Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Service of Worship Opoho Presbyterian Church Sunday 25 May 2014 Easter 6 A Journey through the history of hymns and worship songs.

The Gathering
Gregorian Chant: Tu es pastor ovium (Shepherd of the Sheep). Benedictine Monks of the Abbey of Saint-Maurice and Saint-Maur, Clervaux, recorded October 1959

Call to Worship: Mary’s Song of Praise Luke 1:46-55
And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
Let our worship magnify the Lord.

Welcome and Introduction

‘Early church music and metrical psalms’ 
Early music - science meets religion! Pythagoras is credited with identifying that the pitch of a musical note is in proportion to the length of the string that produces it, and that intervals between harmonious sound frequencies form simple ratios. In a theory known as the Harmony of the Spheres, Pythagoras proposed that the Sun, Moon and planets all emit their own unique hum based on their orbital revolution.
I won't attempt to outline 2,500 of music history since then, or even to do justice to church music. Instead we'll dip in and out of some of the traditions of congregational singing that we still live in and draw from. Some Gregorian Chant was played before the service. In the sixth
century AD, Pope Gregory introduced Gregorian chant into the Roman Catholic Church, borrowing from four musical modes from ancient Greece. Composers such as Palestrina in the sixteenth century and Bach in the eighteenth built on this tradition and discovered new harmonic possibilities.
From its foundation the Presbyterian Church practised exclusive psalmody: only the psalms (from the Bible) were to be sung, and singing other words was only to be done outside worship. Also, no instruments were to be used in worship other than the human voice.
In early times the common method of singing in Presbyterian worship was for the precentor or leader to sing each line of the psalm, after which the congregation joined in gradually and slowly sang those same words, but with varying degrees of ornamentation and at varying speeds. Although each singer sings the same tune, the effect is of a continuous sound with different effects.
After singing psalms for 200 years, in 1861 the Church of Scotland formally adopted hymns, with the Free Church of Scotland doing the same in 1872. The 1927 edition of Church Hymnary has a psalter in the front, with its own selection of tunes, the papers being cut horizontally so that any tune could be matched with any psalm.

Gaelic psalm singing: Gaelic psalms at Back (Bach) Free Church, Isle Of Lewis1 -Recording

Hymn: All people that on earth do dwell 16th Century - unaccompanied
From ‘The Scottish Psalter’ Psalm 100 WOV 10

All people that on earth do dwell
sing to the Lord with cheerful voice
Him serve with mirth, his praise forth tell
come ye before him and rejoice.

Know that the Lord is God indeed,
without our aid he did us make
we are his fold, he doth us feed
and for his sheep he doth us take

O enter then his gates with praise
approach with joy his courts unto
praise, laud and bless his name always
for it is seemly so to do.

Gracious God, we gather before you grateful for the skills and talents that we have – for the gifts of compassion, of hospitality, of neighbourliness and laughter, for the gift of creativity – of our wordsmiths, our artists and crafters, our visionaries and especially today our musicians – composers, players, singers and all who contribute to the tunes and harmonies of this world.
We thank you too for all the different ways we can enjoy music:
for the joy and exploration of jazz,
for the depth and power of the blues,
for the peace and perfection of classical music,
for the heart of country and the honesty and commitment of folk,
for the passion and angst of rock
for the soul of soul
for the peace of Taize and the witness of all church music through the ages.
O God, we acknowledge that the harmony of living in right relationship with you and each other is not always reflected in our lives – that too often we introduce discordant notes into a world that is crying out for a new way of being. In a time of quiet we offer our regrets for the times we have been less than we could be.
Hear our prayers, spoken and unspoken – in Jesus name. Amen

Words of Assurance
E te whanau, God hears the prayers of our hearts even before we utter them, takes delight in our joys and holds us in our troubles. We are loved, we are forgiven, we are set free. Thanks be to God

The Peace
And as a sign of our community with each other and with the church from the earliest time and over the world, we share the peace together

Kia tau tonu te rangimarie o te Ariki ki a koutou;
The Peace of Christ be with you all
A ki a koe ano hoki. And also with you
we exchange a sign of peace with each other

Community Time

Offertory Prayer
May our gifts of money, of ourselves and today of our music be used to your glory O God and in the power of your spirit bring hope and light to those in need. In Jesus name. Amen

Reading: Psalm 137: 1-6 (reading from the Authorised Version)
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
Reader: Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church
People: Thanks be to God

Hymn: Come, Thou long expected Jesus 18th Century
Words Charles Wesley Tune Stuttgart WOV 200

Come, Thou long expected Jesus born to set Thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in Thee.

Born Thy people to deliver, born a child and yet a King,
born to reign in us forever, now Thy gracious kingdom bring.

By Thine own eternal Spirit rule in all our hearts alone;
by Thine all sufficient merit, raise us to Thy glorious throne.

‘18th and early 19th centuries’
That hymn was written by Charles Wesley - arguably the most famous hymn writer of the eighteenth century. The tune was Stuttgart, one of many German tunes used as settings for English texts. Wesley's words were not sung in Presbyterian worship until the nineteenth century, when exclusive psalmody came to an end.
Instruments were not allowed until after 1870, and in Dunedin Knox Church only introduced the organ in 1882. In 1881 Rev. Michael Watt, of the Synod of Otago and Southland said:
“When the merely aesthetic worshippers have been stirred to devotion by the vibrations of an organ and the sight dazzled with a display of vulgar ornament and ecclesiastical parade, they lose the relish for the
chaste and spiritual dignity of our Presbyterian service. It is enough to make one ashamed of his countrymen and co-religionists to see many of them fascinated with the gewgaws of a foreign and pagan ritual, and the silly affectations of a draped and titled hierarchy. “
In English churches from the eighteenth century, bands including violin, cellos, clarinets, and other available instruments, often accompanied worship from a small west gallery. In some churches the musicians would arrive late, curtain themselves off during the sermon, and even play cards. Pipe organs were expensive affairs but when the reed organ or harmonium became available clergy and others seized on it as a way of ousting the bands and replacing them with organists. One early commentator said:
'The violin is very properly excluded, since, beside its weakness as a solitary instruments, its continued use to wait upon the drunken ditties, trolled forth in the ale house, or to regulate the dances that grace a village festival, renders it very unfit medium for Sabbath praise.'
The next hymn we will sing is an 1860s one. It is set to a tune by John Dykes, who probably wrote more familiar hymn tunes than any other Victorian musician. Dykes resolutely upheld the high church tradition, to the consternation of his bishop, and was something of a renegade figure in the Victorian Church.

Hymn: Holy, holy, holy! Early 1800’s Victorian High
 Words Reginald Heber, Music: John B. Dykes, Tune: Nicea WOV 65i
Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee.
Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty,
God in three persons, blessed Trinity!

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All thy works shall praise thy name, in earth and sky and sea.
Holy, holy, holy! Merciful and mighty,
God in three persons, blessed Trinity.

‘Evangelical and Militaristic hymns of the Nineteenth Century’
The next hymn is also from the 1860s, but it belongs to another movement. It's an evangelical hymn written in America. On Tuesday, March 30, 1858, Episcopalian minister Dudley Tyng preached a sermon on Exodus 10:11, “Go now ye that are men and serve the Lord”, at a YMCA noon mass meeting. Tyng delivered his message to 5,000 men that day. More than 1,000 of them responded to the altar call to receive Jesus as their Saviour. Just over a week later, Tyng lay dying as a result of a tragic accident. His final statement, whispered to friends and family, was “Let us all stand up for Jesus.” The hymn is not sung so much these days, largely because it uses militaristic language. Other hymns, including 'Onward Christian Soldiers', have fallen out of favour for the same reason. Of all the unlikely people, I'll give you the opinion of D.H. Lawrence, who said:
'Thirty six years ago men, even Sunday School teachers, still believed in the fight for life and the fun of it. 'Hold the fort, for I am coming.' It was far, far from any militarism or gunfighting. But it was the battle-cry of a stout soul, and a fine thing too. Stand up, stand up for Jesus, Ye soldiers of the Lord. Here is a clue to the ordinary Englishman, in the Non-conformist hymns.

Hymn: Stand up, stand up ... 1850’s Victorian – Low
 Words George Duffield, Tune Morning Light WOV 509

Stand up, stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross;
Lift high His royal banner, it must not suffer loss.
From victory unto victory His army shall He lead,
Till every foe is vanquished, and Christ is Lord indeed.

Stand up, stand up for Jesus, the trumpet call obey;
Forth to the mighty conflict, in this His glorious day.
Ye that are brave now serve Him against unnumbered foes;
Let courage rise with danger, and strength to strength oppose.

Stand up, stand up for Jesus, the strife will not be long;
This day the noise of battle, the next the victor’s song.
To those who vanquish evil a crown of life shall be;
They with the King of Glory shall reign eternally.

Poem: To a Skylark by William Wordsworth
Ethereal minstrel! pilgrim of the sky!
Dost thou despise the earth where cares abound?
Or, while the wings aspire, are heart and eye
Both with thy nest upon the dewy ground?
Thy nest which thou canst drop into at will,
Those quivering wings composed, that music still!

To the last point of vision, and beyond,
Mount, daring warbler! -that love-prompted strain,
(‘Twixt thee and thine a never-failing bond),
Thrills not the less the bosom of the plain:
Yet mightst thou seem, proud privilege!
to sing All independent of the leafy Spring.

Leave to the nightingale her shady wood;
A privacy of glorious light is thine,
Whence thou dost pour upon the world
a flood Of harmony, with instinct more divine;
Type of the wise who soar, but never roam;
True to the kindred points of Heaven and Home!

‘1860’s to 1960’s’
Cello solo: contemplation on 100 years of hymns

Reading: Psalm 150 Jim Cotter Out of the silence Cairns Publications 2006, p442-443.

We praise you, O God, in a glorious symphony.
We praise you on the flute and harp.
with the caress of the trumpet.
with the solace of the cello.
We praise you on the quickening horn.
on the strumming guitar.
with the pipes of the organ.
on the deep resounding drums.
Praise to the Creator of harmony, in the music of silence and sound.

We praise you in the unnoticed pauses
that make music of disordered sounds.
in the depths of the silence,
in the music of the dance between eyes that love.
We praise you for all your gifts.
for your mysterious being.
for weaving us together.
for our belonging to the universe.
Praise to the Creator of harmony, in the music of silence and sound.

Let everything that breathes under the sun,
let the voices of our ancestors of old,
let worlds unknown, within and beyond,
all on this glad day give you praise.
Praise to the Creator of harmony, in the music of silence and sound.

We add our voice to the music of God;
we fall silent in the presence of mystery,
in wonder and awe and love,
the mystery that is the source of our being
and the goal of our longing,
beautiful, utterly holy, unbounded love.

Reader: Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church
People: Thanks be to God

‘Late 20thC charismatic music’

Hymn: Alleluia, Alleluia 1971 please stand
Words Donald Fishel 1973 WOV 674(ii)

Alleluia, alleluia, give thanks to the risen Lord,
alleluia, alleluia, give praise to his name
Jesus is Lord of all the earth,
he is the King of creation.

Spread the good news o’er all the earth:
Jesus has died and has risen.

We have been crucified with Christ;
now we shall live forever.

Come let us praise the living God,
joyfully sing to our Saviour

Poem: Song for Sunrise, Joy Cowley, in Psalms for the Road, no 1.
Hey, beautiful morning, we’re singing your God song, a psalm of seas and mountains, of empty roads and houses yawning under a new blue bowl of sky. It’s the song of the bellbird, of steaming cows in sheds, of freckled trout quivering in deep dark pools, and dew on cobwebs lacing trees. Hey, beautiful morning, stay in our weakened hearts so we can carry your God song into the busy day. Remind us that newness is an ongoing gift and that every moment is potential reborn, but if our ears become full of other concerns, and we lose the freshness of your song, then comfort us with the knowledge that you will sing with us again tomorrow, oh, beautiful morning oh song of God.

‘Opoho Music’
In the 2500 years since the psalmist reflected ‘How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?” songwriters, musicians and singers have responded to that same yearning: to sing songs in their lands of place, time, theology and concerns. John Murray wrote in the introduction to Alleluia Aotearoa: “What makes a New Zealand hymn? There are many factors. It is not just the use of natural imagery such as mountains and sea, bush and birds … not just the use of Maori words like aroha … but perhaps more importantly, our belief as a people, in a society that is fair and equal, doing justice and loving peace, in a country that is green and godly, and our struggle to make real our belief[s] ...” And so at Opoho Church we enhance our 2500 year inheritance with fresh words and music from Joy Cowley, Natalie Yeoman, Shirley Murray and Colin Gibson; the hymns, language and imagery of Maori and Pasifika; and the songs that speak to us that we import from across the seas and make our own. We continue our worship by standing to sing the traditional Samoan hymn O Le Faafetai followed by a relatively new hymn for us' All are welcome'.

Hymn: Faafetai samoan Traditional
Words: Traditional Samoan Tune: O Le Faafetai, WOV 629

Faafetai i le Atua, (Thanks to God)
Le na tatou tupu ai, (who has given us life)
Ina ua na alofa fua (when God freely loved)
Ia te i tatou uma nei. (all of us)
Ia pepese, ia pepese (Sing, sing)
Alleluia, faafetai,(Alleluia, give thanks)
Ia pepese, ia pepese (Sing, sing)
Alleluia, faafetai. (Alleluia, give thanks)

Faafetai i lona Alo (Thanks to God’s Son)
Le na afio mai luga (Who came from God)
Le ua fai ma faapaolo (who protects you)
Ai le puapuaga. (from all suffering)
Ia pepese, ia pepese
Alleluia, faafetai,
Ia pepese, ia pepese
Alleluia, faafetai.
Hymn: Let us build a house 1994
Words & music © Marty Haugen CH4 198

Let us build a house where love can dwell
and all can safely live,
a place where saints and children tell
how hearts learn to forgive.
Built of hopes and dreams and visions,
rock of faith and vault of grace;
here the love of Christ shall end divisions:
All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.

Let us build a house where all are named,
their songs and visions heard
and loved and treasured, taught and claimed
as words within the Word.
Built of tears and cries and laughter,
prayers of faith and songs of grace,
let this house proclaim from floor to rafter:

Prayers of Thanksgiving and Intercession

Youth Hymn Arms of Love 2002
Words and Music Natalie Yule Yeoman

Although the star shone down on his manger birth
When he died the lights went out on planet earth
The saddest day that’s ever been
The darkest night the world has ever seen
And he felt such pain and he felt alone
Like his friends had gone and he had no home
But his arms reached out on either side
The day that Jesus died.
On the day that Jesus died
Arms reached out on either side
His arms of love are open wide.

As we go.....
Thank you...

Hymn: Where the Road Runs Out 1992 please stand
Words & Music © Colin Gibson, Alleluia Aotearoa 156

Where the road runs out and the signposts end,
where we come to the edge of today,
be the God of Abraham for us;
send us out upon our way.
Lord you were our beginning,
the faith that gave us birth
we look to you, our ending,
our hope for heaven and earth.

When the coast is left and we journey on
to the rim of the sky and the sea,
be the sailor's friend, be the dolphin Christ
lead us on to eternity.

When the clouds are low and the wind is strong,
when tomorrow's storm draws near,
be the spirit bird hov'ring overhead
who will take away our fear.

Commissioning and Benediction – from the Authorised Version
Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost. (Romans 15:13) The LORD bless thee, and keep thee: The LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. (Numbers 6:24-26)
[Sung Threefold Amen]

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 11 May 2014 Easter 4

Readings: Psalm 23, John 10:1-10                                

Let us pray: may your word for us today challenge, encourage and sustain us O God and may we have the courage to live out that which you ask of us.  In Jesus name. Amen.

The Gospel reading for today is a bit of a trap for young players is it not?  For centuries the imagery of Christ as the only gateway to salvation, the debate of who is in and who is out, the idea of fencing to keep out dangers and keep those who are within safe has tended to dominate our understandings of this story of Christ the shepherd and maybe of much of the Gospel message. On it we have based acts of exclusion, of isolation, of judgement and false hope.  That is a pretty strong start to a sermon today for me.  But it is something I feel passionate about – the ways we engage with scripture in isolation from the command of Jesus to love – love God, love neighbour, love self and to hold that command in the light of the empty cross.  
So I would like to take a different approach today - I would like to suggest that these concerns over the conditions of entry, who is in and who is out, are mere distractions – taking our energy and attention away from the core message that our abundance is to be found in the person of Jesus Christ – that he is our sheepfold, our strength, our security and our hope!   
You know so often it is incredibly easy for our faith to get tied up with harmful social perceptions and expectations when we fail to keep Christ at the centre of it. 
We can talk about a church that has told some people that they are not welcome, we can see decades of teaching that suggest the vast majority of the world is dammed because they have not personally accepted Christ as their Lord and Saviour, or even being Christian is not enough, you have to be of a particular sort to get through the gates, that you have to have outward signs of blessing to prove that you are inwardly in right relationship with God.  We can talk about a society that is showing exactly those same values, exclusions and judgements and would ask quietly ‘who is influencing who here?’
Our daughter recently sent me a link that speaks volumes into the way that as a society we apply these same skewed principles to our ways of living.
There is an actress in the states called Gabourey Sidibe – who has starred in various movies and television show, who has been nominated for an Academy Award.  Now she is not your normal svelte, stunningly good looking vision of physical perfection – quite the opposite one might say (in fact when I googled her to find more information do you know that the first suggested search strategy that came up was Gabourey Sidibe – weight – what does that say?)
And her story is one of the most powerful I have come across.  As a young child she and her brother went to live with her Aunt who was a great friend of the Gloria Steinem, the American social and political activist and a big part of the woman’s liberation movement throughout her life.
Gabourey said each day of her life she was berated somewhere for her appearance, made fun of, called names, and with fame and social media it got worse of course.  She says the most frequent question she gets now is why she is so confident in the midst of this continuing battering of her looks?  She has two responses.  First of all she asks: So why aren’t you asking Rihanna that question? Why just me?  And secondly she tells the story of her sheepfold, her place of strength.  Each day as she left her aunt’s house for whatever pain the day would bring she passed a photo of her aunt, also a lifelong activist, and Gloria Steinem, young and determined and with their fists held high in the air.  And she would salute them back and ‘march off into battle’ – her words.  And she says today she is so confident because she dares, she lives, she loves.  Again her words:
"I live my life, because I dare. I dare to show up when everyone else might hide their faces and hide their bodies in shame...If they hadn’t told me I was ugly, I never would have searched for my beauty. And if they hadn’t tried to break me down, I wouldn’t know that I’m unbreakable".
We have a gate that says only those who have the blessings of good looks are allowed into the hallowed ground of success, a gate that keeps out the less than perfect and yet also entices us into ridiculous ways of trying to be what we are not in order to get in that gate. Not so different really to the way some have kept guard on the gateway to the church, deciding who can come in and who stays out.  Might I suggest that the decision of Calvin Church in Gore to exclude from membership a 70+ year old woman because her live-in male companion is not yet ready for marriage and she refuses to tell him to leave sits in this space.
Now just in case you think that this is all getting a bit negative – oh no.  The good news is very much in this reading before us today.  “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want!”[1] Jesus is inviting us into a life with him, where his vision is our vision, his way our way, his path our path.  And what is the vision of Jesus – abundant life for all!  “I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.”[2]
Molly Marshall has this definition of abundant life in Christ:
“a purposeful vocation that serves common good, participation in generative ecclesial community, delight in sustaining relationships and a sense of security in Christ no matter what comes.”[3]
What are some of the things we need to re-imagine here then that will help us be a more Christ centred church living into the vision of abundant life. 
First we need to be aware that security in Christ, that coming into the sheepfold does not mean the absence of danger or disappointment, of predators or valleys of death.  The abundance is in Christ with us, not in our lives being glam and glitter.
Secondly that the Christ the gateway is not there to keep people out or to have people running some gauntlet as the entry price – the way to Christ is for all and it is not for us to set entry prices or judge when we kick someone out.  Not to say that there are not times when there needs to be some serious accountability within that sheepfold but not when people are simply wearing slightly alternative clothes or don’t conform to our ideas of living, rather more when they are hurting others by greed, arrogance and exclusivity.  Use the Jesus yardstick, not our own.
Thirdly it’s not about being separated from the world to keep ourselves holy.  Being in Christ demands that we are part of the world, offering our gifts and our faith to the battering ram that can be the world we live in, being like Gabourey Sidibe and finding our strength and confidence in the presence of Christ Jesus as our shepherd, turning to walk in the world each day knowing that no matter how bad it gets we are not alone and, even more in fact, we are using our gifts to bring pleasure and build relationships, often with those who might mock us.
Abundant life in Christ is dangerous, challenging, uncomfortable, unpredictable and yet within this abundant life we know confidently and with assurance the depths of our beauty in the eyes of God and the unbreakable power of love that is the love of Christ for us in the empty tomb.  And for this we say thanks be to God.  Amen

Margaret Garland

[1] Psalm  23: 1
[2] John 10:10
[3] Feasting on the Word year A, vol 2, p446

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 27 April 2014 Easter 2

Readings:  1 Peter 1: 3-9,  John 20: 19-31

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

‘Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”[1]
I love the story of Thomas – and I suspect the early church did too – for it was in the witness of people like Thomas and in the power of the Holy Spirit that they were able to believe without seeing – to be truly blessed as Jesus said. 

Can we talk today about faith and doubt?
Is it possible that we live a double standard when it comes to belief and doubt?  There are many things we take as true because for instance a teacher or a reporter or a television news reader or a person with letters after their name, or indeed facebook.....
There are many things we have faith in – that people will stay on the left of the road when driving, that restaurants will serve what they have on the menu, that the whiskey in the bottle is what is named on the outside....a certain pub that I worked in many years ago in Dunedin had no qualms about a variety of brands being served from a Vat69 bottle!
We believe things, we trust eye witness or written second hand accounts of events or societal standards – yet much of the world would not afford religious faith that same promise of belief, would instead ask for proof of existence! 
Ironic really isn’t it?  Proof expected of the one thing we call faith, whilst much faith is assumed in those things we take as proven.
Ironic too that those who denounce the very concept of a God are in fact also expounding a belief that there is no God – and yet they claim to speak from a position of reason, of proof of absence shall we say.  We can no more prove there is not a God than prove that there is.  There are those who allow that their disbelief of a particular understanding is just that – a belief, not a fact. There is an excellent recounting of a conversation between a Jewish Scholar, Professor Lapide of Bar Ilam University in Jerusalem and Roman Catholic theologian Hans Kung and when Kung asked Lapide what he made of the resurrection the reply was:  ‘I must say that I cannot accept what you call resurrection...but neither can I deny it, for who am I as a devout Jew to define God’s saving action?...that would be blasphemous... I don’t know, that is all I can say.’
There is much that we do not know – and yet most people here would claim to have a belief in, an experience of the risen Christ!  Why, when we have neither touched nor seen?  What is it that allows us, in the midst of doubts and questions, to be sure of presence of God in this world today?
And here is the suggestion of an answer: through praise, proclamation and practice!
We have been persuaded by the praise and proclamation and practice of other – by a stream of witnesses throughout the ages who have known and loved God and have been able to express that love to others. 
Another story might help here  – Donald Miller was a man who had never liked jazz music – his reason was that it never resolved!  But then one day he saw someone on the street playing a saxophone.  He stood and watched for 15 mins and never did the player open his eyes – he was completely at one with the music.  After that said Miller, ‘I liked jazz.  Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself.  It’s as if they are showing you the way.’[2]
From Thomas to Aquinas to Theresa of Avila to Calvin to C S Lewis we have had witnesses who have attested to the power of the risen Christ in their lives, witnesses who by their very lives show us a deep and abiding faith.  Some of you will know that C S Lewis convicted me in my faith – for he too had struggled with the perceived gap between intellect and faith and resolved it in a way that spoke to me.
From Bach to the gospel music of the slaves to the hymns of John Newton to the powerful hymns and songs of today we have heard through music the praise for a Christ who is with us even in the midst of the horrors of life. 
From the icons of the early church to the magnificent artworks of the centuries since to our Ralph Hotere, we have poured out the passions and inspirations of those who express Christ in their lives through art.  And the poets and the authors and the sculptors and the architects..... all of whom expressed their faith, their belief in the living God in their works. 
Then there are those who practice faith every day – there are the well known inspirers such as Martin Luther King and St Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa but also there are the people who have been inspirational in our lives, they might be sitting next to us in fact,  – who have shown by their actions and choices and commitments that they believe in a God of love and compassion and justice for all – despite that they haven’t seen and touched!
All of these people, this cloud of witnesses, have brought to us and shared with us their belief in the living God in some way, and so we too are able to believe, able to know the Holy Spirit, able to live the Christ centred life, even amidst the doubts and questions that a time like Easter Sunday brings with it.
Thank God for Thomas and his call for hard evidence, for his witness and his proclamation “My Lord and My God”!  May our lives too be the inspiration, the conviction for those around us and those still to come that Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed.  Amen

Margaret Garland

[1] John 20:29
[2] Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious thoughts on Christian Spirituality(Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), ix

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 20th April 2014 Easter Sunday

Readings:  Colossians 3:1-4, John 20:1-18

Let us pray:  May your word both challenge and encourage, stir and reassure in the name of the risen Christ.  Amen.

 So – is it true?  Is it true that Jesus was raised from the dead?  Is it true that the one and only surety on this earth, death, was somehow broken, made into something new.
Karl Barth says this is what brings people to church week after week – they have this unspoken question: Is it true – that God lives and gives us life?
These are powerful questions – and they are particularly unavoidable on a day like today.  You could say that Easter Sunday is not a day for beginners, that you need to be a seasoned veteran, well versed in Jesus’ life and teachings, aware of his incredibly wise and compassionate humanity before you begin to tackle these big and tricky questions like resurrection! A day when you are asked to believe that which is hardest to believe.
And yet, isn’t it interesting, that Easter Sunday is a day when people throughout the world make a real effort to come to church, when we all want to hear the story again, to participate in the hosannas and the alleluias, Christ is risen.
Even without the rest of the story, the journey to Jerusalem, the pain and suffering, the passion of the cross, there is still something compelling and powerful about this day.  Why is that?
When we look at the first sermons of the church, as recorded in Acts, there is relatively little reference to Jesus life before this event and it gives the impression that the early church pretty much saw the life and teachings of Jesus as the prologue only – a fairly full one but an introduction none the less.  For them Easter Day was the beginning, not a conclusion.  All the rest of Jesus life was seen from the vantage point of the cross, or more specifically the empty cross.  Jesus teachings take on meaning only when we take into account who the teacher is, God’s chosen one who is to die and be raised again.
You might say the through the centuries Christians have begun their journeys of faith by running to the empty tomb.  Don’t forget that the early Christians would have had just as much trouble as us with this story – they would have realised the enormous leap of faith needed to believe that this ‘thing’ could happen.  Yes there was plenty in this happening to doubt.  But there is another way to put it, and I use Martin Copenhaver’s[1] words here: 
“that there was something in the story that reached the deepest regions of their hearts and minds, where both doubt and faith are found.  That is, in the resurrection God gave us such a miracle of love and forgiveness that it is worthy of faith and therefore open to doubt.  The very doubts we might hold attest to the scale and power of what we proclaim.  So the place to begin in the life of faith is not necessarily with those things we never doubt.  Realities about which we hold no doubt may not be large enough to reveal God to us..... what we proclaim at Easter is too mighty to be encompassed by certainty, too wonderful to be found only within the borders of our own imaginations.” 
Easter then might just be the place for beginners after all.  The place to experience the profound mystery and the ‘greater than we can imagine’ God, the place where the stakes are outrageous, where we risk faith to find a larger faith.  That this is the one time where we don’t seem to be able to create God in our own image, or box up teachings to suit ourselves.  This day, this experience of the risen Christ, shatters all our preconceived notions of living and dying,  and invites us into a way of life where, yes, the risks are great, the doubts are present, the way uncertain but where the promise of the empty tomb is so great that we cannot help ourselves running towards it.
And as we gather round the table with Christ in our midst today may this promise of new life be deepened and our hopes be lifted up in the very mystery of the risen Christ among us.  Amen

Margaret Garland

[1] [1] Martin B Copenhaver in Feasting on the Word (Westminster: John Knox Press, 2010)  p.371