Saturday, 23 February 2013

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 24th February, 2013. Lent 2

Readings: Genesis 15:1-7, Luke 13:31-35

We pray: 
O God in your wisdom and in your hope for us, open our hearts and minds to the possibilities you hold for us today. Where we discover new ways to know you, encourage us, where we re-cover that which we have always held true, renew us, when we step out into Lenten uncertainty, hold us.  Amen

One hot summer day a deer came to a pool to quench his thirst.  As he stood there drinking, he saw his reflection in the water.  “What beauty and strength are in these horns,” he said, “but how weak and fragile are my feet.”  While the deer stood observing himself, a lion appeared nearby and crouched to spring upon him.  The deer immediately took to flight.  As long as the road was smooth, the deer easily out-distanced the lion.  But upon entering the woods, the deer became entangled by his horns and the lion quickly caught him.  Facing the lion, the deer thought to himself, “What a fool I have been.  The feet which almost saved me, I despised, while the antlers which I loved proved to be my destruction.  An Aesop fable

Today I want to talk about strength and false weakness, in us, in our world and what Jesus might say about it.
Let’s begin with our world.  A few weeks ago I read a blog about an emerging power church in the US – fire and brimstone for the 21st century speaking into urban injustice and need.  Very popular might I say.  There were a few things I agreed with and quite a few more I didn’t – but what struck me about the article was that, throughout,  anything that was considered weak or waffly, such as tolerating other faiths or watering down hell was inevitably painted as a feminine trait. Actually I do believe the suggestion was that letting women into leadership was the cause of all this wiffly waffly love stuff and the downfall of the modern church. They obviously haven’t met some of the women I know!
At the same time, in the Lenten study on the Beatitudes we are doing at Opoho this week[1], the section on Blessed are the meek has a fairly tongue in cheek poke at the world’s perception of masculinity – suggesting that a successful male is expected to have sexual pull, be a winner in whatever venture they undertake, be dominant and have a healthy level of disregard for others ie exploitation denotes strength.  Alex, the person whose beatitudes story is around meekness, says that he chooses to reject the world’s overwhelming perception that traditional masculinity and meekness are at opposite ends of the scale, he chooses to associate his maleness with compassion, kindness, thoughtfulness – as non-violence in the sense of not violating – people, planet, relationships.  He built his identity on that of his father, who was, he said, forever kind and thoughtful with all.
Now if I have any ability to read minds whatsoever I would think most of you, too, would find those sweeping definitions for male, female, strong, weak, abhorrent.  I certainly do.  But for all that there is an element of truth in this – it is still is a popular perception that strength is known in power & aggression and weakness is found around love & empathy.  It is a belief that informs and justifies bullying, family violence, economic violence, discrimination and social inequalities.
Christ came to redefine the way we are to live – and, in doing so, he challenged this common perception of what strength looked like – he said that we needed to be strong, but that strength was shown in our loving, compassionate, caring for each other and ourselves rather than in our exploiting and dominating of others.  He rejected the definitions of the day and lived out a new type of strength, one that saw him, in the end, helpless and mocked on a cross of wood, nails and thorns piercing his flesh, betrayal and insults and laughter piercing his soul.
If we look to our Gospel reading for today we see this intriguing combination of strength shown alongside what the world might call weakness.  For Luke tells a story of Jesus standing strong before the veiled threats of the Pharisees, naming Herod as instigator with few qualms, and sending them off with a flea in their ear – this will happen, he said, as God wills and in that assurance Jesus will not be forced from his path. Jesus could never be called politically naive – he knew well enough what was going on, all the manipulation and pressure, and he was having none of it.  Bold, strong in the face of worldly power.  And, he said, he would take his message all the way to the top – to Jerusalem even knowing that he will be rejected, that he will be subjected to scorn and violence.  But here is the message for today– he does not respond to their rage and violence with like action, instead he turns around and offers that which the world calls weakness, he weeps and laments over Jerusalem, using the very feminine imagery of a hen brooding over her chicks, soft and sad of heart over the coming rejection of her prophet.  Compassion and embrace is his response to an angry world, love for all is become his strength.

Here in this place we are well aware that these generalisations of male and female traits are inherently flawed, but I would suggest we none of us, men or women, are completely innocent of using our strengths inappropriately and seeing as weakness that which is simply different.  How often do we not allow ourselves to lament, to weep over that which is heartbreaking, that which we cannot help or change because, in the end we see it as showing weakness?  Do we ever use our superior skills to, even inadvertently, put others down?  Do we, deep down, think that if we hold a political, economic, social, religious power over others that they are somehow less or that we have a right to manipulate them? 
Are these some of the obstacles that we might want to dismantle this Lenten time as we walk this journey with Christ?  As Isaiah’s prophetic vision was for a just and righteous kingdom, so Jesus came to bring a ‘new thing’ to the people, one where all were treated equally, with love and justice and mercy, where none were subject to helplessness, or bullying, or violence against their body or their soul. 
Surely this is the dream, this is what the Jesus walked the path to Jerusalem for, this is what his compassionate tears for those who rejected him were shed for, this is why we walk alongside, each in our own way, for – to gather God’s people, like a mother hen gathers her chicks, in warm, inclusive, welcoming embrace as God intended from the very beginning, as Christ exemplified and as we are called to be as we walk the path to the Easter experience.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1]  Claiming the Beatitudes: Nine Stories from a New Generation by Anne Sutherland Howard[1].  (Herndon, Virg: The Alban Institute, 2009)

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 17th February 2013 Lent 1

Gospel Reading: Luke 4:1-13

Let us pray:
May all that is said, all that is heard, all that is understood be to your glory O God, that we might continue to be your people in this place.  In Jesus name.  Amen.

I would like to begin with some words by Joy Cowley:
“Who was it who said that competition was a good idea?
Who reckoned it was important to be first, best, biggest, richest, fastest, brightest, top of the class?
Not Jesus, that’s for sure.
Oh, he had his chance in the desert.  All the temptations given him were a push for self promotion.
He turned them down flat.
He knew that the secret of happiness lay in making others happy, in cooperation rather than competition, in helping another unwrap her gift, in listening to a brother’s song...”[1]

This coming week in the first of our Lenten studies on the Beatitudes we are seeking to unpack the first: Blessed are those who are poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
It seems to be a tenacious and deeply held truth in much of our society that success is counted in terms of accumulation, whether its sports games won, most money made, biggest house owned, most power held, most people in church even.  Likewise those who never win, have no money, barely have a roof over their head and are at the mercy of all, the small and the weak, they are the ones to be pitied at best or despised at least.  Was that not exactly what Jesus was being offered in the wilderness – transportation from hardship into comfort, helplessness to power, and who wouldn’t want to take such a gift, says this world of ours?  Well actually- not Jesus.  The temptations heard in the presentation of the Gospel this morning were actually very subtle and persuasive, coated with honey we might say – appealing to that assumption that from a position of power we can be more effective in easing the lot of others, we can have more knowledge, more effectively directed solutions from the moral, financial or social high ground than from being amongst the troubles.  A bit like a General on the top of the hill shouting down the battle tactics in the carnage below.  And to this Jesus said a big fat NO – not going there. 
What can we take from this?  Does this mean therefore that we should live and work from within the places of poverty, helplessness, and loss, giving up completely material riches and the ability to influence through our positions of power.  No again, I don’t believe that this is what Jesus is telling us either.  That relative wealth in itself is not a sin, it’s rather more what it does to us and what we choose to do with it.
So what is left – if we are to be neither rich and powerful and beneficent or poor and helpless and alongside.  Where does that leave us, we who live relatively privileged lives yet are painfully aware of the great need around us? Often this perceived divide leaves us feeling overwhelmed, so much so that we are paralysed – other times we find it easier to be generous within our own circles, the places we know and can relate to – other times we give but from a distance almost, a gift from our surplus I have heard it called rather than from our very selves. I want you to take a look at this photo coming up – how do we break down this divide?
One way is suggested by Chris Wendell, a member of the  
Beatitudes Society in the US,[2] and that is to go into a third space –where we recognise that despite material and/or social wealth (they usually go together in our society) the kingdom of heaven is unlikely to be realised in this world or the next if we do not know spiritual wealth.  So he suggests that those in positions of material wealth (and almost all of us are, relative to other people) first have to recognise our poverties, our places of need, before we can enter into genuine relationship with others; that all people, no matter their status or strengths have both gifts and needs and therefore  we all have something to offer each other and we all have need of each other.  It might be, it will be, that we, the privileged, have in our means the enrichment of other peoples, say, material circumstances – but only if we allow that in that encounter of giving, our poverties will be met as well.  What Jesus said no to in the wilderness was the detached, from on high, type ministry, what he said yes to was realising that the kingdom of heaven, this kingdom of God was build in our commonality, our needs and our gifts, with none of us having the moral or spiritual high ground.       Blessed are the poor in spirit for they shall know the kingdom of God – in recognising our needs, our scarcities we open ourselves to the needs and cries of others in a way of relationship rather than that of benevolent charity, and from that relationship we all grow and build the kingdom of God here in this place and this time. 
Those elders and visitors with a special calling to pastoral care in this parish have recently had a session together talking about the perceptions and expectations held and – I have to tell you – we have had a good go at dismantling some of them.  One in particular was that, as a pastoral carer you needed to have (and were expected to have) all the wisdom, God knowledge, skill, experience to be able to fix things, answer questions, give wise advice.  No!  That is not what pastoral care is, that’s that rather high ground approach.  Rather it is about getting to know each other, opening up a little, maybe being a little vulnerable around each other, trusting that in your mutual needs you would also find mutual giftings, and that you would build relationship with each other and within the body of Christ.
That is pastoral care – something that we all do for each other all the time.
Jesus, in his rejection of the temptations and in his determined walk to the cross, is telling us that it is only in relationship with each other that the kingdom of God is realised, and that only by opening acknowledging our needs, our poverty that we can truly minister in compassion and love to others.   In that approach to relationship and community what we think we can do to help is multiplied many times in the power of the Spirit.  By recognising our poorness of spirit we are truly blessed in our sharing of our gifts with each other – there is love known, there is the presence of God.
There are some very appropriate words from songwriter Kathy Galloway:
To seek your soul, it is a precious thing,
But you will never find it on your own,
Only among the clamour, threat and pain
Of other people’s need will love be known.
Thanks be to God

Margaret Garland

[1] The Human Race by Joy Cowley in Aotearoa Psalms
[2] Claiming the Beatitudes: Nine Stories from a New Generation
by Anne Sutherland Howard[2].  (Herndon, Virg: The Alban Institute, 2009)

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 10th February, 2013

Readings: Exodus 34:29-35, Luke 9:28-36

We pray:
May the God’s word speak to us, may the Spirit open our hearts and Christ guide us in the way.  Amen

Moses, the shining glory of God and the veil.  It could be the title of a bestselling mystery novel, couldn’t it, designed to intrigue and to mystify – as all good mysteries should do.

And to be perfectly honest the reading of the story is somewhat mysterious.  We have Moses down from the mountain, the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, ready to share God’s glory, God’s word with the people but totally unaware that his transformation shines out through his face, blinding and scaring those around him.  And when they hang back - he beckons them to come near, speaks of his encounter with God, then and only then covers his face with a veil - which he takes off each time he goes to speak with the Lord.  It strikes me that there were some interesting analogies in this story around how we meet and respond to the glory of God.  For I think it’s fair to say that we tread lightly around ‘glory’ theology these days, somewhat ambivalent about how that fits in with the humility and self-denial that is emphasised in the theology of the cross – where love is the sacrifice for the sins of all.   

What is one to make of the brightness of God in this text from Hebrew Scriptures and in the Gospel reading of the Transfiguration?
Well for a start - it was scary!  Scary to the people of the Exodus, scary to the disciples on the mountain top, scary too to the Bethlehem shepherds when they were faced with the glory of God.  A powerful moment, terrifying in its beauty, a beauty that disconcerts and confuses and renders otherwise sensible people senseless. Why?  Is it a threat – behave or this is what I can do! Or is there something more? 
Maybe these are the moments that strip us down, silence our religious chatter and force us to remember that we are on holy ground, in the presence of the God who is glorious, more beautiful and loving and intricately part of this life than we can imagine. 
Can you take a moment to think of these glory moments in your experiences? The times when you felt the touch of the God who is more profoundly part of you than your ordinary moments would ever allow.  These moment are renewing, humbling, embracing, full of light and power, they are God moments.  They are the moments that strengthen you as you walk in the valley of the shadows, that allow you to minister in the midst of doubt and overwhelming odds, that bring the splendour of God  into the ordinary and routine.

This reading is also a reminder to us that we are to reflect this same glory – as people proclaiming God’s word we, like Moses, are to have the light shining from our faces. I don’t mean the fixed grin of fanaticism or the determinedly cheerful smile of duty but rather the light that shines from within.   I suspect many of you would recognise one or many in your circle of church, family and friends of whom you could say – their face shines out with love and compassion and surety of some transformation in their lives? I think of one person I know and just seeing her never ceases to remind me of the beauty of the presence of God in her life.  Too often we hide the joy of our faith under the cloak of modesty and humility (and dare I say decency and good order) – and by doing so we restrict and contain the holy mystery of God and our witness to that glory.  
Now this is not a call to dance ecstatically through Opoho streets (although if that be your wish who am I to stop you) but it is a reminder, shall we say, to allow the good news of Jesus Christ to be reflected in who we are and how we are perceived and received by others.  I remember once in a church in Christchurch preaching on the theme of joy: that Christ in our lives and our world is good news which we should celebrate and share – and then, confident that I had got the message across introduced the next hymn – ‘To God be the Glory’ and what did we get?  Toooo Goooood  beee theee gloooooory..... Awful!

But the glory of God is not just about our feeling good and letting others see it – that is too simplistic, too restrictive.  The glory of God brings us directly to the disturbing events of Easter – the humility and pain of betrayal on the cross making Easter morning almost unbearably bright for all of us: rendering us speechless and awestruck by a God whose love is so great as to dispel even death. 
Jesus, transfigured, changed forever in the power of God, came down from  the mountain to fulfil the promise of a gloriously loving God – to set his feet on the path to Jerusalem, to the cross and to the transforming moment of resurrection and new life.
A church in the US, aptly called Transfiguration Lutheran Church, kept its doors shut to the struggles in the community around, preferring the rarefied atmosphere of exclusivity, but then, in a transfiguring moment,  they too came down from the mountain, threw open the doors, stepped into the neighbourhood and cared for all in the midst of the pain and hunger, healing themselves as well.
A people, having crept closer to hear what God had to say to them, were transformed by the light of the one sent to bring the Good News and went out to be that light to all who lived in darkness
So – be astounded by the glory of God, be thrown off your foundations occasionally, be blinded by the light,  – so that you too might go and do likewise.  Amen

Margaret Garland

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 3rd February 2013

Readings: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30

We pray: may all that is said, all that is heard, all that is understood be to your glory O God so that we might be your people in this place.  In Jesus name  Amen.

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ [1]
So we heard in the reading for last week, the words from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah that directly lead into the reading for today.   Jesus had been baptised by John, entered the wilderness for 40 days and nights, and began to teach in the synagogues to great praise.  And so he came to Nazareth, to speak in the synagogue there.  And then he preached from the text, (we don’t have the detail here, probably because there was nothing unfamiliar to the people of the day) - but what would have made them sit up was when he said that the scripture has been fulfilled this day. Yet they seemed not to have been phased - as we hear: And they were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.  Is this not Joseph’s son?” [2]  they said. 
It is interesting to know that commentators today disagree over whether the phrase ‘Is this not Joseph’s son?’ is meant to be a put down,  said with derision, or an awakening, said in awe and wonder.  I go with the second – it seems to me that there is a sense of the listeners being blown away by what has been said, and from this a local boy. 
The response, whatever you deem it to be (and we will explore that a little bit more in a minute), illustrates an important thread in Luke’s gospel writings – one that emerges time and time again – that of acceptance to the unacceptable. 
Luke tells us that the mission of Jesus is to bring salvation to the people, that he comes fulfilling the promises of God made known through the prophets, he comes to convince us of the extravagance of God’s love and offers a timeless unconditional forgiving grace that allows us, in our very humanity, to walk with God and be part of building the kingdom here in this place. 
I am in the process of reading the Gospel of Luke, accompanied by a book called ‘The hospitality of God: a reading of Luke’s Gospel by Brendan Byrne who is a Catholic theologian from Australia.
Luke, suggests Byrne, sees Christ’s ministry as one of acceptance, hospitality rather than vengeance or judgement, and that then and now is a time when Christ offers God’s hospitality to all - the hand of Christ is held out to the afflicted, the trapped and the bound, accepting all into the hospitality of God.  Judgement is not to be forgotten and will come but for now we live in a space of salvation history which Luke calls ‘the acceptable year of the Lord’ - that is, God’s hospitality offered to all the world.[3]  And, says Byrne, do we accept or reject this acceptance of God?  It is worth noting that in just about all of the moments where Jesus offers this new way to people in this Gospel, there are those who are convicted and there are those who reject it. 
Holding those thoughts, let’s return to the passage for today.
“And the people were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth”.  Maybe today we would call this a building up sermon – no surprises, great rhetoric, inspirational hope and fulfilled promises. The people acclaimed him and his preaching and his claims to be the messiah.  Special moment.
What did Jesus do with it?  He deliberately and most provocatively broke the mood – he upset virtually everyone in the synagogue by challenging their assumption that this message was for them alone – he literally forced their faces to the world and suggested they open their eyes to see that the world was larger than them and God was greater than their understandings.
Jesus was not prepared to be boxed in – to be contained by anyone groups assumptions or needs – his way was bigger and bolder and less comfortable than that.  He talked of God’s accepting love for the heathen Gentiles – and this was just too much.  The mood changed dramatically – saying they became a lynch mob would not be stretching the truth at all - at such outrageous teaching.  They went to throw him off the cliff – an angry mob reacting to this threat to their very understanding of their God.  A choice was made – to reject.     There one more small but very important sentence at the end though that can kind of get lost – it is a word of endurance and hope in the midst of the rather violent human reaction to his uncomfortable message - the last verse says ‘But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.’[4]  He was rejected but the rejection was not the last word –the last word was Jesus continuing on his way despite all that was thrown at him, continuing on through what was to be the worst the world could throw at him - rejection of the cross - to the resurrection.
So here is, in Jesus, a new narrative for the Jews to consider –  where the old narrative became refreshed in Christ in a way that challenged and shook the very foundations of what they had thought was their exclusive story.

What capacity do we have for hearing the ‘new things’ of God in our midst?  When offered a new often challenging insight into what it means to be a people of faith, how do we respond, do we accept or reject? 
There are some obvious parallels that we can draw I suspect.
Firstly are there things we do that box God in? In our imagining of God do we allow that there are ways that we don’t know, purposes that we can only touch the edges of, mysteries beyond our comprehension?  I suspect that many of us do this in ways we don’t even realise, that we find it hard to, for  instance, reconcile in any meaningful way the immensity of God with the intimacy of the Spirit and absolute humanity of Christ – and that what we don’t understand we find difficult to accept?  
Do we hold God in Christ close to our chest so to speak?  Unwilling to share if it means our views might be challenged and we might be forced to rethink and realign who it is that we believe God to be.  One thing that usually happens when you allow other perspectives in is that your own changes and grows as well – either that or you go to your corners in the ring and come out fighting until one knocks the other out! 
Do we allow that there might be other ways to do church, to be a person of faith and to be with God – not that those ways would necessarily be for us but rather recognising that we don’t have an exclusive hold on what is truth?   Do we allow others to gather with us round the table accepting them as they are rather than feeling we have to integrate them into ‘the right way?’
And here is one – straight from my heart.  Do we feel uncomfortable with what God is asking of us – at least some of the time?  Because I reckon if we know only comfort in God’s call on our lives then we might need to have our understandings of faith and of Jesus way challenged just as Jesus did in the synagogue.  For, as Simeon said, Jesus would be a sign of contradiction and discomfort for many who were comfortable.  He would accept the  unacceptable – whether people or ideas or ways of living – in the name of love.
So when Jesus stretches our understanding of what it means to be a transformed people of God, tells us again that God’s hospitality is for all people, and that there are forever new ways of doing this which will surprise us, how are we going to respond?  With amazement at the grace of God or hostility and rejection. 

Margaret Garland

[1] NRSV Luke 4:18-19
[2] NRSV Luke 4:22
[3] The Hospitality of God by Brendan Byrne.  Strathfield, NSW: St Paul’s Publications, 2000 p.50
[4] NRSV Luke 4:30