Saturday, 29 June 2013

Reflection Ross Home Service Sunday 23rd June 2013

Readings  1 Kings 19:11-15, John 7:37-39, John 8:12

If we were to personify strong emotions, I wonder what hope and despair would look like?  Would despair be a grey robed hovering presence, waiting for an opportunity to wrap their cloak around you?  Would hope also be a hovering presence but a bit more flighty, more distant – rather like the light of a candle, flickering, mesmerising?  Would one shut out the other or would they both exist within the complexity of what we know as human existence? 
Elijah was in a state of despair – at a point in his life where he could see not much to live for – a serious low point in his life and in his service to God.  Remember what had just happened: he had just organised and delivered the most powerfully public display of the unique authority of Jehovah – picture it – there was Elijah and the opposition (consisting of 450 priests of the God Baal) - and Elijah and his God humiliated them, decimated them.  But almost immediately, instead of the expected strengthening of his influence and status – he is running for his life, running from the death threat made by Ahab’s wife Jezebel.  Frightened and afraid for his life, he flees.  He finds himself in the wilderness outside Beersheba, alone and in despair – and he prays that he might die.  He is engulfed by the cloak of despair, thinking that he has somehow failed God in his failing to convince or change the thinking of others. 
God’s response to his plea for death is to provide Elijah with food and water – with life and continuing sustenance for the journey ahead.  And that journey takes him into the Sinai where he meets with God.  And it is really interesting to see how the reassurance of the presence and promise of God is given to Elijah – not in the pummelling wind nor in the cataclysmic earthquake or the burning intensity of fire – but in the sound of sheer silence.  It was the still small voice of God that finally drew Elijah out of his despair and into a place where he could finally respond to God.
I wonder if sometimes we look for God to be always spectacular, impressive, obviously present and influencing – especially in our times of despair when we just want God to fix it, to make the cloak that is despair go away forever, to strike Jezebel down, to make our life easier and our way smoother.  It was interesting that the big public display of power didn’t really work for Elijah – that it was trumped almost immediately by an effective personal threat – and that Elijah did not find God in the elements of power but in the stillness of silence.

It is important to remember that the God who gifted us the person of Jesus was the same God who ministered to Elijah – the one who understands what it means to be human, to experience times of despair as well as times of joy and hope – and who knows that the one assurance that we need is to know that God is always with us, deep in our hearts, there to help us cope with the dark times.  Fear, flight and despair are part of most people’s  journey of life – nothing to be ashamed of or forgotten but simply times when things just get too much.  There is no condemnation from God, just sustenance and loving care until we are ready to re-engage with the work and the life that God calls us to.  For, as with Elijah, we are challenged to return to the life of loving and caring for others, speaking up for justice and standing up for what is right – but we are doing this empowered by the presence on the living God, whom we know in the still places of our hearts.  The light of Christ, of hope will always permeate the shadowing cloak of despair – not to blast it away but to allow us to know the presence of God, even in our most difficult times.  And for this we say ‘thanks be to God’. Amen

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 30th June 2013 Pentecost 6

Readings: 2 Kings 2: 1-2,6-14, Luke 9: 51-62

Let us pray:  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our sustainer.  Amen.

Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem –these words jumped out at me in my reading of the Gospel message for today: words of determination, of resolve, of choosing to take a particular path in the knowledge of what was to come –of taking the difficult and painful way to the cross when other easier, less troublesome options beckoned.   Luke, particularly of the Gospel writers, place a real emphasis on this journey to the Holy City, and how Jesus makes use of the time along the way to teach and encourage his disciples in their journey,
When I began in my role of turning 14 small independent volunteer libraries in the Hurunui into a viable and efficient library service to serve the whole district and make best use of resources, I went to another District Librarian for advice.  How do I approach this difficult and potentially hurtful situation of restructuring for a journey that needed to be made, I asked?  Her advice: see what needs doing, do it straight-up and then with the hurt feelings and the fallout afterwards. Mm I said – that doesn’t sound like me and went away to do just the opposite.  Gentle, gradual, discussive, letting natural time and fading energies take their toll till decisions to close or amalgamate came from the local people not me. It took lots of years and we eventually got there. Was it the best way?  Well – I didn’t get it all right, but I had the chance to build relationships and not be seen (often) as the hatchet queen – so it was good for me.  But was it the best way for the district and for the library service?  I don’t know.  Would I do it differently now?  Maybe.
This question of how we deal with change faces us all – whether we are the instigators or the recipients, for let’s face it – this is a time of incredible change.  Forget the ordinary changes we would expect over time and under new influences, like better cars, faster and further air travel, medical and technical advances , but if I just pick out a couple of words – digital (and all the changes that encompasses) and maybe global.  Those two things alone have completely transformed our worlds, from the way we see family to social values to instant gratification – you could go on and on. 
But it’s not really change itself I want to talk about today but rather how we walk our journeys of faith within those forever changing values and world views. 
As I told the library story today I found myself questioning my methods of that time – realising that my desire to be seen as a good person and take a softly softly approach may well have compromised reaching that better world for the library users of the district.  Maybe now I would approach that particular journey differently.  
If we think about the journey that we are taking as people of faith, it is relevant for us too to ask how is it going and is there anything that is compromising that which we are called to do. 
Jesus, in the passage we heard read today, makes no bones about the fact that it is not an easy road and then he uses what we might call shock tactics to drive the message home. 
 As he begins his journey to the cross, he responds to three people who have committed to following him: to the first who says he will follow wherever, Jesus quite bluntly says ‘it’s a tough life with no place to call home’.  To the second who wants to have time to bury his father first he says ‘God must come first’ and to the last he suggests that he turn his back on family and only look ahead not behind.  Why so brutal do you think?
Maybe what the scripture is pointing to here is reminding us that when Jesus calls to us to follow there are times when our other priorities of life get in the way.  When faith and the other clash, how do we resolve it, how do we make the right choice.  I don’t think however that we are being asked to walk away from family, live a life of transient homelessness – not at all – but what I do think Jesus is getting us to think about here is ‘where are our lives being driven by the expectations of ourselves, our society and our world in direct opposition to the choices that Jesus asks us to make’.  It seems to me that if we are to be Christ’s body in this place we need to be constantly considering just what that means and not be distracted by blind alleyways that are taking up our energies and our focus. 
One of those distractions or blind alleys has to be in our responses as church to this forever changing world.  One reaction is to fiercely protect that which we hold dear almost with a siege mentality.  That’s one way -  and other times we want to chuck the whole lot of old out and embrace only that which is new in the hope that it might ‘connect’ with our modern world in a better way.  Neither of these, I believe, will take us very far on the road that Jesus wants us to travel – because neither hold in balance the wisdom of those who have gone before us and what the particular needs are of our world in this time and place.  The first leaves us hunkered down and going nowhere, the second leaves us adrift from who we are as the body of Christ over time and in the company of the saints.  It’s actually possible to find a way of being church where we can honour the tradition, value the wisdom of the whole body and yet respond to the needs of our particular world and our time.
Don’t you just love it when, after spending serious time working at a particular message for your sermon, someone else manages to do it in one sentence – not only that they post it on twitter just when you have finally cobbled something together.  For all that I have to use these words of Miroslav Volf
To make a difference in the globalized world we need sturdy but nimble traditions and communities of robust but responsive conviction.”

Hi s word ring very true for me as I ponder some of the directions of the PCANZ at the moment – where it seems sometimes that corporate measures of success such as numerical, activity, financial and strategic fitness are the driving force for success in our churches.  I wonder how much energy and focus is left over for ministering to those in need and fighting for justice and mercy for all people?  I have to say I am exaggerating here but sometimes, honestly, it does feel a bit like this.

What else might distract us do you think?  What might waylay us and hold us back from being the people of God in this place.  This is not just an academic question. This is real. How do we break the chains that bind and get into that mindset that puts love and compassion at the absolute centrality of our faith, that identifies where our perspective is needing a bit of a jolt, where our values are in conflict with Jesus teachings?  I can’t answer that for you – I can only say that it needs our closest attention and our response.
Christ is not just saying this in a moment of black humour, bad temper brought on by a difficult journey ahead – Jesus is challenging us to figure out what is holding us back, what is stopping us walking our Christian journey with focus and with determination.  And where we identify it as being so – what are we going to do about it.
In finishing, I am reminded of how Nelson Mandela brought his focus of care and justice from his prison cell into his role as leader of a divided and hurting  nation and how he now looks back on his journey - I would suggest with some real sense of having walked the path he was called to take in compassion and in love. Thanks be to God.

Margaret Garland

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 9th June 2013 Pentecost 3

Readings:  1 Kings 17:8-16, Luke 7:11-17

We pray:  Loving God you have declared that your kingdom is among us.  Open our eyes to see it, our ears to hear it, our hearts to hold it and our hands to serve it.  This we pray in Jesus name.  Amen.

I was having my usual Friday lunch with our daughter Jessie and we got talking about hope – or rather hopelessness – and in particular we spoke about two books, both what we call post-apocalyptic books – On the Beach by Neville Shute which we had both read, and Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” which Jessie had just finished reading.
On the beach – a book of the gradual annihilation of the life of the world by the inexorable southerly drift of the nuclear fallout from the northern hemisphere WW III – where people knew that it was only a matter of time. 
Did you know that the title of the book was taken from TS Eliots poem The Hollow Men – from where also comes the phrase “this is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper”
The Road – written in 2006 – has a world completely burnt up by some kind of catastrophe (one never finds out what exactly) – a father and his young son follow a road – through ashen landscapes and survivors who have lost all sense of humanity – aiming for the coast where their might or might not be some hope.  And there is not!
Now that I have totally depressed you let me assure you that both novels hold out a glimpse of hope for humanity – in different ways for sure - and it’s really hard to find – but it’s there.

And so too it must have been in the two stories we heard today – a woman and child of Sidon starved to a point of accepting death as inevitable and a widow burying not just her son but, with him, her ability to survive in a world where she would receive nothing.
The gospel story is really rather cursory – only told in Luke and very little detail around the people involved – no request for help, no words of thanks or response from the mother or son – they play quite a passive role.  The response comes from the crowd around – seeing in Jesus’ compassionate response to one who was on the extreme end of vulnerability, hopelessness you might say, as a sign of the promised coming of God to the people of God.  This was the one pledged in the ancient promises. 
In the case of the widow and son whom Elijah met at Zarephath, there is a little more in the story – for instance we know the woman was generous still to the role of hospitality and welcome.  And yet it must have been a cruel taunt – share your last meal with me, why don’t you?  I can’t help the thought that a writer today might well end the story differently – and the word ‘muggins’ might well feature – but in this biblical tale of God’s grace we find a hope in the midst of nothing.  An impossibility in the face of inevitable human demise.
I do think we have to be careful here though – if we just see these two stories as about human hopelessness and an interventionist God who brings relief, then we are I believe missing what God is saying to us.  If we see God only as a divine dabbler who intervenes in our misery and makes it all ok then we are off track.

Because we don’t, for instance, see that there was anything done here that would have made their future lives any easier – no mega lottery wins or transportation to the ever green lands of plenty – life would continue to happen, sometimes good, sometimes purely awful. 
We also don’t have any sense of their needing to repay the gift of healing – both the very private story of the widow and son in the Hebrew Scriptures and the incredibly public healing of the widow’s son by Jesus offer no hint of their signing up for membership in response or in gratitude.
In some ways the people involved in the stories were almost unimportant – passive really – and the reason for this is, I think, to encourage us to focus on the infinite compassion and love that pours out of Christ on seeing the pain and sorrow of this woman.  He could not pass by such affliction –‘ he had compassion for her’ are the words Luke uses. 

I believe what Jesus was saying to us with this story is about the very real need there is in the world for healing, that there are people who know no hope, who are vulnerable ( I know I use that word a lot but there is a lot of it around) and helpless/hopeless, that nothing less is asked of us than the pouring out of our love and compassion, our tender hands and caring hearts – and that we are to offer it freely, drawn by nothing but their state of need. 
Remember, neither women had actually asked for help, the opposite in fact, they were pretty much accepting of their fate, and neither had rolled out their credentials for being saved, ‘pick me, pick me’.  Rather God sought them both out in their need and offered to take up the pain and the sorrow – no conditions attached – and asks us to do the same.   
Powerful powerful story of love isn’t it? 
- Not easy to live though – for to truly help, when we pour out our hearts we inevitably become involved and that can mean hurt and pain for us too.
-There are few shortcuts to success – life rarely changes course and complexities of relationship and human need make for rugged travelling at times. 
-When we give we need to also need to refill our well – find places of healing and nurturing for ourselves that we might be generous gifters of love.  We remind ourselves today as we gather around the table that do not ask us to go out unprepared or alone – you are with us.
-Its not about fixing something and then leaving – it’s for the long haul and we will change and grow and be challenged  if we have compassion for, seek to wipe the tears of others.

Jesus heart was moved in compassion – for the widow and for all humanity – the cross stands to attest to that, does it not?  The cross, in the midst of the complexities and pain of human life, stands for hope and renewal for all people, but especially those whose plight moves us to infinite compassion.  The world needs that kind of good news and our challenge is to become it and to help others become it.

Margaret Garland