Friday, 13 February 2015

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 15th February 2015 Transfiguration Sunday

Readings:  2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9

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

When my parents lived in Kaka Point, down in South Otago on the coast, from their window some mornings you could see the sun rise seemingly out of the sea – huge and warm and stunningly close.  It never failed to take my breath away – and the way it lit up the sky and dressed the clouds around it and changed its shape minute by minute – then suddenly it was all over -  it became recognisable as the sun that crossed the sky each day, a bit more ordinary, a bit less spectacular.
Was it anything like that for the disciples on the mountain top do you think?  A sense of extraordinary closeness to the divine, the inexplicable yet total experience of magnificence that simply stopped you in your tracks?

I wonder.  If you were ever to try and put yourself into a moment from the gospel narrative, would this be the one?  I suspect it would be for me – mainly for the sheer way in which it overwhelms and drives away all normal thought and response – leaving just the glorious experience.  For someone who routinely over-thinks things, pure experience is both chastening and uplifting. 
Marcus Borg uses a Jewish theologian’s phrase to describe this – he calls this having a ‘radical amazement moment’ where all the struggles we have with the nature of God, the very existence even, are just swept out of the way in a moment of absolute clarity of  God as the presence in which we live and move and have our being.  A moment of binding relationship, of clear purpose and experiential certainty in and with God.
For me these moments are incredibly powerful and, yes,  held close and not often talked about because I am not sure how anyone else would react.  Yet I would suspect that more people than not would have at least an inkling of where I was coming from. 

Hear the response of the disciples to this mountain top experience.  Fear, awe, bumbling responses, silence, transition from thinking they had a hand on this disciple stuff to being blown out of the proverbial water, the sense of homecoming with the appearance of Elijah and Moses, yet the sense of terror that this ‘thing’ was happening around them. 
And what do we often do when we are afraid –we revert to something familiar – in their case offering hospitality and comfort so they didn’t have to think about what was actually going on.  Later they would have cringed at their inadequate response I suspect.
Let’s take a moment to follow that thought.  Are there times when we are invited into one of those moments of radical amazement with God but fail to grasp the moment – too busy to stand still, too blinkered to let the light in, too preoccupied with our own understandings to recognise where we are.  It totally reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ “The Last Battle” where the dwarves in the shed are so convinced that the world and all in it is against them that they cannot recognise the joy and beauty of the land of Aslan – their minds simply won’t let the good news in.  And so their potential sparkling water became fetid swamp water, their banquet became mouldy bread.....

One of the phrases from the Psalms that was a ‘radical amazement’ moment for me was that we are called to delight in the Lord.  Not be dour and serious all the time, to laugh and be filled with the sheer joy of the moment – in other word show our delight in the glory of God and to rest in the beauty of creation and the joy of being loved.  Because it’s not always like that.  These are moments, not destinations.
For we live a dynamic faith – one that does not allow us to remain forever in those aha moments but rather to gather them close and head down the mountain and walk amongst the mundane and the ordinary and the hurting.  Where do Jesus and the disciples go when they come down the mountain – they walk straight into a crowd of need – a need that the disciples were having trouble meeting.  And the disciples that have stayed in the valley ask – ‘Jesus why couldn’t we drive out this demon?’  To which Jesus replies ‘It is only through prayer that this can happen.’  There is the sense that all the human institutions in the world will not by themselves change the course of human history for good – that there is a power in the presence of God revealed in us, - as Paul puts it - the light of Christ shining in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

Again going back to Borg – he says that as a young man he rejected the understanding of God as a distant, occasional supernatural being that occasionally intervened in our lives and came to know God as an intimate presence, a relationship experience of both the immanent (everywhere present) and the transcendent (holy mystery beyond our understanding ).  In the radical amazement moments he found God again and in the reality of those experiences he again believed in the purpose and power of a God within the valleys of our lives.  This will not be the journey that we all take and what we call our moments of experiencing the light of God will be very different for each of us – it may be moments of quiet peace, it may be a deep assurance that we have always had, it may be spectacular light bulb moments or gentle awareness of the beauty around and in us.  But the question we ask of ourselves is – what is it that strengthens and increases the wattage of the light of Christ in us so that we can then share that gift purposefully and generously with others?

It is no surprise that this transfiguration moment is placed before the road to Jerusalem, to the chaos and to the cross.
The moment of clarity and glory, of assurance – so that – there are those words again, so that we are better equipped to walk the way of Christ – taking the sacred and holy into our ordinary and everyday, which will be up and down, challenging as well as delightful.

So what might this acknowledging of our mountain top experience of ‘God with us’ encourage in us as a people of faith? 
Perhaps a willingness to engage in dialogue, to share experience, to talk ‘God’, to hear, really hear, the difficult uncomfortable invitations to new understandings. 
To trust each other enough to share both our mountain top experiences, our doubts, our questions and our belief. 
To respect and give room to others who think things differently to us, knowing that ‘God with us’ is real and we don’t need to be intimidated by or afraid of other’s ways to God. 
Perhaps to give of our abundance into people and situations where we don’t know the outcome, have no control over the process, can’t immediately fix the problem – but instead to trust in the power and presence of love to do what it does best – to heal and restore.  
To delight in our God – morose faith is a contradiction in terms – sing loudly, laugh and clap your hands, enjoy being a person of faith, be ready to share why with the people who wonder what it is that makes you content, happy, delighted.
To come to worship knowing that you are welcome just as you are – to lose the guilt, the need to prove yourself or be someone other than you are – for each one of us is the beloved of God, the one who is intimately with us in the everyday and in the mystery that is the mountain top experience.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

Sermon at Opoho Church Sunday 8 February, 2015 Epiphany 5

‘An early morning walk’ by Ann Siddall[1]
Readings:  Isaiah 40:27-31,  Mark 1: 29-39

Let us pray:  may the words we hear speak to heart and mind, that the purpose of God be known among and in us more clearly, the power of God encourage us and the peace of God strengthen and fill us with hope.  Amen.

What is our purpose as a congregation, as a Parish, as the body of Christ in Opoho?  Huge question, simple question?  Obvious answer or convoluted answer?
It was just this question that engaged various people on Tuesday night as the Presbytery resource group of Dunedin and North Otago met.  We were seeking to open up possibilities of the ways to be church, the differing models of ministry and parish.
There was one thing that particularly struck me – we had the phrases down pat (and fairly uniform) when it came to what we did looking inwards – to glorify God in worship, knowing and following Jesus, deepening faith, supporting each other – but when it came to what I would call looking outwards, the surety of phrase dropped off a bit and there was a bit less uniformity – we talked of living out the Gospel and being the body of Christ in and serving community but you could tell there was more familiarity and comfort in the inward – the safety of the known and the predictable.  And that is at is should be – a sense of belonging, a safe place to explore our faith, ask our questions, be at peace.  Nothing wrong with that, in fact very important – except that we also need to embrace the looking outward.  Jesus, whenever he teaches and tells his stories, always ends with some variation of ‘so that.....’.  Our growing in faith, our worship, our congregational life together is essential – so that – we can then share that faith, that service with the needy and vulnerable in the often uncomfortable and unknown situations that Jesus calls us into.
I want to share with you a story and, as we listen, I would ask that we think about the times we have found ourselves in uncomfortable situations, where we have felt inadequate or scared or unworthy – and then to hear how this story speaks to us of two things
-          the ways Christ hears our panic and responds to our fear, reminding us of his unfailing grace and the peace of his presence in every moment.
-          The ways that Jesus finds spiritual strength and focus for hard decisions on how he best serves God, the demanding needs of those around him and for sharing his message of redemptive love.

‘An Early Morning Walk.’
“When we woke up – Jesus had gone.  Simon, who sleeps lighter that the rest of us, thought he’d heard him stirring, long before dawn.
We were still rubbing the sleep from our eyes when we heard the sound of many voices.  People were gathering outside the door already, bringing sick folk with them.  Some, I suspect, had even slept there all night.
(It was such a different life to the one I had known so recently, before Jesus came walking by and we got to talking, and I got to follow him around: not uninvited, I might add.  And even those first few days with Jesus were different – euphoric, exciting, personal if you know what I mean.
You see, the crowds were a bit much for me.  I like a quiet life, out in the boat fishing, a few friends at the end of the day – and starting the day in my own way, not like this!
The previous evening, after sunset, the crowds had come.  Some of them diseased, dirty, smelling to high heaven!  Others twisted and tormented by demons, calling out in strange voices.  It was not a sight or a sound I would care to repeat very often.
But he stayed calm.  And he took them one at a time, looking into their eyes, or taking their hand, as if there were no-one else in all the world for that moment.
When he moved away, they walked tall and the strange voices had gone, leaving them new people, whose friends and families gaped at them in wonder.
We were getting used to it, and not used to it, if you know what I mean.
It was late when we finished.  I say ‘we’ because he had us helping.  We had to talk to people as they waited.  At one point I found myself with a screaming child thrust into my arms while its mother spoke with Jesus.  Every so often he’d ask us to come close and watch what he did, like apprentices really. 
We fell down on our mates, worn out, and despite being a bit crowded together in the one place, most of us, I think, slept immediately.
I knew nothing more until I woke and yawned and stretched, and heard the buzzing noise of many people outside the doorway: already!  When we realised he’d left us with them we panicked, and took off like frightened rabbits to find him.
Because I knew the area well I led the way.  Some instinct told me he’d have headed out of town to find a quiet place.  He was given to doing that.  But I don’t know how he’d managed to get up so early and pray, that is, unless he simply had to.
When we found him we plunged into the small clearing, excited, bubbling over with words of need, and then we came to a halt, because he was praying.
His eyes were closed, his arms outstretched.  Last night he’d embraced the crowds, this morning, I suspected, he was embracing God.
We only allowed him to be quiet for a moment – later we were to ask him to teach us to pray as he did – before we said ‘everyone is looking for you’.
We said that as you would say it to a child who has got engrossed in a game out in the garden while dinner is on the table.  But he didn’t race back to us.  He came slowly.
As we walked, adjusting our pace to his, and letting the anxiety slip away from us, he said, ‘We must go on to the other villages round here.  I have to preach in them also, because that is why I came.
Not easy to move on when there is so much left undone.  Some of us felt a mixture of relief and remorse as we left the people and their needs behind.  When I thought about it in later years as the crowds began to press in on me, I realised that he was trying to tell us that he had a message to proclaim, and it was more important for people to hear this, than for them to be free of their diseases.  A lot of people never understood this, and just wanted the signs and wonders which he could perform.
Maybe his prayers that early morning were for strength to keep seeing the priorities, because he was a compassionate man and would not have found it easy to move on from those whose hands reached out to catch him and hold him in one place.
Now I seek those early morning places of solitude myself, to ask for the grace to keep God’s purpose clear in my mind above the noise of the crowds.”

Prayer of Response
Christ Jesus, as we listen to your word, as we sit in stillness with you, we become aware of our fears, the things that hold us back and seem to render us helpless in your service.  We become aware too of your assuring presence, there for us whether in flight or in safety – always with us, never apart.  We hear too that there are no easy ways of being your people in the world – for there is so much pain, the needs so complex – but when we find ways to listen to your voice, to know you more deeply, we hear your way more clearly.
We know too that peace and healing is yours to give - often in the most unexpected ways –and that in our inadequacies and fears we are none the less your hands and feet, learning how to trust your grace and mercy, how to serve in love and compassion.  Let us be still and know that you are God.  Amen.

Margaret Garland

[1] From New Green Shoots and other Story Sermons  edited by Rex A. E. Hunt.  (Melbourne: JBCE, 1993)

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 1 February 2015 Epiphany 4

Readings:  1 Corinthians 8:1-13,  Mark 1:21-28

Let us pray:
Loving God, we pray that our hearts be open, our minds be receptive, our imagination engaged as we seek to hear your vision for this your church.  May we be assured of your grace and encouraged in our endeavour in Jesus name.  Amen.

 Friday afternoon seated at my desk, hands hovering over the keys of the computer, I was having real difficulty finding a way into the sermon.  You see it was the day when we would hear about whether the offer on our house had gone unconditional.  It was also the day after a funeral – when we farewelled a faithful saint within our congregation.  There was also a bunch of things to be sorted – pastoral, meetings, emails, multiple hats.....  Sure I had been reading and thinking and forming ideas but would it come together in any shape – no way.  And suddenly – as I wrote these first few words, it happened.  The perfect illustration of what I was wanting to say today.  Here I was, thinking that to properly prepare the sermon I needed to forget (put aside) the very relationships and issues that are part of my everyday life.  I was wanting some kind of elevated pristine space from which to launch my deep and meaningful thoughts on these bible passages, stepping into the dangerous territory of isolating sermon from that which form and shapes us into community.  
This is exactly what Paul is saying to beware of.  Trying to do the knowledge bit all by itself, without love, without all the messy stuff that is life, is just puffing ourselves up, he says – but when our thinking and learning is informed by loving relationships, then we have the way of Christ.  If we want to play with words perhaps we could say ‘Knowledgeable Love’ is what we are seeking.
Picture it if you can.  To a faith community well endowed with thinkers and orators – a knowledgeable community - it was as clear as a bell to them that this ‘not eating temple meat’ was no longer part of their faith and they could easily and with good conscience sit down to eat it.  But then Paul comes along and spoils their party – knowledge itself is not enough, he says – you need to think what impact this will have on your relationships with each other – those who might feel excluded because they weren’t at that same understanding and their scruples wouldn’t allow them to participate in the meal – and those of new faith for whom it was a too close connection with what they had just walked away from and could easily draw them back.
Care of others needs to inform our knowledge.  It is the same argument, isn’t it, that says following of the rule of law without the light of love and compassion is a slippery slope.  If it is harmful especially to the weak and vulnerable, if it is not God’s way.  And Paul says how important he thinks this is – I would soon become a vegetarian than cause harm to one of our family by eating meat.  An extreme statement meant to have impact on those around him.
What might be a parallel today do you think? 
The one that immediately comes to mind is that of being sure that our way is the right way and will be the right fit for all people – they just need to catch up – or ‘get it’.  It’s a kind of arrogance of faith, that in our learning we have found ‘the’ truth and will surge on regardless of where others are at.  For us as Church this has enormous implications - for our intercultural relationships, for our theological relationships, for our relationship with each other and our communities. 
Culturally we can welcome immigrants to our community but on our terms, to our way – seeing other ways as a bit lacking or not quite grown up or unknown and therefore to be feared.  We are better at it than we used to be but still a way to go I think. 
Or alternatively we can come as a member of another cultural group and hold on to our ways so tightly that no other relationship can permeate our barriers. 
By doing either of these we are devaluing and demeaning the many different strength that diversity brings to new community, that respect and willingness to engage brings to understanding and peaceful relationship and new ways to knowledge of God.
Theologically – now there is an all too common example of knowledge without love dividing the body of Christ – within our own house so to speak.  I’m right – no I’m right.  Bible passages quoted – hurled across the room like spears in the heat of battle.
Forcing each other to believe particular interpretations or be excluded.  You know I did do the terrible thing, just because I could – now that I have been in ministry over three years I thought – I probably have a sermon on these lectionary readings – so I went back and had a look.  No – no temptation to re-use – and you all would notice anyway, of that I am sure!  But what was interesting – one thing I did say then was that I wondered if the energy put into deciding who was right and wrong on the issue on sexuality was in fact enslaving us to the detriment of our relationship as a church.  Today I can say - how important was that moment at last assembly when people refused to enter into the right and wrong debate and left the floor.  You might say it is relationship triumphing over the theological high ground.  And yet I know too that there are people who don’t agree with that stance because we have a rule in place that excludes and which we need to get rid of.  Messy place trying to live in knowledgeable love but we need to dive into that mess if we want to be a welcoming loving church body. 
And finally I think we can just get so self absorbed in being church, in whatever that might mean for us, that we don’t see the messy stuff happening around.  I am sure you will relate to the endless meetings that seem to take up time and energy, that we get so involved with running the church or producing a perfect service that we inadvertently miss the signs of need around us.  I know I have realised after a morning tea that I have spent all the time arranging meetings or business for the week to come and haven’t been available for those who want to talk.
In fact that seemed to be what was happening in the synagogue when Jesus came to teach – that the focus and absorption was with the gaining of knowledge – to the detriment of engagement with those who were in need.  Jesus taught with authority – and astounded the people with his knowledge and teachings  – but he also was the one to notice and respond to the man in need of healing – how long had he been there, unattended, unnoticed I wonder.   
You know on Thursday we farewelled from here someone who might not have had much time for theological rightness – but that was because she was so busy looking out for everyone - Margaret didn’t leave people unattended and unnoticed that’s for sure.  She had the relationship bit absolutely right. 
We worship and believe and discover and question and study not for its own sake, not because we think we believe pure knowledge of God will get us closer to God, but because the teachings of Jesus will more deeply penetrate our lives and our choices and our acts so that we do not harm the vulnerable, exclude the marginal, forget the hurting or ignore the needy.  The heartbeat of the Church is knowledge of God expressed in loving relationship with the people of God in the name of Christ.  Amen.

Margaret Garland