Sunday, 9 December 2012

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 9th December 2012.

Readings: Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3: 1-14,18


Let us pray: Open our hearts and minds, our ears and our eyes to your word for each of us this day O God.  May our listening and our response be held in the presence of your Spirit, in Jesus name.  Amen.

What on earth are we doing with the uncompromising blunt message of John the Baptist in the middle of the Advent season?  Hearing John’s words of insult and insinuation, of discomfort and judgement is strong stuff in the midst of the coming of love to the world.  The joy and hope of the nativity alongside the vehement judgemental words of John calling those who have come to hear him“ a brood of vipers” and speaking of axes chopping down unfruitful trees and the wood being thrown into the fire.  Uncompromising and blunt indeed: there was a suggestion that John must have skipped the course on pastoral counselling at theological college when he went through!
I wonder what it would have been like for those people at that time – was John the Baptist a incongruent, jarring note in a otherwise smoothly functioning faith journey, an out of the blue attack on their faith?  Other things may have caused them sleepless nights: for sure there would have been disquiet regarding their political situation with the Romans in charge and some worries about how their future as a nation might pan out but, and maybe because of that, did they hold their faith, their relationship with God as pretty healthy, on track?  Were they then a bit taken aback at this message of judgement and truth from a man who, from our reading anyway, seeded to be a no frills sort of guy popping up out of nowhere and going straight for the jugular, refusing to couch his message in dazzling rhetoric or gentle persuasion. 
I remember going to a meeting once in my library career – just another meeting with an agenda and business to discuss – and being on the receiving end of someone who said it as she saw it and it wasn’t pretty and it was so completely at odds with how I thought things were going that I was gobsmacked and unable to respond – for the moment anyway.  Was it like that for John’s listeners do you think?  But then they, and I, seemed to react in the same way – wanted to know what was behind this – what was the cause of this outburst, these accusations and how might it be fixed, even if they weren’t sure what was wrong.
And so they asked “What then should we do?
Ray Gaston in a sermon on this passage suggests that the first thing we need to do is to listen to John the Baptist, over and over and over again.  And that his message can be summed up in three acknowledgements by us: the world is a mess, a place of sin, we need to know this is not the way it should be and we are required to make it different.  In other words he suggests that before we can welcome the love that is the Christ Child we need to go through the pain that is  John the Baptist’s message to us.  To welcome the light of the world, we have to acknowledge the darkness into which it shines.  And then we can turn round to the darkness and say: this light is a protest: a refusal to conform.  It says to the darkness: ‘I beg to differ’

And, you know something, the people listened, they had respect for him and they took the verbal attack on the chin.  ‘What can we do’ they asked and were given some incredibly practical advice.

To those who have accumulated wealth: if you have two coats give away one of them – (that is a sobering definition of wealth to us today isn’t it?)  To the tax collectors, those who are living and working in a corrupt system – do not be part of that corruptness.  To the soldiers: do not bully others from your position of power.

That is what was said to the people of John’s time.  What might the advice be to us in our time do you think? 
To those who come to John today because they are feeling empty despite their accumulated wealth, their comfortable life style and their secure assets, John says: stop trying to bolster up your own sense of worth with possessions – try giving things away instead and see where it takes you.  You might be surprised.
Who are the tax collectors of our time – who carries the mantle of greed and exploitation in the name of legitimate business these days: well there are many examples are there not but just to put out one or two.  Loan sharks spring to mind especially at this Christmas time creating a hopeless cycle of borrowing, high interest, larger loans to those who can least afford it.  What about shops offering easy credit hand in hand with ‘you know you want it’ advertising, putting pressure on people to equate happiness and love with big price tags – the bigger the better in fact.  What of enormous profits, obscene salaries in the same society that needs to form a protest movement to try to get some earners a wage they can live on?
What of national and big business, any sort of business really, whose wealth is built on exploitation of people and land – isn’t that what the fair trade movement is trying to do – encouraging us to recognise the corruption and remove ourselves from supporting it?
This is what John the Baptist is saying to us: where the system is corrupt – get out.
And what of the increasing militarisation of our world, our so-called war on terror and the scaremongering that justifies torture, assassinations, where young, old and innocent lives are the accepted price of ‘greater good’! What of the ones who follow orders knowing that what they are being asked to do is wrong, abusive, inhumane?  John says – you are bigger and better than this, do not blindly do what is asked of you – stop, do not torture, do not abuse, you are worth more than that. Walk away from it.  And we can take this scenario outside of the military, the battlefield and think of all the places where we have power in the world and abuse it.  It can be in the family circle, at work, socially, in our sport and our media, and you don’t have to go far over the last couple of days to find examples, especially in the online news stories, of people who have abused their power just because they can or in the interests of a ‘breaking’ news story.
So John is asking us to clean up our act, to recognise and step away from that which we know is not right in order that we might be better prepared for the coming of Jesus.   It’s a hard message in the midst of the Advent season – but it is needs to be heard again and again as we prepare for the arrival of the Christ child. 
Because in this moment, in this act of birth, God is saying to us that the kingdom will come, but not in worldly power or in mighty acts, not in violent control nor self-promotion –but rather in vulnerability and in love.  The kingdom will be found in the act of the widow who put her coin in the box, in the child who sits at your knee, in the outcast welcomed home and the unclean made well.  This is the new up-side-down way that calls us away from a world of power and influence and into a place of love and grace.  This is the new relationship with God made known in Christ Jesus who says ‘welcome me in the stable, be with me on the cross, meet me in the resurrection, be filled with my grace, choose my way, reject the way that you know is wrong and change the world, let my kingdom come.  In our acts of love and justice and compassion may we, filled with God’s grace, choose live the way of truth, to acknowledge the pain of this world, know that this is not the way it needs to be and that we can make a difference in the light and love of Christ.  Thanks be to God.

Margaret Garland

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 2nd December, 2012.

Readings: 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21: 25-36

Let us pray: Open our hearts and minds, our ears and our eyes to your word for each of us this day O God.  May our listening and our response be held in the presence of your Spirit, in Jesus name.  Amen.

“And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.” Thessalonians 3:12
We have a rather abrupt beginning to the reading today from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians and it is worth going back a little to pick up the strands of the story so far.  Paul had founded a new congregation after leaving Philippi, then has left and been quite frustrated in his inability to get back.  So he had sent Timothy to find out how they are and report back.  And they are well.  More than well really, Paul is overjoyed to hear they are thriving and writes back to tell them so.  And he emphasises two things in particular that he is thrilled about.  One is their continuing faith in adverse conditions.  Paul knows, more than most, about how difficult it can be to walk in faith when all around you are intent on dissing you and bringing you down - and he had foreseen that this would be a big issue for this fledgling congregation.  So he congratulated them on their faith: ‘constancy and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’[1] were the actual words.  And along with their hope in Christ, Paul, as we heard today, emphasises that they continue to love one another, ‘to increase and abound in love for one another and for all’[2] are the words used in my bible translation.  These are the two things, their faith, their hope in Christ, and the love they have for each other, that the congregation is strong on and that he applauds them in.    But it is interesting in his choice of comparison that he then uses to inspire them: it is not God’s love for them he quotes but rather his own love for them – ‘to increase and abound in love for one another and for all: just as we abound in love for you.’   Paul is firmly and quite extravagantly reassuring them of his love, almost going overboard in his need to reaffirm to the readers of his letter that he really cares about them and wants to be with them. He is relationship building - and with good reason: he is aware that things have been a bit tricky so far –that people have accused him of lacking integrity, of being a manipulator and a bludger, of usurping authority that is not his to have, or pushing them too hard.  He realises that people easily believe this kind of stuff and, because of it, damage their relationship not just with him but with Christ.  At the same time Paul doesn’t really get how people can say that they love God and be so downright mean to him - because for him hope in Christ translated instantaneously, unequivocally into love and care for others.  Responding to Christ, for Paul, means passing on his generosity and openness to others and he gets quite cross when people withhold that gifting from himself and others.  For this is Paul’s understanding of mission – the expansion of love to all – being one with a God of love and each other.
So yet again Paul is drawing a picture of the absolute reality of life in Christ, as he exemplifies the pain and the joy of being big-hearted in love – pain because you are more vulnerable to hurtful rejection when you give fully of yourself - and joy because you see the amazing fruits of love given freely and openly.
So is big hearted love the way to go?  Should we all be like Paul, larger than life, absolutely focussed, boundless energy and answers for everything?  It is what he seems like sometimes, isn’t it?  Well I think he would be horrified at at any suggestion of cloning in that way.  He would say ‘stop looking to me but look to Christ – look to Jesus example and teaching’.  What would he say and do, do you think?
The Gospel reading for today comes at this concept of gifted unconditional love in a slightly different way – we hear words like ‘be on guard’ and ‘be alert’ for that which prevents you living in the light of Christ’s example and teaching.  In the passage from Luke we are drawn into what the kingdom of God here on earth is to be and our place in it – we are called to hold up our heads so that when the signs of the kingdom begin to show we can know that we have our place in that kingdom.  It seems to me there is a very real prod here for us to examine our choices, evaluate our past, present and future in the light of this coming kingdom of peace and justice and hope for all.  And I think that this too is what Paul is talking about – that we can’t segment our lives, apply love to just some people and some things and not to others.  Paul too is asking us to be able to hold up our heads and be counted for the love of the world in every part of our lives.  Not to save it for the easy and the familiar but also to lay it out there in situations where it might just mean huge impact on our lives, might affect who we are, might even make us unpopular and the object of ridicule. 
How about, right at this time, each one of us were to lose some equity in our land/our houses in order that others might know the security of being a property owner, gifting a bit of your backyard to someone who is homeless.  That is out there!   How about we buy only free or fair trade goods, always, or own only what is locally and/or seasonally produced - that means we lose a whole bunch of useful gadgets and tasty foods from our lives. Might not go down too well in the house?  How about we seriously challenge this economic system we live under - that applauds individual and corporate greed, encourages debt and equates poverty with failure? Might not do much for our status in our community?  How about we go down to the night shelter to help out or invite strangers to our long-anticipated family Christmas dinner or give half our clothing to those who have none?  Because the coming of the kingdom will only happen here in this world if we invest in this big-hearted love in a big way, if we decide in ourselves that the gifting of the Christ child is a gift of new beginnings not just for ourselves but for all people everywhere, that fair treatment, justice and compassion is not just something we enjoy but that all people are entitled to.  It is then that we will be able to say that we have ‘increased and abounded in our love for one another and for all’ so that the kingdom of God might be known. 
As we gather at the table Christ has prepared for us today, may we remember the costly gift to the world of the Christ child, and let us be reminded of all others who stand in need of the tangible gifting of costly love in their lives.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

[1] 1Thessalonians 1:3
[2] 1 Thessalonians 3:12

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 11th November, 2012.

Readings: Psalm 127, Mark 12:38-44

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

There is a hymn that is used quite regularly in Scotland on Remembrance day written by a group of people from Carnwadric Parish Church in Glasgow in conjunction with John L Bell –[1] a well known Scottish hymn writer.  This hymn has an absolute simplicity about it and for me summed up my somewhat mixed emotions around Remembrance Day.  And I wondered if I might walk with you through the hymn today as we together explore some of the difficulties of holding in tension the reality of war and the love and peace of Christ.  It’s a big ask, but maybe we can find some answers and in the end I believe the gospel passage shows us a way.
The first verse of the hymn:
The first verse of the hymn:
What shall we pray for those who died,
those on whose death our lives relied?
Silenced by war but not denied,
God give them peace.
The reality of war – without the sacrifice of those who fought against the evil that the Hitler led Nazi Government became – what would have happened to us? Without the bravery of those who protect family, freedom and justice with their lives, what would this world look like?  That is a totally valid question and offers several horrific answers.  And yet there are those who say that any violence, any war is unacceptable – should Christians be among that voice?
Augustine is often identified as the theologian who set the stage for a Christian viewpoint that says a just war to secure tolerable order is acceptable.  Martin Luther King also accepted that the savage wild beast that is the underbelly of humanity needs to be restrained and vanquished.  He accepted that war was a plague, but that it was invoked to contain a greater evil.  Other theologians include such caveats as a just war needing to serve justice: they differentiate between conflict for a greater good and conflict that is amoral.  But who is to decide what is just and what is unjust and can we be sure that justice will not turn into injustice or create greater harm?  What do we do with Syria for instance – where at the moment it seems that political rightness has more weight than humanitarian needs?  All of
Rightness has more weight than humanitarian needs but where ploughing in with armed force seem only to add to the misery.  All of which still leaves us pondering  the rights and wrongs of war.  Few of us would disagree that Hitler needed to be halted and few would justify a war based purely on economic greed.  But there are many stories in between.

The next verse reminds us of the cost of war:
What shall we pray for those who mourn
friendship and love, their fruit unborn?
Though years have passed, hearts still are torn:
God give them peace.

Because there is a cost to war – an enormous cost of pain and death, of lost dreams, of futures not to be, of those left behind, loneliness, emptiness, heartache.  This verse demands answers –  and yet we are almost helpless to give them.  Christ asks us to offer compassion and tenderness to those who suffer – but what if the cause of that suffering is our safety, our rights?  Is that what sometimes makes us a little impatient with those who seem forever marked by the consequences of war – that or the somewhat guilty awareness that it wasn’t us thank God.

And then there were those that survive wars – the hymn speaks of praying for them too:
What shall we pray for those who live
tied to the past they can’t forgive,
haunted by terrors they relive?
God give them peace.
 We remember the hidden terrors, the inward struggles of those who lived for years, until their death, with the horrors of war and the nightmare of death and pain we who have not been there can ever imagine.   All this in a society that seemed to them to demand chin up and brave face.  There was a book written a few years ago – one that collected the memories and stories of war veterans - where they expressed, many for the first time, the demons that they had carried inside whilst living a seemingly normal life to those around – it was a shocking read to someone like me who had known one or two of these people for some time and had never seen below the surface.

But then I thought that there was a verse missing from this hymn for me anyway – and so I have written this:
What shall we pray for those who said
no to war, called coward instead.
They too were brave, hurt and afraid:
God give them peace.
 The experience of many to those who chose to say no to fighting was, I suspect, no easier than those who were in the midst of battle – there are some truly horrific stories told of their treatment and the scars were deep.  In the midst of the culture of the time it was no easy thing to be a conscientious objector – even on religious grounds.  There were many who would have called themselves Christian who made the lives of these people absolute hell.  Yet if the whole Christian world – or any faith for whom peace, love and care for others  was a core value had said no – what might have been the outcome?  Could the Church in Europe have prevented these world wars, with a different response?

What shall we pray for those who fear
war, in some guise, shall reappear
looking attractive and sincere?
God give them peace.
What is to stop us doing this again – because if you could talk to any of those soldiers from the war who gave their lives to stop injustice and anarchy the cry, I am sure,  would be ‘never again! Never again can there be such slaughter, such carnage – that is what we fought for, that is our plea!’
The need to restrain and stop violence and injustice and the horror that is something like the rise of Nazism or any other extreme movement will I suspect be with us for some time to come but we must pray that never again will we see throwing the lives of people into the maelstrom of war, the bloody lines of people killing and maiming as a means to hoped for peace and justice

God give us peace and, more than this,
show us the path where justice is;
and let us never be remiss
working for peace that lasts.
 Can we make a difference?  Can we be the peace of Christ in this world, realistically?  How can we avoid the spilling of courageous blood, the horrors of surviving war, the losses of young vibrant lives and futures yet to be written. 
I think that many make the mistaken assumption that being a people of peace means doing  nothing, that we do not aggravate or challenge anyone, that we do not stand up against evil. I am suggesting that there are other ways to contain evil and take on injustices: that it is our attitude to injustice that determines how we might respond to it.  In the Gospel reading from today the priests, the rich people and the poor woman were all doing the same thing – they were giving to the temple much as we all might want to stop injustice and terror.  The priests were giving of their presence and conferring honour, the rich were giving ostentatiously and from their surplus, the woman was giving from her daily need, putting her whole life into her giving for she trusted God to be in her every need. In some ways today and maybe in the past, you could say that the use of war to subdue threats is a bit like those who gave of their surplus – the decision makers are rarely the ones who put their lives on the line, who are deeply and personally impacted by the horror of war – sweeping and slightly biased statement I know but I am leaving it in there.   If we take that call for a just and fair world seriously it cannot be detached from our everyday reality, be taken from our surplus so to speak, but needs to be, like the giving of the poor woman,  in every single thing we do and say, so firmly part of who we are that we spread Christ’s radical love and justice in the simplest of acts, in our everyday life so that a call to arms is who we are and how we live.  We challenge the governments that call for war to keep access to oil fields, we speak out about the injustices that lead people into violence as the only way out, we make our voice heard in forums that make decisions and we showcase alternative ways to confrontation in our everyday choices.
For us, the call to arms is paradoxically a call to peace and love and justice that is the right of all people and the path of walking with the risen Christ.

Margaret Garland

[1] Carnwadric Parish Church, (Glasgow) Worship Group and John L. Bell  CH4 712

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 28th November 2012

Readings: Job 42: 1-6, 10-17Mk 10:46-52

Let us pray
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts open not just our mind and heart but also our eyes and ears to your way for us Jesus Christ.  Amen.

‘I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear – now my eye sees you.’  So says Job at the end of his trials, acknowledging that he didn’t know all and that God was more that he, Job, could ever understand. 
‘I want to see’ says blind Bartimeus when asked by Jesus ‘what is it that you want me to do for you?’

I’ve always been fascinated by images, what we see, how we interpret it, how it changes from one day to the next.    On my frequent trips home to Balclutha as a student in Dunedin, I used to pass the time looking at the landscape and re-imagining with the eyes of one who was seeing it for the first time.  It was interesting how many new things I spotted using that perspective, how stunning the views and vibrant the life in it.  Likewise I remember the exercise at Playcentre of intentionally observing the behaviour of the children in a particular play situation and how much more I saw and how much more complex were the interactions, causes and consequences than if I was just walking by or involved in the play.  You often only see a part of the action: it’s a bit like the way the responder to an illegal action in rugby always seems to be the one to get pinged and not so much the instigator, although video cameras are helping a bit there!
What we think we see is so often just a part of what there is to see – and its worth reminding ourselves that whilst we don’t always have the luxury of video rewind or observation mode or re-imaging to enable us to see the bigger picture, we also have a tendency to think that what we see is the whole and complete picture.  Job came to that realisation the hard way –he acknowledged before God that his faith was limited by his inability to see, to imagine if you like, the wholeness of God.  The understanding that he would never see or know all of God was a moment of brilliant clarity, of deeply meaningful insight for him.
We have a very physical understanding of blindness really.  It’s really hard to imagine what it might be like to not have sight, ever, or to lose it when you have had it.  Margaret I stand in awe beside you, knowing that it has been, and is, really difficult for you but also absolutely inspired by your attitude and ability within it.  In fact it often seems to me that you see just as much if not more than I do with my still visually functioning eyes and you bless us every day with your insights into the grace and love of Christ.
Bartimeus, for all his physical blindness, was also a person who leads us into much needed clarity about the way of faith and it is this story of faith that I would like to explore a little more today.  It is worth noting that the Gospel of Mark sandwiches the two stories of the healing of physical blindness around the three accounts of the blindness of the disciples and their inability to see the truth when Jesus predicts his suffering and death.  Their response is blindness personified: rebuke by Peter for saying it, ashamed and fearful silence, and a request to have a position of power when they came into the kingdom.  They didn’t get it – at all.  But Bartimeus did!  The blind man did.
Lets tease out some of the action in this story of the healing of the blind man and then think about how we might sit respond to it. 
First of all the blind man was marginalised, on the side of the road, spoken to as of no worth, told to shut up – but Jesus heard and responded.
Jesus asked Bartimeus a question, interestingly exactly the same question that he had posed to the disciples in the reading last week: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’  ‘What do you want me to do for you?’
The disciples had responded with the request for ‘favourite status’, Bartimeus with a plea to be able to see.
Jesus said: tell him to come to me and Bartimeus got up and ran towards him – there was action, eagerness in his response to Jesus call.
And immediately he regained his sight, Bartimeus followed Jesus on the way.
Some of the thoughts that came to my mind:
How much so we, who think we see the whole picture, try to both exclude other perspectives and/or impose our thinking on others.  I’m pretty sure all of us have done this at some time – but what we have to be aware of is that whilst not of us have the whole picture, all of us have a role to play, a purpose to fill, a piece of the picture to contribute in following the way of Jesus.  And it needs all the perspectives, all the nuances to help make a bigger, more complete picture of being a community of faith.  That is why we need to embrace community – so that we can hear other stories, see other ways, be made wiser through the insight of others, build together a picture of the kingdom as God knows it to be.
How do we treat those who are marginalised in our society, how do we treat those in need, pleading for a helping hand, a word of care, an act of compassion, simply a recognition of worth?  Do we step out of our way to respond to those in need, whoever and wherever they might be?  If our outreach, our mission is not sometimes uncomfortable for us ie if we don’t have to sometimes step out of our well paved well mapped pathway, should we be re-examining our understanding of marginalised and mission?
What is our response to Jesus question “What is it that you want me to do for you?”  Only you can answer that question but it is one worth spending some serious time on and it is one we should answer from the very depths of our souls.  If our answer is to be that of Bartimeus – Lord let me see – then what is it that we each need to see more clearly?
For some it might be learning to express ourselves, our faith, in words and actions in a better way – words and actions that open up both the eyes of others and ourselves to the way of Jesus Christ. Expanding our horizons as well as offering new sight to others.
For others maybe it’s about being better stewards of our gifts and skills, our life experience and our possessions.  Thinking of big picture stuff when we can’t be bothered recycling a piece of plastic or choosing to not buy into the consumer society with yet something else that we don’t really need or hasn’t really broken yet.  Maybe it’s about offering our skills in places where we can’t be sure of the outcome or venturing into situations where we are the learner not the teacher?
And for all of us, no maybes here – it is the question of how we can better serve God, community and ourselves in the way of Christ.  For surely this is the core of the reading we heard today – immediately he regained his sight, he followed him on the way.  Show us, here in this place, O Christ, your way that we might follow it faithfully, generously and lovingly, opening not just our eyes but the eyes and ears of all whom we meet, in Jesus name.  Amen

Margaret Garland

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 14th October, 2012

Readings Job 23, Hebrews 4: 12-16
 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.

General Assembly 2012.  I would like to begin with a quote from Charles Dickens.
It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,

we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. This is a quote from Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities and was used by Jason Goroncy in his post Assembly Musings[1], following on with the suggestion that it was indeed something of a Dickens of a General Assembly.
This fairly much reflected my view – the best of times and the worst of times.
You can read a brief prĂ©cis of decisions on the website[2] or there is a page on the table in the Morrison Lounge at Church.  I won’t hugely go into them but rather would wish to talk about the way in which we do or do not make Jesus Christ known on the floor of Assembly.
I admit at times to feeling a bit like Job –God where are you, why have you deserted us? Do you not hear my groans? I would learn what you would answer me and understand what you would say to me![3] 
Because there were times when I despaired, times when I searched for the presence of God and was left wondering. 
?         Each time that people seemed to believe that 60% vote = the will of God and the imposition of that will on all the people.
?         Each time that the Assembly rejected a genuine desire to discuss and discern what the Spirit was saying to the wider church. 
?         Each time the total lack of trust led to hurtful comments, ridiculous decisions and skewed interpretations.
?         Each time that the wisdom and processes of the Presbyterian way were ignored in the haste to ensure the ‘right’ decision. 
Whilst the debate over leadership continued, mostly in grace but occasionally in diatribe, the remits on marriage probably caused the most tears and heartache for many.  A call to allow the wider church and in particular the Core Doctrine Committee to have a conversation on the theology of marriage was lost – to the concern of many from all sides of the theological spectrum – as was, thankfully, the motion that if Gay Marriage became legal, the Ministers of the PCANZ would be prevented from conducting such marriages ( remembering that 60% makes it so, this vote was lost as only 59.8% voted for it).  This debate was a real low point for me – and yet a place of hope too as many of all persuasions spoke up saying this is not a  process for discerning the way of Christ, that many are still praying about it and seeking what the Spirit is saying to each in their faith community.  This challenge to the discernment of the Spirit to speak into each situation and through those ordained to leadership (teaching and ruling elders) and presbyteries, seemed, to many, a step too far.
But then, like Job, we were also able to say: our feet have not left your path, we have held fast to your steps.[4]  There were many of those moments – special uplifting moments of unity and joy and grace.
When the Pacific Island Synod was granted status as a Presbytery Wayne Te Kawa, Moderator of Te Ako Puaho gave the most inspiring response from the Tangata Whenua, the first people. He talked of those of the Pacific as their elders, whom they now were able to welcome home.  And later it was passed unanimously that Church land no longer required by parishes be considered for gifting to Te Ako Puaho and that the role of their Moderator be given equal status to the Moderator of General Assembly as well be sent out for discussion in Presbyteries and Parishes.  We have come a long way in our bicultural journey and there is a sense of maturity in our partnership with the tangata whenua.
The recommendations to support the Living Wage movement by our own practices at least and to speak out for Vulnerable Children were embraced – even if not given the time they perhaps deserved.
The other unified commitment was to having a stronger voice in the plight of those affected by climate change in the Pacific. 
That was the business that gave a sense of hope – but so too did the worship led by the Rev Malcolm Gordon and the addresses/sermons from the current, past and incoming Moderators.  In particular Rev Andrew Norton, who will be Moderator in 2014, spoke eloquently and with passion for a healing of division and confrontation.  He said:
The language of life and faith cannot be contained in dogma, regulations or pronouncements. God cannot be reduced to the small mindedness of liberalism,conservatism, post modernism, fundamentalism or any
other “ism” that names you.
In an age of rapid change, uncertainty, paradox and ambiguity we need more than ever poets, song writers
and artists who have an ability to enter into that mystery, messiness, and experience of life, who will read between the lines and to give us language of faith and hope inuncertain times.
So we come back to the words of Job: “But God stands alone and who can dissuade him?  What God desires, that God does.” 
God, through and in the people of Christ Jesus, is working in our church, our denomination, our world, in all who live in the light of love and grace.  May all people in the PCANZ hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church and live in that light. Amen.

Margaret Garland

Friday, 21 September 2012

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 23rd September, 2012.

Readings:  James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, Mark 9:30-37

Let us pray:
O God, may your word be spoken and received with open hearts and minds, that we may find your truth, your purpose in them for us.  Amen.

Last week we explored with fairly broad brush strokes the need to trust in the faithfulness and love of God, we talked of drawing on the wisdom of the cloud of witnesses that have gone before as well as remembering to take strength from who we are in Christ as this time.  All this so that we might have the hope and courage to step out into the somewhat unknown future that Christ invites us into. 
Perhaps we can put add some detail to those brush strokes today as we explore particularly the reading from the Gospel of Mark.
I want you to put yourselves into that moment in time, into Jesus shoes in fact and to do that effectively we need to look at what was happening in the biblical story in the days before.  At the beginning of Chapter 9 in Mark we have the transfiguration – a profoundly spiritual encounter with God, a time of glorious and spectacular affirmation of Christ as the Beloved.  And then it was back down to the valley – down to earth really – walking straight in to the failure of the remaining disciples to cast out the Spirit from the young boy.  Straight into a seemingly volatile crowd whose anger may have been encouraged by the scribes but mostly seemed to be fuelled by the inability of the disciples to practice what they preached. Jesus had to pick up the pieces, heal the boy, placate the crowd.  And from there we move to today’s passage where Jesus, having dealt to the evil spirit and the angst of the crowd, moves on to Galilee and tries to spend some quality teaching time with the disciples – to talk to them of what was to come – his betrayal, his death, his rising again.  And their response?  “They did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”[1]  Instead they appear to have been arguing as to who was the greatest amongst them!  Surely, if ever, that was a time for Jesus to throw his toys out of the cot in despair. From a moment of sublime encounter with God to dealing with angry crowds and the low spirits of the failed disciples to speaking of the difficult and painful journey ahead – and they can only argue over which of them is the greatest?  Honestly!
Yet do we too not do this with regularity too? Not argue who is the greatest necessarily but exhaust ourselves in similarly unproductive debate when in fact Christ is standing there in from of us trying to teach us the truth of the love of God.  I cannot help but think of the passion, energy and focus that has been the leadership debate in PCANZ for the last, what, 15 years when Christ is begging us to get out there and reconcile, minister to this aching world.
What might be some of the debates we have that distract our attention from Christ, the things that prevent us listening to and understanding what it is that Christ is saying to us at Opoho?   To identify those is a discussion yet to be had, and will involve a heap of perspectives (in my previous church there was huge passion about whether we should have pews or chairs, hymnbook or OHP, shared ecumenical services  or not but little left over for mission in the community) – but whatever they are there is no doubt that the ‘who is the greatest’ type conversations can prevent us from following Christ’s  dynamic and radical teachings to be Church.
Why do we embrace these distractions, whatever they might be for us, so enthusiastically  –we can find some clues to that in the reading today.   “The disciples did not understand and were afraid to ask.”[2]   Is fear one of the major factors in our inability to respond to Christ’s challenge for us?  That speaks to me for certain, fear of rejection, of challenge, of opening up the vulnerable in me to others.    Fear of the unknown, fear of the future, fear of failure, fear of where Christ might lead us can be stultifying, can easily turn our energies to the selfish, the safe, the inward looking -  leaving little room for listening to and acting on the teachings of Christ.  
There is another clue in the reading about how we need to equip ourselves to be effective ministers of the gospel message.  We need to pray.  We cannot do it alone – just as the disciples failed to cure the boy on their own merits, so we too cannot make a difference in the world just by ourselves – they needed to pray, said Jesus, we need to pray and listen to what the Spirit is saying to us.  Actually this is an invidious little trap isn’t it?  If I just go out and be kind and just and caring, then I will be doing my bit.  It’s all very logical and well meaning - nothing wrong with that – but when we try to do things purely by our own effort we are not only limited but also like to be distracted.  In the power of prayer and therefore in the grace of an ever present God how much more can we and this world be transformed, how much more can we actually hear and understand and live those words of hope that the disciples missed – “and in three days he will rise again!”[3]
And the third clue I believe as to how we might stop being exhausted by debates that are making us deaf to the word of God is found towards the end of the Gospel reading – and actually, because Jesus rarely let an opportunity for teaching go by, it’s also a bit of a pointer as to how we might actually be ‘great’ for God.  He picked up a child and said “whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me”. [4] Too often we interpret this statement as thinking we need to be innocent, simple in the sense of a child’s trust and clarity of thought, but I would encourage you to hear the words rather as telling us that we need to be focussing not on ourselves but on others – those beyond our circle who have need of us – the weak and the vulnerable – those who need a welcome rather than being shut out – and in the serving of those who are calling to us, we too will be opened up and make whole as a people of God.
So as we share together today in our Annual Meeting, as we begin to discuss how Opoho is looking to be Church over the next few years I wonder what our priority question here needs to be, where our passion will be directed. 
Is it “How can we survive?” or is it “How can we live out the mission of Christ in this community?  I believe that it is only when we have sorted that out that we can say ‘We are listening Christ, we hear you, send us and we will go for you into your future, whatever that might be!”  Thanks be to God

Margaret Garland

[1] Mark 9:32 (NRSV)
[2] Mark 9:32 (NRSV)
[3] Mark 9:31 (NRSV)
[4] Mark 9:37 (NRSV)

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Opoho Church Sermon Sunday 16th September, 2012

Bible Readings : Matthew 13:1-9, Genesis 1:1-13

Let us pray:  O God, may your word be spoken and received in the truth of Christ.  Amen.

Today, within the suggested celebration of Creation in our church lectionary, is the day when we focus on the sky above and around us.  To begin let me share this story from the first people of this land about the anchor and guide that is the Te Punga, the Southern Cross.

From the book ‘Stories from the Night Sky’[1]  Te Punga.

In the beginning, the stars came travelling across the sky, making new lights.  When Te Punga is lifted, they set sail again.  Each year they sail, voyaging  across the night skies and each year they return and settle, safe in their waka, with Te Punga below to anchor them.
In the beginning we came, travelling across the oceans, seeking new lands.  When Te Punga was lifted we followed the waka.  We read the stars and rode the oceans, feeling the pull of the anchor and rope.  Here we settled, safe in our new land, with Te Punga above to anchor us. 
In the beginning you came, riding on the shoulders of your ancestors, breathing new life.  When Te Punga is lifted, you watch the star’s voyage.  You watch the unfolding of the seasons and your ancestors as they journey along the great pathway.  You grow with every lifting and it is Te Punga you grow towards.
You may travel across oceans, you may voyage across skies, you may ride to the far corners of the world.  Always Te Punga will be there, anchoring you to your land.  And if the seasons turn cold and if the ancestors call, just feel the pull of the anchor and rope, and let it bring you home.

It seems to me that this story in one of togetherness, of the importance of the guiding stars in creation for both Maori and the European settlers who were to follow.  And I found a great deal to equate with our journeys as people of faith, with our searching and our exploration, our stepping into unknown waters, our need of a guide and anchor not only when things go wrong but also when we take positive steps into new and often uncharted ways.
And springtime is a very good time to explore new ideas and search for new understandings – what did the story say? – you grow with every lifting of Te Punga – you do not stay the same but continue to grow and evolve as the seasons march on.
But we do not forget either where we have come from – ‘you came, riding on the shoulders of your ancestors’ – steeped in their faith, their witness, their nurturing and their wisdom we are who we are today, able to explore safe in the guiding and wisdom of those who have gone before.
And, in venturing into the future whilst remembering where we have come from, we also do not forget who we are at this time, what anchors us together as community and as a people of God.  ‘Always, Te Punga will be there, anchoring you to your land.
It really is an evocative story, one that lends itself effectively to our journeys of life and faith and hope.
It struck me too that this story offers an insight into the Gospel reading today – that of the sower of the seed and the type of ground that the seed lands on.
There are few stories more familiar to us, - the seed that fell on the path, eaten by the birds; the rocky ground where they grew quickly but, without deep soil, fell over; the thorny ground, where the seed was overpowered by the strength of the thorns; and the good soil which produced great fruit.  Later in the chapter Matthew has Jesus explain the parable more fully – likening the path as the hearts openness to evil, the rocky ground as those vulnerable to trouble or persecution, the thorns as the choking power of the world, and the good soil as the one who hears and understands the word and bears fruit.
And there are few stories that we are more able to place ourselves in too – the rocky patches in our lives, the distracted and the shallow all appear in each and all of our stories I am sure.  These are the realities of the human life.
But perhaps the question to ask is what leads us into these less than fruitful places and is there anything we can do about it.
Maybe a possible answer lies in another question – do we see these bad patches resulting from our failure to grasp the truth or failure to trust the truth?  It is suggested that this is the essential difference between the Matthew and Mark versions of this parable – in Mark, Jesus is scolding the disciples for not getting it, for their failure to understand what Jesus is saying in the parable; whereas Matthew seems to suggest that the people get the parable alright, it’s just that they have trouble living by it, trouble trusting what they understand.
And I wonder if this is something we can relate to?  I am reminded of the waka voyages that are taking place in the Pacific at the moment – where 21st century voyagers are choosing to navigate by the stars – the way that their ancestors used to - and I wonder, if we were somehow able to ask both the ancient and the modern navigators, who would have more difficulty: those of high technology who have learned to trust in the stars of their ancestors or those of old if we asked them to trust to the instrumentation that modern sailors use.  I suspect the stars would win – not because we do invention/technology/modern instrumentation badly but because those stars have proven their faithfulness, unchanging over time and space; they have been a beacon of hope and direction throughout human history.  It’s not too much of a leap to liken that to our trust in God is it and maybe answer our question of how we might trust God a little more. 
It is quite remarkable, when we trouble to think about it, how much of our trust in God is anchored in the witness of those who have gone before, those who have journeyed in the light of Christ throughout time and yes, too those who trusted God before the Christian era began.  I believe that it is when we replace that myriad witness with our conveniently modernistic interpretation of what it means to be church, the body of Christ, that we not only find our trust in the presence and power of God diminishing but also find it more difficult to step out into the unknown possibilities of the future.  Let me expand a little into what is a huge area of conversation.  Much of our understanding of what it means to be church for the last few hundred years has been almost exclusively based on the premise of  what has been called ‘chronological egotism’ – that we will get better at being church as time and human skills advance – potentially until we no longer need God some might argue.  We discovered this throughout our August study series on cringe words – how much we have lost or re-created the meaning of core biblical tenets of faith to our modern convenience, convenient in that we can contain and therefore often reject their meaning for our Christian lives.  Yet we say we live in and commit to the Christ made known in the Gospels and explored in the early church – but still hold on to doctrines and understandings of God that have been heavily influenced by our culture, our relationship with the state, our very human responses to threat and change and challenge as church.  And it has confined us, diminished us somehow so that we find we are valuing modern navigation over the creative timelessness of the one we call God.
We at Opoho are coming to a time when we will have to take some very big steps of faith into the unknown, trusting that God will guide us and anchor us in how we will be church, be the good soil for Christ.  And I suspect our ability to trust God and each other will be tested quite severely at times – those rocky roads and shallow soils and thorny grounds will seem like safe havens almost – but in the presence of Christ, through the teaching of the Gospel and with all the cloud of witnesses at our side we can and will hold true to the true mission of this church and this people – thanks be to God.

Margaret Garland

[1] Melanie Drewery (author), Jenny Cooper (illus.).  Stories from our Night Sky.Puffin Books, 2009

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Sermon Sunday 2nd September, 2012 Opoho Church

Readings: James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Let us pray:  God who welcomes all people and challenges us to live in the way of Christ, may your word for us be both comforting and disturbing, that we may better be a transformed and transforming community in Jesus name.  Amen.
Isn’t it interesting and a little uncanny when something that you have been pondering during the week appears really strongly in the readings for Sunday – this has happened to me often and it is no different today.  On Wednesday night we spent an hour and a half at study group trying to get a handle on what is meant by righteousness – and came up with a variety of understandings and interpretations – for me the best way to understand it was as living in right relationship with God and each other.  I had a quiet chuckle when, in preparing for this sermon, I realised that the letter of James and those of Paul also have a somewhat different take on what it means to live in righteousness.  They would have fitted into our study group rather well!  Whereas James saw righteousness as faith intricately co-existing with works, Paul tended more to understand it as a place that faith alone brought you to and out of which works would come.  As I read further I found that not only was the word righteousness up for debate but they both had variations on the meaning and practice of what was meant by faith and works.  Faith or belief for Paul is primarily trust in God with works seen as a somewhat separate practice; for James faith and belief is more about assenting to ideas about God, ie agreeing that God exists, to which personal commitment and relationship needs to be added.  He says in support of this viewpoint – ‘even the demons believe’[1].  You may be feeling a trifle confused there and that is not surprising – and of course I have made some fairly large generalisations or perspective there which you may or may not agree with.  But what it does illustrate that then and now there are different understandings of what it means to live in or receive righteousness – to be in right relationship with God.
In fact it was light-heartedly postulated on Wednesday night that maybe, just maybe we shouldn’t talk at all about God – it was just too hard to come to agreement on what words and concept meant, to ‘get’ all the nuances and ‘lose’ all the enculturated meanings that are attached to the words we use to share our faith and beliefs.  But that wouldn’t do, for it is in the talking and discussing and exploring of these everyday words that we come to a deeper and more meaningful  relationship with God and who it is that God wants us to be.   
So I am going to run with James’ take on righteousness for a little while and see where that takes us – that of where belief/faith are inextricably entwined with what we say do and be.   And the reason I suggest this is that the people he was preaching to, probably around 60AD, and those who would have read this letter were in a not dissimilar position in society to us today.  These early Jewish Christian groups were a tiny minority existing within large populations that were at the best indifferent or at worst exceedingly hostile to their beliefs.  That is no different.  They were also people who within living memory had been part of an established recognised institution of belief, one that held some considerable sway in the habits and attitudes of their societies.  That holds considerable truth for us.  James was concerned at the impact of the surrounding population on the fledgling faith – that they would fall back into the values and behaviour of the majority when Christ was calling them to live a radically different life, one that was often at odds with the greater society in which they lived.  Sound familiar as well?
And I am going to be slightly, well probably more than slightly, controversial and invite us to think about all of these things in light of the marriage bill that is before Parliament at the moment and our responses to it.  Where sits our right relationship with God and each other in the midst of this very real situation? 
It seems to me that we have gotten ourselves in a right old pickle over this and that to some extent we are actually debating the wrong issue.  When I get over my annoyance at the media telling me that I am against it because I am a Christian, I begin to focus on some of the aspects of the debate that trouble me as a Christian attempting to live a life that is reflecting my faith in God and deeply determined by the new life that is Christ Jesus.
My first thought is: what is with this fixation on sexual issues – for me right living is about grace and forgiveness and fighting injustice and taking stands on greed and violence and exploitation – now if those abuses are within a sexual relationship, whatever that might be, they need to be challenged.  Where love, faithfulness, care flourish in relationships, they need to be celebrated.  So why is it that our righteousness is defined instead by sexual orientation and the little things like adultery, child abuse, bullying and sexual violence within relationships get less of our energy and passion?
We as Christians are a minority in our society – a society that the Christian church heavily influenced in living memory and in fact still does but as a legacy rather than a living relationship.  Maybe this is a good thing to be a bit separated (many would argue so) but it seems to me that when we do do relationship, all our energy and passion and ‘public speaking time’ if you like to call it that is not that wisely spent – I can think on a million things which society embraces that Christ would want us to be challenging, overturning the tables on - and yet we debate the moral value of what is now a largely secular, oft repeated and increasingly devalued legal institution.  I am being extremely cynical about marriage there I realise, but there is a reason I believe.  What I would like to see is the Church recovering what marriage is actually about – the lifelong commitment of two people who promise before God and community that they will love and care for each other and will honour God in that relationship.    I don’t think we are very good at differentiating between those ways of living that we deem righteous simply because they have always been so and those acts and utterances that Christ would call righteous because they value God, faithfulness, love, and justice above all. 
Because that was the other question that James had to deal with - ‘who was influencing who?’  He was concerned that the distinctive transformed living that was ‘being reborn in Christ’ would be diluted, lost in the pressures and temptations of the majority society.  If we, as James, see righteous living as belief in God made know in Christ, intricately woven in with commitment, relationship and works then righteous is more than committing to God, being saved in Christ Jesus, but is also totally about the often counter-cultural, always radical approach to life and relationships that we engage in –by definition we have a different perspective, a Christ perspective.  So I ask the question:  on the issue of marriage equality – is conservative society pulling the strings of the church or is the church able to recover and restore marriage as a demonstrable way of living in right relationship with God and each other in love and faithfulness – no matter how those marriage partners might be defined? 
These are my views, formed and shaped by who I believe God through Christ and in the Spirit to be.  Yours may well be different on this particular issue –righteousness is not about being of one mind but of allowing your relationship with God, with Christ to be the transforming power in your life, over and above and sometimes against the culture you live in.  Only you can determine what that means for you.  Amen

Margaret Garland

[1] James 2: 19