Saturday, 11 August 2012

Sermon. Opoho Church Sunday 12th August, 2012.

Readings:  2 Samuel 18:5-9, 14b-15, 33, Ephesians 4:25-5:2, John 6:35,41-51

Let us pray.  May our minds be alert, our hearts open and our ears attentive to all that you gift to us this day in and through your word.  Amen

Last week we talked somewhat about the ways that we use words and stories to both learn and teach about God through Jesus and the challenges and dangers that lurk in isolating those teachings from the love and life of Christ.  Today, I would like to take that those teachings and explore our responses, our place in the story of the shaping of the kingdom.  Actually kingdom is another one of those words isn’t it that can conjure up negative responses for some of us – pictures of hierarchy, of haves and have nots, of hereditary power and servitude – not always helpful.  I have come across one reshaping of the word to more aptly describe what it is that we are aiming to say – and that is kin-dom – hard to say but perhaps more meaningful.  So when we use the word  kingdom we remind ourselves that it is not as the world means it but as God in Jesus Christ has taught us – a place of reconciliation, justice, equality, compassion and mercy – a here and now world where the driving force is love, the love of God revealed in the people of God. 
Today as well as concentrating on the reading from Ephesian, I want to draw on the thoughts and words of Miroslav Volf, whose book I have just begun reading.  It’s called “Free of Charge: giving and forgiving in a culture stripped of grace.” [1]
For both have the same unequivocally blunt message – that we receive the gifts of God not to hug them to ourselves but in order to gift others.
Volf uses the phrase ‘God’s gifts oblige us into something further’.  And he is quick to point out that the ‘something further’ is not about reciprocal gifting or negotiated bargaining with God.  He tells the story from the film Amadeus where the composer Salieri tries to cut a deal with God – if God will give him fame and glory and musical immortality then he in return will offer God “his chastity, his industry, his deepest humility, every hour of his life, his philanthropy.”  His negotiating with God never even got off the ground. Why?  Because God needs nothing from us, and nothing we could offer of ourselves would impact on God.  God gives unconditionally and there is nothing we can do that changes that.  But says Volf, there are what he calls obligations surrounding the giving of gifts that we can neither negotiate or earn.  The first is the obligation of receiving and he names this faith – the first part of the bridge he says from self-centredness to generosity.  The second is that we are obliged to gratitude – to not only receive the gifts but to receive them well.  Thirdly we are obliged into ourselves being generous givers and fourthly we are obliged to flourish and grow so that the gifts flow unconditionally and freely from us.
A final quote from Volf: “God gives so that we can exist and flourish but not only for that.  God gives so that we can help others exist and flourish as well.”  In other words, we face God and receive the gifts of love and life with faith and gratitude, we grow in the experience and teaching of the risen Christ and we turn and face our neighbours, giving with the same generosity of love and life and grace that has flowed into us.  That is what we actually do in a service of worship isn’t it – in praise and confession we acknowledge God’s gifts to us, in the reading and opening up of the Word we are drawn into the way of Christ and our responses of affirmation, gifting and intercession we turn ourselves and our gifts to our neighbours and to the world.  
In the letter to the Ephesians, we find a similar exhortation – to make the connection between receiving a new life in Christ and the transforming of the life we live in the real everyday world.  That the gift of the cross obligates us to generous and loving gifting to others.  Yes we can pretty much agree - that is the lesson taught.  But here is the rub – it isn’t easy being generous and onflowing with our gifts to others, no matter how much we want to, it takes a lifetime of learning and it requires serious effort.  And we learn too that a changed way of life is more than just stopping doing something bad that might hurt others, it is about replacing that with ways which build up and actively care for others – it requires stepping into new places and ways.  What do I mean?   Let’s look at some of the suggestions from the reading and, as we do, keep that in mind - that we are to do more than just stop doing something wrong but also are to be generous in new way with others. .
And so the first teaching - let us speak truth to our neighbours – not just as a rule but for a reason – we are members of each other.  We are all of the one body and we are inflicting self harm if we lie, promote untruth.  It is more than stopping deliberate lying – that is relatively identifiable- it’s also about being truthful with yourself and each other and God about who you are, and letting go of any falsehoods that prevent us gifting honesty and openness to ourselves and our neighbour. 
Then there is the instruction on not letting the sun go down on our anger.  Note that it not about never getting angry – I think sometimes we believe that to be Christian means to swallow any thoughts of anger and always be ‘nice’  - but rather about not allowing anger to enrage us or to fester or to be buried or to be vindictive, about dealing with our anger truthfully with ourselves and with others.  It’s more than swallowing our anger – it requires compassion and care in how we express and deal with our anger.
And then stealing – that we are not just to stop thieving but to actually contribute and work to share with the needy.  And what is really interesting here is that there are two only  opposing positions discussed – theft or generosity toward people in need.  There is no middle position of ‘goodness’ – there is only love or theft – and that love necessitates our taking a good hard look at what we do to support theft of equality, justice, sustenance and doing something active to stop it.
And the last one we will look at is that of how we communicate, especially in our use of words – and that is particularly applicable to us at the moment as we explore our use, our understanding of words in our church, in our faith  and in this community.  Again we hear the message – it’s not enough to stop using words that hurt and wound, we are instead to use words to build up and make known the gift of grace to others.  Now this does not mean that you are all now obligated to tell me that my sermon was nice even if it was abysmal – but you know what I mean.
Can you see the connection with Volf’s concept of obligation?  That we are to receive the gifts of God in faith and gratitude, not trying to negotiate or earn them and turn, in the grace and love of Christ Jesus, to flow those same gifts on to our neighbours, our world, Christ’s kingdom come.   Not easy, not passive, not automatic, but in the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ and the community of the Spirit we are obliged to be Christ’s purpose to the world.  Thanks be to God.

Wise and faithful guide, you lovingly abide in our depths and graciously guide our every step.   You lead us to ever stronger growth and draw us more fully towards inner freedom.  We thank you this day for the awesome ways in which you constantly enter our lives.  We renew now our life’s purpose of being faithful to our relationship with you.  We give you our openness, trusting that you will lead us on paths that are meant to help us grow.  We re-commit our intention to listen to you in all of life, to love each other and the world, seeking peace, justice, reconciliation as Jesus taught us.
We re-commit ourselves to you, Oh God of grace and truth, trusting in your promise of everlasting love.
                                                            Joyce Rupp in ‘Prayers to Sophia’

[1] Zondervan 2005

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 5th August 2012

Readings: 2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, Ephesians 4:1-6,  John 6:24-35

 Let us pray:
May our hearts and minds be open to your word O God in Jesus name.  Amen.

Its been an brain overload week for me – some of you might say fair enough when I’ve had a weekend off!  Or maybe I should call it an inspiration overload.  From going to lectures by William Willamon[1], to beginning our August study series on Wednesday night, to reading a truly inspiring book to talking faith with old friends, it’s been hectic.  Small wonder then that on Friday afternoon, ie sermon time there were just so many thoughts and words clamouring to be heard in my head.  Add in the fact that it is Peace Sunday - and there are some really powerful bible readings set down for today – and I was truly at a loss as to where to start.
So I didn’t – I stopped instead.  I prayed, I sat quiet, sought a place of peace you might say – and then things began to sort themselves.
I realised that one phrase of visiting Thomas Burns lecturer, William Willimon, was playing itself over and over in my head – and that was that we are people of the word – that Christianity, more than any other faith, uses the word to find the truth of God.  He tells the story of being asked to help some students create a ‘garden of spirituality’ – a place where people can come and sit in solitude and peace and find God – and he realised that it was really outside his experience as a Methodist minister, that his faith was not primarily about an inner private spiritual awakening but rather was focussed and grown in hearing, discussing, discerning the truth through story and word.   And that word is ultimately and completely revealed in the person of Jesus Christ whom we know as the word made flesh, God among us.  So, says Willimon,  it is in teaching and preaching and discussing and questioning in community that we find ourselves discerning what it means to be a people of God here in this place.   Faith comes through hearing, he posits, and doesn’t just surface up in the power of the spirit by sitting in isolation no matter how beautiful the spiritual garden you have found for yourself.  Now this is not to suggest that meditation, silent contemplative time with God is not absolutely crucial to our faith but it is not enough by itself.  And to know the truth of that we only have to look to Christ and how he sought to bring people to a richer and deeper understanding of his Father.  He used words as he taught, preached, debated.  But he used them in a very distinct way – he didn’t so much speak out precise instruction, exact rules for living so much as he told stories, used metaphors, offered multiple perspectives and challenging scenarios.  Why was that - when it is just so much easier for us to follow instructions for right living? Maybe because Jesus was aware that words alone, without the story, can easily trip us up.  Firstly they can become confined in meaning, either by time, our varying perspectives or our culture, persuaded into new meanings completely detached from the original intent.  They can also be forgotten – stories are so much more easily remembered- and they usually remain distant concepts of rule rather than something that we can easily connect our lives with.  But when you hear a story you not only tend to remember it better but you also are invited to step into that story and find our own place in it, we are encouraged to find the ‘truth’ of the story for ourselves and our community. Stories, metaphor, unexpected twists encourage our involvement and invite us to see Christ in the daily life and ordinary time that is both then and now. Without the stories I suspect we often lose Christ from the teachings  Let me illustrate the difference.  On Wednesday night we were discussing how each of us understands the word discipline within the church – for a number of us the word immediately was associated with punishment, retribution, for others it meant being as good as you could be in the field you were working in, for others it meant setting boundaries of care as in bringing up children.  The point is that without telling stories and discussing and questioning and always, always anchoring it all in the life of Christ, we can either go well astray from or severely limit our understanding of how it is that God calls us to be as Christ followers - when it comes to the concept of discipline or any other word we might try to live by.  It was interesting that it was in telling the stories we had to offer of our own experiences that the complexities and nuances of what discipline might mean in a church and Christian setting began to emerge.  
Might I suggest that it can be the same as the word peace.  For many peace is the absence of violence rather than a way of life.  When we talk of the peace of Christ how easy it is to translate those words into a peaceful lifestyle, a goal of serenity or inward calm, when in fact, in the life of Christ, we are offered anything but.  Peace is not about moving away, disassociating from violence but rather of embracing a way of life where all that hurts and harms is actively challenged.  If you want that zone free kind of peace – try a desert island – if you want to experience and share the peace of Christ go live a life like he did, that challenges, not avoids violence and conflicts with all that is evil in this world. 
So we should be suspicious of words that are isolated from their context and their intention but actually stories aren’t all they are cracked up to be either – there is a danger here too – and King David illustrated it superbly in his response to Nathan’s story of the lamb taken from the poor man by the one who had plenty -   David was rightly angry at the story – but he didn’t see himself in it.  He said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.’ But he didn’t see it coming when Nathan said to him, ‘You are the man!  Ouch it hurts when you realise the person in the story, the person who show up in a less than nice light, turns out to be you.
So if we keep ourselves outside the stories, confine them to other time or other people or other circumstances then we miss the teaching altogether.  When we hear the stories and parables of Christ we need to do more that see them just as a ‘good’ story detached from ourselves – and think instead of what they are saying to us here and now as we seek to live as Christ’s in this world.
So it seems to me, that whether the teaching of Christ is from words or stories, rules or metaphors there exists the option for us to keep them a little at arm’s length, contained, misinterpreted, detached in some way.  How do we recover the fullness of meaning of Christ’s teachings – how do we keep Christ at the centre - of our understandings and faith and lives?  Perhaps we need the reminder of Jesus’ words - I am the bread of life – listen to me, know me and believe in me – and you will never again be hungry or thirsty.  If we believe that Christ is the embodiment of the living God and we choose to live in the light of that Word, then the teachings and stories will continue to guide and empower us, feed and nourish us in truth and light.  Thanks be to God.

[1] The Revd Dr William Willimon, Bishop of the United Methodist Church in Alabama