Friday, 21 March 2014

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 23rd May, 2014 Lent 3

Readings:  John 4:5-30,  Romans 5: 1-11

Let us pray:  May your word O God speak to us here today and may we find peace, truth and challenge as your people, your body.  In Jesus name.  Amen.

Imagine:  There is a person, let us say a bloke who lives in a quite nice small city, not doing too well but mostly managing in between crisis, currently living with a partner, that’s going ok ish, likes to indulge in his morning habit of popping down to the cafe for his newspaper and a coffee in the morning. He feels in control if he can stick to this habit at least.  But this morning as he is sitting there, in comes a bit of a stranger – immigrant probably, and, though he thinks ‘you can’t be too sure of those folk’ he responds courteously enough to them asking for some of his paper to read (although they probably won’t really understand it, he thinks).  Then you both start chatting and you kind of offer some of your story, picking carefully the details you want to share  – but somehow she know more about you than you are prepared to let on and that sets you back a bit. And then somehow the tables are turned – instead of being the one who has something to offer, you are listening avidly, hearing truths and hopes and possibilities from the lips of this person that you have encountered in this, the most mundane of places.  But annoyingly it is interrupted, suddenly: her family arrives:  suspicious that she is talking to someone unknown, someone obviously not quite ‘respectable’, worried that she hasn’t yet been allowed to order her coffee and breakfast.  Not good. You leave – but boy what a story you have to tell and you do.  And that cafe becomes the busiest place ever as neighbours and friends come to check out and meet with this stranger that has so transformed you.

The story of the Samaritan woman has always fascinated me and I couldn’t resist trying to put it into a current context.  And to think about how it is that this story speaks to us here today. 
This reading has been described as an endless source of preaching – a bottomless well so to speak but today I want to think about just a few words which just leapt out at me – and possibly because we had so ably been challenged by Tui and John on Wednesday night on the subject of the water that sustains –
“Whoever drinks of the water of the well will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water I give them will never be thirsty”[1] says Jesus.

We use the word ‘never’ reasonably loosely these days – ‘I would never do that’ or that fluffiest of phrases ‘never mind’.  But this is a much stronger use of the word here – never doesn’t just mean today or tomorrow or for as long as I can be bothered – it means for all time.  Entering into a faith relationship with God through Jesus Christ is an eternity promise of sustaining life, a promise that will not be withdrawn when we stumble, nor does it rely on anything we might do or not do!

Paul is seeking to say just this in his letter to the Romans – that we are justified by faith – this is God’s grace to us, God’s sustaining love is present in our lives forever.  He too wants to get rid of this understanding that we have to be perfect to earn God’s love, that when we experience suffering it means that God is absent from or sitting in judgement on us.  He wants to remind us that Jesus died not for the good and the righteous but for the undeserving – that the gift of the living water of life was given to the world as it is, not as it should be.

We are accepted into relationship with God as we are through faith.  God is present in all aspect of our lives – not just the good times.  I wonder time and time again how we get to that thinking that only those who are prosperous, healthy and wise know God’s blessing.  It’s just so wrong and so incredibly manipulative of Christ’s teaching.  But I know that we easily, almost inevitably question the presence, or rather absence of God when we are at our low points in life.  I do. Things are going wrong – what have I done?  This hurts – where are you, why can’t you, or won’t you, fix it?.   Our challenge from the readings today I would suggest is to understand the depth of God’s love in every aspect of our lives, but especially in the difficult times, to know the peace of Christ, that core sense of being loved and valued that can get you through (not wipe out mind you but get you through) the most difficult of times, that sustains no matter what is going on.
Paul tells us that this peace, this assurance of the unfailing water of life is especially known through the life and death of Jesus, and that it is this love poured into his heart that has sustained him through the suffering he endured – and that he came out of it stronger in faith and in praise.
So can we, like the people in the Psalms, worship God in spirit and in truth no matter what is going on in our lives.  The people of Israel had known enormous suffering: war, invasion, destruction, deportation – and yet with every fibre of their being they could raise this powerful awe-inspiring song of worship –

O come, let us sing to the Lord;
   let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! 
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
   let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!

God was deep and present in their hearts, in their lives no matter what was going on around them.
So how might that look for us?  Lets go back to the story I started with - the bloke wouldn’t have gone home to find job offers overflowing his letter box, that his relationships were all sweet and sugar coated, or that his decisions were always wise and fruitful.  No way.  But he would have gone knowing that he was not alone in dealing with these daily issues and the love of God was with him always, guiding, nurturing, nourishing him through.  That deep heart core was assured of the love and grace of God.  Maybe he might have found he couldn’t stop smiling or bursting out into fairly untuneful singing or was suddenly able to sit at peace just listening for the sights and sounds of God around him in people he’d known all his life.  Maybe next time disaster hit he was able to hold back on the anger, the frustration, the sense of aloneness and even to find in it a sense of God at work.  Maybe he might even have gone to find others with whom he could talk and share and question and find comfort.  And he might have found it in his heart to persist even when those people didn’t get where he was coming from or seemed to shut him out sometimes.  Maybe he found he had more gumption than he thought and could offer some of his learnings into others experiences in a way that might help.
And maybe he found in those people some who understood his new found joy in life, who like him wanted to know how to live a better life, and how the teaching of Jesus helped him do that – people who didn’t laugh when he sang loudly his songs of praise and who seemed to welcome him unreservedly when they ate together even though he didn’t quite get the way things were done.
Maybe he had tasted the water of life and nothing was ever going to be the same again – for he was never alone, never ever unloved.  And for this we say: thanks be to God.

Margaret Garland

[1] John 4: 13-14a

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 16th March 2014. Lent 2

Readings:  Psalm 121, Genesis 12:1-4a, Romans 4: 13-17, John 3: 1-17

Let us pray:  As we explore your word for us O God, may our hearts and our heads find affirmation, challenge and truth in Jesus name.  Amen.

Some of us were able to attend the Commissioning of Maurie Jackways, the new Head of Salmond College, last Sunday afternoon.  Thank you to the music group especially – I was asked afterwards if you hired yourselves out, so impressed were they.
At the service Ray Coster, the current Moderator of the PCANZ preached a challenge – partially to Maurie but to all of us to stop focussing on right and wrong in the church and embrace instead both/and. I read this as embracing our diversity, respecting each other and our understandings of God, and being inclusive particularly in our Ministry of the Word and of pastoral care.  And this is where I would have liked to pursue his line of thinking with him a wee bit more – for I got the impression that he felt Parish ministry was particularly susceptible to this, to telling people what is right and what is wrong.  That in preaching and pastoring we tend to go after this right/wrong approach to the truth of God more so than in other streams of ministry such as prophesying and evangelising.  Maybe I’ll get a chance to follow that through with him but in the meantime I wanted to pursue today his use of the terms ‘right/wrong’ and ‘both/and’ in relation to the way the church is to be.

The lines that we heard read today from Genesis might be few – but they are weighty and challenging too. 
They tell us what it means to be God’s chosen people.  They tell us that God’s blessings, not curses but blessings, will follow us always and those blessings are to flow out into the whole world, to bless the people of the whole world.  And, this is interesting, they are the words to the patriarch of three faith traditions as we know them now – Christianity, Islam and Judaism.  Three belief systems that were given the same instruction – go out and take your blessings to the world.  Now, three thousand years later, give or take, those three have become thousands of divided, often aggressively so, sects whose purpose, most often it seems, is to prove that they have the right of it and all others were wrong. I hope that it is not too cynical a take but when you look back on history, it’s pretty up there. Within Christianity we have not only denominations but we have division within those – and I am reasonably sure that this is what Ray was alluding to last Sunday.  The challenge from the sending out of Abraham and Sarah was to go – but more than that it was to go and share the blessings – and we can’t do that if we are using all our energy to protect our patch, so to speak.  Now I am not saying that we should be working towards a one monotheistic faith in the God of Abraham, or even one catholic (small c, universal) form of Christianity – we are far too diverse in our thinking, our theology, our understanding of God, our experience as Christians of the life giving person of Jesus Christ to try and cram us all into one box.  And even if we wanted to – for instance when we look at our diverse theology alone it seems hopeless.  The work of sociologists such as H. Richard Niebuhr suggest that there are many factors that produce the differing theologies of Christian denominations; and that whilst the proclamation of the gospel produces the community of faith, the particular theology emerges from the context of that community – so searching for a common doctrine is almost impossible in a world as culturally, economically, geographically diverse as we have.  And I for one do not want a monochrome world of sameness that some futuristic movies offer us to live in.

For you see Nicodemus was living in a particular world of understanding – he had a particular version of the truth of God – he was a priest, a Pharisee, one might say locked in to particular theology, a particular way of living his faith that he no doubt thought was the truth.  But somehow Jesus had touched his edges – have penetrated in some way – enough of a way to make him curious and to follow up that curiosity, albeit in a rather clandestine manner in the middle of the night.  And what did Nicodemus find?  A rabbi who likens this ‘interesting’ behaviour of coming in the night to visit to a child still safe in its mother’s womb and rather gently suggested that Nicodemus needed to emerge from the safety of the womb and take the step into full relationship with God, wherever that might take him.  His faith as it is, is immature, incomplete, hidden away in the dark, unable to grow in the light that is Christ. But coming into the light may well mean getting that some of his ‘right/wrong’ understandings had to bend a bit, find new ways – I wonder if it was this that held him back, made him tentative in his uptake of the offer of rebirth in Christ? 

You see I don’t think God wants us to spend our precious life span on pursuing either sameness or rightness. Because the world and humanity is not like that – we are created in all our uniqueness, our differences, our cultural and personal perspectives and Jesus understood that and worked with that.  Nowhere did he try to make people put on another person’s  clothes or way of living – the change he sought was to bring them into relationship with the living God – God would work with the rest as it was.  
What seems to cause the problem of division, what prevents us from effectively ministering in our communities, is the desire to prove that we are better, superior in our understanding and/or that we need to make everyone else subservient to that particular view.  We as a church need theology – I, for instance needed a reformed church to allow me to become part of the body of Christ again – but we also need the humility and recognition that our truth is just that, ours, and may not be the ultimate  and only truth about God for everyone.  Once we get past that need to prove ourselves and our credentials to others then maybe we can get on with sharing the blessings of God with others.  God told Abraham that he and his people would become a great nation – but he didn’t stop there – so that you will be a blessing to the world.   All the time we spend figuring out if we are right or wrong is time we could spend in ministering to those who have need of blessing.  In fact it is in our very diversity that we can reach out into the world and share our blessings – we all have different gifts and skills that used together in the power of the Spirit can make an immense difference in our world.  We can work alongside someone who is of a different theological bent in feeding the hungry, can’t we?  We can discuss our disparate understandings of the doctrine of Holy Communion as we march against poverty in New Zealand or agree to not agree on the role of gay people in ministry leadership whilst we bake for the family down the road who is struggling to eat.  Diversity is something to be celebrated, indeed to make us continue to think and grow and learn – with respect for each other and the light of Christ as our oneness we can continue to bring blessings to this world. Thanks be to God. 

Margaret Garland

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Sermon, Opoho Church Sunday 9th March 2014

Readings:  Matthew 4:1-11

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 redeemer.  Amen.

The temptations of Jesus in the wilderness.  Not the easiest start or the most comfortable fit for the first Sunday of Lent as we look for a gentle introduction into our journey toward Easter.  Placed as it is in Matthew’s Gospel directly between Jesus baptism and the beginning of his journey to the cross, the passage clearly is of import for us, but how?
Is this reading primarily about struggle – God’s Son and the Devil battling it out on the desert plains.  Confrontation, battle, fighting for control, dark moments like this painting by Rosetta Jallow.[1]
Or is it about the act itself - ‘temptation’. Warning us to beware, bulking us up for the strength to resist.  Probably most of us will, I imagine, know the hymn by Horatio Palmer written in the 1860’s
Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin;
Each vict’ry will help you some other to win;
Fight manfully onward, dark passions subdue;
Look ever to Jesus, He’ll carry you through.

Yet while I was studying this passage, I came to a different (for me anyway) understanding that kind of distracted me from this ‘struggle for supremacy’ and ‘evil of temptations’ interpretation and guided me into a rather simple message that spoke clearly to me.  And that is that the thing that most leads us away from God is the misuse of power.  This is suggested by the way that Matthew has presented this story to us.
When you look afresh at it, this is a narrative almost totally devoid of practical advice, spiritual encouragement or moral exhortation.  It is what we call today an action sequence.  Very little personification, deliberations or value judgements at all are given to us to ponder.  This is what happened – end of story.
When we look at the brief mention of the wilderness experience in Mark’s Gospel: we have a sense of both the earth and heaven strengthening Jesus for unknown temptations.  He was not alone, held in the care of creation and creator.  Even in Luke’s story, similar to Matthew in much of the detail, there are more obvious and ongoing battle lines drawn – the devil waited till Jesus was hungry from fasting before approaching, and quite clearly hadn’t finished with Jesus – the last line is ‘when the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.’[2] Much more relational and manipulative than Matthews version.
Matthew, by using such an unadorned way of writing and refusing to provide, as one commentator put it, anything remotely useful to reader or preacher, is I think seeking to turn our attention away from the struggle (for it can be argued that there is the sense that the outcome is never in doubt, Jesus shows not a chink of vulnerability) and away from the teaching inherent in Jesus responses (for it seems to be more about Jesus and his strength of character and obedience as God’s beloved than any user-friendly guide to how to deal with temptation) and toward other truths.
Actually I loved the image that Gregor used for the front of the service sheet today – and I went searching for some more of the images by Stanley Spencer – they all seem to interpret Jesus time in the wilderness in the same way as Matthew - as not much about whether Jesus can survive the temptations but rather to show that he is grounded and unassailable in the power of his relationship with God.  The one that particularly connected for me is this one – where Jesus is contemplating the hen with her chicks and experiencing the 40 days of wilderness living.  This suggests that Jesus was not the woebegone, on the edge, vulnerable figure locked in a battle with the devil but someone really fully aware and safe as the beloved child of God in the power and protection of the oneness of creation.

So if Matthew is not writing to teach how to deal with temptation or to tell of struggle between Jesus and the Devil, what does that leave us with?  I would say  it leaves us with the questions - that the Devil asks. 
This was the Devils big day – planned for and anticipated with some hope of effective sabotage.  And so what, after great consideration, is put before Jesus as the best shot – the temptation of power.  Miraculous power , spectacular power, termporal power and this last the most powerful of all.. 
This was felt to be the surest way to lead us astray – the offering of power
Jesus saw it for what it was – the quickest way to distract us from God, the best thing to destroy love, the most effective way to replace God in our lives.

How might that look today?  Well you could liken the changing of the stone into bread as an attempt to set aside the laws of nature and experience of this world, one that God created and was pleased with, and to introduce a new order - as one commentator put it – a redemption theology that leaps straight to the kingdom without the cross, seeking to bypass the world as it is and look only to a miraculous new world. And this gives us permission to ignore what is happening around us, to abuse the planet and dismiss the suffering and refute the world we live in with all its tensions and paradoxes and vey human ups and downs – it takes us right away from the way of compassion and love that Christ calls us to here and now. 
Then the second temptation – the  power of the spectacular – jump and let us experience the thrill as the angels catch you at the last moment.  Show us something amazing and we will aspire to it.  If it’s not exhibited with all the fanfare – we won’t call it good.  Our current obsession with celebrity status surely underlies this message.  The church when it denies its humanity, its fallibility, which seeks to  promote a Jesus whose role is to make all things right for us – again takes us out of the real world and into a place of aspiration for that which is not – there we go, off the track again.  
And then the power of political control – blatant, no persuasion used here – just plain total control of the world.  Domination – my way or no way!
This is the scariest of the scenarios – the right to say how it’s going to be.  We see this where a religion seeks to control access to God, when we hold up a Christ that exercises not the power of love but the power of retribution and exclusion.  Hey how is this for a story of power that the devil would be absolutely delighting in. The person who posted this on FaceBook suggested that it makes you want to give up Christianity for Lent. 
 There is a pastor in a Christian church in ?  US who is offering as a raffle prize at an upcoming service ( and if you haven’t choked on that alone) he is offering a AR-15 assault rifle – oh and just in case that isn’t enough the bible verse he is quoting in his posters is John 14:27  ‘my peace I give unto you.’  This same weapon was used to slaughter 26 school children and staff in 2012.   The power of having certainty of right for others is perhaps the most invidious and invasive of all.
We talk about and believe in the power of our creator God, the gospel of divine love made known in the life death and resurrection of Christ, (and here’s a statement that you can challenge me on) but never in the history of the church has anyone succeeded in exercising the power that puts self first without diminishing in the only power in the world that Christ calls us to exercise:  the power of reconciling love, especially for the weak and the suffering and the vulnerable, for us. 

Margaret Garland

[2] Luke 4:13 NRSV