Friday, 25 July 2014

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 27th July, 2014 Pentecost 7

Readings:  Romans 8:31-39,  Matthew 13:31-35

Let us pray.  O God open our hearts and minds to your Word.  May we find assurance, challenge and guidance for our lives lived in Christ and may we be renewed and strengthened in our faith we pray.  Amen

Last week Jason began his sermon with a list of horrors happening in our world.  The Ukraine, Gaza, abuse of Nepalese workers in Quatar, ISIS persecutions of Christians.  This week the death toll in Gaza has risen from 339 to, at last count, over 750; the stories of deception, disrespect and exploitation continue in the Ukraine, and at least 500 people have died from the virulent ebola virus in West Africa where medical facilities are few and far between – and it doesn’t really make the front page any more.  
Nothing seems to have changed, maybe it is worse.  Are we still able to, as in Jason’s analogy, do a ‘van Gogh’ and refuse to allow the pain of our surroundings to dictate how it is that we express ourselves in our lives, our work, our faith, to create things of beauty despite the hopelessness of our world?   And the answer, says Paul, is an unequivocal yes.
We talk today again of the hope found in the promise of Christ Jesus, the hope that sustains when all else is crumbling, that refuses to allow us to be separated from God, that is found in the small and the undervalued and the overlooked. 
Paul, as we continue through his letter to the Romans, has some more penetrating questions and indisputable facts to lay before us – ‘if God is for us who then is against us?’[1]  ‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ? ‘[2]The one who gave up a son for us will surely not withhold love from us – ....nothing can separate us from the love of God.[3]  Powerful sustaining words, hope in the midst of the reality of life.  For Paul has no illusions about the stuff that will go on in our lives: hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and sword.  We might in this day have some other words to use but we all have our own lists of that which overwhelms, presses us down into hard places and dark hopelessness.  Paul tells the people of Rome not that these things will cease to happen to them but that within them, and through them the love of Christ will sustain us and the light of Christ will shine! He states with all the passion he is capable of that nothing can separate us from the love of God, not height nor depth nor anything in all creation. 

A small aside:  last week after the service I spoke with a person who found difficulty saying the modern Lord’s prayer – they realised that the problem was in the translation of  ‘lead us not into temptation’ into ‘save us from the time of trial’ - we seemed to be suddenly saying that we prayed for the removal of all things difficult, sad, unfortunate in our lives – no trials, please God for your good and faithful servants.  I don’t for one moment think we mean that but that is what it seems to say.  So what do they do –change ‘from’ to ‘in’  – and now pray ‘save us in the time of trial’ Now there is a good topic for discussion over our cuppa, yes?

Back to Paul – in our living there is much that will try to separate us from God – hardship, distress, persecution, but the love of Christ for us and in us will be stronger than the darkness that envelops the world – God will not be denied. 
How so? How do we stand against the horrors of our world? How do we make a difference?
The two parables we heard from the Gospel of Matthew today have rightly been called subversive, counter-cultural,  taking our understandings of the world and turning them upsidedown.  What symbols did he use but two tiny, insignificant and very unwelcome objects from daily life.  The mustard seed and the yeast were not just so small as to be overlooked, they were also both considered something of a disease.  In Jesus day the mustard tree or bush was a noxious weed, to be removed so that the good seed could flourish.  And like all weeds it seemed to grow inches overnight and pop up in the least appropriate places and have to be constantly pulled out.  And yeast for them was reviled as a symbol of bodily corruption and impurity, something to be cleansed from the house before Passover.
So Jesus was choosing some rather intriguing symbols to talk of the kingdom of heaven? 

What was the sub text?  What layers of meaning can be found in these parables.
Maybe Jesus thought we needed some help in our categorisation of what was an unwelcome weed, – that we wanted a harvest of our choice, our predictable planting but actually spectacular faith can come from disruptive, uncontrollable, unpredictable and very little seeds not under our control.
I just love this interpretation of the mustard tree by Denise Hoe[4] – wildly beautiful and filled with colour and life!  She had read this passage and imagined the love of God starting in our hearts as a seed and growing to be so large as to provide shelter to all creation in its branches. 

And maybe the same thought with the yeast - that often from minscule beginnings, irrepressible  growth can just emerge to create new shapes,  transform the very fabric of our being and bring new life to that which lay dormant or seemed dark.
Joy Cowley sees yeast as the light which transforms our lives, in her poem ‘The Leaven in the Day’. 

The thing about yeast is we need so little of it
to put some lightness into a stodgy day.
There’s the man at the newspaper stand
who’s always ready to throw us the smile
that we carry away.   We toss it in the air,
see the way it bounces off other faces.
One smile can lift an entire street.

...We can find yeast in something as small
as a butterfly or a pumpkin flower,
or the purr of a well-tuned engine,
or the crunch of fresh shortbread,
or the way the light falls across
the feathers of a pukeko in a paddock.
Yeast is everywhere, my friend,
yes, everywhere, little bits waiting
to be scooped up by our senses.
It doesn’t take much to fill a heavy world
with the lightness of God.[5]

Small things, ordinary things that we do and say and be are the mustards seeds and the yeast of the world.  Sure we tackle the big issues in whatever way we can and where we can, online campaigns, making our opinions heard, joining in marches, voting and readings and supporting, sometimes even spearheading but it is our quiet prayers, our careful choice of words and actions, our generous forgiveness and warm hospitality that says that we are a people of God living out the love of Jesus Christ here in this place. 
Here is a something to take into our week – can we image this faith community as a bunch of tiny seeds of hope and faithfulness, love and grace which, in the power of that same love becoming a tree of safety and rest, of nurture and shelter which is just the best soil for many unexpected things to thrive and grow.
And so we continue to live out the promise of the unbridled power of love that Jesus is for us here in this community, small seeds bringing new light and life in ways we can’t imagine, and have faith, with Paul, that in all the ups and downs, good times and difficult, nothing in all creation, past present or to come,  can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.    Thanks be to God

Margaret Garland

[1] Romans 8:31b
[2] Ibid :35
[3] Ibid: 32, 38
[5] The Parable of the Yeast.  The leaven in the day by Joy Cowley from Come and See, p.80

Friday, 11 July 2014

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 13th July, 2014 Pentecost 5

Readings:  Isaiah 55:10-13, Matthew 13: 1-9,18-23

Let us pray.  O God, may your word teach, challenge and assure us as we gather to hear your hope for us.  Amen.

We have come to a time in the Church year that you might call the season of the parables – the teachings of Jesus told in story, many very familiar, some troubling, always challenging. The parable of the sower is the first of seven gathered in this chapter of Matthew, and the first of three Sundays of parables as the lectionary Gospel reading. 

So what about parables!  Do we agree with the writer who says “Explaining a parable is a bit like explaining a joke – the more we talk about it the more we lose the point of it.”  Do we try to explain them to death?  And do the parables of  Jesus have a singular point or are there many layers, multiple threads to follow?  I’m going to go with the layered complex approach, suggesting that the more we delve into the parables the more we can find new and fresh meanings.  Time will tell if I am right on this won’t it? 

And now to turn to this very familiar parable.  Our natural tendency is to concentrate on the soil in this story, is it not?  To wonder which of the soils we might be, to figure out how it is that we respond to the word of God – do we misunderstand God’s word, are we shallow in our response, or easily tempted away by worldly pleasures,  or are we the good soil, well nourished, deep and fruitful beyond all measure, looking ourselves to sow in that same obviously well prepared soil. Immediately C.S. Lewis’s ‘The Screwtape Letters’ springs to mind as the junior devil uses all those techniques to entice the new Christian away from God into misunderstanding, shallowness and worldly pleasures.  And Jesus has experienced all of these measures in his ministry too.  The disciples lose faith when a storm hits, the Pharisees want to choke out the Word of God, his hometown of Nazareth exemplifies the hard soil of rejection.  This parable comes from direct experience. 

But, today, can we focus on the sower instead of the soil?  Can we think about a God who chooses to sow not just in the well prepared, deep, nourished soil but also scatter the seed to the winds, letting it fall where it may.  Let’s face it, in my last Parish of many retired farmers, this technique of chucking the seed over the ground, letting it all over the place and, as they did in those days, then ploughing the paddock, would have not gone down well.  What a waste, how inefficient, the returns would be minimal!
Not so, says Jesus.   He reminds us that the gospel is bigger than our limited strategic planning, has way more possibilities than just investing in the good soil, the place where we hope for the best rate of return.  The seed is good, wherever it might fall, powerful enough to break through the crustiest soil or the most barren of wastelands.  A friend told me of going up to the demolished Christchurch and seeing all the wild flowers growing in the most inhospitable places – cracks and gravel and piles of broken masonry and the sense of hope that that gave.  Good seed found homes in the midst of disaster.

We live with an optimistic God, folks.  One who indiscriminately throws seed on all soil – believing in possibilities where we see none.  Jesus reminds us that God’s redemptive care is for all people, and that there are times where we might have to trust to God to provide the conditions for a blossoming, a taking root in the unlikeliest of places.  A seed might lay dormant for seasons before the conditions change, the thorns and stones and hard packed earth are weathered away and life bursts forth. 

And so we have this struggle you might say: the abundance of God against the hard ways of the world.    The flowering of new life in the midst of death.
It would be no surprise to find that sometimes we feel that the hard ways of the world have the advantage, that there are way more stony and thorny places than there are fruitful and healing.
Where is the healing reconciling love of God in Israel and Palestine at the moment?  Where are the fruits of justice and compassion when we cut off aid to the most needy, turn away refugees, entrench the violence of offenders with punitive prison terms, struggle to get support for restorative programmes? 
Where is the assurance that the reconciling abundance of God is come to heal the world, all the world? 
Well Mark mentioned one last week – the mother of one of the three Jewish teenager’s killed speaking out against retribution, against further violence. 
And elements in Israel seeking to deal with its own extremists, condemning the act and arresting the people who horribly killed Palestinian youth Mohammad Abu Khieder
The many people who work within and around the justice system in this country, seeking to restore and heal rather than purely punish.
The people that continue to sow the seed  of mercy and justice and freedom with grace and courage into the most desolate places in our world and our societies, often never knowing if their word or act of care will bear fruit in any way at all. 

We can trust in the abundance of God – one who takes the most unusual approaches to living, who is hugely optimistic of the power of good to overcome evil, who expects, nay demands that we will live in that same optimism, that same abundant hope in our lives.

Listen again to the words from Isaiah
‘For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 
For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.[1] ‘

The parable’s end, the vision of fruitfulness,  is the greatest challenge for us.  It is more than asking us to keep on keeping on in the face of rejection.  It is more than us trying to keep from being inhospitable soil or sowing only in well established soil.  It is more than a seven fold harvest from the good soil.  It is about the miracle of hope, extravagantly optimistic hope in Jesus promise of the thousandfold.  Amen

Margaret Garland

[1] Isaiah 55:10-13

Friday, 4 July 2014

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 6th July, 2014 Pentecost 4

Readings:  Psalm 145: 8-14, Zechariah 9:9-12, Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30

Let us pray:  O God, by your Holy Spirit open our minds and hearts, and lead us in your truth we pray.  Amen.

 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’[1]

Jesus says: Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly." [2] 
Two renditions of Verses 28 – 30 from the Matthew reading for today, the last from the Message.

Whenever I encounter familiar words of scripture, when I struggle to find a way in to a text, I find it helpful to read other Bible versions, translations that might put it in a slightly different way; that might hopefully open up some new meaning.
We are all probably familiar with the words  ‘Come to me all that are weary and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest... my yoke is easy and my burden is light’ 
Yet we might, at first look, be troubled by the use of words like yoke and burden, seeing them as loss of freedom, being under someone else’s capricious control, as awkward and heavy and burdensome.  In fact if we had expanded our Hebrew Scripture reading from last week to the verses before and after the debate between Hananiah and Jeremiah – we would have heard talk of the heavy yoke of conquering Babylonians, with Jeremiah wearing a yoke to the debate to make his point – a yoke that, in response to his call for peaceful action, Hananiah shattered off his back.   Alternatively the imagery can be incredibly welcoming – come to me and I will give you rest.  It is easy to understand these verses as a place of refuge, an inn that you might stop at for a rest in the midst of a long and weary patch of your life journey – before you move on. So it can be hard to get beyond that imagery of a well known passage, whatever it might mean to you which is again why other translations can encourage new eyes for the text.   
So when I read this particular passage in the Message Bible, it seemed somehow more hopeful, less onerous and more challenging. 
Why more hopeful?  Well there is the sense that the welcome of Christ is not something temporary, something we have to seek when we have run out of puff.  ‘I will give you rest’ opens up to ‘I will show you how to recover your life – to rest in a way that sustains and nurtures and give a peace that this world does not understand and that will be with you in all your journeying.  There was one line in particular that really jumped out at me – and that was ‘Learn the unforced rhythms of grace’.  Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it.  Learn the unforced rhythms of grace...’
What might that mean?  In an interesting way it sits alongside some of the discussion we had at our first Wednesday Worship service – where we talked about how to nourish a strong spiritual fitness (almost) so that the things we do and the decisions we make are anchored in our understanding of God and the way of Christ.  We talked about regular prayer and reading and conversation in community feeding our souls and growing our faith – not for its own sake but to help us discern where the choices we make and the behaviour we exhibit are contrary to the way of Jesus, the way of love and mercy and justice.  That when anger arises it does not turn in to violence, when we want something, we can figure out if we need or others need or our need is fueling injustice to others.

Why less onerous?  ‘Walk with me and work with me....keep company with me’  The welcome of Jesus, the ‘come unto me...’ is an invitation for us to enter into a way of life that is in the company of Christ, not left to do it alone.  He and we look to live out a life that is focussed and obedient to the way of love and mercy and justice – not a yoke of disempowerment or a burden of complex and indecipherable law but rather that ‘unforced rhythm of grace’ that is just who we are, that enables us to discern with almost a childlike simplicity the path of Christ in each and every facet of our lives.  Jesus is kind of warning us in this passage that it doesn’t do to get all tied up in trying to figure out how to behave by using our wisdom to create and interpret human or even biblical law – we just get deeper and deeper into a pit of increasingly contradictory  rules where to follow one is to break another or compromise both.  We as a country (and I am sure many others) seem to think that the best way to deal with injustice is to add more words to the laws!  Unfair perhaps but an inkling of truth.    Jesus says instead – actually it is quite simple – love and care for your neighbour, and walk with me – I will show you how. 
And more challenging? how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace, learn to live freely and lightly.
Christians do not have the monopoly on trying to live their lives in love and compassion.  Other faiths seek the same right living from their followers and those who choose to call themselves non-believers can live guided by conscience (usually firmly based on the tenets of faith), and teachings for social good.  But for us who follow Christ, there is a particular challenge for there is no sense that we have ever arrived, that we have got it all together and, through our wisdom or our laws, are sufficiently mature enough to go it alone.  We need the welcome of Jesus, the unforced rhythm of his grace in our lives in the way that a child constantly needs the love and nurturing of parents to grow and reach their potential.  For there are ways of love that we struggle to understand on our own.   Take the example of the man who penned the words to the hymn we will sing after the sermon – ‘What a Friend we have in Jesus’ – Joseph Scriven.  I read about his life and leapt to a conclusion.  He was born in Ireland in 1819 – a reasonably well to do family – and was ready to settle down when his fiancĂ© died by accidental drowning the night before the wedding.  Full of grief he emigrated to Canada where he met and was about to marry another woman when she fell ill with pneumonia and died.  He then, unsurprisingly, decided to go it alone and devoted the rest of his life helping others even though he himself suffered severe depression – and may have ended his own life.  So, I thought, this hymn he must have written to get him through a life that no one person should ever have to live.  This is his expression of hope in God for himself.  But no –he wrote it as a poem for his mother who was very ill back in Ireland – originally called ‘Pray without ceasing’. He lived in the unforced rhythms of grace that was Christ welcome and home for him, a grace that allowed him rest and assurance in his very difficult life and a hope that nurtured him on a life’s journey of service to others and his God.
I will finish with the words of this passage from the King James version.

 “Come unto Me all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.”[3]

Margaret Garland

[1] NRSV Matthew 11:28-30
[2] Message Bible Matthew 11: 28-30

[3] Matthew 11:28-3021st Century King James Version (KJ21)