Saturday, 26 May 2012

Sermon Sunday 27th May 2012 Pentecost - Opoho Church.

Readings: Acts 2:1-21, John 15:26-27, 16:12-15

Let us pray:  Let us pray:  Loving, living God, open our hearts and minds to hear your words, your prayer for us, your people.  Amen.

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”  [Acts 2: 1-4]

It’s a powerful passage isn’t it – full of drama - a momentous event that birthed the church and changed lives forever.  Look too at the powerful symbolism  – fire, wind,  a babble of tongues  and the Holy Spirit – the dove – entering into all those who believed.  We have some of those symbols around the church today – thanks to the Youth Group and others.  We have encouraged that symbolism too this morning with the lighting of the many shaped and coloured candles – bringing to mind not only that all are welcome in God’s house but that we come as many different people, yet one in the unity of Christ.
Today I want to pick up that theme of diversity in unity a little more and apply it particularly to our worship time.  A number of things have directed my thoughts towards this.  One is that Abby and a small group are revisiting what it means to be a Kid’s Friendly church – using PCANZ resources and expertise we are wanting to know how we could be more welcoming and inclusive of young people.  And this immediately expands, for me anyway, into whether we are also a disabled friendly or other culture friendly church too.  A second has been the worship and faith questionnaire that all of you? have filled in (or are about to).  This is not about pre-empting what you might have to share in those responses but rather about acknowledging that there are going to be many differing needs and so we need to be thinking about how we might respond with grace and integrity to those which are raised.  The third thing has been the reading today of the many diverse people, from all walks of life, all cultures, who were united in the gifting of the Holy Spirit, understanding each other easily in that moment of wonder and in the power of the Spirit.
Let’s begin with the reading from Acts.  The people came from many places and spoke many languages – now I don’t know if they were all Jews at this point –scholars seem to think so – but they were speaking different languages and from differing cultural groups.  They would have not easily mixed would they – can’t you just see the little pockets of languages sitting together in their own spaces – all probably having the same conversation of anticipation but only with those whom they could easily converse and be understood. And then they found that, in the Spirit, they were able to cross those barriers, lose some inhibitions, talk with strangers, people that, moments before, they may have considered outsiders.  It was unusual enough for some bystanders to immediately think they were all drunk as skunks – what else could cause such an aberration from normal dignified behaviour?   And afterwards, after the excitement had subsided somewhat  – well they listened to Peter preaching and many were baptised and, I assume, eventually they returned to where they had come from.  But it was different now – they had been melded into a community of faith, wherever they went – they met together to praise God, to pray, to share food around the table and care for others.  It was indeed the beginning of church.  But, and this was the point that stood out for me – they didn’t all suddenly turn into identical clones who agreed on everything and saw everything the same way – they were still who they were, still old and young, women and men,  Jew and Gentile, traditional and contemporary, mathematicians and artists, emotive and logical, impatient and slow to decision. United in the love of God made known in Christ and now empowered by the Spirit, they became community but not to the degree of losing their individuality, their uniqueness.  There was no magic speaking with one voice, seeing the world with one set of eyes - as Paul’s and other’s letters attest to.  In fact there were those who headed off in some pretty weird directions, those who tried to make everyone do it their way, those who broke away to form new groups, those that thought they were right and others wrong, those that embraced change and those that fought for tradition.  What actually kept them together, kept them travelling on the road of love and grace was to be constantly reminded in the Spirit of what Jesus taught and lived.  The Spirit takes what is the Son’s and makes it known.  And what is the Son’s is from and of the Father’s as Jesus reminds us in his prayers for us.  Jesus made alive in the Spirit kept them in God’s purpose.   
So how is this reflected in worship in 21st century, let’s say New Zealand for want of some kind of containment?  Well I guess the first thing to consider is whether there are ways that we sort of huddle together so to speak, making it hard for others to break into our comfortable spaces.  We have probably all been in churches where children are sshhed or glared at for the slightest noise. Some of us may have attended worship where everyone but you knows what to do and when, and anyone who is new to worship will remember I am sure trying to get a handle on the language used and what it means– I came across a phrase in my reading for today ‘What we have in the Pentecost narrative is an ethno-eschatological unveiling (apokalupsis) that deconstructs a theology of ethnic exclusionism toward a broader theological vision.” 
Actually I am just being silly there but you know what I mean. 
Where do we see worship in terms of the presence of the Holy Spirit unifying us in Christ and the fact that each of us has differing opinions, understandings, approaches to what it means to be Christian.  Nowhere is this more clearly shown than in the debates that have taken place around our ability to hold any longer to one creed – to be able to state together what it is that we believe as a Church when much of the theological content is not expressing what we, each of us, believe.  Even the attempt of PCANZ to produce a contemporary confession of faith, Kupu Whakapono, has met with a lukewarm response by many.  And yet we are called by Christ to express our unity as a people of God  – how do we do that in worship? 
One way is in the Affirmations of Faith that we say each week.  Each one starts off with ‘We believe...’  but you haven’t had a chance to suss out whether you do or not.  I used to think that a communal statement of faith was just that – something that I had to believe literally and concretely to be a Christian; and discovered in fact that that thinking confined God to humankind’s ability to shape words around the divine.  An impossibility I would suggest – especially if we bring all our differing perspectives and attitudes to bear.  Now I see an Affirmation of Faith as an opening up of the possibilities of the mystery of God made known in Christ and through the Spirit.  Some phrases  perplex, some aggravate, some deeply connect, for each of us I suspect differently,  as we together look for ways to share our belief that we are made one in the transforming love of God.  
The last point I would want to make about unity and diversity in worship is that of how we use language.  When I was a member of St Andrews in Amberley, and it came to the Lord’s prayer – I just loved the invitation from the minister of the time to say the version that we were each most comfortable with – for most it was the old version, for some the modern – and we did.  On this day of all day, when many languages were heard, it seem appropriate to say that if you want to use the old version of the Lord’s prayer, do so – if you want to say it in your native tongue, do so, if you hear your neighbour doing just that hold to your way of doing so, that is just fine.  Saying this doesn’t make me any more comfortable to be in a worship service where people are speaking in tongues – that is not what I am talking about – but I am saying that we don’t all have to be completely on the same page with everything that we do and say – it’s not about uniformity but about integrity and unity in our differences.  When we come to sing the last hymn – I am going to sing some slightly different words rather than saying that God is just for men – that matters to me but it is of absolutely no import to others – we can sing different words and still be one in the Spirit, can we not?  I think so.
So let us not be uncomfortable or threatened by difference, our individual takes on God and worship and Church, but let us be comforted on this Pentecost Sunday by the knowledge that, for 2000 years, unity in God’s love is made known in the Spirit and is to be lived out in all our loving and caring diversity as Christ’s disciples, as Christ’s church as we have done here in Opoho for many years and will for many to come.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Margaret Garland

Sermon Sunday 20th May, 2012 Easter 7 Ascension.

Readings: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26    John 17:6-19

Let us pray:  Loving, living God, open our hearts and minds to hear your words, your prayer for us, your people.  Amen.
Today is the last Sunday of the Easter season within the Church year, the week before Pentecost, the week where we remember the Ascension of Christ.  The question comes early on in the sermon today – how tempting is it to use Ascension as a time of longing for some future place of thrones and heavenly hosts to the detriment of Christ’s prayer for us, his disciples, his church to bring eternal life to this place, here and now?  In other words is the picture of a Christ being drawn up into the clouds the predominant image of this act of ascension or can we discover that there is more to this story.  It’s no wonder that for much of my faith life, there was no more than this image.  The words ascension in itself immediately conjures upwards, a physical act of time and place which had completely captured my attention and left no room for any perspective that Christ might bring to that moment of parting. Moreover, we have in our art and our history, concentrated on the physical details of our interpretations of this event –what might it have looked like, where did it take place etc.  You know a long time ago I visited Jerusalem and have said for some time that the most sacred place I visited was a little wooden church on a hill somewhere that was known at the Church of the Ascension – it was a simple, unadorned, rectangular place with no people in it and no one asking for money outside.  Ah I thought, I have finally found the sacred in the midst of this frenetic mayhem of religious tourism.  Well imagine my surprise yesterday when I went online for a photo of the church and discovered a completely different ancient octagonal church building that was firmly established as the place where Christ was said to have ascended to the heavens.  I have no idea where I was and probably never will.  But that seemed to me a good lead in to suggest that the ascension needs to been seen not so much through our eyes of physical location, farewell, separation and hoped for images of future glory but through Jesus eyes of hope and prayer and preparation for those who are to be his people here in this world.  The Ascension reminds us of our responsibility!  Jesus is no longer in the world – but we are, we who are the Body of Christ, we are in the world and we have a job to do!
Why else do we remember Pentecost next week – and the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit –if not to continue to do the work that Jesus began to the purpose of God?  There is a posting on Facebook this week from Mark Johnston[1], Auckland staff member of Knox Centre, where he ponders what the world might look like if we had a stronger theology of place, that is that where we are, where we live, what is in front of us here matters to God.  He goes on to suggest that the Churches mission only takes this seriously when there is a disaster – like an earthquake - and what would it involve if church actually took place and the ordinary and everyday of it all as a matter of spiritual significance all the time.
Maybe this is what Jesus is looking for us to understand as we listen to his prayer for his disciples that we heard read from John’s Gospel.  Perhaps we are being encouraged to take our eyes off what we are assured is to be – as Bill Loader said: to believe that death does not separate us from God and to trust God with the detail – and to focus on what Christ commissioned us to be as his disciples here in this place.
And so Christ prays for us.  We, who choose to be in relationship with God through Christ Jesus, and to pick up the task that the Father gave to the Son and the Son gives to us are held in close prayer for a future that is not easy.
There seem to be three main threads for concern that Jesus has for his disciples in this prayer.
The first is that living in the love of God made known in Christ brings us into conflict with other values in the world and brings dangers.  And I don’t believe he is talking so much dangers that other impose on us but rather where our responses take us into ineffective spaces or, alternatively, places of collaboration with those values.  One response to danger is to withdraw, is it not, into the safety and comfort of known companions and familiar contexts?  From here we can sometimes venture out into the hostile environment that we call the Mission Field – but it’s often a foray only, from which we return gladly to our sanctuary.  There is also a danger of the opposite response to conflicting world values – and that is that we conform to them, telling ourselves that, on the whole, societal rule, the status quo gets it mostly right – from this place we can end up sponsoring, colluding in all kinds of oppressive and unjust acts on a people and a world that we hold in our care in the name of Christ.  The consequences of withdrawal or collusion are a church with its eyes averted from the task that Jesus passed to us.
The second thread for concern is the loss of holiness – the losing touch with the Son and the Father, trying to do this thing on our own.  Jesus prayer suggests that it is only in the power of the relationship with God that we are kept from betraying that which we have committed to as Christians.  That is not to say, though, that as long as we are in relationship with the divine, all is well, no more is needed.  We need to underpin this concept of holiness being found in relationship with God with the other great commandment – to love your neighbour as you love God.  Holiness is living in God, and that means living in love.  Where we do not live in love we are betraying Christ and putting love to death, again.
And thirdly Jesus was concerned about unity – ‘that they may be one as you and I are one’, addressed also in the verses following this morning’s reading.  Well in this we could say that the church has abjectly failed.  Divisions came in the blink of an eye – remember back to the reading last week of the differing opinions on how Gentiles could be brought into the Christian family.  The church throughout its entire history speaks loudly of division and when there did appear to be unity, it was pretty much achieved with an iron fist.
But maybe we have confused unity with lack of division, with unity for the sake of unity or for the sake of peace.  And I don’t think any of those are what Jesus was praying for us.  To be all one in agreement and practice is denying our very humanity – and I do not believe Christ was that foolish!  We would end up going underground with our beliefs or leave the church completely - in that scenario of unity.  Rather perhaps he was praying that, if we are one in him and in the Father through the Spirit, then our diversity and conflicts can be worked through and, if need be, lived with, in a loving, non-destructive way.  This would speak volumes into this destructive divided world of how to live in loving community in our diversity.  Jesus hope for us is that we model the resolution of conflict to the wider society in a manner which will persuade people that there is something transformational about the Christian message.  How are we doing at that?  I would suggest we don’t have a lot of kudos points in the bank for that one at this time.  But for all that, it remains Christ’s prayer for us, that we are one in the Father and in the Son, and in the Spirit, so that our unity, our holiness, our very being is in the God who so loved the world, not heaven but the world – and who tasks us with that same purpose through the risen Christ.  Thanks be to God.
Margaret Garland.

[1] Rev Mark Johnston, KCML Auckland Co-ordinator

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Sermon Sunday 13th May 2012 Opoho Church, Dunedin Easter 6

Readings: Acts 10:44-48, John 15:9-17

Let us pray: Open our hearts, our minds, our very souls to your word for us O God and may we know both challenge and affirmation in our responses. Amen.
One of the commentaries on our Acts reading of today, the story of Peter baptising the Gentile house of Cornelius, suggested that this passage, if it was ever to be made into a feature film, would be a powerful and action packed story filled with conflict, tension, relationship struggles, surprise and surrender and even a touch of the supernatural that changes lives forever. The writer, Jacob Myers1, further suggested that it would take an extraordinary actor – his words were “a profoundly emotive thespian” – to play the role of Peter – and he suggests Ton Hanks or Denzil Washington!
What makes this such a powerful story? First of all we have Peter, a conflicted character torn between everything that he has ever learned – from his mother’s knee so to speak – and what he is being instructed to do now. All his upbringing, all his religious teaching has been about excluding those who were unclean ie the Gentiles and now he is being instructed directly by God to include them. He is finally having to get to grips with Jesus teaching that this gospel good news is for all people not just the Jews. Whilst his head may have picked up this distinction – it is pretty obvious that it hadn’t yet sunk in, become a habit. Remember when the road rules were changed a month or so ago – experts warned that the danger would come not from the days immediately following the change when we were all on high alert, but in the time after - before the changed rules became a new habit and the old habit died. Peter was still engaged in his old habit - in his sermon on the day of Pentecost, four times he said he was speaking to his fellow Israelites. Acknowledging that Christ was for all people still hadn’t sunk in. This tension was not helped by the people who had come with Peter – showing disbelief, astonishment that Peter should do this thing, even in the face of the evidence of the Holy Spirit – and he was to face further criticism on his return to Jerusalem by the circumcised believers. And yet Peter ordered their baptism – for he was convicted by the presence of the Spirit descending on these people - and stayed to enjoy their hospitality for some time after – also a radical decision in light of the laws of association in the Jewish community.
We read on in Acts 11 that Peter came before the believers in Jerusalem to defend his actions and explain how he came to do these things. And his bottom line defence was: If God, by giving the Holy Spirit to these people, welcomed them into the faith community, who was he to gainsay that! It might not still be an imbedded understanding but he was going with it, because of his faith in God. So there we have it: conflict, tension, new understandings and new relationships, persuasion, following the heart, and commitment - all the elements for a potential block buster, you agree?
So how do we bring the drama and depth of this story about Peter, his associates and his new friends into focus for today and for us? I am sure that already you are picking up on some possibilities – here is what immediately came into my thoughts as sub-scripts,
  • that of constantly revisiting what it is we believe always in the light of the love and commandments of Christ,
  • that of both mind and heart accepting the truth of the statement “we welcome all people” - without limitation
  • that of standing strong for what we believe even if it means putting ourselves into a position of isolation,
  • that of letting go of the head sometimes and recognising that there are some things that we just don’t understand or that we might be wrong on,
  • that of a growing and deepening understanding of who God is – forever challenging and drawing us on into Christ-like living in relationship with God and each other.
I invite you to expand on that further. But for the moment I would like to develop what I consider a common thread of all those points – and that is that all of these teachings from the story of Peter and the coming of the gentile household of Cornelius to faith point to this place: the place where Christ says “I no longer call you servant but friend”. There is almost a sense of Peter growing up at this moment – of sloughing off a skin that has been constricting him and walking in the freedom of friendship with God.
The difference between servant and friend in this passage is defined by Jesus as the difference between living obediently in the law of God or living in the full knowledge of the purpose and will of God, where laws were always measured against the command to love God and one another. Ludicrous as it seems to say about Peter the Rock, the one who had been through every test, every character building moment and emotion possible in his faith journey, Peter had still had something to learn of this distinction between servitude and friendship.
So how might it look for us to be friends of the living God:
We are to measure all that we say and do in the light of that love – so if we find actions or rituals or attitudes that contradict that purpose we have to question why we are doing it and often let them go. For Peter it was the necessity for circumcision before baptism, for us it might be doctrine that excludes, or ways of living that hurt and harm or exploit others
We are to welcome all people – for Peter it was the Gentiles, for us it might be those who are angry, or ragged or disrespectful or irritating, those who disagree with us or those who do it differently.
We are to stand strong for what we believe in – even if it puts us at odds with others and even if we don’t totally feel comfortable with it. Transformed living means we will often be standing in a very different, and often contrary, place to those around us – but we can do this because we are convinced of the way we are following, heart and mind both.
Interesting though isn’t it? Peter didn’t try and convince others of his new understanding with deeply complex and unassailable arguments of theology – he simply told them what had happened, that God was present in that situation and so he believed. It is in our actions and attitudes, our convictions that we offer real proof of the purpose of God in this world.
There are times when the evidence of our eyes, of the presence of God assaults our long held opinions and we have let go of them or modify them. For Peter it was giving up a whole way of living – a culture as well as a faith that told him to not associate with the uncircumcised – a major rethink of his attitudes – but he was able to do it because of a greater direction in his life – that God’s love was for all people in all places regardless of their ethnicity, their cleanliness, their behaviour or their genes.
Makes you realise, doesn’t it, what a great movie script our lives make when we too walk with the integrity and purpose in the knowledge of God made known in Christ and through the Holy Spirit. There is no doubt there will be sub-plots of conflict and tension with ourselves and others, there will be scenes of uncertainty where the only way forward is in faith and trust in others, there will be times where we are challenged by the establishment and have to find ways to respond, and where our vision is not the vision of everyone else.
But if we, like Peter, can learn trust the working of the Spirit way beyond our imaginings and comforts, if we are truly living in the knowledge of the one who calls us friend then we are presenting the world with a captivating and inspiring script for how we might re-image this world and all who live in it – in the love of God. Thanks be to God. Amen

Margaret Garland

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Sermon - Opoho Church, Dunedin Sunday 6th May 2012. Easter 5

Readings: 1 John 4:11-21, John 15:1-8

Let us pray:  O God, may your word challenge us and your challenges move us to live more deeply and prayerfully as your love in this world.  Amen.
I remember someone saying to me once that all this talk about ‘God is love’ is simply encouraging a wishy washy understanding of God, all sweet and light, warm fuzzies and benign leadership.  And I agree, if that is what we understand the definition of the word love to be.  Many do – and I have to wonder how we have gotten to that - a sense of love being perfect only in a sparkling pristine fair-weather kind of way – no edges or depth to it.  It immediately reminded me of the period of child rearing that Mike and I were part of as parents – where some of the current wisdom suggested that you didn’t lay any boundaries on a baby because love meant letting them tell you what they wanted, when they wanted fed or to go to sleep, love meant never you dictating routine to them.  Fortunately we were older and wiser - or possibly some of our own parenting rubbed off on us! 
Love is way more than a general sense of bliss and benevolence, or an avoidance of conflict, whether it be in family, in friendship, in marriage or in faith.  It’s way more than the absence of hate or exploitation or suffering.  Our readings today suggest that love has serious impact and I suspect we all know that - we know that love hurts as well as heals, love disciplines as well as delighting, love shakes us to the core and delivers the most wonderful gift to all whom it touches. 
Maybe some of our confusions comes from not always recognising that Love is a doing word not a noun.  Christ didn’t invite us to look on him and know love – he drew us instead into his acts of love and asks us to live out love in action.  It is not so much about recognising that we mustn’t hurt people so much as showing how much we love them.
I was sent this week a quote from GK Chesterton[1] that, for me anyway, spoke of how the love we find in Christ should be known – found in his essay ‘A piece of Chalk’. 
He had set out on a beautiful summer’s day with brown paper and a variety of chalks to draw, to sketch whatever he might see.  But he found, of all the chalks he had taken with him – he had forgotten the most important one – the white chalk - to draw with:
"Now, those who are acquainted with all the philosophy (nay, religion) which is typified in the art of drawing on brown paper, know that white is positive and essential. I cannot avoid remarking here upon a moral significance. One of the wise and awful truths which this brown-paper art reveals, is this, that white is a colour. It is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing, as fierce as red, as definite as black. When, so to speak, your pencil grows red-hot, it draws roses; when it grows white-hot, it draws stars. “
And he goes on to talk about how virtue is not the absence of vices but a vivid and separate thing, identifiable in its own right – just as we can see love as a burning passionate white-hot act of living, not just the absence of all that prevents it. 
Is this not a way of understanding Christian love – not just a desire to take away the bad, the evil things in life but to instil a passion for love in us all, one that sees past the unlovely and the conditional and the selective to a way of living that sweeps all that is divisive and unjust and cruel before it.  It doesn’t mean an absence of pain – all here would know this – but it does suggest that love sees us through when we are at our lowest and transforms us and the world at its most generous.
And we as Christians believe this sustenance, this transformation is possible is because we abide in God and God abides in us.  Or as the NIV translation says ‘that we live in God and God lives in us’.  This is a core message from the readings – that the love of God is made visible in us and through us into the world because we abide in God’s love for us.  For anyone who is looking for the reality of God in this world – look for acts of love and there you will find God.  This is what takes our understanding of love out of the somewhat dispassionate place that is the absence of evil and into the white-hot burning passionate way of living.
And here’s a thing – in this world that seems so flawed, so hope-less, we are told by the author of 1 John, that this love, when known, is perfect.  That is some claim – we all know that nothing is perfect, well apart from fleeting moments in time – and what is more this is not some eschatological perfection – something to come in the end days – but it is a hope, a possibility, a reality in fact for today, here and now.  Perfect love is ours to give not because we feel we should but because it simply is who we are in Christ.  Now there is a challenge – we certainly don’t always get it right, we do begrudge, detour,  avoid, with-hold love – so how can it be perfect? 
Maybe because love is given perfectly to us, as in given unconditionally, freely, forever – and when we touch that love we are in God and God in us.  Even though we make choices that sometimes withhold that love, we can be confident that every moment when love is present, so is the kingdom of heaven perfectly made known here on earth. 

The power of that love is strong enough to drive out fear says the author of 1 John.  I am sure that we have all heard stories of, if not experienced it ourselves, when love overcomes fear – and that doesn’t mean it ignores or deletes fear but rather that it encompasses it with a greater power – the power to love.  One of the many stories – a family in Morrinsville – who have given up health, income and any hope of a ‘normal life’, whatever that might be, to care for their third child – a boy with Down Syndrome who is also profoundly autistic.  His destructive behaviour has driven the family to the very edges of despair – but their love for their son is a powerful force that holds the family together and helps them plan for a future that is not going to be ever easy.  Love drives out fear.
And for a last thought – we hear that love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment.  We love because God first of all loved us, not because we fear punishment, or reward for that matter.  So how did we get to put so many buffers, so many fears of punishment, between us and God, to believe that we needed someone to pay all our debts, that we are not good enough for the church, for God, that we have to be a baptised saved Christian to receive God’s love, that it is all about eternal life somewhere in the future and the now is something to be endured, that hell and eternal damnation is the lot of the perpetual sinner – God will indeed be lonely in heaven. 
So no, the love of God made known in Jesus Christ is not wishy washy benevolence, it is not simply the absence of evil, it is a powerful, perfect and fearless, white-hot passion it is the piece of white chalk, the part of life and faith that we cannot do without – for we abide in God and God is love and abides in us.  Thanks be to God who loves us forever and always.  Amen

Margaret Garland

[1] A Piece of Chalk by G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)