalonians 5: 11  NRSV