Saturday, 23 November 2013

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 24th November ‘The Reign of Christ’

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 24th November  ‘The Reign of Christ’
Readings:   Colossians 1:15-20,  Luke 23:33-43

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.

Today is kind of like New Years Eve – for the Christian church anyway.  It is the last day of the old year and the next time we meet together, next Sunday, we could technically be greeting each other with Happy New Year!  Sound a bit weird?  And yet there are a surprising number of similarities, are there not?  A time to look back on the year that has been, and to look forward with hope to the hope that is coming.  A time to pause, a transition time, to tie up loose ends and to seek new beginnings! 
And what a seemingly abrupt almost inexplicable transition – today we talk about Christ as King, ruler, the reign of Christ, powerful Christology, divine might and majesty.  And next week we await the birth of a child, a helpless, weak, vulnerable child born to nobodies in the antithesis of a palace – in a rude, last resort, stable.
Yet we cannot, must not have one without the other.  There is a memory from Delores William a theologian from the southern states of America around Sunday morning worship – she remembers the Minister shouting out:  Who is Jesus? And the choir responding in voices loud and strong: ‘King of Kings and Lord Almighty’.  And then, a little girl, in a voice so soft and fragile that you could hardly hear, sang out ‘Poor little Mary’s boy’  - back and forth they sang ‘King of Kings.....Poor little Mary’s boy.’  Delores said:  This is the Black Church doing theology!.  The answer to who is Jesus cannot be ‘King of Kings’ without seeing ‘poor little Mary’s boy’ cannot be king of kings without being.  Might I suggest that you look at some of the hymns that we sing today in that same way – the king and the servant, the child and the man on the cross.
And these two ways of knowing Jesus are reflected in our readings for today.
In the reading from Colossians we have a hymn to the awesome power of Jesus –firstborn of all creation, the one who holds all things together, the one who reconciles all things in heaven and on earth – through his death.  Christ is sufficient, is above all, is a manifestation of the very God.  This is a surpassing declaration of faith and you can almost physically touch the passion of Paul for his God.  But the picture he paints is of magnificence, a reign or rule that exceeds anything we might know here on earth, that encompasses all the world and beyond, that is undeniable and above all.  You can understand how the imagery of king spoke to the people of the time and speaks to us still.  But we do have to be careful with this image of King – its very easy for it to lead us into of dictator type rule and mostly kind but sometimes scaringly judgmental type of God image that is not at all helpful. 
Nothing could be further from the truth – the ‘Reign of Christ’ Sunday is very intentionally placed at the entrance to the new year – and the waiting for the Christ child. – telling us again that we need to approach the kingship of Christ with otherworldly eyes and fresh understandings.
It helps to remind ourselves too, where else in the Gospels we encounter the kingly Christ – the first is Palm Sunday when Jesus rides into Jerusalem to the loud hosannas of the crowds (on a donkey), and the other in the Gospel reading - on the cross, ridiculed, derided, humiliated, with his crown of thorns – where is your kingly power now then mate, he is mocked! 
And yet, paradoxically, that is where Christ’s kingship is revealed once and for all – there on the cross.  That was where the power of love was revealed to the world, and where the reign of Christ was established.  In the lowest of places, in the most insulting, deepest act of dismissal that humanity could heap on Jesus at that moment, that was where the immensity of God’s vision for the kingdom was made clear for all generations and all people, that of reconciling compassionate love. 
I wonder if we realise still how countercultural and threatening the concept of a rule based on love and compassion continues to be to the world today.  Jesus would, I suspect, be equally subversive and equally denied today - for we still live in a world where the weak are stomped on, the helpless exploited, the vulnerable dismissed and the damaged discarded.  Maybe the stories are different to those of Jesus time – but they are just as heartrending – the least of our societies are just as subject to the powers of injustice and economic and political expediency as anytime in our history.  The world continues to show a disregard for the weak and vulnerable, to make laws and decisions that hurt the least and crucify the voices that cry out.  Sadly we, and the Church, have at times joined in with this rather imperial approach – putting our own interests above others, using the weapons of influence and control and dogma to further our own power rather than the power of Christ which is love.
Where then is the hope?  The hope is in our putting Christ in the forefront of our lives and living out the reconciling compassion  love that the God of the cross embodied.  Can I share a story of just such a love  
“Here’s a true story told by Jack Kornfield, a clinical psychologist. Travelling by train from Washington to Philadelphia, Dr. Kornfield found himself seated next to the director of a rehabilitation programme for juvenile offenders, particularly gang members who had committed homicide.
One fourteen-year-old boy in the program had shot and killed an innocent teenager to prove himself to his gang.  At the trial, the victim’s mother sat impassively silent until the end, when the youth was convicted of the killing.  After the verdict was announced, she stood up slowly and stared directly at him and stated, “I’m going to kill you.” Then the youth was taken away to serve several years in the juvenile facility.
After the first half year the mother of the slain child went to visit his killer.  He had been living on the streets before the killing, and she was the only visitor [in jail] he’d had.  For a time they talked, and when she left she gave him some money for cigarettes.  Then she started step by step to visit him more regularly, bringing food and small gifts. 
Near the end of his three-year sentence, she asked him what he would be doing when he got out.  He was confused and very uncertain, so she offered to help set him up with a job at a friend’s company.  Then she inquired about where he would live, and since he had no family to return to, she offered him temporary use of the spare room in her home. 
For eight months he lived there, ate her food, and worked at the job. Then one evening she called him into the living room to talk.  She sat down opposite him and waited.  Then she started, “Do you remember in the courtroom when I said I was going to kill you?” “I sure do,” he replied.  “I’ll never forget that moment.”  “Well, I did,” she went on.  “I did not want the boy who could kill my son for no reason to remain alive on this earth.  I wanted him to die.  That’s why I started to visit you and bring you things.  That’s why I got you the job and let you live here in my house.  That’s how I set about changing you.  And that old boy, he’s gone. 
So now I want to ask you, since my son is gone, and that killer is gone, if you’ll stay here.  I’ve got room, and I’d like to adopt you if you let me.” 
And she became the mother he never had.

The hope is in recognising in the coming of the baby, the ‘God with us’, an event of such amazing grace as to change forever the world as we know it, and to realise that we too are able to participate in the life of Christ and to live in the power and the presence and mission of God transforming this world into ways of reconciling compassionate love.  Amen. 

Margaret Garland

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Reflection on ‘The Glorious New Creation’ Sunday 17th November Opoho Church

Readings:  Gospel Reading: Luke 21:5-6, Second Reading: Isaiah 65: 17-25

Reflection on ‘The Glorious New Creation’
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice for ever in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. 
I don’t know if I have become more holy, more obedient, more prayerful over time – maybe I have a little bit but goodness it’s a struggle- in spite of all my efforts and the amazing vision I have before me of this wonderful new Jerusalem - I struggle.  But there are more people like me than I could imagine, feeling a bit inadequate at times, other times wanting to shout out with joy because we get a glimpse of this holy mountain that the prophet speaks of - in the kind words of a neighbour and the stranger’s hand reaching out to me.  There was that slightly unusual man one day when I was swimming – splashing (and I mean splashing) his way up my lane, greeting me by a different name each time (none of them mine of course), saying good morning lots of times and then do you know what he said – he stopped to let me go by and said – after you pretty girl!  I was smiling for the rest of the day.  God’s people are a delight – and this world is a joy!
I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. 
So here is the big one – I can pray all I like, do as much as I possibly can but still there is weeping and distress.  It seems like a blanket wrapping the earth sometimes – and we can’t find our way out from under.  There are disasters so big that we really cannot image them in our minds, there are intimate stories of tragedy with too much detail that just break our hearts.  There is that sense of helplessness that overwhelms and you sit quiet, seemingly unable to do anything.  You know though, Jesus didn’t get to solve the whole world’s pain by taking it away – he did something else, he joined in that pain, he came to be with us and to experience all the highs and lows that we have in our lives – and isn’t that something!  And he left us with a task – to carry on doing what we can to make the world a better place – to wipe the tears and comfort where there is distress.  So let’s just keep on being Jesus the best we can and God will rejoice and delight in us.
No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. 
Time is an interesting thing isn’t it? Too short sometimes, other times dragging out forever.  It seems different when you are young to when you are older, 8 hours of a working day seems twice the length of 8 hours of holiday, our children grow so quickly, our parents suddenly seem to get old, our tasks always seem more than the time we have to do them and some people are better at keeping time, or being on time, than others.  You know I have always admired those who spend their time wisely and with seeming total control. I have both of the bad habits – I am the queen of procrastination and I try to fit too many things into too little time – maybe the two are linked?  You know- here’s a theory - when we overplan and overbook our time, maybe it’s about us behaving as if there is a chance of increasing life by rolling several lives into one.  Maybe it means that we haven’t quite accepted our mortality – I am not sure I have.  I am still craving for life, not never-ending but good life for all, and I want to keep on contributing, I want to make a difference – but maybe I also just need to learn to trust that God is at work in this world too – and I don’t have to do it all by myself!
They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. 
I reckon God wants us to have a pretty solid work ethic for when we walk in the way of Jesus.  I don’t think we are expected to know everything that happens afterwards when we give or receive grace in Christ’s name – that is way bigger than we could ever imagine - but I do think we are expected to understand that everything we do and be bears a fruit – and sometimes we have to live with the consequences of our actions. A story from Iona:  “There was that time in Jesus Square in El Salvador – a beggar came up to me, a young woman actually, haggard, thin, maybe ill or on drugs.  She was aggressive – and a bit scary.  She wanted money for herself and the baby, twenty dollars it was and she cursed loudly when I only gave her five (you see I needed the rest to get a taxi back to the hotel).  Her face said it all – said that I had failed to love – so concerned about the taxi that I failed to see her humanity.  I gave the rest of the money to another beggar later – but that didn’t absolve me.  I still see her face, young, angry, needing my love.’
So maybe it’s not enough to write cheques, not enough pick and choose when we will respond, or have days off from being like Jesus – we live in this world and we plant and we eat the fruit – may the fruit be such that it gives hope and justice and peace to everyone.
They shall not labour in vain, or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord— and their descendants as well.
Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord

How wonderful it is to be loved – to be blessed with the love of God and of each other.  What would we do without community, each other, without the people we can count on and the friends we can rest in.  Because the going does get rough at times and the best thing we can do is to open ourselves to the care of others, to share our lives and look out for each other. Remember, each time that we meet together, every time we pray together, eat together and raise our voices in song together we are in the presence of God and surely that is where the holy mountain of God is to be found.  

Week of Prayer for World Peace Service Opoho Presbyterian Church: 20 October, 2013

Good morning.  I’m Liesel Mitchell and thank you very much for inviting me here to speak on this Sunday which is part of the Week of Prayer for World Peace.

For those of you who may not know me, I’ll start with a brief introduction or a snapshot of who I am, by telling you who I am connected to.  I think the concept of whakapapa is a wonderful way of remembering that we all stand as individuals who are PART OF a bigger community of people.  We are only here, because of others before us and with us, and it is right that I honour the people who shape me in order to tell you who I am.  I’m the daughter of Sarah and Rod, the sister of Nicola and an auntie to my two wonderful nephews and niece.  I’m also the partner of Todd and I’m a part-time plus-parent to his three children. 

My relationships with people are a huge part of who I am, and a key part of making peace and doing peace.  I don’t profess to be any more of an expert in peace than anyone else in this room as I believe we are all born with the capacity for peace just as we also have the capacity to make war.  But I guess what I would claim is that I’m committed to peace and I am passionate about learning more to do with how we might live in peaceful ways together. 
My PhD study at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies here at Otago reflects this by my focus on nonviolence and ways of understanding more about being nonviolent – which is how I identify with peace. 
If I asked you all, given the choice, do you choose to live or die?   I am going to make some assumptions and say that most of us, especially in that situation where our life may depend on the choice we make, would say yes to the choice for life.  So if we choose life over death we might be talking about that thing some call “the instinct to survive.” 

 But, if you can dig a little deeper, what does this mean to you?  Is it that desire to survive no matter what – even when this means survival at the expense of others?  Or is it something more, which identifies a choice for life which exists at that core part of each of us. 

This however raises another question.  If the choice for life – or survival instinct – exists within each of us at an individual level, does this translate into a collective survival instinct, which extends outwards towards every other human being?  If we all indeed have this drive towards life is it not a contradiction if we use violence and war to cause the death of others? 
I would argue that if we answer yes to the choice of life, and we would not in most circumstances willingly choose to die then what reasoning can be drawn on in order to cause the death of another – another individual who chooses life, just as you do, just as I do. 

In the course of a conversation with a friend the other day, we began discussing whether it’s possible to love beyond the boundaries of your immediate connections.   Our conversation went a bit like this:

I asked, “Well, are you capable of loving one other human being?”  To which he responded, “yeah, of course.”  My next question was then, “So, if you can love one other, and one other… then surely the logic stands that we can love every other “one-other”.  My friend shook his head, saying “But as humans we can only sustain a certain amount of relationships at one time”.  I agreed, that yes, to give energy and time to people, there might be limitations, however that wasn’t quite the same thing and the point was, if it is possible to love one, then isn’t it possible to love every-ONE? 

For peace to be operational, there has to be willingness to acknowledge how much more we are alike than different, and making these connections only have limitations if we let them. 
However, it’s also easy to limit our love to our immediate world of people and relationships. 

I would like to ask another question, which keeps challenging me to come up with a decent argument for violence, and that is; are we really born in order to destroy each other? 

There may well be arguments which can provide evidence that yes in fact that is the point of living.  But I would like to believe that humans are not born with an intention to destroy.  And actually, I think it would be quite difficult to prove that a baby is born with the intention to destroy others. 

We humans are social creatures who do live in community and for most of the time, in most places – like right here – we are seeking ways of living in a non-confrontational, harmonious existence with others.  We actually seem to like doing this! 
However, when we feel threatened or pushed beyond what we know or feel comfortable with, what do we do?  If our security feels threatened, we tend to forget – or maybe it’s because we can’t even imagine – that there are creative options available to us, and in that moment, we resort to what we can visualise, that most basic of actions, violence.
Maybe sometimes it’s just easier to be violent.

Some of the Hutu men have talked about their role as killers in the Rwandan genocide in 1994.   Their comments were disturbing because they essentially said it was easy to kill.   There was just one rule, and that was to kill.  It was relatively simple as you didn’t have to think or have answers or decide who deserved to live or die.  There were no exceptions, no decisions.  You just had to kill. 
Anyone of us, in the right situation, given the right kind of pressure, can be violent. 
Just as anyone can be nonviolent. 
You might say, we have a choice.
But when we are bombarded, for example, by media from all angles with images of violence, it’s easy to forget that choice.  Which leaves me wondering, is it easier to imagine yourself in a role you have watched being played out countless times before in that blockbuster movie, than try out something you have heard of but haven’t ever really seen many examples of it in action?  And does this mean things are possible when we can easily imagine them, but when we can’t they just don’t seem plausible?

Nonviolence is certainly not a new idea, but it’s often left in the background while violence takes up all the room. 

The terminology which helps give an understanding of what non violence is arises out of its practice. Nonviolent action or struggle is the set of techniques, tactics, methods and strategies which enable people to wield power effectively without the use of violence.  This may be why nonviolent action is also sometimes broadly referred to as “people power.”

The principled practice of nonviolent action believes that nonviolence is the most ethical way to engage and that violence is not an option.  This is reinforced by the Gandhian philosophy that the means and ends must be united.  Therefore, if a peaceful solution to a problem is the end goal, then conflict must be engaged without violent methods. 

Gene Sharp, a theorist best known for his work on pragmatic nonviolence emerged as a “disciple of Gandhi” but over time has shifted his perspective from a principled to a more pragmatic approach to nonviolent action. 
Sharp differs from Gandhi with his belief that you shouldn’t have to “convert” to a nonviolent way of life to be able to use nonviolent tactics.  This means the idea is that you use nonviolent methods if they are the best way of achieving your goal. 
As part of his work, Sharp has also compiled a list, of not just a few methods of nonviolent action, but he has identified 198 methods which can be used for challenging power without the use of violence.
These 198 ways of confronting conflict demonstrates the breadth of choice which is offered by nonviolent methods, methods which are open to being creative and daring.

Nonviolence creates a space where possibility can play out.  It widens the playing field.  It encourages dialogue and it demands human engagement.  Violence on the other hand slams the door on negotiation, shuts down possibility and solves problems through a literal elimination process operating at such speed that react or run seem to be the only options.  It makes it very difficult to see people as people, but instead as the enemy, the other, the not-human.

Which brings me back to that question are we really born in order to destroy each other?

As principled nonviolence would argue, when we seek ways of living together which are creative and enable peace, the means and ends must unite.  Nonviolence offers a way of living together where options are explored, negotiation is sought and power is wielded without resorting to acts of violence. 
Looking at this from a bigger perspective, the tools which nonviolence offers actually mobilise, unite and build community – establishing a solid base for people to do peace.

So as we emerge out of a week concentrating on peace, it might be easy to feel like you have done your “peace bit” for the year.  However, I encourage you to go into this coming week, and take peace with you. 

Being nonviolent – being and doing peace – is living out a life standing connected to each other as individuals.  If we choose to destroy each other, we choose to destroy ourselves.  Choosing life equals choosing peace.  And if we choose life, then we also choose a love that has the capacity to stretch not just to the person beside us, or the person just next to them, but can encompass every other person, acknowledging and reminding us that choosing life for ourselves, means choosing life for every other person too.

Liesel Mitchell

Friday, 8 November 2013

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 10 November, 2013 Pentecost 25

Readings: Haggai 1:15b-2: 9,  Luke 20: 27-38

Let us pray:  Living God,  you challenge us to live in the way of Christ, so may your word for us be both comforting and disturbing, that we may better be a transformed and transforming community in Jesus name.  Amen.
 Just like Rat and Mole, just like Toad and Badger, we almost all of us have a need of some way, some place that we can feel at home, be secure and safe and encouraged in familiar surroundings.  For the characters of Kenneth Grahame’s story who they were was tied up in where they considered to be home and, particularly for Mole, it was unsettling to stumble across the home that he use to have – the place where he had once felt totally warm and safe – and to find that although he had moved on and was now living somewhere else and valued other places – this, his old home, still had special and nostalgic memories.
For the Jews of Haggai’s time, returned from exile, it was totally understandable that they should try to recreate the splendour and glory of their former temple in Jerusalem – it was what kept them going when they were away, this dream, and now they were here – but they were disheartened.  Not only was it a monumental task ahead of them but it was also proving difficult in terms of finding quality material and workmen, let alone their own energy, numbers and skills.  It was never going to be as it was – things were not going to be the same.   It was too hard!
There is a very obvious parallel too on this Remembrance Sunday.  Those who have left their homes, all that is known and familiar and safe, to head overseas in the horror and carnage of wars – for many any semblance of reassurance or rest or security when they are in the midst of such hell would be found in their memories of home and hearth.  And yet for those who returned – nothing could turn the clock back ( I have no doubt some would have tried) because not only had the world they left changed irrevocably, they too, in their horrendous experiences, were not the people that had left.
And the last, very close to home, example that adds to this picture is that of the situation in Christchurch after virtually every traditional church building was munted after the earthquakes.  Look to the debates over the rebuilding of the Cathedral – exact replication or new interpretation of church building for our time.  Enormous energies have been utilized for replication, restoring what was once again, – and I don’t think I am wrong here to say mostly from people who are not part of the Anglican faith community?  Even in the Presbyterian church debate over opportunities of new models of ministry (where buildings are only part of a greater new picture) versus rebuilding on the same site as in Knox Church, Bealey Ave are alive and well.  But nowhere are the faith communities looking to want to try and go back to what was – they all seem to have read and heard the Prophet Haggai’s words.
For Haggai had heard the people’s frustrations, their disappointments, their hopes fading for former glory, their disillusionment almost that God had abandoned them to get through this themselves.  He understood their wanting to blame God (or at least God’s absence) for what they saw as their failure to recreate the previous splendour of the house of God.  There are some things you need to be reminded of, says Haggai: first of all, although it may not be obvious, God is with you and is working through you, secondly God keeps the promises made to your ancestors – ‘my spirit abides with you, do not fear’[1] and lastly God will provide – maybe not in the way of old but in a new way – there is a bigger picture to trust God with. 
And then he goes on to remind the people that the glory of God is not for them and others to discover in the completed edifice but rather that it is evidenced in the presence of God with them in the building of it.  Therefore any task attempted without the presence of God is doomed to failure.  You could do the whole magnificent rebuild of the temple but it would be as nothing without the divine presence. So don’t be dismayed – move on confident in the presence of God and where that might take you.  Wherever God through the Spirit makes a dwelling , God is there to guide and to stay, even though it may not be always obvious.  They are huge words of encouragement to a people who are struggling, who are at a place where energy and ability don’t seem to be enough to the great task ahead of them.
For the re-creation of a temple was essential, not merely as a building but to house that community of faith living in response to God.  They, again like people throughout time, needed a place to gather and be sustained in rich relationship with God and with one another.  Just as they found new ways of doing this, maybe for us it’s time to recognise that the richness of relationship with God and each other is no longer to be found in splendid buildings, packed out church services, overflowing coffers and endless new recruits.
Stop and think about that for a while – how much of our energy and enthusiasm is sapped by trying to holding up goals for success that have their source in what has been rather than in the presence of God with us and our confidence in that.
Where might God’s presence with us and in us manifest itself to the glory of God in this new land?
Here are a few thoughts.  It might not be any longer in asking or expecting people to come to us.  Our buildings on the whole express a ‘trust me’ understanding of church which is no longer true.  As less and less people have experience of church, things happening behind impenetrable buildings say instead secrecy and unknown.  People want more openness and transparency, want to see what is going on before they will trust and engage.  Our buildings, often closed 6.5 days, are for many an enigmatic step too far.
Another thought – it may no longer be expecting people to have any understanding at all as to what God, Christ, church, scripture mean – or equally to have interpretations drawn from a church that no longer exists.  So our need to understand our own faith, to express our own hopes and visions of God’s presence in our lives is incredibly important.  It’s not enough to have someone else’s words opening the scriptures for us – we then need to take who we are and share with others.
We also no longer have the moral or historical high ground – we are expected to live as we teach if we want anyone to take notice of us, to express our faith in the way we live 24/7 not just Sunday morning.  The word Church no longer brings a hushed reverence, rather all too often it instead brings derision and challenge.  We are challenged when our lifestyles contradict our words – and rightly so.  We have to fight to be heard, are frustrated with our inability to be taken seriously and tear our hair out over the world’s seeming fascination with extremes of faith to the exclusion of the vast majority of believers throughout the world.
Our tools too are different –I, as part of the Leadership Sub Committee, have spent time discussing whether the current form of Ministry of Word and Sacrament – one Minister to one Parish, one form of training to fit all, is any longer meeting our needs, or should I say God’s need in this place.
Where the role of, for example, the itinerant ministry of music that Malcolm Gordon is offering, of the role of these new super Presbyteries in shaping and equipping the ministry of all peoples? 
And do you know – when we gather all these thoughts together – there is a strange thing.  What we might be needing to turn away from, have new thoughts about is actually not all that long-term historically or in terms of our ecclesiology, our theology of church.  Its not so long ago that Ministers of yesteryear in NZ travelled huge distances, ministered and pastored to people who they might have seen once every three months, of communities of faith where the role of the elder was to lead that community of faith in worship and teaching alongside the often absent Minister, of communities of faith who managed just fine without superb buildings and in depth national heavyweight structures and so on.  It bears some reflection I believe.
The early church had to deal with despondency, issues of lack of trust and knowledge in the wider community, interpretation of Christ’s word, they too struggled to survive against world views and cultural disdain.  So what’s new?
And the truth that spoke to them then and that is still speaking to us today, the word that gives hope and confidence to the body of Christ is that when we allow the presence of the living God to be richly in our midst, to guide and nurture us, there the glory of God will be found.  This will be a new energy, a differently shaped and resourced ministry but the richness of God present and alive in this community will not change – for our God is the God of the living, and will abide with us always – this is the promise of relationship between God and humanity on which we can absolutely trust.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

Margaret Garland

[1] Haggai 1: 5

Sermon Opoho Church, Sunday 3rd November, 2013 All Saints, Pentecost 24

Readings:  Ephesians 1:11-23, Luke 19:1-10

Let us pray;  May the words that we speak and the understandings in our hearts be to your glory Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Saturday afternoon, in a place of absolute blankness re the sermon for today, a bit filled up with cold, a great deal filled up with the wide ranging discussions of Leadership sub committee, I was just about to suggest a ten minute silent contemplation of the scripture readings, when I had an unexpected and very welcome text – from Judy.  And she said – what about continuing to explore and preach on ‘expecting the unexpected’ in the light of the most amazing response to our Saturday morning tea.  I am going to invite Judy to share her thoughts on that in a moment - and anyone else who wants to talk about that - but first I wanted to do a little pondering the story of Zacchaeus.  Because I don’t think he quite knew what it was that he was letting himself in for climbing that tree that day.  I would be pretty sure it was curiosity that sent him up that tree that day, that or maybe stubbornness in the face of those who closed ranks and didn’t let this less than worthy person through to see what was going on, and that there was no way he would expect to come face to face with this man, to converse, let alone to have him come back to his place.  But there were other things that make, for us, the ending of this story quite a surprise – Luke has spent enough time warning of the impediment of riches for those who wish to enter the kingdom – and this man, as chief tax collector, was seriously rich and heavily despised by his fellows – he would have expected no less than rejection from Jesus, I am sure.
But Jesus offered words of invitation – much as we offered to the people of this community for yesterday’s morning tea – come and eat, let us spend some time together, get to know each other a bit.
You see those are just such small words – come and eat with me – offered to one who had no expectation of hospitality by one who had trust in God and in the power of proffered love to the stranger. 
And Zacchaeus’s response to the invitation was nothing short of miraculous – way beyond what he had to do to even up the scales of justice- his delight was contagious, his smile broad, his promises generous, he had found the joy of commitment to Christ, the yoke that is easy and full of hope.
There was a delightful description in one of the commentaries of, if there was a group photo of the moment, wee Zac would be sitting in the front row– or better still hanging in a tree – beaming.
And you know that was the feel of the morning tea yesterday – there was a palpable sense of joy – not just of the somewhat less than optimistic church members there (myself included)  – but of the people themselves.

Ask Judy to come speak.  And any others.

The simple act of hospitality, of welcome, of engagement has unexpected and powerful results when Christ, when love, is present.  What might Zacchaeus have written in his diary after this astounding and yet so simple reaching out to him as he sat up that tree.  These are some of the words of a meditation from Iona:
“Since then my life has been turned upside down.  And I get the feeling that all sorts of other things have changed, are still changing, won’t ever be the same again.  I can’t say I understand even the smallest part of what is happening.  Somehow the things that mattered before are of no consequence – stability, security, having enough money to meet our needs and putting some aside for a rainy day.  My poor wife and family don’t understand it at all either – but of course they too are caught up in it.  He touched their hearts as well when he came to our house.  There’s a new restlessness and urgency about life.  But there is also this deep inner peace.  He’s completely changed the way we look at things: it was something he said about finding life by giving it away, and the sense about belonging together that he communicated.  It’s so hard to describe how just being with him makes such a difference.  And somehow he stays with you even when he is not there – and you still belong and you see how important it is that other people should know and feel that they belong too; that there’s a kind of openness, a reaching out, a generosity.  I got a feeling I’ve never had before, that I was close to God and God was close to me, and people like me on the margins, the outsiders, the victims.  I think he has a special part he wants us to play...”

And we take a time of silence now to remember those people who have played a special part in our lives – who have offered hospitality, unconditional love, insight, example, who have shown us God’s face.  The ones for whom we might want to pray, giving thanks for them and all that that have been to us in our journeys of life and faith.

Margaret Garland

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 13 October, 2013 Pentecost 21

Readings:  Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, Luke 17:11-19

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

You will be familiar I think with the popular song ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ based on Ps 137 where we have the line “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”  The Jews, a people set apart, God’s chosen people are ripped from their promised land, exiled into a strange land with an uncertain future, control over their lives pretty much gone and subject to a bit of goading we might say by their captors – go on, play us some songs, entertain us why don’t you. 
Imagine it.  Put ourselves into that position.  Helpless, hopeless, separated from all that they held dear.  “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, and there we wept as we remembered Zion.” 
The lepers too were in that same place – wrenched from all that they held dear: family, home, work because they, quite   indiscriminately perhaps, suddenly found themselves with a contagious skin disease that outlawed them from their society.  And this disease was no respecter of class or status although I suspect it was more prevalent in the places of poverty. 
These stories and many more of painful exile in our own time, of marginalised and dispossessed people everywhere, make us question just how we can live in any meaningful way when we are separated from all we hold dear, see no way to reclaim our heritage, our purpose, our way that we thought was ours by right. 
One could quite easily place the church today in this place of exile – where what we thought was our future, our surety, our way is being challenged on all fronts.  The world where respect for church and faith was a given is long gone, long held traditions no longer stretch out with impunity in front of us, and our future is uncertain and unseen.
So how do we respond?  We put our hope and trust in God to deliver us – and we believe it – but the question is to deliver us to what.  The people of Judah were lapping up the preaching that encouraged them to hold on to who they were, sit tight and they would get to go back to where they had come from.  God would break the yoke of the King of Babylon, said the prophet Hananiah, within two years, and you can go home – all fixed.  What a reassuring message for the people – just sit and wait and all would be well – God didn’t really mean it.  But Jeremiah (being Jeremiah) argued the point -  no he said, the word I have from God says become part of the community, settle down, build houses, marry, have children, live as you would normally live in this community far from home, be engaged and involved, learn the ways of peace with those you see as enemies and recognise that in the power of prayer and of community great things can happen for the whole people of God.  This time of exile will change you, grow you in faith and works.
And I wonder if this is not something that we can need to think about quite seriously – not to dismiss the pain, not at all, but to understand that in the pain, God speaks to us in life changing ways.  Did you pick up that the one leper who came back praising God and thanking Jesus was a Samaritan?  Was he the only one who returned to his home transformed in some way by his experiences in exile?  Might the others have thought it was their right to be cured, to be made well and restored to what was and this one leper understood that he would be forever different because of this experience?  Would he see that the enmities, for instance, that he had held close faded into insignificance in the face of living in exile?  Would he have realised in that time of separation that he was contributing to and communicating with those who he would normally have kept apart from or despised.  Nothing would be the same again, even when he was able to return to his former community, but not only that - he was able to praise God for the change.
Some hope therefore for us as church.  This might not be a comfortable, predictable time for the church, we might feel isolated and separate from all that we know and felt sure of – but we have a choice of response.  We can relate to the prophet Hananiah and hunker down, trust in God to strike down the infidels and restore us to all that was before or we can do as Jeremiah encouraged, as God spoke to the people – to  seek the welfare of the strange city – and in doing so find our place in this new unasked for situation we find ourselves in. 
What might that look like? How might we take encouragement in the midst of some very real displacement.  Well firstly prayer.  Pray to the Lord on behalf of the city says Jeremiah.  Holding not just our concerns up in prayer but praying for others, for those we know and do not know, trusting God to speak to us and through us in prayer.  Not just listing a bunch of things we identify but listening to God speaking into our hearts the things we do not see and the situations we are not aware of.
Secondly – and this often comes from prayer – in the listening we find there are new ways, unexpected pathways, alternate approaches.  We do not know what the future holds but we mustn’t be too anxious about it.  We are to trust that by walking that path that Christ takes, we will be effectively and powerfully seeking the welfare of the city in which we live, possibly in ways we could never imagine.  It might be a new and different city, a city where we often feel up against it, but it is still, perhaps even more so, a place of living and loving and caring community.
Thirdly be open to the ways in which we can engage in this new place.  Don’t let traditions or institutional power stop us doing what is right, what Christ would have us do.  That doesn’t mean that every new way is to be embraced, every established way discontinued, but always it does mean discerning if it is a Hananiah or a Jeremiah response, a shutting out or a stepping out?  
In that story I shared earlier of the young girl killed by neglect and starvation, – in a strange country, at the mercy of a cruel mistress and with little hope of finding a way out.  Death for her might have been just that – a way out.  Where were those seeking her welfare, those who saw her as more than ‘just a servant’? Were people too busy with sorting their own fears and uncertainties in the new world to give her a helping hand?   Did the conventions of the time prevent them from interfering, give the mistress power of life and, in the end, death over another person because she was a servant?
You know – that girl back in the 1870’s – Margaret – would never in a million years have imagined that 150 years later her story of exile and suffering would have moved her namesake to tears, been the foundation of a sermon at Opoho Church and caused us to question, deeply question how we treat each other in community.
How do we sing the Lord’s song in a new land – loudly, with love and compassion, praising and thanking God, listening to what is going on around us, where we are needed and stepping into our community, trusting that even in our uncertainties and fears, especially in our uncertainties and fears God is with us, Christ is guiding us and the Spirit is transforming our lives and the world around us in ways we can’t imagine.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Margaret Garland