Saturday, 27 July 2013

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 21st July 2013 Pentecost 9

Readings:  Psalm 52, Luke 10:38-42

Prayer:  Grant O God that our words, our thoughts be to your purpose, our hands and hearts be as Christ showed, our understandings and responses be guided by your Spirit.  We pray in Jesus name.  Amen.

Well, Mary and Martha today – another very well known Bible story!  Mary the listener/dreamer and Martha the worker.  Which one are you or rather which one do you identify with?  It seems that, as I have talked this story through with people (including at Parish Council) that many hold out some sympathy for Martha and her seemingly unfair critiquing at the hands of Jesus for working hard at providing hospitality.  And I get that.  There is nothing that sets many of us more on our soapbox that having people sitting around when there is work to be done, especially when it involves offering hospitality.  The work must be done, the meal cooked, the drinks refreshed, the people made feel welcome.  It is a core part of who we are and how we cherish those who come into our home.  This community, for instance, is renowned for its hospitality, both in the church and in homes.
But I believe this story invites us further in.
First of all this conflict between things to do and things we want to do but don’t quite get there.  Martha may well have wanted the luxury of sitting listening to Jesus but there was too much to do.  And isn’t this something that we all wrestle with – I know I do.  One insightful parishioner pointed out that this is exactly my dilemma at the moment as I bemoan spending more time on paperwork/things to do than on pastoral/reflective space.  What is it about a list of tasks that seems to have higher priority than the listening/dreaming part of our selves?  Why, for many of us, does our Mary self get sidelined?  I couldn’t help thinking of Albert Moore and his nigh on 40 years of bible study here in this church– I really hope that no-one missed out on that because they felt they had to be doing something else first, like getting a cuppa ready or racing home to get a meal on the table when you really wanted to stay.  And I want to say something here – it is with great appreciation that we see folks on tea duty leaving before the service is ended so that the cuppa can be ready – but don’t ever feel you have to do that – the rest of us can probably wait a few minutes so that you can listen and be part of the whole service.    I hope that this doesn’t puts real stress on those serving morning tea this morning – sorry folks – but this is about giving permission to stay for those who want to remain listening for just a little longer. 

But here comes the hard part -  Jesus was saying more than that Martha needed to put down her teatowel and spend some time listening. He actually suggests that Mary not only had chosen the better part, but in fact it was the only part needed. 
Why – Jesus  a very good reason for this - for is it not the listening that informs our doing?  If you don’t listen, learn then you may well end up doing as Martha - listen closely to Luke– ‘but Martha became distracted by her many tasks’.  There is a distinct feeling that she had lost her perspective, was so immersed in her things to do that she couldn’t see how to stop, where to stop and so lashed out at the one whom she loved, at Mary, when probably all she wanted to do was sink down to the floor beside her sister and hear the teaching of her Lord. It was as if the tasks were in control of Martha, not the other way round.  We all know times of becoming so full on in a particular aspect of our lives that we get out of sync with other areas.  Working so hard that we have forgotten to play, stressed so we have forgotten to relax, fixated on something so that we have shut out all else.  And that is when we lose our perspective, become worried and distracted, lose our direction and our intentions.  But when we take time to listen first the work, in hospitality, in seeking justice, in caring for others is always strongly informed and anchored in that teaching. 
Maybe, in the context of Bible Sunday, some thoughts on why we being anchored in the Word is so integral to who we are as Christ followers.   
It encourages us to break with conventions that discriminate.  In this story itself there is a breathtaking challenge to the establishment - Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus – where the disciples sit, where they learn and are taught, where they become stronger in faith and learned in law.  Mary, a woman, is sitting where few women would be welcomed.  This was a strong statement of welcome to all people, to the disenfranchised and the sidelined. How do we share the word, the good news?  Do we make it hard for some people to hear?  Do we think that people should come to church to know what Christ is all about or are we prepared to make spaces in the rest of our lives for opening up those conversations and listening to the concerns and understandings of others with respect.
Jesus also points us to the dangers of actions without learning – of taking responsibility for our own faith so that we can be aware when our actions no longer reflect the teaching.  There are so many ways that this shows through.  For instance, on Thursday night a number of us met at Salmond College Chapel, along with some of the students which was just great, for worship and we talked about what it means to be church, what puts us off and what we appreciate.  And there was one comment – that the word ‘church’ has a number of subtexts – one is the organisation, another building, another worship and another the body of people that are one community in Christ.  I wonder if sometimes the increasing layers of complexity in the organisation, the financially dominant role of buildings and the preoccupation with numbers in Worship can take on that role of Martha - our distraction from being the body of Christ. 
And where better have we seen the incredible divergence of Christ’s teaching and so called Christian action than in the stories of blatant injustice that have come out of America just recently – where laws encourage the right to defend property over a right to life, where the justice system acquits a man who shoots an unarmed black boy and jails for 20 years a woman who discharges a shotgun over the head (over the head mind you) of her abusive husband.  When are the Christ follower throughout the world, because this is not just America, when are we all going to challenge the conventions that discriminate, oppress, maim and support injustice.
So - it’s not that Jesus is encouraging us to lay down all tools and be listeners only – never that – but rather he is reminding us how important it is for us to first listen to his word for us– so that our actions have purpose and heart for God.  Amen 

Margaret Garland

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 28th July 2013 Pentecost 10

Readings:  Psalm 138, Luke 11:1-13

Prayer:  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.

I want to begin today with a memory of young adulthood – away from home but still seeing my parent’s prime role in life as being there for me.  And so when I rang home, usually for something, and there was no reply, it was remarkably unsettling – where were they, why had they moved away from the phone (landline of course in those days) when I needed them.  Why had they turned their focus away from me?  Silly now but an honest recollection for then.
Rachel Remen in her book Kitchen Table Wisdom tells a somewhat similar story from her childhood – this time about the focus of God.  She says that when she was small God was still discussed in the public schools.  She remembers one assembly in which the principle, a fervent fundamentalist, delivered a fire and brimstone kind of sermon to the entire school.  She read a passage from the bible and told them it was important that they all kneeled and prayed three times a day because they needed to remind God that they were there.  Thinking back she may not have said it in so many words, but this is what Rachel took away.  You prayed because you had to make God look at you.  If God’s face was turned away from you, she told the hushed assembly of children, you would wither up and die, like an autumn leaf.  And at this time, Rachel recalls, she was sure she actually held up a large dry and withered leaf.  Even as a five year old it seem that God had a lot of other things to think about besides her.  And then she thought – what would happen if, when she was praying, God blinked, what would become of her?  And she spent several sleepless nights until she was able to ask her Rabbi grandfather ‘what happens if God blinks?’  He was able to assure her that God just knows she is there all of the time, in the same way she knows that her parents are there even when she can’t see them.  You know how a child’s mind works here – literal truth.
How many other unhelpful, or downright dangerous perceptions of the role that prayer plays are out there?
There are the ‘gimme’ prayers that are encouraged by our ‘gimme’ culture.  God I pray for a lotto win or the designer clothing that will make me look cool or the rain to go away because I had a sunshine event planned.  I even know of someone who prayed that a parking spot would appear for them because they didn’t want to walk too far.  And when we add in the nagging prayer for things we want– if I ask often enough, God will give it to me.  If I ask on my knees even better and if I ask in as many creatively different ways as I can think of, then how can God resist.  Prayer for me, by me, might as well be to me as well.

Then there are the fix-it prayers discerned from a distance, framed by our own solutions and guaranteed by our saying of them.  God do this and do that, heal them, hush them up, sort them out, make them better people – maybe too thinking that by the praying we need do no more.  Distance prayers you might call them. 
There are what you might call the last ditch prayers – you know ‘there’s not much else to do now but pray’ – we’ve all done that I am sure. “I’ve done everything I can now it’s up to God” says a health professional when she had no more answers. And whilst prayer in dire situations is absolutely what we are to do, if that is the first and only time one might pray, then there is a problem with understanding the meaning of prayer.
If this is what you think prayer is, says Luke, then it’s time to think again. And one of the ways we are reminded to think again is through the words of what we call the Lord’s Prayer.  It’s time to think again about what we mean when we say ‘hallowed by your name, your kingdom come....”  When we set our praying, our conversations with God within the context of that phrase, the coming of the kingdom, instead of ourselves and our culture, our needs, our actions or inactions, we end up with a very different focus for  requests, our expectations and our actions.  We suddenly realise that, in seeking God’s kingdom rather than our own, our prayers become part of bringing wholeness and oneness to all.  Remen says “at its deepest, prayer is a statement about causality.  Turning toward prayer is a release from the arrogance and vulnerability of an isolated and individual causality.  When we pray, we stop trying to control life and remember that we belong to life.  It is an opportunity to experience humility and recognize grace.  Prayer is a powerful way of embracing life, all life.....  End of quote.    
It is in this way of prayer – praying for the coming of the kingdom and not for our own ends, says Jesus, that we can have all confidence in God’s response. 
It’s worth taking a moment to revisit the words of the prayer that Jesus taught or the shortened version found here in Luke.  It has been suggested that we have lost some of the punch of this prayer in translation, that in the original Aramaic the words used were seen as stronger than just the wishes they are often interpreted as today – after acknowledging the sanctity of God, then they actually seem to tell God what to do – make your kingdom come!  And the rest of the prayer follows on from this - if we are to be part of bringing this kingdom about then this is what you need to do to support us: we need forgiveness, sustenance, guidance and rescue from the things that overwhelm. 
This prayer is from a community living in the closeness of strong relationship with God, totally convicted of the need of the kingdom they glimpse to be known to the world and recognising the power of praying for and into and on behalf of the whole world. 
That is why we can have confidence in our approaching God in prayer, why we are told to have an attitude of perseverance, even cheekiness in our prayers – for the coming of the kingdom, not for our own ‘gimmes’ and fix-ups and life insurances.  And then Jesus gives us this example of that attitude.  We have the story of the man embarrassed by the lack of hospitality he is able to offer an unexpected guest and his shameless persistence in getting his next door neighbour out of bed to help. Prayer on behalf of those who are in need should indeed be persistent and outrageous – defying conventions of comfort, stretching our neighour’s reluctance so that they can, despite their misgivings, be truly neighbours. The needs of the world are met in the persistence and pushiness of prayer for the world.
And why are we so confident that prayer is heard, let alone changes things. 
Because, says Jesus, we are loved.  God loves the world, and if as a loving parent you will give only that which is good and caring for your child, how much more so will God be wanting to give only that which is good to us.  If you knock the door will be open, if you search you will find what you look for – because we are seeking the good of the kingdom.
There is much more we could say about prayer, so many more truths and misunderstandings but for today can we hold this thought – that prayer, undertaken in the care for the world invites us into an place of  power and presence, holds us in a focus of care for ourselves and others and encourages  us to act outrageously and persistently so that God’s kingdom will come.   Amen

Margaret Garland

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 14th July 2013, Pentecost 8

Readings: Amos 7:7-9, Luke 10:25-37

Open our hearts and minds, O God, to your word, that we may grow in faith and understanding and live in your love for us and all people.  Amen

I find that whenever I hold a conversation with an expert in the law, church or state, I don’t do so well.  I get irritated with absolutes and frustrated with surety.  Somehow my mind doesn’t fit easily into logistical rules, set boundaries and determined outcomes.  And I totally know that law is way more than that – but still, that is how I feel when I engage in legalistic talk, for whatever reason.
In fact I found just this yesterday when I was participating in an AC Neilson survey – so often the neat and tidy questions needed re-wording  - in my view – cause they didn’t fit me – some person somewhere had decided these questions would unearth the real me – and they didn’t.
I think it’s quite probable that the lawyer who gets into conversation with Jesus might have been one who I would have had trouble with - one of those clever clots who was out to ‘test’ Jesus’ adherence to the law of Moses, the law that this person had devoted his life to interpreting and protecting.
For there is a hostile intent is there not?  The lawyer asked the question hoping to trip up this man Jesus who, on the surface at least, appeared to follow the law but somehow broke down all the accepted boundaries of interpretation.
But Jesus, as always, is on to it.   In response to the question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks back: What is it that the law says?  “To love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind and your neighbour as yourself” is the prompt and authoritative response.  Ok round one to you Jesus.  Mm - a bit more prodding from the lawyer – “and who is my neighbour” he asks, still hoping that he can trip Jesus up, get him to push the boundaries of the conventional definitions, get him offside with the accepted interpretation.  And he is not disappointed.  Jesus answer is the parable we know as the Good Samaritan.
So how do we breathe new life into one of the most well known stories of the Gospels, one that may have become so familiar as to be a little dull.
First of all the title as we know it – time and different understanding have blunted its meaning, a meaning that was about as pointed as you can get for the time considering the huge tensions between Jews and Samaritans  Good Samaritan was pretty much the  same as today saying good terrorist or saintly drug dealer.
And what about characters in the parable.  How can we gain new insights into them.  One thing we did when I was in Amberley was, with the children, rewrite the story for our time and locale.  The traveller was the local farmer coming home from the A&P show, the local hotelier was obvious, the passerby’s were I think someone late for a church meeting and another good person making assumptions about drunkenness.  And the Samaritan was a tattooed bikie roaring along the street on his Harley....  That certainly helped refresh the story and made us think about it for our day.
Today maybe if we take just one of the characters – let’s spend some time with the victim, the beaten traveller.
The first thought that absolutely fascinated me: what if he, the man on the road, had had the chance to accept or reject help – as William Loader suggests in his poem on the parable:
He lay on the side of the road bloodied and bashed,
Someone was coming.  Footsteps. Someone had seen.
Someone stood by him leaning over.
He raised his eyes to look.
Then summoning his spirit, cried out:
“Get away you Samaritan bastard”
And sank into sighing.
The Samaritan drew back quickly and was on his way...
Christ wants us to see each person as a vital, loved, valued part of our community, our world – but even with the best of intentions we hold to preconceived notions and sweeping demonization’s of groups of people.  You know the sort of thing – all Iranians are terrorists, all Aussies are underhand bowlers at heart, all homeless are lazy, all rich people are heartless .....we could go on. 
This takes us further: are we cutting ourselves off from a chance of life by refusing to engage with someone or something that we choose to distrust without real knowledge?   I wonder if the Samaritan and the traveller had a chance to talk sometime after – to get to know each other as God’s beloved, to realise that each other was not to be despised, that they were each a unique person with loves and fears, family and dreams.  And they could love each other in the midst of that.
Jesus is categorically telling us this here – that no person or race or group is beyond God’s love and therefore our love. The fact that we often find Christ in the most challenging and unexpected circumstances, in the hand offered across boundaries that divide surely tells us to stop beside the helpless traveller, even if we might be snarled at.  
Back to that beaten traveller – what did he do with the knowledge that those he looked up to, those he would have expected help from, that they walked on by.  When he healed from his wounds how did he feel about them the next time they met?  Did he want to berate them, let them know it would take him a long time to forgive them, if ever, hope that they would get hurt sometime so they could see what iti was like.  Did he accept their excuse of having to obey the law, in this case their defilement by the dead – or soon to be dead -  so they could carry on with their religious duties? I don’t think so somehow.  Because there was a new truth for this man who had receive hospitality from the so called enemy and that was: if the Law, or a particular understanding of it prevented the priest and the Levite, prevents us from rescuing human life in this way, then there is something flawed with that understanding.  It stands contrary to the heart of the law which is that single commandment binding together love of God and love of neighbour.
Do we realise how incredibly powerfully this story challenges our world views, our assumption of who is our neighbour and how we should be with them? 
Not just in what it means to live in God’s law but also to remember that the despised one, the Samaritan, not only stopped when others didn’t but he helped in the most extravagant way, showing a mercy and a hospitality to the wounded traveller way beyond what the situation called for or the silly fellow deserved for travelling alone on a dangerous road.  How would the traveller feel about this debt that could never be repaid to a person that he would have nailed to a cross if he could have? 
There is only one response for the wounded and rescued travellers of this world that will do – and that is to actively live out that very same generous and life-giving love, not just to those that we consider deserving or approachable or whatever limitation we want to put on it – but to those who are wounded and half dead, to become an instrument of generous love and compassion, just as the Samaritan did.  This, says Jesus, is the way to eternal life – living a life of boundary breaking hospitality – let us do likewise.  Amen

Margaret Garland

Sermon Sunday 7th July 2013, Pentecost 7 Baptism.

Readings:  Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

We remember the day we were born – well actually no we don’t but we certainly take time to celebrate it each year (unless we are at a point where we don’t want to anymore), if we are married we remember wedding anniversaries (usually), we are encouraged to celebrate other anniversaries like Valentines Day and Queen’s Birthday but do we remember each year our baptisms?  Not many of us I suspect.  There is one family I know who have made it a practice each year to gather round the table at home on the anniversary of each of their baptisms and renew and re-member their vows before God and each other.  Some of you here might do that in some way too.
It got me thinking.  About how we understand baptism, whether it is a one off happening for us or new beginnings every day, how we follow through on the promises we have made today for Rosalie and for others, how we see our own baptisms and whether we constantly revisit and renew that coming together of God’s grace and our surrender into the living and loving community of Christ that is our baptism.
And then there is the the reading for today – where the disciples were sent out to offer to those they met an invitation to come join in the community of Christ, to be baptised into faith, into the hospitality of Jesus.
And so I thought maybe today I would share a story with you – a story that might speak in a new and refreshing ways about what it means to be baptised and confirmed into the body of Christ.
It’s called Big Tommy’s confirmation and was written by Tom Gordon, a member of the Iona community:[1]

So there I was at the appointed time.  The intimation on the previous Sunday had read: ‘anyone interested in an enquirers’ class for confirmation should come to the vestry on Wednesday evening at 7.30pm for the introductory meeting.’  And in the vestry on the Wednesday night I sat and waited.
It was 7.30pm  No one came.  I looked at the copies of the Good News Bible I’d brought through from the church.  No one came.  I packed away the copies of ‘A faith for the 21st Century Church’- twelve copies of each, which I was going to use as background material for the class.  No one came.  I thought of the well word editions of the Condordance and Bible Commentary on the chair behind – just in case you understand.  No one came.
It was 7.45.  ‘Why am I always so optimistic,’ I asked myself – I knew that similar classes on previous years had numbered one, none, none and two.
With a heavy sigh I put on my coat and picked up the keys.
There was a knock on the door.  Puzzled I pulled the door open and there stood Big Tommy, the last person I expected to see.  Tommy was a well known figure around the church.  He was from a local family, the oldest of six boys, and, to be honest, Tommy was not all that bright.  He was a big amiable man in his twenties and had never worked – he dotted around the parish being nice to people and doing odd jobs.  He had the reading age of a child and the body of a giant.
Tommy came to church regularly.  What he made of it all I was never quite sure.  He would come to the front for the children’s talk and laugh and have fun with the little ones.  No one minded.  It was just Tommy.  Sometimes he would fall asleep during the service.  Occasionally he would wander out then in again.  Often he would make a strange wailing sound during the singing of the hymns.  But no one minded.  It was just Tommy.
I liked Tommy.  Everyone did.  And Tommy seemed to like everyone too.
‘Tommy’ I asked with an obvious air of incredulity, ‘what brings you here?  I was just about to put the lights out and go home.’
‘Ah’ve come for the thing,’ Tommy replied.
‘The thing, Tommy, what thing?’
‘What you said on Sunday about being here for Wednesday for ... ‘Tommy was struggling for words. ‘ come, you said...anyone... for know....
And as he said it he came in, took off his coat and settled into a chair.  So it seemed sensible to join him.  And Tommy patiently waited for the first class to begin as I gathered my thoughts.  I thought of the packed away study books and pondered Tommy’s reading age.  I mused on how to use the Bible and wondered what level of books Tommy would be familiar with.
I said the only thing I could think of saying: ‘Why are you here Tommy?  Why did you come tonight?’
Tommy smiled: ‘I like you,’ he grinned. ‘I like it in church, it’s fun, you’re funny and you make me all happy inside.  People don’t tell me to go away or look all nasty when I sing.  I feel all tingly inside when I hear the stories you tell from the bible.  I like the one about the rolls and the fish.  I like fish fingers.  Do you?  And I think its funny when the protestant son feeds pigs and comes back to his dad, and his dad runs to meet him.   My dad runs too, but only to catch the bus in the morning.  And Jesus sounds fun too, eh?  Jesus and the children.  I like that.  You like children too eh? Cause they laugh when they are  in church eh, and church is fun.  D’you think Jesus would like me, eh?   Cause that would be nice eh?
Any idea I had of correcting Tommy’s biblical interpretations –prodigal for protestant, and the like – didn’t last long.  All thoughts of study guides and bibles vanished as I absorbed the significance of Tommy’s breathtaking Credo.
And that’s the way it was for the six evenings Big Tommy and I spent together.  We swapped stories.  We talked about people who loved us.  We laughed at bible tales.  We shared what it was like to be hugged.  And we learned.  Together we learned.  We learned about each other.  We learned about acceptance.  We learned about being church.  We learned about Jesus.  We learned about faith.  We learned about being loved.
So that is why one new communicant stood before the congregation that Sunday. One Tommy McAlister, resplendent in his good suit and grinning from ear to ear.
‘Do you believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and do you confess Jesus Christ as your Saviour and Lord’ I should have asked.  But instead, I asked, ‘Is Jesus your friend Tommy?’
‘Aye’, was his bold reply.
‘Do you feel at home in our church?’ I asked.
‘Aye, I like it here,’ was his grinning reply.
Tommy McAlister, God loves you today – as he has always loved you – and the church loves you too.  You belong to Jesus and his church.  You are always welcome here.’ And the words of confirmation were done.
The beaming Tommy gave me a big hug after the service.  I cried.  I’d studied and learned at Big Tommy’s feet, and felt as blessed by Tommy’s embrace as he had felt by being welcome into the church again that day.

Margaret Garland

[1] Holy Ground, Wild Goose Publications