Saturday, 30 June 2012

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 1st July 2012 Pentecost 5

First Reading: 2 Samuel 1:1,17-27,   Gospel Reading: Mark 5:25-34

Let us pray:   May your word for us and our response to your word be a place, in your Spirit, of renewal, commitment and hope for us and for the world O God.  Amen.

So, how has your week been?  Has it been same old, or has something completely new happened, something that has seriously impacted your life?  Has it been a happy week, or one of great sadness or a bit of a mixture?  Because that is the reality for us isn’t it?  That our lives are a mix of good and bad, ups and downs.  And sometimes the downs seem to take over, pulling us into places of great pain and heartache, shutting off the light and extinguishing hope – the deep dark pit that Psalm 130 talks about.
And in many ways the part of David’s life that we heard about today was in that deep valley.  Just to remind us, last week we talked about the young somewhat bullet proof David – willing to do anything in the hope, the knowledge of God with him and in him. And he succeeded in defeating Goliath and going on to great victories in other battles.  He was Saul’s right hand man, both soothing his pain with his music and delivering him from his enemies with his sword – and in the process developing a deep and caring friendship with Saul’s son Jonathan.  It was never easy and there was quite a bit of eggshell walking I am sure – but by standards of the day he was blessed and lauded.
And then it all changed - David went from the heights to the depths.  He has had to run literally for his life from Saul, with the help of Jonathan, he had to abandon the high honours and the relatively luxurious living and is now sheltering in a cave, earning his crust by fighting the foes (as long as they weren’t Israelites) of the Philistines, those who he had so eloquently and physically dismissed on the battlefield in what must have seemed a lifetime ago were now his employers.  David’s ‘I can do anything with God’ attitude that we talked about last week had taken rather a beating. 
What was it, do you think, that kept his hope alive?   What sustained his walk with God despite all the curve balls that life had thrown at him – I mean did he ask to be chosen for this life of intrigue and politicking – he could have been living a very happy and fulfilled life back on the family farm doing what he did best – protecting the livestock and being part of a God fearing and loving family.  But he was plucked out into this new life by Samuel, by God – a life of danger and high stakes and politics.
So there he was now – surviving.  And there was yet another body blow to come.  Jonathan, his dearest friend, his most trustworthy ally was dead - along with his father and his brothers.  David’s lament is passionate in its sense of grief and loss, his acute pain is there for all to see.  There is a really interesting point here in this magnificent piece of Hebrew poetry – David chose to eulogize the two men, the friend and the king, side by side.  Despite all that Saul had done to him, plotting his death, hounding him out of the country, despite all of that, David is honoured his king alongside his soulmate Jonathan.
This past week I attended the funeral of a twenty year old young woman Alex: she had been a member of our Rendez-vous group at Knox Church.  She had died unexpectedly, suddenly, from liver failure – with a 12 hour window of opportunity for a transplant – and a family praying for a miracle by her bedside as she lay in a coma.   That is a depth of pain for her family that few of us are called on to experience – where on earth do you find hope for a future in a situation like that?
Yet as I listened to the words of the liturgy at All Saints Church and as I contemplated the service of celebration and farewell that we had here on Monday for the life of Joan Madill, I knew a sense of hope stronger and more powerful that I have ever felt – that in both the timely and the untimely deaths of our loved ones there is a hope that encompasses all our pain, all our suffering, all our anger, all our sweet memories and sense of irreplaceable loss – a hope that nothing on this earth or beyond, neither time nor space nor anything in creation can ever separate us from God’s love.  And that hope holds us through the celebrations and tragedies that are almost inevitably part of all our lives and living.
In a sermon recently posted on his blog, Jason Goroncy suggests that this hope – the hope that seems cruelly shattered in the times of tragedy and hopelessness is the place we sit on Easter Saturday when we often as not find little to live for – all that we seem to have held safe and dependable and hopeful is no more.  He posits that what holds us together in that Saturday silence of hopelessness is what he calls the divine memory.  When all seems lost, he says, “It is God’s memory of us which makes possible for us to neither abandon our sorrow nor to surrender the horizon of hope. It is the memory of God which places a boundary to our hopelessness and our dislocation”[1] The promise that we are held forever in God’s love is what allows us to reach blindly into the Easter Sunday hope - God’s memory of us holds us before we are born, in our life and in our death – and it is this that we hold desperately to when disaster engulfs us, robbing us of peace and happiness and all that we hold dear.  When all that is hopeful disappears from our lives we are held close in the divine memory that is the love of God. 
What kept David hope in God alive through all his trials, what will keep Alex’s family from sinking forever into the pits of despair at the cruel loss of such a beautiful young woman from their lives – it is the knowledge that we are not lost to God, even in the worst of moments when all seems hopeless, pointless we are held in the divine memory of the crucified Christ whose scarred hands and body proclaims our names before the living God who loves us.
Jason concludes his writing with some powerful words of hopefulness which I too would like to finish with:
“And, in the crucified God, we hope together with those who do not share our hopes, and with those whose hopes for this life remain unfulfilled, and with those who are disappointed and indifferent, and with those who despair of life, and with those who have been the enemies of life, and with those who for whatever reason have abandoned all hope. In and with Christ, we hope and we remember them before God. In the crucified God, we hope together with the God who remembers us and who, in remembering us, is our hopeful end.”[2]

Margaret Garland with thanks to Jason Goroncy

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 24th June, 2012. Pentecost 4 Matariki.

Readings: 1 Samuel 17:32-49, Mark 4:35-41

Let us pray:  O Christ, open our minds to understand more clearly your word to us. May we know you as a God who never leaves us nor forsakes us but walks with us through the up and downs of life that we may grow and learn in the freedom of life in you.  Amen.

The streets of Dunedin are hilly on the whole.  Had you noticed?  I did when I came here after 20 odd years of walking on the flattish lands of North Canterbury.  I was determined to get fit for them but so often I would look up to the top of where I had to go and would be overwhelmed – I am never going to make that I would think.  And then I was given a wee hint.  Keep your eyes lowered, place one foot before the other and you will get there before you know it.  And it worked.  I would get to the top and marvel at how relatively easy it had been to get there in contrast to the perception of difficulty from the bottom.  Now there is several ways that little anecdote could take us but I would like to lead us in this direction.  I wondered if it might be that we keep our heads down just a bit too often.  I wondered if we too often try to contain scary and challenging spaces into something that is manageable and containable as I did just to get to the goal and miss out on some spectacular scenery on the way.  Hey, don’t get me wrong, it is a great technique to get us up some particular hills, in fact it’s the only way sometimes, because that is all we can cope with at the time, but I do wonder if that can become a bit of a bad habit. 
Sometimes the enormity of things can overwhelm us, mystery can be threatening, beauty can be just too much of a contrast to our particular reality of the time, that which we can’t see clearly can seem dangerous, full of unpredictable possibilities, and so we look to our feet.  
I love that the stories of Matariki are all about the stars in the sky – that, if anything is, is a place of mystery: of inconceivable distance and glorious beauty and yet dependable constancy.  You can understand why stories were found to kind of explain that vastness, to connect with it in a meaningful way, the stories of the sisters or the smashed star or the seven eyes.  And I guess in the same way we try to understand the mystery and wonder of a God who is beyond anything we try to define by sometimes containing God in stories and words and yes doctrine and dogma.  And that is understandable and actually required, for we need the stories to reach understandings, to teach and share the gospel message.  But the problem comes when we do not temper that understanding, hold it in tension with a sense of wonder and awe of a God who cannot be explained, contained, or predicted.  That’s a pretty steep hill for many – one where it can be easier to keep our sights lowered with plodding to the top of the hill our only goal. I hope it’s not too tenuous a connection for you to see that Peter was kind of doing that in the boat.  He was overwhelmed by the moment, thinking he wasn’t going to make it out of the storm.  He couldn’t see any other possibilities than drowning or the storm being stopped – his view of God made known in Christ was limited by his own understandings of the power of the storm and the frailty of the vessel.  He didn’t get that there was a third possibility, riding out the storm, safe in the unexplainable, uncontainable power of the love of God.  And he didn’t get that in doing so he would experience a God that was greater and just more than he could ever imagine.  He was amazed at the stilling of the storm – but had he shut himself off from the greater experience of riding out the storm with God, I wonder?
David, on the other hand, in facing Goliath, seemed to almost have his eyes fixed on a too huge a horizon.  He came to the outer circle of the battlefield simply to bring provisions from his father to his three elder brothers who were part of the army.  But like all young brothers he wanted to see what was going on and went to find his siblings.  And yet when he got there he found the Israelites cowering from the taunts and challenges of the champion of the Philistines, Goliath.  They too could see no way of victory with such undefeatable odds before them.  But David, almost musingly we read, asked “who was this man that he should be greater than the armies of the living God?”  His brothers questioned his motives, seeing only that he had come to gawk at the battle, but Saul heard the truth of those words and invited David to his side.  Even then it was still about girding David in all the possible armour to protect him, still eyes down you might say, and when that failed you almost get a sense of ‘Well this is a young life chucked away but you have to admire the bravery’.  But David I think had his eyes wide open to the possibilities of God in our human situations. He seemed rather more prepared than Peter to trust that God was with him in every step, especially the difficult, beyond belief, places he found himself – the places where others views were contained by their own limitations.
Is that what faith is do you think?  Knowing that there is way more under the sun than what you and I or the whole of creation can ever perceive or know. I suspect that is a rather fragile definition and is open to some serious criticism but hey I’ve been brave and left it in.  It will give you something to redefine over morning tea?
But back to the conundrum we face – how to pause in our walk through life, which can be a plod sometimes, to stop and lift our eyes to the possibilities of a God beyond our individual or communal imaginations, to embrace mystery and grow in new and challenging experiences when they present themselves. 
It is at times like this, at mid-winter, when we are often forced to slow down, to stop trying to race through life at a million miles an hour, maybe this is the time to listen to the voice of God speaking to us, encouraging us into new possibilities, new visions for the transformation of this world we live in.
It’s at times like this, at Matariki, that we have time and opportunity to catch a glimpse of the vastness and wonder of a God in the patterns of the stars and the life of the world beyond.  And within that is the sense of constancy that the Maori people know in the rising of a constellation faithfully each year – an anchor in a turbulent life. 
It is at times like this, in worship together as the people of God, that we can be open to the possibilities that living in Christ Jesus will open up for us, if we can be bold and brave enough to raise our eyes and trust that Christ will still get us to the top of our respective hills, but with some slightly scary but enormously fulfilling experiences on the way.  Let us be open to the possibilities of the Spirit in this place.  Thanks be to God.

Margaret Garland

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 17th June 2012 Pentecost 3

Readings: 1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13, Mark 4:26-34

Let us pray:
O God, open our hearts and minds that your word for us be heard.  In Jesus name.  Amen.
Today and over the next few weeks we are going to follow the story of David from the Hebrew Scriptures.  David, shepherd boy, giant killer, king, musician, husband and father: a man who by all accounts was very human -fallible, courageous, vindictive, humble, one who valued loyalty but betrayed those who trusted him, who asked God’s forgiveness more than once.  The story is an amazing tale of intrigue and political agility, of palatial living and life on the run, of David and his walk with God.

This is a time when the concept of lectionary passages for Sunday service is woefully inadequate.  Over the next few weeks, that approach picks out certain parts of the rich and long life of David including the David and Goliath fight, David made King over a united Israel, the promise of eternal dynasty and the sad, rather salacious tale of Bathsheba. Yet there is so much more to this man’s life – much as we cannot pick out four or five episodes in our lives and be completely known by them, so we should not do this to David.  So I am going to suggest that over these next few weeks we all do some extra reading – some filling in of the gaps before the next week’s passage.  And for some of you this might be a good excuse to get together for a cuppa and share in the reading together – chapters 16 and 17 of 1 Samuel will take you through to the Goliath story of next week.

And so in this vein, let me develop the context and detail of the reading we heard today –you could say that the beginnings of story of David were way back when the Israeli people exercised what we would call today their democratic right – (you can read about this in 1 Samuel 8) When they realised that Samuel was getting old and his sons did not walk the way of God, they decided they would be much safer from invasion and enemies if they had a ‘real’ earthly king appointed to rule over them and lead them in battle rather that trusting in the rule of God alone.  Samuel tried to argue them out of it with stories of how they would end up giving all they had to this king, their incomes, their children, and their lives – but was basically outvoted.  Saul was that first King then –of the tribes of Israel who were scattered from Tyre in the north the southern point of the Dead Sea.  And as you heard his reign was long and by the standards of the day fairly successful, winning battles and holding authority over a large area.  But it is in the latter half of his rule that things started to turn to custard – where we get the sense of Saul moving away from total obedience to God and choosing to walk in his own way.  This is amply demonstrated by the story that led into today’s reading.  We are told that after brutal and bloody battle victory against the Amalekites in the south, Saul disobeyed the command of God to destroy all the livestock and kept the best to bring back.  As you read the passage you can almost hear the blustering defensiveness – Saul first of all blames those with him: ‘They have brought them back...’ he says, and then he goes to plan B when he see that is not gaining much traction with Samuel – ‘we have brought the best for sacrifice to God’ he says.  ‘Surely that is the right thing to do’.  And again Samuel rejects his actions – God is wanting you to hear and obey, he says, that is way more important than sacrifices and burnt offerings.  And Samuel and Saul parted ways, because, we are told, God turned away from Saul.  And it is at this point, whilst Saul is still King, that Samuel is sent by God to seek out a replacement leader from amongst the sons of Jesse from the town of Bethlehem.  But this is neither a safe nor wise thing for Samuel to do.  Saul is not going to just let Samuel replace him – no way.   And Samuel is no fool – he knows that now, in his rejection of Saul, his own life is of little value – the slightest misstep and he is toast.  So it’s time for bit of political deviousness  – take a heifer to offer as  a sacrifice in Bethlehem, make sure Jesse and his sons come along and then you can, under cover, make contact with the one who will be king.  And when this is done, Samuel, ever judicious, heads even further north to Ramah and keeps his head well down for some time.

I want to pick up on a couple of things that have stood out for me in this story so far. 

The first is that nothing changes under the sun and there is much of this ancient tale that speaks to us today.  The more we immerse ourselves in the story the more we can relate to the emotions and decisions and conundrums that Samuel and Saul and David faced, the more we can see very human figures who loved God and each other yet turned away in arrogance and fear from God and each other.  When we read of Saul making his own decisions on what is right, not hearing the wisdom of others or the voice of God, we can totally relate.  Much as I value my own thoughts and interpretations, I value equally the ability of the community of faith to moderate and input into those opinions and understandings – and from that discussion in the power of the Spirit comes a common wisdom and a caring approach to decisions and choices. Part of what we mean by community isn’t it?

Another interesting thought from this story is that living in God’s way doesn’t make life safe for you – in fact it is quite likely to make things much more dangerous because it often involves words and actions that are countercultural, anti-establishment.  Take David for instance.  I doubt that there would have been much celebration on his anointing as a future king – he was not presented with a crown and an invitation to move into a sumptuous palace – quite the opposite – he was entering a world of intrigue and danger.  Picture the next step – Saul, we read, is afflicted by evil spirits and he calls upon David and his skill with the lyre to play music for him – music that relieved his demons and made him calm.  But what would that have been like for David?  It would be like walking on eggshells – does he know, how will he react, am I going to wake up tomorrow?  And sure enough in time, his fears are realised and he is running for his life– but that is for later in the story.  Here too we think on the times when we make safe decisions when we are really needing to rattle the cages of social practices that are unjust, hurtful, unloving, even if it means some discomfort to ourselves.

And lastly what intrigues me most about the story of David, and particularly in contrast to Saul – is the seeming lack of physical, social and family stature in this one chosen by God.
When Samuel seeks out Saul we read that he was not only a handsome (or more exactly a good) man, not a boy, but that he stood head and shoulders above everyone else, was from a wealthy family – an obvious candidate for strong leadership.   David on the other hand was an innocent abroad, young of years and small of stature and laughed at when he offered his skills in battle.  A very ordinary young man who accepted a calling on his life that was to prove extraordinarily dangerous and uncertain.  It was his heart rather than his stature that proved to be big enough in accepting this challenge from God on his life.  We can all think of ordinary people with huge hearts who have stepped out in extraordinary acts of courage when called to make a choice – the Corrie Ten Booms and the Rosa Parks and Martin Luthers, the William Wilberforces and the Kate Shepherds of this world –and I invite you for a moment to consider those people who you know who have chosen to respond to God’s dangerous call for justice and equality and compassion for all people with courageous, often difficult decisions and who do make a difference in this world.  And remember – it may be you, and the person sitting next to you who has, in any number of ways, chosen to do what their heart calls them to over what is expedient and safe.  And for this we say thanks be to God.

Margaret Garland

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 10th June, 2012-06-09

Readings: Psalm 138, Mark 3:20-35

Let us pray.  May my words, our thoughts and understandings bring us into closer relationship with you and with each other O God.  Amen.

 And he replied: ‘who are my mother and my brothers.’  ’And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers![1]

Whenever I read this passage of scripture I wonder how the family of Jesus would have felt at this moment of seeming rejection. It seems a bit of a low blow, a less than grateful response to their concern for him in the face of what they see as extreme happenings.  No doubt the families’ reaction is influenced by the voices of the Scribes who suggested he was possessed by the devil, and by their wanting to protect their son, brother, cousin from the wrath and power of the authorities whom he seemed to have got on the wrong side of.  I mean that is what you do as family.  Look out for each other isn’t it?  Jesus’ reaction must have hurt – for he responds to their call of care by redefining the boundaries of family.  He looks to the people seated around him, who have come to hear him speak and heal, people of all walks of life - and calls them family.  Is he rejecting his family for others – I don’t believe so.  Rather isn’t he suggesting that family can be more, more than those with whom you have grown up, know well, and have a duty of care to, to keep safe.  He continues by defining this larger family as those who do the will of God.  This has some interesting implications: both for the people of Jesus time and for us now - it means you will have family you don’t know, family who think and look and live differently; family you have never heard of and will go through life not even being aware they exist.

I was reminded of this concept of family during the week as we listened to Archbishop Rowan Williams preaching at the Diamond Jubilee service of thanksgiving for Queen Elizabeth.  He talked of the wider family that is the commonwealth, and of the Queen’s role in caring and supporting each other. While we know that this Commonwealth family has had some seriously tricky and somewhat abusive relationship periods, we are still to a degree united by common history and by relationships that continue to grow and develop in new ways.  Actually do you know the picture of coming together that is imbedded in my brain from the celebrations – that of the waka from Aotearoa travelling side by side with a gondola from Venice.  
That stretches the headspace a bit doesn’t it, seeing loving family as something that goes across all boundaries of culture and ethnicity - even in something as embedded in our history as the Commonwealth of Nations? And if it challenges in this global, communication savvy world of today, how much more so it would have challenged the people of biblical times with their understandings of nation and tribe, enemies and allies and invasions?

Yet Jesus requires us to lift the bar much higher still, he requires family to be defined not by birth or community, politics or common history, culture or geography or race but by love.  Those who do the will of God, he says, are my brother and sister and mother – those who love God and each other are part of the one body, the one family of God.  And that, surely, is a raised bar that perversely is within reach of all people – we are all capable of choosing to live in the love of God and each other, no matter who we are, where we come from or where we are going. 

But there is another side – a reality check so to speak – and that is where the choice made is not of that of love but of the opposite.  We know that family, however big or small we define family to be, can be a place of enormous destruction and pain.  From holocausts to random acts of violence, from wars to slow death by hunger, from emotional, physical, sexual abuse to manipulative, exploitative acts of power, all these things are a choice made by people in this world to not love one another. Simplistically put maybe but true none-the-less.  I couldn’t help but during the week contrast the Royal celebration in the UK with the stories of horrendous atrocities coming out of Syria – where entire families and villages are slaughtered, where bodies of children are lined up in death, where nothing the international community says or does seems to have any impact.  Where are the brothers and sisters and mothers in that place I wonder?
So where does our hope lie?  How can we be better at being family in the presence of God and each other?  I want to share with you just two stories of hope.

I have been reading about the Taize community in France,[2] currently made up of just over 100 brothers, of its founder Brother Roger and the hope it expresses for the reconciliation of the world.  For over sixty years this small community of brothers, along with several associated communities of sisters have been living a life focussed on coming alongside some of the worst poverty in the world, ministering a message of love and belonging to masses of young people from all over the world, and – just in case that wasn’t enough - leading dialogue and acts of reconciliation between the Roman Catholic and Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches without officially being an affiliate of anyone of the groups.  Why have they been so impactful, so able to make a difference in peoples’ lives and understandings? Let me see if I can put into words what I have discerned from my reading – there is a sense that they hold in delicate balance the desire to be obedient to God, to live out the Gospel message in and through their lives, with the understanding that doing this faithfully will take them into places they could never have imagined or predicted or have control of.  Instead of turning in upon themselves and shutting out the world, they have embraced the intrusive, challenging and unexpected needs that have presented themselves and said ‘What do we do now God?’  In order to love you and each other and the world, to be as mother and sister and brother: ‘What do we do now God?’ 

The second story of hope is to be found around this table – as we come together as the family of God in the presence of the risen Christ, to celebrate and make new who we are in the name of Christ.  This sacrament of Holy Communion reminds us that we are part of the family of God, for us made known in Christ Jesus, and that by participating in the sharing of the bread and the wine, we are re-membering the body of Christ across time and space and saints – together with all people saying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy. We are renewed and healed at this table, strengthened and made whole, made one in the body of Christ.  And when we go from this table today we are going with this question on our lips ‘What would you have us do Jesus Christ that will make this world we live in a place of love for you and each other, a place of healing and wholeness for all people? 
Who are my mother and my brothers?  And the answer, in maybe hurtful, sometimes difficult, but always truthful stinging words of love: you all are my brothers and sisters and mothers.  This is Christ’s prayer for us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Luke 3:33-34
[2] Kathryn Spink.  The Life and Vision of Brother Roger of TaizĂ©.
Jason Brian Santos.  A Community Called TaizĂ©: A Story of Prayer, Worship and Reconciliation.