Friday, 21 September 2012

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 23rd September, 2012.

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

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

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

Margaret Garland

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

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Opoho Church Sermon Sunday 16th September, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margaret Garland

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

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Sermon Sunday 2nd September, 2012 Opoho Church

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

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

Margaret Garland

[1] James 2: 19