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

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 5 March 2017 Lent 1 Quarterly Communion

Readings: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7    Matthew 4: 1-11

We pray:  Holy God, at this moment of entering the time of Lent, may we be open to your voice in our hearts and minds, allowing your guiding light to shine strongly in all our lives and everything that we do and say.  May we keep learning how to be your presence in this world.  In Jesus name. Amen. 

Wouldn’t it be great if we could turn stones into bread – just imagine how many people we could feed, what a difference it would make to the starving people of the world.
And if we could all be superheros, winging our way around the trouble spots, stopping missiles with our hands and holding tyrants by their heels from a great height until they agreed to stop being nasty and manipulative.
And then if we just had the power – just give us the running of the country for a few days, we say – we would sort it out, make things right, bring about peace and ensure equal distribution of food and keep everyone honest and ethical.

Wouldn’t it be great? 
Enter, stage left, the devil with a bag of temptations slung over the shoulder.
Sitting back waving a magic wand to sort hunger – how long before we would be choosing who was deserving or forgetting that it is about people and caring and sharing
And when does the superhero turn into the autocrat, judge and jury rolled into one?
And the power to rule – would we really give it up after a few days, would it corrupt us without our knowing.

Maybe there is another way!

Jesus knew exactly what was being thrown before him in the desert, these temptations that were particularly enticing and very clever -  not too far different from the purpose of God in Jesus but just insidious enough to bring about his downfall. 

First of all he was being offered the ability to seek solutions to his hunger outside the sufficiency of God’s created world.  When something wasn’t working, use his own power to sort it rather than trusting in God to satisfy his needs.  It is one of the things we know the most about in Jesus – his absolute trust in his Father for all his needs.  He said no – loud and clear.

Then he was presented with a picture of physical invulnerability – of proving God’s power and presence by putting himself deliberately in danger.  Jesus had a swift rebuttal to the scripture quoted out of context – do not put God to the test – this is a misuse of power in everyway.  Imagine the impact giving in to this temptation would have had on his journey to the cross.  He said no.
The third temptation is completely about control – think what he could do with the reins of political power in his hands. The sweeping changes, the judgements, the command and the violence.  Jesus’ influence and persuasion to faith would come instead in a very different way – through God alone and in teachings so removed from the domination and prestige that was the temptation of the devil. He said no.

So how do we identify temptation today – as a church and as individuals living the life of faith?  How do we say no, are our temptations so gentle, so subtle that we don’t even notice we’ve taken a detour from the way of Jesus, the uncompromising no has become maybe. 
For instance, if we can’t be spectacularly successful in our desire for a just and caring world, are we tempted to just not try at all. 
Are we tempted to ignore the poor because we can’t make stones into bread? 
Are we tempted to give up on trying to make a difference to the world because we can’t be a superhero?
Are we tempted to ignore injustice and inhumanity because we don’t have the power to control the world and don’t see how we could make a difference?
It’s that thing of being overwhelmed by the immensity of what is before you and therefore choosing to just not engage.  That’s insidious and subtle, isn’t it?

We as a Christian faith over the centuries would have to own up to making poverty etc easy to ignore.  Belief that the poor and hungry must have done something bad for God to have let this happen – or whether it is brought on oneself by a lack of work ethic – or that they will get their reward in the next world would be two prevailing ways of thinking in the western world at least.  And the opposite - do we still carry a theology of (shall we call it) righteous prosperity – where we believe that comfortable living demonstrates our faithfulness.
What are our excesses that prevent the fair distribution of food and housing and safety and education and health in this country?  I can’t answer that for you but I can look closely at my choices and assumptions.  How is my giving stacking up against my privileges and my possessions?

As for being a super hero – what is wrong with just being a hero – we are surrounded by them – here in this church, this community, this city.  The ripples that go out from one act of helping are amazing.  I want tell you about one from a few days ago.  I was coming out of a house in Signal Hill Rd to discover an elderly gentleman staring rather bemusedly at a huge (to him anyway) pile of soil that had to be carted bucket by bucket up at least 30 steps to his garden.  I didn’t offer to help, did I (see, easy to remain outside of it – had things to do), but he said that a young man had walked by, seen his dilemma and had offered to help.  Then this voice – hey, Margaret – and it was Malcolm Gordon, who didn’t leave till it was all finished.  Malcolm told me after that when his coming along was referred to by the gentleman as lucky, he suggested that better words might be that is was a godsend.  Beautiful.
The plate of baking, the invite to a meal, the taking time to be a local hero in the name of Christ – that is how to make a difference.

And then there is the being in control thing – if only we had the power we could make it right.   We so have the power!  Every time we vote in an election we have the ability to question and the power to vote not on things that suit us but policies that serve the dispossessed and the vulnerable.
Every time we challenge racist or sexist comments or behaviour, in ourselves and in others, when we stand up to speak to an issue or go on a march or write to the paper or …hey you fill in the gaps here.  Workplace, home, on the street or at the club, wherever there is need to stand up and say ‘this is not ok’.

At the beginning of Lent might we take time to look at our lives and see where temptations have insinuated themselves into our choices and attitudes.  And may we celebrate every moment saying no!  And as we symbolically gather round the table today, as we share bread and wine, may we look around and remember and thank God for all those here who care, who share and who love – in Jesus name.

Margaret Garland 

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 19 February 2017 Epiphany 7

Readings:  Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18     Matthew 5:38-48

Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and mediations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our sustainer. Amen.

We hear the commands for living in the way of God in the reading from Leviticus. Practical, caring, catching love to neighbour in all of them.  Then we come to the reading from the Gospel of Matthew this morning/evening, and perhaps quietly went ‘well that’s one of those ‘if only’ passages’ so we will just hold it loosely and move on.  What Jesus asks of us is problematic and can’t always be followed.  So we can’t be perfect as God is perfect.  

I want to start with a story of someone who came up against this and other teachings of Jesus in very practical way.  It sounds a bit contrived but they, lets say Joe, decided to live for a year following every tenet of Jesus teaching to the letter.  And so it was obvious what he had to do when, early in the piece, a person came to the door, telling a story of deprivation and need.  Joe gave them what they asked for and then, remembering the teaching of Jesus that if they ask for your coat, then give them your cloak as well, he gave much more that he was asked for. It was quite a few months later that there was another knock on the door, and lo and behold it was the same person with the same story and a look of expectation on their face.  Who can blame them?  I wonder what Joe did and what Joe was tempted to do?

 This is the kind of impasse that we often come to in these teachings of Jesus when we struggle to understand the context of the words and yet still try to apply them to us today.  And it often means that a very important teaching is put aside as not so relevant.  Jesus’ troublesome truths challenge us again this Sunday.

A colleague put me in touch with a paper by Walter Wink entitled ‘Jesus’ Third Way’[1] – some of you may be familiar with it – and it raises some very interesting challenges on our interpretations of this piece of scripture.
He first of all identifies the ways in which he feels Christians over the centuries have mis-interpreted this passage, where we believe that turning the other cheek means we are to allow ourselves to be beaten into submission while doing nothing.  Giving your cloak  and going the extra mile can also engender a sense of passive over indulgence in the hope that it will make a difference. 
Do we see Jesus in this submissive passive behaviour – we do not. 

Yet the only other alternative seems to be to hit back, only give what is asked for which are contrary to the teaching that we are to love, and love generously.  So in our desire to follow both the true word and to be realistic about our living in this world we have created what we call ‘just wars’ – where the need for protecting ones neighbour supersedes this impractical passivity – and we enter into the violence. 

Hence the title of the article – The Third Way.  Wink questions the interpretation and points to the similar phrase used several times in the Epistles, where we hear said ‘do not repay evil for evil’.[2]  And he says that the Scholars version of the verses in Matthew is the most helpful translation – ‘Don’t react violently against the one who is evil.’  Jesus is not saying to do nothing and be browbeaten into the ground – no, he is telling us to stand up to evil but not with the weapons of evil.

A little context here might help.  Jesus here says something quite strange and superfluous if we are talking about someone hitting you and you not hitting back.  He tells us what cheek we would be first assaulted on: the right one.  And as the left hand was, in those days, considered unclean and you could be excluded from the temple for any gesturing, then the right cheek could only be a backhanded slap.  And that was used only to insult, humiliate, degrade.  It would be used on those over whom you had control, seeking to put them in their place.  So turning the other cheek, Wink explains, was actually refusing to submit to that treatment – the backhand would no longer work.  And the fist wouldn’t be used – that kind of fighting was only between equals.  The beginning of social revolution, he suggests.
So Wink says that what Jesus is actually saying is "Stand up for yourselves, defy your masters, assert your humanity; but don't answer the oppressor in kind. Find a new, third way that is neither cowardly submission nor violent reprisal."

In the same way he sees the handing over of the cloak as well as the coat not as super generous giving but rather in the context of a poor man being taken to court over his debt and, knowing he couldn’t beat the system that went right to the door of Roman exploitation of the Jews, telling him to walk out of there naked, effectively letting them know what the debtor thinks of their justice and hoping that it would lead to some serious rethinking.  For me this is a bit more of a stretch but interesting none the less.
The extra mile, similarly, came from the ruling that the Roman soldier, while able to impress into service any person on the street (remember Simon of Cyrene) could only be made to, for instance, carry their packs for a mile.  The extra mile returns the initiative to the oppressed, shakes the foundations of what is expected – is revolutionary and unsettling.  Imagine the soldier trying to figure out how to respond, how to get his pack back even.

So far from these words of Jesus offering only violence or submission, they are, according to Wink, in fact a social earthquake which, if taken up, would change the face of the world.  Now that sounds more like the teachings of Jesus!
It doesn’t mean that there won’t be unhappy consequences to those who dare to challenge accepted injustices but it does give a new meaning to being like Christ in our living. 

So, if we accept this approach of ridicule and non-violent resistance to injustice and oppression is what Jesus is asking of us, how might this interpretation of the Gospel message look for us today?
For a start the purpose is not to oppress or put down the other – always when we walk the path of Jesus the purpose is to bring understanding and transformation not just to the downtrodden but also to the oppressors, that there might be reconciliation and a new way of living for all.

This is a timely message for us as we seem to be seeing an increasing degree of overt government sanctioned injustice and inequality for the vulnerable in our world.  And I think that we are seeing some very Jesus like responses by people who do not choose engage in the bullying tactics but stand strong by peaceful and sometimes burlesque methods. One hopes there is a desire to reconcile as well.

Jesus looks for neither violence or helpless passivity: What are some of the ways we, in our daily life, can turn the other cheek in this Jesus like way – we hear stories of people gathering, peacefully but very intentionally against violence – like the events in Egypt where  Christians surrounded and protected their Muslim brothers and sisters at worship and Muslim men did the same to as Christians worshipped.

Jesus tells us to challenge oppressive systems: Where have we given the cloak away as well as the coat to make a stand for justice? What about those people who plan to swamp any proposed Muslim register in the states with their names to show the ludicrousness of such an unjust move.

Jesus encourages us to behave in unexpected ways: When have we walked the extra mile in order to challenge the status quo and possibly befuddled the system?  When people turn up with unconditional gifts to the prisoners where the prevailing attitude works on punishment by deprivation – that might be one.

Jesus word for us today is as true as it was then.  For he goes on to say that we are to live in love in everything we do – and this includes our enemies, those who cause us grief, not just because it is the ‘right’ thing to do but because by doing so we are taking action, shaking the foundations of all that is wrong and unjust.  We are standing up to those who would harm us using the most unexpected weapon of love. 
Living in the love of God, we become free in the Spirit to find imaginative and radically new way to challenge all that is evil.  Walking in the Third Way of Jesus we can only be amazed at the places it takes us and the hearts it transforms.  Thanks be to God.
Margaret Garland

[2] Rom. 12:17; 1 Thes. 5:15; 1 Pet. 3:9