Friday, 8 August 2014

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 10 August 2014 Pentecost 9

Readings:  Psalm 85: 8-13, Matthew 14:22-33

Let us pray:  Gracious God, as we enter into your Word, may we all be assured of your love, challenged in our living and renewed in our faith, in the name of Christ.  Amen.

I want to begin with a quote from Ernest Campbell, who was Pastor of Riverside Church in New York:  ‘The reason that we seem to lack faith in our time is that we are not doing anything that requires it.’[1]

Is that true?  William Willimon believes it is so.  In a sermon from 2007[2] he said this:
“If Peter had not ventured forth, had not obeyed the call to walk on the water, then Peter would never have had this great opportunity for recognition of Jesus and rescue by Jesus.  I wonder if too many of us are merely splashing about in the safe shallows and therefore have too few opportunities to test and deepen our faith.  The story today implies if you want to be close to Jesus, you have to venture forth out on the sea, you have to prove his promises through trusting his promises, through risk and venture.”

What exactly does that mean?  What is risk and venture, especially in our context?  What are the ‘safe’ shallows and the ‘deep’ waters of the sea of faith for our lives and what are the fears that hold us back?

For the disciples in this familiar story we can discern some of the fears that held them paralysed, afraid to move.  Sure they were out in a boat on the lake (something that might be a scary place for some of us)– but it was a familiar space, something they did often – it was their livelihood after all and they probably felt pretty much in control.  Even with the storm and high seas, they were in familiar territory!   No it wasn’t the storm that scared them – it was the appearance of Jesus that terrified them to the depths of their being.  He was where he shouldn’t be, in the middle of the lake, doing what he shouldn’t be able to do, walking towards them over the water, and it wasn’t until they heard his voice that they realised it wasn’t a ghost – it actually was Jesus.  But the fear remained, holding them to the shallows – only Peter stepped out of the boat towards Jesus, big hearted impetuous faithful Peter.  But even then fear was not far away – he got distracted by the storm raging, he faltered, he stumbled, he cried out in despair ‘Lord save me’ and Jesus reached out to him and took his hand.

There is much we can talk about with this passage – the significance fact that Peter’s risk brought high reward and understanding for those who stayed behind, the fact that this was a moment similar to the transfiguration where the disciples gain a pivotal moment of understanding and insight into Jesus identity and mission, that prayer preceded and upheld Jesus in this moment and the power of God to bring calm to the worst of the storms in our lives.  At least an hour of sermon coming up!
But today I want to talk about the fear that holds us back in faith, keeps us in the shallows, using Willimon’s words.

I don’t think our fear in our faith is as obviously labelled as some people would make out.
For each of us it is different.  I had more fear for instance of flying in a big plane than a four seater or a glider.  Why?  Because I didn’t understand the science that kept such a big piece of metal in the air but when I was in the smaller propeller plane or the glider I could get a sense of the aerodynamics that kept us airborne. 
 I would be a paralysed wreck if I tried to play some music before you but some of you would be just that if you were asked to step up here and speak, something that is relatively ok for me (and I hope for you).
Others of us fear being with those who we might not be able to predict the behaviour of or those who bring conflict into our lives or who threaten our family, our security, our freedom.  We fear boredom, aging, change, lack of change, John Key, David Cunliffe, ....... the list goes on.

There are people who are fearless about standing on a street corner preaching the gospel, of ministering in unknown and uncertain communities, but whose fears emerge in other ways - who refuse to allow that there could be differing faith views to theirs, presumably because they are scared it might shake the foundations of their certainties.  A couple of weeks ago I fell into conversation with a Presbyterian Minister who I knew had different ideas to mine on the subject of gay leadership and marriage in the church.  We both agreed on the diversity of opinion within the church.  The difference was that I said I respected their right to their view whereas they said that the church needed to correct my view.  Is the need to be right a fear of the immensity of God I wonder?

There is the fear of the unknown, the unexpected – maybe that is what held the disciples back in the boat.  Jesus appeared to them in such an unexpected way that they thought him a ghost!  When Christ comes to us in the guise of a rough and ready, the displaced, the angry, the culturally or generationally different, do we have the eyes to see the hand stretched out and the heart and courage to respond?

There is the fear of failure – as Peter failed – yet did he?  Willimon words again: ‘“If Peter had not ventured forth, had not obeyed the call to walk on the water, then Peter would never have had this great opportunity for recognition of Jesus and rescue by Jesus.”  If fear keeps us from stepping out on our faith journey we will be the poorer in our experience and knowledge of Christ. Jesus expects us to walk that difficult path in some confidence and trust.  Sure we will be distracted, there will be times when other things seem to overwhelm our lives but this story tells us that it is exactly then that Christ comes to us- when we are sinking, when we have need of him the most.

It seems that, on one hand, fear as we have been talking about it here is a powerful and invasive emotion that can stultify, paralyse, limit us in who we could be.  And, on the other, Jesus is the constant enemy of fear, calling us to risk all in trust and commitment.  Which do we choose?  Stay in the boat or step out into the water. Trust in the promise of Christ to be with us in our venturing forth or allow fear of the unknown, the different, the unexpected to stunt our growing in faith and experience of God.
We could really sum this up in the words of the last verse of the hymn that we sang at Alan’s funeral on Saturday – a new hymn to many of us by Father Frank Anderson:
As I gaze into the night down the future of my years,
I’m not sure I want to walk past horizons that I know!
But I feel my spirit called like a stirring deep within,
restless, ’til I live again beyond the fears that close me in!
So I leave my boats behind! Leave them on familiar shores!
Set my heart upon the deep! Follow you again, my Lord!

I would like to finish with the words of the Psalm for today: for me a rather powerful reassurance of God’s promise to us of right relationship, of faithful presence and of peace in the midst of the storms of life.  Listen again to these words that the singer of the Psalm uses to imagine the salvation of the world - “
Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.[3]

Jesus hand is held out to us – let us respond each in our own way, let’s be doing something that requires our faith and overcomes our fears – for the sake of the healing of the world.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

[1] Ernest Campbell, Pastor Riverside Church New York
[2] How will you know if it’s Jesus’August 7, 2005
[3] Psalm 85:10-13

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 3rd August 2014 Pentecost 8

Readings:  Romans 9: 1-5, Matthew 14: 13-21

Let us pray.  May the words of my mouth and the understandings of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, our rock and our sustainer. 

I wonder how today’s online media would have reported on the story of the feeding of the 5000.  Would the headlines have shouted out ‘Miracle feeding reported on Galilean hills’ or more likely ‘Outrageous claims from extremist sect’ or even more likely ‘Reported gathering of terrorists in Galilean hills? tweets roving reporter’.  Interesting thought – we would have a whole bunch of blurry quickly snapped photos, a selfie or two with at least a disciple in the background and lots of comments on what it was all about from rather opinionated non-engagers.
And whilst I know without doubt that the ODT would have sought to place this gathering in its context and talked to some key people, I am not sure that many of the roving paparazzi would have been bothered.

For you see, it’s all about context.  Jesus is hurting – deeply disturbed and needing the peace of the hills to mourn, to remember and to pray.  His cousin has been murdered by Herod, his head chopped off - on a whim you might say. And all day they have been surrounded by people, unable to get away from the demands of teaching and healing and caring.  I have no doubt the well had pretty much run dry for Jesus and to hear that there was a huge crowd needing his attention again.  Well, enough, we might have said – as the disciples did!
Paul too is in despair - in the passage we heard from Romans– he is devastated, heartbroken at the closed ears and the division of the Jews, that his own people are refusing to receive God’s gift of the Gospel, to accept the reconciliation with God offered through Christ.    He is so distressed that he even says something he knows is silly – he tries to solve it himself; offering up his own relationship with Christ, bargaining with God as if that will make a difference. 
And then Paul reminds himself and the people that God’s mercy and compassion in the person of Jesus are greatest in our heartbreak, that in the midst of this pain ‘Christ is over all, God blessed forever.’  The compassion and love of Christ will triumph over the hard hearts of the unhearing
There is a special was of putting this found in Jeremiah where the Rabbis note that God writes the Word, the Law on our hearts rather than in our hearts, so that when he heart breaks the word falls into it.[1] We come to know God more fully when we come to share in the heartbreak of God’s love rejected.  A powerful analogy.

So Jesus, battered and bruised, hunting sanctuary, heartbroken at the death of John, pursued by people who have need of him – contrary to our expectation, he overrides the disciples who try to turn the people away and turns in mercy and compassion to the needs of the people.  He shows us the miracle of plenty that comes from compassion, in the midst of heartbreak.
And the early church must have thought this a powerfully important message – it is the only miracle story found in all four Gospels and it pointed to the very heart of the Gospel message – God love and compassion for the world.

We find this story in three strong messages for us today:
Firstly God is love.  Jesus, despite incredible pressures to the contrary, showed us that compassion for the people was his prime motivation.  And it was a compassion that cares deeply about the most basic needs of all of us.  Here it was food for the hungry, but it equally could be shelter, equality, justice, peace, spiritual wholeness – all the things that the needy of the world, have a basic right to.  In the midst of all the strife of our lives, compassion for others is the gift most needed and the gift most valued by Jesus.
Secondly Jesus teaches us what it means to be a disciple.  Jesus did not feed the five thousand – he fed the twelve and they fed the five thousand.  He gave it to the disciples to do.  God has entrusted us to be the body of Christ – to express our faith in concrete acts of love, justice and compassion towards others, to reach out to the least of our brothers and sisters – the hungry, the thirsty, the imprisoned.  We have been nourished – how are we passing that on?  Are we with the disciples before Jesus blessed the food, refusing to see how what they had could feed such a multitude, or are with them after, hands and baskets full to overflowing with the generosity of Christ in our lives?
Thirdly this Gospel story reminds us that God will provide.  Not necessarily in the things that we think we need before we start, but rather in what we need as we are on the journey.  It is as if we are asked to plant that small seed of beginning and see the power of love and compassion that will make it grow beyond our wildest imaginings.  Too often we use that excuse don’t we?  I do anyway!  My small contribution isn’t going to make a difference so I will just pass on.  A story – a few weeks ago I was walking along George St – probably a Sunday evening I think.  And I passed a young man who got as far as saying ‘excuse me’ before I had passed out of hearing.  I walked two blocks of the street in debate – probably just begging, spent it all on booze or games or drugs, I have money, I am called to give, to be generous to those who have need, and not count the cost, silly to go back, don’t be a wally, but...but...I turned back, I talked with the young man, discovered he wanted $4 for the bus back to Mosgiel but was only asking for $2 so he wouldn’t put too much on one person.  I gave him $4, asked him to use it well and continued on my way.  I don’t know what he did with it – and you know I don’t care.  It was an incredibly small thing to do, as was my refusal to engage, but the act of giving was one of the most rewarding and special God moments I have had.  I smiled all the way to wherever I was going.
And the last point to make today from this story of the miracle of compassion.
Special things will happen when we do this in community – as the body of Christ working together for the healing of the world. When the disciples worked together and followed Jesus urgings, something happened, something bigger and more powerful than their individual efforts.  If we work together, in all of our diversity, as the one body seeking to bring Christ’s abundance to the world, then miracles can happen.  It is not a promise for the absence of pain or struggle but it is a promise that God is with us and that the love of God will prevail against the closed ears and the hardened hearts of the world and that the compassion of Christ Jesus is known most deeply in the pain and the suffering of the world. 

The story of the loaves and fishes set on a hillside in Galilee is indeed at the very heart of the Gospel message – a story of compassionate love, trusting discipleship and the power of ministry anchored together in the promise of Jesus.  For this we say thanks be to God.

Margaret Garland

[1] Jeremiah 31:33