Sunday, 9 December 2012

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 9th December 2012.

Readings: Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3: 1-14,18


Let us pray: Open our hearts and minds, our ears and our eyes to your word for each of us this day O God.  May our listening and our response be held in the presence of your Spirit, in Jesus name.  Amen.

What on earth are we doing with the uncompromising blunt message of John the Baptist in the middle of the Advent season?  Hearing John’s words of insult and insinuation, of discomfort and judgement is strong stuff in the midst of the coming of love to the world.  The joy and hope of the nativity alongside the vehement judgemental words of John calling those who have come to hear him“ a brood of vipers” and speaking of axes chopping down unfruitful trees and the wood being thrown into the fire.  Uncompromising and blunt indeed: there was a suggestion that John must have skipped the course on pastoral counselling at theological college when he went through!
I wonder what it would have been like for those people at that time – was John the Baptist a incongruent, jarring note in a otherwise smoothly functioning faith journey, an out of the blue attack on their faith?  Other things may have caused them sleepless nights: for sure there would have been disquiet regarding their political situation with the Romans in charge and some worries about how their future as a nation might pan out but, and maybe because of that, did they hold their faith, their relationship with God as pretty healthy, on track?  Were they then a bit taken aback at this message of judgement and truth from a man who, from our reading anyway, seeded to be a no frills sort of guy popping up out of nowhere and going straight for the jugular, refusing to couch his message in dazzling rhetoric or gentle persuasion. 
I remember going to a meeting once in my library career – just another meeting with an agenda and business to discuss – and being on the receiving end of someone who said it as she saw it and it wasn’t pretty and it was so completely at odds with how I thought things were going that I was gobsmacked and unable to respond – for the moment anyway.  Was it like that for John’s listeners do you think?  But then they, and I, seemed to react in the same way – wanted to know what was behind this – what was the cause of this outburst, these accusations and how might it be fixed, even if they weren’t sure what was wrong.
And so they asked “What then should we do?
Ray Gaston in a sermon on this passage suggests that the first thing we need to do is to listen to John the Baptist, over and over and over again.  And that his message can be summed up in three acknowledgements by us: the world is a mess, a place of sin, we need to know this is not the way it should be and we are required to make it different.  In other words he suggests that before we can welcome the love that is the Christ Child we need to go through the pain that is  John the Baptist’s message to us.  To welcome the light of the world, we have to acknowledge the darkness into which it shines.  And then we can turn round to the darkness and say: this light is a protest: a refusal to conform.  It says to the darkness: ‘I beg to differ’

And, you know something, the people listened, they had respect for him and they took the verbal attack on the chin.  ‘What can we do’ they asked and were given some incredibly practical advice.

To those who have accumulated wealth: if you have two coats give away one of them – (that is a sobering definition of wealth to us today isn’t it?)  To the tax collectors, those who are living and working in a corrupt system – do not be part of that corruptness.  To the soldiers: do not bully others from your position of power.

That is what was said to the people of John’s time.  What might the advice be to us in our time do you think? 
To those who come to John today because they are feeling empty despite their accumulated wealth, their comfortable life style and their secure assets, John says: stop trying to bolster up your own sense of worth with possessions – try giving things away instead and see where it takes you.  You might be surprised.
Who are the tax collectors of our time – who carries the mantle of greed and exploitation in the name of legitimate business these days: well there are many examples are there not but just to put out one or two.  Loan sharks spring to mind especially at this Christmas time creating a hopeless cycle of borrowing, high interest, larger loans to those who can least afford it.  What about shops offering easy credit hand in hand with ‘you know you want it’ advertising, putting pressure on people to equate happiness and love with big price tags – the bigger the better in fact.  What of enormous profits, obscene salaries in the same society that needs to form a protest movement to try to get some earners a wage they can live on?
What of national and big business, any sort of business really, whose wealth is built on exploitation of people and land – isn’t that what the fair trade movement is trying to do – encouraging us to recognise the corruption and remove ourselves from supporting it?
This is what John the Baptist is saying to us: where the system is corrupt – get out.
And what of the increasing militarisation of our world, our so-called war on terror and the scaremongering that justifies torture, assassinations, where young, old and innocent lives are the accepted price of ‘greater good’! What of the ones who follow orders knowing that what they are being asked to do is wrong, abusive, inhumane?  John says – you are bigger and better than this, do not blindly do what is asked of you – stop, do not torture, do not abuse, you are worth more than that. Walk away from it.  And we can take this scenario outside of the military, the battlefield and think of all the places where we have power in the world and abuse it.  It can be in the family circle, at work, socially, in our sport and our media, and you don’t have to go far over the last couple of days to find examples, especially in the online news stories, of people who have abused their power just because they can or in the interests of a ‘breaking’ news story.
So John is asking us to clean up our act, to recognise and step away from that which we know is not right in order that we might be better prepared for the coming of Jesus.   It’s a hard message in the midst of the Advent season – but it is needs to be heard again and again as we prepare for the arrival of the Christ child. 
Because in this moment, in this act of birth, God is saying to us that the kingdom will come, but not in worldly power or in mighty acts, not in violent control nor self-promotion –but rather in vulnerability and in love.  The kingdom will be found in the act of the widow who put her coin in the box, in the child who sits at your knee, in the outcast welcomed home and the unclean made well.  This is the new up-side-down way that calls us away from a world of power and influence and into a place of love and grace.  This is the new relationship with God made known in Christ Jesus who says ‘welcome me in the stable, be with me on the cross, meet me in the resurrection, be filled with my grace, choose my way, reject the way that you know is wrong and change the world, let my kingdom come.  In our acts of love and justice and compassion may we, filled with God’s grace, choose live the way of truth, to acknowledge the pain of this world, know that this is not the way it needs to be and that we can make a difference in the light and love of Christ.  Thanks be to God.

Margaret Garland

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 2nd December, 2012.

Readings: 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21: 25-36

Let us pray: Open our hearts and minds, our ears and our eyes to your word for each of us this day O God.  May our listening and our response be held in the presence of your Spirit, in Jesus name.  Amen.

“And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.” Thessalonians 3:12
We have a rather abrupt beginning to the reading today from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians and it is worth going back a little to pick up the strands of the story so far.  Paul had founded a new congregation after leaving Philippi, then has left and been quite frustrated in his inability to get back.  So he had sent Timothy to find out how they are and report back.  And they are well.  More than well really, Paul is overjoyed to hear they are thriving and writes back to tell them so.  And he emphasises two things in particular that he is thrilled about.  One is their continuing faith in adverse conditions.  Paul knows, more than most, about how difficult it can be to walk in faith when all around you are intent on dissing you and bringing you down - and he had foreseen that this would be a big issue for this fledgling congregation.  So he congratulated them on their faith: ‘constancy and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ’[1] were the actual words.  And along with their hope in Christ, Paul, as we heard today, emphasises that they continue to love one another, ‘to increase and abound in love for one another and for all’[2] are the words used in my bible translation.  These are the two things, their faith, their hope in Christ, and the love they have for each other, that the congregation is strong on and that he applauds them in.    But it is interesting in his choice of comparison that he then uses to inspire them: it is not God’s love for them he quotes but rather his own love for them – ‘to increase and abound in love for one another and for all: just as we abound in love for you.’   Paul is firmly and quite extravagantly reassuring them of his love, almost going overboard in his need to reaffirm to the readers of his letter that he really cares about them and wants to be with them. He is relationship building - and with good reason: he is aware that things have been a bit tricky so far –that people have accused him of lacking integrity, of being a manipulator and a bludger, of usurping authority that is not his to have, or pushing them too hard.  He realises that people easily believe this kind of stuff and, because of it, damage their relationship not just with him but with Christ.  At the same time Paul doesn’t really get how people can say that they love God and be so downright mean to him - because for him hope in Christ translated instantaneously, unequivocally into love and care for others.  Responding to Christ, for Paul, means passing on his generosity and openness to others and he gets quite cross when people withhold that gifting from himself and others.  For this is Paul’s understanding of mission – the expansion of love to all – being one with a God of love and each other.
So yet again Paul is drawing a picture of the absolute reality of life in Christ, as he exemplifies the pain and the joy of being big-hearted in love – pain because you are more vulnerable to hurtful rejection when you give fully of yourself - and joy because you see the amazing fruits of love given freely and openly.
So is big hearted love the way to go?  Should we all be like Paul, larger than life, absolutely focussed, boundless energy and answers for everything?  It is what he seems like sometimes, isn’t it?  Well I think he would be horrified at at any suggestion of cloning in that way.  He would say ‘stop looking to me but look to Christ – look to Jesus example and teaching’.  What would he say and do, do you think?
The Gospel reading for today comes at this concept of gifted unconditional love in a slightly different way – we hear words like ‘be on guard’ and ‘be alert’ for that which prevents you living in the light of Christ’s example and teaching.  In the passage from Luke we are drawn into what the kingdom of God here on earth is to be and our place in it – we are called to hold up our heads so that when the signs of the kingdom begin to show we can know that we have our place in that kingdom.  It seems to me there is a very real prod here for us to examine our choices, evaluate our past, present and future in the light of this coming kingdom of peace and justice and hope for all.  And I think that this too is what Paul is talking about – that we can’t segment our lives, apply love to just some people and some things and not to others.  Paul too is asking us to be able to hold up our heads and be counted for the love of the world in every part of our lives.  Not to save it for the easy and the familiar but also to lay it out there in situations where it might just mean huge impact on our lives, might affect who we are, might even make us unpopular and the object of ridicule. 
How about, right at this time, each one of us were to lose some equity in our land/our houses in order that others might know the security of being a property owner, gifting a bit of your backyard to someone who is homeless.  That is out there!   How about we buy only free or fair trade goods, always, or own only what is locally and/or seasonally produced - that means we lose a whole bunch of useful gadgets and tasty foods from our lives. Might not go down too well in the house?  How about we seriously challenge this economic system we live under - that applauds individual and corporate greed, encourages debt and equates poverty with failure? Might not do much for our status in our community?  How about we go down to the night shelter to help out or invite strangers to our long-anticipated family Christmas dinner or give half our clothing to those who have none?  Because the coming of the kingdom will only happen here in this world if we invest in this big-hearted love in a big way, if we decide in ourselves that the gifting of the Christ child is a gift of new beginnings not just for ourselves but for all people everywhere, that fair treatment, justice and compassion is not just something we enjoy but that all people are entitled to.  It is then that we will be able to say that we have ‘increased and abounded in our love for one another and for all’ so that the kingdom of God might be known. 
As we gather at the table Christ has prepared for us today, may we remember the costly gift to the world of the Christ child, and let us be reminded of all others who stand in need of the tangible gifting of costly love in their lives.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

[1] 1Thessalonians 1:3
[2] 1 Thessalonians 3:12