Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 8th December 2013. Advent 2 ‘Peace’

Readings:  Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12

Let us Pray
May we hear and respond to your word O God, that in this time of Advent waiting, we can be born anew in hope and peace.  In Jesus name. Amen

With the exception of the white dove, it would be difficult to come up with a more iconic image of future peace than that of the lion lying down with the lamb.  It has been depicted so often by artists throughout time and in many different styles that it is kind of embedded in our consciousness really.  And isn’t it interesting too that, in this age of posting your life on the internet, we are seeing a number of photos or youtube clips doing the rounds showing just such unlikely animal partners – you know the rat who rides on the back of the cat or a dog best mates with a bird or a stoat and a terrier sharing food together.  It’s seems we continue to be fascinated by the fact that animals in certain circumstances can over ride natural predatorial or territorial instincts and get on together.  You can see where I am going with this I suspect.  If animals can do it why can’t we – human beings are supposedly more intelligent, less tied to survival patterns of living, communicators on multiple levels etc etc.  Maybe too that is why there are no adults in this image we have painted for us by Isaiah – there are children – but no grown ups.  What is that saying to us I  wonder?
The other picture Isaiah paints for us is that of Jesus as righteous judge – neither of those words sit easily with us at first hearing – we have been subject to too much unloving righteous Christian judgement in the church to not squirm a bit at then – but let us put that to one side and try to see the God that Isaiah knows – picture this: a young person, standing tall, exuding vitality and strength, a face in which shines both a kind of severity but also is brilliant with joy – there is deep wisdom in the eyes and compassion there too.  Behind, on the hill, lies the death of cruelty and violence – before, in front, there is a gathering of the poor and the vulnerable and their faces are lifted up and radiant.  And when we place this picture of God as judge alongside the one of  the  new creation, where the nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, the two together – a God of justice and a God of peace- then we find new meaning and powerful challenge.
And probably the core message is that no transformation to this picture of unimagined peace is possible without a new righteousness in human affairs – and it is in this gift of the Messiah – the shoot that shall come out of the stump of Jesse,  that this new creation will be realised. 
People are not, by themselves, going to be able to reach and live into this vision and even in the leadership of people like Mandela and Ghandi and Wilberforce and the women of Ireland we cannot effectively break through that world of predators, violence, destroyers that are our world.  Neither can we embolden the poor, the weak, the vulnerable to be able to speak out with strength and surety and confidence of being heard and having a place in the new kingdom alone.  The peace of the lion and the lamb lying down together is not going to happen without a transformative presence – and for us that transformation comes in the life and teachings of Jesus – the tendril that comes from the stump that all thought was dead.
So John was preparing the people for this coming – and in none too delicate a way either.  How would you like a preacher like that each Sunday?  ‘You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”[1] 
They say that there was a preacher at Free St George’s Church in Edinburgh, Alexander Whyte by name, who could be so direct and penetrating that to hear him preach was to take your life in into your hands.[2]
And people would have known that of John – he was not going to beat around the bush – he was there to challenge your very comfort and thinking – transformational in-your-face preaching one could say.
The message from John is unmistakeable though, whatever language it is couched in.  Jesus coming is not just about God saying to the world ‘I love you!  I forgive you and we are now reconciled through Christ!’  It is also about our being aware that we are responsible for our part in the creating of that kingdom, that vision of peace where there is justice for all and there will be an end of violence and aggression.
And this is good Advent news is it not.  Which of us would say to the ones we love – we love you but we don’t care what you do?  And would those who receive that love be justified in thinking it was a somewhat lukewarm, slightly detached or even just words.  If God loves us enough to welcome us into Christ’s family, then God loves us enough to expect something of us, surely.  Justice and peace need each other and, if we embrace the vision of the lion and the lamb, then we are responsible for also living it!
What can we take from this advent time then about how to live responsibly in the kingdom of peace and justice that is the kingdom of Christ?
Well look at those who gather at the manger – magi and shepherd, animal and angels, ordinary people.  Christ welcomes all people, we welcome all people whatever their status, their appearance, their history, their wealth or their poverty.  That is straight talking, no excuses, no rules that exclude, no judgements based on our preconceptions alone – now that is an unequivocal message - worthy of John!
And look at the lifting up of vulnerability – not in the halls of power was the Christ child born but in a manky stable, to parents well down the social change who had to flee in the end from powers that would destroy them.  Take care of the poor, cherish the week, feed the hungry and lift up the downtrodden.  No mistaking the clarity of that message either, says preacher John!
Go where you have to, the ends of the earth if need be, to welcome the Christ.  The magi travelled distance, the shepherds traversed angels and an unknown welcome at the stable, Mary and Joseph  walked in faith with their God despite an unexpected baby, an unknown future, a flight into Egypt.  We travel outside of our comfort, beyond our social experiences, into dark places where our only light is Christ Jesus, put ourselves into uncertain circumstances and risk of failure to welcome the Christ in each other and in our community.
There is a verse from a hymn by Shirley Murray that we will learn sometime – but for now – the words:
Bring in your new world, child of all time,
peace without border, peace the new order,
lion with lamb;
come in the healing, sharing of bread,
justice and freedom, signs of the kingdom,
everyone fed.
May we all choose to live in the way of peace and justice,  for Christ’s sake.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 3:7-10
[2] John Kelman, “Whyte of St George’s,” in The Best of Alexander Whyte, ed. Ralph G. Turnbull (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1968), 26

Monday, 2 December 2013

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 1st December, Advent 1 Quarterly Communion

Readings:  Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 24:36-44

Let us pray
May your word for us be revealed O God and may we hear with eager hearts and receptive minds all that you reveal to us.  Amen

‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord....’[1]
Much of the imagery of the Bible relates to a land and a way of life that is far distant from our own experiences here in New Zealand.  A land that is dry and dusty, relatively treeless and had occasional waterways, a people confined and defined by thousands of years of history and the capability of their land to sustain them, of simple shepherds and kings and ancient walls and lepers kept outside those walls.  But somehow when I read this verse – let us go up to the mountain – I immediately connect – it’s something many people here can totally relate to - as we look out to the Southern Alps especially.  Some of you have even been there, know the indescribable moment of standing on the mountain and just being.
But more than this:  we are pretty much a people that expect to be able to go to the mountain , or the hill or sea or lake, if we want – to seek experiences from our land that are spiritual, life changing.  Many of us have a strong link with land, nature, water, wildlife, weather.  There was a time when I was working long hours in Christchurch, travelling on the bus in and back from Rangiora, not doing a lot when I got home and was feeling pretty yuk!  Then one day I got myself out of my office, went for a walk and ended up sitting on the banks of the Avon River, touching and smelling and hearing the water and realised that I had not been near river, stream or sea for too long – I was  spiritually parched, you might say.  This was also something we  talked about at movie night on Thursday as we watched a Christmas Story set in Finland– the way the land, the weather, (both pretty harsh much of the time) and the glory of the skies in this isolated small settlement, shaped and impacted and yet fed the yearnings of the people who lived there.
In the bible we find the stories of going up to the mountain associated with vision and clear and profound transformation – the transfiguration of Jesus, Moses receiving God’s word, the sacrifice of Isaac,  among others.
And here, in the reading today, Isaiah uses the image of the mountain to call the people to a new vision, a place of startling transformation, a place that will fill the yearning of the heart so completely as to change the very essence of how we live and experience life.  Those who come to the mountain will see a vision of a new world, where justice rules, where inequities will be balanced, shackles loosed, wrongs set right.  Swords will be made into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.  Unimaginable peace was being preached on the mountain and those who heard were filled with the vision and the hope that the world might be so.
There is however another ‘mountain’ moment in scripture – one that stands separate and yet which holds all things together, and that is the birth of the Christ child.  Swords into ploughshares becomes almost possible against the thought that a baby born in a stable could be the long awaited messiah, come to bring hope and reconciliation to this world.  And what a vision for the world he came to share -  and not just the vision – he taught us the ways of that vision, filled  us with the transformational power of the vision and commissioned us to go into the world as living examples of that vision to realise peace and equity and justice.

It can seem to us, especially at this time of year, that our vision gets confused, or perhaps gets fused with some of the rather more cultural, or economic visions that are part of what is now a fairly secular Christmas time. And so things that we thought we were doing for the right reasons somehow get a bit warped.   I see headlines about how to plan for the financial blowout, with no hint of suggested restraint, I hear plans for family gatherings that will be fraught with difficulties and tensions, I know of frenzied perfectionist catering that leaves people exhausted and we all know of the commercial santa saturation that seems to drive the very soul out of the season. 
Maybe its time to recover within those traditions of our Christmas that which we identified with as our vision on the mountaintop.  What are the yearnings that drive us and inspire us as Christians and how are they spoken out over this Advent time.
First of all – think how we try so hard to make this a magical time for children, how we remember and reminisce about the ways we experienced Christmas as children – where we believed the unbelievable and trusted in that.  Maybe we have a bit too much of what I once heard called ‘serious training’ as adults and have lost the ability to live enthusiastically in that which seems impossible to us.  Swords into ploughshares – yeah right – never in my lifetime.  Living in hope of that which we can’t quite imagine – is that not the faith journey we are called to?
And when we give gifts -  can we remember it’s not about bigger and better and more expensive but it is totally about the joy of gifting and receiving gifts – the heart that has gone into a gift and the pleasure of someone else’s appreciation of that.  That selfless giving is possible – why not in all things?
Our coming together as family at Christmas time – or connecting in some way even when we can’t be physically there is incredibly important.  We don’t like division and separation at Christmas and does this reflect a deeper yearning for loving relationship and for division to be no more.  Peace, goodwill to all people, every day?  A vision that we can glimpse at Christmas and need to hold on to for every day?
And the acts of hospitality at Christmas time – of food and welcome and drawing in the stranger and singing carols to the housebound and having lots of celebrations of who we are together.  It would be interesting to go round here and see how many Christmas ‘dos’ some of you are going to in the next few weeks.  Gosh we even do it as a Parish Council in December – and that is great – but where do we hold the vision of hospitality throughout the rest of the year.  And I don’t mean groaning tables every weekend – but rather can you not vision a world where it was the ordinary to invite in the stranger, to celebrate who we are as family, to join together round the table and laugh and share and be one with each other, no matter who you might be.
Isn’t this the vision from the mountain top?  Not a 52 week Christmas season – that would drive us all spare in weeks -  but an everyday vision of gracious generous gifting and receiving, of living believing in the hope of the seemingly impossible, that which the world scoffs at, of healing division and gathering all in loving relationship no matter who they are, and of gathering about the table together in the incredibly healing act of sharing hospitality because all are important, all are welcome at the mountain top that is Jesus Christ.  And as we gather around this table today let us remember that in this act we are coming together as one people, all equally welcomes and all the beloved of God – a God who says to us each day: ‘come let us go up to the mountain...come let us walk in the light of the Lord.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

[1] Isaiah 2: 3