Saturday, 21 April 2012

Sermon - Opoho Church, Dunedin Sunday 22nd April, Easter 3 2012

Readings: Luke 24:36b-48,  1 John 3:1-7

Let us pray:  O God, we pray that through your Spirit we may hear your word and encounter within it, the great width and length and height and depth of the love of Christ for us and in us.  Amen.

At first glance the passage we heard read this morning from 1 John is challenging and somewhat contradictory.  What do you do with, this statement, for instance:  “No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him.”  It seems a bald provocative statement of right living to which few of us could possibly connect and against which all of us would experience failure. It also seems totally in contrast to the embracing concept that we are God’s children, loved and cared for and welcomed as we are.  “Beloved, we are God’s children now.”  What can we do with the tension between a total intolerance of any sin and a recognition of the grace of Jesus Christ that allows sinners to be the children of God?  Various people have tried to find ways to explain this uncompromising statement on sin – asking if for instance we can make sense of it by imagining it is about habitual sinning versus the occasional lapse – but somehow achieving an 80% pass mark doesn’t quite fit with a God who wants us to strive for a transformed life in Christ.  Or is the other way to suggest that it is only when we are not sinning that we are in relationship with God – ie stepping in and out of abiding in Christ.  That too is against all we understand of a God from whom nothing, not even death, can separate us. 

So what do we do with this passage?  Well here is the thought I would like to explore – are we or can we become a people for whom sinning is increasingly an unreal option? Can we make more real the connection between who Christ is and who we need to be?  And if so how might we do that, how might we live into the future promise that when Christ appears, we shall be like him?

Now in case that word sin is causing us any difficulty, can I define sin as that which does not come from love, that which does not have its origin in God?  There is a much bigger discussion to come on sin at another time but for today let’s sit with that.
So basically what the author of 1 John is saying, I believe, is that we are to see living as the children of God as being a holistic, fully transformational change to our lives, not just a piecemeal picking up of some useful, pragmatic and seemingly fair rules for life.  It’s the difference between intellectually knowing that you should not verbally abuse someone and caring deeply of the hurt you might cause them.  It’s about the love flowing in every aspect of our lives because we have looked on the face of God in encountering the risen Christ, and we want to become what we have looked upon.  In this sense the claim that no-one who abides in Christ can sin begins to make a little more sense, be more reachable for us because it suggests, not that we are going to cease all sinful behaviour but that we are going to always measure what we do, say and be always in this love and that makes it much harder for us, increasingly, to carry out unlovely actions in our lives. 

An illustration: over the last week we have had here in the church hall about 20 odd children attending a volunteer Otago holiday programme.  They were loud and lively and had a great time.  But there were a few that found it fun to escape the activities from time to time and take refuge in the Minister’s office.  Minister of Magic they dubbed me.  And in one of the conversations several around 13 year old girls started talking about the latest happenings in Shortland St.  I made a face, it seems, because they asked me why I didn’t like the programme.  Because it’s a challengeable reality I said – except I probably said: “life’s not like that’.  And then they said but, Minister of Magic, it gives all kinds of, I think it was ‘life instruction’ for us.  They meant that it had moral teachings I think.  And they started reeling them off:
You shouldn’t steal $25,000 to build a charity clinic cause you will get caught.
You shouldn’t lie to get people out of your flat – it doesn’t work
Don’t get pregnant – you might not be able to get the father to admit it
A somewhat twisted and limited understanding both of what is right living and why!  Without the underpinning rationale of love and care for each other informing these girls’ concepts of right and wrong, they are always going to be struggling to get the difference between what we have called sinning and what we know as living in the new creation that is the risen Christ.  I hope that when they are ready to acknowledge the failings of Shortland St as the source of right living, that they might think to ask a person of faith if they have an answer!

At the annual meeting of Synod that I attended for the first time this weekend, we were also challenged to live into this vision of a church that had looked on the face of God and wanted to become what it had looked upon.  To find answers to the question: what kind of church is God calling us to be in Christ and by the power of the Spirit? How do we distinguish in the church those rules for Christian living that are anchored pretty much in social and historical understandings of right and wrong and can easily be conduits for abuse and exploitation, and, on the other hand, those understandings of church that are based in the love of Jesus made know in scripture and through the Spirit.  If we can live in the second, then maybe we can become a church for whom living without love is an increasingly unreal option?  We didn’t come up with any particular model of how church will look in 2020 in Aotearoa New Zealand – that was the challenge of the new Moderator – but there were inspiring words from Graham Redding as he summed up the discussion – do we, he said, have the heart to allow ourselves to re-evangelised by the gospel, to hold to what it means to live as a transformed body of Christ as church, through our worship, our mission and our love for one another, to live simply, prayerfully, grace-fully, hope-fully, joy-fully and generously. 

Maybe in this church that has looked on the face of God in the life and death of the risen Christ, maybe in this church there will be no sin – for we have become what we have looked upon and can envisage no other life.  That is Christ’s prayer for us, his beloved people.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Sermon - Opoho Church, Dunedin Sunday 15th April 2012 Easter 2

Bible Readings : Acts 4:32-35,  John 20:19-31

A Question of Belief: reflections on the Lenten Study

We pray:  As your Church, as your Easter people may we be open to your prayer for us.  In Jesus name.  Amen.

The first verse of an Easter hymn by Shirley Murray goes like this:
Church of the living Christ,
people of Easter faith –
speak to the Man who walks
free from the dark of death!
The Christ who burst the tomb apart
comes questioning the Church’s heart.
And I guess in some ways that is what our reflections over the Lenten time were about – questioning, laying on the table what it is that is our heart as a church community – what troubles us, what questions we have, what re-imaging we want to make of what we believe, what we hold firm and foundational and what excites new understandings.  What is the Spirit saying to the church, to us?
I tell you those Monday evening discussion roved far and wide, turned unexpected corners and were I think fairly stimulating and helpful to all.  So today, as we consider what it means to live in a post Easter faith, I thought it would be helpful to offer back to the full congregation some of the thinking that came out the discussions around Bill Loader’s letter to Dear Kim...not a cohesive resume but rather some of the things that really resonated.
But as we do so, I would ask you to consider these reflections in the light of this Easter story and our commission from the risen Christ to re-member him and to continue to live out his love in the world as we talked about last Sunday.  Today’s reading is an interesting backdrop too – poor old Thomas labelled for all time as the doubter – it’s really so unfair to focus doubt onto just this one honest person when all, I suspect, doubted at some time or other.  I wonder if in perpetuating the myth of this solitary doubter, it makes it easier for us to see doubt as a sin rather than as a very normal and human way of exploring faith and life.  Because that was for me one of the pivotal understandings that came out of these Lenten discussions – we were given permission to express our doubts, our questions, our conundrums if you like.  We came at issues from many different perspectives, heard of differing struggles and interpretations and were able to express doubts and have self labelled ‘dodgy’ thinking affirmed
And so what follows are the musings of some of those who attended, including my own. 
So some thoughts – first of all from Philip.

Tui told me of one particular thought that was important for her – and I quote:   “ The sessions, and discussions with other attendees after the sessions, challenged the way I conceptualised words  like 'theology' and '[bible] commentary'. Living as we do in North Dunedin we are blessed with a close local department of (academic) theology. I was surprised to realise that I had come to view words such as theology and commentary as belonging to the academic and/or ministerial world (where people use big words that I often do not understand) rather than be something that I might do or think in more simple language. I guess I haven't viewed what I read as commentary - just seen it as books I read, and my thoughts I have just seen as my thinking, not "doing theology". It has made me wonder about whether non-theologians need to actually reclaim theology back for ourselves for the good of us all.” End of quote.  She is so right – we each and every one need to reclaim theology as a personal space, not leave as something that other people do – for it is imperative in a world that questions the value of faith that we  know what it is we believe and share our understandings clearly and relevantly. 

Affirmation of life after death but not needing to know anymore – that was a part of the studies where John Allen welcomed his reticence.  In the words of Loader, “Yet in the choice of denying or affirming life after death, I come down on the side of belief.  My starting point is God and I am confident that in death I am not cut off from God.    I believe that, as with Jesus, I go to be with God.  I don’t think I need to know any more.  God is enough, the rest is imagery.  It was enough for the disciples to know that Jesus was going to be with God, and that they too would be with God.  Time and energies spent speculating on what that might look like is time taken from being Christ in this world.  Trust as Thomas trusted when he knew the presence of the risen Christ was before him.

When we came round to talking about the bible there was this incredibly wide diversity in how we read and understand it, as well as which parts speak most directly to us.  It helped to remind ourselves of some ways of thinking of the Old and New Testaments:
·        that they are made up of gathered writings over time selected or rejected by the early church for various reasons,
·        that it is not the infallible word of God but the rather a witness to the life of faith in God and, in the NT, as made known in Jesus Christ.  People wrote from their understanding and knowledge and faith into the situations they found themselves at the time.  
·        It’s all about context – what is the spirit of Christ saying to the Church in the 21st century in Opoho, as Jesus words and deeds spoke into the church of 1st century Palestine
We talked about different ways of reading the bible – verses, chapters, books – and the contradictions and those parts that just spoke directly to us of God’s love and faithfulness.
It was interesting that here and in other places Loader speaks of his early life as a Christian where he had a reasonably fundamentalist view of faith, a view which he now considers in opposition to the teachings of Jesus, and that by trying to literally believe all that is said in the bible, he was subjecting love and compassion to law making – just what Jesus spent his time rejecting.
And the final topic I would like to share – this was one that came out of our last discussion on what it means to be Christian.  John’s sermon from Palm Sunday generated a frank sharing of our relationship with forgiveness – not so much with our receiving but our struggle with giving.  We talked around what forgiving someone actually meant:
·        Should it only be given when repentance was expressed? The answer to that was no.
·        Does it mean that you forget what happened? Also no.
·        How should we deal with hurts that go very deep?
·        Where does our unconditional love sit?
·        Is there some who are beyond redemption?
·        How much around forgiveness is about our spiritual well being?
·         And more.
We didn’t find all the answers and I am thinking this a place where we need to continue to explore and open up. I thank you for that.
May we continue to be open to Christ’s questioning of our Churches heart and may we respond with wisdom and with courage.  For, as the last verse of the hymn says:

We are the Body now –
our feet must mark the Way,
our speech declare the Word
and live it day by day,
the resurrection story ours,
disciples gifted with new powers!

Rev Margaret Garland

Sermon Opoho Church, Dunedin Sunday 8th April. Easter Sunday

Bible Reading: John 20:1-18
O God, may our hearts and minds be opened and challenged by your Word for us and for the world we live in.  In Jesus name.  Amen. 
Its official, I have decided.  New Zealand is a secular society!  That is if you measure it by the degree of acknowledgement of the Christian Easter Story in the media and on the TV channels that bring us entertainment and enlightenment.  I had a quick flick through the listener – mainline TV managed to resurrect for the umpteenth time the Vicar of Dibley Easter special (good as it is) and the fairly crass Bruce Almighty where Jim Carrey gets to play God for while.  That is it. 
In the news there has been and will be some media coverage of the Easter services held around the country, of the walks of the cross in the city as there was in the ODT on Saturday.
But still I say – that is it.
But then I started to think – possibly generously– that maybe this is not because programme chiefs or reporters are passionately secular or deeply anti-religious or just reporting a newsworthy event  – far from it -  but because people increasingly just don’t see how a Christian Easter has any relevance within this fast paced, complex world of self-survival any more.  It may be that for some people within the church, too, there is a sense of detachment, of the repeated story of Easter losing meaning in the reality of living in this world, of difficulty in connecting with the drama that is the Easter story. Because it is a time of high drama – when you walk through Lent – look at the banners on the wall to remind you of the stories – when we experience the events of Holy Week, we become increasingly involved in sensing the anger, the betrayal, the loneliness and the pain, of Jesus and the anguish, the life seemingly extinguished, the waiting, waiting and finally the rebirth of hope in the risen Christ for those early followers and for all who have followed Christ since then.
It seems to me that there is a gap of understanding – and that the somewhat mysterious, ritualistic often uncomfortable happenings of Easter week within the church appear to those who look on from a distance, as a place of ‘yes well.. so...’?  I see this as one of the great chasms that we need to bridge – if we want the gospel narrative to have any meaning and relevance for this world.  And I see it as one of the hardest bridges to build with the most non-conformist engineering design that you are likely to find.  We have to not only recognise how church is seen from those who have little experience of it but also figure out the story we actually want to tell.  As an example of perspective, I remember a comment from a chance encounter – when the person found out I was training for ministry they said – well I totally refuse to have anything to do with a belief that promotes torture - on the cross – that is just not right. 
I also wonder how many use the debate on whether the physical body of Jesus was fully restored in the resurrection as the most important entrance belief into being a Christian – small wonder if they do as we seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time on the question of a bodily or not resurrection.  What do we want to say is the Easter story?
If, miraculously, the world of media and reporting was suddenly to turn to you and say – so what is it that you want on the front page of the paper, as the headline for tomorrow’s news, what is it that you want in the programmes for television over Easter week-  what is it that you would reply?  What is the Easter story you would want to tell the world?  It’s an intriguing question but I believe we might find some direction in the reading from John heard today.
John’s Gospel tells the story of the empty tomb with drama and with clarity, with simplicity and an almost impatient sense of purpose for what is yet to come.  I love the way that the John draws us in to a no nonsense account of the discovery of the empty tomb.  It’s all action, Mary comes, sees, runs to tell the others.  They run, race to the tomb, wanting to be the first to see, it’s almost childish, their rivalry, they see and believe – that the body is gone – they leave, walking past Mary who has come back, to weep and find out who has done this awful thing.  It is she who learns the truth of the risen Christ in the garden, she who goes back to the disciples and brings a tale of hope and new beginnings. There is no mention of checking up or disbelief of Mary’s word in John.
One can get from these events a real sense of needing to work this one out together, that it takes community to hold each other in the midst of despair, uncertainty and discovery.  Peter’s leadership is acknowledged in that he is first to enter the tomb, but the passion of the beloved disciple and the tenacity of Mary are equally needed to find a way forward in this bewildering conundrum.  True faith and insight belongs to all.

But this action is quickly over - it is in the encounter with the risen Christ that John is seeking to draw our attention. And the clarity of the words of Jesus, ‘I am going to be with my Father, do not hold on to me, I have not yet ascended to be with my God and your God.’  The one whom the world lifted onto a cross is being lifted to the presence of God – the son returning to the Father.  This is the secret, the truth of the cross, told to Mary in that one sentence, the same message that Jesus told in a much fuller and longer version to the disciples in the upper room.  Whilst the reality of the resurrection is intrinsic in John’s Gospel account, what we do not have is such a focus on the risen Christ appearing to the disciples.  There is an urgency in this narrative, a focus instead what is to come, a handing over of the reins so to speak to those who are the church – Jesus is about to ascend to the Father, his job is done and it is now up to those who are left behind.  In the following half dozen verses, Jesus appears to the disciples, commissions them to go out into the world and breathes the Holy Spirit onto them – this is the new stage in God’s history with humanity – equipping the disciples with the Spirit and sending them out into the world.  It’s all about action, not verification.  Whilst we re-live the Easter story every year, we are not to stop at the miracle of the resurrection, whatever we might deem that to be, but are to go on beyond it to something much more significant.  Ultimately what matters is that Jesus, who came from the Father returned to the Father, and that in him we meet God who gifts us with light and life and truth through the community of faith.  By participating in that relationship, we are committed to and equipped for loving God and each other in a way that celebrates what the world ignores, loves where the world hates, acts when the world sleeps and seeks justice when the world turns a blind eye.  That is the bridge, the radical design that will connect the gulf between those who live in the Easter Jesus and those who look from the outside in some perplexity.
So what is our ideal media headline for Easter – I suggest it might be all about action – something like this:

Homeless offered a long-term place to stay and recover their sense of purpose.
Government forced to back-down on plans to increase poker machine numbers.
Church leads the way in dialogue with racially divided community

This is Jesus prayer for us, his people as we gather around his table, to re-member him and continue to live out his love in this world.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev Margaret Garland.